"My sheaf arose and also stood upright, and your sheaves formed a circle and prostrated themselves to my sheaf." Detail from "Joseph's Dreams" by Shoshannah Brombacher; pastel and ink on paper , 24 X 18 inches, New York, 2008. In the rabbinic tradition, and in the teaching of the second refinement, Joseph symbolizes the tzadik.
Abstract: One of the most identifiable features of Chassidism is the unique role of the righteous leader—the tzaddik. In Chabad this has often been described as an educational role, in which the tzaddik teaches “knowledge of G‑d” or “divine wisdom” to the community. But an episode recorded in the Yiddish version of Beis Rebbi, a classic work of Chabad history, paves the way for a deeper and broader understanding of how Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founding rebbe of Chabad, developed his dialectical conception of the tzaddik’s educational project. “The second refinement” refers to the selfless apprehension of divine infinitude, which the community can attain only through the mediation of the tzaddik, and only after having already achieved the first degree of refinement through submission to G‑d’s majestic authority. R. Schneur Zalman’s transmission of this teaching invokes the Kabbalistic narrative of the shattered vessels and their repair, and uses gender to recast the role of the tzaddik, not only within the community, but within the universal hierarchy of the entire cosmos.
A Tale of Two Editions
Beis Rebbi is one of the most enduringly influential and authoritative works of chassidic historiography. Its author, Rabbi Chaim Meir Hillman (1855–1928), combined his knowledge as a consummate Chabad insider with the discriminating methodology of the modern historian. “It is now approximately thirteen years,” he wrote in the introduction, “that we have been searching, meticulously seeking, to clarify each thing definitively, by word of books and writers, and according to trustworthy sources.”
Hillman’s research relied on the documentary record to corroborate oral sources and assess their reliability, which allowed him to combine historical exactitude with the rich insight of well-founded traditions. His documentary sources included letters in the handwriting of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), the founding rebbe of Chabad. His oral sources included the descendants and successors of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the rebbes of the different branches of Chabad Chassidism that flourished between 1866 and 1923. His native immersion in the culture and teachings of Chabad—an integrated synthesis in which knowledge of printed texts and extant manuscripts is deeply grounded in oral lore—lent a further edge to his historical sensitivity.
In its time Beis Rebbi cast much light on the origins of Chabad, and on the life and times of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe, in particular. More than a century later it continues to stand as one of the most comprehensive, reliable and insightful resources available, even as new research and publications have done much to broaden the documentary record and enhanceBeis Rebbi cast much light on the origins of Chabad, and on the life and times of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in particular. our understanding of chassidic history.
The original Hebrew edition of Beis Rebbi is complemented by the two-volume Yiddish version. Though much of the material overlaps, each contains hidden gems that cannot be found in the other.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman was a disciple of Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezeritch. But another important influence on his path as a master and teacher of the chassidic tradition was the Maggid’s son, Rabbi Avraham, who was just a few years R. Schneur Zalman’s senior. In two separate instances the Hebrew edition of Beis Rebbi mentions an episode concerning this relationship without fully sharing it with the reader:
Initially he would avoid studying with the holy R. Avraham because he underestimated his greatness. Afterwards he recognized his greatness through an episode that occurred (and this is not the place for it); from then on he was drawn close to him and they studied together.
Our rebbe [i.e., R. Schneur Zalman] said that he learned the matter of the second refinement, which is explained in chassidic teachings, from R. Avraham. And one of the rabbinic descendants of our rebbe related a wondrous episode in this regard, and this is not the place for it.
Ostensibly, these references could be to two different episodes. One concerning the genesis of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s relationship with R. Avraham, and another describing how the teaching of “the second refinement” was imparted to him. But an examination of the Yiddish edition reveals that these two episodes are actually one:
When the Rebbe came to Mezeritch, his teacher the Maggid told him to study together with his son Rabbi Avraham. The Rebbe was not pleased by this. He believed that R. Avraham was not such an immense personality, and therefore he deterred him till the following episode occurred.
At that time, the Rebbe was very poor. More than the one shirt that he wore, he did not have. He would go to the river, where no one else was. There he would take off his shirt and wash it in the water until it was soaked. He would put on his coat [while waiting for his shirt to dry; and on one such occasion] sat down to review the Talmudic tractate Bava Metzia [from memory]. By the time the shirt was dry, he had studied many folios of the Talmud. Then he put on his shirt and went home.
