What are the ABC’s of Chassidism?

Many chassidim would respond with the classic story1 of the Alter Rebbe’s chassid Reb Moshe Meisels, who served as a French translator but was a hidden spy for the Russians in the war against Napoleon. Once, while Reb Moshe was sitting in the French war room, Napoleon rushed over to him, put his hand on his heart and said, “You are a spy!” Ordinarily, someone who was so accused would have sudden heart palpitations. But Reb Moshe’s heart rate didn’t change, and the charge was dropped. Later, Reb Moshe said, “The alef of Chassidus saved my life.”

The way the story is usually told, the alef (the ABC’s, or the most foundational aspect) of Chassidus refers to the Alter Rebbe’s dictum in the Tanya that the mind should rule the heart—we ought to have intellect govern our emotion. Reb Moshe’s mindfulness and self-control in that sudden and stressful moment kept his heart from racing.

Chabad Chassidus, while passionate, engaging and heartfelt, is a deeply intellectual philosophy. The name “Chabad” is actually an acronym for the three faculties of intellect as explained in Chassidus. The “mind over heart” principle is a core teaching of the Tanya, and no doubt was the chassidic training that saved Moshe Meisels’ life.

But if you take a closer look at how Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880–1950) tells the story,2 the ABC’s of Chassidus are something different:

The well-known chassid Reb Moshe Meisels of Vilna, one of the younger students of the Alter Rebbe, told the great scholar and famous chassid Reb Isaac of Homil: “The alef of Chassidus saved my life. The (Alter) Rebbe taught us that the alef of Chassidus is to utilize one’s nature in the service of G‑d. The outset of one’s spiritual efforts is to employ the nature of one’s abilities: for example, the way the mind rules the heart by its very nature.”

So in truth, the alef of Chassidus is to utilize one’s nature—the natural processes of human psychology, one’s inborn characteristics and emotions, talents and abilities—in the service of G‑d. “Mind over heart” is just one example of that. At the most elementary level, we do not need to go beyond ourselves in order to serve G‑d; we just need to dedicate ourselves to G‑d as we are. As the Alter Rebbe urged Reb Shlomo Karliner: “Don’t speak disparagingly of those with natural fear of G‑d.”3 We ought to take advantage of our natural gifts and not dismiss them.

The stories and teachings of the Baal Shem Tov reflect this. There’s the story of an illiterate farmer boy who couldn’t find his way in the prayerbook on Yom Kippur, so instead he cried out a rooster call: “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” The Baal Shem Tov extolled it as a heartfelt prayer that pierced the heavens.4

Once, in a marketplace, the Baal Shem Tov shared the Midrash of a poor Jew who used a bundle of greens to lead the fattened ox of a wealthier man to the Temple. The poor man’s greens may have been only an accessory to the rich man’s sacrifice, but the natural joy and devotion that he expressed was far more desirable to G‑d than any fattened ox. A water-carrier who overheard the Baal Shem Tov’s tale was in turn inspired to serve G‑d joyfully, deciding to sacrifice some of his income from serving wealthy clients and instead to carry water for the lower-paying synagogues.5 The Baal Shem Tov helped people realize they could serve G‑d with what was natural and familiar to them.

The Rebbe often encouraged people to make the most of their talents and abilities, skill sets, training and circumstances. “If you were given this, then it is a sign you must do something with it” was an oft-repeated reply of the Rebbe to many people seeking advice.

As the Rebbe’s HaYom Yom states:

Each individual’s avodah (life’s work) must be commensurate with one’s character and innate qualities. One who can drill pearls or polish gems and instead works at baking bread can be considered a “sin,” though baking bread is a most necessary craft.6

Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn recalled a Simchat Torah farbrengen (chassidic gathering) of his father, Rebbe Sholom DovBer, where he used a wordplay on two meanings of the Hebrew word maalah, which means both “an advantage or virtue” and “a step on a staircase”:

Just as one may not delude oneself concerning one’s weakness, so one may not delude oneself concerning one’s own strengths. . . . Just as the knowledge of one’s weakness affects his labors, for this flaw needs to be rectified, so should a maalah, one’s strengths, bring about benefit and growth.

A maalah is a step leading upward. If one stays put with one’s maalah (here meaning “virtue or advantage”), then it becomes a chisaron, a drawback. When is one’s maalah truly a maalah? When it leads upward. Apart from all that, one may “not deprive any creature of its reward”:7 every person should know he has a maalah.”8

Think of this in terms of education: students should know their strengths, and they should build on those strengths. As we learn in Proverbs, “Educate a child according to his way”9—we should recognize each student’s unique path and reach him or her through that focus.

The ABC’s start from within ourselves, like Jacob’s ladder—standing on the ground and reaching for the heavens. It begins with our personal nature, with all of its strengths and shortcomings.

Traditional Jewish texts refer to the good and bad inclinations within a person, one to be followed and one to be rejected. But the Tanya uses the term “animal soul” instead of “evil inclination.” The goal is not to reject the animal soul, but to harness its energies and channel its strength. Ideally, we are to love G‑d with both our animal soul and our G‑dly soul, incorporating all aspects of ourselves into our service.

The alef of Chassidus is validating and empowering: true service of G‑d is natural and accessible. As the verse on the Tanya’s title page expresses it, “It is very near to you.”10 There’s no need to go far. You already have it within.