אך הענין הוא פשוט ומובן לכל

But it is plain and clear to all,

שיש הפרש גדול בין השגת חכמי האמת, כרשב״י והאריז״ל, שהיא השגת חכמה ודעת

that there is a great difference between the apprehension of the Kabbalists, such as R. Shimon bar Yochai and R. Isaac Luria, of blessed memory, which is an apprehension through wisdom and knowledge,

ובין השגת משה רבנו עליו השלום ושאר הנביאים, בנבואה

and the prophetic apprehension1 of Moshe Rabbeinu, peace to him, and the other prophets,

המכונה בכתוב בשם ראיה ממש

to which Scripture refers as actual vision.

Seeing something grasps its essence; comprehension merely grasps its externality.

וראית את אחורי

In these terms Scripture describes Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophetic apprehension:2 “You shall see My back.”

ואראה את ה׳

Likewise even with Isaiah, a lesser prophet than Moshe Rabbeinu, who was the greatest of prophets:3 “And I saw G‑d.”

וירא אליו ה׳

Furthermore, even before G‑d gave the Torah we find Abraham’s prophecy referred to in these terms:4 “And G‑d appeared to him.”

ואף שזהו דרך משל, ואינה ראיית עין בשר גשמי ממש

Now, though the term [“seeing” with regard to prophecy] is used in a metaphorical sense and does not denote actual sight by the physical, fleshly eye,

מכל מקום, הנמשל צריך להיות דומה למשל

nevertheless, the analogue needs to resemble the analogy.

Just as the analogy of physical sight means that the viewer beholds the essence of a thing, so too the analogue — prophetic vision — must refer to a spiritual kind of seeing that grasps the essence of the spiritual level that is beheld through prophecy.

וכתרגום, וירא אליו ה׳: ואתגלי ליה וכו׳, שהוא בחינת התגלות

Thus too the Targum translates the above-quoted “vayeira eilav HaShem”: “And G‑d became revealed5 to him...,” indicating revelation,

שנגלה אליו הוי׳ הנעלם ברוך הוא, בבחינת התגלות

meaning that G‑d,6 blessed be He, being hidden, became manifest to [Abraham].

In this direct mode of revelation, the recipient of the Divine manifestation is able to absorb and internalize it, just as with visual sense-perception. The above-described manner of spiritually “seeing” a revelation is thus quite different from “hearing”, an inferior level of perception which leaves the recipient with a less tangible impression.

מה שאין כן בהשגת חכמי האמת, שלא נגלה אליהם הוי׳ הנעלם ברוך הוא בבחינת התגלות

It is different, though, with the apprehension of the Kabbalists. G‑d, blessed be He, Who is hidden, did not become revealed to them in a manifest mode;

רק שהם משיגים תעלומות חכמה, הנעלם (נוסח אחר: בנעלם) ומופלא מהם

rather, they apprehend the secrets of wisdom in a manner7 which is hidden and removed from them.

They merely “hear” about these matters rather than truly “see” them.

ולכן אמרו: חכם עדיף מנביא, שיכול להשיג בחכמתו למעלה מעלה ממדרגות שיוכלו לירד למטה בבחינת התגלות לנביאים, במראה נבואתם

[Our Sages] therefore taught that8 “A wise man is superior to a prophet,” because through his wisdom he can apprehend levels [of Divinity] far higher than those that can descend by means of revelation to prophets in their prophetic vision.9

Since the revelation of prophecy is “visual”, the most sublime levels such as Supernal Chochmah cannot possibly be revealed and “seen” below.

כי לא יוכלו לירד ולהתגלות אליהם רק מדרגות התחתונות, שהן נהי״מ

For only the lowest levels can descend and become revealed to [the prophets], namely, the levels of Netzach-Hod-Yesod-Malchut,

שהן הן היורדות תמיד, ומתגלות מהמשפיע להמקבל, בבחינת מוחין וחיות

for it is they that always descend and become revealed from the Emanator to the recipient, in the form of intellectual perception and [creative] life-force.

כידוע ליודעי חכמה נסתרת, שהנהי״מ של העליון מתלבשים בתחתון להחיותו

Thus it is known to the students of Kabbalah10 that the Netzach-Hod-Yesod-Malchut (i.e., the lowest levels) of the higher [realm] vest themselves in the lower [realm], in order to animate it.

שהן הן כלי ההשפעה והורדת החיות מהעליון לתחתון, בכל העולמות והמדרגות

For they are the conduits of the beneficent flow that bring down the life-force from the higher level to the lower, with respect to all the worlds and levels.

ולכן גם כן הן הן המתגלות לנביאים, בבחינת התגלות ממש

Hence they also become revealed to the prophets as an actual revelation, i.e., as prophecy.

ובתוכן מלובש אור הבינה, שהיא בחינת הבנת האלקות מאור נוסח אחר: ואור אין סוף ברוך הוא

Within these [four Sefirot] is vested the light of Binah, the attribute which relates to understanding the G‑dliness [that emanates] from11 the light of the blessed Ein Sof.

ובתוכה מלובשים אחוריים דחכמה, שהיא מדרגה שלמעלה מהשכל וההבנה באלקות ברוך הוא

And within [Binah] are vested the external aspects of Chochmah, which are a level that transcends the conception and comprehension of Divinity,

כי שם חכמה מורה על מקור השכל וההבנה

for the term Chochmah denotes the source of conception and comprehension.

As explained in Tanya, Part I, ch. 18, the word Chochmah comprises two words: כח מה — “the faculty of the unknown,”12 for it is a faculty that cannot be grasped intellectually.

ולכן אמרו בזהר, דאורייתא מחכמה נפקת

This is why it is stated in the Zohar13 that “The Torah derives from Chochmah.”

