If Pharaoh Was My Rebbe

Pharaoh calls his Torah the Torah of freedom.

If Pharaoh was my rebbe, G-d forbid, he’d say I was perfect just the way I am. I should not be passive or quell the dissatisfaction or the rage or greet each thing with stoic equanimity. That is not “freedom.” The true freedom is to bellow and rally against all restraints because they are not to our taste. As long as we are the masters of our destiny, we have his blessing. Pharaoh is the rebbe of all self-made men.

If Pharaoh was a rebbe (and we trapped forever), he would remind every Jewish boy and girl that they are kings and queens, empowered rulers over their own lives. He wouldn’t just say it; he would make it so: he would order his sorcerors to render unto the flock the secrets of dominion over nature. “Go out and embrace the world,” he would encourage. “And if the world needs remaking, do not hesitate.”

He does not demand wholehearted devotion from his followers. He is far more reasonable. “You are in control,” he tells them on the first day they arrive to build the cities that will guard the borders of their prison. “You decide, just like me.” Pharaoh is a man of the people, and the first day you meet him, you’ll find him in working-class denim, hard hat on, ready to set to the task. It is impossible, you are reassured, to become a slave when you are in control.

Pharaoh encourages all forms of expression. Words are the concretization of thought, and Pharaoh loves concrete as he loves brick and mortar; these are the media from which pyramids and cities and tombs are formed. When the idea hasn’t yet been put into words, it’s still personal and ephemeral and shifts in the light. The concept without words is alive like we are alive, like our skin is alive, an external interface of our soul with the world. But since it is just us, it can’t change the world; it is trapped within our soul.

“This is selfish,” says Pharaoh, with a twinkle in his eye. “We must free the world!” Pharaoh hates entrapment and demands freedom. His Torah says no idea of yours is undeserving of expression; no thought should remain naked, without a theory. Pharaoh adores theories. In the system of thought, we manifest and concretize our souls and leave monuments to eternity that explorers shall excavate millennia hence!

Do not, Pharaoh reassures us, worry at the way the walls close in. Do not fret that the cities we have chosen to build with our own hands mark where we cannot pass. Ignore the discomfort of living within the skin we have shed, dwelling within childhood towns that are now too small for us. Ignore the distinction between the living and the dead.

Pharaoh’s organization promotes from within. Those elder “Chassidim” (and he ages them quickly) deep in Pharaoh’s service thrive among the theories of Judaism they have pronounced. Inside the systems they have built with their own hands, they live like kings. Pharaoh is the king of kings, he teaches. He ensures that nothing upsets his followers’ kingdoms.

That they’re never allowed to taste the taste of matza.

Matza, lowly and broken, tastes of tastelessness, of humility and miracles and faith. “Miracles are hubris,” Pharaoh warns us. “They break down the cities you chose to build! And what will you be when the cities are gone? Certainly no king.”

Thus humility, therefore faith. For what is faith if not the inner point of divestment where all we know is known only by knowing ourselves? Faith is where ideas cannot slough off to become prisons because our thoughts are us, and we cannot imprison ourselves. Faith is where you can’t hide from the truth because the truth is all there is.

Passover reveals the subtle truth of Pharaoh’s machination. He offers freedom and choice and, in the end, brings us only to apathy, depression, and death.

Apathy, for what cares the king of a petty kingdom whose stability is outsourced to Pharaoh about what occurs beyond his borders? Depression, for there is no self-definition outside of the realm we have, with Pharaoh’s encouragement, chosen to build. Though we nominally manipulate stones, we would be nothing without them, so why try? And death, for if we can’t see beyond our words/theories/definitions, and we are nothing without them, we are not really here at all; only the walls of brick are here, the draft stirring the dust across their faces for eternity.

Pharaoh enjoys the entire Jewish year until the Spring, where things go to be reborn. He is uneasy with the supposed humility and miracles and faith. Pharaoh declares that every act of becoming must occur step by step, a chain traceable back to what you once were. He cannot conscience the leaping.

