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Friday, 20 Sep 2019
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Greeeting Moshiach When the King is in the Field
by Rabbi Zvi Homnick
PLAYING THE FIELD
 
One of the unique phenomena in the yeshiva world of the post war generation is the prevalence of (for the most part) well intentioned individuals who try to create a synthesis between the various schools of thought within Judaism, in an attempt to (in their minds) extract the best from each.  The idea being that this somehow offers the person the best of all worlds while allowing him to rise above the rancor and pettiness associated with each group's insistence on the superiority of their particular path.  In fact, some of the most sought after spiritual guides of yesteryear and in current times were/are practitioners of the cholent approach to Judaism.
 
Somehow, although I knew and admired many people who adopted this approach in one form or another, I never quite bought into the whole “you can have it all” idea, since it seemed to me that certain points of theology were by definition mutually exclusive.  That is probably (partially) why, later, when I had already invested a great deal of study and thought into Chassidus, I concentrated a great deal on trying to define what are the points of similarity and what are the irreconcilable differences.  This in turn, forced me to confront the difficult choice of changing my allegiances in the face of what I believed to be a greater truth.
 
This point was driven home for me even more strongly when in the early months of my involvement in Chabad, back in late 1991, I bumped into an acquaintance from Lakewood in the courtyard behind 770 Eastern Parkway.  On the one hand he was excited to see me, as he had been one of the hangers-on of the “Chassidic crowd” in Lakewood, who had felt that I was sincere in my spiritual search despite my tendency to lambast in sharp and colorful terms Chassidic ideas and practices that set me off for one reason or another.  On the other hand, he was a little distraught over the fact that I had “gone all the way,” in the sense that I saw all other approaches as fundamentally deficient without the Torah revelations of Chassidus as revealed and explicated by the Rebbes of Chabad.
 
This fellow is a grandson of a prominent late Rosh Yeshiva transplanted in America from Lithuania proper, and the great-grandson of one of the most famous Rosh Yeshivas of yore in Lithuania.  As such, his great appreciation for Chassidus is tempered by the need to feel that “they are all beloved, they are all pure, they are all mighty, and they all carry out with awe and fear the will of their Maker.”  To this end, he shared with me his view that “everyone is trying to accomplish the same thing,” the only difference being what motivates them.  The way that he categorized it was that “Litvaks” are motivated by the desire to acquire the World to Come, “Poilisher Chassidim” are motivated by the desire to give “nachas to the Aibishter,” and “Chabadskers” are motivated by the mission to build a “dwelling place for Hashem.”
 
I remember standing there in shock, thinking to myself, “wow, he really doesn't get it.”  I found it completely incredulous that he had absolutely no idea that by his own definition and categorization, each group was actually working towards a completely different goal and could hardly be said to be “trying to accomplish the same thing.”  This despite the fact that all agreed that the primary means to achieve said goals is through Torah and Mitzvos.  On the other hand, since I knew where he was coming from, I realized why he had a mental block that prevented him from drawing the obvious conclusion that derived directly from his own observation.  Instead, I decided to respond to him in a roundabout fashion, directing the conversation towards the implications of the three approaches insofar as they touch upon the degree that the focus is on self or the focus is on G-d and away from self.  Also, how the different approaches are actually outgrowths of different understandings of the verse, “There is naught else but He.”
 
STUDYING THE FIELD
 
In the ensuing exchange, I pointed out to him that when one is focused on earning something for oneself, even if the reward in question is “to delight upon G-d,” then one is by definition focused entirely on self, and G-d is at best peripheral.  Yes, He is the one that issues the commandments, He is the one that came up with all that brilliant Gemara logic, He is the one that pays the reward and He is even the direct source of the delight which is the reward.  However, after everything is said and done, I am still working for my own interests, and I certainly experience myself, as well as everything I do, think and feel, in the context of my own existence. 
 
So, even in the throes of convulsive prayer, in the midst of scrunching one's forehead and squeezing one's eyes shut in supposedly intense concentration, that person can't help but think thoughts like, “So, how am I doing?  Oh boy, I am really davening up a storm now.  G-d must be really loving this. This one is for the history books.  Oy, those other poor shnooks all around me have no idea what it means to have a geshmake davening.”  Yes, I am being a bit facetious, but the point still stands.  There is no other context for the thoughts of that person.  To him, the meaning of the verse, “There is naught else but He,” means that are no other deities out there, but as far as our created world, G-d is looking from the outside in, and my existence is just made up of “me” and is just about “me, myself and I.”  And so, his learning, davening, even his acts of kindness towards others, always comes back to me, me, me...
 
