Commentary

Selflessness and the Self in the Teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

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Yosef Bronstein

How does one access their soul? How does one bring to the fore the spiritual essence of one’s being that on the one hand “permeates the whole body,” but simultaneously is elusively concealed and “unseen.”[1] This question is central to the theory and practice of Hasidism, and the Hasidic masters developed an array of techniques to help people experience their souls. In addition to the ‘ordinary’ regimen of Torah and mitzvot, these methods include a complementary mixture of contemplation,[2] visualization,[3] experiences of joy,[4] sadness,[5] music[6] and the study of mystical texts.[7]

For R. Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902-1994), this question was relevant not only for the texture of the individual’s religious experiences, but also for the very redemption of the world. The Rebbe referred to his era as “the last generation of exile and the first generation of redemption,”[8] and declared that the generation’s sui-generis historical mission was nothing less than ushering in the messianic reality.[9] In Chabad thought, a major component of the utopian era is the revelation of the true divine nature of the material world and all that exists therein.[10] As the soul is described in Tanya as “truly a part of God,”[11] the process of creating redemption requires each person to strive to reveal their own soul and the souls of others. The more the soul is accessed and revealed, the more divinity is revealed in the world. [12]

This essay will briefly outline one technique for accessing the soul that the Lubavitcher Rebbe underscored as being crucial for his generation. Characteristically, the Rebbe built his idea from earlier Chabad texts and yet, both conceptually and programmatically, his final formulations stand as surprisingly innovative.

The first section of Tanya, the foundational work of Chabad Hasidism, is roughly organized around the verse: “For [the service of God] is exceedingly near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do.”[13] This verse raises serious questions that are very pertinent for the average Jew. Most importantly: in what way is the service of God, and particularly the elusive religious emotions of loving and fearing God, within the grasp of every Jew? In the title page of Tanya, R. Shneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, arguably states that he will offer two explanations for this verse.[14]

The first 17 chapters of Tanya comprise one general approach to the “nearness” of religious emotion. R. Shneur Zalman begins with the assumption that the average person is not naturally in a state of deep religious fervor due to the unceasing battle waged by the animalistic soul. Accordingly, R. Shneur Zalman’s objective is to teach his readers how to generate new religious emotion. Famously and foundationally, Tanya recommends a person to focus their cognitions on God’s greatness and this contemplation will eventually “give birth”[15] to powerful religious emotions.

Chapter 18 of Tanya opens a new section of the book and a complementary approach to how the proper service of God is attainable for each Jew. R. Shneur Zalman now shifts his language from generating/creating to revealing/extracting. Thus, we read that even a person “whose understanding in the knowledge of God is limited”[16] and therefore cannot produce love and fear of God through intellectual focus, is still “exceedingly close” to God and his service. This is by virtue of the nature of the Jewish soul which innately “desires… to unite with its origin and source in God.”[17] Accordingly, the modus operandi is to excavate the external ego which will eventually reveal a root soul that is naturally utterly united with God.

While R. Shneur Zalman bases this conception of the Jewish soul on kabbalistic sources, he famously offers a tragically not uncommon occurrence in Jewish experience as a proof that this love is indeed innate:[18]

Even the… transgressors of the Jewish people, in the majority of cases sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of God’s Name and suffer harsh torture rather than deny the one God, although they be boors and illiterate and ignorant of God’s greatness. [For] whatever little knowledge they do possess, they do not delve therein at all, [and so] they do not give up their lives by reason of any knowledge and contemplation of God. Rather [do they suffer martyrdom] without any knowledge and reflection, but as if it were absolutely impossible to renounce the one God; and without any reason or hesitation whatever.

Ignoramuses and sinners do not sacrifice their lives due to their intellectual understanding of God’s greatness and the emotional derivatives of such cognitions. Rather, there is something embedded within the Jewish psyche, referred to as the yehidah[19] or the “pintele Yid,” (the Jewish core) that is always definitionally bound with God. The irrational choice of a self-proclaimed atheist to selflessly give up his life for the sake of God is a revelation of the deepest recesses of the Jewish soul.

