Today we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest leaders, teachers and mystics. Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, was born on the 20th of Cheshvan 5621, corresponding with November 5, 1860.
Rabbi Sholom Dovber, known as the Rebbe Rashab (for the acronym of his name), authored the most comprehensive documents on mysticism to date, elegantly outlining the mystical infrastructure and its application to our lives. He wrote over 1500 discourses (‘maamorim’), totaling over 50 published volumes of teachings and responsa. Rabbi Sholom Dovber was a Rebbe – a leader – to thousands. He worked tireless on behalf of the Russian Jewish community during the difficult period of transition from Czarist Russia, through World War I, to the Russian Revolution. Recognizing the coming turmoil of the 20th century, in 1887 the Rebbe Rashab established Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim, dedicated to educating a new generation of young leaders to launch a spiritual revolution. Here is a short biography of the Rebbe Rashab.
To honor this birthday, here is the first part of a long series of essays exploring the Rebbe Rashab’s magnum opus, the 61-part discourse he delivered beginning in 5666 (1905), known as Hemshech Samach Vav. These essays were composed in 2005 to honor the centennial of the discourse. Go here for all the essays of this series.
This year many people have been celebrating the 100th anniversary (1905-2005) of Albert Einstein’s far-reaching theories in physics that have fundamentally altered the way we understand the universe.
Others are preparing to honor the 100th birthday of the enigmatic Greta Garbo (1906-2006), considered by many to be the most mesmerizing presence ever to strike the big screen.
100 years ago – this week – another less known event took place, that perhaps had a more radical impact on the world than Einstein’s theories and even… Garbo’s influence.
Rosh Hashana 1905, in the Hebrew year 5666, a mystic and Rebbe of the highest order, began a fundamental treatise that would change the course of modern thought, though it has yet to be recognized as such due to limitations of language and access.
In Chassidic lingo this treatise is called “Hemshech Yom Tov Shel Rosh Hashana Tof Reish Samech Vov,” or more informally and intimately: plain “Samech Vov.” Samech vov is the number 66, short for the year 5666. Hemshech means a “continuation” or “sequence,” referring to the dissertation that began on Rosh Hashana 5666 and extended for 3 years, consisting of a total of 61 individual Maamorim (discourses), which were written and then publicly delivered by Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (1860-1920), known by his acronym as the Rebbe RaSHaB, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, in direct line from Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.
Living in a time inundated by all types of “experts” and self proclaimed Kabbalists, it is important to tangentially note that Kabbala, as indicated by its name implies “to receive” – that it is wisdom and experience that is passed on and received from teacher to student, in an unbroken chain, generation after generation. This is vital to ensure that the integrity of the message is maintained and not compromised. As such the Rebbe Rashab is one of those rare individuals that has the lineage to support his ability to be a bona fide Kabbalist, mystic and Chassidic Rebbe. As mentioned, he is the fifth in a direct line going back to Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who himself is seventh in a direct line going back to the Maharal of Prague, who is a direct descendant of King David. Documentation exists that spells out the exact unbroken lineage! These are the people we want to receive from…
Samech Vov in particular is considered to be the most fundamental work ever composed laying out in comprehensive detail the dynamics of existence. It thoroughly dissects the anatomy of the cosmos and the psyche, and presents us with a psycho-spiritual blueprint on life. Yet because of its language (Hebrew) and foreign frame of reference, Samech Vov remains mostly obscure.
To commemorate the centennial of “samech vov”, this column will offer throughout the year ongoing renditions of some of the major themes addressed in Samech vov, with particular focus on its relevance to our lives today.
Bear in mind that Samech Vov is a complex and comprehensive discourse and to appreciate its depth it would help to define certain axiomatic principles.
To honor the opening of this fascinating magnum opus treatise, we will begin this week with the theme of the opening discourse — which fittingly to Rosh Hashana, the birthday of the universe, addresses the purpose of existence.
“Why are we here?” is the first and biggest question of all time.
This of course is based on the axiom that everything has a purpose. If this is true about every detail, surely it is so about existence as a whole.
But Samech Vov goes a step further: To understand why we are here we first have to define what “here” is.
The basic point of departure is that the essence of existence is non-conscious and intangible. Existence as we know it is merely an artificial, external dimension. But reality actually plays itself out in forces that lie beneath the surface. That inner dimension is where everything originates. In effect, all of existence can be seen as two-dimensional – comprising of a body and soul – an outside and an inside, an outer package containing a power within.
This vital principle is the springboard to understanding all of life: Existence originates within not without. All problems in existence and in life are a result of the dichotomy between the inner and the outer.
Now the question is: Why and how that inner reality manifests itself on the outer level, and finally: By what process do we integrate the inner and outer and experience them as one seamless whole?
These three basic issues concern Samech Vov. In sum the entire Samech Vov breaks down the anatomy of existence into three dimensions: The inner force of existence. The force that transcends existence. The force that transcends both existence and non-existence, which has the power to integrate existence with transcendence.
This week we will begin, as Samech Vov begins, with the “why?” Why are we here? What is the purpose of our tangible, material existence?
