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Chasidic Psychology: What Is Your Origin? The Debate Between Rebbe Elimelech and Rebbe Zusha

A. From the Lowliness of Man to the Loftiness of God

The holy brothers’ debate and the Maggid’s ruling

The chasidic tradition includes a famous account regarding the debate between the two holy brothers, Rebbe Zusha of Anipoli and Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk regarding the order an individual should take in the development of his Divine service. Everyone agrees that the two pillars of Divine service are contemplation of God’s loftiness and man’s lowliness—especially prior to prayer. This follows the ruling of the Rema who writes in his notes on the Shulchan Aruch, “And one should contemplate before praying God’s loftiness and man’s lowliness.”[1]

This is also a universal requirement in the development of every individual’s duties of the heart—those commandments that develop the heart’s clinging to God (such as love of God, awe of God, etc.).[2]

However, the two holy brothers did not agree on the order of these two pillars, practically. We have a first-hand account from Rabbi Gedalyah of Linitz, who merited to be a direct disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov himself. He writes,[3]

I heard from the holy mouth of Rebbe Zusha of Anipoli himself that once he argued with his famous brother, Rabbi Elimelech. One of them was of the opinion that first, one should be lowly to the very utmost possible until the power of this lowliness will bring him to acknowledge God’s loftiness. The other was of the opposite opinion: first one should contemplate God’s loftiness and from this one will come to acknowledge his own lowliness, in the proper way. The two brothers asked the Maggid to declare which of them was right. The Maggid saw the correctness in both their arguments and stated that “both are words of the Living God” (אֵלּוּ וְאֵלּוּ דִּבְרֵי אֱלֹקִים חַיִּים). However, the level reached by first contemplating one’s own lowliness is greater than the opposite.

This story repeats in many Chasidic works with minor variations, and is discussed in regard to its practical applications to Divine service.[4] This debate serves as a basis for understanding many homiletics on Biblical verses as well as rabbinic sayings, particularly regarding the famous disputes of Shamai and Hillel.[5]

Regarding the Maggid of Mezrtich’s ruling, there are sources that only note that he stated that “both are the Words of the Living God,” and leave out the notion that he actually decided which opinion was higher. However, there are also sources that add that the ruling that contemplating man’s lowliness first is a “safer road,” because when you are lowly and on the ground, it is harder to fall.[6]

Another important addition[7] to the account is that the Maggid added that to begin with one’s own individual lowliness is a more difficult path and that it is easier to begin with contemplating God’s loftiness. Based on this, it has been explained[8] that there is a difference between earlier generations and our own. Individuals in earlier generations were able to follow the more difficult path and first contemplate their own personal lowliness. But with the descent of the generations (יְרִידַת הַדּוֹרוֹת), there is fear that by beginning with his own lowliness, one will come to feel depressed, will feel despair, and lose faith in his abilities, it has become more appropriate to follow the easier path and begin by contemplating God’s loftiness; doing so provides encouragement, for regardless of the spiritual level one is at, God’s loftiness is manifest as His infinite and unending mercy upon even the lowest parts of creation, energizing them to seek to pick themselves up and ascend higher.

The Order of Service in the No’am Elimelech

The words of the Maggid of Linitz quoted above do not identify which of the two holy brothers held which opinion. There are other sources[9] though that claim that it was Rebbe Zusha that argued that one should begin by contemplating his own lowliness and it was Rebbe Elimelech who argued that the inception of Divine service should be to contemplate God’s loftiness. However, other sources[10] claim exactly the opposite, namely that Rebbe Elimelech held that one should begin with lowliness and move on two God’s loftiness and Rebbe Zusha held that the inception should be contemplating God’s loftiness and only then should one seek to come to terms with one’s own lowliness. According to this last opinion, the Maggid ruled according to the younger of the two brothers—Rebbe Elimelech.[11]

