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G-D is Good Moshiach is Good
by Rabbi Zvi Homnick

GOOD FOR WHOM?

In the early years of my involvement with Chabad Chassidus, I got into a lengthy discussion with a good friend of mine who was a direct descendant of a renowned Polish Chassidic dynasty and very interested in understanding the distinctions between Chabad and other Chassidic approaches.  (Tragically, he passed away earlier this past year at a young age, leaving behind a young widow and ten young children.)  In that conversation, I brought up a story of the Alter Rebbe from the period of his life when he traveled incognito for the purpose of bringing in new recruits to the Chassidic movement.

The story took place when he paid a visit to the town of Shklov, a bastion of Lithuanian scholarship and opposition to Chassidus.  There he entered a house of study, where many young scholars were learning with great diligence.  He went up to the lectern and proclaimed loudly with a distinctive tune (well-known to Chassidim), “Taamu U'Re'u Ki Tov Havaya – farzucht, vet ihr zehn, az der Aibishter is gut (taste, and you will see, that G-d is good).”  The Alter Rebbe immediately left and hurried to get out of town as there was a very real threat of physical danger for Chassidim in those days, and the story goes that he was followed by scores of young men who eventually became devout Chassidim.

Although the story is obviously indicative of the great spiritual powers of a great Tzaddik such as the Alter Rebbe, since it can hardly be expected that an ordinary Chassid would have achieved the same result with the same message, the content of the message is clearly a central point of the story.  We discussed and analyzed every detail of the story, with a key point of discussion being the question of whether Misnagdim in general have a more negative view of G-d, and if they do why is that the case.

We had both grown up being educated in Torah institutions that tended to embrace a more oppositional view of the Chassidic movement as a whole, while attempting to incorporate some ideas and insights from the great Chassidic masters, especially those ideas that portray Judaism in a more positive and inspirational light.  As such, we had never really been exposed to the extreme attitudes attributed to the early Misnagdim in Chassidic writings, in which G-d is portrayed as a scary all-powerful being just waiting to zap those who step out of line, conjuring up inventive means of torturing and tormenting the souls of the sinful (and who is really completely pure of sin?) for all eternity.

And yet, as we thought about it, we concluded that the main reason for this was not a true shift in perception, but rather a shift in emphasis.  Since we live in times when young people are surrounded by a beckoning world of seemingly endless options and freedoms, the focus became on developing a success orientation rather than a Yiras Shomayim orientation.  The idea being that American kids relate more to concrete measurable steps that define success in a given pursuit or vocation, so the yeshiva model for the New World became one that focused on being a success in learning, with every other aspect of observance and ideology seen as secondary, tertiary, or even entirely peripheral, but necessary for success in learning.

However, despite the aforementioned shift, if someone is committed to pursuing and attaining real feelings of fear and awe of Heaven, he has no real tools to do so except to fire up his imagination to come up with ways of seeing and defining G-d in scary terms.  So, despite the general avoidance of the more “negative” and “scary” aspects of Judaism, there remains a perceptual undercurrent of G-d as the big bad bogeyman, which tends to come to the fore only when decrying or condemning some other group for their laxity of observance or questionable ideology, whence they are consigned to eternal damnation seasoned with unspeakable tortures.  Although, this generally is accompanied by outrage and righteous indignation, it can actually be a fun and even cathartic exercise carried out in good cheer with verve and gusto (sometimes even by the “Gedolim” leadership).

 

IS IT REALLY GOOD?

Not long after that conversation, I got incontrovertible confirmation of the aforementioned thesis, that without Chassidus even the most learned people can and do end up with some pretty twisted ideas about G-d, which do not comport with Him as the infinitely loving and lovable Being that He is.  This involved another even older friend from my early childhood, who is also a direct descendant of one of the early Chassidic greats, but came from a more modern home and made great sacrifices in order to attend the same yeshivas that I did.  His connection with his Chassidic origins is limited to great admiration for the late Satmar Rebbe with whom he has a family relation, so his opposition to Chabad is both as a Misnaged and as a “Chassid.”

At the time, a local Jewish magazine decided to capitalize on the controversy surrounding the Moshiach issue, and they published an article from my friend which was unreservedly critical of Lubavitch. In response, they later published an article from a prominent Lubavitcher as well as a reply article from my friend, under the heading of “the great Moshiach debate.”  In his original article, he wrote that Lubavitch was guilty of false advertising when it comes to the issue of Moshiach.  This is because they represent to the uneducated public the idea that when Moshiach comes it will be good. However, this is completely untrue for everybody but the most righteous people or those who have repented their sins in good time.

Citing the Chofetz Chaim, he explained that after Moshiach comes there will take place “the Great and Awesome Judgment Day,” and at that time, anyone who committed a sin with any one of his limbs or organs will be consigned to spend all of eternity without that limb or organ, since it will be too late for repentance.  Thus, someone who sinned by listening to forbidden talk will have no ears, by viewing forbidden sights will have no eyes, and so on and so forth.  That being the case, he concluded that Moshiach's arrival will herald unspeakable and eternal suffering for almost all Jews.

The question then is why G-d would demand of us that we wait in anticipation, and constantly hope and pray for the coming of Moshiach when it is so patently detrimental to our interests.  The answer he gives is that this is another example of a commandment that requires great personal sacrifice, namely that we really truly hope and pray for something inordinately horrible since this is what G-d wants.

