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Toldot: Beyond Life And Death

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In memory and honor of Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, who gave their lives in serving others and G-d.

As I was beginning to write this week’s column about the next level of bittul discussed in the Tzaddik-Dalet series (delivered 75 years ago this week), I was shaken by two pieces of dramatic news – one joyous, the other tragic.

My only daughter, Rashi, gave birth to a daughter, Luba Alte Teibel. My baby girl gave birth to a baby girl, rendering me a grandfather.

Bloodthirsty terrorists attacked innocent people in various locations, among them a Jewish Chabad Center, in Mumbai, India. As of this writing, over 350 people are wounded and 150 dead, including Rabbi Gavriel and Mrs. Rivka Holtzberg, the leaders of the Chabad House at Nariman House. Their 2-year old child was miraculously saved.

There you have life in its full spectrum: Ultimate celebration; absolute horror.

After all is said and done, they don’t cancel each other out. But all the timeless questions come pouring out: Why do bad things happening to good people? Why do innocent men and women have to die such senseless deaths? Why? Why? Why does a young couple who came from Brooklyn to Mumbai to spread light deserve to be annihilated by darkness? And when? When will it all end?

My thoughts go back to my new granddaughter. I stare at her pure and innocent face. Touch her soft untarnished skin. Does she know what type of world she has entered? Can her innocence counter the cruelty of our hostile universe? Will she witness a better world than ours?

Mystics say that a newborn child cries as it emerges from the womb, sensing for the last time the warm world of light it is leaving and the cold dark world it is entering. But even as the door slams shut and she enters our plane, she is given all the power to illuminate and warm our dark and cold universe.

And then I wander back to the Tzaddik-Dalet discourse and its esoteric messages. After explaining the two transcendent dimensions of energy-consciousness – humility in face of a higher presence, and utter nullification to the point that the energy inherently senses that it is nothing but a channel of the source (as discussed last week) – the Rebbe Rayatz takes us to another, third level:

Even the second dimension of the energy’s bittul entails two distinct entities: The energy and its source. Though the energy senses that it has no existence of its own, the emphasis is “of its own.” But together with the source, the energy is very much existent, albeit as a channel.

The third level of bittul, however, is one in which there are no two entities; only one: The source. The energy as it is engulfed in its source senses only the source and nothing else. The only reason we still call it “energy” is because it is not the source, but it is also not anything outside of the source. This level of energy, which is called the “energy encompassed in the source,” is compared to the geometric “point,” extending from the source, which will at a later stage take shape and form as it manifests into a line and then into three-dimensional tangible parameters. The “point” does not occupy space, yet it is the basis of all space. An example for this is the initial concept which arises in a brilliant mind. At its initial point of departure, the concept is completely abstract and carries within itself a multitude of details and explanations, even contradictory ones. The point exists in a sort of “non-existent” fashion. You can’t say that it doesn’t exist, but neither can you define its form of existence. It is not the essence but also not outside of the essence.

Perhaps this is the tenuous bridge between existence and non-existence, the black-hole where light meets dark, joy meets sorrow and death meets life.

And sadly, it is into this hole where the Holzberg’s have now fallen, with so many others now and in the past. They were (and we can say remain) emissaries, shluchim, messengers of a power far greater than themselves. As discussed in last week’s article, emissaries are channels of a cause beyond their own self-interest. And yet, there are levels of this type of dedication, one more profound than another. Gaby and Rivky Holtzberg paid the ultimate price for their commitment: Giving their very lives for the most noble of all causes. They did not travel to India for business or pleasure. Only to help others and illuminate their world.

The horrible events in Mumbai, the inhumanity that only humans are capable of, reveals the insanity of our existence. We are then left with two choices (I am not including sticking our heads in the sands of denial): Either we become cynical and detached, losing faith and hope in justice and goodness prevailing. We may be overcome by resignation and despair. Or we dig deeper. And as we dig, we discover another dimension of reality, which is not bound by our common rules of logic and sanity. A reality that is beyond death as it is beyond life, one that precedes all the joys and all the agonies, all the births and all the deaths, all the beginning and all the ends. And in the face of this essential reality, you realize that nothing else really exists.

When all else fails, this is the only place left to go. We have no choice but to access a deeper sense of reality, which may not make any sense on our terms, but it nevertheless is a higher reality, and we can only stand in utter awe of something entirely beyond us, even as we cry or smile.

How else can you explain the ability of Holocaust survivors, who experienced unimaginable horrors, and still were able to – completely incomprehensibly – rebuild their lives, create new families and achieve an unprecedented renaissance of Jewish life? What power allowed then to transcend their shattered lives and build anything?

We may never have an answer. But we know that in some utterly mysterious way, they accessed the deepest, most concealed, reservoirs of human spirit and dignity, which in some way was more powerful than the most dreadful nightmares that history ever witnessed.

Beyond all of life and death, a force remains that does not let go and does not give up.

I take one more peek at the new life that has entered my world and I am reinfused with hope: My granddaughter just arrived from another world, and has brought us a message of hope. Despite the tragic losses and senseless pain, beyond the incomprehension of it all, life is born yet again. And with it – a new beginning with new possibilities.

I look at my new granddaughter and I know what choice I will make.

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Chaya Gross

As I read your words I couldnt help think that there needs to be a more universal response to the tragedy we all experienced as a Chabad family. Yes it is true, that life goes on, and having your new granddaughter put another slant on the insanity of the atrocities in Mumbai, but we must ask ourselves, each one alone, and all of us together, what the meaning of this carnage is, and what are we meant to learn and to do to prevent it happening again soon somewhere else. When tragedy strikes, we know how to pull all our… Read more »

Alex Goldring

Shavua tov.Please accept my wife, Sharons, and my congratulations on the birth of your granddaughter. May you derive much joy and satisfaction from her.As to your essay, I would comment that you ask the classic questions about evil victimizing good people and wanting to know why this occurs. Maybe its time to rethink the question and its premises. In some philosophies the question why is considered a non-starter. After all, the beginning of any answer to that query begins with the word because. In other words, what the mind is searching for is some kind of causality that will satisfy… Read more »

Susan

Thank you for that inspiring message at this time of such senseless tragedy……and Mazel Tov on your new granddaughter!

Mina

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

Thank you so much for addressing the tragedy of the death of Rabbi and Mrs. Holtzberg in such a sensitive and profound way. It is helping me breathe today.

All the best,

Mina

Roxanne Perri

Thanks Rabbi:

Wonderful words.