What Is Your Soul Capable Of?
— Samach-Vav Part 24 —
100 years ago this week the Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Sholom Dovber – 1860-1920) began delivering the final five discourses that would conclude his 61-part tour de force – Samach-Vav.
Samach-Vav, a 547-page tome, broken down into a sequence of 61 individual discourses, is considered to be the most fundamental series of mystical – Kabbalistic/Chassidic – 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.
Beginning in the autumn of 1905 (Rosh Hashana 5666), through the autumn of 1906 (Vayeira 5667), the first 48 discourses were delivered in consecutive weeks with few breaks. The Rebbe and his family then traveled and remained in Wurzberg, Bavaria (Germany) for six months (where he actually wrote discourses 38-48 which he delivered earlier), and upon his return home, in the spring of 1907, he resumed the series. Seven discourses – 49-56 – were delivered that Spring in consecutive weeks from Parshat Tazria-Metzora through Shavuot and Parshat Nasso. The series took one final break during the Summer of 1907, and then, a century ago this week, in the winter of 1907, Parshat Vayigash, the Rebbe resumed and concluded the series with the last four discourses (Vayigash, Vayechi, Shemos, Vaeira), followed by the final conclusive discourse presented only in writing (not spoken).
[It should be noted that during these breaks the Rebbe said/wrote other discourses].
To celebrate the centennial of the grand treatise “Samach-Vav,” this column has been following the progression of the Samach-Vav series, with analysis and discussion of some of its major themes, with particular focus on its relevance to our lives today (click here for the previous installments of the series and for a running summary of all the discourses). We now continue with the final discourses, beginning with this week’s, which starts with the words of this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash ailov Yehuda, and Judah approached him.
This weeks’ discourse, which continues the theme discussed in the past seven discourses, about the nature of the soul, describes in eloquent detail the power each of our souls contain as it struggles in the material world.
In one of the most moving accounts you will ever read, this week’s Torah portion describes the reunion of Joseph and his brothers 22 years after they sold him to slavery and had no idea what became of him.
But, as it is with most happy endings, the story does not lack in drama or tragedy.
Due to the great famine at the time, Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt to purchase grain. Little do they know what is in store for them. Joseph, by then viceroy of Egypt, recognizes them, though they do not recognize him. In a long series of events, Joseph forces them to bring back his younger brother Benjamin. Left with no choice Jacob begrudgingly agrees, but only on condition that Judah guarantees Benjamin’s safety. Joseph then conspires to abduct Benjamin.
Enter this week’s chapter: And Judah confronted Joseph, pleading with him to release Benjamin and take Judah in his place. As Joseph hears Judah’s pleas, he finally can no longer control himself, and he reveals his identity to his brothers.
This week’s Samach-Vav discourse concerns itself with the deeper meaning of Judah and Joseph’s confrontation, and specifically over Benjamin. Why did Joseph go to such lengths to have Benjamin be with him? And why did Judah feel it so important to keep Benjamin, to the extent that “the lad cannot leave his father. If he left him, his father would die”? Why was Benjamin different than the other brothers – that only he could not leave his father, but the others can? True, Jacob specifically stated that Benjamin was his remaining son with Rachel (as Judah shared with Joseph), but that only rephrases the question: Why were the children of Rachel preferred over the other children?
Which brings us back to the beginning of the story: Why did Jacob “love Joseph more than any of his other sons” in the first place?
Explains the Rebbe Rashab, that Joseph, Judah (representing the other brothers) and Benjamin are three spiritual archetypes – all necessary in the soul’s difficult journey through life.
To understand this let us go on a trip, retracing the soul’s footsteps to its point of origin, and then its’ arduous descent into a physical body in our material world. As we pray each morning: “The soul which You have given me is pure, You have created it, You have shaped it, You have breathed it into me, And You protect it within me.”
“The soul which You have given me is pure” – the soul is in essence a pure entity, originating in what is called the “world” of Atzilus, a seamless spiritual environment. Then it travels through the three worlds of Biy”a (Beriah, Yetzirah, Asiya), where the Divine is more concealed, and transcendence is not a given – “You have created it (Beriah), You have shaped it (Yetzirah), You have breathed it into me (Asiya).” And then it manifests into a body, where “You protect it within me.”
