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Holiness or Ecstacy? “Revelation” Vs. “Inspiration”

by Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov - Jax, FL

The renowned Chassid, Rabbi Yechezkel (Chatche) Faigin, was said to have been a very strong hearted individual. Few were the times he would allow himself the luxury to breakdown and cry. One such rare occasion was when he served as secretary of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson.

Times were extremely dire and means extraordinarily meager. Much of the weight of the underground activities, carried out by Chassidim who risked their lives in defiance of the communist government, fell upon his shoulders.

R’ Chatche toiled day and night with complete self-sacrifice in order to sustain the holy work of the Rebbe – underground Day Schools, Yeshivas, Mikvaos, etc. He carried out his responsibilities loyally and honestly, never a complaint or a thought of self-pity.

However, there was one problem. His time was so occupied with his holy work that he hadn’t any time for his own spiritual nourishment. Oh how he ached to study a Chassidic discourse; to spend a little more time meditating in prayer. His soul was parched for the spiritual waters of Chassidus, but the clock did not allow.

One day, when he could take it no more, he decided to present his case to the Rebbe. Perhaps, when hearing how distressed he was over his situation the Rebbe will agree that he ought to snatch some time from his holy work for his own spiritual needs. He pleaded with the Rebbe to permit him a half hour; just a half hour!

After pouring out his broken heart to the Rebbe, he waited in anticipation for the Rebbe to reply. The Rebbe listened carefully to his passionate and painful plea and then turned to him saying: ‘But in this and this place there is still no Yeshiva… In that place there is still no Mikvah…’ R’ Chatche understood the response but could not control his emotions and burst into tears.

Upon seeing this, the Rebbe, himself in tears by now, waited several long minutes weeping along with him and then said: ‘If we afford ourselves the luxury to do “What we desire,” what will be with the work that must get done? Do you think this is the Divine desire!?’

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A Chassid once appeared before his Rebbe in bitter complaint: “Rebbe, I am unable to serve G-d the way I would like. My wife gives me grief, my kids give me grief, I am strapped for cash – how in the world is one able to serve his Maker under such circumstances?!”

“Who’s to say that your Maker wants you to serve Him the way ‘you like’?” replied the Rebbe. “Perhaps the Almighty prefers that you serve Him the way ‘He likes’?!”

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Common to our daily vernacular are the terms “Spiritual” or “Spirituality.” By secular standards these adjectives describe a sense of inspiration and stimulation that stem from an unusual or extraordinary experience; such as say a picturesque sunset, or a moving operatic rendition. Even within religion we find the term spiritual/spirituality used to describe the feelings derived from the fulfillment of a juicy Mitzvah or the consumption of a hearty section of Talmud and the like. In reality however, this definition is far from accurate.

The words “Spiritual” and “Spirituality” have in truth nothing to do with feelings. They refer to that which is neither physical, pleasurable, or in any way “Selfish.” True spirituality is about man’s journey and attunement to Divine reality and instruction. According to this definition, the “Self,” to whatever extent it is involved, is a hindrance and contradiction to the intended objective.

“If you do His will only because it makes sense to you, says the author of Bringing Heaven Down To Earth, then what has it got to do with Him? You are doing ‘Your will,’ you’re back in prison.” This fundamental axiom is underscored in this week’s Parsha – Shmini.

Our Parsha recounts the events of the Eighth Day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. The festivities reached a climax as Aharon and his sons were anointed and initiated into their holy service. However, the exuberant atmosphere was abruptly and tragically marred by the sudden shocking death of Aharon’s two sons – Nadav and Avihu.

It is natural to be perplexed when reading this portion. The swift and stunning demise of Nadav and Avihu is after all one of the all-time Torah tragedies. Two rising stars cut down in their prime, at the height of one of history’s momentous celebrations. What did these sons of Aharon do that was so wrong? Why did they deserve to die in this tragic way, at this auspicious time?

The Torah attributes Nadav and Avihus’ tragic fall from grace to the fact that they took a foreign fire and incense and brought them into the Sanctuary before G-d: “And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, each took his censer, and put fire in them, and put incense on each, and brought before G-d a strange fire, which He had not commanded them. And a fire went out from before G-d and consumed them, and they died before G-d,” (Lev. 10:1-2).

