ESSAY: The Runaway Soul
The malady: malignant weeds feeding on a devitalized self.
The cure: a dose of humility
THE WRITTEN WORD: Displaced Persons
The blessings of turmoil
A TELLING STORY: His Daughters
The making of a Rebbe
The Torah sections of Tazria (Leviticus 12-13) and
Metzora (14-15) discuss the laws of tzaraat,
a spiritual illness whose identifying mark was a white patch
or patches appearing on the skin of a person, on the walls
of a home, or on a cloth or leather garment.
Not every white patch indicates tzaraat; there are
several secondary symptoms that determine whether the person
(or house or garment) should be declared tamei (impure).
In the human body, one of the signs of tzaraat is if
the white patch subsequently caused (at least) two hairs in
its area to turn white.
Regarding this law, there is a remarkable passage in the
Talmud that recounts a debate taking place in
the academy of heaven:
It was debated in the academy of heaven: If the white
patch precedes the white hair, it is impure; if the white
hair precedes the white patch, it is pure; but what if there
is doubt (as to which came first)?
Flight From Self
The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: It is pure.
The entire academy of heaven said: It is impure.
Said they: Who shall decide it for us? Rabbah
bar Nachmeini. For Rabbah bar Nachmeini had declared:
I am singular in the laws of tzaraat... They dispatched
a messenger [to bring him to heaven]... Said [Rabbah]: Tahor,
tahor (Pure, pure).
To understand the meaning of this debate between the
Holy One and the academy of heaven, and
why a mortal human being was called upon to decide between
them, we must first understand the nature of the tzaraat
disease in general, and the significance of the white
patch and the white hair in particular.
Chassidic teaching explains that the human soul is driven
by two contrary forces: the drive to run or escape
(ratzo), and the drive to settle (shov). Every
time we are overcome by excitement, love, ambition or yearning,
we are running, escaping the self to reach for
something greater, more beautiful and perfect than it. Whenever
we experience awe, humility, devotion and commitment, we are
settlingaffirming our connection to our
existence, our place in the world and our mission in life.
Ratzo drives us to climb a mountain, shov to
build a home; ratzo to pray, shov to do a mitzvah.
In the spiritually healthy soul, the will vacillates between
ratzo and shov like the rise and fall of a well-balanced
pendulum, like the contraction and expansion of a smoothly
beating heart. The constraints of our place in the world,
the finiteness of our nature and body, the boundaries of our
very beingthese impel us to escape them, to strive for
the unbounded and the infinite. But our very escape brings
us to a place from which we better appreciate the beauty and
necessity of our existence. Thus the ratzo peaks and
provokes a counteraction of shov, of return to oneself
and ones place in the world
Tzaraat is the condition in which this crucial balance
in disrupted, in which the pendulum of the soul ascends in
its ratzo arc but fails to swing back in shov.
The will escapes the self but fails to return, leaving behind
a vacuum in which all sorts of undesirable elements can now
take root like weeds in an abandoned garden.
This is the significance of the white patches
and the white hairs that are the symptoms of tzaraat.
A patch of white skin indicates that life and vitality have
departed from (this part of) the body. Still, a white patch
alone does not mean that the wills failure to settle
has resulted in any negative developments in the character
and behavior of the person. But when we see white hairs sprouting
in the white patchwhen we see dead things feeding on
this dead placewe have a full-blown case of tzaraat.
On the other hand, the existence of white hairs, in and of
themselves, do not indicate tzaraat. These might represent
the ordinary garbage that we lug through life, the run-of-the
mill negative traits and experiences which actually have the
positive function of challenging us and provoking our finest
talents and most potent energies. It is only when the white
hairs are caused by the white patch that something serious
is afoot. Such a condition indicates that the person has run
away with his escapist impulses so high and so far that
he has completely abandoned his commitments to life and productivity,
leaving behind a hollow and lifeless self that is a breeding
ground for what is worst in human nature.