“Judaism isn’t like that fairy tale,” he claims. “Judaism is just like me. Look at the rules and regulations. Look at the controls on your behavior. By choosing ‘freedom,’ you, too, will find yourself controlled!” If Pharaoh was a rebbe, the commandments and the Torah describing them would remain some kind of system, some sort of theory. You would never hear another side to the story, a side that threatened to knock over the blocks. You would never hear that G-d does not manipulate external criteria to make them fit because He is G-d and doesn’t have to. You would never learn that the entire Egyptian exile existed to contextualize the giving of the Torah as a breaking free of the finite bonds of our own choices.

Pharaoh will never teach you that Judaism is wrapping a Jew’s arm in Tefillin or giving them Shabbos candles. He will never admit that the Torah is just what it is, with no shed skin, no shell of dead theories. He will never know, for it lies on the opposite side of the sea that drowned his army, that the Torah is no palace of bricks in which the Jew is king. That the Torah is a truth offered to take or leave, and it is taken by leaving oneself behind, in doing and then listening.

Pharaoh had no inkling of the nation that would survive for millennia alongside his buried tomb and the ruins. The palaces were broken, and the people, humble, joyous, and faithful, let free. They taste the tasteless matza and are reborn.

Messianic Skepticism

One impression that emerges from reading the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s letters on matters of faith is that deep skepticism and profound belief are not opposites, but rather belong together in a healthy soul. You can see this in the way the Rebbe describes the historical giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, taking a Kuzari-like tack of questioning which other historical events we ought to believe in if not the giving of the Torah. You can see it in his revealing response about fossils. And so, too, in one of his famous lessons “proving” the existence of G-d, when the Rebbe calls for consistency in our skepticism — if you don’t believe in G-d, you must, to be consistent, also deny many things you do believe.

Since skepticism is both useful and in consonance with his deep belief in the Torah, the nature of the Rebbe’s proofs and demonstrations is not really to move the recipient of the letter from skepticism to belief. Rather, the Rebbe moves us from doubt to certainty, to a point where we are still skeptical but it doesn’t matter. In fact, the Rebbe reveals our skepticism to be merely the other half of our soul’s desire to know the truth, no less a tool for finding G-d than our capacity to commit and believe.

It is a transformative and uplifting view of skepticism, which finds the light in the darkness, allowing the darkness to remain in its place and yet somehow shine. This is one sense in which the Rebbe’s skepticism has a quality of the messianic age when flesh shall behold G-d.

In truth, the connection runs even deeper, for it is not just faith in general, but faith in Moshiach itself, that inspires this holy skepticism. All who are not yet skeptics have not yet fully considered what Moshiach means.

After all, even the Tzaddikim, the perfectly righteous, shall repent when Moshiach comes. Those familiar with the inner Torah recognize that the Tzaddik is the very embodiment of perfection, eternity, and consistency. If there is one thing in this entire world on which, from a G-dly perspective, we can rely, it is the Tzaddik. Yet, in the coming age, even the Tzaddikim will change and become something unimaginably greater than what they are now. What applies to the Tzaddik applies infinitely more to anything that now conceals even an iota of G-d’s light, from a Beinoni down to frogs and rocks and mollusks. So: Everything will change when Moshiach comes.

But because the change is a change of repentance, of Teshuva, and the highest form of repentance at that, it is not a change that will occur only from the Moshiach’s arrival and onward. On the contrary, like all such Teshuva, it will be a change that propagates backward in time as well. Or, to put it more simply, when Moshiach comes we will see how the way everything existed before Moshiach was a totally necessary part of bringing about its existence under Moshiach. Sins will be seen as the road to a deeper relationship with G-d. Skepticism will be seen as the road to deep faith. Pre-Messianic rocks will be seen as a preface to Infinite Revelation. In other words: Not only do we not know, now, what a rock will be when Moshiach comes, we also, because we believe in Moshiach, don’t know what the rock is at this moment. Moshiach will recontextualize each and every being in our current reality into its own story; everything will one day be about Moshiach.

