If you desire to totally enter the path of serving God and in particular if you desire to learn how to serve God according to the Hasidic path, you must work on being moved by your service, by your fear and love of God, by every mitzvah you undertake, your prayer and so forth. And to this end you must become a person in touch with your feelings. That is the précis of what I have said to this point.
And these two things in fact can be found in every Jew—one person to a greater extent and another to a lesser extent—for a Jewish trait is compassion. And a dry and cold person who lacks all feeling cannot be naturally compassionate. Even a cruel person can at times have compassion, but he cannot be compassionate by nature. The Jews are called an impetuous people, which refers to their warm nature, the flame of love between friends and between relatives, which is the basis of Jewish feeling. And the holy works state that the love of God is also natural to the Jewish people, except that it may be hidden in a person so that he is not aware of it.
And this is the entire matter: when you yourself cannot feel what is going on within you then you are alienated from yourself, you do not know yourself and you do not recognize what is going on within you. Even a regular person’s soul does not cease its movements, does not cease crying out in regret for its low station, for all of its wounds, for all the suffering that one causes one’s it with one’s foolish actions, speech and action. But either this person doesn’t feel anything because he doesn’t listen to the wails and groans of this poor, suffering being—because it is human nature to yearn for those things that are outside of ourselves, we want to get the things of this world, whether or not they are essential to our well-being, we are ready to learn what is happening in the far-flung corners of the earth, but we do not turn to our souls, we pay no attention to our own heart to hear the uproar within it now—or sometimes a person does feel something, but since at the same time his desire, his mind, his thoughts are in the trash heap of the things of this world, even though he hears the moan of his soul and its suffering voice, he is like a sleeping person who is bitten by a fly on the forehead. If he is a merchant, he dreams that a package of merchandise fell on his head. If he is a tailor he dreams that his needle pricked his forehead. Each one sees his dream within the garb of his thoughts.
We learn in the holy texts that sometimes a Jew’s soul is filled with regret, repentance, humility, awe and so forth, and the person feels some feeling inside, some discomfort, but he doesn’t know what it is, so he imagines that it is hunger or thirst or that he needs to have a schnapps and a piece of cake, or that he is suffering from depression and in order to cheer up he shares some gossip with a family member, some slander and other lightheaded speech. Sometimes even after all of this he still feels a discomfort within himself, because these measures that he took, like spoiled medicine, not only don’t heal the wounds of his soul and don’t reconcile it to the wounds that it has suffered at his hands, but they in fact strike and injure his soul even more. But sometimes after engaging in such behavior in fact his soul does quiet down, and that is because he has struck and injured his soul so much that it has fainted, or else he has heaped so much trash on top of it that he has made himself impervious to its outcries.
Not only doesn’t a person hear his soul wailing and groaning (or he hears it vaguely and can’t make out what he is hearing), but he also doesn’t sense when his soul is joyful and delighting in God. Or he might feel something without knowing what it is.
But if a person could feel how his soul rejoices in God, if he could feel its sweet ascent in love and awe when he approaches God through learning, Torah praying and performing the commandments—in particular on the Sabbath and holidays—then it wouldn’t be so easy for his unfettered drives to pull him away from this supernal sweetness and to persuade him to do wrong and just be a physical being.
If a person could hear his soul singing to God as he sings and praises God, if he could hear all the parts of his soul—how, as his nefesh sings, his ruach, neshamah, chayah and yechidah arise to sing as one to the glorious King Who desires song and music, and become as one in the flame of love and joy of all Jewish souls (in this world and in Gan Eden) who are joined by the supernal angels, the choir of God, with every creature in the heavens and underground, all singing together, all bursting forth in music together, and all of them together praising and sanctifying the holy, great, mighty and awesome Name—why, if a person could only hear the slightest whisper of this, then all of his desires, thoughts, words and deeds, would be dedicated to God alone. But everything is closed and hidden before him.
