Introduction to the Seven Teachings that the Baal Shem Tov delivered in Gan Eden on his Birthday, Chai Elul 5652 (18921)

1. Understanding in depth

I would like to tell you what I saw and heard at the first Shemini Atzeres farbrengen that I ever attended, in my childhood years.

In an earlier talk2 it was once stated that Chassidus demands that everything should be understood at its innermost depth.3 This means that one needs to understand not only the originality4 or the logic5 of the concept6 in question, but also the soul of that originality or logic.

The understanding of all kinds of concepts — from the lowest kind, on the practical level, to the highest, on the divine level — is termed haskalah.

2. Understanding is finite

Understanding is itself a body, and like all bodies it is bounded by corporeal limitations. It is true that there are differences between the limitations that bound the bodies of the various levels of creation — the inanimate, the vegetative, the animal and the human — but like them all, understanding too is a finite body. The difference lies in the fact that the corporeal limitations of these four levels may be seen with eyes of flesh, while the corporeal limitations of understanding may be seen only with the eye of the mind.

3. Essence and existence

Both intellectual originality and logic are haskalah-bodies, each with its own defining bounds.

Any kind of delimitation pinpoints the metzius (“existence”) of the mahus (“essence”) of the matter defined. Just as this is true of water or fire, so too do the defining bounds of intellectual originality and logic pinpoint the metzius of the mahus of their respective bodies.

Within certain classes of things that exist, the distinction between one kind of metzius and another may be discerned through the sense of touch — in terms of hardness and softness, for example. Within other classes of things that exist, the distinction between one kind of metzius and another is discernible in terms of cold and heat, color and appearance (blackness or whiteness), or sound. But within certain classes of things, the distinctions, though real, cannot be discerned in terms of the above-mentioned characteristics. The ways in which their differences find expression vary according to the mahus of their respective metzius.

4. Defining the terms

Briefly but clearly, Chassidus explains that in every item there is to be found its metzius and its mahus. This does not mean to say that metzius is another name for its body and mahus is another name for its soul; it means that metzius and mahus are to be found both in body and soul.

There is a certain maamar that explains at length that in every item there is to be found its metzius and its mahus, and that within each of these there is to be found both metzius and mahus.

Metzius and mahus are thus “two categories that comprise four.”7 Metzius comprises (a) the metzius of the metzius and (b) the mahus of the metzius; mahus comprises (c) the metzius of the mahus and (d) the mahus of the mahus.

These concepts appear in a certain order — [the comprehensive category of] metzius precedes [the comprehensive category of] mahus, and the four particular categories are listed above in the sequence specified. The very fact that they appear in a certain order, and in this particular order, tells us something about the concept that underlies that order.

5. A hint suffices

“For the wise, a hint suffices.”8 As everyone knows, this adage finds expression in hundreds and thousands of different ways.

My grandfather9 once remarked to my father10 that every single responsum to be found in the teshuvos of the Rashba is a distinctive expression of the above adage. My father, being sensitive to the soul of these words of his mentor,11 once explained to me at length that each of the numerous responsa of the Rashba, including even those with related lines of reasoning, has its own particular conceptual hint.

The order to be found12 in the realm of metzius and mahus indicates first of all that the order in the conceptual realm, the realm of haskalah, is [likewise]: first metzius, then mahus; and, likewise, first (a) the metzius of the metzius, then (b) the mahus of the metzius, then (c) the metzius of the mahus, and finally (d) the mahus of the mahus. Moreover, the order to be found in the realm of metzius and mahus indicates that from a thorough understanding of (a) the metzius of the metzius, one can advance to a point at which one can understand (d) the mahus of the mahus.

6. Immersed in an idea

When one is dealing with ideas, every conjecture or supposition augments one’s understanding of the subject at hand. This is clearly apparent when one observes how the Rishonim analyze the text of the Gemara: every proposition entertained by an amora is instructive.

This principle is an intellectual creation that springs from a train of thought that proceeds from a person’s profound involvement in an idea. Accordingly, if one is immersed in a particular idea, and understanding it thoroughly is of great consequence to him, then even its seemingly superficial details enhance his grasp of its entire scope.

7. Body and soul

All bodies, whether of the kind that is perceived by the eye of flesh or whether of the kind that is perceived by the eye of the mind,13 must have a neshamah that animates them.

