We do not, in Judaism, agree with the philosophers that greatness is greatness no matter who or what possesses it. Korach erred to think he could bear Moshe’s greatness as easily as Moshe and Aharon’s holiness as easily as any Kohen. In this, he was a heretic, ultimately denying creation ex nihilo, that Moses could be a radically different creation than Korach. So I do not mean to say that a Facebook comment can be genuinely great per se like (l’havdil) a work of Torah.
But if it is no longer a “Facebook comment per se,” if Korach ceases to be Korach by becoming Moshe’s man, then true greatness is possible, the greatness of the inifite. All finite things hold an emptiness at the center called bittul, a negative space that may contain the infinite. Through bittul, the non-great may become great. When we talk about a great FB comment, we’re talking about one that’s becoming nothing inside and out.
Here’s what it looks like: I met a severe Yeshiva student on one of my wanderings. He was of European slimness, shorter and younger than average in the study hall, and brilliant. He pursued Judaism with the dangerous fanaticism of a broken-hearted youth.
The ‘danger,’ such as it is, lies in the multi-layered nature of the pit, the hole inside that Judaism will fill, because Judaism must, because if it doesn’t, what am I? Many souls contain a Machpelah, a cave within a cave, a cave above a cave. Only Judaism fills the most bottomless hole, the cavity closer to us than our very being. We can plug smaller, more superficial spiritual needs with worldly pleasures, therapy, art, friends and family, secular knowledge, political activism, or a gratifying job. Sometimes the upper chamber may even be filled by time, the spiritual agonies of adolescence calloused over by the 20s.
The trick of the hole-filling Baal Teshuva, the returnee to Judaism looking to satisfy a need, is to realize that beneath the sinkholes opening along our contingent path through circumstance lies a broader existential tale tied to our very being. We possess emptiness born not of the path chosen for us but of we who walk it, that deep inner vacuum to which Judaism speaks, the infinite desolation that only G-d can make whole. Torah and Mitzvos will contextualize the other problems, the ones of nature and nurture, and may repair them at the level of what they are. They will transform us from biological beings dealing with problems into G-dly souls wrestling with them. But all direct changes to the form of our questions do not require Judaism. Self-discipline and a regimented life come from the army; self-help books and gurus can transform your attitude; medication and diet help depression and anxiety; friends and family give us love.
One of Chassidus’s penetrating insights is that to live a G-dly life is different from conquering the form of your troubles. To heal the animal soul—the path of Mussar/Ethical teachings—may be a prerequisite to the work of the G-dly soul, but it is not that work. The Baal Shem Tov revealed that a commandment performed for a reward demotes the commandment to below the reward. So, too, if the point of the commandment is self-improvement, it elevates the animal traits above the mitzvah. A Korach cannot become a Moses from the outside, by slowly improving his Korach-itude, because Moses is not merely a more ethical Korach. Korach becomes Moshe by first becoming nothing, by finding the infinite emptiness within and introducing it into his life. He does this no matter which contingent foibles and character flaws lie in his way.
It should not surprise us that many a young Baal Teshuva, thinking it’s Chassidus they seek, join a yeshiva and start studying the Tanya. They soon discover the Tanya addresses only a single problem, the union of the souls with the divine. They then remain in a frustrating stalemate until something else shows up to solve their problem. Occasionally it is Mussar that saves the day. More often, it’s one of the other hole fillers, and, their itch scratched and their issue resolved, they stop seeking G-d. My acquaintance, the young zealot, seems to have done just that. He now often posts pictures of himself, bare-headed and often bare-chested, luxuriating in an exotic locale, to Facebook.
There was another student in that same yeshiva where I met the first. Where the first was young, this second was older than the yeshiva average. Where the former was fanatical, the latter was disinterested. The first was hungry, seeking satisfaction from every page of the Talmud, every letter of each Chassidic discourse. The latter seemed to hate everyone and everything about our little school, often missing classes, arriving at strange hours with odd friends to study the talks of the Previous Rebbe of Lubavitch in Russian-accented Hebrew. The only things the two students had in common were their distinctive approaches to yeshiva life apart from the established order, tormented spirits, and a penchant for cigarettes.
The Russian (let’s call him) was, without doubt, the most abrasive person I met in perhaps my entire yeshiva career. He had no air of glory about him whatsoever, no sense that, by participating in Judaism, he was doing something noble or extraordinary. He spoke with all the tact of a Moscoloid street rat and had physically assaulted a non-zero number of his fellow students. He had studied philology in university back in the Motherland and spat out the names of philosophers like curses. He liked the Kuzari and alcohol. I think he is an orphan, but he found no loving family amongst us; if he has a void in that sense, it’s hard to imagine we were filling it with our constant exasperation at his moods. He was no Moses (lacking the piety) and no Korach (lacking the delusions of grandeur and the pictured path to fulfillment). He was more a Dasan or Aviram, kicking over blocks for fun, and you wanted to ask him, “Why are you here?” However, in retrospect, it is clear he possessed the knack of every successful fulfillment-seeking Baal Teshuva. He could be here because he was here. Dogged, senseless, persistence without reason or clear reward is the trick of the Baal Teshuva, and you can’t teach it. It appears in other areas of life aglimmer with the sheen of the infinite. The advice for writers, I have learned, is to write. The ingredient of cake, when G-d makes it, is cake. That which is created from nothing has no explanation. Moses can be Moses only because he is, and this mystery the Russian embodies.
Today, checking my Facebook feed, I see two truly great words, words that ring with the full hollowness of a Chassidic story. You must recognize those involved, read the words in an irritated Russian accent written to an old non-friend, a youth from yeshiva. The Russian was never there when the youth slaved over the holy books, was not around when he sculpted a shining new face for himself in the night, was not awake when he closed the book, picked up his jacket, and quit. But beneath the latest in a string of frivolous photos of a new life, the Russian has commented,
with the mournful triumph of the eternally satisfied,
with the confident disregard of those who cannot break free from the bundle of life even if they wished,
with the greatness of those who are empty and thus are Moses,
with the longing of an inner cave so long-buried the explorers have stopped looking for it,
with the laconic, mystified bemusement of those who have suffered worse yet never managed to leave:
“Come back already.”