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Lectures on Chassidic Psychology • Lecture 2 • Part 3 • Categories of Psychological Work: Charity, Fear, Tanning, and Miracles

This is the third part of a transcript of Rabbi Ginsburgh's class at the Torat Hanefesh School of Jewish Psychology from 13th of Av, 5769

To go to Part 1 click here

To go to Part 2 click here


Loving-kindness: A Service of Giving

A service of giving and not a service of removing

We began with the work of the Levite and we now come to the work of the priest who is described as “the man of loving-kindness.” Regarding the service of the priest there is a special phrase, “And you and your sons with you shall keep your priesthood in everything pertaining to the altar and to that within the veil; and you shall serve; I give you the priesthood as a service of giving; and the common man that draws near shall be put to death”[1] (וְאַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתְּךָ תִּשְׁמְרוּ אֶת כְּהֻנַּתְכֶם לְכָל דְּבַר הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וּלְמִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת וַעֲבַדְתֶּם עֲבֹדַת מַתָּנָה אֶתֵּן אֶת כְּהֻנַּתְכֶם וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת).

Chassidut explains that a service of giving (עֲבֹדַת מַתָּנָה) refers to the “great love” (אַהֲבָה רַבָּה)—a state of constant love for God that is given to the tzaddik from above as a gift, meaning that it is not dependent on his actions. Sometimes this is called “pleasurable love” (אַהֲבָה בַּתַּעֲנוּגִים).

But the simple meaning appearing in the Talmud different. Only the priests are allowed to perform their duties in the Temple. If a person who is not a priest performs one of their designated duties, he is liable for death by heavenly decree. However, the verse says that only if the action performed was “a service of giving and not a service of removing.” When the priest places something on the altar, that is called a “service of giving.” Taking something off the altar, for example the ashes left over from the sacrifices, that is called a “service of removal,” and a non-priest who performs this service is not liable for death by heavenly decree.

Difficulty in Giving – A Mental Illness

What does this teach us psychologically? The experience of loving-kindness (chessed) is love and the Zohar states that there is no service like the service of love. Even though we stated above that all work (service) is related to the left axis of the sefirot, here we see a type of service or work that is associated with the right axis, with love. This tendency to the right derives from the literal language used in the verse, “a service of giving” (עֲבֹדַת מַתָּנָה).

A woman comes in for advice and you the advisor see that she has an issue with giving. There are people who find it easy to take but have a hard time giving, they simply do not like to give. This is a formidable problem for anyone, particularly a Jew. You could become ill, without knowing why, if you have a problem with giving, which indicates that you have a problem in your sefirah of chessed, with the power of love in your psyche.

Acumen for Giving

As we said, in Chassidut, a service of giving is the pleasurable love a tzaddik is awarded after he transforms (it’hapcha, akin to what we call “sweetening”) his evil inclination, rather than just subduing it (itkafya, which we usually call “submission”). Apparently the two are related. To be mentally healthy one needs to have such a strong acumen for giving that it does not have to come through submission—by forcing oneself to give. We will come to tzedakah (charity) in a moment, but what he have learnt about the psychological work associated with loving-kindness (chessed) is that the giving should be so natural to a person that it is done with a willful heart and with passion, there is no feeling that one needs to coerce oneself to give. This is an acumen for “love of Israel” (ahavat Yisrael). Normally, a person is limited to giving up to a fifth of their possessions away for tzedakah, “One who squanders, should not squander more than a fifth.” However, from the language used by the sages, the Ba’al Shem Tov learnt that this limitation only applies to one who feels that giving tzedakah is like squandering or wasting his money. But one has a natural acumen for giving and takes pleasure in it, then he is not limited. Once again, there are people who suffer because their sense of giving is underdeveloped. Every Jew has some natural proclivity to giving, for as the sages say, one of the three signature characteristics of Jews is that they have compassion (and are meek and beneficent). When there is something wrong, it is as if the acumen for giving is stuck, as if it has been “possessed,” not allowing it to move freely to be able to give without end.

Might (Gevurah): Serve God with Awe

Not to fear anything but God

With regard to understanding (binah), we learnt the verse, “Serve God with joy, come before him with song.”[2] There is a parallel verse that reads, “Serve God with awe, tremble with joy”[3] (עִבְדוּ אֶת הוי' בְּיִרְאָה וְגִילוּ בִּרְעָדָה). The sages interpret this verse to mean that “where there is joy, there is trembling.”[4] In other words, they are telling us that having awe, or experiencing fear [of Heaven] is a specific type of work. What kind of work is this?

This is what the Ba’al Shem Tov’s father told him before he passed away, “Srulik, do not fear anything in this world, except for God.” You cannot fear two things at once. Fear can be related to anxiety, which we talked about in the previous class. True fear or awe is when you fear only God and nothing else in the world. Only if a person has no other fears nor any anxieties can we say that his faculty of might (gevurah) rectified.

