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Moshiach - Are We Asking the Right Questions?
by Rabbi Zvi Homnick
TOUGH QUESTIONS
 
Early on in my Chassidic journey of discovery (and so it goes even today) I often found me asking/challenging myself in incredulity, “Tzu den bist du ah Chassid (so, are you really a Chassid)?,” “Mit vos bist du ah Chassid (what qualifies you to consider yourself a Chassid)?,” along with many other internal contentious ruminations in that vein.  Knowing myself as well as I do, I am well aware of just how far away I am from the ideal of what a Chassid is supposed to be.  As such, the purpose of these inner musings and dialogues were not simply for the purpose of self-flagellation (as important as that is in the appropriate times and doses).  They also were meant to serve as a means of achieving personal clarity, forcing me to monitor my progress in transitioning from where I had been to where I  was trying to reach.
 
One of the defining epiphanies that solidified my Chassidic identity, forcing me to confront my own de facto conversion for better or for worse, took place when I got together in 1992 with a group of friends at a small sheva brachos celebration for one of our buddies.  After the party was over, the bride and groom went on their merry way, and we all sat around catching up.  Unsurprisingly, my involvement in Chabad Chassidus soon became the focal point of the conversation.  The group was made up of fellows that had learned in Lithuanian style yeshivos but who identified as Polish style Chassidim, or at least had strong leanings in that direction.  Only one person in the group proudly identified as a dyed-in-the-wool Misnaged, but even he had an admitted love for studying Chassidic teachings and lore.
 
Rather quickly, I found myself on the receiving end of a variety of vituperative verbal volleys being fired at me from all sides.  Although they raised many questions and criticisms regarding Chabad and its beliefs, it was obvious to me that the main point of contention was their conviction that Lubavitchers believe that Chabad Chassidus is the only way and everybody else is missing the boat.  As proof of this they cited the fact that the leaders of every other strain of Judaism got together with one another to consult on matters of public policy, and the only ones to act unilaterally without any consultation with others, and often contrary to the considered consensus of all other Jewish greats, was the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his followers. This was something that they all agreed was so utterly offensive, to the point that one of my closest friends in the group made the argument that for this alone they deserved to be marginalized and considered to be outside the main camp of Judaism.  Except for me, everyone else in the room seemed to concur, some more effusively than others.
 
When I was finally able to get the floor and offer a response, I tried to explain that Chabad was not simply another approach with a slightly different take on any number of issues, but represented an entirely different experience of reality based on a radical divine revelation within Torah, which not only does not stand in contradiction to traditional Torah values and ideals but enhances them immeasurably.  Thus, the Rebbe who is the divine conduit of that higher reality, neither consults nor debates other leaders whose worldview and positions are inherently limited by their finite minds, as great as they may be, even as he has and shows the greatest respect and appreciation for all of their good works and accomplishments.
 
This of course raised protests as to what about other great Rebbes and Tzaddikim who were known to have displayed open Ruach HaKodesh (prophetic divine sight) and performed great miracles, and so on and so forth.  It became clear to me that all the explanations in the world weren't going to help, and I told them just that.  I explained that the reason is because in the end Chassidus isn't simply an intellectual theory or a belief system developed for the purpose of engendering warm and fuzzy feelings amongst its adherents, but an internal experiential reality shift.  To illustrate this point, I noted that since almost everyone in the room identified as Chassidic to some degree or another, they clearly were accepting of the idea that the Vilna Gaon was wrong and that the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples were right, even if they didn't feel comfortable framing it in those black and white terms. 
 
All present had to affirm that assertion albeit with some reluctance, to which I followed up with the following hypothetical question: If someone put a gun to your head and threatened to kill you unless you say that you believe that the view of the Vilna Gaon is correct and that G-d literally contracted Himself out of the space within which He created all the worlds including ours, and He is not present in the world except insofar as it is under His providence, what would you do?  If you truly believe that Chassidus is a divine Torah truth handed down to us through the Baal Shem Tov, then the view that there is any existence “outside of” and “separate from” G-d is not only incorrect, it is to be considered a direct corollary of the idolatrous belief in “two domains” or “collaborative creative forces,” and as such would require you to give up your life to avoid proclaiming acceptance of such a belief.
 
Not very shockingly, they all looked at me as if I had fallen from a planet a great deal further away from this one than the moon.  Their incredulity only grew when I stated passionately and unequivocally that not only would I not think twice about giving up my life under those circumstances (may Hashem protect us from any such tests), it is hard for me to imagine any Lubavitcher Chassid (versed enough to understand the implications of the ultimatum) who would do otherwise.  I went on to explain that the difference is that they see it in terms of divergent but legitimate views, and they happen to choose to adhere to the view that they perceive as more authentic for one reason or another, whereas when one immerses oneself in trying to apprehend G-d and G-dliness as He is revealed through Chabad Chassidus while working to develop a deep connection with the Rebbe, it becomes so real that there is “nothing else but Him” and there can be no other way.
 
Throughout all this, even as my mind was registering their shock, not only about what I was saying but also over what had happened to their friend to make him embrace such extremist views, I couldn't help but be shocked myself.  It was a huge psychic jolt to suddenly find myself fully implanted on the other side of a huge ideology/reality/identity divide from where I had been my entire life.
 