Therefore, if, today, we don’t see how each thing is about Moshiach, how a frog or a sarcastic remark is about (in the deepest sense of the word) the perfect and infinite revelation of G-d within the world, we have never met these things; we know only the most superficial aspects of their being.

On the contrary, a simple curiosity to know things as they are right now, to explore the world around us in light of the knowledge that some moment soon everything will be deeply retroactively transformed, would express as an obsession with the Messianic age. If we were fully cognizant of the imminent permanent transformation of reality, our curiosity about things would mainly concern the spark of Moshiach we could find within them.

In this sense is the Rebbe the ultimate skeptical scientist.

Faith vs. Trust

Faith is to stand in relation with the creator, and know my sins require punishment. Trust is to stand beyond relation with the creator, and therefore have an unreckoned future of goodness.

Foolishness is not to know Him, wisdom is to relate to Him through intermediaries, and faith is to relate to Him directly through your self. Trust is the self deciding there is no self.

The fool thinks a video on the Internet cannot separate Him from G-d. The wise know it can. The faithful know they can repent. The trusting know they cannot be separate from Him again. They are repentance.

Faith is to accept an infinite G-d beyond my understanding runs the world. Trust is to so deeply associate with G-d as to know that what’s best from my perspective is what will happen.

Faith is the fire unstoppable; vinegar will burn, ice will burn. Trust is never arriving at the need for the fire unstoppable.

Faith is to pray for the miracle. Trust is to perform the miracle.

Faith is to know that sometimes, for my own good, G-d must cover His face. Trust is to know that this cannot happen.

Faith is to never lose sight of the light. Trust is to know one is as totally helpless at the dawn as at midnight.

Faith is to know that everything in the past was ultimately for the good. Trust is to know that everything in the future will be for the immediate good.


Faith is to believe with perfect faith that the redeemer will come, and to await it every day. Faith is that Moshiach is certain as sunrise. Faith is that, regarding your certainty at least, Moshiach has come.

But trust is to know with perfect trust that this morning the chickens will lay their eggs and the traffic will clear on I-75, whether Moshiach comes or not. Trust is that everything simply reveals the good of G-d. So why do we need Moshiach?

If a single individual knew that Moshiach, rather than the chickens or the traffic, was their own personal greatest good, and that individual trusted in G-d, Moshiach would already be here.


Faith is to know the Rebbe.

Trust is to be the Rebbe.

If Antiochus Was My Rebbe

If Antiochus was my Rebbe (and such a thing is thoroughly impossible) he’d tell me how beautiful Judaism is.

Antiochus looks at his men, at his enemies, at his deities, and sees a sublime order. Each of them is part of a story, which is another way of saying they each want something that they do not have. Once the harmful and contradictory desires and false wants are recognized through self-reflection, they may be swept aside, and ordered wants true to the essence of every being will remain. This is called purpose. This is called vitality. This is called perfection.

Some view the whole story, the victory of the Maccabees and the long-burning oil, as miracles performed by the will of an omnipotent G-d. To Antiochus, all such tales are inelegant to the point of cruelty. In a world where four must be the sum of two and two, what beauty, what joy lies in such arbitrary whims?

If Antiochus was my Rebbe (a nightmare) I might ask him why G-d created the universe. He would gently, with his large hands made for twisting Jewish necks, waggle a knurled and scolding finger. “Only a madman could ask such a question expecting an answer,” he’d say. He is not an atheist. He simply wishes to teach you that G-d has a place in the story.

Antiochus rejects the weakness of transcendence. He has no patience for uncertainty, for the illusion of unlimited personal freedom. Antiochus tells his Chassidim (?!) to embrace their limitations, the obvious ends to which they have been created and set aside from beasts. Antiochus preaches restraint, clarity of thought, the conquering of emotions, and the courage to face the truth of our own limitations.

Why should every question be permitted and every answer sought? Can a bird ask whether to fly? Can a fish question the water? Man is the being who sees how things fit together, who has the unique ability to recognize the patterns of the story and find the soul of a thing. The soul of man is made to discover souls. We are built for self-discovery. And our highest selves and deepest motivations, our loftiest aspirations and our unifying dreams—these are G-d.

