It is known that one can have a private audience with the Rebbe—a yechidut. Every chasid, and even those who are not chasidim, when wanting to ask the Rebbe an important question, there are specific days and hours when the Rebbe receives people for private audiences. In Chasidut, it's written that a private audience is a very close and intimate connection between the Rebbe and the individual who enters to see the Rebbe. During the private audience, the highest level of the chasid's soul, his yechidah, unites and becomes one with the Rebbe's yechidah. This is the essence of the private audience.
Why Do We See a World?
We begin with a story from the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Once, many chasidim were sitting in the room adjacent to the one where the Rebbe was receiving people for private audiences, waiting for their turn. Typically, these private audiences occur in the middle of the night, during the late hours. Among them was one of the elder chasidim. He observed the people waiting for their turn and noticed a young man, a young scholar, who wasn't dressed like a chasid. On the contrary, he looked very out of place, as if he didn't belong there at all. The elder chasid was very curious about what this young man, who wasn't one of the chasidim, was doing there.
He approached him with love and kindly asked, "What brings you here? What do you want to ask the Rebbe?" The young man replied that it was not a personal question. He was studying philosophy at a university and had read in a chasidic work that the entire world is nullified to God: “There is nothing besides Him” (אֵין עוֹד מִלְּבַדּוֹ). But we see the world, we see reality. How can one say that everything is completely nullified? Therefore, he could not understand how such a statement could be written in chasidut. That was why he came, and had traveled a long way to ask his question. He had heard that the Tzemach Tzedek was very knowledgeable in chasidic teachings, and he wanted to hear what he had to say.
The elder chasid realized that when this young man entered to see the Rebbe, something interesting would happen. So, he said to the young man, “You know what? I also came to ask the Rebbe a question, which is very similar to yours. My question is: Since the world is entirely nullified to God, how can it be that I see that there is a world?!”
Now, the two questions sound very similar, but if we pay attention, they are opposites. What could the young man not understand? For the young man, it was obvious that he experiences the reality of the world, but since he read that the world is nullified to God, he could not understand why such a statement would be written. But the elder chasid begins with the opposite premise. He first of all accepts that everything is nullified to God; that is simple and self-evident to him. He just does not understand why it is then that when he opens his eyes, he can see a world. Therefore, the chasid said, my question is very similar to yours. On one hand, it is the opposite question, but on the other hand, it is very similar.
So, the elder chasid suggested, “It is worthwhile for us to enter the private audience together and ask the Rebbe together.”
Obviously, that chasid had planned to talk to the Rebbe about something entirely different, but being seasoned, he understood that something interesting was about to happen, and it was worth giving up the private audience he had planned. The young man agreed.
The two entered together, the young man and the chasid, and each asked his own version of the question. The young man asked: “If I see a world, why is it written in Chasidut that the world is nullified to God?” The chasid asked: “Since surely the world is nullified to God, as it written in Chasidut, why then do I see a world?”
Of course, the Rebbe answered them at length and in-depth in the manner of Chasidut, but what is recounted in the story is just the main point in brief:
Though the source of the creation of the worlds, which is essentially the “Divine nothingness” (הָאַיִן הָאֱלֹקִי) that forms “created being” (הַיֵּשׁ הַנִּבְרָא), is truly nullified to God Himself, it is still possible that what extends out of this source—which is what we call “reality”—can appear as an independent reality. This does not contradict the fact that it is truly nullified because its source is nullified (and without the source, it is nothing).
That is the core of the Tzemach Tzedek’s response. Of course, it is not an easy answer for us to understand, but that is how he answered, and he probably explained so well that it satisfied the young man’s mind, and the elder chasid also greatly benefited from it.
Nullification Happens at the Root of the Soul
What we can learn from the questions and the answer, and how we can relate them to the Ten Days of Repentance and Yom Kippur?
Every soul has a soul-root. The root of each of our souls stands before God and its being is nullified to Him. But there is a radiance that emanates from the soul’s root. It is like a drop of light, that descends from the root and embodies within our bodies, embodies within our intellect. In our intellect, we do not feel the absolute nullification to the Holy blessed One.
The story about the Tzemach Tzedek related to the nullification of the world—the nullification of external reality—to God. Now we are discussing human consciousness. But the principle is the same. In my soul’s root, I (and everything) am obviously nullified to God, but with regard to the radiance that emanates from the soul, descends, and extends within the body, it is not so simple. What the Tzemach Tzedek explained was that there is true nullification at the soul’s root, but this does not contradict the fact that one can feel the reality below, again, despite everything being truly nullified to God, even below. God created each of us and the world in such a way that the we could experience our non-being, our nullification to Him only in our root, but below we would not be able to experience this nullification, even though in truth everything is nullified to God: “God is everything, and everything is God.”
