Saying the Unsayable

“What constitutes the difference between Chassidus and the works of medieval Jewish philosophy (Chakirah) that preceded it?”

R. Yechezkel Feigin, the personal secretary of the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, and a mashpia in the Tomchei Temimim Yeshivah, grappled with that question in one of his articles in the chassidic journal HaTamim.1 He explains that the Jewish philosophers built the logical structures that characterize their works on the foundation of mortal reason.2 Thus even after they reached the fundamentals of faith, their explanations were dimmed by the trappings of mortal thought and the full power of Divine light could not be felt.

Chassidus, by contrast, seeks to arouse the fundamental point of faith that stems from the essential G‑dliness that each one of us possesses within his soul. The intellectual dimension of the teachings is a doorway leading to the light of pure faith. For this reason, Reb Yechezkel continues, a maamar does not necessarily conform to the patterns of mortal reason. It is not an encyclopedic treatise on a spiritual subject, but the communication of G‑dly truth. As such, as it descends into the realm of mortal reason, it creates and defines its own structures.

It is said: “No thought can grasp Him,”3 for G‑d’s essence transcends our mortal reach entirely. And in that vein, it is said:4 “Were I to know G‑d, I would be G‑d,” for our limited faculties cannot grasp His infinity. And yet, referring to that statement, the Rebbe Rashab5 once said:6 “When I open a Likkutei Torah (a classic chassidic text), I have both the knowledge of G‑d and the experience of G‑d.” For Chassidus communicates the dimension of G‑dliness that cannot be put into words, and indeed, cannot even be comprehended by our most abstract thoughts. Though a maamar contains a thought structure that can be understood, its focus is G‑dly truth that surpasses understanding. Its intellectual content serves as a handle, enabling a student to connect to this fundamental G‑dliness.

The above is true of the Torah as a whole. The Ten Commandments begin with the word Anochi which is, as our Sages explain,7 an acronym for the Aramaic words meaning: “I wrote down and conveyed Myself.” When a person studies the Torah, he is not studying a particular law or reading a story; he is connecting to G‑d’s essence.

In the Torah as a whole, however, this G‑dly dimension is often hard to appreciate, for a law must be understood as a law and a story as a story. When studying a passage in the Shulchan Aruch, one must be careful to comprehend how to apply the teachings in actual practice. Yes, one must know that he is studying G‑d’s Torah, but while studying Torah Law, it is the legal dimension and not the inner G‑dliness, that commands attention. In Chassidus, by contrast, the focus is on G‑dliness itself. The various intellectual structures used to communicate it are of secondary importance.8

From Another Vantage Point

“‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares G‑d, the L‑rd, ‘when I will send forth a hunger in the land — not a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but to hear the words of G‑d.’ ”9 Today, that hunger is felt throughout the world. Men and women are looking for more in their lives than material satisfaction. They want a connection to G‑d.

When such a person studies the Torah, he is certainly looking for its G‑dly dimension, not merely its intellectual side. The Torah commands his attention, not only for the knowledge and guidance that it offers, but primarily because of the bond with G‑d it creates.

But place yourself in his shoes. Imagine walking into a library filled with books, aware that they contain G‑dly truth, but you are not able to read them because you do not know the language in which they are written. Or sometimes, you may know the language, but the nuances and the terms used by the text make it inaccessible. The thirst is overpowering.

When another person appreciates a friend’s thirst, he has a natural tendency to try to satisfy it. Once Reb Yoel Kahn, one of the leading contemporary authorities on chassidicthought, described one of his mentors: “People say that he was a brilliant teacher. That’s true, but it’s only part of the picture. Why was he so successful in teaching? Because he loved people and wanted to share with them. He was touched by Chassidus, appreciated its value and desired to give others a taste of it.”

We all can identify with that desire. After studying a maamar and understanding it, one wants to communicate it to others. It’s as if the G‑dly energy invested in the maamar refuses to allow us to sit back and remain content with understanding it ourselves alone.