This is our Creator, Antiochus would teach: Our deepest truth, highest pleasure, and most basic cause. This is what we can know; it is whom the human mind is meant to find. It is infinitely greater than inhuman specters looming beyond the edge of space or the beginning of time. Such large propositions are redolent with the stink of the unknowable, and the unknowable is tantamount to torture. A man who does not know his set place in the world, who does not recognize his G-d, will face the terror of freedom even in victory. A man who knows his place as inferior and subservient can be happy even with Antiochus’s boot on his throat. So dream not of free-floating deities who may choose any course of action. G-d the Creator is merely the largest, oldest, and greatest actor playing his role in a script. And to a human being, the story is truer than anything.

And what is Judaism, says Antiochus, beyond a beautiful story, perhaps even the most beautiful?

G-d is in His place, man in his. There is a Torah which serves the role of G-d’s wisdom, explaining like an instruction manual where everything goes. Then there are the commandments, which serve to bring out the potential of every body and every soul.

“What potential do the laws of purity and impurity help us actualize, Antiochus?” we might ask.

“Fool!” he would comment. “Do not suppose a human being is simple. We have many hidden needs and subtle accomplishments. Sometimes the thing a human being needs most is a ‘meaningless’ ritual, something unquestionable or unchangeable to tie a community together, to add stabilizing ballast to a life, to distinguish us from our heathen enemies. G-d was wise not to convey the reasons for these commandments. They make the most sense as ‘senseless’ decrees.”

So, he’s obsessed with oil.

It’s not that he happens to capture the temple’s oil supply. Things that just happen are an insult to the beauty of Antiochus’s Judaism. The temple oil is the goal of all his yearnings. It is his lowest place, the location where G-d must be revealed, precisely because it most opposes His Truth. The oil is carefully guarded from an impurity no one can see, use, or understand. Antiochus rescues it from this meaninglessness, from its lonely sacredness. He brings purity and impurity into the realm of understanding and into the fold of beauty. He renders the Temple meaningful and magnificent.

At his farbrengen, Antiochus teaches: Truth is what works, and what works is beautiful, and beauty is truth. Since there are many systems and paths that work, there are many truths. As long as they are all consistent with reason, as long as the stories make sense, there is no reason not to keep them. Do not wonder why this involves statues of Zeus or Dionysus. They are archetypes, metaphors, members of a pantheon that the Hebrew G-d may join. They weave together in their interlocking domains of authority, and in their net are caught the essential rhythms of the story. They are not unique deities, but facets of the story, signposts along the way.

Let the Judaeans join the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Seleucids at the games, and let us learn from one another. What is sacred is not what separates us, but the pursuit of human perfection according to human reason that we share.

The only ugly thing in this whole plan is a Maccabee.

A Maccabee (Antiochus assures us with the confidence of a man who understands his enemy) wars against the very essence of Judaism. He has no respect for who is more powerful, who is greater, which story is more logical. A Maccabee does not consult the meaningful texts or the wise sages on whether he may pointlessly die for an illogical principle. These zealots do not seek their own perfection.

The Maccabees are like children throwing a tantrum, demanding they get their way without even understanding the necessity of what they reject.

The Maccabees, by their own choice, cannot fully define what they believe. They are for G-d as an individual, unique and unknowable, sacred and undefined. They have never heard of a single refined aesthetic principle. They do not sing in tune. They demand a knobbly, uneven Judaism, full of strange, hideous protuberances.

The Maccabees are the sort of people who, even possessing every excuse to use “impure” oil, even when lighting a false iron Menorah, even when they are already consigned to fulfilling the commandments in a compromised fashion, will wait for eight days to kindle the holy flames. They do not care that they are permitted to do less. They are not reasonable men. They cannot be convinced the Menorah is still wonderfully symbolic even with Greek oil.

