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The Art of Suspension: The Divine Miracle of the Alter Rebbe

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That Art of Suspension

I have been diminished by all the kindness and by all the truth that You have done for Your servant.

Genesis 32:11

He was unlike most men. He was not one who relished victory, savoring the sweet taste of vindication. Nor was he one to condemn those who had conspired to ruin him, although no one would have blamed him had he done so. After all, these are the reactions one would expect from an innocent man who had been made to endure so much suffering. But Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, was unlike most others.

After he was cleared of treason charges and released from incarceration in the Fortress of Petropavlovsk in Petersburg, Russia, on the 19th day of Kislev 5559 (1798), the Alter Rebbe had one primary message for his followers. Using unusually forceful language, he wrote an open letter to all of his chassidim, exhorting them not to seek retribution against their fellow Jews: opponents of the Chassidic movement who had sought to destroy him by fabricating the charges. Furthermore, he cautioned them against harboring feelings of anger or even pride towards them.[1]

The letter reads:[2]
Do not open your mouth or whistle at them, G-d forbid.[3] A strict warning: nothing is to be mentioned [of my victory]; subdue [your] spirit and heart before every man… with humility and a kind reply that removes anger… and perhaps G-d will give it into the hearts of your brethren [to reciprocate your love, for] “as water reflects one’s face [so too does the heart of one man reflect the heart of another].”[4]

Though the time was ripe for the criticism of his opponents, the Alter Rebbe nonetheless wished for reconciliation. For these were not the words of an ordinary man—these were the words of a Rebbe.

Fear of the Unknown

The Alter Rebbe was not the first person to express such sentiments—his letter is based upon a statement made by our Patriarch Jacob, some 3,300 years earlier.

At the end of Parshat Vayeitzei the Torah relates how Jacob, after 22 years of devoted service to his father-in-law Laban in Charan, begins his journey back to Canaan, the land of his birth, together with his family. As the narrative of their journey continues in this week’s parsha, Vayishlach, Jacob is warned that his twin-brother Esau is approaching with four hundred men, ostensibly seeking revenge for the blessings Esau feels Jacob “stole” from him years before. Jacob, genuinely frightened, prepares for this showdown in three different ways: he readies his family for war by dividing them into two camps (“If Esau comes to the one camp and strikes it, then the remaining camp shall be a refuge”[5]); he sends lavish gifts to appease Esau; and he prays to G-d for divine intervention:

“G-d of my father Abraham and G-d of my father Isaac; G-d who said to me ‘Return to your land, your birthplace, and I will do good with you’: I have been diminished by all the kindness and by all the truth that You have done for Your servant; for with my staff I crossed this Jordan [River], and now I have amassed two camps. Please save me from the hand of my brother, the hand of Esau, for I fear lest he come and strike me down, mother and children.…”[6]

In explaining this unusual prayer, the commentaries note that Jacob feared that he was unworthy of G-d’s miraculous salvation. Since he had been the recipient of G-d’s munificence so many times before, perhaps his merits had diminished.[7] He had been saved from Esau 34 years earlier when the incident of the blessings first occurred; he had been blessed with a wonderful family and great wealth while in Charan; and most recently, he had prevailed over Laban’s repeated treachery. How long would G-d continue to save him? When would his pool of merits finally evaporate? Jacob therefore prayed to G-d to be saved not on account of his own worthiness, but purely through the Al-mighty’s benevolence.

But how is it possible that Jacob, “the chosen of the Patriarchs,”[8] could have had such doubts concerning his own righteousness, to the extent that he felt unworthy of divine protection? Despite his humility, certainly he was aware of his tremendous virtues! Even assuming that Jacob felt somewhat lacking in his devotion to G-d,[9] surely he was infinitely more righteous than the morally corrupt Esau!

To be or not to be…

The most fundamental axiom of reality is “There is none else besides Him.”[10] This is the axis upon which we base our definitions of spirituality and physicality. Anything, be it a creature or an ideal that embodies this truth—shunning self to instead touch the Divine—is “spiritual,” while anything that denies the presence of a higher reality by purporting self-reliance and independence, is “physical.” Thus, the realms of the physical and the spiritual are not just located on different planes—they are absolute contradictions of each other. Matter asserts its independence, while spirit recognizes the presence of something beyond itself.[11]

This definition of physicality—i.e., that which obscures G-dliness—is illustrated in the four dimensions in our physical world, namely the mineral, vegetable, animal and human kingdoms. Take a look at a rock. Does a rock in any way demonstrate its subservience to and dependence upon a higher power? Does it give any clues that allow us to perceive that there is a cause, a force beyond itself? Or does it just sit there, oblivious to the world around it, as if crying out: “I am, I always was, I will forever be”? Continuing our geo-scrutiny, vegetation, which, by virtue of its ability to grow and flourish, asserts its independence more convincingly than the stagnant, static mineral world. The animal kingdom is even bolder in its autonomy, possessing the ability to freely move about, unlike its “grounded” counterparts. And man is by far the most independent of all creatures, having not only the freedom of mobility, but also the power of expression afforded to him by speech, and the intellectual facility to make his own free choices—even the freedom to choose to deny the existence of his own creator, G-d forbid.