In one of the most moving accounts you will ever read – befitting the moving theme of this week’s Torah portion – the Rebbe Rashab describes in intimate detail the souls’ traumatic descent from the loftiest spiritual heights to the depths of our empty corrupt world. Reading the Rebbe Rashab’s words you literally can feel the deep anguish of the soul’s difficult descent “from the greatest heights to the lowest depths” (“m’igra rama l’bira amikta”) – a description possible only by someone who has personally experienced the agony of the soul’s limitations in this world in contrast to its freedom above.
Listen to this:
“The soul’s descent into a body is indeed very profound. Before the soul descends below, when the soul is above, in its lofty state, it soars on the wings of love and awe – the soul in a constant state of movement: It is filled with an intimate yearning and desire to be engulfed in its source; and also filled with a deep sense of awe and distance from the great revelations it experiences.
“This dual tug of tension and resolution (rotzo and shuv) propels the soul, elevating it in perpetual motion to great heights, like a bird flapping its wings back and forth, up and down, lifting the bird to soar.”
Imagine yourself like a bird always able to soar above, with wings that carry your soul to unprecedented heights. Instead of a sedentary couch potato, haunted by your psychological ghosts, grounded by pedestrian concerns and the struggle for survival. Imagine this contrast and you can begin to sense the extreme trauma a souls experiences when it has to descend from its sublime heights into the mundane depths of material existence.
“Once a soul descends below” its wings no longer consistently flutter. “Spiritual love and awe are not a constant state; they come and go. And even when they come, they do not have the same intensity as the love and awe of the unfettered soul.
“This is true even for the greatest of souls, like those of the Patriarchs who were unwavering ‘chariots,’ always attached to the Divine… Even the souls of Atzilus, the selfless souls compared to ‘sons’ who have access to the ‘most intimate chambers and secrets of their father’s home,’ even they undergo a fundamental constriction as their souls manifest in material bodies. How much more so is the descent of lower-level souls… and even more so with the ‘lowest’ souls that are dominated by materialism – all these souls undergo a dramatic plunge from their lofty roots.”
Despite the soul’s great descent – it is worth it. Because the soul discovers something in this world far superior than anything it would ever experience in its lofty heights. The value of the gain is so much greater than the pain that it makes it worth all the while to descend below where everything Divine is so deeply compromised!
The purpose of the soul’s descent is to overcome the spiritual darkness of the material universe, and actually reveal the Divine in all of existence – to transform the world into a “Divine home.” This requires our self-generated effort: The discipline to not be distracted and seduced by the delights and instant gratifications of material life; and the hard work of refining the mundane by extracting and redeeming the “spiritual sparks” within all matter, directing and elevating it to its true Divine purpose, ultimately creation total fusion of matter and spirit.
Only in this world of resistance is the souls true power revealed. To jump a relatively short distance or to lift a lighter load, does not require much strength. To jump long distances or lift heavy loads, deep exertion is necessary, reaching deeper within to access inner strengths that the person may not even have been aware of.
Souls above – basking in spirituality – are not challenged and therefore do not need to access the deepest dimensions of the souls root power. But in order for souls to enter earth’s atmosphere and survive; for them to grow in a spiritually hostile environment, these souls need to dig very deep to access hitherto unseen inner strengths, and generate unprecedented intensity and power.
What the soul achieves in this world is the ability to truly fly. In heaven the soul soars like a bird, but only in the same dimensions. Ultimately, all movement is limited to the heaven plane alone. On earth the soul can become a true flyer – with the ability to soar into other dimensions and even beyond heaven itself.
However, because the journey is so difficult, we were blessed to have different levels of souls in our midst, helping us along the way.
This is the inside story of Joseph, Judah and Benjamin. Each of them underwent the trauma of the soul’s descent, but in different measures with different goals:
Jacob (containing all the Patriarchs, including Abraham and Isaac) represents the pure soul of Atzilus – the soul that is in a constant state of transcendence, always embracing the Divine. “The Patriarchs are truly the Chariot,” a selfless vehicle to the Pilot, “all their days… do not cease for a single moment to bind their minds and souls to G-d” (Tanya chapter 34).
Joseph channels Atzilus unity (of Jacob) into the lower, divisive worlds of Biy”a, where transcendence is not a given.
