Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Transforming the world with Mitzvah's

Dear JLI Student,

This week, we addressed the extent to which imperfect human beings can affect and bring perfection into a not-yet-perfect world. The battle within us mirrors the battle raging around us. Our personal struggle towards perfection impacts the state of the world at large.

As we learn to live as a beinoni, our attitude shifts so that we identify more strongly with the soul and gravitate more naturally towards spiritual pursuits. Yet a basic principle of Judaism is that “action is central.” Through the performance of mitzvot, we elevate “neutral non-holiness” to the level of holiness.

Our actions have ever-expanding ripples of influence, transforming ourselves and all that is touched by our action. Call it the “butterfly effect” of doing mitzvot. If a butterfly flapping its wings in China can influence the course of a tornado halfway around the world, then we can surely imagine how a kind word to a bereaved neighbor can bring the world closer to its ultimate goal of “creating a dwelling for G-d in the lower realms.”

Thus, even as we ourselves remain imperfect, our struggle has meaning and provides us with the opportunity to alter the very nature of all of creation. Not only do we have the ability to affect the world, but this mission brings with it great responsibility.

While action is central, this does not negate the value of acting with intent and feeling, for if a mitzvah is compared to a bird, intent can be compared to the wrings that allow it to soar and reach more exalted levels of holiness and perfection.

Our journey together through the book of Tanya is almost at an end. In the last class, we will discuss ways of ensuring that we continue to incorporate its lessons into our lives long after the course has ended. We have already discussed the power of study and contemplation to arouse the emotions that inspire us to follow the path of Tanya. In our next lesson, we will practice the art of Jewish meditation and explore its role in an ongoing program of spiritual growth.


  1. Hi Rabbi,

    I was thinking about the new concepts presented in class yesterday. I'm finding that there are some contradictions between Tanya principles and Chabad practice.

    One of the stumpers is the concept of loving all Jews as close family, due to our soul connections. I raised in class that people even Jewish people who act in a despicable or tasteless fashion are repugnant to those who seek to refine themselves. Behaviours such as rudeness of speech, harmful speech, gossip, lewd expression of clothing, aggressiveness, intentional violations of the mitzvot, and arrogance among others. Now in my experience I have learned to distance myself from people who are harmful or destructive. Chabad adherents also seem to distance themselves from many people. Perhaps the difficulty I am having is with your definition of love. In order to love another Jew one needs to spend time with them. I have never seen Chabadniks inside non-orthodox synagogues. Kosher rulings generally deter Chabadniks from visiting non-++ observant jewish homes. Doesn't Chabad policy appear intolerant to those following non-orthodox forms of Judaism?

    I believe that Chabad minimizes contact with sections of the Jewish community to avoid confusion on Chabad beliefs. For example, certain reform or egalitarian service practices are not endorsed by Chabad. A member attending one of these services may appear to be transgressing.

    Why are we more concerned with our reputations than the light and love we could offer to our community? This contradiction suggests that even serious Tanya adherents are perhaps too near-sighted to see the benefit their presence and dialogue could potentially have on members of non-orthodox synagogues. At the very least the person could be a representative or ambassador of the Chabad community.

    I realize that efforts are made by Chabad to set up tefillin workshops, lulav and esrog, various classes, yeshiva programs, yom tov celebrations, and shabbatons; however the type of Jews who often attend are generally orthodox, the other groups barely get a taste.

    My question therefore is how can we show our love and support to fellow Jews, if we are so concerned with our communities perception of our own mitzvot observance?

    Can't we work together and find ways to form more united and loving relationships? For example, invite speakers from other Jewish groups to speak at Chabad so that they may want our speakers at their functions?

  2. The answer: The beauty of Chabad is that it teaches people the ability to separate a person from his ideas. I can think that your ideas are totally off and at the same time think that you are a preciously wonderful person. Most people do not recognize this distinction so they feel that the only way to accept another person as a person is to also accept the legitmacy of his viewpoint. But that is a a very narrow perception of what people really are. We value a person most because of what he is inside, not because of what he did, said or thought--even though the correct thought, speech & action would have helped that person refine himself and the world, so he might have many missed opportunities. But underneath, that person still has a precious neshama and that must be loved.
    I can be realistic, know that someone is a thief and liar, feel that his actions are repugnant, yet at the same time recognize that underneath he has a beautiful soul that has potential for great things. So I will not tolerate his attitudes, I will not want the thief to be my trustee or close associate, I will not join his gang, but I will invite him to do a Mitzvah and try to help him overcome his weaknesses and grow a bit more honest.
    Chabad does not blur this important distiction between a person and his actions and attitudes. We distinguish between them and that makes for a wholesome true Judaism because we have no need to water down our own attitudes in order to feel friendship towards a non-observant Jew.
    On the other hand there are no other observant Jews that enjoy such warmth and closeness to the non-observant as much a Chabad. The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of Jews that ave donned Tefillin in a Chabad Tefillin booth or tasted many other Mitzvot in Chabad programs--are for the most not observant Jews. And they have felt wamth, closenesss, and caring from Chabad--and have become more ivolved in Judaism.