TO QUESTION OR NOT TO QUESTION, THAT IS THE QUESTION
 
One of the core differences cited by the Zohar between the esoteric orally transmitted teachings of Kabbala and the exoteric oral tradition of the Talmud is that when it comes to the study of Kabbala there is no room for questions.  The types of questions that he negates are those which challenge a basic premise (kashya), or attempt to find textual contradictions (teyuvta) and the like, as opposed to a direct query in search of greater insight and understanding.  This is unlike Talmudic exegesis and exploration which is based almost entirely on resolving these types of questions and challenges, each need for resolution leading to greater clarity and understanding.
 
The reason for this as explained by the Alter Rebbe in Tanya (see Iggeres HaKodesh ch. 26) is that the revealed portion of the Torah descended from G-d's Will and Wisdom into the lower worlds in such a manner that it is in exile within the “husks” of the forces of concealment, and it is through the process of clarifying the law by way of resolving the challenges and contradictions that we break through the concealment and “redeem” the wisdom that is hidden within.  The ability to do this is exclusively the domain of Jewish souls invested in physical bodies, who have the ability to struggle with and overcome the forces of “the other side,” and that is why even the angels come to hear novel Torah ideas from the inhabitants of the lower world.  Kabbala, on the other hand, remains above the reality of the lower worlds, and so, even when it is revealed down here, it leaves no room for questions except for those questions that express the need for more information and deeper understanding.
 
As mentioned in previous installments, Chabad Chassidus as developed by the Alter Rebbe and his successors represents a revolutionary leap forward in the process of revelation of the deeper dimensions of Torah (to be fully realized with the coming of Moshiach) by drawing down that which inherently transcends human intellect into the realm of human understanding.  As the Rebbe explains (see Likkutei Sichos vol. 27, p. 24-28), one of the major steps forward in this process was brought down to us by the Rebbe Rashab, whose 150th birthday we celebrate this 20 Cheshvan, to the point that now one can understand the concepts of the inner dimension of Torah to the same degree as the revealed portion of Torah.
 
The Rebbe concludes there with the following lesson/directive: 
 
“There are those who do actually study the inner dimension of Torah, but they are afraid to ask a question when they don't understand the topic being studied.  How can one ask a kashya on a matter in the inner dimension of Torah?  The rule is that 'in that place there is no kashya etc'!  Ai, he doesn't understand – it is sufficient that he believes with perfect faith that everything that it says in the inner teachings of Torah is true.
 
“To such an approach there is the response, that the Rebbe Rashab opened the pathway, that words of Chassidus should be possible to grasp through human intellect in the same manner as the revealed Torah.  That is to say, through analytical study in a way of give and take etc.  And when one doesn't understand a given matter – the rule is that 'the bashful one does not learn' and one is required to ask etc.
 
“Certainly, when one does not understand any matter in Torah (even in the revealed Torah) there needs to be and must be 'we will do' before 'we will hear.'  There can be no doubt ch”v in the veracity of the matter.  However, conversely, one cannot fulfill the obligation of Torah comprehension with 'acceptance of the yoke.'  Understanding something properly means – that he understands in his own intellect how the question is resolved (even in matters of the inner dimension of Torah).”
 
On the words “There can be no doubt in the veracity of the matter,” the Rebbe adds a footnote: “And it is apparent in the manner and tone of his question, in that there is no hint of brazenness ch”v, because he recognizes that the flaw is only on his part, 'if it (the Torah and its commandments) seems vacuous – it is from you.'”
 
Although my early study of Chassidus clearly included the entertaining of many doubts and the raising of argumentative questions (even as my neshama knew and was searching for the truth), for which I hope to fully repent someday, ironically there was one side benefit.  As the Rebbe Rashab himself explains (Sefer HaMaamorim 5669 p. 151) the difference between someone whose understanding is predicated on belief and one who comes to the identical understanding from a position of non-belief, is that his intellectual grasp will be deeper than that of the believer: “Because for the believer, the main thing remains the faith that he senses in his soul even as he is engaged in the intellectual component.”
 
QUESTIONS IN SEARCH OF ANSWERS
 
Time and again, the Rebbe instructed us in various forms and contexts that a major aspect of our final efforts and preparations for the coming of Moshiach is the in-depth study of the topics of Moshiach and Geula in the way of Chabad - wisdom, understanding and knowledge.  The Rebbe also made it a point to emphasize the importance of including the most recent talks (from the years 5751 and 5752) in those studies, as well as promoting these studies to all those that we can possibly reach, from our inner circle to the communal and global spheres.
 
Oddly enough, one of the arguments that has been used to dampen the enthusiasm of people waiting thousands of years to finally hear the good news that we are down to the wire and only need to carry out these last preparations, is that those of us who accept everything the Rebbe tells us on faith cannot expect the larger public to accept these same ideas as they transcend rational understanding.  It is a disturbing twist of irony, that there are those amongst us who can even entertain the notion that the Rebbe's teachings on this of all topics are and should remain outside the realm of rational analysis and comprehension. And this, after hundreds of years of unimaginable self-sacrifice for the express purpose of bringing the loftiest divine realities into the realm of human intellect, so that even those that are not “fully refined” can grasp and comprehend what in earlier generations was exclusively the domain of uniquely spiritual individuals,  Beyond the irony, it is the ultimate brazenness to suggest that if it rings hollow from the vantage point of my intellect, then the problem is anywhere else but within me, myself and I.
 
As we come from the birthday of the Rebbe Rashab, who “opened the pathway” enabling us to ask questions (faithfully and respectfully), and yes to find the answers, we must strengthen our commitment to fulfilling all of the Rebbe's instruction for these final moments in exile, in preparation for the real answer to all our questions, namely the True and Complete Redemption, immediately, NOW!
 

 


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