It is axiomatic that all neshamos and all nefashos are spiritual. Just as all bodies, whether material or intellectual, are counted as gashmiyus, physicality, so too are all neshamos and nefashos, which animate all kinds of bodies, counted as ruchniyus, spirituality.

Though all bodies are physical, the bodies of inanimate objects are different from the bodies of vegetative beings, which again are different from the bodies of creatures of the animal kingdom, which in turn differ from human bodies. Likewise, though all neshamos and nefashos are spiritual, the nefesh of an inanimate object is different from the nefesh of a vegetative being, which again is different from the nefesh of a creature of the animal kingdom, which in turn differs from the nefesh of a human being.

The nefesh is the life of any particular creature. However, though all nefashos animate their respective bodies, this does not exhaust the entire function of the nefesh. There must be other aspects within the soul apart from vitality. Indeed, as one ponders this subject profoundly, there is reason to hold that the soul’s capacity for animating is one of its nether faculties.

8. From my flesh I behold G‑d

From the metzius and mahus of the body and the metzius and mahus of the nefesh, together with the particular components — (a) the metzius of the metzius, (b) the mahus of the metzius, (c) the metzius of the mahus and (d) the mahus of the mahus — of the body and the nefesh; from the characteristics that are peculiar to each, from their antithetical characteristics, and from their symbiosis; — from all of these we can now begin to grasp loftier matters.

There is a verse often quoted in Chassidus: umibesari echezeh Eloka — “And from my flesh I behold G‑d.”14

Whoever earnestly puts his mind to the study of Chassidus, and delves deeply into these few words, will doubtless be immediately overwhelmed by their content.

9. A first lesson in Chassidus

R. Shalom [R. Hillel’s] once quoted an account which he had heard from his mentor, R. Hillel [of Paritch], of the first lesson in Chassidus that he had ever heard from the mouth of R. Zalman Zezmer. On that occasion, R. Zalman Zezmer had explained the meaning of the above verse.

“Before I became a Chabad chassid,” recalled R. Hillel, “I considered my body to be a loathsome thing, because all spiritual woes derive from it. However, when I apprehended the soul of the teaching that ‘from my flesh do I behold G‑d,’ that the body is a magnifying glass through which one perceives G‑dliness, my body acquired standing in my eyes.”

Interestingly, R. Hillel here says that he apprehended the soul of this teaching. What a wise and perceptive creature a chassid is: for him, even a vort that he hears has a soul!

Now R. Hillel was an outstanding baal haskalah. When an intellectual of such stature says something, one needs both “An ear that hears,”15 in order to hear what he says, and “An ear that discerns words,”16 in order to understand the significance of what he says. And indeed, in R. Hillel’s remark that he had “apprehended the soul of that teaching,” there lies a deep intent that calls for thorough comprehension.

10. Nefesh and neshamah

It was winter 5662 (1901-1902), and I was sitting in a railway carriage with my father, accompanying him on one of his journeys from Moscow to Petersburg.

In the course of his discussion of the differences between nefesh and neshamah, my father expressed himself as follows: “A nefesh signifies vitality: it is the soul that animates a body. The body has a life of its own as well — but that is a life of mere existence, a dead life. The life with which the nefesh animates the body is a life that is alive.

“The nefesh itself also needs vitality. The vitality of the nefesh is the ultimate purpose of the vitality, and the ultimate purpose of the vitality is neshamah.

“Everything in the world has its What?, and has its Why? and its What for?

“When one asks about something, ‘What is it?’, he is not inquiring about its body, but about its vitality, its nefesh.

“Even though the vitality of a thing is its core, it is nevertheless no more than its nefesh. The ultimate purpose of the thing — that is, its Why? and its What for? — is its neshamah.”

11. The body becomes estimable

This vort of my father’s can be well understood — that the What? of anything is its nefesh, and its Why? and its What for? are its neshamah.

After this brief but fundamental preface, we will be able to thoroughly understand the penetrating vort of R. Hillel — that when he apprehended the soul of the teaching, that ‘from my flesh I behold G‑d,’ his body acquired standing in his eyes.

The intuitive perception that he gained at this point overturned his entire outlook. The very same body that had previously been loathsome in his eyes, now became estimable.

When we think deeply into it, however, this [paradox] becomes intelligible, for it was the soul of the teaching that R. Hillel apprehended. Hearing the teaching alone did not suffice to make the loathsome object estimable: what was loathsome remained loathsome. It was the soul of the teaching that demonstrated that the body is not exclusively a loathsome thing: it also comprises good, and it is through this that the body becomes estimable.