As he went past the house where R. Avraham lived, R. Avraham opened the window and said to him, “It is frightening how crass the deeds of lowly creations are; they are not accepted on high! What could be better than a Jew who doesn’t have more than one shirt, and who goes alone to the river to wash it out, and who studies Bava Metzia till it dries—and yet this too is crass.”
The Rebbe was very deeply affected by this. Firstly, from the fact that R. Avraham knew of a thing that he had not seen. And secondly, from his words he understood that there are more ways to serve G‑d, finer and even more refined, which he does not yet know. He must learn them from R. Avraham, who does know of them.
Directly after this he drew himself close to R. Avraham and learned a great deal from him, ultimately following in R. Avraham’s path [of divine worship].
Regarding this episode, he later said that he learned the matter of the second refinement from R. Avraham.
As recorded in Beis Rebbi, R. Schneur Zalman initially traveled to Mezeritch because he wished to learn how to pray, and stayed once he was satisfied that the Maggid was an innovative halachic scholar as well as a Kabbalistic master. But this episode about his relationship with R. Avraham seems especially significant, opening the way for a deeper understanding of the particular . . . he understood that there are more ways to serve G‑d, finer and even more refined, which he does not yet know.kind of wisdom he ultimately found there.
Unlike the other accounts about the factors he took into account when he traveled to Mezeritch, this one depicts a distinct change in attitude. Before this episode R. Schneur Zalman avoided studying with R. Avraham, and in doing so was also not entirely receptive of the Maggid’s authority. It is further suggested that his scholarly diligence and accomplishment in the face of extreme poverty led him to underestimate just how much he had yet to learn, and how much more could yet be achieved in the personal and collective service of G‑d. More earth-shattering than R. Avraham’s awareness of how he had occupied himself at the riverbank was the revelation of a higher perspective from which his previous achievements could be considered crass.
Even more intriguingly, while the other accounts cite more general concerns, this one links R. Schneur Zalman’s discovery of new paths in the service of G‑d to a specific chassidic teaching. “The matter of the second refinement” might sound obscure and esoteric, but it actually refers to a teaching about one of the most identifiable features of Chassidism—the unique role of the righteous leader (the tzaddik).
A Different Kind of Wisdom
Jews have always turned to their rabbis and scholars for instruction and advice, and often revered them as paradigms of piety and holiness. But the relationship between leadership and laity, between the individual and the community, can generally be seen as a pragmatic one, which remained peripheral to the personal service of G‑d. Chassidism, however, established the bond between the tzaddik and his followers as the beating heart of religious life. It is only through their relationship with the rebbe that ordinary people can draw the inspiration to fulfill their individual purpose, and only through his relationship with them that the rebbe can fulfill his purpose as a leader of the Jewish nation.
The elevated stature of the tzaddik, and the deep bond between the rebbe and the chassidim, is a central feature of every strand of the chassidic movement. But different chassidic leaders and traditions construed the precise contours of the tzaddik’s role, and its many different aspects, in ways that vary R. Schneur Zalman’s approach was most distinguished by his insistence that the role of the tzaddik was not simply to inspire the general public, but to educate them.both subtly and substantively.
These distinctions came to the fore as the Maggid’s disciples began to establish their own chassidic courts, and intensified following his passing in 1772. Over the course of the following decades, what began as a loose-knit group of scholars and mystics was transformed into a broad-based movement with vast popular appeal. R. Schneur Zalman’s approach was most distinguished by his insistence that the role of the tzaddik was not simply to inspire the general public, but to educate them. His foundational work, the Tanya, makes the esoteric knowledge and mystical practices taught by the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid systematically accessible to each individual according to their ability. The role of the tzaddik as a teacher is exemplified by Moses, as explicated in chapter 42 of that work:
Moses . . . is called shepherd of faith, meaning that he draws the aspect of knowledge to the community of Israel, that they shall know G‑d, each one according to the comprehension of his soul. . . . Sparks of Moses’ soul descend and are vested in the bodies and souls of the wise men of the generation, the visionaries of the community, to teach knowledge to the people, that they may know the greatness of G‑d and serve Him with heart and soul, for service of the heart is in accord with knowledge . . .
This passage describes the relationship between the community and the tzaddik in distinctly educational terms. But an earlier passage, which has sometimes been overlooked by scholars, implies that the relationship with the tzaddik is actually the source of all spiritual vitality.
