Hakhsharat Ha'Avreikhim (A Young Adult's Spiritual Guide)--Chapter FIve: A Heart to Heart Talk (Part One)
by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (the Piaseszner Rebbe)
And now I must interrupt the theme of the book somewhat in order to speak to you directly, and don’t be embarrassed, because I cannot see you, nor can you see me, but God sees the both of us. I speak to you only through this work, and not in order to insult you or to find or demonstrate anything unseemly in you, heaven forbid. This is a heartfelt discussion, my heart whispers to your heart, this is a spiritual discussion, my soul speaks to its colleague, which is your soul, and yearns to help your soul (beloved to mine) cleans herself. And on the other hand, my own heart and soul will be elevated by you, and when you rise then perhaps, God willing, they too will rise.
You may raise a complaint against me, saying, “What do you want from me? Why do you accuse me of imperfections and faults that I don’t have? And why are you bothering me about working on my feelings and my ability to visualize? Aren’t I a religious person, I want to immerse my mind in the complexities of Torah learning as I have done until now, because I am always steeped in Torah learning, sometimes even when I walk down the street. And aren’t I a Hasid—so do I lack for feeling and fervor? What about how I pray and how I perform a mitzvah—quite fervently!”
Indeed I would not have to respond to you any more on these topics if indeed this or part of this is your complaint. If you really think that you lack nothing in your service of God, that you are a religious individual filled with feeling ad even fervor, and that you are immersed in Torah even when you walk down the street, and so forth.
This is because as I stated right from the outset I am speaking only to people who are working on themselves and their service of God, by which I mean to say, people with a humble spirit and broken heart when they think about their soul and their service of God, a person who remembers the verse, “A person always justifies himself” (Proverbs 21:2) and reflects, who can guarantee that I am really going in the way of God in everything that I do? I may think so and I may think that I am going on the right path, but an evil person also justifies the path that he is going on. I act in accordance with the commandment of the Torah, but am I free of fault and sin? The Gemara says (Sotah 21), “A sin extinguishes a mitzvah.” True, the Gemara goes on to say that a sin does not extinguish Torah learning, and since I am learning Torah that is something I can rely on. But here too who can guarantee me that the way I study Torah is good and pleasing to the Master of all? How many people are there who learned Torah and then, together with their Torah learning, fell into the spiritual depths, God save us?
And the holy Seer of Lublin said that the verse “God says to the wicked man, ‘What right do you have to discuss My laws?’“ applies to a person who doesn’t reflect in penitence before learning Torah, and in fact he transfers more power to the “husks” (Zot Zikaron on the verse, “she arises while it is still night,” and Maor Veshemesh, Devorim). And who knows if I really meditated in a penitent manner and if my repentance was acceptable? And how can I be sure that I am not one of those to whom God says, “What right do you have to discuss My laws?”
And since I am learned and a Hasid, my soul is in particular danger, and I can in an instant lose my share in the world to come, may God protect me and save me.
Oh, I sometimes envy the simple water drawer and the porter who only prays to God, recites Psalms and keeps the Torah as he best understands and knows how, because how much more can be expected of him? He does what he knows. But, as I heard from my teachers and as I understand somewhat from the holy texts, how we have to serve God, how every evil desire, even if it manifests only as a thought and desire and it isn’t acted upon, makes a person wicked in God’s eyes for that moment, and how much it coarsens him and fills him with waste, God protect us.
Woe, I am seized by trembling and shuddering tears me apart. If people could see my hidden feelings with my desires and thoughts I couldn’t even stand in front of other people, because I would be so embarrassed and ashamed, and if people could see me as I see myself, I wouldn’t be able to bear my disgrace, and the only thing that gives me strength is that other people don’t know everything about me, and how to I maintain the strength to walk around when I know that God, King of kings, the Source of purity and holiness, sees me from head to foot and looks at everything I do, say, think and desire—large and small—whether I am praying and serving God or whether I am not, and the entire horde of stupidities that I plan, think about, talk about and do within every twenty-four hour period—all of these I do, speak and think before God.