12. Scrubbing the flesh

My teacher the Rashbatz once gave an extensive account of a farbrengen that took place in Lubavitch during Chanukah 5610 (1849). The leading participants in that gathering were two chassidim of renown, R. Aizik of Homil and R. Pesach of Molostovka.

In the course of a lengthy discussion of bittul hayesh, the nullification of one’s ego, R. Pesach explained how the body — taken in isolation — is death and evil, and concluded by saying that a body without a nefesh and a neshamah is an evil-smelling carcass.

To this R. Aizik rejoined: “True, you are right. What you are describing refers to the lowliness which the body has come to as a result of the degeneration caused by the sin of the Tree of Knowledge. But as far as the very essence of the human body itself is concerned, it belongs to a lofty level indeed.

“When after several months of preparation R. Avraham of Semilian17 visited Liozna, he entered the Alter Rebbe’s study for yechidus. He told the Rebbe whatever he told him and asked whatever he asked.

“In response, the Alter Rebbe said: ‘It is written, And from my flesh do I behold G‑d. One has to scrub one’s flesh until one is able to behold G‑dliness.’”

R. Aizik continued: “One spends decades on scrubbing the flesh — with the perspiration of study, with the perspiration of prayer, with the tears of Tikkun Chatzos, with plentiful avodah of the heart and with plentiful avodah of the mind. Eventually, however — one person gets there a year earlier, another a year later — with the help of G‑d’s mercies, one tears off the encrusted rust of the body and one scrubs one’s flesh thoroughly. And when one gets that done, one beholds G‑dliness.”

Turning to R. Pesach, R. Aizik concluded: “You no doubt remember what the [Mitteler] Rebbe said to R. Elazar Chaim of Zhlobin out in the fields on Lag BaOmer18 5574 (1814), after he had delivered the maamar entitled, Atah hitzavta kol gevulos aretz— ‘You have set all the borders of the earth.’19 At that time the [Mitteler] Rebbe said: ‘Sing a niggun of my father’s,20 and then we’ll be together with him.’”

13. The power of a niggun

R. Elazar Chaim was one of the prominent young married scholars from Vitebsk who studied at the feet of R. Moshe, the father of R. Mendel of Horodok. The learned circles of Vitebsk thought highly of him.

When the Alter Rebbe arrived in Vitebsk21 as a son-in-law, R. Elazar Chaim (whose mentor, the learned R. Moshe, had passed away by this time) bestowed his friendly patronage on the prodigy from Liozna,22 as the Alter Rebbe was then called. Later, when the Alter Rebbe returned from Mezritch,23 R. Elazar Chaim was one of his students, and when the Alter Rebbe assumed the leadership,24 R. Elazar Chaim became one of his earliest and foremost chassidim, making the journey from his home in Zhlobin every year.

At the time of R. Aizik’s story, in the year 5574, he was already a very old man, but he still sang beautifully. He would often relate that the [Mitteler] Rebbe had once said to him that through a niggun, “spirit cleaves to Spirit.”25

14. Climbing the ladder

The Rashbatz continued26 his recollections: “At this point they both27 stood up from the table, and together sang the [Alter] Rebbe’s niggun. Their faces were aflame, their eyes were closed, and we young men who were present were overwhelmed by the holy splendor that resonated from their singing.

“When their melody came to an end, R. Aizik said: ‘What the [Alter] Rebbe told R. Avraham of Semilian — that one has to scrub the flesh until one can behold G‑dliness — is only a beginning. The Rebbe’s vort is intended in the spirit of the directive of the Zohar: Here is the gate through which one should enter.28 The avodah of scrubbing the flesh is one of the rungs by means of which one climbs the ladder of avodah. It is [the base of the ladder which is] standing on the ground. Through genuine avodah, however, one can arrive at its head [that] reaches up to the heavens.’”29

15. Taking notes

It was in the year 565230 (1892) that on the advice of my teacher R. Nissan I began to record the talks and stories that I heard at the time from my father, as well as other things that I remembered from earlier. It was at this time that I recalled the Simchas Torah of 564831 (1887).

On that Simchas Torah my father delivered the maamar that begins with the words, Ein HaKadosh-Baruch-Hu ba bitrunia im briyosav — “The Almighty does not confront His creatures with unfair demands.”32 After that a farbrengen took place in the little zal.33 I remember how my father spoke on that occasion, though I did not understand what he said, apart from a few isolated expressions that have remained in my memory. From time to time he would pat or clap one hand on the other, and whatever he indicated was done with the left hand on the right.

