ESSAY: To Stand Before G-d
The difference between leaders and laborers, chickens
and cows, contributions and commitments
PERSONAL INSIGHTS : Me? Religious?
A Torah life, says one spiritual warrior, is no place
for a religious person
A TELLING STORY: Fire and Ice
Ever notice those candles that hang from the eaves on
a cold winter day?
A chicken and a cow were walking down the street when they
passed a billboard advertising the daily specials at a local
restaurant. In bold type, the sign announced: two eggs any
style only $1.99. Beneath this line, in different-colored
letters, was the message: steak plus two side dishesonly
Said the chicken to the cow: Look at thatisnt
that something? There, in two simple lines, is our contribution
to civilization. I provide the breakfast, you provide the
dinnerwhat would humanity do without us?
Replied the cow: For you, its a contribution.
For me, its a total commitment.
The Torah reading of Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29-30)
is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, as we
prepare to stand before G-d to be judged for our deeds of
the bygone year. These closing days of the year are a time
for self-examination, for a thorough assessment of our mission
in life and the steps we have takenand need yet to taketoward
Nitzavim thus opens with Moses statement to
the people of Israel: You stand today, all of you, before
G-d your G-d: your heads, your tribal leaders, your elders,
your officers, and all men of Israel; your children, your
wives, and the stranger in your camp; from the hewer of your
wood to the drawer of your water.
But these verses seem to contain an inherent contradiction.
On the one hand, Moses stresses the similitude of the people
of Israel, their common denominator in that You stand
today, all of you, before G-d your G-d. On the other
hand, he individually identifies ten classes and types of
Jew, from the leader to the water carrier, from the elder
to the stranger.
The Torah is demanding from us a seemingly impossible task:
to unite as a singular community before G-d, and, at the same
time, to emphasize the qualities and talents unique to each
individual. But if we stress our commonality, does this not
require us to downplay our distinctions? And if we focus on
our individual strengths, does this not invariably lead to
feelings of variance from, and superiority over, the different
Back to the Source
The resolution of this paradox lies in the words, before
G-d your G-d.
Indeed, when we view ourselves and our place in the community
from our own, human perspective, we are compelled to choose
between expressing our individuality or accentuating our commonality.
A group of individuals might join in a financial endeavor,
a scientific project or a humanitarian effort, each contributing
of his individual knowledge, expertise and resources. In such
a case, what unites them are their differencesthe way
in which their different talents and capabilities jointly
enable the achievement of their goal. Or, a group of people
might join to march for a cause, to vote a particular leader
into office, to populate a land. In this case, it is not their
differences that contribute to their unity, but their commonality
as a mass of human beings, all equal in that each is no more
and no less than one of the greater number.
But these are all contributions. We are
lending a part of ourselves to the common cause, whether
it is a talent or resource (emphasizing our individuality)
or our body and membership (emphasizing our commonality).
A total commitmenta commitment that embraces
every aspect of ourselvescan only come when we stand
before G-d, when we transcend our self-perceptions to submit
to Him. For G-d is the essence and source of everything we
areof our character as well as our being, of each particular
trait we possess as well as the simple and profound fact of
If we stand before G-d, totally and unequivocally committing
ourselves to our Creator and the purpose for which He created
us, we will find that our individuality and commonality are
not at variance with each other. We will find, for example,
that our leadership (for each and every one of us is a head,
whether of our community, our department at the office, our
family, or in some other sphere of influence in which others
learn from us) need not be expressed only in sophisticated,
elitist ways, but also in an attentiveness to the most commonplace
areas of life; the rabbi delivering his Rosh Hashanah sermon
might, for a change, speak not of global politics but of the
trivial needs of his community. We will find that
the reverse is also true: that when engaged in activities
that belong to the lowliest of rolesin the
wood-chopping and water-drawing chores of daily lifewe
actualize our loftiest and most sophisticated talents.
But first we must transcend the finite, self-bound perception
that distinguishes between our higher and lower
faculties, between our specialties and our commonalities.
First we must stop contributing, and make that
First, we must stand before G-d.
Based on a public letter issued by the Rebbe in the week
before Rosh Hashanah of 5732 (1971) 
Editors note: Each week, the Week In Review
offers a sampling of the Rebbes teachingsadaptations
and translations of his talks, essays and lettersthat
propose a way of life instructed by the Torah and illuminated
and vitalized by Chassidic teaching. Perhaps some of you have
wondered: What would it be like to actually live this way?
What happens when these teachings are accepted as a guide
to daily living?
In this column, we bring you a glimpse into one such life.
Jay Litvin is a 56-year-old husband, father, writer, filmmaker,
public relations consultant and chassid. His articles are
based not on any specific talk or essay of the Rebbes,
but on his personal experience of the endeavor to incorporate
the Rebbes vision into his life.
by Jay Litvin
Frankly I loathe being called a religious person.
It sounds so boring.
Im reminded of a person who once told me how much he
envied me. Life for you is so simple, he said.
Your religion tells you what to do and what not to do,
and gives you all the answers.
Boy, I wish.
But, in truth, this is what the word religion
conjures up: something kind of old and staid, perhaps even
a bit crusty. Something calm and peaceful, barely alive and
never in motion.
And so I reject the title of religious person.
Im just a guy who looks like a religious person.
So then, what am I?
Well, in truth, life feels more to me like a battleground
than a prayer service, and my inner reality is more that of
a warrior than a pious person.
So, if I have to label myself anything (which I vigorously
avoid doing), I would have to call myself a spiritual
warrior. And heres what that means for me.