The Maccabees, in their backward, exclusionary ways, in their condescension toward the stories that unite us all, and in their insistence that the ritual only means something if it means nothing, force Antiochus’s hand. The might of his armies cannot be turned aside; the conclusion is foreshadowed in the first moment of Matisyahu’s rashness.

I must, Antiochus tells his followers, eradicate them from the face of the earth.

It may not be pleasant.

But it is beautiful.


Originally posted on Hevria.

Our Mystic Generation

Every year, Reb Shlomo ‘the Yellow’, the melamed of Nevel, would walk to Lubavitch to spend the Simchat Torah festival with his rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer. Even in his later years when his strength had failed him, he refused to climb onto a wagon for even a minute; every step of the way was taken on his own two feet. “In my Lubavitch,” Reb Shlomo maintained, “no horse will take part.”

ONCE UPON A CHASSID, compiled by Rabbi Yanki Tauber


Everyone who tries to learn Torah with a young person today must answer the question, “What do you get a Jew who has everything?”

It was not always so. The Alter Rebbe, a young genius, felt he did not know how to pray, and so exiled himself to Mezritch and discovered Chassidus. He, in turn, wrote the Tanya, as he describes in his introduction, to take the place of his private meetings with an endless stream of supplicants and seekers.

Implicit in this introduction is the non-polemical nature of the Tanya. That is, we already know, before chapter one, that the Tanya will not be working to convince us of anything. It is a work for those looking for guidance. The Rebbe is here to help if you come knocking at his door. If you are a stubborn non-believer or do not know whether it is G-d you want, you are not yet really asking the questions which Tanya answers. This, in turn, leads us to wonder: If the visitor to the Rebbe has not yet learned from the Rebbe, what brings him to come at all?

If we follow the old philosophical rule that motion fulfills a potential of the one that moves, we may assume that the Alter Rebbe’s supplicants sought him out because they lacked. The Alter Rebbe lacked, and so sought out the Maggid; the Maggid lacked, and so sought out the Baal Shem Tov.

It starts with learning. Through one’s self-awareness, one discovers how much more there is to know. One does one’s best, applies consistent effort, and realizes that one is somehow…insufficient. A teacher is needed, for one’s wisdom, for one’s soul, for something that is missing.

But if there is no initial learning, or that learning does not lead to questions, or those questions cannot be seen as arising from one’s very soul, what, then, brings a Jew to search ever deeper in the Torah? If one perceives oneself as lacking nothing, does one ever end up at the Rebbe’s door?

In the Rebbe’s last published discourse, the famous v’Atah Tetzaveh, he describes a generation full of blessings, a synthesis of the authentic lived experience of G-d and the explosive soul expression at the time of His concealment. The generation of blessing is not compelled by outside forces to worship G-d; they live in peace and plenty. The generation of blessing does not serve G-d because it sees Him, either; they have no deep understanding to render them dissatisfied with worldly existence.

Our generation of blessing, in particular, is relatively serene, and happy, and whole in its own eyes. What trouble us, especially the younger Jews reaching adulthood today, are primarily practical concerns free of any existential overtones. Even the desire to learn more Torah (for those who possess it) stems from curiosity or duty and no deep-seated want of the soul.

And yet, somehow it still works. Somehow, they keep coming to Torah, to Tzadikkim, and to G-d. They are moved, as the Rebbe says, not by circumstance internal or external, not by the yawning insufficiency of their own understanding, nor by external circumstance holding them powerless in its fist, but by their very being, by the self uniting both internal and external experience. The soul itself, the soul beyond experience, the soul even beyond death, desires G-d. It deserves Him more than it desires the experience of Him; it desires Him equally in poverty and in wealth, when it is threatened and when it is at peace. The soul does not need to feel deficient to desire G-d, but wants Him even when it lacks nothing, by its nature, because it was chosen.

Thus, we find thousands of strange creatures in our world, those who return daily to their Judaism for no reason at all. They did not choose Judaism in their wisdom; they did not seek out the depths of Torah because of any perceived deficit or shortcoming in themselves. They sought it out for no reason at all. It is a fact, yesh m’ayin, like every person in their life, like the moon.

