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Some of Life's Tough Questions

Some of Life's Tough Questions

A Conversation with Hillel Directors, August 24, 1960


Reconstruction of hours-long conversation from participants' memory

Question: I find myself awed by the impossibility which my position places me in and feel paralyzed with a need to lean on someone. Buber says there is no distinction between kodesh (holiness) and chol (the secular). Does Chassidic teachings endorse this idea? If we assume that there is no distinction, this can bring us to a kind of autonomism that Frank represented -- that you sin and still remain holy.

Rebbe: The primary axiom of Judaism is that a perfect being creates everything according to design -- that nothing happens by accident. Consequently, no one gets more responsibility than he can handle.

This clear knowledge can strengthen man because it is in his power to complete his tasks. For every problem there is a solution; thus there is no need for despair or frustration.

Based on this premise, that order is inherent in the universe, the question arises: Why should one feel this awe in facing his responsibilities?

The anxiety enables him to use all his intellectual and emotional powers, to arouse the deepest emotions within him in order to come to the solution. Whereas if one is detached from the problem he will be satisfied with any solution.

Question: But what if one finds himself in an environment that is not conducive to proper emotions?

Rebbe: G‑d Almighty is the environment of every Jew. If you are worried about elements that are not properly influencing you, it is still part of this divine (pattern). As you know, the physical, medical and scientific conclusions are that by (word is missing in the original transcript) you can evoke special forces in your body to combat something that cannot be done otherwise.

Question: Would you call this yesurim shel ahavah (love-inflicted suffering)?

Rebbe: Yes, it can be called this. It can be something in your soul to provide means to fight something or to correct something which cannot be done by passive thinking.

Question: How can we bring a principle of faith into action and deed? Although my mind knows that the Creator is a perfect being, it does not always reach my heart and emotion.

Rebbe: Try in your every day life to govern your deeds and actions intelligently. Impose your intelligent thinking on your deed. Every human tries his hardest to live by his intellect and understanding.

G‑d is perfect -- it is a logical consequence that the universe is perfect. And the second consequence is that everything must become compatible: the problem and the solution. It is a simple thing for man to try to govern his heart with his brain; it has nothing to do with religion. It is a normal, common sense behavior. However, it is not always successful.

Question: I myself feel unlike a businessman who fears only for his bankbook -- I feel that I am fulfilling G‑d's purpose and will, and this feeling is fearsome.

Rebbe: Each time you think in this direction you must feel elevation and inner satisfaction -- an inner harmony. It is your way of going from level to level. When you ascend a flight of stairs, as you step from one step to another there is a moment when your foot is in the air with no solid basis under it. But this is necessary in order to come to a higher level, for after that he is elevated. Some people can sleep for 120 years on one step. This explains your feeling of awe which can be constructively used to reach a higher level.

Question: One may think that kochi veotzem yodi ("my own prowess") brought him to a higher level?

Rebbe: One of the good things about this awe is that it prevents one from feeling "my might."

Part of the perfection of the universe, is that you are given free choice -- you can choose your own mode of force. This explains why many human beings use this fear in a destructive manner; it is free choice.

And this elevates the value of reaching the purpose. When you know you avoided an error, you could not have attained this if there was only one choice, one road.

"Tzaddikim mu'atin ("the righteous are few") , because there is only one right way and the wrong ways are many.

Question: You define yir'ah as awe. Can it not also be fear, as fear of physical pain?

Rebbe: There are some times when you cannot influence yourself with high thoughts of Seventh Heaven or Gan Eden -- that doesn't work; but thinking of gehenom works. The high thoughts do not help when you are walking on Broadway, only thoughts of gehenom work.

Question: What is your concept of gehenom?

Rebbe: It is not the same thing for a 13 year old as it is for a 100 year old. For everybody in his own world there exists a Gan Eden and gehenom in his own environment. He must choose the right thought and deed. You cannot cut bread with a mathematical discussion. You need a material knife.

Question: What is your concept of s'char ve'onesh (reward and punishment)?

Rebbe: It is here in his body. Just as you must use a material knife to cut bread, so on Broadway you cannot divert the evil inclination by discussing a philosophical discussion. You can sooner divert it with a story. Not that a story is higher, but you need something for your mood.

When a person is ten years old, you cannot influence him by telling him something [geared] for a 70 year old. Every person has different moods. He sleeps like a five year old; he eats like a 17 year old, etc. An abstract discussion of religion will not spoil his appetite, but if you tell him that this animal ate grass, and that fertilizer was on the grass, and you use all means that he shouldn't eat the non-kosher steak -- not with religion -- these things will cause his appetite to be spoiled. The same then applies to stealing, killing, etc.

This explains reward and punishment in the Torah on many things that do not seem to have anything to do with the soul, only that his body will live longer, or he will have a good field, etc. The Torah is for everybody, even the lowest level, and even the greatest tzadik was once a 13 year old whom these reasons could have kept [from straying].

Later, he can develop a higher attitude.

The Torah is the blueprint of creation. As the creation consists of many levels, this blueprint includes many levels. Every chapter of the Torah has many meanings. The simplest meaning is a must for everyone to know. One level higher, you must prepare yourself to understand the inner meaning also, not just the pshat (literal translation) of the word.

"In the beginning G‑d created the heavens and the earth" has its simple meaning. A higher meaning is that He created earthly emotions and heavenly emotions (in each of us). This explanation is also included in the sentence. G‑d created two parts to the soul. The higher, heavenly part and the lower part of the soul, the earthly part -- the world of intellect.

The same applies to reward and punishment. When it says that one should have a long life, that is the first meaning of the sentence and ein mikrah yotzei m'dei peshuto ("the Torah does not depart from the literal sense").