Apparently, this theorem was not an original one, because I discovered that the Rebbe actually addressed this perverted view a number of years earlier, bemoaning the tragedy of those that perceive G-d as the epitome of heartlessness.  In the Rebbe's words, “Dos iz aza achzariyus vos der Satan alein volt nisht gekent oistrachten (that is such a cruelty that Satan himself couldn't have thought it up).”  And yet, when I spoke to other people from my past, including close family, they didn't think that his views were that far off the mark. Now that is scary!

So what is the basis for the Chassidic approach?  How does one “see” that G-d is good?  And what about all the harrowingly harsh and horrific purgations purportedly practiced in purgatory presumably preparatory to paradise (some even cited in Tanya)?

 

GOOD TASTE

Perhaps we can answer those questions by analyzing the verse quoted in the story at the beginning of the article, “Taste, and you will see, that G-d is good.”  The obvious question is what does taste have to do with seeing, and how does Chassidus facilitate this tasting and seeing?  To understand this we need to acknowledge that pretty much every Torah source from all periods and disciplines all seem to concur that this world is a place where there exists far more negativity, whether it be pain and suffering or wickedness and injustice, than good.

According to Kabbala and Chassidus, the reason for this is due to the tremendous concealment and withholding of G-dly light that is necessary to create a finite material world.  As such, in this world, the Divine attribute of Gevura (strength, justice, severity) is more manifest than the infinite creative powers of Chessed (loving-kindness, generosity, tolerance).  In fact, “G-d saw that the world would not be able to survive so He partnered it with the attribute of Rachamim (mercy, compassion),” which allows for the mutual cooperation of both forces.

So, if we were to extrapolate any knowledge of G-d from the world as we see it, since what we see is mostly negative, we would be forced to conclude that even if we were to accept the idea that “G-d is good” as a matter of faith, since He told us so in His Torah, we could hardly say that we “see that G-d is good.”

However, the power of taste works differently than the power of sight.  By properly blending some of the foulest tasting ingredients such as vinegar and the like, one can tease out more pleasurable flavors than if he were limited to using only good tasting ingredients.  Someone who had only tasted vinegar straight up, the next time he saw a vinegar bottle he would “see” it as something awful because he only “sees” it in terms of his earlier negative experience.  However, someone who has tasted many delicacies which include vinegar “sees” it in an entirely different light.  In fact, there are many people who feel deprived when refraining from vinegar use during the High Holiday season, depending on their custom.

Similarly, in Kabbala and Chassidus it is explained that the existence of the Divine attribute of Gevura is strictly for the purpose of enhancing and intensifying the attribute of Chessed.  Any concealment or painful situation is only temporary and fleeting and only as a means to make the world and the individual Jew a proper vessel to receive His material blessings in this world and G-d's Infinite Light and His infinite goodness in the World to Come.  It is only if you “taste” it separately that it seems to be just plain bad, and the world and its Creator seem to look just as bad.  However, through learning Chassidus and developing an appreciation for the infinite greatness and goodness of Hashem, and how this is expressed even more powerfully within the concealment of the finite, and how in fact the concealment only exists in order to bring about greater revelation, then you can actually alter your own experience of the world as we know it.  “Taste” and only then will you “see” that G-d is good.

For someone who has “tasted” Chassidus, the idea that Moshiach will be bad for you is not only factually incorrect but inconceivable.  This is not only from an intellectual and/or ideological standpoint, but every fiber of my being feels that it is under assault in the face of such a suggestion that is completely contrary to what I know as absolute reality, because I have “tasted” and “seen” az der Aibishter is gut.  (As to the “Great and Awesome Judgment Day,” this not the time or place, but let us suffice with the statement of the Minchas Elozor of Munkatch who after explaining that this does not apply to Jews and certainly not in any adverse way [citing the Arizal and others] said regarding those that use this to convince Jews that Moshiach will be bad for them – afra l'pumayhu [may their mouths be filled with dust] – in a positive way of course, i.e. the “dust” of bittul to G-d and His righteous ones).

 

GOOD IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH

There is a note written by Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, the Rebbe’s father, whose yahrtzeit we commemorate on the 20th day of Av, where he writes about the persecution and suffering that he endured beginning with his first arrest.  There he explains based on many Kabbalistic ideas how his name and various aspects of his life allude to the Divine attribute of Gevura, and how they manifested in his life.  And yet, the whole tone of the piece is about how “G-d is good” and that the whole purpose for the existence of this Divine attribute is so that it be “sweetened” with Chessed, and concludes with the prayer that he witness the actual sweetening and be released from his exile. Although it is all good, when everything comes together in a sweet way that is when it is better than good.

In similar fashion, we currently find ourselves in a time of concealment, a time which the Rebbe alluded to in a lengthy footnote in the last edited sicha to date with the verse, “For a brief moment, I have deserted you, and with great mercies I will gather you in.” And yet, we are called upon to not only “see” that G-d is good, but to “open our eyes” and see how everything that is happening is not just leading up to Geula and the coming of Moshiach, but is part of the actual process.  This requires that we apply the power of “taste” in order to appreciate even those ingredients in the process that seem to be less than palatable, so that we can “see” that “G-d is good” and Moshiach is good.  This in turn, should only strengthen our commitment to not be satisfied with a good that requires “tasting” first, but to insist on and do everything in our power to bring about the ultimate revealed good with the True and Complete Redemption, immediately, NOW!

 

 


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