However, man is not a wholly physical being. He is hewn of matter and spirit, possessing a soul to temper and guide the body. And the soul, being “literally a part of G-d above,”[12] innately desires to be reunited with her divine home. Thus, the soul is likened to a flickering flame,[13] constantly battling the physical “wick” which tries to drag her earthbound, licking the air above, yearning to return to her heavenly source, though she—as she exists now as a perceptible “flame”—would cease to be.

Man’s challenge then is to transcend his physical nature, to strengthen spirit over matter, stripping away the coarse, selfish, materialistic shell that obscures the pure soul within him. This allows his soul to spring forth and summon the collective soul of creation, thereby revealing the innate synonymy of “Creator” and “creation.” But this seamless state of selflessness is extremely difficult to attain—indeed, it is reached only by the few perfectly righteous, who, despite the magnitude of their accomplishments, desire nothing more than to be consumed in the limitless light of G-d.

Jacob epitomized this form of divine service. The higher he climbed in his spiritual journey, the less he focused on himself and his personal achievements, concentrating rather on the infinity that is the divine. That is why he feared that he was unworthy of G-d’s salvation, for he had totally abolished any feelings of self, including those of his merits. This is what the Psalmist means when he sings, “The justice and kindness of Jacob, You have made”[14]—even when Jacob could have demanded divine intervention as a form of “justice,” fitting payback for his faithful service, he nonetheless asked G-d for His “kindness,” the same pure, irrational kindness normally reserved for one who truly does not deserve salvation.

…that is not the question

From this it would appear that the greatest attribute one can possess is selflessness. Yet King David writes, regarding Jacob’s virtues, “justice and kindness,” implying that “justice”—the awareness of one’s merits—is also a noble virtue that one should strive to attain.

This quality is also hinted at in Jacob’s prayer. On the words, “For with my staff I crossed this Jordan [River],” the Midrash explains that upon encountering the Jordan River on his way to Charan, Jacob “placed his staff on the Jordan and it split.”[15] Thus in his prayer Jacob alludes to a miracle that he performed, indicating that he indeed possessed a keen awareness of his greatness!

These insights into Jacob’s life illustrate that self-awareness and selflessness are not contradictory. For when we evaluate ourselves truthfully, we recognize that our every quality has a limit, a certain definable boundary that separates mortal achievement from that of the Divine; human compassion from its G-dly counterpart; earthy love from heavenly love; and indeed, renders the former utterly insignificant. Thus, it is the true awareness of oneself, understanding every shade and nuance of our character, which allows us to realize our shortcomings and experience the ultimate in selflessness and abnegation to the G-dly torch that shines beyond. Jacob personified a seamless integration of both approaches, possessing intimate knowledge of his own virtues together with the awareness of their limitations. In turn, G-d reciprocated Jacob’s self-transcendence by suspending the “natural order” in which the weak succumb to the mighty, showing instead His quintessential love of Jacob—though “Esau is a brother to Jacob, it is Jacob whom I love, while Esau I despise.”[16]

Truth

Two men. One perspective. The Alter Rebbe experienced a clearly divine miracle, the ultimate triumph of victory. A lesser man might have used it to fuel his ego, to gloat in vindication and chastise his opponents. But not Rabbi Shneur Zalman. He took the opportunity to reveal to us a larger, grander picture. A picture in which there is no divisiveness, no fragmentation, and no pain: only a single, perfect unity—between men, and with G-d.

Based on an address of the Rebbe given Yud Tes Kislev, 5726 (1966)[17]. By Ari. Sollish.


[1] For a detailed account of the episode, including important background information and the interesting aftermath, see “The Arrest and Liberation of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi,” Kehot, 1999.

[2] Tanya, Iggeret Hakodesh, epistle 2.

[3] The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn (1880-1950), once mentioned an explanation that he heard from his father, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber (the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1860-1920), regarding the words “or whistle at them G-d forbid”: “A whistle is an expression of inward ecstasy, stemming from holiness, yet in regard to that the [Alter] Rebbe says ‘G-d forbid.’” See Likkutei Dibburim, vol. I, p. 39.

[4] Proverbs 27:19.

[5] Genesis 32:9.

[6] Genesis 32:10-12.

[7] Rashi to verse 11; Cf. Talmud, Shabbos 32a; Berachos 4a; Bamidbar Rabbah 19:32.

[8] Bereishit Rabbah 76:1. Based on Psalms 135:4: “For G-d has chosen Jacob for Himself.”

[9] See Rashi, ibid: “I am fearful that perhaps from the time I was promised [G-d’s salvation], I stumbled in sin, thus causing me to be delivered into the hand of Esau.”

[10] Deuteronomy 4:35.

[11] This is in contrast with the typical definition of physicality and spirituality, namely, that “physical” describes that which is tangible and/or perceived by the five senses, while “spiritual” describes that which is sublime and imperceptible.

[12] Tanya, Likkutei Amarim, beginning of ch. 2.

[13] “The soul of man is the candle of G-d”—Proverbs 20:27.

[14] Psalms 99:4.

[15] Rashi, ibid. Note Rashi’s first explanation—“I had with me neither silver nor gold nor cattle, just my staff alone”— emphasizing Jacob’s lack of self.

[16] Malachi 1:2-3.

[17] Likkutei Sichot, vol. XV, pp. 274-280.

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