Importantly, in this passage R. Shneur Zalman describes the revelation of the soul as the result of an extreme degree of external pressure. It is when a non-Jewish enemy points a sword towards the Jew’s throat that the latter’s hidden core becomes revealed. Bereft of such external pressure, it is possible for a Jew to live his entire life with his inner divine core remaining concealed under layers of the petty and selfish ego.

The fact that external pressure can be a trigger for the soul’s revelation is highlighted by the fact that the Rebbe associated the above citation from Tanya with a passage from Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.[20] A truism in the laws of divorce is that the husband must volitionally deliver the divorce document to his wife. Concurrently, though, in certain situations a recalcitrant husband will be corporeally beaten by the court to encourage such a “volitional” divorce. Aware of the tension between being corporeally beaten to motivate the execution of a free choice, Rambam writes:[21]

[the husband] wants to be part of the Jewish people, and he wants to perform all the mitzvot and eschew all the transgressions; it is only his evil inclination that presses him. Therefore, when he is beaten until his [evil] inclination has been weakened, and he consents [to the divorce], he is considered to have performed the divorce willfully.

The Rebbe understood that Rambam is making an ontological assertion regarding the nature of a Jewish soul.[22] A Jew’s yehidah is bound with God and therefore always “wants” to choose the path of mitzvot. Similar to the non-Jew’s sword, the external pressure applied by the court merely cuts through the veils of concealment and enables the revelation of the husband’s true inner identity.

Prima Facie, the entire notion of external pressure as facilitating the soul’s revelation was not useful in the Rebbe’s historical and social setting. The Rebbe and the headquarters of Chabad were located in post-World War II America where the external pressures of earlier eras simply did not exist. There were no marauding non-Jews forcing Jews to choose between God and the sword.  Even the notion of internal Jewish communal social pressure to remain observant was greatly reduced if not eliminated. For all intents and purposes, there was no external pressure of which to speak.

Within this context, the Rebbe made an interpretive and programmatic intervention. In his understanding, the most relevant takeaway from the above sources was not that external pressure leads to the soul’s revelation. Rather, it was a broader point: actions of self-sacrifice that transcend a person’s egoistical intuition are events of soul-revelation. At times, it takes an extreme amount of external pressure for a person to overcome the external layers of his identity and therefore R. Shneur Zalman and Rambam provide examples of violence and threats. In truth, though, any time a person succeeds in not following their initial selfish intuition for the sake of a higher purpose a little more of that person’s divine core is revealed.

For the Rebbe, this meant that mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) and bittul (self-effacement) lead directly to the revelation of the yehidah. As the Rebbe said:

The aspect of yehidah, which transcends the revealed faculties, expresses itself in the service of mesirut nefesh, since mesirut nefesh is also above all of the revealed faculties, reasons, and thought. From a rational perspective there is no reason for true mesirut nefesh – a service not for the sake of a reward. The power of mesirut nefesh stems from the yehidah.[23]

One’s service must be in a manner… of essential self-effacement (bittul atzmi). Through this one arrives at the revelation of the yehidah.[24]

Paradoxically, it is selflessness and self-effacement that lead to the ultimate revelation of the “self.” The bittul leads to the revelation of the yesh ha-amiti – the true nature of a person in which he is shown to be utterly united with God.[25]

In a setting which lacked external pressures the Rebbe realized that such acts of mesirut nefesh and bittul and the resulting revelation of the soul can only be achieved through a radical educational and programmatic shift. Simply put, people must be educated towards lives of constant self-sacrifice on behalf of other people. All throughout his forty-plus years as the leader of Chabad, the Rebbe unceasingly exhorted his hasidim and anyone else who would listen to prioritize other people’s material and spiritual needs before their own.[26] Complementary to the time-honored motive of simple altruism, the Rebbe taught that the very act of sacrificing what is important to oneself for the sake of another person reveals the divinity that lies at the core of each human being.[27] In the aggregate, such actions reveal the divine core of all humans and ultimately of the world itself.

—      

The Rebbe highlighted this theme in his opening address as the leader of Chabad. He began his very first ma’amar[28] with an extended analysis of various rabbinic texts which led him to define the generational mission as nothing less than revealing the divine core of reality and ushering in the messianic era.[29] The Rebbe then transitioned to discuss specific strategies that the generation would need to employ to complete this historic mission. One theme the Rebbe highlighted was that of mesirut nefesh.