One of the references cited in this ongoing unclarity is a section from Rebbe Elimelech’s book, No’am Elimelech, parashat Vayeitzei. In this section, Rebbe Elimelech explains in length and explicitly that one should begin by contemplating his own lowliness and submission before God as a first step in Divine service. Only then, can one merit to attain an appreciation of God’s loftiness and seek to ascend to cling to it. Here is what Rebbe Elimelech writes:

This is the meaning of the words of the Mishnah, “Observe these three things and you will not come to sin: [1] Know where you came from—from a rotten seed—and [2] to where you are destined to go, and [3] Whom are you bound to give an accounting to.” Know where you came from—from a rotten seed—means that you should contemplate your point of origin in serving God; recall how you have faltered and sinned and how this has caused you impurity,[12] the meaning of “a rotten seed.” Where you are destined to go means that you should ask yourself, what will drive you, and in what manner, to serve God? This is the recollection that you are destined to return to dust, to decompose, and to worm. This thought drives man to a feeling of tremendous submission [before God] and is the primal root of all that drives man to grow in awe of God and in His holy Torah. And Whom are you bound to give an accounting to means that by contemplating the two aforementioned thoughts, you will merit the loftiness of blessed God.

This is the meaning of the [Torah’s] words, “He saw, and behold there was a ladder, firmly planted on the ground [with its top reaching heavenward].” The value of the word “ladder” (סֻלָּם) is the same as “Sinai” (סִינַי), implying that submission, which is firmly planted on the ground, is what motivates man to understand the Torah that was given at Mt. Sinai. Its “top” refers to holiness, with which one can reach the heavens. One’s drive to do so should be very very strong. With holiness, one can ascend higher and higher, without end. And one should constantly strive to say, “When will my actions reach those of my forefathers?”

Let us note, that even though this source is referenced as proving that it was Rebbe Elimelech that held that one should first contemplate one’s lowliness, this conclusion does not necessarily follow, as it may very well be that he wrote these words after his teacher, the Maggid of Mezritch, had voiced his ruling on the question. In fact, familiarity with the character of Rebbe Zusha and Rebbe Elimelech would lead one to conclude that it would be more fitting for Rebbe Zusha to have held this opinion: first man’s lowliness, then God’s loftiness. Apart from Rebbe Zusha’s proclivity to live in a simple and even impoverished state his entire life, while Rebbe Elimelech was known as a tremendous scholar and holy man, it was Zusha that brought his brother to the Maggid’s table.[13] Zusha warned his brother, that despite his own tendency to lead an ascetic life through which he could “peak” into God’s chambers, like a servant peeking into the King’s private chamber, a great scholar such as Rebbe Elimelech should act like a son entering his father’s chambers through the front door.

In any case, it remains difficult to determine which of the two brothers held which opinion because both orders of service are required under different circumstances, as explained elsewhere. In any case, once Rebbe Elimelech heard the Maggid’s ruling, he included it in his book, which is known as “the Book of the Tzaddikim[14] (סִפְרָן שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים) and supported it with many sources both in Scripture and in the Oral tradition.

B. From a Rotten Seed

The Blemish of the Covenant as a Source of Lowliness

In the passage preceding the one quoted above, Rebbe Elimelech analyzes the figurative meaning behind Jacob’s discussion with the shepherds of Haran:

For the tzaddik’s thoughts are always encroaching upon him to be in awe of the Almighty and to search and seek all of its methods and the manners of serving God. It’s as if his thoughts are conversing with one another as if discussing what motivation or action would drive him to arouse his heart to serve God. “They replied: We are from Haran,” meaning that his [the tzaddik’s] thoughts will conclude that the primary motivation for arousing awe of God is the recollection of Haran, i.e., the anger we have caused His great, blessed Name.

This [anger] refers especially to the transgression so commonly found to our great distress, when a person experiences the impurity of unprompted emissions causing him to tremble and be stricken by panic and fear. This [the recollection of these transgressions] will arouse one’s heart to serve God as he says to himself, “How have I angered the great and terrible Name, with my evil conduct.”