כי טעמי מצות לא נתגלו, והם למעלה מהשכל וההבנה

For the reasons for the commandments have not been revealed14 in rational terms; they transcend conception and comprehension, i.e., Chochmah.

וגם באיזהו מקומן שנתגלה ונתפרש איזה טעם המובן לנו לכאורה

And even in the occasional places where some apparently intelligible reason has been revealed and explained,

אין זה הטעם, המובן לנו, לבדו תכלית הטעם וגבולו

this reason alone, which is understandable to us, is not the ultimate and full reason; we have not yet plummeted its depths;

אלא בתוכו מלובש פנימיות ותעלומות חכמה, שלמעלה מהשכל וההבנה

rather, within [this reason] is vested the innermost core (the pnimiyut) and mystic principle of Chochmah that transcends comprehension and understanding.

In a public address15 the Rebbe once explained why the Alter Rebbe makes the point that even when we have some intelligible reason for a mitzvah, this is not תכלית הטעם. This phrase, rendered above as “the ultimate reason,” would more literally mean “the end of the reason”; i.e., the explanation given for a commandment is not the last word in the reason for performing it. Not only does the mitzvah remain in some measure unexplained: even the reason remains in some measure unexplained. For in essence, a mitzvah is a superrational expression of the Divine Will, which is fulfilled through its performance.

At the very beginning of Derech Mitzvotecha (subtitled Sefer Taamei HaMitzvot — “A Book on the Reasons for the Mitzvot”), the Tzemach Tzedek writes similarly16 that what one should chiefly keep in mind during the performance of a commandment is the intent of doing it because G‑d has so commanded us. The fact that we may not understand just why G‑d desired this particular action done, is immaterial.

The Tzemach Tzedek goes on to say that whatever modest insight we may have about the purpose of the mitzvot — according to the Kabbalah and Chassidut, or according to Jewish philosophy (chakirah) and homiletics (derush) — is not even a glimmer of their true intent. It is a finite drop in an infinite ocean. For no human being, clothed as he is within a corporeal body, can possibly comprehend the infinite domain of spirituality. Even Moshe Rabbeinu, who has experienced more than three thousand years of constant elevation in Gan Eden, advances constantly in his understanding of the rationale underlying the mitzvot.

Concerning these successive levels of comprehension the verse states,17 “To every yearning, even to the point of expiry, I have seen an end; Your mitzvah is very wide.” I.e., the comprehension and yearning experienced in Gan Eden are finite, whereas a mitzvah defies limitation: the extent of its inner content is endless.18

One outstanding question: Why, though, does the Alter Rebbe write that intelligible reasons have been given only for “occasional” mitzvot, whereas in fact this would appear to apply to a multitude of commandments (of the categories of mishpatim and eduyot), if not to a majority?

Likkutei Biurim on Tanya (by R. Yehoshua Korf) quotes the Rebbe as answering this question in the following manner:

In most cases only a general reason is provided, while the details remain unexplained. For example, while the general reason for the mitzvah of tefillin is stated — that it be19 “a sign upon your hand...,” no revealed explanation is provided for the myriad details relating to this commandment, such as: why the tefillin must be square; why the four scrolls in the tefillin of the head must be housed in four separate compartments while the Biblical passages in the tefillin of the hand must be inscribed together on one scroll; why the straps of the tefillin must be black; and so on and on.

וכן בכל דיבור ודיבור שיצא מפי הקב״ה לנביאים, הכתובים בתנ״ך

The same is true with respect to every word uttered by the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, to the prophets, as recorded in the Tanach

Every word of prophecy found in the Tanach is applicable not only to the generation that first heard them, but to all future generations as well.20

הן דברי תוכחה, והן סיפורי מעשיות

whether they be words of admonition, as transmitted by the prophets, or narratives of incidents.

An incident is recorded in the Tanach not only as history but also as an eternal message for all generations.

מלובש בתוכם בחינת חכמת אלקות, שלמעלה מהשכל וההבנה

Vested in them — in these words of rebuke or narrative — is an aspect of the Divine Chochmah that transcends conception and comprehension.

כנראה בחוש, מענין הקרי והכתיב

This is empirically evident from the principle of kri, the Scriptural text as read, and ktiv, the Scriptural text as written, the two not always being identical.

כי הקרי הוא לפי ההבנה הנגלית לנו, והכתיב הוא למעלה מהשכל וההבנה

The kri reflects the comprehension [of the text] as revealed to us. The ktiv transcends conception and comprehension.

שתיבה זו ככתיבתה, אין לה לבוש בבחינת ההבנה, ובקריאתה בפה יש לה לבוש

That is, a particular word in its written form has no comprehensible “garment”, though as read aloud it does have such a “garment”, i.e., it is readily comprehensible.

An example of this would be the verse,21 “Know that the L‑rd is G‑d; He has made us, velo anachnu, His people and the sheep of His pasture.” The ktiv form of the word velo ends with an alef ולא, while the kri form of the word ends with a vav ולו. According to the latter form the verse is readily comprehensible: “Know that the L‑rd is G‑d; He has made us, velo anachnu — and we are His....” In the ktiv form, however, the verse reads, “He has made us and not us....” While this has meaning on a more sublime level,22 in the simple sense the ktiv of this verse seems exceedingly difficult to comprehend.23

וכן הענין באותיות גדולות שבתנ״ך, שהן מעלמא עילאה, ומאירות משם בגילוי, בלי שום לבוש כשאר האותיות

The same applies to the large letters that are occasionally found in the Tanach; they derive from a sublime world — from the Sefirah of Binah and radiate from there openly, and not through a garment like the other letters.