Chapter I

אין הקב״ה בא בטרוניא עם בריותיו

"G‑d does not make tyrannical and unreasonable demands of
His creatures."1

The Midrash assures us2 that "G‑d does not make matters difficult for His creatures; He expects a person to perform according to his capacity. He demonstrated this when He gave us the Torah. Had He come upon Israel with the full might of His strength, we would not have been able to withstand it, as it is written:3 'If we continue to hear [the voice of the L-rd our G‑d] any more, then we shall die.' This is the meaning of the verse4 'The voice of the L-rd resounds with might.' It does not say "with His might," but "with might" according to the might of each individual."

So it is clear that we have the capacity to perform the Torah and mitzvos given to us. This is so even though performing mitzvos with proper reverence may require great effort.

Torah and mitzvos refine a person, as the Midrash states:5 "G‑d gave mitzvos to refine the creatures." This is in addition to the fact that every mitzvah has a special intent. For example, the intent of the mitzvah of mezuzah is that a Jew's dwelling and all therein thereby become connected to G‑dliness. The intent of the mitzvah of challah6 is to encourage us to share with those who serve G‑d. And so it is that every mitzvah has a specific purpose. Yet in addition to its own special intent, each mitzvah has a unique ability to refine a person. Though this requires great effort, Torah and mitzvos were given to the Jewish people, and not to angels.

Indeed, the angels asked G‑d to give them the Torah, as it is written:7 "Give Your splendor to [those dwelling in] the heavens." But G‑d did not give them the Torah. He chose to give it specifically to us, the Jewish nation. This is alluded to in the verse:8 "I have made the earth, and created man upon it borosi." G‑d created the earth for the sake of man, who in turn was created because of borosi, to perform the 613 mitzvos. The numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word בראתי (borosi) is 613.

In summary: G‑d requires each person to perform only according to his capacity. Torah and mitzvos refine a person. G‑d gave the Torah only to Jews, and not to angels.

Chapter II

The Jewish people were granted the unique ability to draw down Divine effluence through their performance of Torah and mitzvos. Performing Torah and mitzvos not only benefits the performer (as mentioned above), but also enables the physical objects with which the mitzvos are performed to become vessels for G‑dliness.

The reason why only Jews possess this quality is because of their power of mesirus nefesh, total self-sacrifice. Moshe says to the Jewish people:9 "Not because you were more in number than any people did the L-rd set His love upon you and choose you, for you are least [in number] of all the nations." That is to say, G‑d gave the Jewish people the Torah not because we possess greater intellects or more powerful emotions than the other nations, but because we possess the power of mesirus nefesh.

There are three souls. There is the nefesh hativis the natural soul, also called the animal soul; the nefesh hasichlis or intelligent soul, whose source is Pnai Adam of the Divine Chariot; and the nefesh elokis the divine soul, whose source is Supernal Man, as it is written:10 "And upon the form of the throne, a form with a likeness to man."

Even the first two souls the animal and the intelligent are different in Jews than in other nations. This is especially true of the divine soul, which is truly a part of G‑d above,11 encompassing the intellect and emotion of holiness.

The intellect and emotion of holiness are two levels of the G‑dly soul called nefesh elokis and yetzer tov, respectively. Nefesh elokis refers to the intellect, which is in turn composed of chochmah, binah and daas (wisdom, understanding and knowledge), while yetzer tov refers to the impulse which generates acts of goodness directed toward one's fellow man, and the actual performance of mitzvos.

Still, G‑d did not give Jews Torah and mitzvos on account of our particular powers of intellect or emotion, though they are totally different from those of other nations. Rather, He gave us Torah and mitzvos because "You are the least of nations."

The term "the least" refers to the self-abnegation and mesirus nefesh found only among Jews. Mesirus nefesh is called bitul haratzon nullification of personal desire. For the word nefesh also means desire, for it is written:12 "My nefesh is not to this nation," as Rashi explains.

