Excerpted from an interview with R. Yoel Kahn.
Translated by Hadas Gottlieb.
Is it possible to say that those who learn חסידות in our times are fundamentally changed by it? In previous generations, we clearly saw how people were changed by their learning. There were חסידים then, who feared Heaven, and served G-d wholeheartedly, who would spend time meditating on the greatness of G-d, would spend hours davening every day, and refined their bodies and animal souls. But it seems that today there are very few people who fully implement the expectations of חסידות, and reach the same levels.
First of all, I will flesh out your question. The question is twofold. 1) Is every person in our generation capable of achieving what חסידות expects of a him/her? 2) Even if everyone is technically capable, how many people actually achieve this? If we look, we find that in reality, there are very few who reach this level. So the question is, should a Jew really spend so much time learning חסידות if there is a very small chance he will be one of those special people?
For example, one of the fundamentals of חסידות is the concept of ביטול. The צמח צדק, in his explanation of the unity of G-d in דרך מצוותיך, says that a Jew should not say “אני”, but should turn “אני” – “I” – into “אין” – “nothing”. There is no “I”! How many people in our time can be said to be at this level?
Obviously, any person who learns a bit about the concept of the ביטול of the world to G-dliness, is left with some sort of feeling of ביטול. A slight impression remains with him. The question is whether this subtle feeling is enough to be worth all the time and energy spent on his involvement with חסידות?
The truth is that if we look deeper, we find that there are many fundamental and essential things that חסידות practically gives even to someone who has merely tasted a small part of it. But before I answer the question, I want to preface by saying that I believe the question only exists because of a fundamental mistake in the approach to the teachings and ways of חסידות.
There are those who think that the purpose of learning חסידות is to be more excited and enthusiastic in their עבודת ה׳ – that a person should feel that he is doing something in his spiritual עבודה.
Not long ago I had the opportunity to speak with someone about עבודת ה׳, according to חסידות. While we spoke, I realized from his questions that we weren’t speaking the same language. For him, all concepts in חסידות were seen as things that a person is obligated to do. That’s where it starts and ends. The meaning of ביטול is that a person’s feelings and behavior should be low and humble. The meaning of מרירות – that a person should try to feel bitter about his spiritual condition, to the point that tears will flow from his eyes. Similarly, with all other areas of עבודת ה׳.
But this is a fundamental mistake in approach.
I said to him: When someone learns mathematics, להבדיל, does he constantly think about how he relates to the subject or how it affects him? Or does he simply try to understand what the reality of it is? Is the fact that the perimeter of a square is larger than the circumference of the circle inscribed in it, a concept that only exists within the human experience, or is this part of objective reality? Obviously, even if there were no humans in the world, the perimeter of the square would still be larger than the circle. This is a fact that exists regardless of human experience. While it is true that when a person learns a fact like that, it becomes part of his own knowledge and experience, nevertheless it remains a fact even without him.
The same is true in עבודת ה׳. For example, when חז״ל say “Be humbleֿ before every man”, the intention is not just that a person should act in a humble or lowly way in front of his fellow. This is not an instruction regarding the person’s behavior - it is reality! In a certain way, one is truly more “lowly” than one’s fellow. It doesn’t matter whether the person can sense this or not. It is a fact. The instruction to the person is merely that he meditates on this truth, until his mind reaches the same conclusion, which will then lead to humble thoughts and behavior. But it all begins with the fact that this is objective reality, even if the person is not aware of it.
The same reasoning is applied to the command to “judge every person favorably” (פרקי אבות א:ו). This is not only a practical teaching, telling one to verbalize the fact that his friend is innocent. This is a description of reality! Through looking honestly at someone else’s situation and circumstances, they will actually emerge innocent.
I participated once in a farbrengen with a Belzer chassid. He told me a story about the Belzer Rebbe, about his incredible אהבת ישראל, and about how he would judge everyone favorably. He would always say that in our times there are no truly wicked people, and that even those who do not observe mitzvos, are only תנוקות שנשבו and do not sin intentionally, G-d forbid.
Once, he was walking on שבת with some of his chassidim, and they saw a Jew walking with a lit cigarette in his hand. One of his chassidim directed the Rebbe’s attention to this Jew, and gently suggested that this was an actual desecration of שבת. As the Belzer Rebbe and his chassidim approached the man, he threw the cigarette on the ground. The Belzer Rebbe exclaimed, “He must have forgotten that today is שבת, and when he saw other Jews approaching wearing streimels, he remembered that today is שבת, which prompted him to throw out his cigarette.”
From the way the Belzer chassid told this story, it was clear that he actually believed that his Rebbe really thought that this Jew had simply forgotten about שבת. But I don’t think that this is what the Belzer Rebbe meant. We shouldn’t, G-d forbid, attribute a perfunctory statement to a tzadik, a statement that is not even necessarily true. This wasn’t a naive declaration, stemming from a lack of awareness of the lifestyle of the Jew smoking the cigarette. I am sure that the Belzer Rebbe was convinced of the truth of what he said, and at the same time, completely understood the level that this Jew was at.