Our generation of blessing, says the Rebbe, is a generation of mystics. Do not, when you look at their feeble minds, or small deeds, or hearts dulled by easy living, think that they are lowly. It is by these very traits that a Jew can today seek G-d without the help of horse, tragedy, or question. Our generation seeks G-d because they are Jews and He is G-d. Nothing else is needed.

Why, then, do so many well-intentioned Rabbis today, trying to shake a generation of mystics from their perceived complacency, seek to sell Judaism as the answer to questions? True, Torah is a book of instruction; true, Judaism is the deepest rationality. But to place the questions first is, in our generation, the wrong order. A “rational Judaism” assumes questions are important, that things like logic or consistency bother a soul, and that Judaism best resolves these matters in the final reckoning. But why should logic and consistency bother a soul? This is the question that every twenty-year-old in every Torah class in 2018 asks. It is the question behind many of his questions. Why should anyone set aside the broad freedoms of unbridled will or self-satisfaction for the agonizing limits of reason?

We are not rational people; we have no training in reason. Reason died long before we were born, and its death was mistaken for the death of G-d.

But do not mistake our lack of reason for a deficiency, for a problem in need of solving.

Rather, our generation, irrational, wanting for nothing, does not need questions to bring them to the Rebbe’s door. Go out and teach them Tanya, says the Rebbe, and the Jew who has everything will remember who he is, come of his own accord.


Originally posted on Hevria.

Why the Rebbe Stayed in America

The Lubavitcher Rebbe is a prophet.

Time and again we ask him, respectful and pleading, “Why won’t you visit Israel? Why won’t you move to Israel? How can a leader of world Jewry avoid the Holy Land?”

Then the Rebbe’s response. He smiles, reminds us of the laws that would not permit his return if ever he goes, and speaks of his responsibility to the Jewish community here, here in the diaspora, here in America, here in New York.

We do not fully understand these answers. We accept them, or we don’t, and we leave blessed. Prophets are too rarely understood in their time, and make no mistake: The Rebbe is a prophet.

G-d does not send such men for the comprehension of the masses. To fully understand a prophet is to be a prophet. The world has yet to plumb the mourning of Yirmiyahu or scale the heights of Yeshaya’s futures. No, G-d Almighty sends prophets with instructions. The Rebbe is a prophet, and by the thousands we do as he says.

Across the land we proliferate, the Rebbe’s words clutched like gems in our chapped palms. “America is no different,” opalescent, pure, hard as sharpened diamond. “Words from the heart enter the heart,” a blood-red ruby. “Share the Mitzvot out of love,” a glittering sapphire of ten facets.

Ever faster, word begins to travel. The message operates outside conventional frameworks. We threw clumsier Judaisms, laden with baggage and ablaze with connotations, into the New York harbor. Yet the family wagons and their small, harmless gems seem to slip through, because they refuse to say Judaism is more than it is. “Light this Shabbos Candle. It is Judaism. You are a Jew.” There is nothing else. They do not explain. They are emissaries of a prophet, and there are no explanations.

Always, the Rebbe is here. Here in the diaspora, here in America, here in New York. His very person is an endless source of Judaism, and from across the country and the world, they come to see him, those who light the candles and find it has changed them. Many are members of Reform synagogues, of JCC gyms, or of nothing. They define Judaism ethically, or socially, or they don’t define it at all. It does not matter. There is a prophet in New York, and so they come.

The Jews return to Passaic, Peoria, and Pasadena with gems of their own, souls awake. Many of them devote their lives to the Rebbe’s mission. The ranks begin to swell until people are fighting each other for the right to spread the message. Wherever there are Jews, the Rebbe’s shluchim are there with Judaism, giving it over the only way possible, with love, soul to soul, one on one.

It is not exciting. Soul-to-soul-one-at-a-time is not the stuff history books are made of. Israel, a bona fide biblical miracle, somehow lands in the 20th century and becomes the heart of world Jewry, the theme of our modern story. It represents redemption from the holocaust, salvation from the nations. It is imperiled, courageous, and, some say, the beginning of the Messianic Age. It is, in short, where things are happening. The prophet sends emissaries to her, meets with her politicians and generals, fiercely defends her people. But he does not go to her.

