The Longer Shorter Way


[This book] is based on the verse, “For it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it”[1]to explain, with the help of G-d, how it is indeed exceedingly close, in a long and short way

From the title page of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Tanya

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi—whose 253rd birthday was celebrated this month[2] by the Chassidic community—was the founder of the Chabad branch of the Chassidic movement. Chabad (an acronym of the Hebrew words for “Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge”) is a philosophy and approach to life in which the mind and intellect play a key role in man’s endeavor to serve his Creator.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman summarized the fundamentals of his philosophy in a slim volume known as “Tanya,” on which he labored for twenty years. On the title page of Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman states the aim of his book: to demonstrate how the fulfillment of the divine purpose in creation “is indeed exceedingly close, in a long and short way.”

Why is the path along which Rabbi Schneur Zalman promises to take his disciples a “long and short way”? The meaning of this paradoxical phrase is illustrated by the following story, told in the Talmud by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah:

Once a child got the better of me. I was traveling and I met with a child at a crossroads. I asked him, “Which way to the city?” and he replied: “This way is short and long, and that way is long and short.”

I took the “short and long” way. I soon reached the city but found my approach obstructed by gardens and orchards. So I retraced my steps and said to the child: “My son, did you not tell me that this is the short way?” Answered the child: “Did I not tell you that it is also long?”[3]

The Direct Approach

There are two primary paths through life: the path of faith and the path of mind. The path of faith is a “short and long way,” and the path of mind is a “long and short way.”

The Talmudic traveler in the above story, upon reaching a fork in the physical road on his physical journey to a physical destination, had to choose which of two paths to follow. Spiritual journeys are not that way: upon reaching a fork in our spiritual road, we can—and oft-times should— simultaneously follow both paths. But it is no less important to be aware of the respective advantages and shortcomings of each.

The path of faith is predicated upon the deep-seated truths that are intrinsic to the human soul. There are beliefs that do not have to be learned or demonstrated to us, for we know them with every fiber of our being. There are loves, fears and desires that do not have to be developed or validated, for these are feelings inherent to the very essence of who and what we are. The path of faith is the process of uncovering these convictions and feelings and translating them into a code of behavior and way of life.

The path of faith is a “short way” in the sense that it is the most direct and straightforward route to our destination. There are no tortuous curves in this road, no uphill climbs or downhill slides. What we know, we know absolutely; what we feel is likewise felt without equivocation. We innately know and sense what is the right thing to do; all that remains is to go ahead and do it.

But like the first path taken in the Talmud’s story, the seemingly “short way” of faith often takes us to the very brink of our destination only to encounter an impregnable barrier. We know the truth, we desire to live it, but, somehow, we stop short of doing it. Chassidic teaching refers to this phenomenon as “the thief in the burrow syndrome.” Our sages speak of how a burglar, tunneling under the walls of a home, hears the sound of footsteps; “Please, G-d,” he silently prays, “Save me!” Here is a man who instinctively believes in G-d (he hasn’t called on the Queen of England to save him), and who undoubtedly knows that G-d commanded, “Do not steal.” Nevertheless, he is stealing and simultaneously beseeching G-d for help.[4]

Faith, then, may hover in some neutral space above our everyday self. It may be the source of staunch conviction and fervent feelings that nevertheless fail to find actualization in our day-to-day behavior. For although—indeed, because—these convictions and feelings are integrally part of who we are, we have never grappled with them, never struggled to make sense of their content and significance. It is precisely the “shortness” of this path that ultimately makes it the “longer” route.

The Second Path

So, like the Talmud’s traveler, we must retrace our steps (even as we continue traveling down the road of faith) and take the other fork—the “long and short way.”

The way of mind is winding, steep, tedious and long as life itself. It is rife with struggles, setbacks and frustrations. But it is a road that leads, steadily and surely, to the aspired destination.

In the way of mind, knowledge is the product of study, analysis and in-depth contemplation. Feelings are born out of an intimate knowledge of and thorough identification with their subject. Deeds are motivated and guided by an understanding of their function, a desire for the attainment of their aim and an abhorrence of what they forestall.

