One of the greatest obstacles to living a spiritually oriented life is the need to earn a living. It was this concern that, according to Chassidism, led the twelve spies (sent by Moses to scout the Land of Israel) to reject the Land promised to them. They preferred life in the desert, surrounded by the clouds of glory, the manna and the well of Miriam, where their material needs were attended to and where they could spend their entire day in study, prayer and meditation. They did not wish to enter a "land that consumes its inhabitants"1 with its earthly concerns.

Can the Divine sensibilities of our souls survive the onslaught of "the real world"?To remain in a spiritual heaven, however, is not an option for most of us. The average person must "enter the land" and live by its rules. Indeed, it is through this entry that the goal of creation is achieved: to make the mundane world a place of Divinity. This goal cannot be achieved by those who spend their days in isolation from material existence.

(Nevertheless, the Torah encourages us to remain aloof even while involved in the pursuit of a livelihood: "The work of your hands shall you eat," says the Psalmist—let your mind and heart remain free for loftier matters. There is the famous story about the chassid who had become overly involved in his boot business. He was told by Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch (1860-1920): "Feet in boots, I have seen—but a head in boots…?")

But many of us are bothered by material worries. We often find ourselves inundated with worldly concerns. Are we then spiritually lost? Can the Divine sensibilities of our souls survive the onslaught of "the real world"?

Many Waters

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi cites King Solomon's Song of Songs: "Many waters cannot extinguish the love, and rivers cannot wash it away." In its chassidic interpretation, this verse speaks of the "many waters" of financial worries that wash over the soul. It tells of the constantly streaming "rivers" of mundane thoughts that threaten to extinguish the soul's inherent love for G‑d.

The verse is obviously not discussing one who has achieved spiritual clarity. Nor does it refer to one who maintains the healthy and necessary amount of mental involvement in worldly affairs. Rather, the verse discusses one for whom mundane worries are like a constantly streaming river that never lets up.

Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch (1834-1882) elaborates on this syndrome. He describes a person who suffers indecisiveness at every juncture and vacillates endlessly between the options. His mind is thus preoccupied with worries and cannot focus on loftier pursuits.

Rabbi Shmuel also points to the phenomenon of those who are liable to put their lives in danger for the sake of finding precious jewels and diamonds. Such an obsession must wreak havoc on the soul.

Nevertheless, says the verse, the love of G‑d of even such a harassed soul cannot be smothered. It is impervious to the assault on its essential nature.

This is because of the soul's lofty origins.

Soul Root

The love of G‑d of even such a harassed soul cannot be smotheredWhen Moses asks G‑d to show him "His glory," G‑d says, "I will place in you in the cleft of the rock." This rock refers to "The Rock," the most primordial source of all of creation.

The metaphor of a rock is employed to allude to the flint stone, which contains the potential for fire, but not the fire itself.2

So when G‑d places Moses within the Rock that means that Moses is receiving a glimpse into the reality closest to G‑d's essence—the place where all of creation exists in its most sublime and undefined form.3

The soul, too, derives from this place. Thus even when it is inundated with "many waters," it survives. In fact, it does more than survive.

To The Contrary

The "many waters" spoken of in Song of Songs, appear earlier in the Torah in the form of the "many waters" that flooded the earth in the days of Noah. These waters, too, are the flood of mundane thoughts that surround "the Ark," the oasis of Torah and prayer of one's day. Yet, Rabbi Schneur Zalman sees the waters of the Flood as more than a punitive tool for a corrupt world. The forty days and nights of "Noah's waters," as Isaiah calls them, purified the world, like the forty seah4 of water that are needed to make up a mikvah. The floodwaters thereby brought noach, which also means "tranquility"—peace to the worlds.

So which one is it? Are the waters mundane distractions, or are they purifying agents? The answer is both. For through the challenges and darkness they present, they provide the soul the opportunity to unleash its innermost capacities. The waters of the flood not only do not sink "the ark" of prayer and study—they uplift it.5

For as long as the soul is in heaven existing on a purely spiritual plane, it is like an angel, which is called an omed, one that remains in one place. Only through its descent into the body and physical world can it become a mehalech, one that ascends from one level to the next. The "many waters" that challenge the soul also enable it to ascend to a higher level than is natural to it.

This in fact is the very purpose of the "many waters"—their raison d'être. They therefore cannot extinguish the soul's fire, since they are brought into being to achieve the very opposite.

Hence the revolutionary statement of Rabbi Shneur Zalman: "And this is the mistake of businessmen who think that they are incapable of achieving the same spiritual development through prayer as those who spend their days in the 'tent of Torah.' The opposite is the truth: their prayer is even greater, since abundance of light is produced by the presence and challenge of darkness…."6