The sustenance and vitality of the life, spirit and soul of the masses is from the life, spirit and soul of the tzaddikim and wise men, the heads of the Jewish people in their generation. This explains the saying of our sages on the verse “and to cleave to Him” (Deuteronomy 30:20), that “anyone who cleaves to a Torah scholar is considered as if attached to the divine presence itself.” For through cleaving to Torah scholars, the life, spirit and soul of the masses are bound and united with their primordial being and their root in [G‑d’s] supernal wisdom, and He and His wisdom are one. . . . Even those who sin and rebel against the Torah scholars, the sustenance of their life, spirit and soul is from the external extremity of the Torah scholar’s life, spirit and soul.
The terms tzaddik, wise man and Torah scholar are used interchangeably, echoing R. Schneur Zalman’s general emphasis of the rebbe’s educational role. But it is clear that the kind of vitality that the tzaddik transmits far exceeds the bounds of conventional knowledge, and that even those who consciously reject the tzaddik’s authority continue to receive it. Whether they know it or not, it is through the tzaddik that they are connected not only with their primordial selves, Through the tzaddik they are connected . . . with divine wisdom, which is utterly one with G‑d’s essential being.but with divine wisdom, which is utterly one with G‑d’s essential being.
The true depth and breadth of the tzaddik’s educational project is better illuminated by R. Schneur Zalman’s discussion, elsewhere in Tanya, of the nature of wisdom as a deeply supra-rational apprehension of the all-encompassing exclusivity of divine being:
“Who is wise? The one who sees that which will be born [i.e., the future consequences]” (Talmud, Tamid 32a). This can be interpreted to mean that he sees how each thing is born and created from nothing to something by the word of G‑d and the breath of His mouth . . . and that therefore the very existence of heaven and earth and all their hosts are utterly annulled . . . and considered literally as nothing . . . as the sun’s rays are obliterated within the globe of the sun itself. And the person must not extract himself from the universal rule—his body, and his life, spirit and soul are existentially nullified . . .
It is this kind of wisdom that the tzaddik embodies. It is this sense of selflessness in the presence of G‑d that the tzaddik transmits to all the people of the generation, and which has the power to inspire even the most lax of Jews to sacrifice their very life for their Judaism.
Wisdom . . . far transcends understanding and comprehension. . . . Therefore the revelation of the infinite, blessed-be-He, is vested in it, which no thought can grasp at all. . . . Therefore even the most lax, and the sinners of Israel, will usually give up their lives to sanctify G‑d’s name, and endure torturous pain rather than deny the one G‑d . . . because the one G‑d shines and vitalizes each soul through being vested in its aspect of wisdom, which transcends knowledge and rationality that can be grasped and understood.
This last passage depicts an extreme scenario, in which the aspect of wisdom is awakened even in the ignorant and the rebellious. But the ultimate goal of the tzaddik is to awaken that same sense of wisdom, of selflessness in the presence of G‑d, on a more constant basis. At the core of the relationship between the tzaddik and the community is his ability to connect them with the transcendent perspective embodied by the supernal aspect of wisdom. His educational role is to articulate this wisdom in terms that can be progressively internalized by each individual, such that their lowly sense of self is replaced with a sense of their dissolution within the all-encompassing being of G‑d.
As has been discussed elsewhere, the Tanya is a tightly organized work, a systematic guide to Chabad’s methodological approach to the personal service of G‑d, presented in terms accessible to the widest possible audience. Accordingly, the above passages from Tanya highlight the seminal role the tzaddik plays in the divine service of each individual, and as the conduit through which divine wisdom flows to the entire community of Israel.
R. Schneur Zalman’s oral discourses, in contrast, were often delivered to audiences who were already initiated in the methodology of Chabad, and in the more esoteric teachings of Kabbalah, which use anthropomorphic and gendered terminology to discuss the relationships between G‑d, the Jewish people and the world. In one sense the focus of these discourses is more localized, entering into concentrated discussions of specific themes and concepts. But in another sense the focus is more The second refinement invokes the Kabbalistic narrative of the shattered vessels and their repair, and uses gender to recast the role of the tzaddik within the universal hierarchy of the cosmos.universal, emphasizing the cosmic role that each individual plays.
