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Weekly Letter: Seeing Beyond the Surface of the Object

With the beginning the three week period – we present a letter of the Rebbe to an artist in a mood of despair. The Rebbe points to the talent of an artist to see beyond the surface of the object and express its inner essence. So too in our service of Hashem – where we aim to see more than the surface. The Rebbe discusses the purpose of trials, tragedies and difficulties – especially in light of chassidus. 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:
Your two letters were duly received. Unfortunately however, for reasons of intense preoccupation, I was unable to answer them until now. I enclose with this letter the booklet (of Chassidic dissertation and teaching) on Purim and also the booklet on Bais Nissan. Now to respond to your letters:
I was very pleased to read that you are utilizing your artistic talent that you are preparing an exhibit and the art critics wrote favorably of you in the newspapers. I am sure you will continue to progress in these endeavors and that you will fully utilize your G-d given talents to strengthen Judaism and religious feeling. The most important part of the letter is your complaint about your situation. You feel very broken; from time to time you fall into a mood of despair; you find no place for yourself. You write that you would like to meet with me to discuss the matter face to face. The meeting of two good friends always has positive value and brings spiritual satisfaction to both parties, but to delay tackling your problem until we will be able to meet and for you to continue meanwhile in the same mood of despair, (G-d forbid), this cannot be, which of us can afford such a thing?
You do not write what has caused your current mood and I therefore cannot go into detail to show you how these causes are really a product of your imagination and arise from your yetzer hara – not that the cause does not exist – it may indeed have some foundation. But as a reason for depression and despair – it is false. It is a trick of the yetzer, that evil inclination whom my father-in-law, the Rebbe , used to c all “The Cunning One” because he approaches each person with words designed to appeal to that particular individual. Again however, since you do not write the particular causes which seem to justify your dejection, I will limit myself to a general discussion of the whole matter, taking support from the well known teaching of the Baal Shem Tov which my father-in-law, the Rebbe, often repeated, namely, that everyone can learn a lesson in G-d’s service from everything he sees and hears. I will apply this lesson to shed some light on your particular case.
You know I am sure, that the genius of the artist in sketching, drawing and painting is his ability to detach himself from the externality of the object he is portraying. The artist must be able to look deeply into the inner content of the object, beyond its external form and to see the inner aspect and essence of the object. He must then be able to express that “inner essence” in his portrayal so that whoever views the painting sees revealed for him the inner aspect of the object, an “essence” which he, the viewer, may have never noticed in the object itself for it had been obscured by nonessential, external aspects. An artist reveals in his art the essence and being of his subject; the viewer examining the result can now see the object in a completely different light and realizes that his previous impressions of the object were erroneous.
The above is an exact analogy to describe one of the cardinal principles in man’s service to his Creator. All creation is derived from “the word of G-d” which brings matter into being and sustains it every instant continuously. However, the simultaneous G-dly force of contraction and concealment obscures the Divine creative force; as a result, all one can see is the external form of the physical. Service of G-d, aided by the simple belief that “there is nothing aside from Him (G-d)” mandates an honest effort by each of us to “bring to the surface” the G-liness inherent in everything on our lives and to remove as much as possible the mask of physical externality obscuring the inner G-dliness.
The same applies to each individual; his inner “essence” is G-dliness. “You are children of G-d your G-d.” It is explained in the Book of Tanya that just as the son is drawn from the mind of his father so is the soul of every Jew drawn from the A-mighty’s wisdom and thought (which is synonymous with His Essence for He (G-d) and His Wisdom are one). The essential being of each and every Jew – including you – is G-dliness.
The A-lmighty did not want the soul to eat “bread of shame” (sustenance given gratuitously, without having been earned by the recipient); He therefore made it possible for man to serve Him in a meaningful way with toil of body and soul. Through our endeavors in avoda (service) we are Divinely enabled to earn all manner of goodness up to and including the highest levels of spiritual achievement. And do not think that some individuals will not accomplish the ultimate goal of avoda; that is not the case. Even if one initially serves the A-lmighty for ulterior motives, his involvement in G-d’s service will eventually lead to performance for the proper motivation and “… no one will ultimately be rejected by Him.”
