ESSAY: The Longer Shorter Way
In the journey of the soul, the shortest distance between
two points is not a straight line
A TELLING STORY: The Torah Says
[This book] is based on the verse, For it is very
close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do itto
explain, with the help of G-d, how it is indeed exceedingly
close, in a long and short way
From the title page of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadis
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadiwhose 253rd birthday was
celebrated this month
by the Chassidic communitywas the founder of the Chabad
branch of the Chassidic movement. Chabad (an acronym of the
Hebrew words for Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge)
is a philosophy and approach to life in which the mind and
intellect play a key role in mans endeavor to serve
Rabbi Schneur Zalman summarized the fundamentals of his philosophy
in a slim volume known as Tanya, on which he labored
for twenty years. On the title page of Tanya, Rabbi Schneur
Zalman states the aim of his book: to demonstrate how the
fulfillment of the divine purpose in creation is indeed
exceedingly close, in a long and short way.
Why is the path along which Rabbi Schneur Zalman promises
to take his disciples a long and short way? The
meaning of this paradoxical phrase is illustrated by the following
story, told in the Talmud by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah:
Once a child got the better of me. I was traveling and
I met with a child at a crossroads. I asked him, Which
way to the city? and he replied: This way is short
and long, and that way is long and short.
I took the short and long way. I soon reached
the city but found my approach obstructed by gardens and orchards.
So I retraced my steps and said to the child: My son,
did you not tell me that this is the short way? Answered
the child: Did I not tell you that it is also long?
The Direct Approach
There are two primary paths through life: the path of faith
and the path of mind. The path of faith is a short and
long way, and the path of mind is a long and short
The Talmudic traveler in the above story, upon reaching a
fork in the physical road on his physical journey to a physical
destination, had to choose which of two paths to follow. Spiritual
journeys are not that way: upon reaching a fork in our spiritual
road, we canand oft-times should simultaneously
follow both paths. But it is no less important to be aware
of the respective advantages and shortcomings of each.
The path of faith is predicated upon the deep-seated truths
that are intrinsic to the human soul. There are beliefs that
do not have to be learned or demonstrated to us, for we know
them with every fiber of our being. There are loves, fears
and desires that do not have to be developed or validated,
for these are feelings inherent to the very essence of who
and what we are. The path of faith is the process of uncovering
these convictions and feelings and translating them into a
code of behavior and way of life.
The path of faith is a short way in the sense
that it is the most direct and straightforward route to our
destination. There are no tortuous curves in this road, no
uphill climbs or downhill slides. What we know, we know absolutely;
what we feel is likewise felt without equivocation. We innately
know and sense what is the right thing to do; all that remains
is to go ahead and do it.
But like the first path taken in the Talmuds story,
the seemingly short way of faith often takes us
to the very brink of our destination only to encounter an
impregnable barrier. We know the truth, we desire to live
it, but, somehow, we stop short of doing it. Chassidic teaching
refers to this phenomenon as the thief in the burrow
syndrome. Our sages speak of how a burglar, tunneling
under the walls of a home, hears the sound of footsteps; Please,
G-d, he silently prays, Save me! Here is
a man who instinctively believes in G-d (he hasnt called
on the Queen of England to save him), and who undoubtedly
knows that G-d commanded, Do not steal. Nevertheless,
he is stealing and simultaneously beseeching G-d for help.
Faith, then, may hover in some neutral space above our everyday
self. It may be the source of staunch conviction and fervent
feelings that nevertheless fail to find actualization in our
day-to-day behavior. For althoughindeed, becausethese
convictions and feelings are integrally part of who we are,
we have never grappled with them, never struggled to make
sense of their content and significance. It is precisely the
shortness of this path that ultimately makes it
the longer route.
The Second Path
So, like the Talmuds traveler, we must retrace our
steps (even as we continue traveling down the road of faith)
and take the other forkthe long and short way.
The way of mind is winding, steep, tedious and long as life
itself. It is rife with struggles, setbacks and frustrations.
But it is a road that leads, steadily and surely, to the aspired
In the way of mind, knowledge is the product of study, analysis
and in-depth contemplation. Feelings are born out of an intimate
knowledge of and thorough identification with their subject.
Deeds are motivated and guided by an understanding of their
function, a desire for the attainment of their aim and an
abhorrence of what they forestall.