He didn’t mean that this Jew simply didn’t realize what day it was. Rather, he forgot what שבת is. He was never taught about the true essence of שבת, and he has no awareness of its holiness. He “forgot”, he didn’t feel the holiness of שבת. And when he saw Jews approaching, dressed as chassidim, wearing shtreimels, he “remembered” שבת - this sight aroused a deep feeling in him for the holiness of שבת, so he threw away his cigarette.
To “judge every person favorably” doesn’t mean to speak in platitudes that the speaker himself doesn’t believe, but that he forces himself to say, or even to think, because he is commanded to do so. Rather, this is the truth. If Chazal say to judge someone favorably, that means that even if he desecrates שבת, he is really innocent.
He only does this because he “forgot” the holiness of שבת, and if he understood a fraction of what שבת is, he would never violate it. This reasoning applies to every Jew, in any situation - there is always a way to judge him favorably, always a reason that he is in these circumstances. The instruction that חז״ל gives to the person is that he investigate this person’s situation and find the innocence in him.
“Be humble before every man” - For real!
Superficially, it seems that the instruction to be “lowly” in front of others only relates to our behavior. And the more “frum” a person is, the more lowly he will present himself, not only in his behavior but also in his speech. He will repeatedly say to himself, “I am lowly, I am lowly.” And if he is even more “frum”, he’ll also think to himself. “I am lower, I am lower.” But this is all superficial speech, and superficial thoughts. In his heart he knows that it’s really not true. Even on a basic intellectual level, he understands that he is greater than this other person for many convincing reasons.
When the Alter Rebbe brings this statement from חז״ל in פרק ל of תניא, he immediately adds the words “באמת לאמיתו”. Meaning, the awareness that one is lower than his fellow needs to be real in one’s heart and mind. This is only possible if reality is such that one’s fellow really is higher than oneself. The Alter Rebbe continues and explains how this is possible, at least from one angle, how even a great talmid chacham can be lowlier than the most ignorant sinner. This is a whole chapter in תניא, and this is not the time to get into it, but I will tell a story which expresses this idea well.
In the previous generation there was a chassid by the name of R’ Yechezkel Feigin הי״ד. He was very wise, and the רבי ריי״ץ appointed him as the משפיע of the ישיבה. This was during the Communist era, at a time when Jews had begun to suffer from many decrees against them. The ישיבה was in Poltava, and following the communist decrees against religious practice, there was a certain shoemaker in town who had started to operate his shop on שבת. This was still at the beginning of the Communist era, when an act like this was still quite rare. Over time, many Jews tried to convince him to change, and to continue keeping שבת, but their efforts were hindered by Communist laws against the spread of religion.
Every שבת morning, when R’ Yechezkel would walk to the מקוה, he would pass the open shop of the shoemaker. Once, R’ Yechezkel sat at a farbrengen with his students, and over the course of the farbrengen, the issue of the shoemaker came up. He told the students that every time he passes the shop on שבת, he feels a stab in his heart. At first, the students thought that he meant the pain of seeing the shoemaker violating שבת. But R’ Yechezkel quickly explained himself. “We see the shoemaker as a major desecrator of שבת, and the truth is yes, according to the law, he does desecrate שבת. But when I think about what desecration of שבת really is, it occurs to me, does this shoemaker have any idea what שבת is and how holy it is? My impression is that he hasn’t learned many of the laws of שבת, and it is even less likely that he has learned the inner meaning of the day. Nonetheless, he is halachically called a violator of Shabbos”.
“We, on the other hand, know what שבת is. We have spent time learning the greatness of שבת, both according to נגלה and according to חסידות. We have a certain understanding of the meaning of שבת. We know that it is a special holy day, when we need to use every moment for serving G-d. And if we waste a few minutes, even ten or fifteen minutes, without using that time to serve G-d, we are the true violators of שבת!” And with that he burst into tears…
He didn’t try to see himself as lower than the shoemaker. He didn’t try to become emotional and muster up tears. He sincerely felt bitter about his condition. He sincerely believed that for the level he was at, his שבת observance was lower than this shoemaker who openly violated שבת!
Just as this is the reality on issues between man and his fellow, so too for those between man and G-d. The teaching of the צמח צדק, that “there is no ‘I’”, is not instruction regarding only a person’s behavior - that he should refrain from saying the word “I”. This teaching comes as a continuation of an entire discourse in which he discusses at length the subject of the unity of G-d. He concludes that after a person meditates on the unity of G-d, which is a physical reality, that there is nothing besides Him, his conclusion must be that he must understand in his mind and feel in his heart that there is no reality outside of G-d, and truly there is no “I” at all! Therefore I don’t even understand the question if עבודת החסידות is still relevant nowadays.
If all that was required in עבודת החסידות was that a person acquire certain feelings or attain a certain level - but with a focus on the person, maybe it could be claimed that today, when people’s minds and hearts aren’t what they once were, it is very difficult for most to attain the level that חסידות demands. But חסידות comes to reveal to people the truth. Everything explained in חסידות about the unity of G-d is the objective reality, in which all people, in every generation, live. Just as a square is larger than a circle with the same diameter, regardless of place or time period, so too (lehavdil) is the unity of G-d and the absence of “I” the objective reality, in the generation of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his holy students, and equally in this generation, that of the “heels of Moshiach”.