Thus, Rebbe Elimelech stresses that Divine service begins with the contemplation of our own lowliness and specifically the lowliness that results from awakening to do teshuvah [to return to God] after one has transgressed. This goes beyond the usual meaning of lowliness, which stems from the recognition that, “one is an insignificant, lowly, and unilluminated being, standing with meager consciousness before the Master of all Knowledge.”

Rebbe Elimelech also focuses on one particular transgression: the commonly occurring unconscious emission. It is specifically with the lowliness that results from this transgression that one should begin one’s contemplation of one’s lowliness. This is what it means, according to Rebbe Elimelech, that one should contemplate that one’s origin is “in a rotten seed”—the inception point for serving God.

This is clearly a pivotal innovation and requires careful consideration. Before we do that though, let us note that there is support for this stance from the well-known halachah that a child becomes obligated with mitzvot (commandments) from the moment he or she[15] arrives at puberty, the stage in life when the physical cravings awaken and the non-intentional emissions increase, and not any earlier.

A ”Sense” in Chasidut

The topic of non-intentional emissions, how to cope with them, and their rectification and the rectification of the blemish of the covenant are common topics in Chasidic literature. However, in Chabad literature, we find the general principle that one should deal with this topic minimally,[16] this despite the fact that it is dealt with in a number of places in the Tanya.[17] Still, it is not at the forefront of our daily service. Indeed, the Lubavitcher Rebbe stressed[18] that the way to cope with this blemish is by taking no notice, or ignoring the problem itself; paying attention to the blemish of the covenant can only be properly carried out in relatively later stages of Divine service. Nonetheless, the Rebbe also argued[19] that because the blemish is so ubiquitous and the psychological establishment usually approaches the blemish of the covenant as something that is a priori not a problem (an opinion that is obviously not the Torah’s standpoint), we do need to address it.

One of the central sources that deal with the blemish of the covenant and which we have mentioned in the past is an address made by the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab.[20] The second part of that address relates directly to Rebbe Elimelech’s teaching we have quoted. The Rebbe Rashab says something very harsh: A chasid who is completely free of the blemish of the covenant, cannot have any understanding in Chasidic teachings. The understanding of Chasidut that someone who has fallen with respect to this particular form of inappropriate sexual conduct is infinitely greater than someone who has not. Importantly, the Rebbe Rashab says that he is not referring to an individual who has blemished his covenant in a gross manner and intentionally, but only to those individuals by whom the transgression was lighter and more delicate, leading the individual to feel that he is prone to this misdeed. In other words, the Rebbe Rashab agrees that Divine service begins with the lowliness associated with the blemish of the covenant and the teshuvah it entails. Indeed, one might paraphrase, “From where did you come [to Chasidut]? From a rotten seed.”

Wholeness of One’s Substance

But why is it that the blemish of the covenant is what gives one an understanding in Chasidut? To answer this question, we turn to the Rebbe Rashab’s address where he says that this is like no other transgression and therefore the teshuvah one needs to perform is different from all other forms of return to God. With this, the Rebbe Rashab is explaining the often-quoted Zohar, which states that there is no teshuvah for the blemish of the covenant.[21]

The crux of the Rebbe Rashab’s explanation is that when it comes to the various forms in which the psyche—its mind and its heartfelt emotions—are expressed, there can be actions that cause their expression to be concealed. To restore the mind and the emotions and their ability to express themselves, an even higher and stronger “light” is need, one that originates from outside the individual. This higher “light” is drawn down with teshuvah. The blemish of the covenant expresses the animal soul’s substance (עֶצֶם), its most essential point, and thus it is the only thing that can damage the Divine soul’s substantial wholeness (שְׁלֵמוֹת הָעַצְמִית). Incidentally, this is the reason that most people are more troubled by their transgressions in the realm of the blemish of the covenant than in other areas. These transgressions are palpably experienced as having ensnared our essence, rather than being experienced as just some kind of external impropriety. Our substantial wholeness cannot be concealed by any external agent. In a sense, it can only conceal itself as it appears to simply recoil into itself and simply stops expressing itself externally. For the same reason, there is no external agent, energy, or light that can restore it to its previous brilliant expression once it has been concealed. Here too, the rectification—the reappearance of our substantial wholeness—happens internally, when our substantial wholeness simply begins to once again radiate outwards and finds a way to express itself.