  3. Thank You Rabbi,

    I appreciate your answer and I will give it much thought.

  4. Hello again Rabbis!

    While your answer was helpful in providing a better understanding of how Chabad perceives individual Jews in order to love them, I am still not fully satisfied.

    For instance, on the issue of distinguishing a person's inner self from their thoughts, speech, and action and loving them for their soul's potential... I can relate to this concept from the work I do with individuals who are mentally ill. They often have disturbed or psychotic thoughts that are apparent in their speech and actions. However, because I am aware that they are deceived and confused by their own delusional thinking I do not judge them by their behaviour, but instead work with them to improve their understanding of reality, foster self-worth, and develop coping skills. Often medications are helpful to reduce auditory or visual hallucinations if present. Typically, I can sense a unique and valuable individual under it all with potential and longing to be understood and accepted. Recognizing that inner beauty inspires me to try my best to liberate them from their predicament and suffering.

    Rabbi, are you suggesting that Jews who are rasha but not diagnosed mentally ill are to a degree delusional or dysfunctional, and in denial about their condition? That a person who willingly chooses to pursue a G-dless path in life and who enjoys causing pain and misery to others for their own personal satisfaction is really just mixed up and would be instantly changed to doing good if they could see past their self-created delusions? Does this mean that destructive people are really good somewhere deep inside... but only if they are Jews?

    On the issue of not joining a thief's gang. My suggestion was not that Chabadniks should try to be something other than themselves or that they should take careless risks, but simply that more efforts can be made towards Jewish unity by Chabad. I think that it is one thing to attend a service that violates Halachic rulings, but it is another thing to discourage entry to members in all circumstances, such as weddings or other simchas... Are we really so fragile in our beliefs, and eager to offend? Would not an open forum where Jews of different backgrounds can express their frustrations and work towards finding solutions be helpful? It seems to me that Jewish people are becoming more fragmented than ever.

  5. I think what David says in the light of what we said about the garments of the soul (speach, thoughts and behaviour/actions): sometimes, I think, the mind is confused and impaired and inevitable, at the same time, the soul is in need of "repair and restauration" too. The rasha has to be seen, in my view, as someone who can return and work on becoming a benoini at any moment. It is indeed, at least in my opinion, that when we are seeing that person in that light, when we convey to them our believe that they can turn their ways, when the person has really a real chance to be different and to change his/her behaviour. If someone is displaying a psychotic behaviour he cannot be consider a rasha, I think. What do you think, David, Rabbi Shmuley?

  6. Something I wanted to add regarding the sin being the bite fo the snake and the guilt after that being the real thing to avoid. This quote I received by email on September 16, 2008 from Chabad. It is called daily dose and I think it is perfect to illustrate that topic:
    "Aftermath (by Tzvi Freeman):
    The Baal Shem Tov taught that a sin in itself is only the bite of the snake. The real damage comes from the poison that spreads afterwards, saying, "What a worthless thing you are. Look at what you have done!". With those few words, all the gates of hell are open."

  7. A real story from Argentina: 25 years ago my dear friend and I were strolling a main street in a big neighborhood in Buenos Aires. He was a very well known psychiatrist, very assertive, non observant, non affiliated type of Jew. By that time Chabad had a bus (and old school bus, refurbished) that they called the Mitzvah Bus. So as we were walking an emissary approached my friend and asked him if he was Jewish, and if he would want to put on tefillim. He answered yes to both, and he started SOBBING, immediately to my utmost surprise. He went into the bus and when he returned I asked him what happened that he reacted that way he said: "Someone like me, behaving the way I behave, I am not consider a Jew by other Jews. I became an invisible Jew. The fact that they acknowledge me and ask me to do something that no one who knows me would dare to ask me made me cry."
    Sometimes if you target directly the soul directly and by-pass all the behaviours you aim.