A warrior is one who enters the battlefield with a healthy
dose of fear and a larger dose of love. He fights for a principle
or for his country or for his king, and his love for these
outweighs the fear he feels for his own safety. He requires
courage and skill, for he risks his very life.
A warrior loves the battlefield; it is here that he is most
alive. He must at all times act with his full awareness and
ability; even the slightest lapse will cause his downfall.
The battlefield brings forth from the warrior capabilities
and potentials that he didnt even know existed within
himself. And so, as he fights, he is in a constant state of
The true warrior longs for the battlefield, for the rest
of life seems, in comparison, like a place where he is able
to actualize only a small part of who he is. So he craves
the challenge and the encounter. He loves living on the edge.
It is here that he is the most of who he is, and where he
discovers that he is, in fact, more than who he thinks he
Living as a Jew and a chassid is this experience. It is an
encounter with the Almighty and with myself. It is the place
of self-discovery and challenge. It requires the bravery of
facing who I am and who I am not. It takes a willingness to
see the potential of who I can be and face the smallness of
who I have allowed myself to be.
When I am living Jewishly, I am living at the edge. I am
in a no-mans land where each encounter, each moment,
presents an opportunity to learn, to act, to refine and to
transform. Sometimes, like King Arthur, I am battling dragons
within and without; sometimes I am challenged by beasts that
threaten to devour me with their anger and fear; sometimes
I am fighting for my own sanity, attempting to reconcile the
tactual world with a world which can neither be seen, heard
As a spiritual warriorwhen I am blessed to be living
smack in the middle of the battlefieldI am fully alive,
wrestling at the edge of who I am. It matters not whether
I am in prayer, giving my child a bath, or sitting at my computer.
The battlefield includes my personal relationships, my inner
desires, my overdrawn bank account, and my constant lack of
sleep. It embraces my marriage and employment. My frustration,
patience, envy, lust and greed. It is a state of mind, a willingness
to find G-d in all places and to meet Him fully, allowing
Him to penetrate into the deepest recesses of who I am and
to dispel all the images of who I think I am.
Each time, and there are many such times, that I confront
the imperative of what I must do with the reluctance of what
I want to do; each time that I must transform thoughts and
attitudes formed through years of life and conditioning into
holy thoughts and holy attitudes, I am on the battlefield.
Whether its giving charity from the few pennies left
in the coffer, or taking on an additional responsibility,
or offering to help a friend or not even a friend when I can
barely stay awake, I am on the battlefield. When tragedy strikes
my family, G-d forbid, and I must discover a way to be both
genuine with my grief and yet remain cognizant of the good
I know that G-d gives to the world, I am being a spiritual
As a spiritual warrior I discover my faith when I am at the
limits of my faith. I find my love of G-d when I am angry
with G-d. I find my trust in the Protector of the world when
I am at my most frightened. And I find my obedience to the
Almighty when I feel the most rebellious.
I am a spiritual warrior when I fully feel my despair, and
find the hope to go on. When I feel betrayed, yet discover
my trust. When I reach higher than I should, then fail and
fall, only to discover that I have landed at a station higher
than the one from which I reached.
On this battlefield called Yiddishkeit, I am stretched
to the limit only to find that my limit is nowhere near what
I thought it was. I am alive and growing, moving, in process.
Scared and exhilarated. Craving victory and having not the
slightest idea of what it means.
To me, all the rest, as Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi says
in his Tanya, is conceit. To be despondent over the fact that
I am constantly in the midst of a struggle is to pretend that
I am something more than who I really am. It is to pretend
that I am a tzaddik, one of the righteous few who have
vanquished the negative within themselves, when in fact I
can only aspire, at my best moments, to the level of beinoni,
the spiritual warrior in the battlefield of life.
The Tanya tells us to rejoice when we are challenged within
or without because this is our task: to enter the battlefield.
We are, it seems to me, like soldiers who have trained endlessly
for battle, and shout in joy when the moment finally arrives
to test their abilities and find the real stuff of which they
And this is the spiritual warriors challenge: to find
the stuff of which he is made, whether it is to his liking
or not, and bring himself fully into the struggle with himself
and his encounter with G-d.
I find this battle terrifying, because I have no idea where
it will lead. It forces me to open myself to G-d and allow
Him into the innermost, most intimate confines of myself.
It forces me to confront the plaguing question: if I truly
let G-d in, what will He do to me once He is there? Who will
I be? What will the world have become? And what is my place
and purpose within it?
Religious? Me? Hardly. A Torah life is no place for a religious
person. Religion is much too safe for such a journey into
the unknown, into a meeting place with G-d. Only a warrior
can embrace such a task. Only a chassid of the Rebbe can hope
to possess such courage.
At a farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) with his chassidim,
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866), told the following
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov loved light, so his disciples made sure to light many candles
whenever they expected their Rebbe. On one occasion, they
had but a single candle and, despite their efforts, could
not find any more. Knowing how much their master loved light,
they were bitterly disappointed by their inability to provide
the illumination he desired.
When the Baal Shem Tov entered the room, he told his
disciples to go outside and collect the icicles that hung
from the roof. He then instructed them to arrange the ice
candles about the room and light them. The ice
burned like wax, flooding the room with light.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel fell silent. Then, with a note of yearning
in his voice, he said: For the Baal Shem Tovs
Chassidim, ice burned and yielded light. Todays Chassidim
sit in well-heated and well-lighted rooms, and yet it is cold
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. IX, pp. 462-465.
. 1698-1760, founder of the Chassidic movement.
. Sefer HaSichot Kayitz 5700, p. 174.