This brings us back to the teaching that R. Schneur Zalman learned from R. Avraham. The concept of the second refinement invokes the Kabbalistic narrative of the shattered vessels and their repair, and uses gender to recast the role of the tzaddik within the universal hierarchy of the cosmos. The Talmud describes the biblical figure of Joseph as a complete tzaddik, and this teaching unpacks the symbolism of a dream that he narrates to his brothers:
We were binding sheaves in the midst of the field. Then my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and your sheaves formed a circle and prostrated themselves to my sheaf.
The binding of the sheaves, and the subsequent prostration of the brothers’ sheaves to Joseph’s sheaf, each represent a phase in the cosmic process of refinement. The first phase is the ingathering of all the diverse aspects of reality within the unified service of the one G‑d, like many stalks bound in a single sheaf. The second phase is the utter dissolution of all reality within the all-encompassing being of G‑d, which can be achieved only through submission to Joseph, the tzaddik.
What is the difference between these two phases of refinement? And why can the second phase be achieved only through submission to the Entering the creative project, and extending into the realm of otherness, the formless singularity of G‑d shatters into the infinitely varied phenomena of finite reality.tzaddik?
The answer to these questions, as explained by R. Schneur Zalman, lies in his conception of the entire cosmos as a series of divine refractions, or emanations. G‑d essentially transcends any limitation, form or duplicity. “In order that the phenomena of creations should come to be—which are in great multiplicity and separation . . . existing as independent entities, which literally contradicts the singularity of G‑d, beside whom there is nothing—[creation] needed to be through the shattering of the vessels . . .” Entering the creative project, and extending into the realm of otherness, the formless singularity of G‑d shatters into the infinitely varied phenomena of finite reality. This shattering gives birth to a vast cosmic spectrum, a hierarchy of being that is at once chaotic and orderly.
At the apex of this hierarchy stands a divine realm of unity (olam ha-achdut, atzilut), a harmonious collaboration of distinct divine capacities, which yet represents an immense departure from G‑d’s essential singularity. At the hierarchy’s nadir is the deep sense of otherness, the chaotic and fractured physicality of our own worldly experience (alma di-pruda, asiyah), in which the scattered sparks of G‑d’s shattered singularity are yet embedded.
"A hierarchy of being that is at once chaotic and orderly." Detail from "Darkness Dancing Into Light" by Yitzchok Moully, Acrylic and Ink on Canvas, 2013.
The distinction between the essential singularity of G‑d and the unity of the divine realm of atzilut is immensely significant. Singularity implies a single entity, undivided and indivisible. Unity implies a union of distinct parts, units integrated in a harmonious whole. The singular being of G‑d stands beyond any concept of the creative process, beyond any notion of otherness or multiplicity. It is only in stepping down from the singular essence of divine being that G‑d enters the narrow role of Creator and adopts the ten general attributes (sefirot, modes of divine capacity and manifestation) through which creation is orchestrated. It is due to the harmonious Our service of G‑d in the physical domain extends the authority of divine kingship, and the unity that atzilut embodies, throughout the fractured hierarchy of being.collaboration of these attributes in the orchestration of creation that atzilut is referred to as “the realm of unity.”
More specifically, the role of G‑d as Creator is symbolised by the lowest attribute of atzilut, malchut, which translates as “majesty” or “kingship”: G‑d as majestic overlord of the entire universe, as the king to whose authority all existence must ultimately submit. The Torah and its commandments articulate G‑d’s unified vision for creation. The specific mission of the Jewish people is to transform the chaos of our this-worldly experience through the all-encompassing realization of that vision. Our service of G‑d in the physical domain extends the authority of divine kingship, and the unity that atzilut embodies, throughout the fractured hierarchy of being.
The binding of the sheaves in the first part of Joseph’s dream, R. Schneur Zalman explains, symbolizes the reconstitution of unity from the chaos of creation:
This is the meaning of “binding sheaves”: you gather a great many stalks, collecting them and binding them in one bundle. . . . Initially the stalks were separated from one another, and through this binding they become united. Exactly so is the concept of cosmic refinement and the raising of the aforementioned sparks when you raise them from the peaks of separation to become included in . . . the unity of G‑d . . . in the aspect of literal oneness, having initially been in the aspect of separation and multiplicity. . . . All this was the work of Joseph’s brothers, who are of the realm of creation, and are accessories to malchut of atzilut . . .