From Feeling to Deed

In this spirit, we would like to present the translation of the chassidic classic: Derech Mitzvosecha, by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe(5549[1789] — 5626 [1866]). In keeping with a longstanding tradition in the Rabbinic world in which an author is identified by the name of his halachic magnum opus, he is universally known as “the Tzemach Tzedek.”

R. Menachem Mendel composed this work in his early adulthood.10 It focuses on many of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah. The Tzemach Tzedek begins his treatment of each mitzvah by quoting Sefer HaChinuch, the landmark workthat lists all 613 mitzvos and their motivating rationales. Occasionally, it cites other sources in Nigleh and then briefly outlines the mysticalsecrets the Kabbalah associates with this mitzvah. Afterwards, he explains these ideas within the context of Chassidus and in the course of doing so, provides his readers with many fundamental concepts applicable in their Divine service.

From the time of its first publication in 5671 (1911), it has become an indispensable element of every chassidic library and an integral part of the process of education in Chassidus. For some, it was the first text of Chassidus that they studied. For others, it was the second or third building block in the development of their base of chassidic knowledge. Almost universally, for a youth growing up in a Lubavitch home or for an adult beginning the study of Chassidus, it features as an important element of the transition between wanting to study Chassidus and actually doing so.

When asked what works of Chassidus people should learn, the Rebbe replied in several of his letters11that it was difficult to advise people without knowing more details about their skills and background, but that in addition to Tanya, it would be valuable to study Derech Mitzvosecha. And he counseled12 a person unfamiliar with the teachings of Chassidus to begin by “studying Derech Mitzvosecha by the Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, which is written in a more familiar style, and to a certain extent, every concept is explained independently.”

Despite the widespread popularity of the text, there are still many for whom it remains inaccessible. As we began contemplating its translation, we realized that presenting the entire work would turn into several oversized volumes. Instead, we decided to produce a sampler, choosing nine maamarim. They were selected because they are often referred to by the Rebbe in his letters and sichos and/or serve as texts that are studied in yeshivos.

Just as the original work in the Holy Tongue cannot be understood by an untrained Hebrew speaker, so, too, merely rendering it into English would not make it accessible to every English reader. Instead, the presentation of this work in English involves teaching, not just translation. With that intent in mind, we have produced “a shiur on paper.” Translator’s additions have been grafted into the text in a different type-face and references have been added as footnotes. To illustrate, using a sample page:

There is, however, one dimension of the text where this approach was not followed in a complete manner. As mentioned above, at the beginning of the maamarim — and in some instances, throughout the text — many references are made toKabbalisticconcepts. A complete elucidation of terms used and the implications of the analogies employed would have diverted focus from the primary goal of the text. Hence, in this area, our explanations were kept to a minimum.

In Appreciation

No work of this scope could be achieved by one individual. Instead, this translation was a team effort combining the synergistic efforts of many individuals, including:

Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, who translated the text and composed the notes;

Rabbi Aharon Leib Raskin of the Chabad Research Center, who provided the references and the explanation of many difficult concepts and who checked the accuracy of the translation;

Rochel Chana Schilder, who edited the text, refusing to look at it as a mere professional job, but instead asked question after question until she felt satisfied a reader would understand;

Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky, whoclarified many questions regarding the kabbalisticterms used in the text;

the Namvar family of Los Angeles, for sponsoring the publication of this text;

Yosef Yitzchok Turner, who designed the layout and typography; and

Rabbi Yonah Avtzon, who supervised and participated in every dimension of the project, translating it from an abstract ideal to a polished work.

The appreciation of Chassidus as fundamental G‑dly truth enables us to understand the cause-and-effect relationship implied when Mashiach told the Baal Shem Tov that he would come when the wellsprings of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings would spread outward.13 For spreading the essential awareness of G‑d that these teachings communicatethroughout the world prepares it to become a fit vessel for G‑dliness.

May this translation play a part in leading to the fulfillment of this purpose and the dawning of the age when “No man will teach his colleague... because they will all know Me.”14

Sichos In English

Yud Shvat, 5778 (2018)