Beis Moshiach
  • Loving G-d Means Embracing Your Own Nothingness

    The most basic difference that exists between the intellect and the emotions that even the most secular mind can discern is that emotions are inherently subjective, whereas intellect has the capacity to (at least strive to) be objective • By Rabbi Zvi Homnick, Beis Moshiach Magazine • Full Article

    Rabbi Zvi Homnick, Beis Moshiach

    Misnaged: Why do you insist that everybody has to learn Chassidus in order to acquire bittul? I never learned Chassidus, but I do learn Mussar and it has brought me to the realization that I am a nothing.

    Chassid: I can’t argue with you in your case. Even without Chassidus, it is pretty obvious what a nothing you are.


    We left off the last time with the radical (but fundamental) idea that the true source of the super-love of the G-dly soul revealed by the Baal Shem Tov is the even higher level of super-bittul revealed by the Alter Rebbe, and that it is only through this super-bittul that one can “transform” the emotions of the animal soul to channel and express the super-love of the G-dly soul. How does this work and what does it have to do with the three intellectual faculties of ChaBaD (Chochma, Bina, Daas)?

    [Note: There are hundreds of volumes of Chassidus containing thousands of deep discourses all of which address this very question, some more directly and some less directly, so obviously a few brief articles can only scratch the surface.]

    The most basic difference that exists between the intellect and the emotions that even the most secular mind can discern is that emotions are inherently subjective, whereas intellect has the capacity to (at least strive to) be objective. The job of the intellect is to determine and to know what is the reality. The job of the emotions is to give expression to how I feel about that reality, and to drive the choices that I make as to how to interact with and within that reality. 

    Human consciousness, as a created entity within the larger creation, only experiences itself in relation to the world around it and can’t even conceive of what it means to exist outside of time and space, or even outside the existing social constructs of family and society at large. Without the intellect to make sense of its place and role within the larger reality, the emotions would only be able to function on the level of animal instinct and would be incapable of making informed (or even misinformed) choices.

    The two most important questions that the intellect has to address for me to make sense of my place in the world and how to feel about it, which in turn will instruct my thoughts, speech and action, is “what” and “who.” Or more specifically “what am I” and “who am I” in the context of reality at large. This is where the whole objectivity thing gets derailed, because as soon as “I” am in the picture we are back to being subjective. So if pure objectivity is beyond the capacity of the human mind, how can it be a tool for internalizing the core principle of the Oneness of Hashem as taught by the Baal Shem Tov to the point that I experience my own self as completely One with Hashem (as in the words of the Tzemach Tzedek – ess iz nita kein ich – there is no I)? And even without the objectivity issue, how can a finite mind resolve the conflict between the faith that nothing exists except for G-d and the sensory experience (validated by Torah) that I exist?

    The answer is that although human intellect is limited and its objectivity corrupted by the self-centered bias of the animal soul, it has the capacity to transcend self through (yes, you guessed it) bittul. This is actually not a very mystical or esoteric concept, even if most people have never stopped to really think about it, but the fact is that intellect is nothing more than a tool, and like any tool it has no say as to how or when it will be used and what it will be used for. The intellect does not get to pick the topic it will focus on, the subject it will learn, or the conclusions it will reach. So who wields this tool? The “self.” If and when “I” have a desire to engage in a given form of cogitation and direct the intellect to do so, only then can it perform its functions. 

    The fact that it has no independent function and must operate according to the will of the “self,” as well as the fact that it must follow a very exact set of rules that govern the workings of intellect, is the very definition of bittul. How it will approach the questions of “what am I” and “who am I” depends entirely on what I am looking for in terms of answers, which in turn depends on what my is my starting point. 

    If I am starting from the perspective of myself as the center of the universe, it will work to contextualize everything in relation to me, myself and I. In other words, how does everything fit into and relate to my world, which is totally subjective. However, if I am starting from the perspective that there is a vast universe out there and I need to understand what role my infinitesimal self plays within that vastness, it will strive to reach for the objective truth to the degree that I am willing to confront the possibility of my own nothingness and that nothing is owed to me.

    The analogy given for these two perspectives is the difference between someone standing on the top of a mountain looking down, who sees the bottom of the mountain and everyone and everything down below as tiny and distant in relation to himself and senses his own bigness, and someone standing at the bottom of a mountain looking up, who sees the mountain as huge and the peak as closer (than it actually is) in relation to himself and senses his own smallness.

    Through the study of Pnimiyus HaTorah as taught by the Alter Rebbe, when the human intellect is battul to the G-dly soul and the Divine Wisdom of Torah, a Jew can sense (to a degree) his own nothingness in relation to the infinite vastness of G-dliness and yet see it as close to him. The next step is to apply that to the emotions, and that is where the work really begins… 


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