The most eventful century in all of history was set in motion in the early 1900s, during the years that led up to World War I, the Russian Revolution, then World War II and the subsequent earth-shattering events – both tragic and glorious – that would define the momentous 20th century.
100 years ago – in 1908 – no one could have imagined what was coming. Not the unthinkable upheavals and destruction that would ravage the earth and not the unprecedented scientific breakthroughs that would transform the same earth.
Yet in every generation there are the rare visionaries who, in their ultra-sensitivity, have their hand on the pulse of their times and foresee events to come. Above all, they provide us with a blueprint and plan for the future.
The dawn of the 20th century was no different. During the first decade of the century, when Einstein was publishing revolutionary theories that would forever change the world, in a small town in White Russia the Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Sholom Dovber – 1860-1920) was formulating a vision for the new century and developing an antidote to the looming disease to come.
Exactly one hundred years ago, Passover 1908, the Rebbe delivered a discourse, which identified the attitude and work that would be needed to face the challenges ahead. At the time no one could have known what he was anticipating. But today, in retrospect, the Rebbe’s prescience becomes glaringly clear; now we can see how critically important his words would turn out to be.
In this Passover discourse titled “The voice of my beloved, behold the one that leaps over the hills” – later delivered by his son (the Rebbe Rayatz) in 1924 and published in 1949 – the Rebbe Rashab begins with a mystical analysis of the history of the world empires that controlled the world.
Based on various early sources – the Midrash and the writings of the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the holy Arizal) – the 1908 discourse takes on our journey through time, back to the times of Abraham.
In the words of the Bible:
“As the sun was setting, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and a deep dark dread fell upon him. [G-d] said to Abram: ‘Know for sure that your descendants will foreigners in a land that is not theirs for 400 years. They will be enslaved and oppressed. But I will finally bring judgment against the nation who enslaves them, and they will then leave with great wealth…’”
What was the “deep dark dread” that befell Abraham? Says the Midrash that Abraham was shown the future great empires that would control and terrorize the world, each in their own way: the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman and Ishmaelite (Islamic) empires.
The Arizal explains the spiritual significance of these powers: These empires – that extend over the entire span of history – represent the different stages of refinement (birur) that we achieve throughout the generations. Everything in our material existence contains Divine ‘sparks,’ i.e. spiritual energy, and we are charged with the mission to redeem and elevate these sparks, and thereby refine the material universe and transform it into its true purpose: a vehicle for spiritual expression.
Beginning with the Egyptian empire – the archetype and root (‘head’) of all the exiles and empires – each subsequent empire symbolizes another stage of refinement in integrating matter and spirit. The process concludes with the refinement of the last two powers, Edom (Esau) and Ishmael, which leads to the Messianic age – a world where there is no more destruction and terror and all children of Abraham serve the One G-d of Abraham in peace and harmony.
We now stand, declares the 1908 discourse, in the final stage when two empires dominate: Edom and Ishmael. Edom refers to the Western world (descendants of Rome, Edom) and Ishmael to the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Bear in mind that the Ottoman Empire began to dissolve in 1908, and would a few years later join the Central Powers who fought and lost to the Allies in WW I.
What is the inner meaning of Edom and Ishmael? Explains the Arizal that the refinement of Edom and Ishmael – our work today – corresponds to the two emotions, netzach and hod, endurance and humility/acknowledgment.
The bulk of the 1908 discourse (as well as those of 1924 and 1949) elaborates on the practical application of these two features.
Two states of spiritual consciousness are possible. One, which personifies earlier generations, is a state of revelation, when the “Divine face” is exposed and souls are aflame with passion. In a spiritually evolved environment, beings naturally gravitate toward the Divine; minds and hearts are attuned to the sublime, emotions are deeply felt and lives are dedicated to service. In such a state the higher emotions of love, awe and empathy (chesed, gevurah, tiferet) reign.
The second state, which reflects our times, is a spiritual awakening that comes out of a void:
“There was no darker hour in history than the one when G-d said to Moses ‘I will cover my face.’”
Divine concealment can take on two opposite manifestations: Oppressive forces dominate and destroy everything good and pure. Or the other extreme: Intense prosperity and comfort desensitizes man, creating instead a mood of self-indulgence, complacency and crass materialism, neglecting the spiritual and the deeper purpose of our lives: love and sensitivity to another.
In this latter state of spiritual darkness (in both forms) our primary effort must be netzach and hod. Netzach is the sheer determination and fortitude to overcome any adversary and challenge. Hod is a profound sense, rising from the depths of the soul, of acceptance and acknowledgment of a Higher presence.
Both these forces are not due to any moment of revelation or grace. They stem from the innermost essence of the human soul, which cries out in times of pain and discovers the greatest resources of strength in times of challenge. Netzach and Hod is the unwavering dedication and sacrifice of a mother for her child in danger. It is the unconditional drive and the most precious resources spent to vanquish an enemy. It is the unimaginable efforts we will exert when our lives or the lives dearest to us are at stake. It is the absolute faith in good even when facing the abyss of a gas chamber. It is the unfathomable hope and perseverance that can be elicited from each of us when our essential beliefs are challenged.
