The Ninth of KislevOn Interconnectedness

The Ninth of Kislev is both the birthday and the yom hillula (the yahrzeit) of the Mitteler Rebbe, the son and eventual successor of the Alter Rebbe. In honor of this important day, it would be beneficial to discuss one of the Mitteler Rebbe’s teachings.

The Mitteler Rebbe once said to one of his chassidim: “When two people speak to each other about the service of HaShem , and they study together, there are two G‑dly souls against one natural soul” (see HaYom Yom, entry for 20 Teves).

I’ll elaborate on this. Those of you who have learned some Chassidus , know that one of the first and most basic teachings of the Tanya is that every Jew has two sources of consciousness and motivation, called in the language of Chassidus the G‑dly soul (the nefesh haElokis) and the animal, or natural soul (the nefesh habahamis or the nefesh hativ’is). The latter is the soul which enlivens you, which occupies itself with eating and sleeping, etc., whereas the G‑dly soul is the part of the person which strives toward spiritual goals.

When a person is trying to fulfill the mission of the descent of his soul into this world, he often experiences a conflict between the two souls, which may be manifested as a disagreement, or even open battle between a person’s brain, and his heart. In other words, the intellect says one thing, while the emotions tell him otherwise. The emotions are very powerful (Chassidus explains that they come from a higher source than intellect!) and can sometimes overpower his good sense. That chassid who consulted the Mitteler Rebbe had clearly asked for advice regarding his spiritual situation, and how to advance in his divine service. The Mitteler Rebbe gave him very simple, but very profound advice: You should discuss these things with another Jew, rather than trying to solve it alone. On your own, the G‑dly soul and the animal soul are one against one. Accordingly, either this one or that one will win, and there is no guarantee that it will be the G‑dly soul. However, when you discuss your problems with another person, your ability to overcome the animal soul is doubled. Why is this so?

The G‑dly soul is selfless and altruistic, whereas the animal soul is basically self-interested. Its function is to look after the person’s own survival and interests. When you yourself are hungry, even though you ate only a few hours ago, you are much less concerned with the fact that there are people on the other side of the world who are literally starving. Survival is basically self-centered. Thus, the animal soul cares about itself, not about others. By way of contrast, the G‑dly soul is selfless, concerning itself with the welfare of others even before its own well-being. For this reason, when a person discusses his problems with a friend, there are two G‑dly souls working on the problem, because it is only the G‑dly soul which takes an interest in another person’s problems.

If we are serious Jews we will sometimes encounter difficulty in deciding what exactly HaShem requires of us in certain situations. Of course, the Torah guides our every step. Nevertheless, sometimes we find that there are several alternative ways of acting. Which one do we choose? Because our animal soul tends to seek its own benefit, even within the realm of Torah and the Halachah , the Mitteler Rebbe tells us that we should always discuss matters of divine service with another Jew. It’s not that when you have a problem you have to pour your heart out, even though that is also a good thing. The point is that every Jew has a G‑dly soul, which lifts us up and makes us strive for things that are more spiritual. It makes us seek out other Jews to bring them closer to Yiddishkeit, it makes us go to shul, and to pray even when we’re really not in the mood. That’s the nefesh Elokis. It pulls us above the material world and says, “You know, there’s something higher.” And it makes us strive for it. It is your G‑dly soul which motivates you to say, “You may be very comfortable right now at home, but outside there are people who are very much in need of help.” You can go out and make it good for somebody else, whether this is in a material sense, such as giving or lending money, or doing them a spiritual favor, such as teaching them Torah, which is also called tzedakah. Everyone needs help in getting closer to HaShem , or to do a mitzvah. The nefesh Elokis , by its nature, cares about somebody else, and wants somebody else to be good also, whereas the nefesh habahamis couldn’t care less — as long as I’m happy, it says, everything’s in order.

Very often we cannot solve our conflicts because we are fighting the drives of our G‑dly soul in one direction and the drives of our animal soul in the opposite direction. We can’t come to any resolution. Therefore, when there are two Jews whose souls strive for the same spirituality, as all Jewish souls do, it is far easier to identify and overcome the self-seeking tendencies of the animal/natural soul. Just as your animal soul couldn’t care less about anyone else, the other person’s animal soul couldn’t care less about you either, whereas his G‑dly soul does care about you, just as your G‑dly soul cares about him. Accordingly, you have two G‑dly souls against one animal soul.

There is a further point to be made — because we are all interconnected, by way of our souls, we can never say, “What difference does it make, as long as I’m OK.” This is like the story our Sages tell of a passenger on a boat who was busy making a hole in the hull underneath his seat. When other passengers told him to stop making a hole, for he would sink the boat, the silly fellow told them to mind their own business — he had paid for his seat, and it was of no concern to anyone else what he was doing within his private four cubits. Similarly, supposing the general, the highest ranking officer in the army, wants to review the troops. Of course, the soldiers know that on a certain date, at a certain time, they must all be ready to make sure that there are no wrinkles, their shoes are polished, etc., and they are ready to be reviewed. As everybody is standing on parade, waiting for this great general to walk by, if one of the soldiers is not tidy — his buttons were not polished, his uniform was a mess — the general wouldn’t be angry at the soldier, he would go to the officer in charge and he would say, “What nerve! How come you didn’t prepare your group for this review!” In other words, the blame is never on the individual, but on the one in charge of him. If you see a kid walking in the street who looks like a mess, do you say, “What a messy kid!” or, “What an irresponsible mother that allows her child to walk around like that?”

Each of us is responsible for our fellow Jew who isn’t yet the way he should be, because we can do something about it. You cannot sit home complacently, saying, “Oh, what’s it my business? As long as I’m OK,” because you are to some degree responsible for the other person’s deficiencies. We are inter-responsible. This is the Mitteler Rebbe’s message.