As the Rebbe Rashab explains there, our substantial wholeness is restored through studying the Torah’s inner dimension—Chasidut—in the deepest and most committed way.[22] Thus, rectifying the blemish of the covenant requires a true commitment to Chasidic teachings and a meaningful understanding of its lessons. The very process of rectifying the blemish of the covenant, reveals the substantial wholeness of our Divine soul, and this itself is the inner sense of comprehension of Chasidut, which binds every Jew to God through his or her soul.[23]

Nullification of Self

We can further couch the Rebbe Rashab’s explanation into the nomenclature of self-nullification and lowliness developed in our article, “Understanding and Refining the Ego.”[24] In short, lowliness refers to the feeling a (rectified) individual experiences that he is distant from God (not because God is distant from him, but) because of his transgressions and general situation in life. Self-nullification refers to Divine consciousness, whereby the (rectified) individual feels God’s presence continuously and universally and feels that God has placed a mission on his shoulders, which he must complete by nullifying his sense of separate existence from Godliness.

Lowliness is the psychological experience associated with the sefirah of kingdom, while selflessness is the psychological experience associated with wisdom. It is by exercising selflessness that one is privileged to reveal something of the “true One,” i.e., to reveal God’s oneness.[25] In Kabbalah,[26] we find that the extension of wisdom’s foundation is long and therefore some of the revelation of the Divine that comes from selflessness can be revealed in the power of procreation (associated with foundation), when it is used in a rectified manner—when the individual procreates in order to become a partner with God in bringing new life into the world. Again, this is when there is no blemish of the covenant (in foundation), but still the revelation of Godliness in this regard is the revelation of the “being” (יֵשׁ), and not of the “non-being” (אָיִן). However, if the covenant is blemished, it causes one to feel that one has lost one’s substantive wholeness, leading the individual to feel that he has lost touch with himself, causing him to experience a sense of true “non-being,” akin to an experience of nullification of being (בִּטּוּל בִּמְצִיאוּת). If the individual takes this experience—caused by his blemish of the covenant—to heart, and truly recognizes the loss of his “self” and the “annihilation of the self” that it causes then he is elevated to his source of wisdom (and even to the state described as, “the inner experience of Father, i.e., wisdom, is the inner experience of Atik, i.e., the highest part of the crown[27]), which is also the source of Chasidic thought.

Armed with this understanding, we can return to Rebbe Elimelech’s Chasidic interpretation of, Know where you came from—from a rotten seed, which can now be understood to refer to the Mishnah's plain reading. If a person recalls that his origin is “from a rotten seed,” meaning, that he too was born from his biological father’s procreative act, and yet despite this, blemishes his own covenant with the cravings of his animal soul, he is in fact losing the footing upon which his own existence stands. If he treats his origin, the procreative force of his parent, as merely “a rotten seed” of lust, then his own being is lost.

King David’s Experience

Regarding the experience we have just described, King David says, “Indeed, I was born with iniquity.” He utters these words in the Psalm describing his teshuvah over his actions with Batsheva, which is considered by the sages as the foundation for all acts of teshuvah.[28] As the sages taught,[29]

Even if a person is the most pious among the pious, it is impossible that he does not have some connection with sin. Thus, said David to the Almighty, “Master of the Universe, was my father Yishai’s [Jesse] intent to beget me? Did he not intend to gain pleasure?”

