Toldot: Beyond Life And Death


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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Roxanne Perri
15 years ago

Thanks Rabbi:

Wonderful words.

15 years ago

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,


15 years ago

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

Alex Goldring
15 years ago

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 its need to make order of the seemingly inexplicable. So the invitation, implicit in the
question why, is for a reason, an explanation, to be offered that will make sense to the mind, even if it is fictive.
It needs to reestablish its homeostasis.
Also, if one subscribes to the notion of reward and punishment, then there is another problem. These two beautiful neshomos who were killed in Mumbai, and who certainly were the personification of good in the world, did not
deserve to die according to the premised logic. Can it therefore be that the premise might be incorrect? Can it be
that bad things simply do happen, just like good things? Can it be that life simply happens and what matters is
what we do with it?
I realize that I am challenging some fundamental assumptions in religious thought, but I would suggest that God
gave us the honor of receiving the ground rules via the Torah, becoming its emissaries by actualizing it through our actions (the success of which to date is questionable), and then allowing us to live by our own devices. Its up to
us to follow the rules or get hurt a lot. I dont believe that God is out to get anyone who deviates from the path of workability, if anything, we ultimately get ourselves. And guess what, there are those who do get away with it. Which, of course, challenges the belief of the after life, but that belongs to another discussion.
The Holtzbergs were precious human beings who were paragons of good. Their deaths are a loss for mankind.Their lives serve to teach us to live life totally and not spare ourselves. I believe that this is one of the fundamental
lessons of the Torah, starting with Abraham on to Moses. Whatever Abraham did was done without hesitation, fully and with alacrity. And, I believe that, the Rebbe lived by the same ethic.

Chaya Gross
15 years ago

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 resources and pray. The differences seem to blur because the mission is of the utmost importance. Well, can we have the same process put in place to bring the geula? I keep asking myself how this hashgacha pratis can be turned into something positive and meaningful, even now, or maybe especially now.

Seems to me that the hope, with all due respect, is with the women. With your daughter and her daughter and all the daughters of the Rebbe, to come together now and to resolve to unify truly, and the key is in truly, to be at the forefront of a movement of women worldwide to stop terror. How? Firstly to make it the focus of the kinus hshluchos in shvat. The agenda being preparing the women of the world for the geula. Resolving at the kinus for each shlucha to organize a kinus in their respective countries for women from all walks of life, to explain, who we are, and who our Rebbe is and what he said about this generation being the last of the golus and the first of the geula and that we are recruiting them to help us spread this message. Through these kinusim and the spreading of the 7 mitzvos we must build momentum until a major international kinus in Yerushalayim for as many reps as possible from all over the world.

All your words are nice, but the question remains… what to do. In todays parsha, Rivka went to the house of learning of Shem and Ever to ask what was going on inside her. Rivka was also the name of the shlucha in Mumbai. We must ask for her, what is happening?

There is no structure in Chabad to respond to the horror we all experienced over the last few days culminating on Rosh Chodesh Kislev. The message for me is clearly one to the women. WAKE UP. And if we dont wake up, we will be forced to wake up. I have had enough. For me the message is clear. We must bring the geula to the universe and it is time to reach out first to those Indian women, because they too need strength to carry on and because we are Chassidei Chabad, we must show them the way. WE MUST. Time is of the essence.

Mazal tov to you and to Rashi and her husband, and may they raise her daughter to Torah, chuppah and to mesim tovim, with much simcha and peace. And may this first grandchild be the first of many many more that you and your Rebbetsin enjoy in good health for years to come.

Am writing this to you so you can perhaps share these thoughts with your readers as I have no doubt that many are asking and thinking about what more can be done. Many have asked me as well and these are some of my thoughts.

Shavua tov,

Chaya Gross

The Meaningful Life Center