The Rebbe explained that while Jews were always enjoined to sacrifice for the sake of God, this final generation would be required to be totally mission-focused and ready to forgo anything and everything for the sake of others. One acute manifestation of this form of self-sacrifice is the need to forfeit, at times, not only one’s physical life, but even one’s spirituality and feelings of closeness to God for the sake of helping others. Foreshadowing the Shelihut initiative, the Rebbe prescribed that people may need to leave their safe, spiritual and familiar environments in order to engage even the ‘lowest” elements of the world. This endeavor is counterintuitive to even many religious individuals who would naturally prioritize staying close to the Rebbe and to the community. Nonetheless, only such persistent acts of self-sacrifice are able to disclose the divine core of reality.[30]

As models for this behavior, the Rebbe pointed to, among others, Avraham Avinu and R. Shneur Zalman. The Rebbe recounted how R. Shneur Zalman once interrupted his prayers in order to chop wood, cook a soup, and feed it to a woman who had just given birth, because there was nobody else to do it.[31] Elsewhere, the Rebbe elaborated that this story actually occurred on Yom Kippur.[32] While R. Shneur Zalman would have probably felt closer to God by staying in the synagogue and praying, he sacrificed this experience to feed a poor woman.           

Similarly, Avraham is the paradigm of a person who took his spiritual state very seriously and yet dedicated his life to helping others. The Rebbe highlighted a specific Talmudic passage’s description of Avraham’s work. Following Avraham’s treaty with Avimeleh, the Torah describes that Avraham settled in Be’er Sheva, where “he called (Va-yikra) there in the name of the Lord, the God of the world (El Olam).”[33] Using a midrashic hermeneutical tool, the Talmud comments:[34]

Do not read it as “he proclaimed” (Va-Yikra), but rather “he made others proclaime” (Va-Yakri).

This teaches us that Avraham caused every passerby to proclaim the name of God. Avraham not only proclaimed God for himself, but self-effacingly engaged the passerby of the world to act in kind.

According to the Rebbe, this is the model for the entirety of the last generation:[35]

This kind of service of God [called for in this generation] resembles that of Avraham: arriving in places where nothing was known of Godliness, nothing was known of Judaism, nothing was even known of the alef beit, and while there setting oneself completely aside [and proclaiming God’s Name] in the spirit of the teaching of the Sages, “Do not read ‘he proclaimed,’ but ‘he made others proclaim.’”

The generation that is charged with the mission of revealing the divinity in the world perforce needs to self-sacrificially place other people before themselves. Only through bittul can the veils of concealment be peeled away, ultimately revealing the true divine yesh that lies within.

It is important to note that this technique of the Rebbe for revealing the soul stands in marked contrast to the ones outlined in the introductory paragraph to this essay. Techniques such as contemplation and music are more intuitive manners of accessing the soul as they are often felt to foster the kind of spiritual experience that we normally associate with the soul. However, as the Rebbe emphasized, spending one’s time helping others often does not feel spiritual and will, in fact, require one to initially sacrifice the frequency and depth of ordinary religious experiences.[36] But it is precisely the fact that social activism requires a sacrifice of the experiences that the religious individual intuitively holds most precious that makes it the ultimate expression of bittul and mesirut nefesh, leading to the revelation of the deepest recesses of the soul.[37]

The Rebbe understood that the freedom granted to most of world Jewry (with the exception of Jews under Soviet rule) was not a disadvantage to be shunned but an opportunity to be embraced. In several talks he described that even though external pressure leading to self-sacrifice can reveal the inner-soul, a deeper and more lasting revelation of divinity occurs when a person has options but actively chooses a lifestyle of self-sacrifice.[38] It was for this reason that God placed the last generation in the challenging but messianic-like setting of freedom from external restraints. It is only within a free society that true religious choice can occur.

The Rebbe concluded each of his thousands of talks, even the most kabbalistic and abstruse, with a practical takeaway.[39] In this vein, I feel it appropriate to conclude this brief reflection with a call to continue this aspect of the Rebbe’s teachings. As we individually and communally reflect on the Rebbe’s multi-faceted legacy for Chabad and the world more broadly, let us take upon ourselves to do an act of self-sacrificial kindness for another person. Perhaps it will allow us to realize the divine core that exists within ourselves and within the other.