But a person isn’t always so downhearted about himself, nor does he always see himself as filled with shame and ignominy, because sometimes his spirit rises within him, as in the verse, “and he lifted up his heart in the ways of Hashem.” And this is not to say that he is changeable, one time falling and then rising, but if a person’s service of God is lacking heart and lacking a core, if it is only rote ritual, in order to get it over with and nothing else, then his service of God is petrified like a stone and it never changes—it always has the same affect and he always sings the same tune. But that is not the way of someone who serves God with his heart and core being, his service of God is always changing its character, passing from stage to stage, rising and falling, with fear and love, bitterness and elevation. When he feels that he is drifting away from God and particularly when he did something wrong, he feels bitter and this afflicts him, and all of his imperfections and his smallness dominate his mind, and he sees himself at this moment as a being filled with shame and ignominy.
But when a person’s prayer is successful, and in particular on the Sabbath and holidays or after learning Torah and meditating on God’s Awesomeness for several hours, or after talking with his fellow Hasidim as they sit down together to a drink and to sing to God, and they have been able to connect to each other on the soul level, and the soul of all of them is dedicated to God, then a person’s spirit rises with joy and spiritual elevation, his lowliness disappears at that point, and all of him, including his body, yearn and long for God’s holiness, and he truly feels that right now his body has been sanctified.
But even then his spirit doesn’t vault to claim that he lacks nothing in his service of God, that he is religious, a Hasid, and even then his heart within him is broken. He experiences an elevation and joy simultaneous with a broken spirit.
And particularly after he has served God, he reviews his life, because he recalls something he had heard or read in the holy texts—not only in stories about the great deeds of the tzaddikim, but from the works that those tzaddikim themselves wrote, in which they teach us the paths of God, how sometimes almost in passing they mention some method of serving God on a high and holy level, which we can barely hope to even touch.
For instance, in Noam Elimelech (Chukat, on the verse, “and they will bring to you...”), the author states parenthetically that it is known to those who are wise that the first three blessings of the Shmoneh Esrei prayer must be recited “in a state of complete surrender and unity.”
And we learn in Avodat Yisrael (Eikev) that “sometimes a person experiences so much holiness that he literally becomes a nothingness, such as when reciting the kedushah of musaf and saying, ‘Where is the place of His glory?’“
And there are other such elevated states, so great and uplifted that we can barely gaze at them from afar.
So what are we and what is our service of God, when, in order to experience some genuine feeling in our prayer and in particular to stir our fervor, we need to strain so hard, even to the point of sweating—and even then, who knows?
And not only are we far from their holy ascents and their heavenly stature, they are completely beyond us in how they would guard themselves with the greatest care from the slightest hint of wrong-doing, and in how they would not even allow themselves to drift close to the slightest touch of lowliness, and in general how they toiled in their holy service of God.
And we learn in Avodat Yisrael (Vayigash, the section beginning, “In Midrash Shir Hashirim”), “And even though tzaddikim get soiled—i.e., they experience some confusion of a thought that is not good that comes from trivialities of the mind-stream—they immediately cleanse themselves and return to God, for they realize what is happening immediately and they regret it and are filled with thoughts of penitence as though it were for a grave transgression...You might assume that when they experienced this confusion of thinking, they have fallen spiritually, and then, after engaging in penitent thoughts they rise up again. No. They are constantly in a perfect state together with the King of peace (which we learn homiletically from the verse, ‘like the curtains of Shlomo’)...because even their descent is holy and pure. And heaven forbid that a tzaddik descend at all. Only there is some slight tinge of a thought of laziness regarding Torah learning or prayer or the like—and no more—and he immediately wipes it away with a thought of penitence so that it is as though that had never even existed.”
Even when they descend, they are far from sinning or even contemplating a sin, heaven forbid. So powerfully did they engage in Torah learning and service of God, day and night, that they consider even a thought of laziness—not laziness itself but just a thought about laziness—a grave transgression. So even when they descend, they are on a holy, pure stage. And they bring themselves back and cleanse themselves so that nothing of that thought can any longer be discerned.
