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Character and Purpose

The Rebbe's First Response Regarding our Yeshivah

When speaking about our mosdot (institutions) and our activities, we often use the words “character and purpose” (צִבְיוֹן וּמַטָּרָה). These are the words the Rebbe wrote to us explicitly, as a fundamental directive. Therefore, it is so precious and foundational to me and to all my students. What’s the story?

Over fifty years ago, in the first few years when I started teaching, I studied with a group of students in Jerusalem. This was a small group, less than ten, and the shiurim went from shul (synagogue) to shul. Around that time, the Dvar Yerushalayim Yeshivah was established, which perhaps was the first institution in the country officially designated for ba’alei teshuvah, and there was a proposal to merge into this yeshivah. I asked the Rebbe about this, and the Rebbe responded in the margins of a letter, “Including his yeshivah in another institution depends on the possibility of preserving the character and purpose, etc.” It should be noted that later there were more ideas for collaborations with other institutions, which the Rebbe rejected for the same reasons.

Character and Purpose

What are “character and purpose?” Everything has its purpose—the goal we want to achieve from it. What is the ultimate purpose of our mosdot? We want the students to become shluchim (emissaries), the Rebbe's emissaries to the Jewish people.

But even before the purpose of something, there is its character (צִבְיוֹן). The sages use the word “character” in their explanation of the verse, “And the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their hosts.”[1] They write,

All the works of creation were created in their stature, were created in their wisdom, were created in their character, as it says “And the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their hosts.” Do not read it as “their hosts” [צְבָאָם] rather read it as, “their character” [צִבְיוֹנָם].[2]

There are several interpretations for the meaning of the word “character.” We will focus now on the interpretation that character is synonymous with “beauty”[3] (יֹפִי). Everything has its own character, its unique beauty and charm. To make a numerical allusion: the value of “character” (צִבְיוֹן) is the same as the sum of “beauty” (יֹפִי) and “charm” (חֵן).

What is the source of the beauty of the Jewish people? Where is it written that the Jewish people possess a character? The Hebrew word for character is related to the word for “host” or “army” (צָבָא). When the Israelites saw the hosts of the angels at the Giving of the Torah, they too desired the banners, the beauty, and the order of the hosts of angels, and they received what they desired in the arrangement of their wilderness encampment, together with banners for Tribes, and all.[4] Thus, the special character of the Jewish people is the inclusion of all the different flavors and hues. The same is true of our mosdot (institutions).

Character and Purpose in the Crown

The philosopher Immanuel Kant dealt with the concept of beauty, with the definition of aesthetics.[5] We can call the forthcoming his “law of aesthetics.” How does he define aesthetics? He has four premises that define aesthetics, but we will concentrate them into a single phrase: “purposiveness without a purpose” (תַּכְלִית לְלֹא תַּכְלִית).[6] These are not exactly his words; He didn't speak Hebrew, nor English, but German, but this is how many of his commentators summarize his “law of aesthetics.” The purpose of each thing is its end, its defined goal, which is usually also external to the thing itself. But true aesthetics, which refers to “the character of the thing,” is “purposiveness without a purpose.” Beauty is beautiful in itself without any external instrumental purpose. When you see something beautiful, it is clear to you that it has some internal logic, an inner organizational principle that is dictated by purpose, but the observer cannot explain it.

Having related character to aesthetics, what do our two concepts of character and purpose correspond to in Kabbalah? To the two parts of the sefirah of crown (keter) known as Atik and Arich. In Chasidic thought these are described as the soul’s faculties of pleasure and will, respectively.[7] The purpose of something, its desired end, corresponds to will. It answers the question of what do you want from this thing? What is its goal? But the character of something is the pleasure in it, its beauty, its aesthetics. If we want to be precise, the “purposiveness without a purpose” is the secret of the Hebrew word for “desire” (חֵפֶץ), whose letters are themselves a notarikon (acronym) for desire-beauty-character (חֵפֶץ יֹפִי צִבְיוֹן). In Chasidut, “desire” is defined as will that is enclothed within pleasure[8] (רָצוֹן הַמְלֻבָּשׁ בְּתַעֲנוּג)—thus, the desire for a thing derives from the feeling of pleasure one receives from it (appropriate to another interpretation of character, a language of desire).

The Mittler Rebbe desired that when two chasidim meet in the street, they should discuss Atik and Arich. Accordingly, they can discuss character and purpose. So, a chasid who meets his friend should ask him, “What beautiful things did you see today?” and “What are you doing with your life? What’s your goal?” The questions of character and purpose are questions that come from Atik and Arich in the supernal crown.

* based on a class given on the 21 Sivan 5783.

[1]. Genesis 2:1.

[2]. Rosh Hashanah 11a. Chullin 60a.

[3]. See Rabbeinu Chananel (לְתָאֳרָם בְּיָפְיוּתָם), Tosafot (צִבְיוֹנָם לָשׁוֹן יֹפִי), Ritva, and Maharal’s Chidushei Agadot loc. cit.

[4]. Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3.

[5]. The value of “aesthetics” (אֶסְתֵּטִיקָה) is 585, which is the value of Shifrah (שִׁפְרָה), whom the sages identify with Moses’ mother Yocheved, the secret of pleasure, as explained in ???. The sages explain that she was known by this name Shifrah because she would “beautify” the newborn child. The root of Shifrah, שפר, is one of the 8 synonyms for beauty in Hebrew (see Wonders, Issue 49, pp. 13ff.).

[6]. The value of this phrase is 1781, or the product of 13 (the value of “one” [אֶחָד]) and 137, one of the most important numbers in modern physics; see our full-length volume on 137.

[7]. Sha’ar HaYichud, chs. 24-25 and elsewhere.

[8]. Likkutei Torah, Shir Hashirim 28d, and elsewhere.

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