Rabbi Zvi Homnick, Beis Moshiach
Benny and Chaim, two soldiers in the IDF, were on watch duty in their desert outpost. Despite only seeing miles of sand all around, they knew that they had to be vigilant because the enemy was always coming up with new tricks to sneak past. Suddenly, Benny spotted a creature off in the distance and exclaimed, “Hey, look there is a bird out there.”
Chaim took one look and said, “Sorry, my friend, that is a cat.” After a few rounds of “bird – cat,” they came up with the brilliant idea of throwing something at the creature and based on its reaction, they would be able to determine if it was a bird or a cat. They did just that and the bird promptly flew away.
Benny: You see, I told you it was a bird.
Chaim did not react but just kept staring upward at the flying creature.
Benny: Chaim, what’s your problem?
Chaim: If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I would never have believed it. Who ever heard of a flying cat?
[Note: The following may seem like a digression but is, in fact, a direct continuation of the previous installment, It’s All About Love, and the reader would most likely find it helpful to read them in order.]
So in what way is love of Hashem according to Chassidus very different than the way that the rest of the world defines love of Hashem?
Again, let us take another step back: According to the simple understanding of Judaism as it exists today (and this was the case already back in the time of the Baal Shem Tov), I exist and so does the rest of the world. Both the world and myself came into being thanks to our wonderful and really awesome Creator. When I invest the proper thought into how wonderful and awesome He is, I can’t help but be inspired to love Him and want to serve Him.
Additionally, this itself is a mitzva and actually one of the constant mitzvos, so I even get rewarded not only for serving Him but also for loving Him. The better my job performance, the higher the pay scale in the heavenly realms after I expire (with some cool bonuses in this world), so I really need to work hard at convincing myself that He really is a great, loving and lovable Tatte in himmel (Father in heaven). Or else, a really scary all-powerful King who will smite me big time if I don’t love him enough. Whatever works.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that the underlying perception of reality upon which this view is based is completely false, and is only a result of having spent centuries, and even millennia, living in a post Beis HaMikdash world in which the Divine Presence is hidden from us. In truth, nothing exists outside of Hashem (ein davar chutz mimenu); there is no place where He is not (leis asar panui minei) ; and ultimately nothing else exists except for Him (ein od milvado). As the Alter Rebbe writes in his Iggeres HaKodesh (#25), this was the basic belief of Jews throughout all of history, and any suggestion otherwise was a relatively new idea based on erroneous philosophical ruminations and/or an incorrect understanding of the writings of the Arizal.
The real problem though was not a misguided philosophical or Kabbalistic debate on immanence or transcendence, or both. The problem was (and still is) that in our ever darkening exile world, as our experience of reality becomes more self-centered and less G-d-centered, the dissonance between faith and feeling, between belief and experience, is constantly growing ever more extreme. That being the case, the more intelligent the person and oftentimes the more knowledgeable in the revealed Torah he is, the more his way of making sense of the world is to embrace what he sees and feels as the reality and to banish Hashem (be He lovable, scary, both or neither) to “out there” or “up there,” or in more extreme cases, to complete non-existence.
So the Baal Shem Tov showed the world that if you want to see examples of how simple faith can remain unaffected even in the darkest of worlds, you need to look to those who lack the intellectual sophistication to corrupt their inborn pure faith, namely simple Jewish men, women and children. Because so-called intellectual sophistication, that has been corrupted by years of experiencing reality from a self-centered perspective, is inherently predisposed to see flying cats, worlds that randomly evolve from themselves, or on a more subtle level, a world and a self that has an existence, separate and distinct from its Creator.
It is the simple Jew of the Baal Shem Tov who knows on a visceral level, without any explanations or rationales, that what defines his very existence is that he is a Jew, and that a Jew is someone who loves Hashem and carries out His will. He does not live in a world of “why” and “because,” even if he uses those words. Why do I do mitzvos? Because I am a Jew and that is what a Jew does, just as a bird flies because he is a bird and that is what birds do. It is not a real question and answer, but just the restatement of a fact in question and answer form. So why do you believe that G-d is everywhere and everything? Because He is G-d.
If you ask him how that comports with his experience of self, his response is, what kind of question is that? I am nothing and G-d is everything; fact. If you ask him about the yetzer ha’ra, his response is that the yetzer ha’ra is a dirty lying scoundrel, or any of the other names that our Sages called him, but he does not self-identify with his baser drives at all.
The Baal Shem Tov relied heavily on the approach of “show-and-tell” in order to help Jews realize that we all have that simple Jew inside of ourselves, and we can access that inner core at any time. And the love for Hashem that the simple Jew has, including the simple Jew inside us, is no ordinary love. It is a super-love that reflects back the infinite love that He has for every individual Jew. A love that transcends my and your very existence, to the point that each of us is prepared to sacrifice that existence when called upon to do so and even at times when it is not required. When I uncover that love, then I am capable of experiencing a reality where my existence (my life?) is nothing and Hashem is everything, and insofar as I could be said to exist it is only as an expression of Him and His will and to carry out that will. My sense of self no longer feels like a contradiction to my beliefs.
The drawback was that the more intellectually developed would have to work harder at it and would need the teachings of the Inner Dimension of Torah as explicated by the Baal Shem Tov in order to break through the concealment of the corrupted self-centered intellect, and awaken that love. Only those lofty souls who were receptive to seeing the truth reflected in those of far lower standing than themselves could appreciate those teachings fully, and integrate them into their lives. So the main impact of the Baal Shem Tov was felt among the large masses of simple Jews who lived at the time, but for his loftier teachings it is recorded that he had only sixty disciples. Although many of them became tzaddikim and leaders of Jews in their own right, their main influence was over the simple Jews who attached themselves to these tzaddikim and a few, select, spiritually receptive disciples.
It was his primary disciple, the Mezritcher Maggid, who took the movement and the ability to access that inborn faith and super-love to a whole new level.
(to be continued, G-d willing)
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