Judah (representing the other tribes) embodies the soul as it manifests in the lower worlds of Biy”a, where the soul is challenged with the hard work to sublimate the “egocentric” personality of matter, discover the Divine and spiritualize the material world. Judah’s service, in effect, is one of elevation.
On a lower level, Judah (and the tribes) tells the story of most of the souls in existence, who struggle and slowly elevate their mundane lives from the bottom up. We begin our lives in a dark world, our mission in life concealed, our destinies unknown. The pursuit to make ends meet and other distractions dominate our lives. Our effort consists of gradually working our way up to finding deeper purpose, leading us from a life of aimlessness to a life of purpose, from a state of concealment to a state of revelation.
Because this work is so difficult, we are blessed with Joseph, who empowers us with strength to spiritualize the material and to reveal it in our lives. In contrast to Judah’s work from the bottom up, Joseph is the soul that draws down, from above to below, the Divine energy of Atzilus sustaining those below. “Joseph was the leader over the land, he rationed out food for all the people (Genesis 42:6). In today’s age – and throughout history – Joseph represents the souls in each generation who lead and inspire us, those that imbue us with strength and motivation to overcome life’s challenges and to integrate the sublime into the secular.
Joseph’s dream attests to this: “We were binding sheaves in the field, when my sheaf suddenly stood up firm. Your sheaves formed a circle around my sheaf, and bowed down to it.” All souls on earth are charged with the mission to “bind sheaves” – to gather the disparate and divisive forces in the “field” of our lives and “bind” them toward one spiritual end. But on our own we can only reach that far. Living in a harsh world we need help to transform our existence. Enter Joseph, a soul whose “sheaf suddenly stood up firm,” further elevating the sheaves. And “your sheaves formed a circle around my sheaf, and bowed down to it.” Once we exert ourselves in this effort, we are blessed with the power that helps us elevate and unite our “sheaves” in one circle, sublimating them to the unifying energy of Atzilus.
Jacob’s special love for Joseph was not at the expense of his other sons. Quite the contrary: It was in support of them. This love reflects the power Jacob – a pure soul of Atzilus – invests in Joseph, allowing him, in turn, to infuse the souls of the tribes, immersed in the material world with the ability to accomplish their calling.
Benjamin is somewhat of an interface between Joseph and Judah (and the other tribes). Called “Tzaddik tachton” in contrast to Joseph’s “Tzaddik elyon,” born in Israel, uninvolved in the selling of Joseph, full brother to Joseph, Benjamin is a soul who elevates the material from the bottom up (like the other tribes), but at the same time he also has part of Joseph’s (and Jacob’s) power in him (as brothers from Rachel).
Ultimately, the battle between Joseph and Judah is over Benjamin: Joseph wanted to elevate Benjamin to his own level in Atzilus, thereby also helping the tribes in their work. Judah, however, unaware he was speaking to Joseph and that Joseph was even alive in Egypt, let alone that he had maintained his spiritual integrity. He therefore insisted that Benjamin remain with them, because he carried Jacob’s power, “the lad cannot leave his father. If he left him, his father would die,” in order to help the tribes, in place of Joseph, with their work of elevating the Divine sparks.
Who was right – Joseph or Judah? Both. As the story continues, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, and they are reunited – Joseph, Benjamin, Judah and all the brothers, together with their father Jacob.
Finally, this week’s Samach-Vav tells us, that today Joseph reigns. In our present state we are in need for Joseph to reveal and empower our work in transforming the universe. But soon, very soon, when all that we have achieved will be revealed, Judah will rise to his befitting prominence, higher than Joseph, with the coming of Moshiach from the House of David (descending from Judah) – when all will see that the self-generated of the souls who descend and struggle with the greatest challenges of life are the ones that fulfill the ultimate purpose of existence and draw down the deepest dimensions of the Divine, and the very Divine Essence itself.
As we read in this week’s haftorah: “Thus says G-d: Behold, I am to take the stick of Joseph… and I will join with it the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand… I will make them one nation… One king shall be king over them all. My servant David shall be king over them, and one shepherd shall be for them all” (Ezekiel 37:19-24).
But there is more to the story of the soul’s achievements in this world. To be discussed in the next installment of Samach-Vav.