The sentiment expressed by King David leads to a deep dependence on God alone. This can be seen in the way the sages continue this statement,

Know that this is the case, because after they have fulfilled their needs, he turns his face away from her [his wife] and she turns her face away from him [her husband] and You [God] insert every drop of blood he [the fetus] has. This follows what David said, “For my father and my mother have forsaken me and God will gather me in.”[30]

What we learn from this analysis by the sages is that the blemish of the covenant is not limited to the result of only improper sexual conduct. Rather, it is a byproduct of the very affinity a person has to sexual cravings and to the pleasure they cause, even when conducted entirely within the permissible and sanctified limits of a marital relationship. In fact, Yishai, David’s father is considered to be “the pious among the pious” about whom the sages say that he is one of four individuals who died, not because of any spiritual misconduct, but because of the universal decree of mortality that was the result of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge.[31] However, that very sin performed by Adam and Eve falling for the trickery of the primeval snake, was the result of their craving to satisfy their need for pleasure [by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge].[32]

Going deeper into our analysis of David’s description of his father, let us note that the background behind it is that Yishai was angry with his wife and therefore stopped having marital relations with her, substituting his maidservant for her. David was conceived when his wife secretly took her place one night. Now, Yishai, David’s father is particularly associated with the sefirah of foundation, as he is the father of David, the king (associated with the sefirah of kingdom) of Israel. In Scripture,[33] Yishai is referred to as “Nachash,” meaning “snake,” which is a euphemism for the sefirah of foundation (in its immature form). He is the ninth (again referring to foundation, which is the ninth sefirah) of ten generations from Peretz (Judah’s son), which are delineated at the end of the Book of Ruth. For this reason, it is specifically by Yishai that the need for pleasure from marital relations is mentioned. This need stems from the immature state of the foundation[34]—a state in which it is not influencing, but rather being influenced (feeling that it needs to be receiving and not giving). Apparently, it was this state that caused Yishai to forsake his wife in search of pleasure with his maidservant.[35]

The corollary is that when a husband is angry with his wife, it is an expression, whether conscious or sub-conscious of his feeling that his wife is not providing for his pleasure enough, all according to the imagination of his animal soul, which is the source of the ego and our feeling that the entire world is meant to satisfy our needs. Seeing this, David’s mother took the maidservants’ place and connected with her promiscuous behavior, thus earning the words, “with sin my mother conceived me” (וּבְחֵטְא יֶחֱמַתְנִי אִמִּי). Indeed, the Arizal writes[36] that it was only because of the iniquity of David’s parents that it was possible in the first place to extract his soul from within the depths of the impure husks and bring it into this world. The repercussion was that David too had a very strong sexual urge, which was eventually expressed with respect to his relationships with Batsheva and Avigayil. We conclude then that the blemish of the covenant is primarily defined as the imaginary “needs” of our sexual urge. The righteous tzaddik who fully rectifies the covenant does so by diverting all his sexual energy to serving God, to serving God with excitement, with “a live organ,” as it were, as taught by the Ba’al Shem Tov.

[1]. Shulchan Aruch 98:1.

[2]. Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2.

[3]. Teshu’ot Chein, Likkutim.

[4]. A few of these sources mention the words of (the first) Rebbe Yissachar Dov of Belz that one who wishes to act in accordance with both opinions should begin with lowliness, then ascend to God’s loftiness, and finally return to contemplate man’s lowliness (Sefer HaChasidut s.v. Anavah, p. 187). See also Kitvei Haracha Bichovski, p. 228 in regard to the sages' statement, “uprooting idolatry precedes the conquering of the Land of Israel and the conquering of the Land of Israel precedes the annihilation of idolaters” (Avodah Zarah 45b).

[5]. See Rabbi Aharon Shapira in Ma’ayanot, issue 1, pp. 23ff.

[6]. Beit Avraham (Slonim), Channukah s.v. Beit Shamai Omrim.