Samech Vov first cites the Etz Chaim (Arizal) which states that existence is in order to realize and “express the fullness of His faculties and abilities.” In the words of the Zohar, “in order that He be known.” The inner reality realizes its own potential by expressing itself on the outer level. Think of it as the unconscious manifesting itself on the conscious level, which reveals the fullness of the unconscious state. Had the unconscious remained in its own original state it would remain a latent force. Existence as we know it is the expression and realization of this internal force.
However the Rebbe Rashab explains that this cannot be the ultimate reason for conscious existence for two reasons:
1) Divine potentiality contains within itself the virtues of actuality.
2) Divine recognition and the realization of “His faculties” are much more keenly felt on higher levels of consciousness than on our material plane.
The mere fact that our existence is one in which we do not fully experience unconscious spirituality, and on the contrary, spirituality is shrouded in our universe, tells us that the ultimate purpose of our dark existence is not solely to realize and know the Divine, which is more readily achieved on higher planes.
The ultimate purpose of our existence, which can only be fulfilled in a corporeal world, is to transform the material level to be a “home” for the Divine.
Samech Vov goes on to explain that this purpose (the transformation of matter) is driven by a Divine “desire,” one that transcends logic; it touches the Essence itself, and goes far beyond the expression of Divine potential.
The question remains: What is truly achieved by transforming matter into spirit when it was all once spirit in the first place? In the language of Kabbalah: At first, before existence as we know it came into being, the Divine light/energy of the En-Sof (infinite) filled all of reality. Then came a great Tzimtzum that concealed the light and created “space” for existence to emerge. The purpose of our work is to draw down the light/energy into our “space” of existence. The question therefore is: What innovation is actually achieved by drawing down the light, when the light was there in the first place prior to the Tzimtzum?
The Rebbe Rashab, in his inimitable thoroughness, posits two answers:
1) Before the Tzimtzum the Infinite light left no “space” for existence. Afterwards, once the “space” emerged, existence can begin to contain even the light that preceded the tzimtzum. Like a student who would initially be overwhelmed if his teacher would not conceal his brilliance; but once he does allow “space” for the student’s mind, the student can begin to contain the ideas of the teacher and slowly acclimate himself to comprehend even the brilliance that would have earlier flustered him.
2) By transforming the material world into a home for the Divine, we draw down new unprecedented energy, “there will be a revelation of light that is greater than the light that was there before… And these lights are of the innermost aspect and essence of the Infinite Light, which are even higher than the light that filled the “space” before the tzimtzum.
Click here for a rough translation of the full text of this section in Samech Vov.
This may all sound very esoteric. However here are a few practical, far reaching and powerful applications based on this opening discourse.
Firstly, on a cosmic level, Samech Vov tells us that we are here to metamorphose our corner of the universe. Not only should we not fear materialism and existential loneliness, but we have the power and responsibility to transform the material world.
Furthermore, our actions change everything. We have the power to introduce new dimensions of energy that do not exist even on the unconscious pre-tzimtzum levels.
This is the ultimate potency of a mitzvah: By taking a narcissistic piece of matter and channeling it toward sublime goals – say, giving your money to charity – you fundamentally change the earth and heaven. Your act ripples through all the cosmos and generates new energy that did not exist ever before.
Secondly, on a personal psychological level, this opening Samech Vov discourse answers some of the most fundamental questions regarding the role of the human being and the nature of our ambitions. What is the ultimate purpose – and drive – behind human achievement? What should be our ultimate aspiration and the source of our greatest fulfillment?
Is your ultimate purpose self-actualization, the need to express yourself and be “recognized” by others, or is there something more to life?
This question has many implications. One example is in business: I remember reading in the Small Business Bible that business people often loathe investing and partnering with artists. Reason: Artists are fulfilled by expressing their creativity. They place most of their energy in the creation itself, and once they have released their energy and passion in their creations, they often don’t concern themselves or value the distribution of the product. This single-minded focus can undermine the business minded individuals focus that the product should reach the widest audiences possible.
This was a revelation for me. I always thought that creative people are the selfless ones – selflessly dedicated to creating a product of the highest quality, while business people are the selfish ones – greedily interested only in the sale and profit of the product.
The truth is quite the opposite. The creative artist is only concerned with his own personal expression. Even if only one person appreciates his work of art, he is satisfied. Whereas the businessperson is interested and invested that the product reach the widest possible audience.
We find a similar dilemma in personal relationships. There are people who love deeply. They know how to give and care for another in profound ways. Is this ultimate love? The answer is that this is one dimension of love. But true love goes a step, a quantitative giant step, further. Love is not merely an expression of your ability to give, but also includes the wisdom and sensitivity that your beloved can receive and contain your love.
[In Kabbalistic language: The root of the containers is higher than the root of the transmitted energy].
Samech Vov tells us that the ultimate nature of accomplishment is not just to give but to be received; not just to reveal but to transform; not just to be understood but to be contained; not just to shine but to serve.
We were sent to Earth not just to pass through, but to build a home. A home for your soul, a home for the Divine – a home where the Essence is revealed and completely comfortable.
How to build this home is the theme of Samech Vov — which we will address in the next installments of this series.
If you are interested in further, in-depth study of the fascinating Samech Vov discourse or in giving a course in this discourse, we have available resource and supporting materials. We are also in the process of creating a special website section that will offer translations, commentary, recorded classes and bibliographical support to honor Samech Vov’s centennial. Please contact us if you are want to receive this information or if would like to contribute to this resource pool.