As noted above, the unity of disparate entities in the service of the one G‑d remains a far cry from the utter singularity of G‑d’s essential being. Accordingly, the raising up of created reality to be incorporated within the domain of divine kingship, as achieved through the binding of the sheaves, is but the first step towards the ideal repair of the shattered cosmos. The earthly perception of G‑d as the majestic overlord of the universe, of G‑d and creation as distinct identities, can be overcome only by the apprehension of the all-encompassing infinitude of G‑d’s essential singularity, Wisdom is the emptying of all sense of self in the apprehension of the utter exclusivity of divine being.which is embodied by the loftiest rung of atzilut: the divine attribute of wisdom.
In Tanya, as we have already seen, the soul’s faculty of wisdom, in which resides “the revelation of the infinite, blessed-be-He,” is identified as the catalyst for supra-rational acts of selfless dedication to G‑d, even to the point of giving up one’s very life. Truly selfless dedication, in other words, is not derived simply from a sense of G‑d’s majestic authority, nor from a sense of unified purpose. Authority is experienced as an imposition upon the individuated self. Unity is experienced as the integration of the individuated self within a greater whole. Both might motivate tremendous dedication, but neither can achieve the utter dissolution of all sense of self. Wisdom, however, sees beyond the self, beyond any hierarchical distribution of authority, beyond the differentiation that unity must wrestle with. Wisdom apprehends G‑d’s essential singularity. Wisdom is the emptying of all sense of self in the apprehension of the utter exclusivity of divine being.
Here, this understanding of wisdom is extended beyond the realm of the individual and applied to the entire cosmos. The cosmic aspect of divine wisdom, chochmah, apprehends G‑d’s transcendent singularity, extending a sliver of its unshattered manifestation into the differentiated realm of atzilut. The first phase of cosmic refinement raises all of creation into the divine aspect of kingship and unity: malchut. The second refinement is achieved when chochmah, and its selfless apprehension of divine exclusivity, is subsequently drawn into the realm of malchut, so that unified existence becomes submerged in the ultimate state of cosmic singularity.
This dialectical process of cosmic repair—with creation and chochmah respectively ascending and descending into malchut—is also described in the gendered terms of sexual union. In the Kabbalistic tradition the cosmic shattering of divine singularity is paralleled with a cosmic reading of the Torah’s account of G‑d’s creation of the first woman. Initially, “male and female He created them,” that is, as a single entity incorporating both genders. But “it is not good for man to be alone,” and G‑d therefore performed an operation, separating the female from the male. It is because woman is of man’s flesh, the Torah tells us, that “man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” It is only as individuated selves that they can enjoy a reciprocal relationship, which climaxes in their ultimate union as one flesh.
In cosmic terms this narrative is read as the primordial divorce, the initial emergence of the hierarchy of being, of creation, otherness and duality, from the essential singularity of G‑d. The implication in this teaching is that the undoing of this divorce, the repair of the cosmos, can be achieved only when the masculine creator and the feminine creation turn towards one another in reciprocal arousal and once again unite in the ultimate The emotionally responsive experiences of the dance of human separation, courtship and unity are a model by which we can better appreciate the cosmic process of shattering and repair.dissolution of their separate identities.
It is important to note that R. Schneur Zalman’s point here is not simply to dress up Kabbalistic theory in gendered terminology. Explicitly referring to the “physical analogy” of sexual union (mashal gashmi be-zivug zachar u-nekevah), his intention is to use the emotionally responsive experiences of the dance of human separation, courtship and unity as a model by which we can better appreciate the cosmic process of shattering and repair. This process, though achieved through the study of Torah and fulfilment of the commandments, is not simply a mechanical one. Like the dance of human courtship it is rather a living experience, marked by passionate love, awe, excitement and ecstasy, the interplay and merging of G‑d, humankind and creation.
Following this paradigm, the ascent of creation into malchut and the corresponding descent of chochmah are respectively referred to as feminine and masculine arousal. In the context of Joseph’s dream, R. Schneur Zalman explains, his brothers belong to the created realm, and their role is to “raise feminine arousal into malchut of atzilut,” whereas Joseph is the tzaddik “who draws forth the masculine arousal, which is the revelation of the infinite that is vested in chochmah. . . . And in chochmah the second refinement is refined.”
