Hakhsharat Ha'Avreikhim: A Young Adult's Spiritual Guide--Chapter One: How Do We Start to Improve Ourselves?
by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (author of the "Aish Kodesh")
CHAPTER ONE: HOW DO WE START TO IMPROVE OURSELVES?
It is clear from our holy texts that the ways of the holy Kabbalists and Hasidic masters (who serve Hashem in the path of the holy Baal Shem Tov and his disciples) are the ways of the prophets of God.
“Rabbi Yaakov said of himself, ‘In what way do I deserve divine inspiration so that I can be amidst the faithful prophets, the students of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, before whom supernal and lower beings tremble?’” (Zohar: Terumah, p. 154a). In his humility, he expressed astonishment that he was able to be amongst these faithful prophets, the students of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai. And the work Maor Veshemesh teaches in a number of places that the path of the tzaddikim of the Baal Shem Tov’s lineage in every generation is that of the prophets of God.
The holy prophets, the masters of the Zohar, the Ari, the Baal Shem Tov and their students are angels of God beyond our comprehension. Their holy, heavenly path is hidden from us and we do not purport to rise to their high level and to be great as they, who are fiery angels. But there is one thing for which we yearn, and which we are obligated to achieve: to serve Hashem—the God our forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—with a whole-hearted service, complete in all the limbs of our body and spirit, so that not one strand of our physical being nor one spark our of spirit should emerge beyond the holiness of Hashem that fills and surrounds us.
And another thing: it does not suffice for us to be like a slave who serves the king behind the millstone, far from the king, not hearing the king’s words and not enjoying the king’s radiance—a service with a closed mind and dulled heart. We wish and yearn to be a child: “you are the children of Hashem your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1). Then in our service of God—in our Torah learning, prayer and in other mitzvot—we will feel that we are close to Hashem. Just as a child is overjoyed to see his father after not having seen him for years and after having yearned for him so painfully, we too yearn and long for God. “How do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, desires someone and dwells with him? When we see that it is the desire of that person to pursue and attempt to reach the Holy One, blessed be He, with his heart, spirit and will. Then we know for a certainty that the Divine Presence is there” (Zohar).
Then when we serve God we will feel our spirit rushing to its Father, yearning for Him all day and all night, running, melting, melting into the bosom of its Father in heaven. And we will feel ourselves close to God and we will delight in the radiance of His glory—not only in prayer and service, but at all times.
If a person is on a trivial level the entire day, and at every hour of the day his soul is buried under a carpet of foolishness, then he will also be trivial when he learns Torah, prays and serves God, so that even when he serves God his spirit will not arise (heaven forbid).
We have to be Jews throughout the day. Throughout the day we have to be close to God—sometimes with greater inspiration and other times with less, but we are always Jews, always children of the Holy One, blessed be He. Everything we do should be with our spirit until even our thoughts are always clear, strong and connected to God’s holiness.
Then our spirit will be so much stronger than our senses that our senses will no longer be able to confuse and draw aside our thoughts, telling us that all we see is this world and all we feel is physicality. And even more than that, our senses themselves will be influenced by the thought of our heart, so that they too will see the holiness of God spread across all reality, and we will know and see that even in this world we are in the Garden of Hashem, in Eden before God’s throne of glory.
How may we attain such a perfect service, if we in some small measure yearn to know the ways of the prophets, the Kabbalists and the tzaddikim of Hasidism? “Go forth in the footsteps of the sheep” (Song of Songs 1:8). At the very least, we may see their holy footsteps and roll in the dust of their path, absorbing into ourselves the paths of Hashem. So we must know what the bottom step of all this holiness is: how can we, who yearn and long to be Hasidim, begin to attain this?
The initial revelation of divinely holy people comes when their Jewish spirit, a portion of supernal divinity within them, is revealed to them. Then, with their spirit revealed, they are ready to become a vehicle for this great and elevated manifestation.
R. Chaim Vital writes in the introduction to his Shaarei Kedushah that sometimes a person’s spirit is so purified that it is revealed to him and guides him in all his ways. That is to say, there can be a tzaddik who has attained no more than the manifestation of his spirit—not even prophecy or divine inspiration—but this too is something that guides him on his path to God.
You may [already] be scrupulous regarding all the details and fine points of the laws of the written and oral Torah, and all the customs of the holy Jewish leaders.
And you may desire to be even more of a Hasid. In that case, you must go beyond the basic obligations—and you do so not only by serving God beyond the letter of the law with your physical actions, nor even only with your mind and thought, but with your spirit too.
You must add spirit to your service. Then your spirit will be revealed, and your entire body and soul will serve God. Then you can trust that God will bring you to become a Hasid.