From Israel to Jacob
In chasidut, the root of the soul and its radiance that is embodied within the body are referred to as “Israel” (יִשְׂרָאֵל) and “Jacob” (יַעֲקֹב), respectively. The root of the soul called “Israel” refers to the higher name given to our patriarch Jacob—the name he received after wrestling and struggling with the angel of Esau and overcoming him. What does it mean that he overcame the angel? He overcame the illusory reality of this world. But even afterward, he was still referred to as Jacob. The Hebrew form of “Jacob” (יַעֲקֹב) is composed of a letter yud (י), referring to a residual trace of the soul’s root—thus reflecting the “Israel” in us—which then is embodied within the body, referred to by the next three letters ayin-kuf-beit, spelling the word for “heel” (עָקֵב).
Now, let’s look at the sum of “Israel” and “Jacob.” The value of “Israel” (יִשְׂרָאֵל) is 541. But because the entire soul-root, the “Israel,” is captured in the first letter of “Jacob,” the yud, then we will only add the final three letters that spell “heel” (עָקֵב), whose value is 172. Their sum is thus 713, the value of an important word, relevant especially to this time of year: “teshuvah” (תְּשׁוּבָה), return to God. This word is even part of the name given to the 10 days between (and including) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “Ten Days of Repentance” (עֲשֶׂרֶת יְמֵי תְּשׁוּבָה). The climax of teshuvah is on Yom Kippur, the holy day.
Following our explanation, doing teshuvah, returning to God, means to extend the yud—representing the nullification of Israel, of the soul’s root—into the yud of “Jacob” and to then connect it to the “heel” so that I too, as I stand here in a physical body, am able to experience the nullification to God that the “Israel,” my soul root, experiences. The soul root is referred to in the Prophets in the verse, “the eternity of Havayah, in whose Presence I stood.” There, Elijah describes how he, before his soul came down into his body, stood before God’s Presence. In Chasidut this is described as, “every soul stands in its form before the Holy King” (כָּל נִשְׁמְתָא וְנִשְׁמְתָא הֲוָה קַיְמָא בְּדִיּוּקַנָא קַמֵּהּ מַלְכָּא קַדִּישָׁא), where there is complete nullification before God, though most people do not experience this nullification.
Extending the Root Through the Ten Sefirot
On each of the ten days, from (and including) Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we extend our soul’s root so that it connects more deeply with the radiance that emerges from it and enters the body, doing so step by step.
There is a saying by the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad, that one should “live with the times,” meaning that we should live with the weekly Torah portion. The Torah portion read during the Ten Days of Teshuvah this year is Ha’azinu, and in it, there is an important verse that reads, “For Havayah’s [God’s] portion is His people, Jacob is the cord of His inheritance” (כִּי חֵלֶק י-הוה עַמּוֹ יַעֲקֹב חֶבֶל נַחֲלָתוֹ). We are connected above like a cord. The cord of connection is the “cord of His inheritance” descending from above like a stream.
Kabbalah and chasidut mention a descending stream. This stream (נַחַל) is alluded to in the initials of, “He safeguards compassion for thousands [of generations]” (נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים), one of the 13 Attributes of God’s Compassion. There is also an ascending stream that rises to meet the descending one. The ascending stream is the subject of the verse, “Our soul awaits Havayah; He is our help and our shield”; the initials of the first three words, “Our soul awaits Havayah” (נַפְשֵׁנוּ חִכְּתָה לַי-הוה). The ascending stream refers to Jacob’s stream that rises to meet the descending stream, made up of the compassion that our merciful Father, has for us.
In any case, it's written that “Jacob [is] the cord of His inheritance.” With the cord, we need to connect to Israel—our soul root—and extend it downward. Our repentance is to strengthen the cord. This is also mentioned in the Tanya, that our teshuvah is to strengthen the cord of connection between the radiance of the soul embodied in the body and the root of the soul standing continuously before God.
Extending the Soul from the Root
Returning to the story about the Tzemach Tzedek: teshuvah is the recognition of the nullification at the root, and consequently, in truth, everything is nullified. However, God made it so that the radiance and residue from the soul’s root manifests within the body, creating the illusion of an independent existence, one that is separate from God. This includes both the feeling that “I am” and that the surrounding world “is.” We need to extend the consciousness of the soul’s root into the yud of Yaakov, connecting Israel to Jacob.
The teshuvah we do during the Ten Days of Teshuvah, produces this extension and reveals it through the ten sefirot. On the first day, the soul’s root is revealed in the crown, on the second day in wisdom, on the third day in understanding, and so on—until Yom Kippur, when the consciousness of the soul’s root descends to the lowest level, to kingdom, to us, to the heel. What does this resemble? What else sounds like a gradual process of extending from the root to connect with the reality below?
