I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t mention that everything Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote regarding “spiritual destruction” is at its roots not from HaRav Kook, but Chassidut Chabad as but one of many overarching concepts in “avodat Hashem” (service to G-d). Perhaps it is for this reason that Shmuly really doesn’t capture the nub of it, fears it; has a problem understanding it and definitely explaining it.
There’s a reason our Sages tell us that, “One who cites something in the name of its originator brings redemption to the world.” Only when one truly immerses himself in the writings of the author — and as the tradition of Chabad teaches, to “daven” with it — can one comprehend its true meaning and purpose. It is then you enable Torah to have its ultimate impact on the world and transform its inherent darkness into light. Light is the precursor to redemption.
The Alter Rebbe, the Ba’al HaTanya and Shulchan Aruch, founder of Chabad Chassidut, speaks to this and subsequently, his successors, each in their own inimitable way, in even greater detail. The Lubavitcher Rebbe himself speaks about this concept in real and tangible ways much more so than the treatment it’s given in Shmuly’s article.
It’s why the article loses me. There’s no “there – there”. No meat and potatoes or substance. You see, without action, “ma’aseh”, all philosophy is, is philosophy, unreal! As someone once famously told Benjamin Franklin, “You philosophers are sages in your maxims, and fools in your conduct.” No different than many philosophers, rabbis and kabbalists of today.
We tend to separate the intellect from the action. The throat is clogged and blocks the intellect from impacting the heart. The task of a Jew is to take the teachings of Talmud, Kabalah and Chassidut and let it invade every pore of his being.
Yanklowitz seems afraid of this and his article takes you in the opposite direction, the world of fantasy. He forgets the dictum of a famous DJ –maybe before his time, but not mine — as he’d sign off each week after counting down the top 40 songs: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” If you reach for the ethereal but eschew the tangible — “ma’aseh ha’mitzvot”, fulfillment of G-d’s commandments — it’s not Jewish.
To clarify: Chassidut in one of its many explanations on the verse “for a man is like a tree in the field” [according to its deeper reading, which is the comparative connection as opposed to the contrasting separation] teaches that a seed planted in the ground must first rot and break down; become part of the soil surrounding it, before it can blossom into something totally new and powerful.
Take a caterpillar and its transformation into a beautiful butterfly. After locking itself into a cocoon it digests itself, and out of that murky primordial liquid and its remaining cells it mutates and a new creature is born — a butterfly.
These wonderful and amazing illustrations give us a glimpse into the Creator’s Plan and purpose. As administrators and stewards of G-d’s creation we’re exhorted to follow His blueprint.
This holds true in our own personal service to G-d. Before advancing and elevating from one level to the next one must utterly destroy all preconceived notions before graduating onward to a level heretofore unknown.
Normally and with natural progression one learns from and builds on previous experience and knowledge to climb from one level to the next. It is that way in business and it is so in virtually all other realms of life.
However, to grasp and attain a, heretofore, unimaginable or seemingly unreachable horizon one must erase all preconceived notions and virtually empty out all previous principles one took for granted. Only then can he advance at warp speed and with infinite possibilities. Only then can he appreciate new vistas and unimagined perspectives.
In Talmud this is illustrated in an anecdote concerning R. Zeira who fasted before he went “up” to Israel from Babylonia in order to “forget” everything he was taught there and become a clean slate and an empty vessel of an immeasurably higher level of Torah (Talmud Yerushalmi). He was required to “destroy” himself utterly and negate all pre-conceived notions and be “newly” born, as it were. The Torah-study he was about to embark on in Jerusalem was infinitely higher than that studied in Bavel; described by the verse in Psalms, “In darkness I was answered.”
Bavli in contrast to Yerushalmi was like day and night. Two different and opposite spheres. One is cold one is hot. One illumines while the other requires diligent effort to search out the light and it too is found only sparingly. One has a certain set of animals to contend with while another has a whole different species nocturnally rampaging. A person needs sleep — a measure of death and self-destruction — to divest oneself from the previous day and welcome a new one. Newly born and energized for the obstacles ahead. This is the night and “darkness” in between.
In Chassidut we are taught that this is the same model the military has used since time immemorial. As members of Tzivot Hashem — the Army of G-d — before one can become fully inducted into service one must go through boot camp. The very essence of which is to let go of “civilian” habits and an undisciplined life. And so it is at each successive upwardly mobile movement. The military requires a whole new level of training and rigor. It’s as if the previous work, service and effort didn’t exist or matter.
You’re denigrated, insulted, intimidated, disciplined all over and ultimately reconstructed. Suddenly you come out a much more improved soldier than you were before. Whether Special Forces — Seals, Delta Force, Army Rangers — officers academy or reconnaissance or assassination teams prowling enemy territory. Before you can be part of the elite you must go through literal hell and “decomposition” where “self” is all but criminal and the intent is to mold you into the whole, a cog in the team where your life is utterly dependent on your fellow compatriots unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. You’re graded on it, you graduate based on it and can just as easily fail due to the lack of it. And out comes this primed specimen. Suddenly you have a leader!
The commonality in this all is prior “destruction” which leads to “reconstruction”. The latter cannot happen before the prior.
It’s as old as the Chumash stories in Cheder. Such as the utter subservience of “self” embodied in Joshua to his master Moses. From the perfect pupil, he blossomed into the leader who leads the Israelites into Canaan and makes it their homeland. At first he was a simple soldier, but because of it and ultimately through reconstruction from it he became the personification of leadership. The complete opposite! Not for nothing do we see that Joshua — not even Moses could match it — remains relatively the only leader in Jewish history whose reign remained tranquil and free of rebellion.
In our own way we too go through this metamorphosis on a daily basis. It is the nightly expiration and the subsequent “resurrection” in the morning. Retiring at night when thoughts and words are introspective, objectively aiming to improve ourselves and perhaps a tear or two is shed. Like the water used to grow a planted seedling as it readies to rot and unify with the soil. Our soul exits the body and its confines to become one with its G-dly Cosmic and Infinite Source from which it hails. Ultimately to return, blossom and grow into a powerful and majestic tree. Only then can one experience a new day unlike anything before.
This is expressed in the gratitude we show G-d when we open our eyes with the words “Modeh Ani…” It is then you’ve become a private in the Army of Hashem. How far up and for how long you wish to extend your “career” is up to you. It requires constant work, discipline, “destruction” and “reconstruction” as you move up the ladder.
You’re not drafted. You must volunteer of your own accord. But when you do so, the “reward is commensurate with the effort” and it opens vistas and horizons you could never imagine or feel.
Now go do it!