We do not understand the prophet, because we cannot see what he sees. There is a future in which the center cannot hold and world Jewry is in danger of splitting in two. There is a future in which millions of Jews stand in danger of being unable to live with a Judaism millions of others consider essential, of declaring their fate separate from the Jewish people and disappearing into history.

The Jews of the land, focused by unifying threats and the weight of history, will, with the help of G-d, carry Judaism forward. The land of Israel is entwined with Judaism, and that will not be soon forgotten.

But the Jews here in the diaspora, here in America, here in New York, must somehow find hope. Despite America’s Jewish leadership, despite the nature of the land to lend Judaism fragile, compromised definitions, there must never be a split in our people. It must never come to pass that a preponderance of American Jews defines Judaism such that they must choose between their religion and the lives of Jews in Israel.

The predictions of 2018, that the rift between the State of Israel and American Jewry will soon be unbridgeable, must not come true. It must be known from sea to shining sea that the Yiddishkeit of Israel, with its story and manifestations, and the Yiddishkeit of America, are two sides of the same coin, two versions of one thing.

So: Past the border guards, under the radar, sneaks a robust, flexible Judaism. Tied to no politics or country, bound up only with immutable soul, eternal commandment, and Almighty G-d, this iteration of Judaism is the common denominator, the core curriculum of all Jews. It is the thirteenth gate, that which is essential and simple, and no prime minister or army or worldly faction can validate or invalidate it.

The prophet gave it most personally to the Americans. It is the light that will drive away the specter of schism some will foresee in 2018, in the unimaginable case that the Moshiach has not come by then.


Image: The Previous Rebbe (seated) takes the oath of US citizenship, 1949. His son-in-law and future successor, the Rebbe, watches on the right.


Originally posted on Hevria.

My Rebbe Is An Activist, But I’m Not

Even respectable chassidim agree that talk is cheap. I’ve heard them speak about it for hours at farbrengens.

However, every respectable chassid also knows that the three garments of the soul, in descending order of truth/reality, are thought, speech, and action. So really, action is cheap.

Maybe that’s why Jews love action.

Oh, I’m not saying Jews are stingy with words, especially if they’re complaining. But the type of speech Jews like nowadays isn’t speech at all. College graduates gussy up action to seem like words. Newspaper ads, protest slogans, “think”pieces.  Not for these is humanity distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom by the term “medaber,” the ones that speak.

After all, animals communicate. Bees dance, dolphins whistle, dogs urinate (some human protesters have taken this approach as well). Everything in the assuredly vast range between gnats and investment bankers shares the same type of speech, the type that leads to the manipulation of food or mates (I heard praying mantises get a two-for-one special). What is the fundamental difference between sniffing under another dog’s tail and demolishing that snotty know-it-all with a facebook comment? Both are important practical skills in their respective species; both are fundamental to social interaction; one of them might even make you friends.

Real speech of the “medaber” type is about abstractions. Eleanor Roosevelt once said the endlessly tweetable quote, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” This only proves that she considered the average mind sub-human (in violation of Democratic values!). The quote should say, “Human minds discuss ideas; animal minds discuss events and people.” This means that math major was in some sense expressing more humanity with their non-ironic goggle glasses than you were by picketing Monty Python for sexism, which should make you nervous.

Jewish speech is really just more Jewish action. And no one does Jewish action better than Lubavitch, which some compare to McDonalds franchises and some compare to cockroaches, and no one knows which is more insulting. This weekend you can tune into the incredible Kinnus HaShluchim, the annual conference of Chabad emissaries all over the world, a room full of chassidim who have done it, who have set up shop for life in the far-flung reaches of the globe just to wrap tefillin on or light candles with or feed kosher food to another Jew who needs it. Watch them speak about actions and act on speeches (“Spontaneous dancing!”).