It also means that every minute of your life will be very long. You can make every moment of your life worthwhile, by using it for something deep, philosophical, and intelligent. It is part of the reward that when you behave in the good way, G‑d rewards you by giving you a deeper understanding of religion and all the things around us.

This aspect is not only for a bodily person but also for a higher, deeper religious person and philosopher.

Question: Why are there no references to Gan Eden in the literal translation of the Torah?

Rebbe: When it says l'maan yaarichun, (that "one's days be lengthy")1, it includes Gan Eden. The body can be affected by a bullet or material means of destruction. But it is illogical that the neshamah should be affected by material destruction. If there is a blessing of the neshamah of "l'maan yaarichun" (long life) it must mean Gan Eden.

In reply to your other question about evil and that all things are holy, one of the basic beliefs of the Jewish religion and all religions is the concept of free choice. Two roads, two things, to choose between. If one choice is good, the other must be called evil -- one right and the other wrong. If one has an opportunity to give charity, he has the choice to keep the money in his pocket. This would be the wrong thing to do, and because of that it is called evil.

On a deeper level, it is in your power to do evil. This is your elevation. You cannot be elevated unless there is a wrong choice. It is a necessary pattern. If you consider both things from a general point, both choices become part of the same good pattern. The evil elevated you when you chose not do it.

That was the mistake of Frank. One part of the world is elevated by denying it, and with that it fulfills its purpose.

After the human being has completed his mission, both parts (the good and evil) become holy. This is the meaning of the verse, vi'es ruach hatum'a a'avir min ha' aretz ("I will remove impurity from the earth"). When Moshiach comes, there will be no necessity for free choice. Both good and evil will rejoice that they have accomplished their missions. (The evil rejoices because it was rejected).

Question: How do you explain that G‑d Osse shalom uvorei ra ("Makes peace and creates evil")2?

Rebbe: G‑d has created a mask and your mission is to lift the mask and see what is behind the mask. If you accept the mask as is, you are not fulfilling your mission. The evil is the mask and was created to be lifted through nisayon (trial) -- it is part of the perfection of the universe.

Question: Then why should Amalek be exterminated?

Rebbe: Amalekites did evil by their own choice. They brought something into the universe that does not belong in it. That part must be destroyed. That is the special power of free choice given only to human beings -- not to animals.

Question: What about murder?

Rebbe: The murderer has subjugated himself to his instinct to cause bad to someone else -- he did not lift the mask of the universe. If you act according to the mask within yourself, you then accept the mask of the universe -- temporary pleasures -- which you realize afterwards were not real....

Rebbe: Are there any further questions?

Rabbi M.: Can we ask any further questions that arise, next year when we see you.

Rebbe: If the questions can wait a year, it is a peaceful one...

This year is the 200th anniversary of the demise of the Baal Shem Tov. It is a big miracle -- all these happenings. He was from poor descent with no special means of propagating his ideas. No support -- he was an orphan, persecuted in many circles, not only the irreligious but also the religious.

Yet if you evaluate the last 200 years, you will see that he has "conquered" the Jewish people without being a globe-trotter.

Quietly, he has influenced not only the Chassidim, but also the Misnagdim.

You can find kernels of his thinking in the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud. He has spoken about joy -- it is a verse. [And his teachings on it are] based on the Mishnah.

Not to despise the poor is a positive commandment in the Torah.

His divine spark and hislahavus (enthusiasm) was so powerful to have affected even the human being far from religion. It changed the course of the lives of maskilim who fight -- for you cannot fight something that doesn't exist. Since they fight with a zeal it means that it has changed even their lives.

Now you can see all circles of the Jewish people accepting the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov -- Litvaken, Galitzianer, etc. Some accept it 100 per cent -- in thinking and in deed, and some in thinking only, but everyone in a positive manner.

If someone is searching for miracles -- there you have a miracle.

Lo hamedrash ho'ikor ella ha'maaseh ("the esoteric explanation is not the main thing, deed is"). My last discussion was to bring to maaseh (deed) -- to accept the Baal Shem Tov's teachings in your every day life. To remind yourself that he not only existed 200 years ago but today -- if you are tuned to accept his methods even when you are walking or reading. If you are reading a newspaper and you draw the right consequences of the material you have read in the paper it will influence you to do something better than yesterday. If you are eating and saying a brachah and thinking of the pirush hamilim (translation of the words) and connecting the bread or meat to G‑d you will be brought to a higher level.

Prutah prutah mitztarefes 1'cheshbon gadol (pennies add up to a large sum), not only an increase in quantity but at a certain point of saturation you reach a change in quality. Accumulating small happenings can change your life. This not only applies to a Talmid Chacham but also an average Ba'al Ha'Bayis can go from one level to another until infinity.

That was the Baal Shem Tov -- not only were you holy when learning Torah and davening, but by your every day life -- if you think it is part of the service of G‑d Al-mighty -- every minute of your life. You become another person in the course of time. This thought is acceptable and understandable for everyone, and in every stage of his life.

G‑d's laws, that He has given to mankind, He himself fulfills them also. He said lo hamedrash ho'ikor ella ha'maaseh, so it is also a law for G‑d Al-mighty. He must not only consider the Jews worthy to receive blessings -- this is only midrash -- but in ma'aseh, to give to the Jews and all humanity something in material and spiritual blessings.

All things must be done joyfully.

A kesivah v'chasimah tovah (May you be inscribed for a good year).

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Anonymous June 3, 2007

Quite amazing/inspiring,
thanx for posting!
Moshiach Now! Reply

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