When Sages Speak

In the first section dealing with the laws of Pesach,1 the Alter Rebbe writes:

It has become customary in these latter generations for the [local Rabbinic] sage to expound upon the laws of Pesach on the preceding Shabbos, unless that Shabbos is Pesach eve,2 and upon the laws of Sukkos on Shabbos Shuvah [the Shabbos of Repentance].

The essence of the matter is to speak about and teach G‑d’s ways, and give instruction concerning the deed which must be performed.

This practice has its source in the customs of the Maharil, and is also cited by the Bach and the Magen Avraham. But there is a slight difference between the wording chosen by the Alter Rebbe and that used by the Magen Avraham.

The Magen Avraham3 states: “The Maharil would also expound on the laws of Sukkos on Shabbos Shuvah. ” By adding the word “also,” the Magen Avraham implies that, that Sukkos was not the only subject of the Maharil’s talk on Shabbos Shuvah. He would expound upon the laws of Yom Kippur, but would not confine himself to that subject and would also speak of the laws of Sukkos.4 The Alter Rebbe, by contrast, does not mention the word “also,” and speaks only of the laws of Sukkos. Why does he not mention the need to speak of the laws of Yom Kippur?

Another question arises: Shabbos Shuvah is not always the Shabbos directly before Sukkos. In many years, there is another Shabbos between Yom Kippur and Sukkos. It seems reasonable that the exposition of the laws of Sukkos should take place on the Shabbos directly preceding the holiday. In particular, this would seem true with regard to the Alter Rebbe’s ruling, which doesn’t mention Yom Kippur.

Why should the laws of Sukkos be mentioned on Shabbos Shuvah even when it is not the Shabbos which directly precedes Sukkos?

Also, there is a difficulty with the wording used by the Alter Rebbe: Why does he distinguish between “G‑d’s ways” and “the deed which must be performed”? What is meant by these terms?5

It is possible to explain as follows: The Alter Rebbe alludes to the fact that on these two Shabbosos, our Rabbis should discuss not only the laws of Pesach and Sukkos, but also concepts that relate to our Divine service in general. This is alluded to by the term “G‑d’s ways.”

Similarly, the Alter Rebbe does not mention Yom Kippur because the laws of Yom Kippur do not require special elaboration; they are included in the “ways of G‑d” which are taught on Shabbos HaGadol and Shabbos Shuvah. To cite a parallel: It is not customary for the Rabbis to speak on the Shabbos preceding Shavuos because “Shavuos does not have distinct laws of its own. All the prohibitions and leniencies which we observe are also observed on Pesach and Sukkos.”6

Body and Soul

The expression “ways of G‑d” merits explanation. A way leads from one place to another. The goal is not the way itself, but the destination. It is, however, impossible to reach one’s destination without the “way.”

The ultimate purpose of the entire creation is that the Jewish people should observe mitzvos in this material world. Nevertheless, “a mitzvah without [the proper] intent is like a body without a soul.”7 In order to observe the mitzvos in a proper way, the love and fear of G‑d are necessary, for they infuse vitality into the observance of mitzvos.8 These emotions are the “ways of G‑d” which lead to the goal of observing mitzvos.

It is true that “deed is most essential.”9 Though someone may possess all the intentions associated with a mitzvah, if he fails to actually observe the mitzvah, he is transgressing G‑d’s will. When, by contrast, one observes a mitzvah without the proper intent, one will still have fulfilled the essence of the mitzvah, thus carrying out G‑d’s will.10 Nevertheless, observance should be accomplished with energy and vitality, and this is possible only through love and fear.

One might protest: What’s wrong if one fulfills a mitzvah merely to satisfy one’s obligation? Although one’s deed is “like a body without a soul,” the “body” is still intact, and that seems to be the essence of the matter.

In reply, it must be explained that when a person observes mitzvos merely to fulfill his obligation, or out of habit, there will ultimately be a lack in his observance.