The assignment of distinctly masculine and feminine roles to the tzaddik and the broader community respectively is not as clearcut as might be supposed. Though “the refinement of Joseph is far loftier than the refinement of his brothers,” R. Schneur Zalman emphasizes that
since he was vested below, in a body, he was required to refine this lower refinement too, like the rest of his brothers. Accordingly it says “We were binding sheaves,” for we are all equal in this [obligation] to raise feminine arousal into malchut. Only that after this refinement, [Joseph says] “my sheaf arose, etc.,” meaning that he has an additional advantage due to his root . . . to draw down masculine arousal to refine with a second refinement the feminine arousal that has already been raised into malchut.
Despite his masculine stature, in other words, the tzaddik must also participate in the feminine service along with the rest of the community. It is precisely because tzaddikim are vested within the physical world, the nadir of the fractured hierarchy of being, that they can restore it to its essential state of divine singularity. Accordingly, they too must participate in the first step along the path of repair, collaboratively submitting to the authority of Despite his masculine stature . . . the tzaddik must also participate in the feminine service along with the rest of the community.divine majesty through Torah study and mitzvah fulfillment.
Just as the masculine tzaddik also participates in the feminine service of the wider community, so the wider community participates in the service of the tzaddik. Too bound by earthly constraints, they cannot apprehend the utterly selfless perspective of chochmah on their own. But, as symbolized in the second phase of Joseph’s dream, the second refinement is not left entirely to the tzaddik either. It is rather a relational process. In their receptive submission to Joseph, his brothers also become receptive of selfless sublimation within the singular essence of divine being. After all, it is only when the distinctly masculine and feminine aspects of the cosmos become seamlessly one that the ultimate repair is complete.
In R. Schneur Zalman’s words:
This refinement is not within the power of the other brothers, for their station is in the realm of creation, which is far lower than atzilut. Accordingly it says “Your sheaves formed a circle and they prostrated themselves to my sheaf” in the aspect of utter nullification, for without the masculine arousal of Joseph their feminine arousal will not be totally incorporated within divinity. Only through the masculine arousal of Joseph, who refines them a second refinement, are they sublimated in true selflessness, and this is the meaning of “and they prostrated themselves . . .”
A close reading of this passage reveals that the phrase “and they bowed themselves” is vested with a dual meaning. Initially it represents their “nullification” or submission in the face of Joseph’s superior station; without his mediation they cannot become fully incorporated within G‑d’s essential singularity. But in its second occurrence this prostration comes to represent their ultimately successful sublimation within the “true selflessness” of the second refinement. In a further exploration of the symbolism of prostration, or bowing, R. Schneur Zalman highlights the inherent reciprocity of this dialectical union:
Bowing includes two aspects. The first is the aspect of submission, that one submits and prostrates oneself. . . . The second is the aspect drawing down, that one inclines one’s head, drawing it downward. And in truth, each of these aspects is dependent on the other . . .
Individual and communal submission to divine authority remains an incomplete process of refinement without the tzaddik’s communication of divine wisdom. “When the brothers raised feminine arousal into malchut, they needed to arouse the descent of masculine arousal in atzilut, because through this is the The tzaddik’s transmission of divine wisdom is . . . an intentionally directed response inspired by the initiative of the community.primary refinement.”
Accordingly, the initial process of submission is endowed not only with a sense of preparatory anticipation and receptivity, but also with the express intention of initiating the ultimate union mediated by the tzaddik.
The tzaddik’s communication of divine wisdom is likewise ineffective except when contextualized by a receptive community. R. Schneur Zalman illustrates this point by invoking the ideally intentional and reciprocal nature of the physical union of man and woman. “There is no arousal without intention, and the masculine arousal is not manifest except after there is a feminine arousal.” It follows that the tzaddik’s transmission of divine wisdom is not simply prefaced by the community’s submissive receptivity to divine authority, but is actually an intentionally directed response inspired by their initiative.
Neither the tzaddik nor the individual members of the community can achieve their purpose in a vacuum. It is only through their complementary relationship, through their mutual receptivity and initiative, that ultimate refinement and singularity can be apprehended.
Chassidim Are Not Alone
This teaching, as transmitted by R. Schneur Zalman, has reached us in two versions. The passages cited above are drawn from the longer of them, which presumably dates from a later period of his leadership. The shorter version is far more cryptic, but one of its manuscript variations is headlined “a teaching of our master, teacher and rebbe, may he live,” indicating that it was transcribed during R. Schneur Zalman’s lifetime, apparently by someone who had heard the teaching from him firsthand. It also includes a postscript: “All this [was taught] in the name of the rabbi, our great master, the master of our master, Avraham, the tzaddik who is remembered for life in the world to come.”