In the way of mind, convictions and feelings are created rather than revealed, developed rather than intuited, assimilated rather than accepted. And though—indeed, because—they derive from what we have achieved rather than who or what we are, we identify with them more than we do with the truths we hold by faith. It is precisely the “length” of this path that ultimately makes it the “shorter” way to our destination.

Of course, the products of our finite intellectual and emotional faculties could never equal the absoluteness and potency of faith. Faith therefore remains the first and primary path of life. But if the convictions of faith are to find full expression in our daily lives, they must be augmented by the struggles and achievements of the mind.

An Earlier Chabadian

On the cover page of Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman also declares that he is saying nothing that has not already been said by the “books and sages” whose words he is merely collecting and restating.[5] Indeed, more than six centuries before the Tanya, we find two great sages, Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204) and his contemporary and critic, the Raavad (Rabbi Abraham ben David, 1125-1198), debating the respective virtues of the path of faith and the path of mind.

In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides devotes two full chapters to discussing the principle of “freedom of choice,” which he regards as indispensable to the very foundations of the Jewish faith.

“For were G‑d to decree that a person be righteous or wicked, or if there were to exist something in the essence of a person’s nature which would compel him toward a specific path, a specific conviction, a specific character trait or a specific deed … how could G‑d command us through the prophets, ‘Do this’ and ‘Do not do this,’ ‘Improve your ways’ and ‘Do not follow your wickedness’…? What place would the entire Torah have? And by what measure of justice would G‑d punish the wicked and reward the righteous…?”[6]

Later in the chapter, Maimonides addresses an oft-posed question regarding the concept of free choice:

One may ask:

“G‑d, of course, knows all that will transpire. Now, before a particular deed was done, did G‑d know whether the person would be righteous or wicked, or did He not know? If He knew that the person would be righteous, then it was not possible for that person not to be so. And if you say that He [did not know absolutely]… then G‑d’s knowledge was not complete!”

Know that the answer to this question, “longer than the land is its measure and broader than the sea,”[7] and that many great foundations and lofty mountains hang upon it. But understand well what I am going to say. We have already explained in the second chapter of “The Laws of the Torah’s Foundations” that G‑d does not know with a “mind” that is distinct from His being, as is the case with man whose being and mind are two distinct entities. Rather, He and His “mind” are one and the same—a concept that is impossible for the human mind to fully comprehend. Thus, just as man cannot discover and grasp the truth of the Creator, as it is written, “No man can perceive Me and live,”[8] so, too, man cannot discover and grasp the “mind” of the Creator. In the words of the prophet, “My thoughts are not as your thoughts, nor are your ways as My ways.”[9]

Therefore, we lack the capacity to know the nature of G‑d’s knowledge of all creations and all events. But this we know without a doubt: that the deeds of man are in his own hands, and G‑d does not compel him to do anything. And we know this not only by virtue of our acceptance of the faith, but through clear proofs from the teachings of wisdom.[10]

The Raavad takes issue with Maimonides’ approach.

“The author,” he writes in a gloss on the above passage, “did not act in the manner of the wise: one ought not begin something that one is incapable of concluding. He begins by posing a difficult question, then remains with the difficulty and reverts to faith. It would have been better for him to have left it as a matter of faith for the innocent, instead of making them aware [of the contradiction] and leaving their minds in doubt.”

Why, indeed, does Maimonides begin a logical discussion of an issue for which he does not have a logical resolution? But Maimonides had a different conception than the Raavad of the role of “logic” in man’s endeavor to know and relate to his Creator.

As the Raavad saw it, there are certain things that can be understood, and certain things that lie beyond our capacity to relate to with our mind’s tools of logic. What can be understood should be pursued via the “path of mind”; what cannot be understood should be relegated exclusively to the “path of faith.”

Maimonides agrees that there is many “a concept that is impossible for the human mind to fully comprehend.” But he maintains that these things, too, should be pursued along the “path of mind.” We should strive to understand what it is that we cannot understand about G-d; we should strive for a true appreciation of the depth and magnitude of the supra-rationality of the divine.

