Taming the Wild

This maamar lights a spark within a reader, because each of us possesses a natural tendency to seek something higher. True, as Scripture teaches:1 "A man is born as a wild donkey;" we all have natural tendencies that we all want to indulge, inborn drives to which we would like to give free rein. But yet, something inside tells us that life is meant for something more. Since man was created in the image of G‑d,2 we all feel an inherent impulse to seek satisfaction beyond the physical — to refine and develop our personalities and characters so they will be sensitive to higher and more refined goals.

These efforts, however, are, confronted by a fundamental challenge. Our minds are restricted by our subjectivity; and our emotions, by our self-concern. Try as we might to overcome these limiting forces, it is almost impossible.

G‑d, therefore, gave man an alternative. At Sinai, He revealed the Torah, a code of law that gives man objective guidelines on how to refine himself and the world around him. It clearly defines which behaviors are desirable and which should be shunned, and how to proceed successfully in the challenge of developing our characters on a day-to-day, year-to-year basis.

Breathing Life Into the Laws

Once this code was given to man, a different challenge presented itself: one could follow the code blindly, devoting one's energies to Torah study and the observance of mitzvos without thinking about self-refinement or spiritual advance. Judaism would thus become a mere checklist of do's and don'ts.

Just as a person has a body and soul, the same is true for the Torah and its mitzvos. When a person studies the Torah or fulfills a mitzvah without a spiritual intent, it is like a body without a soul. True, the mitzvah was technically fulfilled, but it is lifeless and cold.

Once, when traveling with his students, the Baal Shem Tov paused outside a House of Study and decided not to enter, saying, "This place is so full of Torah, there is no place for me." The scholars in the House of Study saw it as a compliment: they were certain that the Baal Shem Tov felt humbled in the presence of their study. The Baal Shem Tov's students, however, were not as naïve and asked him for an explanation.

"When the Torah is studied with the proper intent," the Baal Shem Tov told them, "it ascends to heaven. When, however, a person's Torah study is tainted by self-concern, the Torah remains here in this realm. That House of Study was filled with Torah. For years, the scholars have been studying there, but little of their Torah has ascended to Heaven."3

Cleaning and Polishing

Our Sages focused on the personal side of the issue, stating:4 "If one is found worthy, the Torah one studies becomes an elixir of life. If one is not found worthy, it becomes a potion of death." The term זכה, translated as "is found worthy," also implies refinement. If a person refines himself, the Torah he studies can become a source of spiritual vitality, energizing his personal development and his relations with others. If, however, he fails to do so, the very same Torah, instead of elevating him, can even become a negative influence.

The well-loved mashpia, R. Shlomo Chayim Kesselman, would illustrate this idea with the following parable: A German count came to visit his cousin, a Russian nobleman, at the latter's estate. Anxious to please his guest, the Russian summoned all of his chefs and ordered them to prepare their finest delicacies.

Now, one of these chefs was Jewish, and among the foods he prepared was the Jewish favorite — kishke, stuffed derma. The German count tasted all the dishes prepared for him, but most of all he enjoyed the kishke. He even asked for more, until he finished all that had been prepared for him.

"Can you get me the recipe?" he asked his host. The Russian nobleman was happy to oblige, and he hurried to get the recipe from the Jew.

On arriving home, the count gave the recipe to his chefs and asked them to prepare the dish. They duly took the intestines of a young calf, purchased the finest flourand spices, and prepared the delicacy with care. But when they brought it before the count, its odor was rank and its taste was foul.

Fuming, the count penned an express letter to his Russian cousin. Why had his chef mocked him? The Russian hastily summoned the Jew and demanded an explanation. Why had he given the German the wrong recipe?

The Jew explained that he had given the count the correct recipe, and that he was ready to travel to Germany and prepare the dish for the count himself. The Russian arranged for the journey, and in no time, the chef was busy making delicious kishke for his German host.

"Why couldn't my chefs do this?" the count asked, eagerly cleaning his plate.

The Jew thought a moment and replied: "Derma means intestines. Tell me, did your chef wash them out first…?"

When speaking of the garments of the Kohen Gadol,the High Priest, the Torah states:5 "He shall wash his flesh in water, and wear them." That charge can be interpreted allegorically: The Torah and its mitzvos are described as the garments of the soul.6 They are given from Above, but the preparatory steps necessary before putting them on — washing away the extraneous elements that derive from involvement in materiality, and refining one's self so that one can become fit to wear them — must be done through one's own efforts.7

Relative and Radical Change

The term chassidic thought uses to describe this process of self-refinement, avodah, literally means "work" — and changing one's inner self is indeed the hardest work possible. As explained in the maamar that follows, avodah (עבודה)shares a connection to the Hebrew term ibud (עיבוד), which refers to the process of tanning leather. Building on this etymological connection, Chassidus explains that avodah is not just a momentary endeavor, but a long, involved and arduous process that leads to permanent change.

In Inyono Shel Toras HaChassidus,the Rebbe highlights a teaching of the Alter Rebbe:8 "The entire goal of Chassidus is to change the nature of one's emotional qualities," and explains that the intent is not merely to refine one's natural emotions, i.e., to elevate the character traits one has, but rather to change "the nature of one's emotional qualities."

In other words, the chassidic conception of avodah demands not merely a relative change, refining and polishing a particular quality, but a radical redefinition of self. No longer is a person concerned with his individual wants and desires, not even his spiritual wants and desires. He goes beyond all consciousness of self entirely.

What inspires this impetus? As the Rebbe so vigorously emphasizes in the present maamar, a person is motivated by the realization that he is not his own man – that he has been sent to this world by G‑d with a mission to accomplish. And the days and moments for him to accomplish that mission have been precisely measured and counted out.

The Present Edition

The Rebbe delivered the maamar on Shabbos Parshas Mishpatim, 5712 (1952). It was published several times as a hanachah, a listener's draft. It was never mugah, checked by the Rebbe. The maamar draws on concepts explained in the maamarim entitled Lo Sih'yeh Meshakeilah in the Mitteler Rebbe's Toras Chayim, Shmos, p. 440a, [in the new edition – p. 302c,] and the Tzemach Tzedek's Or HaTorah, Mishpatim, p. 1248. Sections of this maamar were incorporated in Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVI, p. 271ff.

Though the maamar is fundamentally a call to avodah, it is not only a cry from the heart. In the classic Chabad manner, the emotional pitch is modulated by solid intellectual support, enabling a reader to guide the development of his feelings with the understanding of his mind. We have continued this approach in the translation by striving to provide a reader-friendly text; hence the bracketed additions,9 the references, and the extensive notes. Similarly, the maamar has been separated into sections which are provided with summaries.10