[7]. Vayechi Yosef, Bereishit, s.v. Od Nireh Lefaresh.

[8]. See Rabbi Ginsburgh’s Mivchar Shiurei Hitbonenut vol. 3, pp. 110-111. The class from 21 Tammuz 5774 (ch. 2), and Sheloshah Ketarim p. 59, and elsewhere.

[9]. Vayechi Yosef loc. cit. Kitvei Racha Bichovski ibid. note 5.

[10]. Bnei Shileishim s.v. Eleh Toldot.

[11]. A beautiful numerical allusion: Meshulam Zusil (מְשֻׁלָּם זוסיל) has the same value as “pleasure” (תַּעֲנוּג), 529, or 23 squared. Elimelech (אֱלִימֶלֶךְ) has the same value as “humility” (עֲנָוָה). The sum of their names is 660 the same as the value of, “A descent for the sake of ascent” (יְרִידָה צֹרֶךְ עֲלִיָּה), alluding to the contemplation of man’s lowliness for the sake of acknowledging God’s loftiness. Of course, the sum of their names also equals “an ascent for the sake of a descent” (עֲלִיָּה צֹרֶךְ יְרִידָה), alluding to the opinion that first one should contemplate God’s loftiness and only then can he acknowledge man’s lowliness.

[12]. Referring specifically to nocturnal emissions (מִקְרֶה בִּלְתִּי טָהוֹר).

[13]. Pe’ulat HaTzaddikim (Zinger 1900), 3b.

[14]. Based on Rosh Hashanah 16b. See Lahafoch Et HaChosech LeOr, ch. 11.

[15]. As explained elsewhere.

[16]. Shut Tzemach Tzedek, Milu’im 62.

[17]. Tanya, ch. 7, ch. 29, ch. 42, and the entire Iggeret HaTeshuvah.

[18]. Iggerot Kodesh vol. 19, iggeret 7426. Ibid. vol. 22, iggerot 8242 and 8342.

[19]. Ibid. vol. 9, 2642. See also sichah from Parashat Pinchas 5731.

[20]. Sukat Shalom in the sichah from Kislev 21, 5673 (1913), sections 4-6. Sefer HaSichot Torat Shalom, pp. 172-174 (Hebrew edition: pp. 210 and ff.).

[21]. Zohar 1:62a. In Iggeret HaTeshuvah, the Alter Rebbe offers a seemingly different explanation.

[22]. About this, see the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Iggerot Kodesh vol. 15, p. 330, iggeret 5652.

[23]. Amazingly, the value of “blemish of the covenant” (פְּגַם הַבְּרִית) is the same as, “an actual part of God Above” (חֵלֶק אֱ-לוֹהַּ מִמַּעַל מַמָּשׁ), and of “Master of the Universe” (רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם).

[24]. Perek Be’Avodat HaShem in Lev Lada’at.

[25]. Tanya ch. 35 in the note. See also Rebbe Hillel of Paritch, Ve’Ishah Achat MiBnei HaNevi’im in Pelach Harimon on Bereishit.

[26]. Eitz Chaim Sha’ar HaKelalim ch. 10. Ibid. 31:3, and elsewhere

[27]. Likkutei Torah Nitzavim 49d.

[28]. Mo’ed Katan 16b.

[29]. Vayikra Rabbah 14:5.

[30]. Psalms 27:10.

[31]. Shabbat 55b.

[32]. See Chesed LeAvraham, ma’ayan 2, nahar 51; see also in the name of the Seer of Lublin in Derech Pikudecha mitzvat aseh 1:5 (see also No’am Elimelech Vayishlach, s.v. VaYe’avek Ish Imo, 6).

[33]. 2 Samuel 17:25, which is the source for the sages’ statement that he died only because of the sin of the primordial snake.

[34]. Eitz Chaim 34:2.

[35]. Servants and maidservants are known for their promiscuous behavior.

[36]. Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Hakdamah 38.

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