While there is considerable discussion among the commentaries as to the exact nature of their transgression, it is clear from the Torah that Nadav and Avihu had no ill intentions. They did not mean to rebel against the Divine authority and will. To the contrary, the commentaries are in agreement that their death penalty was warranted only in light of their immense spiritual stature. They were high-minded, spiritual men who sought only spirituality and inspiration.

As for their error: It seems to have involved the proverbial infiltration of the “self.” According to the commentaries, they were so driven by their own highly charged emotions and yearning towards spiritual ecstasy, that they even failed to consult with Moshe or Aharon regarding their self devised incense offering.

Others maintain that their transgression included having consumed wine before their sacred service, perhaps even becoming somewhat intoxicated. The evidence for this lies in the juxtaposed warning against entering the Tabernacle after drinking intoxicating beverages (10:9).

Either way, Nadav and Avihu, it appears, were guilty of having allowed their own emotions and selfness to creep-in and contaminate one of the holiest spiritual endeavors in the annals of history. So inspired and ecstatic were they that they moved to act out of complete emotion, crossing the line between Divine will and self-desire/intoxication. Fine as it may be, it is a line that demarks complete opposites –Divine vs. self. To put it succinctly: Spirituality is about “Divine input” – revelation, not “Self output” – inspiration/gratification and you can’t be in both these modes at the same time. There is a time for “Revelation,” and there is a time for “Inspiration.”

When the vessel is occupied by the self, one is not capable of receiving higher revelation, since no two things can occupy the same space, hence the need for self-effacement and self-abnegation. If the scientist must clear his slate of existing convictions and perceptions as a means of allowing for the conception of the ever coveted ingenious breakthrough, how much more so must the seeker of truth and spirituality undergo a process of self evacuation and Bitul before he can absorb higher revelation and truth?

Indeed, at every turn – every moment and every experience – no matter the level we’re at, we are presented with a fresh test – a test between doing that which G-d wants, because G-d wants, and doing that which inspires us and makes us feel good; that which “We” want. Or for the more complex creatures; a test between doing that which G-d wants and that which we want G-d to want and choose G-d to want, as is evident from the following aphorism related in Hayom Yom in the name of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe:

“In a reply to a Yechidus (personal audience) query in the winter of 5635 (1874-75), my grandfather said to my father: The Yetzer Hara, (Evil impulse), is called “Animal soul,” not because it is necessarily a brute animal. At times it may be a fox, the most cunning of beasts, and great wisdom is needed to perceive its machinations. At other times it may clothe itself in the garb of an earnest, straightforward, humble Tzadik, possessing fine traits of character.

The animal soul manifests itself in each person according to his individual character. One person may suddenly experience a powerful longing to study Chassidus or to meditate deeply on some Chassidic concept. The truth is however, that this is nothing more than the Yetzer Hara’s counsel and the animal soul’s machinations to prevent him from engaging in the Avoda of Davening (Praying) [with a Minyan] or a similar activity…”

What makes the test so real is the fact that man continuously gravitates towards that which he can relate and internalize. He will naturally seek to humanize every experience even that which is designed to elude any physical grasp and bounds.

It is the tendency for the “Self,” to seep into every endeavor, selfless as it is meant to be. Selfishness, or selfness, inextricably comes at the cost of higher spiritual achievement. Being virtuous always entails curbing the self and its feeling for the higher spiritual realization.

The ultimate goal of having free will is, hence, the willingness to give it up. We must do what G-d wants us to do, not because we approve or enjoy it, or how it makes us feel, but because is the only way to serve Him – the only way to achieve true “Spirituality.” The greater the holiness, the greater is the demand for purity of intent.

This of course is much easier said than done, but the goal must always be to attain a level of servitude and subjugation that negates any possibility of doing a Mitzvah for any other reason than because it is the commandment of the Divine Commander. This is where Nadav and Avihu seemed to err.

The Torah certainly does not speak Lashon Harah, Heaven forbid. So why would it record this unbecoming narrative of these two great men for posterity? The obvious answer is to teach us a lesson in how to serve the Almighty Creator.

Through our efforts in serving G-d for His sake; in accordance with His will to the best of our ability removing our ego and self from the process, as the Mishna says: “Be not as servants, who serve their master for the sake of reward, rather, be as servants who serve their master not for the sake of reward” (Avot 1-3) we will hasten thereby the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.

The author welcomes your comments and input: Rabbi@chabadjacksonville.org

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