However, it is plain and clear to all,

אַךְ הָעִנְיָן הוּא פָּשׁוּט וּמוּבָן לַכֹּל,

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

שֶׁיֵּשׁ הֶפְרֵשׁ גָּדוֹל בֵּין הַשָּׂגַת חַכְמֵי הָאֱמֶת כְּרַשְׁבִּ"י וְהָאֲרִיזַ"ל, שֶׁהִיא הַשָּׂגַת חָכְמָה וָדַעַת,

and the prophetic apprehension11 of Moses our Master, peace to him, and the other prophets,

וּבֵין הַשָּׂגַת מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּינוּ עָלָיו־הַשָּׁלוֹם וּשְׁאָר הַנְּבִיאִים בִּנְבוּאָה,

to which Scripture refers as actual vision.

הַמְכוּנָּה בַּכָּתוּב בְּשֵׁם "רְאִיָּה" מַמָּשׁ;

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

In these terms, Scripture describes Moses’ prophetic apprehension: “You shall see My back.”12

וְרָאִיתָ אֶת אֲחוֹרָי",

Likewise, even with Isaiah, a lesser prophet than Moses, who was the greatest of prophets: “And I saw G-d.”13

"וָאֶרְאֶה אֶת ה'",

Furthermore, even before G-d gave the Torah, we find Abraham’s prophecy referred to in these terms: “And G-d appeared to him.”14

"וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה'".

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,

וְאַף שֶׁזֶּהוּ דֶּרֶךְ מָשָׁל, וְאֵינָהּ רְאִיַּית עֵין בָּשָׂר גַּשְׁמִי מַמָּשׁ,

nevertheless, the analogue needs to resemble the analogy.

מִכָּל מָקוֹם, הַנִּמְשָׁל צָרִיךְ לִהְיוֹת דּוֹמֶה לַמָּשָׁל,

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.

Thus, too, the Targum translates the above-quoted “vayeira eilav Hashem”: “And G-d became revealed15 to him…,” indicating revelation,

וּכְתַרְגּוּם "וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה'", "וְאִתְגְּלִי לֵיהּ וְכוּ'", שֶׁהוּא בְּחִינַת הִתְגַּלּוּת,

meaning that G-d,16 blessed be He, being hidden, became manifest to [Abraham].

שֶׁנִּגְלָה אֵלָיו הַנֶּעְלָם בָּרוּךְ־הוּא בִּבְחִינַת הִתְגַּלּוּת.

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.

It is different, though, with the apprehension of the Kabbalists. G-d did not become revealed to them in a manifest mode;

מַה שֶּׁאֵין כֵּן בְּהַשָּׂגַת חַכְמֵי הָאֱמֶת, שֶׁלֹּא נִגְלָה אֲלֵיהֶם הַוָיָ' בִּבְחִינַת הִתְגַּלּוּת,

rather, they apprehend the secrets of wisdom in a manner17 which is hidden and removed from them.

רַק שֶׁהֵם מַשִּׂיגִים תַּעֲלוּמוֹת חָכְמָה הַנֶּעְלָם [נוסח אחר: בַּנֶּעְלָם] וּמוּפְלָא מֵהֶם.

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

[Our Sages] therefore taught that “A wise man is superior to a prophet”18 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.19

וְלָכֵן אָמְרוּ: "חָכָם עָדִיף מִנָּבִיא", שֶׁיָּכוֹל לְהַשִּׂיג בְּחָכְמָתוֹ לְמַעְלָה מַּעְלָה מִמַּדְרֵגוֹת שֶׁיּוּכְלוּ לֵירֵד לְמַטָּה בִּבְחִינַת הִתְגַּלּוּת לִנְבִיאִים בְּמַרְאֵה נְבוּאָתָם,

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

For only the lowest levels can descend and become revealed to [the prophets], namely, the levels of netzach-hod-yesod-malchut,

כִּי לֹא יוּכְלוּ לֵירֵד וּלְהִתְגַּלּוֹת אֲלֵיהֶם, רַק מַדְרֵגוֹת הַתַּחְתּוֹנוֹת, שֶׁהֵן: נֶצַח־הוֹד־יְסוֹד־מַלְכוּת,

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.

שֶׁהֵן הֵן הַיּוֹרְדוֹת תָּמִיד וּמִתְגַּלּוֹת מֵהַמַּשְׁפִּיעַ לְהַמְקַבֵּל בִּבְחִינַת מוֹחִין וְחַיּוּת,

Thus, it is known to the students of Kabbalah20 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.

כַּיָּדוּעַ לְיוֹדְעֵי חֵן, שֶׁהַנֶּצַח־הוֹד־יְסוֹד־מַלְכוּת שֶׁל הָעֶלְיוֹן מִתְלַבְּשִׁים בַּתַּחְתּוֹן לְהַחֲיוֹתוֹ,

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.