Hence the law that a white hair is a symptom of tzaraat
only when the white patch precedes the white hair,
indicating that this dead growth is the result of a certain
area of the persons life having been drained of its
Two Visions of Man
What is the root cause of tzaraat? Ratzo is
the escape from self, while shov is the return to self.
It would therefore seem that tzaraatratzo
without shovderives from excessive selflessness.
In truth, however, the very opposite is the case. Ratzo
is what the soul desires to do, while shov is what
the soul is committed to do. Escapist behavior is the ultimate
self-assertion, while settling down is the ultimate
submission. Tzaraat, then, derives from a lack of humility,
from the failure to yield ones own will to the will
of ones Creator.
This explains the aforementioned debate between The
Holy One and the academy of heaven. The
Kabbalists speak of two types of divine energy that nourish
our existence: a divine light that fills the worlds,
entering within them to relate to the individual character
of every creature; and a divine light that encompasses
the worldsa transcendent energy to which we can
relate only as something mystical or spiritualsomething
that is outside of ourselves.
Of course, the divine essence is neither filling
nor encompassing. Ultimately, G-ds relationship
with our existence cannot be defined as internal or externalit
is neither and both, for the divine reality is beyond such
distinctions and characterizations. But G-d desired to relate
to us in a manner that is consistent with our reality. In
our experience, there are things that are internalthings
that we can understand and empathize withand things
that are encompassing, meaning that they are beyond
the parameters of our understanding. So He, too, relates to
us via these two channels, making Himself available to us
via rational and apprehensible media (e.g., the laws of nature),
as well as through mystical and spiritual
There are numerous differences between these two modes of
divine energy and their effects upon us, discussed at length
in the works of Kabbalah and Chassidism. One basic difference
is that the divine light that fills the world
give credence to our sense of reality and selfhood, while
from the perspective of the encompassing light,
which transcends the parameters of our existence, our reality
has no true validity and our sense of self is little more
than an illusion.
The academy of heaven is an allusion to the filling
light, while The Holy One (kedushah,
holiness, meaning transcendence) connotes the
encompassing light of G-d. So regarding the case
in which there is doubt as to whether the white hair came
before or after the white patch, the academy of heaven
is inclined to declare this a case of tzaraat. For
this is the divine perspective on man that recognizes mans
selfishness. If tzaraat is a possibility, we must suspect
that it has indeed occurred.
The Holy One, however, sees man as an essentially
selfless being. From the standpoint of the encompassing
light, tzaraat is an anomaly. If there is clear
and conclusive evidence that a person has indulged his escapist
desires to such an extreme, the laws of tzaraat apply.
But where there is doubt, this divine perspective is inclined
to declare him pure.
Who might decide between these two divine visions? Only one
who is in touch with the overriding vision, with the singular
truth that transcends both the filling and the
encompassing modes of divine relationship with
Rabbah bar Nachmeini was singular in the laws of tzaraat.
He was a human being, but a human being who had so thoroughly
devoted himself to G-ds Torah that he had uncovered
its singular coreuncovered the divine vision of reality
as it relates to the very essence of G-d rather than to the
filling or encompassing elements of
When Rabbah bar Nachmeini pondered the laws of human selfishness
and selflessness, he saw man as G-d Himself sees him: as a
creation utterly devoted to the will of its Creator. A creation
who, even if touched by the possibility of the malady of shov-deficiency,
is invariably declared: Pure! Pure!
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Tazria 5725
(April 3, 1965) and Shabbat Metzora 5730 (April 18, 1970)
The following is a freely-translated excerpt from a letter
by the Rebbe dated the 3rd day of Chanukah, 5705
(December 13, 1944):
Your letter awakened memories of the time we were together
in Vichy and Nice, under difficult and alien conditions.
From the time that a person is uprooted from his habitual
environment until he grows accustomed to the demands and conditions
of his new place, in this interim, there come to light certain
traits of his inner character as they are in their purity,
undistorted by the expectations of society.
Often, these traits reveal hidden virtues of this personvirtues
that have been hidden even from himself under the layers of
manners and social conventions.
Fortunate is the person who does not allow these traits to
disappear when he subsequently settles down and finds tranquillity.