And when you study some holy text, sometimes some light of the form of holiness of the soul and service of the author flashes before your eyes, so that sometimes this may affect you much more powerfully than any lecture on ethical behavior, because you say to yourself, “The author of this work was also a human being, so why is there such a huge chasm between him on the heights, and me below? He mentions some way of serving God in passing so that it seems that it isn’t something so extraordinary, not only for the elite, but that in fact without it you can’t even consider yourself a Jew, and you certainly can’t boast of being a Hasid. Yet I am standing here ten thousand levels below that.”
But you may feel uplifted at that point and joyful in your service of God and your connection to Hasidut, feeling that at this moment you are connected to the holiness of God, for at this moment, your soul that is to some degree aflame isn’t making critical comparisons, and it is now in the state of “I will surely rejoice in Hashem.” But this is a joy that is interwoven with humility.
And certainly after such service of God, a person yearns for the illumination that came to him from the upper world, and his heart breaks within him yet again, as he says, “If only I could bring myself to such elevated states from time to time, and if only I could at the very least control my body, my desires and my thoughts, so as to keep them from filthy lowliness and bring them to purity and holiness—then I would have a hope of little by little bringing myself closer to the footsteps of the holy masters. And then I could at least transform some parts of myself to Hasidism. But that is certainly not the case now. On the one hand there is my ‘I.’ And on the other there is my mind and my will. And they are two separate things, at opposite ends of the spectrum. My mind knows what is good and my will wants it. But as they watch I literally do the opposite—as though I am deranged. And even when I occasionally break free and elevate myself, that barely has any relation to my mind and will—it is just due to what my ‘I’ wants. When my ‘I’ wants to, it elevates itself. And when it doesn’t want to, then even if I yearn and long with my mind and will ceaselessly for a least a drop of emotion and elevation, it doesn’t touch my ‘I,’ which just lies there in a complete torpor.
“I am certainly not the only person who tries to serve God and finds it difficult to do so. The Baal Shem Tov himself has told us that in order to leave behind the evil inclination and come to serving God and Hasidism, we need to engage in various techniques.
“And I wish that I had the proper techniques that could help a low person like me in this lowly generation.”
My words are addressed to the person who has such thoughts. In all his service of God, he is aware of his failings and he realizes that he needs to do something about them.
Also, such a person feels such humility and is searching so much that he is ready to learn from someone who isn’t greater than he—he will even learn from someone who is inferior to him—particularly from someone who has actually been testing techniques, continues to do so and tries out all sorts of techniques and practices on himself and on others.
But as for a person who protests that he is already sufficiently Torah observant and pious, and rejects against my words—what can I say to such a person, since anything I say will have absolutely no effect?
But even so I will put my trust in God and speak even to such a person. Perhaps I will be able to break down his challenge to me—because he also wants to serve God and he also is working hard to serve God and learn Torah—but just as the evil inclination fools someone else some other way, it has fooled him and filled him with need to challenge others and given him a false sense of who he is (a false “I”). He is suffering from a bitter illness, one of whose symptoms is that the sick person thinks that he is perfectly fine. God heals even such people—but they need to work very hard.
And now, if you are unhappy with what I have said, you have now seen the thoughts and the lowliness of the person I have presented, how despite all his Torah learning, he is really low, and he is right to feel low in spirit, and to seek the path of God: what steps can he take to approach God?
And that should be enough to make it clear to you that you shouldn’t be smug and think that you are pious and learned and your path lies clear before you.
There is no need to go on about this at length. There is an explicit mishnah on this topic (Keritot 25a): “R. Eliezer says that a person can voluntarily bring an offering of questionable guilt (asham talui) any day and any hour of the day that he desires. This sacrifice used to be called the ‘sacrifice of the pious.’“
Here is it clear that at their core not only does it not occur to the pious that their deeds are unimpeachable, and they certainly do not think of themselves as pious, but their humbleness rests in more than that, for they consider that compared to where someone of their abilities should have reached, their service of God is not all that impressive. Instead, simply, every day they view themselves as though they had transgressed so fully (against a biblical prohibition) that it would necessitate offering a sacrifice.
So see and think about how our righteous and pious ancestors had broken hearts, and how they taught us to break our physicality and our spirits open for God.
Yaacov David Shulman