Rabbi Schneur Zalman famously titled Tanya, his magnum opus, “a collection of sayings,” attributing his teachings to the chassidic masters he had received from. But he only rarely provides specific attributions for specific teachings. The fact that he attributes this particular teaching to R. Avraham lends support to the implication in Beis Rebbi that it was the concept of the second refinement that marked the transformative genesis It was the concept of the second refinement that marked the transformative genesis of R. Schneur Zalman’s relationship with R. Avraham.of R. Schneur Zalman’s relationship with R. Avraham.
In light of the substance of this teaching, it is worth revisiting the episode recorded in Beis Rebbi. While waiting for his only shirt to dry at the riverbank, R. Schneur Zalman diligently studies many pages of the Talmudic tractate Bava Metzia from memory. When he returns to the town he encounters R. Avraham, whom he has been avoiding in defiance of the Maggid’s instruction that he learn with him. In a direct assault on R. Schneur Zalman’s sense of security, accomplishment and self-worth, R. Avraham expresses dismay that even R. Schneur Zalman’s deeds “are not accepted on high,” relegating them to the category of “crass . . . deeds of lowly creations.” It is this assault that brings R. Schneur Zalman to recognize “that there are more ways to serve G‑d, finer and even more refined, which he does not yet know,” and to learn “the matter of the second refinement” from R. Avraham.
It seems reasonable to suggest that this episode was not simply one step along R. Schneur Zalman’s path from Talmudic scholar to chassidic devotee, and ultimately chassidic master. It was, rather, the pivotal moment in which he apprehended the central distinction of the chassidic path, the moment he realized that true service of G‑d can never amount to the achievements of any one individual. Without submitting to the authority of the Maggid, without becoming receptive to R. Avraham’s instruction, his service of G‑d could never be more than the “crass deeds” Alone, we are fractured shards, mired in crassness, unable to extricate ourselves from the physicality of creation.of a “lowly creation.”
The central tenet of Chassidism, that without a committed relationship to the tzaddik the service of the individual can never be complete, had previously eluded R. Schneur Zalman. But R. Avraham’s harsh words shattered his complacency and opened the way for him to embark on an entirely new path of divine worship. As his own disciples and successors would later express it: “The path of Chassidism . . . is the great G‑dly accomplishment that the rebbe is not alone and the chassidim are not alone.”
Alone, we are fractured shards, mired in crassness, unable to extricate ourselves from the physicality of creation. The tzaddik may be a visionary, a seer of singularity and repair, but alone his vision must remain a dream. It is only when the tzaddik shares his wisdom with us, and only when we open ourselves to share his vision, that mutual empowerment can be obtained.
The scope of R. Schneur Zalman’s educational project is pithily captured in saying attributed to his great-grandson, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1834–1882, known as the Rebbe Maharash):
To [cleave to] the Baal Shem Tov, it was enough to be connected (mekushar). That is, to conduct oneself in practice according to his directive. . . . To [cleave to] the Maggid, you had to learn. Connection was insufficient; rather, you had to be in his proximity, to see him and to learn from him and from his conduct. With my grandfather the Alter Rebbe, connection was not enough, neither was seeing and learning from his ways. You had to understand him. And those who understood him were very different from other chassidim who were connected to him, and even from the great conceptualizers [of chassidic thought].
Though not explicated in either version of R. Schneur Zalman’s teaching, the encircling of the brothers’ sheaves around the sheaf of Joseph might symbolize the sense of communal togetherness experienced in the presence of the “The path of Chassidism . . . is the great G‑dly accomplishment that the rebbe is not alone and the chassidim are not alone.”tzaddik. What R. Schneur Zalman does explicate is that the relationship with the tzaddik goes far deeper. The chassid cannot simply ride the wave of the tzaddik’s visionary inspiration. The chassid must toil to unite all aspects of life in submission to the majestic authority of G‑d, and ultimately to assimilate the tzaddik’s apprehension of selfless wisdom and the dissolution of all things within the utter singularity of G‑d’s essential being.
The tzaddik’s role is to lead the individual away from selfish loneliness, along the path of community, unity and cosmic wholeness, to the boundless selflessness of G‑d alone.