In this vein, Rashi explains that a “master of the spirit” (Pesachim 40a) is a “Hasid.” The beginning and core of Hasidism is to be in touch with our spirit.
I have already spoken at length in my Chovat Hatalmidim about how we have to inspire our children to serve God. I don’t expect that every beginner will be filled with great fervor, much less the fervor, fiery love and awe possessed by the great tzaddikim—but that at the very least he will feel something. “Let us go the house of God with feeling” (Psalms 122:1).
The Zohar states, “The nefesh (spirit) is the inspiration from below. It is connected to the body and nurtures it ... and it clings to the body. After [the nefesh] is rectified, it becomes a throne upon which rests the ruach (higher level of spirit) when the nefesh is aroused ... After both are rectified, they are ready to welcome the neshamah (soul, the next level up after ruach)” (Zohar: Lech Lecha, p. 83b).
In other words, even when a person arouses the most feeble inspiration and feeling in serving God, even if it is a feeling from his basic life-force nefesh that is contiguous with his body, his nefesh is already somewhat unveiled—and not only his nefesh, but his ruach is also awakened, and he is also revealing his neshamah.
“Everyone wants to fear Your name” (Selichot, Day One). But the awe and fear of Hashem that many people have is only in their mind: in their mind, they know that they should love and fear God, but to their regret, and even to their sorrow, they don’t actually feel any love or awe.
Also, some people know simply and clearly that they have to want and to yearn to live a pure life every day and to always connect themselves to God (in this world and the next) through learning Torah, praying, performing mitzvot and good deeds with a nefesh that is revealed and connected to God, to His purity and holiness. Nevertheless, they only desire to desire. They only know that they should be yearning, but they don’t feel any desire or yearning.
I am not only talking about those people whose hearts are completely closed, who never have any feeling, whose spirits are hidden beneath such a great mass of rubbish that they cannot even pierce it with a finger. I am speaking even of those people who sometimes do have such a desire and feeling, who are filled with feeling many times, except that their feeling and desire are not under their control. When they are spontaneously aroused, they desire and feel. But if not, they are at rest and nascent—even descending.
The situation of these people is not much better and not much less dangerous than the state of the first class of people who are entirely blocked off. It is as though they are being shot about by a slingshot. One moment they truly desire and yearn and are filled with holy feeling, and the next moment, they are lowly, drunk, falling and rolling in the dirt, with no desire or yearning for anything holy.
To the contrary: sometimes a person like this is affected by evil thoughts and desires. He may recognize that he is in a bad situation. He may be worried about the danger to his body and soul, which are immersed in a foul, choking swamp in which he is about to drown. And he wants to desire and awaken himself. He thinks how of happy he would be if he could save himself from this swamp—if he only had a spark of desire and yearning.
But he won’t be able to do so just using thought and desire, because only a person who has already done a great deal of holy work on himself can, solely by using his mind, affect himself even when he is not filled with a feeling of holiness. [Such a person can affect himself] that much more when he meditates more on God’s greatness, and on loving and fearing God. This is because every day his body and its inner power with his thoughts and desires are coming to his holy consciousness.
But that is not our state in this generation, when our bodies are not immersed in the service of God, and our brains and minds have not been uplifted and strengthened in holiness. It is hard for us to control ourselves simply with thought and desire. We can control ourselves only when we are able to fill our entire body with a feeling of holiness, at will, whenever we want to experience that feeling.
Our sages have stated that “the righteous are the masters of their hearts,” whereas others are ruled by their hearts (Bereishit Rabbah 34).
Everything depends on this. If a person is totally controlled by his heart and cannot control any of his desires, he is wicked.
But even those precious young people who are not under the control of their desires, who battle their inclinations and win without falling under its sway and without committing an actual sin, whom God has inspired to want to be Hasidim, who at times are filled with feeling—if they cannot control their hearts and cannot inspire themselves at will to experience emotion when emotion is required, they will not reach any elevated level. They will not even come to the “heels” of Hasidism, and in fact they too can be slung by the slingshot [from the heights to the depths].
And so I ask God to help me discover and then show others ways by which they can master this and activate their desire (which is the desire of the nefesh, as the holy Zohar states) whenever they think it appropriate, and experience emotion when they know that they should be filled with emotion.
I have faith in Hashem, the God of Israel, who illuminates the Jews’ hearts, always going before them in a pillar of fire to illumine the path for them, the path of Hashem, so that they will traverse it day and night, that when I succeed in demonstrating a way of volitionally moving our nefesh even slightly, even if our choice just makes the ends of its feathers tremble, then we will be able to walk in the heels of Hasidism, and we will not remain on one level but rise to its zenith and reach the palace of Hashem with His holiness, the Garden of Eden upon earth.
Yaacov David Shulman