They are heroic, they are self-sacrificing, they were a big part of making me who I am today, and I salute them. They are doing G-d’s work.

They are also doing the Rebbe’s work. The Rebbe who said “action is the main thing” in every talk. The Rebbe, who transformed a small chassidic court into etc. etc. The Rebbe, who always demanded more and for whom no words were sufficient.

For him, action certainly was not cheap.

“Wake up!” says the reader, if they’re even half-Chabad. “This world is important, it’s all happening here. We have to do the mitzvos, we have to bring moshiach and light up this darkness!” And that’s true. There is no use arguing what the Rebbe made so clear. The world is dark, and it does need moshiach.

Action is still stupid, though. Light for lighting up darkness is also dark. When someone wants Moshiach because it will fix the world, then they don’t want Moshiach. When they’re shvitzing with lepers in Bangladesh (can you put tefillin on the wrong arm if it’s the only one left?) in order to see their dead loved ones again, it’s not redemption they want. When they, lord help us, deal with Israelis in order to bring peace to land, they are missing the point. And that’s the problem with action, in a nutshell: wrestle with a muddy man and get dirty, wrestle with the world and you become redefined in its terms.

Action will never capture moshiach for moshiach’s sake. Action will never be a yearning to know a G-d who is beyond this world. Action is ever declarative of the world’s existence.

Inaction is much better. Like the story Rabbi Manis Friedman tells about the reactions of the “Orthodox” Jews to the enlightenment. Reformers would come and say, “Such and such a custom is archaic, not real Judaism, beyond twisted, and worst of all unhygienic, care to comment?” Group one replies, “You may be right, we’ll look into it.” Group two replies, “You’re definitely wrong. We will do twice as many unhygienic customs, just to spite you.” Both of these groups, though opposites, are equally reactive to what the world says, and they act. Group three, and this was the general Lubavitch approach says, “We will keep on doing what we always have done, uninfluenced.”

The only real escape, if you don’t want to play the world’s game, is inaction.

I am forced to conclude that when the Rebbe says take to the streets, or storm the defenses, or turn over the world, he’s not talking about the same type of thing as Occupy Wallstreet or The Tea Party. It is not a “rah rah we can change the world” type of thing. Which is fortunate, since those types of things are often crawling with bacteria and self-righteousness.

Really, what the Rebbe is demanding is inactive action, or action not caused by or meant to effect the world. Only that can break the cycle of darkness and introduce a truly new light. Of course, connecting to something transcendent is a lot easier in speech and thought than it is in action. The Rebbe is actually demanding the hardest thing. Color me surprised.

The Rebbe is thus hardly an activist. People hear the Rebbe say, “Take to the streets and dance!” and get excited because this they can do, because transcendence and authenticity are so hard but moving their legs is easy. But it’s not meant to be easy. It’s like the people who hear they have to trust G-d so they never do anything to earn money. An amusing comparison, since the people that make the first error normally hate the supposed laziness of those who make the second. But these two people are one and the same. They both choose the sections of the directive that make things easier.

Turns out, we need both sides (shocker). You need balance. But not a balance where you sometimes learn and sometimes act. A balance where your learning and action interact to produce something new. An action that neither respects the world nor attempts to change it, but changes it through transcending it.

There must be some way to make action more than action, to change the world but remain unaffected by it.

So you can stay in Acopolco, explaining mikve to the coyote’s wife, and I’ll remain in this dark room typing these words. Sure, you’ll learn every morning, and I’ll shake the lulav with a Jew. You’ll tell yourself your actions, which are easier for you, are motivated by what you learn in the books. I’ll tell myself that the thinking that I enjoy is all going to be brought down into action.

Meanwhile, the exile spins on, and neither of us really wants moshiach. Neither of us wants everything to change. Both of us are inured to the dark, and our efforts will keep perpetuating it.

For me, the first step into the light will be the one away from my inner world and into public affairs. But others have the exact opposite problem. We should both get to work. Time’s a-wastin’, and the action is the main thing.


Originally posted on Hevria.