Contrariwise, when one is focused on giving “nachas to the Aibishter,” there is a genuine desire and effort to turn the focus away from self, driving away any thoughts of “me” in the pursuit of trying to make Him happy, wanting Him to be pleased and satisfied.  An illustration of this idea can be found in an exchange cited in one of the works of the teachings of the Chozeh of Lublin.  It is brought there that the Chassidim once asked the Chozeh how does one know if his prayer was a proper one, and that he responded that the only way to know is if the person, when stepping back from the Shemone Esrei and bowing, is filled with great joy even as he feels such a deep shame in the very core of his being that he can't pick up his eyes, and he certainly can't meet the eyes of someone else.
 
The question is indicative of the fact that the Chassidim understood clearly that the most basic ingredient of “proper” prayer is that one be so focused on G-d that one is completely oblivious of self.  This created a conundrum for them, because if one is completely oblivious of self, how does one go about assessing one's performance in order to try to pinpoint what areas need improvement.  The Chozeh, in his response, acknowledged the correctness of their basic understanding of the Chassidic approach to prayer, and explained that even the self-assessment process should not be taken up with analyzing oneself and the details of one’s performance, but should be measured only by the degree that you succeeded in letting G-d in. 
 
That is because the more one succeeds in resisting the natural tendency to focus on “me and my desires” and focusing his concern on “G-d and His desires,” the more he creates a vacuum within himself allowing G-d's presence to be felt.  When a person feels G-d's presence, he is filled with the joy of such a great privilege and the shame of a nonentity in the presence of the King of all kings.  This approach is based on the Chassidic interpretation of the verse, “There is naught else but He,” to mean that literally nothing else exists except for G-d.  However, since this is something that we can only take on faith, as every fiber of our beings is screaming the exact opposite, we can only hope to suppress to whatever extent possible the sense of self that gets in the way.  Since, ultimately, except for the great Tzaddikim, one cannot completely suppress one's sense of self, a compromise needs to be struck.  So the focus remains on G-d and what gives Him pleasure, but I get the satisfaction of knowing that I was instrumental in providing Him that pleasure.
 
And then there is Chabad.  The Alter Rebbe recognized that as long as the Chassidic axiom that nothing else truly exists except for G-d remains in the realm of faith, there is still no resolution to the seeming contradiction to that axiom that each person experiences constantly in his or her own consciousness.  It was only through bringing down that Divine revelation that “you were shown to see” at the Giving of the Torah, and which was re-revealed as a bedrock article of faith by the Baal Shem Tov, into the realm of intellect via Torah, that the inner consciousness of a Jew could apprehend his or her own non-existence.  The same paradox of an Omnipotent G-d that allows for “There is naught else but He,” and “In the beginning G-d created,” also makes it possible for a Jew who is “a part of G-d above, literally” to grasp his own non-existence even as he recognizes that he exists but only as a means to fulfill G-d's will and desire for “a dwelling place in the lowly realms.”
 
OUT OF THE DESERT AND INTO THE FIELD
 
One of my early Lubavitch connections is a fellow who for various reasons, despite being a Tamim the son of a Tamim, ended up spending some time in a Lithuanian yeshiva that was transplanted here in the USA.  One of the topics he likes to expound upon is the difference between the Misnagdic view of the month of Elul and that of Chabad Chassidus: 
 
In the yeshivas that attempt to preserve some remnant of the aura and atmosphere of the old-time Lithuanian yeshivas that were strongly influenced by the Mussar movement, the month of Elul is overtly serious and even somber.  After all, the Days of Judgment are nigh, and one has but a relatively brief time to get his spiritual house in order.  And by the way, the judgment in question is no walk in the park as it deals with every aspect of a person's life and wellbeing including if he will live or die. 
 
Conversely, the Alter Rebbe raises the question in his discourse Ani L'Dodi in Likkutei Torah, that since it is explained in Kabbala that Elul is a time when there shines forth into the world the “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy,” which is an even higher revelation than that which shines forth on most Jewish holidays, then why don't we celebrate the entire month as one long holiday? 
 
Although the distinction is a revealing one, as far as the difference between a more negative and a more positive outlook on Judaism; there is a lot more to it.  The difference in approaches cited earlier is even more pronounced when it comes to Teshuva, which is used to mean repentance even as the literal meaning is to return.  For someone whose whole frame of reference is self and personal performance in the context of payday or payback, with G-d in the background as this all-powerful (and honestly, pretty scary) taskmaster, the knowledge that he has to face Him in His roles as witness, judge, jury and executioner, should make him feel quite terrified.  And thus, the prime motivation for repentance must ultimately be to get in His good graces, so as to earn reward and avoid punishment.
 