At the outset, he will observe the mitzvos without hiddurim, fastidious care.11 This will inevitably lead to spiritual descent. For if a person does not invest energy and vitality in the Torah and its mitzvos, that energy will find expression in matters at variance to these spiritual purposes, setting in motion a downward spiral.

Perhaps at the outset, the person’s observance will remain sound, for after all, he seeks to fulfill his obligations, and therefore will control his feelings and desires in order to do what is required of him. But eventually, since his desire and energy are focused outside the sphere of holiness, he will seek (and find, for “a bribe [and particularly the bribe of self-love] blinds”)12 loopholes, and ultimately he will become involved in forbidden matters. From here, “one sin leads to another,”13 and he will continue downward, transgressing even prohibitions for which he cannot find a loophole. Ultimately, he will no longer oppose his desire for forbidden matters, and will give in to it without remorse.

For these reasons, observance must be charged with the energy and vitality which stem from love and fear. This process is called the ways of G‑d, for it leads to perfect observance of the mitzvos.

Fashioning G‑d’s Dwelling

Moreover, even when the actual observance of mitzvos is unaffected, performing them like “a body without a soul” does not truly fulfill G‑d’s will. G‑d’s will is that the mitzvos should be “living mitzvos.”

To explain: The mitzvos were given with the intent of “refining the created beings.”14 This implies that the person performing the mitzvah will thereby be refined and brought into connection with G‑d. Ultimately, this connection should permeate all of a person’s potentials, and the innermost depths of his soul. Accordingly, if a person observes mitzvos only to fulfill his obligation, the observance will affect only his power of deed. This runs contrary to G‑d’s will, for G‑d desires that every aspect of a person’s character should be connected to Him. This is achieved when a person invests all his energies in the observance of mitzvos.

The Divine intent is that all of a person’s potentials, including his conscious powers, be connected with G‑d. The connection of these conscious powers is higher than that of the power of deed. Nevertheless, achieving love and fear of G‑d should not be considered an independent purpose. Instead, the purpose of love and fear is to introduce vitality into the actual observance of mitzvos.15

For the ultimate intent is the establishment of a dwelling for G‑d in this lowly material world.16 This is achieved through using the lowest powers we possess performing mitzvos with the power of deed. Nevertheless, the completion of G‑d’s dwelling comes about when a person observes the mitzvos with all his potentials.17

On this basis, we can appreciate the reference to love and fear as “the ways of G‑d.” The ultimate purpose is the actual observance of the mitzvos; this is what establishes a connection to G‑d’s essence. But it is “the ways of G‑d” which bring that connection from a hidden state into revelation. Our understanding, love, and fear of G‑d bring out the connection to G‑d established through our deeds.

Two Ways

The above also enables us to understand why the Alter Rebbe speaks of “the ways of G‑d,” using the plural term. With regard to the observance of mitzvos, by contrast, he uses the singular form “the deed which must be performed.”

The distinction can be explained as follows: Although there are 613 mitzvos, they all have the same purpose: the dedication of one’s power of deed to G‑d. Therefore, the singular term is in place. By contrast, everyone serves G‑d according to his personal level. Hence with regard to “the ways of G‑d” the plural is employed.

In general, there are two types of “ways” (or it can be said that a single way serves two purposes):18 one of ascent and one of descent (in analogy, one goes from the field to the king’s palace, and one goes from the king’s palace to the field). This represents the difference between the Divine service of the month of Nissan and the Divine service of the month of Tishrei. Nissan expresses the drawing down of G‑dliness into our world, while Tishrei gives expression to man’s potential for ascent, as explained in other sources.19

Therefore the custom is for our Rabbis to speak twice a year, on the Shabbos before Pesach, and on Shabbos Shuvah , for the Shabbos before Pesach expresses the motif of drawing down G‑dliness, and Shabbos Shuvah relates to man’s ascent. These two addresses thus embrace the Divine service of the entire year: the address of Shabbos HaGadol includes the Divine service of the summer months, and the address of Shabbos Shuvah includes the Divine service of the winter months.

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Shuvah, 5719)