It reminds us of the midrash that is foundational to the well-known discourse Bati LeGani (“I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride”) that the Lubavitcher Rebbe said when he assumed the mantle of leadership in our generation. The midrash states that due to the sin of Adam, the Shechinah (Divine Presence) withdrew from the earth to the first heaven. Subsequent sins, like that of Cain and others, caused the Shechinah to ascend to withdraw further, all the way to the seventh heaven. Then, seven righteous individuals—acted to bring the Shechinah back down. Abraham brought the Shechinah down from the seventh to the sixth heaven, and so on, until Moses, the seventh (and “all sevenths are beloved”), who brought the Shechinah back down to earth. This culminated in the fulfillment of the verse, “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them,” within the heart of every Jew.
This narrative emphasizes the cyclical nature of spiritual descent and ascent, and the role of human agency in drawing down Divine energy and presence. The Ten Days of Teshuvah serve as a type of microcosm of this larger spiritual journey, where each individual has the opportunity to draw down and connect with the Divine source, bridging the gap between the highest spiritual realms and our tangible reality.
Extending the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Soul Through Ten Generations
How does the midrash differ from the idea we just discussed? In the midrash, there are only seven levels. The Shechinah was in the mundane realms, and due to sin, we caused the Shechinah to retreat and ascend from below to above. The rectification of this ascent was achieved through teshuvah. The righteous individuals of each generation returned to God, did teshuvah, thereby bringing the Shechinah back down,
We were presenting an almost identical idea: that the soul’s root needs to be brought down, but in our case, it needs to descend through not seven, but ten levels. Instead of seven generations, we have the Ten Days of Teshuvah. Yom Kippur itself is referred to as “the tenth.” Therefore, during the Ten Days of Repentance, it is as if we are moving through ten generations, bringing the root of the soul to illuminate within the radiance of the soul that resides in the body.
What are these ten generations? For us, as chasidim, they are the ten generations from the Ba’al Shem Tov to our generation. The Ba’al Shem Tov’s teachings mark the beginning of the revelation of the spreading of the wellsprings—the revelation of the Torah of Mashiach—which is essentially the revelation of the soul root of the entire Jewish people. In fact, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s name was “Israel.” His name expresses that his role was to reveal “Israel,” the elevated name and higher state, of every Jew. Even the simplest Jew, the most “heel-like,” is a part of Israel.
For example, if someone faints, how do you wake them? You whisper their true Hebrew name into their ear; the soul hears, and then they wake up. The Ba’al Shem Tov explained that he himself was the whisper that was whispering to the Jewish people the essential name of every Jew, “Israel,” their root, their true nullification to God at the root. He revealed this at the highest level, in the crown.
Then came the Maggid of Mezritch, who descended another firmament, going from the crown to wisdom. Here, there aren't just seven but ten. This progression underscores the idea that spiritual awakening and connection to the Divine are a continuous journey, spanning generations. Each tzaddik, every righteous individual, in the chain from the Ba’al Shem Tov onward, plays a role in bringing the congregation’s soul root down and revealing a deeper dimension of this Divine connection, culminating in the ultimate revelation with the coming of the Mashiach.
The Extension of the Baal Shem Tov Until Mashiach
According to this explanation, the two days of Rosh Hashanah correspond to the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Maggid. The third day corresponds to the Alter Rebbe (marking the beginning of the eight days when the High Priest prepares for the sacred service of Yom Kippur, the day of the circumcision of the heart of all of Israel), and so on in sequence. On the ninth of the Ten Days of Teshuvah, there are many kavanot (intentions) from the Arizal, because the entire descent culminates on the ninth day. What happens on Yom Kippur—the Festival of the Tenth—follows naturally. This reflects the relationship between the ninth generation, from which we are emerging, and the tenth generation, into which we are entering.
What we've done is delve into the story of the Tzemach Tzedek, which in and of itself seems to be offering a model approach for how to bring someone distant who has a question, closer. The young university student asked: How can you say the world is nullified when I see that there is a world; it is a fact the world exists! First, you need the seasoned chasid to tell him that he has the exact same question, just in reverse and then to offer to go together to the Rebbe and see what he has to say. Then, they go to the Rebbe, who explains that if the source is nullified, then everything is nullified. And yet, one can see the world as a reality and feel oneself as an entity. However, our task is to connect and strengthen the “rope,” the “Yaakov, the cord of His inheritance”—day by day during the Ten Days of Teshuvah. And then, each day corresponds to an entire generation. We need to draw the soul’s root through the strands of the rope until everything is finished favorably on Yom Kippur.
. Deuteronomy 4:35.
. 1 Kings 17:1.
. See Zohar 3:104b, 1:90b, 1:227b, 1:233b, 2:96b, and 3:61b.
. Deuteronomy 32:9.
. The Hebrew words for “inheritance” (נַחֲלָה) and “stream” (נַחַל) come from the same root.
. Psalms 33:20. The words preceding this verse are, “to sustain them in famine,” alluding to the Yom Kippur fast.
. Iggeret HaTeshuvah ch. 5. See also Tanya, ch. 45.
. Exodus 25:8.
. See Leviticus 16:29.