[1] Berakhot 10a.

[2] See, for example, Sihat Malakhei Shareit, chapter 3, s.v. “u-kemo be-ruhani.”

[3] See, for example, Haksharet ha-Avreikhim, chapter 4.

[4] See, for example, Sefer ha-Ma’amarim 5657, s.v. “Samei’ah Tisamah,” 223-224.

[5] See, for example,  Likutei Moharan 1, 22:5.

[6] See, for example, Hayei Moharan, siman 340.

[7] See, for example, Orot ha-Kodesh Volume 1, piska 76.

[8] See, for example, Torat Menahem 5747:2, 353 and Torat Menahem 5748:2, 295.

[9] The Rebbe stated this mission in his opening ma’amar as the leader of Chabad. It is excerpted below.

[10] Tanya,  Likutei Amarim, chapter 36.

[11] Tanya,  Likutei Amarim, chapter 2. Translation is from R. Yosef Wineberg, Lessons in Tanya, available at https://www.chabad.org/library/tanya/tanya_cdo/aid/6237/jewish/Lessons-in-Tanya.htm.

[12] See  Likutei Sihot 29, Hosafot – Simhat Torah 5746, se’if 4-5, where the Rebbe describes the collective redemption as being built from the aggregate of personal redemptions. For the relationship between personal and collective redemption in Chabad thought see Naftali Loewenthal, “The Neutralisation of Messianism and the Apocalypse,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 13 (1996): 59-73.

[13] Deuteronomy 30:14.

[14] For a clear description of the two general answers in Tanya to this question, see R. Yoel Kahn, “Mahutam shel Yisrael” Ma’ayanotekha 15 (Kislev 5768): 3-10, available at http://www.toratchabad.com/files/maynotecha/machshevet/15.pdf. However, see  Likutei Sihot 34, Nizavim #2 where the Rebbe raises another possible interpretation of Tanya’s title page.

[15] Tanya,  Likutei Amarim, chapter 3.

[16] Tanya,  Likutei Amarim, chapter 18.

[17] Tanya,  Likutei Amarim, chapter 19.

[18] Tanya,  Likutei Amarim, chapter 18.

[19] R. Shneur Zalman himself does not use these terms, but in later Chabad literature it is the yehidah, the deepest part of the soul, which is associated with the capacity for even a heretic to give up his life for God. See, for example, Torat Menahem 5716:1, 6 and Torat Menahem 5745:2, 820.

[20]  Likutei Sihot 11, Shemot #1, note 59; Torat Menahem 5750:2, 482-483;

[21] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Geirushin, 2:20.

[22]  Likutei Sihot 11, Shemot #1, note 59. For a longer analysis of the Rebbe’s understanding of this passage, see Yaakov Gottlieb, Sahlatanut be-Levush Hasidi: Demuto shel ha-Rambam be-Hasidut Chabad (Ramat Gan, Israel: University of Bar Ilan Press, 2009), 164-166.

[23] Torat Menahem 5718:3, 194

[24] Torat Menahem 5711:2, 184.

[25] The Rebbe would often reflect on the fact that the classic Chabad notion of “bittul” leads not to the complete obliteration of the self or the world but the revelation of the “true reality.” See, for example, Torat Menahem 5713:1, 235-236; Torat Menahem 5746:3, 245. It is important to note that this differs from the way that some scholars understand R. Shneur Zalman’s understanding of reality which they describe as acosmic and entirely an illusion. For these descriptions, see Rachel Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent to God: The Kabbalistic Theosophy of Habad Hasidism, trans. Jeffrey Green (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1993), 49-57 and Norman Lamm, The Shema: Spirituality and Law in Judaism (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Jewish Publication Society, 1998). However, other scholars such as Ya’akov Ya’akovson, “Torat ha-Beri’ah shel R. Shneur Zalman mi-Li’adi,” Eishel Be’er Sheva 1 (5736): 307-368 and Elliot Wolfson, Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 96 argue against the view that classical Chabad philosophy sees the world as entirely illusory. This latter approach is affirmed by the internal Chabad tradition as reflected in the above statements of the Rebbe. For the statements of earlier Rebbes about the “realness” of the world despite the Chabad notion of bittul, see Derekh Mitzvotekha 54b from the Tzemah Tzedek and Sefer ha-Ma’amarim 5629, 143-151 from the Rebbe Maharash. For more on the relationship between bittul and yesh in earlier Chabad thought and particularly in the Rebbe’s teachings, see Elliot Wolfson, Open Secret, 144-147.