In the way of mind, convictions and feelings are created
rather than revealed, developed rather than intuited, assimilated
rather than accepted. And thoughindeed, becausethey
derive from what we have achieved rather than wh or what we
are, we identify with them more than we do with the truths
we hold by faith. It is precisely the length of
this path that ultimately makes it the shorter
way to our destination.
Of course, the products of our finite intellectual and emotional
faculties could never equal the absoluteness and potency of
faith. Faith therefore remains the first and primary path
of life. But if the convictions of faith are to find full
expression in our daily lives, they must be augmented by the
struggles and achievements of the mind.
An Earlier Chabadian
On the cover page of Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman also declares
that he is saying nothing that has not already been said by
the books and sages whose words he is merely collecting
and restating. Indeed, more than six centuries before the Tanya,
we find two great sages, Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon,
1135-1204) and his contemporary and critic, the Raavad (Rabbi
Abraham ben David, 1125-1198), debating the respective virtues
of the path of faith and the path of mind.
In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides devotes two full chapters
to discussing the principle of freedom of choice,
which he regards as indispensable to the very foundations
of the Jewish faith. For were G‑d to decree that
a person be righteous or wicked, or if there were to exist
something in the essence of a persons nature which would
compel him toward a specific path, a specific conviction,
a specific character trait or a specific deed ... how could
G‑d command us through the prophets, Do this
and Do not do this, Improve your ways
and Do not follow your wickedness...? What place
would the entire Torah have? And by what measure of justice
would G‑d punish the wicked and reward the righteous...?
Later in the chapter, Maimonides addresses an oft-posed question
regarding the concept of free choice:
One may ask: G‑d, of course, knows all that
will transpire. Now, before a particular deed was done, did
G‑d know whether the person would be righteous or wicked,
or did He not know? If He knew that the person would be righteous,
then it was not possible for that person not to be so. And
if you say that He [did not know absolutely]... then G‑ds
knowledge was not complete!
Know that the answer to this question, longer than
the land is its measure and broader than the sea,
and that many great foundations and lofty mountains hang upon
it. But understand well what I am going to say. We have already
explained in the second chapter of The Laws of the Torahs
Foundations that G‑d does not know with a mind
that is distinct from His being, as is the case with man whose
being and mind are two distinct entities. Rather, He and His
mind are one and the samea concept that
is impossible for the human mind to fully comprehend. Thus,
just as man cannot discover and grasp the truth of the Creator,
as it is written, No man can perceive Me and live,
so, too, man cannot discover and grasp the mind
of the Creator. In the words of the prophet, My thoughts
are not as your thoughts, nor are your ways as My ways.
Therefore, we lack the capacity to know the nature of
G‑ds knowledge of all creations and all events.
But this we know without a doubt: that the deeds of man are
in his own hands, and G‑d does not compel him to do
anything. And we know this not only by virtue of our acceptance
of the faith, but through clear proofs from the teachings
The Raavad takes issue with Maimonides approach. The
author, he writes in a gloss on the above passage, did
not act in the manner of the wise: one ought not begin something
that one is incapable of concluding. He begins by posing a
difficult question, then remains with the difficulty and reverts
to faith. It would have been better for him to have left it
as a matter of faith for the innocent, instead of making them
aware [of the contradiction] and leaving their minds in doubt.
Why, indeed, does Maimonides begin a logical discussion of
an issue for which he does not have a logical resolution?
But Maimonides had a different conception than the Raavad
of the role of logic in mans endeavor to
know and relate to his Creator.
As the Raavad saw it, there are certain things that can be
understood, and certain things that lie beyond our capacity
to relate to with our minds tools of logic. What can
be understood should be pursued via the path of mind;
what cannot be understood should be relegated exclusively
to the path of faith.
Maimonides agrees that there is many a concept that
is impossible for the human mind to fully comprehend.
But he maintains that these things, too, should be pursued
along the path of mind. We should strive to understand
what it is that we cannot understand about G-d; we should
strive for a true appreciation of the depth and magnitude
of the supra-rationality of the divine.
In other words, the mind is not only a tool with which to
grasp things that are fully comprehensible to usit is
also a tool with which to relate to supra-rational truths.
Indeed, only the mind can truly appreciate how beyond understanding
a supra-rational truth is. And the greater the mind and the
greater its comprehension, the greater its appreciation of
the magnitude of that which lies beyond its comprehension.