So, you who desire to serve God and to rise upon the Hasidic path, be glad in what I am telling you, since you do not have to search out new feelings, you do not have to draw down inner experiences from heaven. At the beginning of your service, everything that is required of you is already within you. You contain feeling within you and you are a person of feeling—your only assignment is to know yourself and to know what is taking place within you. Your soul is filled with experiences, outcries and prayer. All you have to do is to give it a forum within you where it can express itself and grow stronger. Then you will know and experience its feelings, freed of the veils of your ego and needs, and without the sackcloth that blackens its pure yearnings.
It is not my intent merely to issue instructions: think such-and-such, say and do such-and-such, and refrain from thinking, speaking and doing such-and-such. Everyone wants only to think, speak and do good—at any rate, everyone wants to want that. But we find it hard to actually do it.
My only desire is to discover means of putting into effect (with God’s help) what we have been commanded by our Torah and Hasidic leaders. And so I wish to speak of how to recognize the feelings of your soul by using its own nature. Take heed and, with the help of God, you will gain a great deal.
If you begin by working on slight feelings in order to bring them out and reveal them just as they come forth from your soul, without distortion or a physical garb, if you choose to work on slight feelings that you do not recognize clearly (so that you cannot tell whether they are expressing a mighty outcry or a weak sigh, whether you feel your soul crying out to God or you are sensing your body’s desire to eat and drink vodka), then the matter will be difficult, even insurmountable, because you do not recognize these feelings, and when you feel something happening inside of yourself, you are feeling something that is already enclothed in some sackcloth.
So begin with your larger and stronger feelings, so that you know and recognize that your soulful feeling is a yearning and outcry to God, except that since it has a finite arena in which to express itself, this feeling does not spread and does not clothe itself in any thought or form, and as a result it has not been absorbed into your body and limbs, or may not have appeared to you at all, but, after alighting and fluttering, moves on. So broaden the arena for your soul and allow it act freely within yourself, give [these feelings] a thought and a form.
It is preferable that you do not begin with the feelings of your soul painfully crying out over its pains and wounds, but with its feelings of joy and gladness, the feelings in which it takes pleasure and finds fervor.
What is the arena upon which the feelings of your soul can appear? The beginning of its appearance is the arena of focused thought. There it will endure and be more strongly aroused. As stated in Imrei Elimelech (Parshat B’chukotai), “Everyone doubtless has his moments of repentant thoughts, but because he is distracted, the moment of repentance passes. Therefore, one must focus his mind on this good train of thought.”
In this-worldly matters as well, after someone harms you, if you are immediately distracted and don’t have the leisure to mull over the evil done to you, your anger will not grow. But if you dwell on the evil done to you, you will grow angry, reaching a fury so great that you cannot contain it.
Not only do your emotions, which are intertwined with your thoughts, affect your thoughts, your thoughts arouse your feelings, so that even if you aren’t angry at someone, by reminding yourself of any evil he has done you, you will arouse your anger. And the same holds for love and other emotions.
This also pertains to the feelings that animals experience—the love for another of their own species or anger and fear. Animals are intellectually very limited and if they are distracted their feelings are not aroused. For instance, if one strikes an animal so that it grows furious, and then one immediately brings it food or drags it off to some other location, it will no longer be furious, because it lacks the little amount of thought necessary for maintaining the feeling.
And unlike a person, who can afterwards remind himself of the evil that was done to him and rekindle his anger, animals lack such thought and concentration. In general, they can feel emotion when something occurs, but not afterwards. When the incident that aroused their anger is gone, they calm down of their own accord. (As for animals that take revenge on someone who has harmed them, such animals aren’t constantly filled with anger, but keep a resolve to harm their enemy. In general, one cannot compare vengeance to a constant state of emotion, for one who feels vengeful can strike at his enemy even if he is not at that moment angry, even if he is happy and feeling love for another.)
As is known, the sefirah of binah (understanding) brings forth the forthcoming sefirot, which correspond to emotion. And this is brought forth not from binah in its essence but from the lowest part of binah, called tevunah (discernment). This is why binah is referred to as Athe mother of children.” After these emotions are created and revealed, they gain more strength as a result of the mindfulness that comes to them from the two sefirot preceding them, chochmah (wisdom) and binah, as channeled through tevunah (cf. Eitz Hachaim).