The Chabad-Chassidic movement was founded in 1772 by Rabbi
Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Upon Rabbi Schneur Zalmans
passing in 1812, the leadership of Chabad was conferred upon
his eldest son, Rabbi DovBer.
When Rabbi DovBer passed away fourteen years later, another
of Rabbi Schneur Zalmans children, the venerable chassid
Rabbi Chaim Avraham, was still among the living. Rabbi DovBer
also left two sons. Nevertheless, the Chabad community instead
chose Rabbi Menachem Mendel (the Tzemach Tzedek)
as their third Rebbe. Rabbi Menachem Mendel was a grandson
of Rabbi Schneur Zalmanthe son of his daughter, Devorah
Leah. He was also a son-in-law of Rabbi DovBer, having married
his first cousin, the Rebbetzin Chayah Mushka.
Many years later, the chassid Rabbi Peretz Chein related
the events of that crucial time in Chabad history:
At a conference held by the elder chassidim of Rabbi
DovBer, it was decided to place the crown of leadership upon
the head of his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel. The conference
appointed a delegation of chassidim to notify Rabbi Menachem
Mendel of its decision.
The delegation consisted of eighteen chassidim, including
Rabbi Hillel of Paritch, Rabbi Yitzchak Aizik of Vitebsk,
Rabbi Yitzchak Moshe of Jassy, and myself.
When we came to the Rebbe to tell him of our decision,
he refused to accept the leadership. So passed many months
of uncertainty. Finally, on Passover of 5590 (1830), it was
decided that the elder chassidim would all converge on Lubavitch
for the festival of Shavuot to press for the Rebbes
When I arrived in Lubavitch some two weeks before Shavuot,
I found many of the guests already there. Within a few days,
Rabbi Yitzchak Aizik of Vitebsk, Rabbi Hillel of Paritch,
Rabbi Yitzchak Aizik of Homel and the others had arrived,
and the conferences and delegations began. Still, the Rebbe
refused us, suggesting that we choose Rabbi Chaim Avraham
or Rabbi Menachem Nachum, the son of Rabbi DovBer. The community
of the chassidim was in great distress.
On Tuesday, the first of the Three Days of Preparation
before Shavuot, I was inspired by a spirit of G-d. Standing
with Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Yitzchak Aizik as we pleaded with
the Rebbe in the name of thousands of chassidim that he accept
the leadership, I said to the Rebbe that I had a clear proof
from a saying of the Sages that he, as the grandson of Rabbi
Schneur Zalman, was the one for whom the leadership is designated.
To this, the Rebbe said: One does not play around
with a saying of the Sages. Say what is in your mouth and
I will hear you out.
I then said: It is written: If a woman shall
give seed, and give birth to a male... From this, the Sages derive: If the woman
gives seed first, she gives birth to a male; if the man gives
seed first, she gives birth to a female.
It therefore follows that your mother was born from the first
seed of your grandfather, and you were born from the first
seed of your mother. As his daughters son, you are the
most fitting heir of our first Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman.
As such, you must fulfill the will of the chassidim and accept
The Rebbe thought for a while, and then said: Agreed,
on the condition that I will not be bothered by those seeking
advice on material matters. Chassidim want to
hear Chassidus, responded Rabbi Hillel.
A short while later, the Rebbe appeared dressed in
white garmentsinherited from his grandfathersat
down on the podium, and began delivering the discourse, The
World Stands on Three Things.
Based on the writings of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe,
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. Talmud, Bava Metzia 86a.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XII, pp. 64-69; ibid., vol.
XVII, pp. 163-165. Cf. Likkutei Torah, Metzora 22b-25d;
Derech Mitzvotecha, 100a-104a.
. Igrot Kodesh, vol. II, p. 14.
. In 1940 and 1941, the Rebbe spent many perilous
months as a refugee in these cities.
. Traditionally, a Chabad Rebbes delivery of
a discourse (maamar) of Chassidic teaching indicated
the formal assumption of leadership.
. HaTamim, no. 3, pp. 22-23 [254-255].