So it is not enough that we accept by faith the paradox of
G-ds absolute providence of our world and mans
freedom of choice; we should also fully understand
this paradox. We cannot, as the Raavad suggests, leave
it as a matter of faith for the innocent, instead of making
them aware of the contradiction. For if this contradiction
did not exist within our awareness, it would mean that there
are areas of G-ds relationship with our reality which
we have not explored with our minds.
Maimonides insists on tackling even the most supra-rational
aspects of our relationship with G-d with the finite implements
of the human mind. For it is only when pursued along the long
and short way of mind that these truths become ingrained
within our personality and character and find expression in
even the most mundane activities of everyday life.
Based on the Rebbes talks, Iyar 5742 (April-May,
The Maggid of Trisk would begin the year by citing various
sources from the Torah indicating that this would be the year
in which Moshiach would come and the long-awaited Redemption
would be achieved. Come next year, the Maggid would again
find allusions and proofs that this year would be the
year of the Redemption.
When asked about his reasons for this annual exercise, he
When a person sees his father doing something wrong,
a certain dilemma arises. On the one hand, one is commanded
to Honor your father;
on the other hand, one is obligated to rebuke one who transgresses
a commandment of the Torah.
The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), instructs
that, in such a case, one should say to ones father:
Father, doesnt the Torah say such-and-such?
This way, one makes him aware of his wrongdoing without directly
G-d has promised to redeem us, and the Talmud tells
us that all the deadlines for the Redemption have come and
gone. But G-d is our Father,
who, even when He fails to do what He should, must be respected
and revered. So each year I say to G-d: Father, doesnt
the Torah say that the Redemption must come this year?!
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. On the 18th of Elul (this year, September 9). That
date also marks the birthday, 47 years earlier, of the founder
of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, whom Rabbi Schneur
regarded as his spiritual grandfather (Rabbi
Schneur Zalman was a disciple of Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch,
who was the disciple and successor of the Baal Shem Tov).
. Ibid., Berachot 63a.
. Rabbi Schneur Zalman called his book Likkutei
Amarim, Collected Sayings.
. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:4.
. Mishneh Torah, ibid. 5:5.
. For a more detailed discussion of the paradox
of divine knowledge and human choice, and of Maimonides
and the Raavads positions on the matter, see Beyond
the Letter of the Law (VHH, 1995), pp. 175-184.
. This difference between Maimonides and the Raavad
is also reflected in a number of the Raavads other
glosses on Maimonides Mishneh Torah. For example,
in the first chapter of Laws of the Torahs Foundations,
What is it that Moses our Master desired to attain
when he said, Pray, show me Your countenance?
[Exodus 33:18] He desired to know the truth of G-ds
reality to the extent that it should be known in his mind
like ones knowledge of a person whose face one has
seen, and its form is engraved in ones mind, making
that person distinct in ones mind from all other people;
in the same way, Moses desired that the reality of G-d should
be distinct in his mind from all other existences, so that
he knows the truth of His reality as it is. G-ds answer
to him was [You cannot see My face, for no man can
see Me and live] that a living human being,
comprised of a body and a soul, has not the capacity to
fully comprehend the truth [of G-d] in this manner.
Upon which the Raavad remarks: My mind is not
agreeable [with Maimonides interpretation of these
verses]. For Moses saw on Sinai, during the forty days [in
which he received] the Tablets, what no prophet ever saw
... so what more could he have needed?
What Moses saw on Mount Sinai was a prophetic visiona
supra-rational perception such as is attained through faith.
From the Raavads perspective, why would Moses, having
attained the truth of truths through prophecy, still desire
the lesser mind knowledge that Maimonides describes?
But from Maimonides perspective, there is a uniqueness
to the minds grasp of its subjecteven if it
is a subject it could never fully apprehendthat the
supra-rational tools of apprehension (such as faith and
prophecy) cannot possess.
Another example is Maimonides account of Abrahams
discovery of the One G-d, where he writes that Abraham
recognized his Creator at the age of forty years (Mishneh
Torah, Laws Regarding Idolatry 1:3), and the Raavad
cites the Midrash which says that this occurred when Abraham
was at the tender age of three years. The two sages are
quoting two different Midrashic sources, which do not necessarily
contradict each other: there are many milestones of recognition
in a lifelong quest for truth. Maimonides emphasizes the
recognition that ripened in Abraham at age forty, which
is the age of understanding (see Ethics of the
Fathers 4:22); the Raavad places the greater emphasis on
the intrinsic faith in G-d that finds its purest expression
in a young child.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXXIV, pp. 173-179.
. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 240:11.
. Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a.