Such is the pattern and the purpose of Man’s creation. Obviously, one must take great care to see that the secondary “external” matters of his life should not obscure the essence of man and the ultimate goal and purpose of his creation.
The difficulties, trials and tests of life are themselves the means by which we are to attain our ultimate objective – that the means by which we are to attain our ultimate objective – that the soul achieve the lofty spiritual level it once possessed before it descended into the body, “the soul that You have given me is pure.” The purpose of life is for the neshama/soul to regain that level of original “purity” and even transcend it – for one hour of teshuva and good deeds in this world, is worth more than all the lifetime of the spiritual World to Come.
So you see that life’s trials, tragedies and difficulties actually bring us closer to our goal, our raison d’etre; they are part of the Divine system of toil and endeavor enabling us, finite mortals, to reach the highest levels of reward and goodness – which can only be earned by meaningful “labor” and “effort.” It follows that one must not allow the difficulties of life’s trials (or even one’s failure, from time to time) to overcome the double joy of being G-d’s children (My son, My first-born son, Israel) and for having received His promise “ Your people are all tzadikim (righteous).”
Now along comes an individual – yourself f- who is not just an ordinary person but one who has heard of the light of Chassidic teachings, what is more, who has actually studied Chassidism, what is more, one whom the A-lmighty has refined and purified through afflictions; yet you are in a mood of despair, you “find no place for yourself,” etc. Your estimation of your own worth and spiritual level is so far below the truth that it contradicts not only faith but simple logic as well! The A-lmighty has given us an irrevocably firm promise that ultimately no one will be rejected by Him and does not require of the individual deeds that exceed ability – for the A-lmighty does not present His creations with unreasonable demands. G-d wants only that one’s deeds should measure up to his abilities. And G-d declares to each of us, “open up for Me even as the point of a needle, then I will open for you as wide as the entrance to a hall.”
All this is the declaration and promise of the A-lmighty to us. Now you come along and say that your analysis of the situation is different; it is an analysis that leads to despair. You wrong your hands and persuade yourself that from time to time you are descending lower and lower. One can ask the classic rhetorical question, “When the teacher’s opinions contradict the pupil’s, to whose opinion do we listen?!” You should ask yourself this question. It seems to you that the situation is depressingly hopeless; the A-lmighty says it is not so. Is there any doubt who is right?!
So much for arguments: Now to get to practical matters: You must know and realize that you are one of our community of Chassidim, which means in turn that you are connected as a leaf to a branch to the “Tree of Life” of our Chassidic leaders. This connection has the effect expressed by the verse “You who cleave to G-d your G-d are alive, all of you, this day.” Our Sages comment: Even on a day when the world is dying, you live; and just as you are all alive today so will you be alive in the spiritual World to Come…” So you see that you have a personal promise from our Sages that you are alive today and that you will be alive in the World to Come. In light of all the above, you must utilize your time to practice Torah and mitzvos in the spirit of yiras shamayim (fear of G-d). You must also utilize the artistic talent with which the A-lmighty has blessed you to further religious feeling. You cannot delay this task until tomorrow, for tomorrow has its own tasks; today you must do today’s tasks. To accomplish these goals you must be aware that all hindrances are plans of the yetzer; you must bring this into your mind and intelligence, into your heart and emotions and into practical levels of thought, speech and deed.
When you apply yourself to this task, though it might well seem to you that you can only make an inroad as tiny as the point of a needle the A-lmighty will respond by granting you success; as promised, G-d will … open it up as the entrance of a hall. I hope you will not take the delay of my response into consideration and that you will respond very soon with heartening tidings – mainly that you have begun to act in the spirit of the above.
With blessings and awaiting your good tidings very soon.