During these weeks of unusual challenges, we share a letter of the Rebbe which deals with the age-old question of the role of challenges and difficulties. And some chasidik insights into golus and the challenge of our time. The letter, written originally in English, is from the archives of the Rebbe’s trusted secretary Rabbi Nissan Mindel.
By the Grace of G-d
Greeting and Blessing:
…You asked me to explain the following problem:
“Having been brought up to believe that G-d is the Master of the world, Whose omnipotent power is not limited in time and place, and Who, moreover, is the Source of goodness and desires His human creatures to live a life based on justice and morality, and insofar as Jews are concerned – a life fully in accord with the Torah and Mitzvot –
I find it difficult to understand why such a life is often burdened with difficulties, sometimes even insurmountable obstacles?
I wish to add that I raise this question not as a skeptic, but because I believe in Divine Providence. Indeed, the more deeply I feel G-d’s benevolence and at the same time unlimited Providence, the more difficult I find it to reconcile this seeming anomaly.”
This problem is, of course, not new. It is as old as humanity itself. The question has been asked and discussed in many a religious-philosophical wok throughout the ages But the question is still being asked, because t he average contemporary thinking individual no longer has direct access to Jewish religious philosophy ,either by reason of a language barrier, or for lack of tine or knowledge to find the sources. So an attempt will be made here to give at least one explanation, and this, too, necessarily in a limited way, within the limitations of a letter. Obviously, the subject matter could fully be dealt with only in a book or lengthy treatise. Nevertheless, I believe that the salient points raised below hold the key to the problem.
Starting from the same basic premise that G-d is the Essence of Goodness, and that “It is in the nature of the Good to do good,” it follows that G-d not only desires the true good, but also that this good be enjoyed in the fullest measure. If such good were given to man by Divine grace, in other words, if it were to be achieved without effort, it would have an intrinsic flaw, for it would be what our Sages call “bread of shame.”
To be sure, G-d could have established a world order wherein morality and ethics would reign supreme, with little or no effort on the part of man. However, obviously there is no comparison between something received as a gift and the same thing attained through hard personal efforts, after overcoming difficult obstacles both within and without, both material and spiritual, and sometimes even obstacle which appear to be insurmountable. Yet, knowing that there is a Divine command to follow a certain path in life, the person is resolved to fulfill his Divine mission, no matter what the difficulties may be. Indeed, the very difficulties and obstacles which he encounters are regarded by him as challenges to be faced unflinchingly and to be surmounted; and far from being stymied by such obstacles, they evoke in him untapped powers which reinforce his determination and stimulate his effort to the maximum.
Coupled with this is the feeling of satisfaction which is commensurate only with the amount of effort exerted in the struggle which makes the fruits of victory so much more delicious.
And from the above to a still further point and deeper insight:
The true and perfect way of fulfilling G-d’s Will, which is embedded in the Torah and mitzvot, is not when it is prompted by desire to discharge and obligation toward G-d and fellowman; nor is it the gratifying feeling of having contributed something towards the world at large, that matters, a world that is apart from and outside himself. For so long as the Jew’s compliance with the Will of G-d is externally motivated – however commendable such motivation is in itself – it is not yet quite complete. The perfect fulfillment of the Torah and mitzvot is achieved when such fulfillment is an integral part of one’s life, to the extent of being completely identified with the individual, that is to say when the Torah and mitzvot permeate his very essence and being and become inseparable from him in his daily living. This is the deeper meaning of the words which we declare daily in our prayer, “For they (the Torah and mitzvot) are our life” – meaning that just as a person and his life are one, making him a living person – so are the Torah and mitzvot and the Jew one and inseparable. Such real identification with a thing cannot be achieved and experienced if the thing is come by without effort, in striving for it, even to the extent of staking one’s life in obtaining and holding it. Conversely, only a matter which is regarded as an indispensible and integral part of one’s life can evoke one’s innermost powers, even self-sacrifice.
The above provides an insight also into the meaning of the golus (the exile and dispersion among the nations of the world) which is at the root of most, if not all, the difficulties and obstacles confronting the Jew in his desire to live his G-d given Torah way of life.
To be sure, we recognize the golus as a punishment and rectification for failures to live up to our obligations in the past as, indeed, we acknowledge in our prayers: “For our sins we were banished from our land.” But punishment, according to our Torah, called Toras Chesed (a Torah of loving kindness), must also essentially be Chesed. Since G-d has ordained a certain group, or people, namely the Jewish people, to carry the difficult and challenging task of spreading – in all parts and remotest corners of the world – the Unity of G-d (true Monotheism) through living and spreading the light of Torah and mitzvoth, a task which no other group was willing or capable of carrying out – the greatest reward is the fulfillment of this destiny, or, as our Sages put it, “The reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.” Thus the ultimate purpose of golus is linked with our destiny to help bring humanity to a state of universal recognition of G-d.
Our Divine Prophets and Sages explained at length the state of the ideal world which will eventually be attained, when all evil will be eradicated and “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb,” etc. “they shall not hurt nor destroy,” etc. Here again, at first glance, one may ask: “Why was it necessary to create vicious beasts in the first place, if they were ultimately – when the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d – destined to be turned into docile and peace-loving creatures, so that “a small child shall lead them”? But the answer is the same as above.
Paving the road to the gradual achievement of the said destiny has always been the persevering and indomitable work of determined individuals and groups conscious of their responsibility. They dedicated themselves to the vital need of strengthening and spreading the Torah and mitzvot among the widest section of our people.
In recent generations, more than ever before, the main emphasis has been on the need to bring knowledge and practice of Torah and mitzvot to the widest possible segments of our people, in the greates number of locations, without waiting for them to seek it – in the hope that they will sooner or later realize the need of it themselves. The most effective way to accomplish this is of course, through organized Torah-true education of the young, the young in years and “young” in knowledge. The pattern has been set by the founders of Chasidus and of Chasidus Chabad, who exemplify this approach with dedication and selflessness. The Baal Shem Tov, before revealing himself and his way of life, was a melamed – a teacher of small Jewish children. Similarly, the Alter Rebbe, founder of Chabad, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple and successor, began his work by founding his well known three “Chadarim”. This road has been followed also by his successors, the heads of Chabad, each in his generation. They personified an indomitable spirit and a disdain for any and all difficulties and obstacles in their work for the dissemination of the Torah and mitzvot. They also made it plain for all to see that whatever the difficulties, these are nothing but a challenge, to be expected and overcome. And by facing up to, and eventually overcoming, all obstacles, they had verified the truth of the basic tenets of our faith, namely that G-d’s Providence extends to each and everyone individually, and that “He who is determined to purify himself and others, receives aid from On High.” It is a matter of common experience that when there is a firm will and unshakable determination, it soon becomes apparent that the difficulties are often largely imaginary, and even when real – not insurmountable. The forces of good are cumulative and self-generating, as our Sages indicated in their well known dictum, “One mitzvah brings another in its train.” If evil can be contagious, good is certainly much more so, and many who stand at the sidelines are inspired and willing to join in constructive and positive action, provided the lead is given and the way is shown.
The challenge of our time is to spread the knowledge of the Torah and mitzvot, particularly through the education of our young, until each and every Jew will attain the level of “Know the G-d of your father and serve Him with a perfect heart,” and the fulfillment of the prophecy “They shall now Me, small and great, and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d, as the waters cover the sea.”