Mesirus nefesh thus involves the total dedication of one's desire to G‑dliness, above and beyond the comprehension of the individual. This finds expression in the phrase na'aseh v'nishmah, "we shall do and we shall hear," which the Jews uttered at the time the Torah was given. Na'aseh means devoting oneself to G‑dliness, the Infinite One, the Master of desire, with a total renunciation of personal will. The prefacing of na'aseh, "we shall do" to nishmah, "we shall hear" signifies acceptance of the heavenly yoke in order to fulfill all that G‑d will decree. It was due to this mesirus nefesh that G‑d gave the Torah to the Jews.

In summary: G‑d gave Jews the power to perform Torah and mitzvos notwithstanding their difficulty. This power comes from every Jew's divine soul, which he or she possesses in addition to the "natural" and "intellectual" souls. The acceptance of the heavenly yoke was accomplished through the proclamation of "na'aseh v'nishmah."

Chapter III

As this exile continues, it becomes progressively more difficult to perform Torah and mitzvos , for many matters hinder their performance. How much more so regarding the spiritual aspect of the service of Torah and mitzvos, which requires comprehension and emotional arousal! This can be realized only when one's mind and heart are at peace. Exile is a time of affliction for both the body and soul, what with man's preoccupation about earning a livelihood, for "by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread." Furthermore, exile causes a general sense of malaise and despondency.

In Moshe's time, when the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, there was one redeeming feature. Though the exile itself was severe, for as the Torah13 testifies, it was a time of "shortness of breath and hard labor," the miracles of the Ten Plagues, the crossing of the Sea and the giving of the Torah uplifted the Jewish people. In addition, during the time that the Holy Temples existed, the Jewish people were highly respected, and were able to perform Torah and mitzvos in comfort and plenty. It was a time, as the verse says,14 when "Each man was under his grapevine and fig tree." It was a period of calm, when all Jews were materially and emotionally satiated, and thus able to study Torah and perform mitzvos. G‑dliness was in a revealed state.

However, with the advent of exile, G‑dliness becomes concealed, especially in these latter generations, which are called ikvesa diMeshicha, on the heels of the Moshiach. During these times, "darkness covers the earth,"15 and "the heavens are clothed in blackness"16 a twofold concealment.

It is a time when a G‑d-fearing and observant person finds himself encumbered by "thorns and prickles," making him feel exceedingly uncomfortable. The G‑d-fearing person feels himself being pierced with iron spears by those who laugh and make sport of him, as our sages17 comment on the verse:18 "I have become an object of their jibes [lit., 'songs'] all day long. After they sit eating and drinking and becoming intoxicated, they sit and talk about me, scoffing at me."

The pain is all the greater since it is those of a lowly and unruly nature who scoff and jest. These are people who lack any comprehension, and who have no idea what it means to refine themselves intellectually or even emotionally. Their whole life is centered around self-gratification, a continual indulgence in gluttony and drink and other physical pleasures. They are people who want to be free of any yoke, so that they may do whatever their heart desires, and they are as coarse as beasts.

Such are the people that mock those who study Torah. All this causes the righteous much pain and shame.

It is similar to a prince born with a keen mind and many natural talents. He is reared in the palace by great teachers who spare no effort in providing an excellent education. He is taught the profoundest matters of wisdom and the most refined of manners. When such a prince sins before his father the king, his greatest punishment is to be thrown into the hands of base people, who laugh and mock him.

In summary: In times of bitter exile, the performance of Torah and mitzvos is very difficult. This is due to many hindrances, as well as to being scoffed at by the lowliest of pleasure seekers. It is similar to a pampered prince who sins, his worst punishment being incarceration among the dregs of humanity.

Chapter IV

Among the pleasure seekers, there also exists a better class of people, though they too are devoted only to their physical desires. These are people that can grasp an intellectual matter, and are at least somewhat involved in matters of knowledge. They are therefore called "intellectuals." Yet their wisdom and intellect does not affect their actions; they are unlikely to act in a kindly manner, since their intellect does not refine their emotions.

In particular, their intellect does not affect their pride by making them humble. They believe there are none like them in the world, and that they alone possess intelligence and understanding. The possibility that others might possess a greater degree of comprehension simply does not enter their minds. All this is due to their pride. Their main source of haughtiness is the bit of understanding they possess in the particular branch of wisdom they study.