My teacher R. Nissan, who used to systematically record [my father’s] talks and narrations, told me that the theme of that farbrengen was the phrase, “And from my flesh I behold G‑d.” In response to my request, he allowed me to copy his notes of my father’s exposition of the subject.

16. Multi-purpose hands

This is what he had written at the time.

“Even though this” — and here the Rebbe34 pointed at his hand — “is an inanimate clod, temporal and transient, this same golem constitutes the entire ultimate purpose of the descent of the soul into the body. On the conduct of this golem depends the fate of the soul. When one person pats another out of ahavas Yisrael, this elevates the soul, and if one person slaps another, then (G‑d forbid) ‘the hands are the hands of Eisav,’35 and this degrades the soul.

“It is concerning this golem” — the Rebbe again pointed at his hand — "that the [Alter] Rebbe says that when a person performs a mitzvah, such as giving tzedakah, this golem becomes a vehicle for G‑dliness.36

“It is written, ‘And from my flesh I behold G‑d.’ Ignore the fact that it is a golem. This golem was brought into existence by the very Being37 of the Infinite One, blessed be He. The power to bring things into existence belongs only to G‑d’s very Being, as the [Alter] Rebbe writes: ‘His alone is the power and the ability to bring existence into being from absolute nothingness.’38

“Through this golem one can understand G‑dliness. As to the means by which one can do this, and the manner in which one can do this, — for this one has to study Chassidus. Chassidus teaches one the means by which one may understand G‑dliness, and the manner in which one may understand G‑dliness, but one’s understanding of G‑dliness comes through the body and the soul.”

Whoever studies these words of my father’s on Simchas Torah 5648 (1887), with the earnest intention of rectifying his soul, as is explained in Chassidus, will find in this brief statement a wellspring of life-giving waters that can animate his avodah.

17. A fifteenth birthday

The twelfth of Tammuz 565539 (1895) fell on a Thursday. It was almost the first time — apart from the festive celebration of my bar-mitzvah on 12 Tammuz 5653 (1893) — that my father treated that date as a privately-celebrated Yom-Tov. I say “almost” because in the year 5654 (1894) my birthday was marked in a different manner.

I need not recount the order of events and the content of the twelfth of Tammuz, though I may be permitted to mention in a general way that after sunset on the eleventh I would spend some two hours in my father’s study, and would likewise spend almost all of the next day in his company.

During our stroll on 12 Tammuz 5655 (1895), my father told me of the yechidus sessions that he had had with my grandfather.40 After a short introduction, my father then explained to me two aspects of the teaching that “From my flesh I behold G‑d.”

18. Materiality and spirituality

This was his introduction.

“Every body has a nefesh that animates it, and a neshamah that is the inner essence (mahus) of that body and nefesh. The word mahus means מַה הוּא — ‘What is it?’

“Just as every body has a nefesh, every nefesh and every neshamah has a certain metzius (‘existence’), which is its body. Metzius does not necessarily signify something material. It can even signify something which in mortal estimation is exceedingly spiritual, yet in fact is even more of a metzius than the metzius of matter.

“That aspect of the nefesh which animates is its body, for the ability of the nefesh to animate a body is not the mahus of the nefesh. So too, that aspect of the neshamah that thinks and understands is its body, for the capacity of the neshamah to think and understand is not the mahus of the neshamah.”

This was my father’s introduction.

19. The body as an analogy

What now follows is my father’s first exposition on the teaching that “From my flesh do I behold G‑d.”

My father quoted this phrase, and then proceeded: “In the flesh of the body of man, that is, in the very matter of his body, there are various component parts, and the body of the metzius of each of them is distinct from every other part. The tissue of the brain is different from the tissue of the heart, which is different again from the tissue of the other internal organs, which in turn is different from the tissue of the external organs. Nevertheless there is one characteristic that they all share — their desire to live, and this desire finds expression in their self-nullification before the nefesh that animates them.

“This, then, is the meaning of the teaching that ‘From my flesh I behold G‑d’: From the analogy of my flesh I can see the analogue, which is G‑dliness.