For someone who is focused on getting away from self and closer to G-d, Elul should be quite a happy time, as it is a time of closeness to Hashem and leading up to the days of the greatest closeness, Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Succos and Simchas Torah.  It is true that the closeness is manifested differently at each of those times and on each of those days, but ultimately the important thing is that one appreciate and celebrate this closeness as well as to utilize the opportunity to repent and correct those things that stand in the way of being truly close to Him.  That is why in many Chassidic courts there is preference given to holding weddings in the month of Elul, and there are many joyous tunes included in the High Holiday liturgy and the like.
 
Then there is Chabad.  The focus is not on me or even what I can do to make Him happy, but on the idea that I have no true existence outside of my role in carrying out His plan and His purpose, which is also only about Him and not about me.  Therefore, even my efforts towards correcting my sins and coming close to Hashem also only have significance in the context of fulfilling G-d's will and realizing His goals.  So, these efforts should be done with great joy as there is no greater privilege, but at the same time we must be aware of whose presence we are in and that what is at stake is the very purpose of all existence.
 
This combination of celebration and trepidation is expressed in what the Alter Rebbe explains there that although Elul is a time of far greater divine revelation, we do not celebrate it as a holiday because it is analogous of a “king in the field.”  He explains that when a king has been traveling and is finally returning to his home in his palace, he passes through the fields where the simple folk are busy working to give them an opportunity to greet him and accepts their greetings with a pleasant demeanor and shows a smiling countenance to all of them.  As he continues along his way, all those who came out to greet him are allowed to join his entourage and enter into the palace with him all the way to his ruling chamber, as opposed to normal times when only those that are close to the king are allowed in. 
 
The point of the analogy is that we only celebrate the divine revelations of the “King in His Chamber” as Jewish holidays, but the days of Elul are, despite the loftiness of the revelation, the time when the “King is in the field” to make Himself accessible to each and every one of us even as we are busy with everyday workday affairs.  Why is such a great revelation needed if the whole point is just to grant easier access?  The answer is that there are some who are not even in the field, but they are in the desert, a place “where no man has settled,” meaning that they are caught up in sinful behavior, so in order to reach them and inspire them to leave the desert and come to the field, and then to the very palace of the King, Hashem reveals His infinite attributes of mercy and compassion.
 
The Rebbe explains in a maamar that the element of trepidation alluded to in the blowing of the shofar in the month of Elul, as the Tur explains this custom with the verse, “Can a shofar be blown in a city, and the people will not tremble,” is only a stepping stone in the divine service of “I am to my Beloved, and my Beloved is to me.”  This is because every aspect of divine service, especially loving G-d which is an expression of me and how I feel towards Him, has to be predicated upon the bittul that derives from the awareness in the very essence of the soul that “There is naught else but He.” 
 
I can only love Him because He commanded it and He wants it for the purpose of constructing His dream home.  Similarly, I can only truly repent out of love and take full advantage of the opportunity to “return” and be “one” with Hashem, if it is based on that fundamental sense of self-negation alluded to in the trembling induced by the shofar.  The Rebbe goes on to say that the very first day of blowing the shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul should be sufficient for a complete “repentance from fear,” so that the rest of the person's energies be devoted exclusively to achieving the highest levels of love so that he can enter the palace as one of the King's close people.
 
TIME TO LEAVE THE FIELD
 
The same ideas and lessons could and should be applied to the times that we are living in now.  The Rebbe has told us repeatedly that the condition for Redemption cited in the Gemara and brought as a legal ruling in the Rambam, namely that “Yisrael will not be redeemed except through Teshuva,” has already been fulfilled.  And yet, that does not mean that on a personal level there is no need to get one's spiritual house in order.  Quite the opposite, this is a special time when “the Redemption is already here” on the one hand, and “the only thing that remains is to greet our righteous Moshiach” on the other.  Similarly, it is a time to celebrate the coming of Moshiach, even as we are pained over the delay of the process and fearful of the remaining challenges of exile. 
 
All that is because we are in the final moments before the King officially enters His dwelling/palace that we made for Him, even though He has always been here all along, and He reveals Himself to us “in the field” within the exile so that we prepare ourselves and grab those last people still stuck in the desert to greet our righteous Moshiach, immediately, NOW!
 

 


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