It is comparable to a pauper who is suddenly blessed with success and manages to become wealthy. His success fills him with haughtiness, and he becomes condescending even to the rich. So too with the person whose ego becomes swollen because of his small measure of knowledge.

He who is truly wise is modest in demeanor. He seeks knowledge from all who possess a keen intellect or fine emotional attributes, as is stated:19 "From all those who have taught me I have gained wisdom." The individual who earnestly desires to master a branch of knowledge seeks to learn from any wise person in possession of that knowledge. This is in accord with the condition and methods necessary to acquire knowledge.

The first condition is dedication to one's studies and devotion to one's teacher. The greater the dedication and devotion to one's studies and teacher, the better and deeper the comprehension of this branch of knowledge. So too, every concept that one learns should be mulled over a number of times until one is sure that he truly understands the concept. Only under such conditions can one properly acquire knowledge.

A haughty person, however, not only lacks knowledge, but his haughtiness is the source of jealousy, lust and the seeking of honor. Such people's intellect and desires are totally disparate. Ultimately their desires overwhelm them, causing them to lose even their intellect.

The essence of a human being is his ability to reason, for emotions are found among animals too. By using one's intellect, a person should be able to overcome and subdue his emotions, and surely his lusts. One who cannot control his desires, and like an animal devotes himself to physical pleasures, is even worse than an animal. It is these lowly people who scoff at those who study Torah, causing them pain and depression.

In summary: There are those who are haughty because of their knowledge or wealth. Truly, the more learned a person is, the humbler he should be. Those who are haughty and scoff at observers of Torah and mitzvos are lower than animals.

Chapter V

The Talmud states:20 Lifum gamla shichna, which means as Rashi explains "A camel is loaded according to his capacity to bear." G‑d demands of people no more than they can bear. During the time of exile, in the period of ikvesa diMeshicha, which is the Mishnaic term21 for "the period at the end of exile," as Rashi explains, there are many who impede and act as thorns in the sides of those who study Torah and are G‑d-fearing. It is therefore important to know that Jews possess the strength to withstand and overcome all difficulties. They can do this nowadays with even greater strength and might than they could muster at the time of the existence of the Holy Temple, for the power of mesirus nefesh is even greater during the time of exile than during the time the Temple existed.

This will be better understood by drawing a comparison to the organs of the body. Though different in function, all bodily organs are similar in that they all draw their life-force from the brain. Notwithstanding their similarity, it is easier to immerse the heel in hot water than the head. The popular explanation is that the heel is less sensitive to pain than the head. However, this itself needs to be understood. Why indeed is the heel less sensitive to pain than the head? The heel receives life from the soul as does the head. As the Alter Rebbe says in Tanya,22 "The main life-force is in the brain and each part of the body receives its life flow from the brain according to its composition and construction." Thus, the life-force of the brain spreads to all parts of the body.

G‑d imbued the soul with the ability to vivify to the body. He decreed that the soul descend and clothe itself in a physical body. This indeed is one of G‑d's wonders: the ability to unite the spiritual with the physical. It follows that there is no difference between the life-force that enlivens the head and the heels. Why, then, is it easier to immerse the heel in hot water than the head? It is because the heel is more loyal to the dictates of the soul than the head. For the lower the organ, the greater is its devotion to the soul's dictates.

In a similar vein, in the time of exile when we are "upon the heels of Moshiach," the power of mesirus nefesh is revealed to a greater degree. Not only are we not fazed by those who scoff at and put obstacles in the path of the performance of Torah and mitzvos, but we perform with even greater vigor. With the power of mesirus nefesh we Jews the world over will merit the coming of Moshiach, the righteous Redeemer.

Summary: A Jew must know that G‑d gave him the sacred power of mesirus nefesh which emanates from the truth of the soul. Exile is known as ikvesa diMeshicha. The feet support the whole body, and the power of mesirus nefesh is found in all Jews. Through mesirus nefesh we will merit the coming of Moshiach, the righteous Redeemer.