“Just as in the body there is a variety of materials, so too in the world there is a variety of creatures — the inanimate, the vegetative, the animal and the human. Just as the nefesh animates all the components of the body, each of them according to its particular content, so too does G‑dliness animate the world and all of its creatures. And just as all the organs of the body are utterly nullified vis-à-vis the nefesh, because this is their life, so too is the world with all of its creatures nullified vis-à-vis G‑dliness — for this is our life.”

20. Screened vision

And here is my father’s second exposition.

“Our verse does not say אֶרְאֶה, which would mean that I see G‑d, clearly and explicitly, but אֶחֱזֶה, which means that I behold Him as if through some kind of obstruction. This means that even though ‘from my flesh I behold G‑d,’ it is with a screened vision that one in fact perceives G‑dliness. This is only the beginning of seeing.

“When one studies Chassidus with an earnest involvement, toiling over each topic until it is securely integrated in one’s mind, that is when one’s comprehension begins to progress.

“All the above,” my father concluded, “has served to explain something we once said — that Chassidus demands that every subject should be understood at its innermost depth, so that one plumbs its profoundest reaches.

21. A luminous Garden of Eden

Chassidus reveals that there is a profound dimension to everything. In addition to its life, its nefesh, everything has its profundity, its neshamah — and Chassidus explains what that profundity is.

In the winter of 5667 (1906-07), my father and our whole family were at Wurzburg. On 24 Teves41 my father delivered a maamar beginning with the words, הַיּוֹשֶׁבֶת בַּגַּנִּים חֲבֵרִים מַקְשִׁיבִים לְקוֹלֵךְ, הַשְׁמִיעִנִי — “You who dwell in the gardens, companions listen to your voice; let me hear it.”42

After the maamar my father said: “When mentioning someone who is already in the World of Truth, people often say, ‘May he be blessed with a luminous Garden of Eden!’ A luminous Gan Eden indeed may the [Alter] Rebbe be blessed with! For by revealing the teachings of Chassidus he opened our eyes and lit up our minds and our hearts, so that we may have some conception of G‑dliness.” I have a record of a long talk of my father’s dating from that time.

We have no idea of how grateful we should be to the Almighty for having given us the great and holy gift of Chassidus, a gift that makes chassidim men of mellow understanding.

22. Levels of understanding

A person with an inventive mind is a maskil; a person with an analytical mind is a meivin; a person with a profound mind is a daatan; but a bar daas, a person of mellow understanding, is something quite different.

Whatever the subject under consideration, a bar daas discovers its profundity, its neshamah, and has the gift of penetrating it, understanding it, and sometimes experiencing it.

One of the chassidic traditions that chassidim should guard zealously is this — that when one utters a teaching it should be expressed clearly and explicitly. Chassidic tradition dictates that every act of a chassidisher educator or guide, and every word that he says, should grant his disciple or follower a certain gain, both in the understanding and in the practical avodah of character refinement. This is why his every act and his every word has to be clear and unambiguous. And in order to express an idea in this way, one has to preface it with appropriate introductions.

Chassidus demands that one should not apply faith to subjects which may be mastered through one’s understanding: one should not simply believe that such-and-such is the case, but understand that it is so.

23. Mental exertion

One of the tasks that the avodah of Chassidus demands is to exert one’s mind, so that whatever one understands should be grasped at its innermost level — and this is something that comes only at the cost of considerable exertion.

The Alter Rebbe once told one of his younger chassidim, R. Pesach Molostovker, at yechidus: “One ought to be a bar daas.”

My great-grandfather43 once told my grandfather:44 “By nature, R. Pesach was sharp-witted, and in this manner he tackled every scholarly subject. Whenever he put forward a novel intellectual proposition, he would immediately reject it in the face of a yet deeper proposition that he had since initiated. My grandfather (the Alter Rebbe) turned him into a daatan.”

Leaving the study of the Alter Rebbe, R. Pesach pondered over his directive for many long hours, and finally approached the Mitteler Rebbe for an explanation of its meaning.

“A bar daas,” the Mitteler Rebbe explained, “is a person who prepares himself properly before tackling a concept that he wants to master. This serious preparation varies according to the nature of each individual — Yisrael of Dubrovna does it in his way, Nachman of Ushatz does it in his way, and Zelig of Dokshytz does it in his way. But preparation there must be. Without it one cannot become a true disciple.45

“A true disciple is one who has struck roots. This is evidenced by growth,46 both in one’s understanding and in one’s practical avodah, for both of these come about only through toil.”