It is not my purpose to speak of heavenly matters, but only to discuss those matters found within us and that are relevant to serving God. As I mentioned in Chovat Hatalmidim (2:1), R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi states that a person’s thought corresponds to the level of malchut within his tevunah—in other words, to the lowest level of tevunah. As is known, anything that comes from a sefirah and is revealed comes through the channel of malchut, which is the lowest part of the sefirah. So through the channel of malchut in tevunah (i.e. a person’s thoughts), a person’s emotions are born. And malchut gives them additional strength after they are born, channeling the mind-power that is drawn from above.
This explains why emotions are so closely connected to thought. And so only when emotions are indulged in our thoughts do they grow stronger and greater, whereas without thought they die and quickly disappear.
If you want to unveil and strengthen your soul’s good feelings, you must provide them with them an arena upon which they can appear. Strengthen your holy thought by dwelling on something matter that you found moving. Don’t use your intellect, don’t think into it deeply. Just consider it simply, with an overview.
In regard to a repetitive mitzvah such as prayer, which you are accustomed to engage in on a daily basis, you will at first find it hard to broaden and strengthen your thought. You will do better to begin with a mitzvah that marks a interruption of your routine, such as the Sabbath, which comes only once a week. On the Sabbath, you and everyone you know wears different clothes, and your whole house looks different. Of course the same idea is even more apropos regarding a holiday such as Passover.
At any rate, regarding such mitzvahs, you will find it relatively easy to strengthen and broaden your thought about them. And once you use these mitzvahs as a vehicle to attain an intense focus, then you will be able to use any mitzvah, even a very repetitive one, to focus your mind and, through that, to arouse your soul.
When you broaden and strengthen your thoughts of holiness, you will gain two advantages.
One: your soul’s many holy feelings will not be spent in vain. You will see them and feel them. They will enter into you, broaden and grow until they spread throughout your entire body and all your limbs.
Two: even when your soul is not naturally aroused, you will be able to arouse it with your powerful and broad thoughts. Specifically, you will be able to arouse feelings that you have already experienced, and that only need to be rekindled. So at any time of the year you can rekindle within yourself the awe that you experienced at the time of shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah, or during Neilah on Yom Kippur, when your soul was aflame. Every day you will be able to attain the fiery love of God, His Torah and His service that you experienced on Succot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, Pesach, Shavuot, and so forth.
The holy Zohar and other holy works speak at length about the great importance of serving God with our mind. They urge this practice and claim that all of our service of God depends on it.
These texts are speaking specifically of focused thought—a thought that is tied up with your feelings and fervor—i.e., your entire essence.
That is to say: basically, in order to guard your thought from all evil, you must take care with even the slightest thought, for any bad thought you have, whether you are awake or asleep, is harmful to you. Yet this is not yet the type of thought that can lift you up, which is discussed in holy books. This basic thought is only a means of protecting yourself against uncleanness. But serving God with thought and then rising spiritually only comes as a consequence of engaging in a focused thought upon which your very being and your feelings are dependent.
My father explained in his holy work, Imrei Elimelech (Sedra Bo), that if you experience a holy thought only occasionally and briefly, it is not even called a thought, and it cannot bring you closer to God and sanctify you.
What is needed is a thought that you engage in at length.
And we see throughout the holy Noam Elimelech that when R. Elimelech of Lizhensk directs a person to engage in thought, he usually doesn’t make do with the verb “think,” but uses words such as “imagine” and “visualize.”
For instance, the first paragraph of his Small Note reads, “Imagine and visualize that a great and awesome fire is burning before you, reaching up to the heavens, and that for the sake of God’s holiness you break your nature and cast yourself into that fire in order to Sanctify God....”
Similarly, in paragraph two of the Rebbe Elimelech’s Small Note, and so forth, as well as in the petition before prayer that he composed—“May our thoughts be pure, clear and lucid and powerful”—you can see that it is vital that our thought be pure, clear, lucid and powerful.