Both Netzach and Hod are in one word: commitment. Unwavering and unconditional commitment to the things we truly believe in.
As the darkest and brightest 20th century was about to unfold, the Rebbe Rashab (in 1908) and the Rebbe Rayatz (in 1924 and 1949) told us that these are the forces that we will need to access as we face the challenges ahead. Despite the lack of feeling a deep connection, an inner voice still senses a Higher presence. Today our work is such, that even when we don’t experience revelation – our minds don’t easily relate to the Divine and our hearts don’t naturally feel Divinity, and on top of it all we live in a highly evolved materialistic world – we obstinately commit with supra-rational tenacity and acknowledgement to fulfilling our mission to refine the world.
There is a moment of truth that comes from seeing the light. Then there are truths – the deepest ones of them all – that are born in darkness. When things are not apparent, when there is no revelation, when, on the contrary, oppressive forces consume us and want to extinguish the fire of the soul, then the power of Netzach and Hod – that are rooted in the essence – surface with their unfathomable intensity.
Yes, the essence is not manifest in revelation. Even the greatest souls have their spiritual fluctuations. Not so the essence, which by its very definition, remains steady, unmovable and forever reliable, even in the darkest times and even in the blindest moments.
In 1908, when the world stood at the brink of war and revolution, and then again, in 1924, when the demonic forces that would destroy the world that we knew began to be unleashed (Stalin came to power after Lenin’s death in 1924; that same year Hitler was released from prison and came to power in 1933) – as the earth was about the be thrown into the throes of hell – the Rebbe Rashab and the Rebbe Rayatz, as true leaders and visionaries, declared and provided mankind with the resources it would need to survive this onslaught.
Indeed, in 1924, the Rebbe felt the need to add an additional few chapters to the discourse, describing some of the terrible challenges that were descending on the world, as well as the fortitude and commitment required to ride through them. And then again, in 1949, when the world began emerging from the shadows and rebuilding life following the devastation of World War II.
At the same time, the discourse in 1908 and even more so the one in 1924 and 1949, addresses times of prosperity as well.
Because two extremes would define the 20th century: Unparalleled destruction and unprecedented prosperity. We witnessed the worst of man and the best of man. Both extremes would require unwavering fortitude and deep faith. And both are addressed in the discourse. Obviously, standing in the early part of the century when the harsh night descended, the Rebbe’s primary focus is on the darkness. But recognizing that the century would also bring untold success and technological advancement, he also addresses the best of times – briefly in the 1908 discourse, and a bit more elaborate in the 1924 and 1949 discourses (the additions of the latter discourse are underlined):
“Just as one needs unwavering fortitude in troubled times, the same is true in opposite times: When a person is blessed in all his endeavors, both at home and at work, and his heart is lifted to great and exalted heights, endowed with wealth and great success, with many investments and all the anxieties connected with absorption in business matters, despite all these distractions his heart should not digress from his spiritual commitments, he should consistently maintain his commitments to ongoing, designated time for study and prayer, without any alteration – with the unwavering fortitude and resolution of Netzach.”
If you think about it, it is absolutely brilliant advice, and it captures the essence of all the suggestions you will ever hear in therapy or personal growth manuals: No matter what – never waver from your good actions and commitments to positive causes. Action reigns supreme. Even when you feel down, not in the mood, overwhelmed, distracted – hold on with your dear life to the constructive things that you are connected with. Because it is this absolute dedication and commitment that will carry you through the worst and best of times. It is this fortitude that will save your life.
Much has changed from 1908. Today, 100 years later, we are blessed with freedom. No outside enemy lurks. Yet, we also do not live in a world of Divine revelation. The darkness today is within. Complacency, apathy and the forces of cool reason and science – that cool down any passion and justify a purposeless life. With all our comforts and prosperity – and rational excuses – our souls can feel quite empty. As we focus on outer success, it seems that our inner lives suffer in direct proportion. Whether it is a crisis of love and intimacy, lack of commitment or passionate cause to fight for, there is no doubt a profound void. And who suffers most? Our children.
So as we prepare to enter this year’s Passover – and celebrate the Seder in an unbroken chain that spans back 3320 years when the Jews first left the Egyptian Empire – we have a clear directive and blunt regards from exactly one century ago, declaring the calling of our time:
To be persistent and to be accepting of our Divine mission – even when we don’t feel it.
Let us gather with families and friends and celebrate the continuity of the Seder. If you don’t feel anything – exert some effort to make the Seder come alive. Personalize it, engage in dialogue, provoke and be provoked. Make it relevant. And even if you don’t always succeed in the fullest sense of the word – do it anyway. With a lightness of spirit, and the firm belief that we are reaching our destination: personal and global redemption.
Commitment is the call of our times. Consistent, absolute dedication is the antidote to the arbitrary circumstances and unpredictable changes in the ever-shifting universe in which we live.