שֶׁהֵן הֵן כְּלֵי הַהַשְׁפָּעָה וְהוֹרָדַת הַחַיּוּת מֵהָעֶלְיוֹן לַתַּחְתּוֹן בְּכָל הָעוֹלָמוֹת וְהַמַּדְרֵגוֹת,

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

וְלָכֵן גַּם כֵּן – הֵן הֵן הַמִּתְגַּלּוֹת לַנְּבִיאִים בִּבְחִינַת הִתְגַּלּוּת מַמָּשׁ,

Within these [four sefirot] is vested the light of binah, the attribute which relates to understanding the G-dliness [that emanates] from21 the light of the blessed Ein Sof.

וּבְתוֹכָן מְלוּבָּשׁ אוֹר הַבִּינָה, שֶׁהִיא בְּחִינַת הֲבָנַת הָאֱלֹהוּת מֵאוֹר [נוסח אחר: וְאוֹר] אֵין־סוֹף בָּרוּךְ־הוּא,

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

וּבְתוֹכָהּ מְלוּבָּשִׁים אֲחוֹרַיִים דְּחָכְמָה, שֶׁהִיא מַדְרֵגָה שֶׁלְּמַעְלָה מֵהַשֵּׂכֶל וְהַהֲבָנָה בֵּאלֹהוּת בָּרוּךְ־הוּא,

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

כִּי שֵׁם "חָכְמָה" מוֹרֶה עַל מְקוֹר הַשֵּׂכֶל וְהַהֲבָנָה.

As explained in the Tanya, Part I, ch. 18, the word chochmah comprises two words: כֹּחַ מַה—“the faculty of the unknown,”22 for it is a faculty that cannot be grasped intellectually.

This is why it is stated in the Zohar that “The Torah derives from chochmah,”23

וְלָכֵן אָמְרוּ בַּזֹּהַר דְּ"אוֹרַיְיתָא – מֵחָכְמָה נָפְקַת",

for the reasons for the commandments have not been revealed24 in rational terms; they transcend conception and comprehension, i.e., chochmah.

כִּי טַעֲמֵי מִצְוֹת לֹא נִתְגַּלּוּ, וְהֵם לְמַעְלָה מֵהַשֵּׂכֶל וְהַהֲבָנָה.

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

וְגַם בְּאֵיזֶהוּ מְקוֹמָן שֶׁנִּתְגַּלָּה וְנִתְפָּרֵשׁ אֵיזֶה טַעַם הַמּוּבָן לָנוּ לִכְאוֹרָה

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

אֵין זֶה – הַטַּעַם הַמּוּבָן לָנוּ לְבַדּוֹ – תַּכְלִית הַטַּעַם וּגְבוּלוֹ,

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

אֶלָּא בְּתוֹכוֹ מְלוּבָּשׁ פְּנִימִיּוּת וְתַעֲלוּמוֹת חָכְמָה שֶׁלְּמַעְלָה מֵהַשֵּׂכֶל וְהַהֲבָנָה.

In a public address,25 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 תַּכְלִית הַטַּעַם. 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 similarly26 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 Chasidut 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 Moses, 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,27 “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.28

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 the 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 be “a sign upon your hand…”29—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.

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

וְכֵן בְּכָל דִּיבּוּר וְדִיבּוּר שֶׁיָּצָא מִפִּי הַקָּדוֹשׁ־בָּרוּךְ־הוּא לַנְּבִיאִים, הַכְּתוּבִים בַּתּוֹרָה־נְבִיאִים־כְּתוּבִים,

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.30

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

הֵן דִּבְרֵי תּוֹכָחָה וְהֵן סִיפּוּרֵי מַעֲשִׂיּוֹת,

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

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

מְלוּבָּשׁ בְּתוֹכָם בְּחִינַת חָכְמַת אֱלֹהוּת שֶׁלְּמַעְלָה מֵהַשֵּׂכֶל וְהַהֲבָנָה,

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.

כַּנִּרְאֶה בְּחוּשׁ מֵעִנְיַן הַ"קְּרִי" וְהַ"כְּתִיב",

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

כִּי הַ"קְּרִי" הוּא לְפִי הַהֲבָנָה הַנִּגְלֵית לָנוּ, וְהַ"כְּתִיב" הוּא לְמַעְלָה מֵהַשֵּׂכֶל וְהַהֲבָנָה,

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.

שֶׁתֵּיבָה זוֹ כִּכְתִיבָתָהּ אֵין לָהּ לְבוּשׁ בִּבְחִינַת הַהֲבָנָה, וּבִקְרִיאָתָהּ בַּפֶּה יֵשׁ לָהּ לְבוּשׁ.

An example of this would be the verse, “Know that the L-rd is G-d; He has made us, velo anachnu, His people and the sheep of His pasture.”31 The ktiv form of the word velo ends with an alef (וְלֹא) while the kri form of the word ends with a vav (וְלוֹ). 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,32 in the simple sense, the ktiv of this verse seems exceedingly difficult to comprehend.33

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.

וְכֵן הָעִנְיָן בְּאוֹתִיּוֹת גְּדוֹלוֹת שֶׁבְּתוֹרָה נְבִיאִים וּכְתוּבִים, שֶׁהֵן מֵעָלְמָא עִילָּאָה, וּמְאִירוֹת מִשָּׁם בְּגִילּוּי – בְּלִי לְבוּשׁ כִּשְׁאָר הָאוֹתִיּוֹת.