[26] For the Rebbe, sacrificing for the other is a form of sacrificing for God. See, for example, Ha-Yom Yom for the 12th of Av, where the Rebbe records that the Ba’al Shem Tov taught that one’s love for his fellow is a derivative of one’s love for God, as a spark of divinity is found within each Jew.

[27] This article focuses on one effect of such actions for the benefactor. A more complete understanding of the Rebbe’s thoughts on this matter, though, would include the notion that the revelation of the soul of the benefactor perforce reveals his unity with the recipient of the kindness. This is based on the fact that the soul is a part of God who is the single true substance of reality. Therefore, in truth, acts of mesirut nefesh and bittul help overcome the dualistic and binary notion that each person is a completely autonomous and independent entity. For an expression of this idea see Torat Menahem 5748:2, 401-402. For more elaboration and analysis, see Philip Wexler, Eli Rubin and Michael Wexler, Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Transformative Paradigm for the World (New York: Herder and Herder, 2019), 124-130.

[28] Bati le-Gani 5711, printed in Torat Menahem 5711:1, 192-203. Translations are adapted from https://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/115145/jewish/Basi-Legani-5711.htm.

[29] Bati le-Gani 5711, se’if 3.

[30] Bati le-Gani 5711, se’if 6-7.

[31] Bati le-Gani 5711, se’if 6.

[32] Torat Menahem 5744:2, 627-631. See, ibid, for the halakhic justification for such an act.

[33] Genesis 21:33.

[34] Sotah 10a.

[35] Bati le-Gani 5711, se’if 8.

[36] See Igrot Kodesh 18, letter 6510 (available at https://chabadlibrary.org/books/admur/ig/18/6510.htm) where the Rebbe describes the gap that often exists between what provides nahat ru’ah to a person and what creates nahat ru’ah to God. He encouraged his young interlocutor to contemplate this lesson and not feel that he was missing out by moving to Australia to help the Jewish community there.

[37] For an antecedent in Chabad literature, see Igrot Kodesh Admor MohaRa’ayatz Volume 15 letter 5114 (available at https://chabadlibrary.org/books/maharyatz/ig/14/5114.htm) where R. Yosef Yitzhak, the Rebbe’s father-in-law and predecessor, argued that a person who focuses his efforts on helping others will eventually rise to greater heights in the service of God than a person who focuses primarily on his own learning and prayers. More generally, the role of seemingly non-spiritual physical actions in Chabad thought has piqued the interest of practitioners and scholars alike. See, for example, Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer “Anti-Spiritualizm be-Hasidut: Iyunim be-Mishnat R. Shneur Zalman mi-Li’adi,” Molad 20 (1963); “The Apotheosis of Action in Early Habad,” Da’at 18 (1987): V-XIX and this author’s “Sof Ma’aseh be-Mahshavah Tehillah: Torah Study and Actional Mitzvot in the Philosophy of Habad Hassidism” in Kol HaMevaser 10:2 (Fall, 2016): 4-7. This is of course not to say that the Rebbe downplayed the importance of emotional religious experiences. For two of the many places where the Rebbe treated the relationship between religious experience which can stem from other layers of the soul and the revelation of the imperceptible core of the yehidah, see  Likutei Sihot 4, Korah, se’if 5-8 and Kuntrus Inyana shel Torat ha-Hasidut, se’if 17.

[38] See, for example, “Ve-Atah Tetzaveh 5741, se’if 9-10” Sefer Ma’amarim Melukatim Volume 3, 39-41. For an elaboration on this theme, see Eli Rubin, “Emancipation, Multiculturalism and the Perpetual Passover: Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson’s Vision of Modern Progress as Religious Opportunity,” available at https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1816231/jewish/Emancipation-Multiculturalism-and-the-Perpetual-Passover.htm.

[39] For the theory behind this practice, see Kuntrus Inyana shel Torat ha-Hasidut, se’if 18 and  Likutei Sihot 32, Emor #2, se’if 2, among other sources.