The path of faith is the process of uncovering these convictions and feelings and translating them into a code of behavior and way of life

In other words, the mind is not only a tool with which to grasp things that are fully comprehensible to us—it is also a tool with which to relate to supra-rational truths. Indeed, only the mind can truly appreciate how beyond understanding a supra-rational truth is. And the greater the mind and the greater its comprehension, the greater its appreciation of the magnitude of that which lies beyond its comprehension.

So it is not enough that we accept by faith the paradox of G-d’s absolute providence of our world and man’s freedom of choice; we should also fully understand this paradox. We cannot, as the Raavad suggests, “leave it as a matter of faith for the innocent, instead of making them aware of the contradiction.” For if this contradiction did not exist within our awareness, it would mean that there are areas of G-d’s relationship with our reality which we have not explored with our minds.[11]

Maimonides insists on tackling even the most supra-rational aspects of our relationship with G-d with the finite implements of the human mind. For it is only when pursued along the “long and short way” of mind that these truths become ingrained within our personality and character and find expression in even the most mundane activities of everyday life.[12]

Based on the Rebbe’s talks, Iyar 5742 (April-May, 1982)[13]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[1]. Deuteronomy 30:14.

[2]. On the 18th of Elul (this year, September 9). That date also marks the birthday, 47 years earlier, of the founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, whom Rabbi Schneur regarded as his “spiritual grandfather” (Rabbi Schneur Zalman was a disciple of Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch, who was the disciple and successor of the Baal Shem Tov).

[3]. Talmud, Eruvin 53b.

[4]. Ibid., Berachot 63a.

[5]. Rabbi Schneur Zalman called his book Likkutei Amarim, “Collected Sayings.”

[6]. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:4.

[7]. Job 11:9.

[8]. Exodus 33:20.

[9]. Isaiah 55:8.

[10]. Mishneh Torah, ibid. 5:5.

[11]. For a more detailed discussion of the paradox of divine knowledge and human choice, and of Maimonides’ and the Raavad’s positions on the matter, see Beyond the Letter of the Law (VHH, 1995), pp. 175-184.

[12]. This difference between Maimonides and the Raavad is also reflected in a number of the Raavad’s other glosses on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. For example, in the first chapter of Laws of the Torah’s Foundations, Maimonides writes:

   What is it that Moses our Master desired to attain when he said, “Pray, show me Your countenance?” [Exodus 33:18] He desired to know the truth of G-d’s reality to the extent that it should be known in his mind like one’s knowledge of a person whose face one has seen, and its form is engraved in one’s mind, making that person distinct in one’s mind from all other people; in the same way, Moses desired that the reality of G-d should be distinct in his mind from all other existences, so that he knows the truth of His reality as it is. G-d’s answer to him was [“You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live”—] that a living human being, comprised of a body and a soul, has not the capacity to fully comprehend the truth [of G-d] in this manner.

Upon which the Raavad remarks: “My mind is not agreeable [with Maimonides’ interpretation of these verses]. For Moses saw on Sinai, during the forty days [in which he received] the Tablets, what no prophet ever saw … so what more could he have needed?”

What Moses saw on Mount Sinai was a prophetic vision—a supra-rational perception such as is attained through faith. From the Raavad’s perspective, why would Moses, having attained the truth of truths through prophecy, still desire the lesser “mind” knowledge that Maimonides describes? But from Maimonides’ perspective, there is a uniqueness to the mind’s grasp of its subject—even if it is a subject it could never fully apprehend—that the supra-rational tools of apprehension (such as faith and prophecy) cannot possess.

Another example is Maimonides’ account of Abraham’s discovery of the One G-d, where he writes that “Abraham recognized his Creator at the age of forty years” (Mishneh Torah, Laws Regarding Idolatry 1:3), and the Raavad cites the Midrash which says that this occurred when Abraham was at the tender age of three years. The two sages are quoting two different Midrashic sources, which do not necessarily contradict each other: there are many milestones of “recognition” in a lifelong quest for truth. Maimonides emphasizes the recognition that ripened in Abraham at age forty, which is the “age of understanding” (see Ethics of the Fathers 4:22); the Raavad places the greater emphasis on the intrinsic faith in G-d that finds its purest expression in a young child.

[13]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXXIV, pp. 173-179.


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