Fearing God is a pleasant experience, because God is a kind father; it is pleasant to fulfill the commandment to revere Him as one is commanded to reverse his father. There are two separate commandments: one is to respect one’s parents; this commandment appears in the Ten Commandments, “Honor your mother and your father…”[5] (כַּבֵּד אֶת אָבִיךָ וְאֶת אִמֶּךָ). This commandment includes most of the active obligations a person has towards his parents. The other commandment, to revere one’s parents, is learnt from the verse, “You shall each revere his mother and his father”[6] (אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ). This commandment requires us to respect our parents, ensuring that we do not insult them, etc.[7]

For this reason, to fear anything but God is a terrible experience, because we unconsciously are exchanging God for something else. One should have absolutely no fear but the fear of God. Just as when the faculty of knowledge (da’at) is tainted, a person suffers from his power of imagination, so when the faculty of might (gevurah) is tainted, one suffers from anxiety and fear. Like with regard to knowledge, the treatment and work here is to cancel all the superfluous false fears and to strengthen the fear of Heaven.

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s Trembling with Joy

Who is the exemplary tzaddik illustrating the principle that where there is joy, that is where there is trembling? That would be the Ba’al Shem Tov, our teacher. And yet, he was always in a joyous state.

We can read this verse as if it has two parts. The first part is, “Serve God with awe”[8] (עִבְדוּ אֶת הוי' בְּיִרְאָה וְגִילוּ בִּרְעָדָה), prescribing the serving God with fear. Then, the second part, “tremble with joy,” would meaning that if sometimes, apart from fear you experience joy, then in that state of joy there should be trembling. But really, both parts of the verse are one thing and what the verse means to say is that if you serve God with fear then that fear will awaken joy in you (as we explained) and even in that place of joy, there should be trembling. In other words, because the joy originated in my fear of God, that joy itself is accompanied with residual positive trembling. This is what the Ba’al Shem Tov continually exhibited. It is well known that anything he touched would tremble. Even if you put a cup full of water at the other end of a room he was in, the water would tremble. The animals in his presence would tremble with reverence as well.

Rectifying the soul with joy; Rectifying the body with fear

The verse, “serve God with fear” appears in the second chapter of Psalms, a chapter that is dedicated to the Mashiach. In certain passages in Chassidic thought it is explained that the injunction to serve God with joy is for Jews and the injunction to serve God with fear is for non-Jews.

How can we apply this explanation to ourselves? The Jew in me is my soul, the non-Jew in me is my body (the Hebrew word for “body” is גְּוִיָּה, which is related to “non-Jew,” i.e., a goy). Thus, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s trembling was a way in which to refine his body. In any case, these two, the soul and the body are described by the verse, “I am understanding, I have might”[9] (אֲנִי בִינָה לִי גְבוּרָה). The joy is in understanding, as we explained, and the might corresponds to serving God with fear.

Beauty (Tiferet): Tanning Hides

Refining one’s traits

The sefirah of beauty (tiferet) corresponds to the torso, the body. One of the concepts related to beauty is the refinement of the character traits of the heart.

This type of work is likened in Chassidic thought to tanning, the process by which animal hides are turned into leather. Tanning takes something that is rough and wild and works it so that it becomes soft and useful. In Yiddish we say that at first a person is grob, meaning gross and his character traits need to be processed, they need to be softened like tanning.

Tanning the Snakeskin

There is of course a connection between having gross character traits and being prideful, but they are not exactly the same. Gross (or rough) is not only an adjective used to describe emotional traits in their original state, it also describes the state of an animal hide before it is tanned—a raw hide. After Adam listened to the snake in the Garden of Eden and ate from the Tree of Knowledge, his entire body is described as “a snakeskin” (מָשְׁכָא דְּחִוְיָא). Even though a snakeskin is very rough, if you know how to tan it, you can make something beautiful, something that is both good and fine. The process of tanning is thus related to the sefirah of beauty. There are people whose animal soul is like an ox, or like a goat, or like a sheep—each one represents a different animal nature—but what they all have in common is that they are all unrefined and they have a crass spirit. The concept of spirit[10]  itself is related with the sefirah of beauty—the spirit can either be crass or it can be refined and cultivated. Even though halachically, we differentiate between the so-called “coarse” cattle (oxen and cows) and the “delicate” cattle (sheep and goats), the nature of all of them needs refinement. We have to bring their state to King David’s state, which is why he is also known as “Adino,”[11] (עֲדִינוֹ) which means “soft” (עָדִין).

This work, whereby the advisor helps a person refine and soften his character traits by explaining that his problem is that he is crass or gross in his behavior and his speech, this all begins with the heart, with the sefirah of beauty.


We saw that the psychological category of work associated with loving-kindness (chessed) is giving. Victory is the extension of loving-kindness on the right axis of the sefirot. Victory means being victorious over my own nature. This is another example of the need for subordinating our nature (itkafya). Specifically, it is related to the verse we saw in the first class we gave in this series, “And the service of tzedakah will be peace, and the toil of tzedakah quiet and trust forever”[12] (וְהָיָה מַעֲשֵׂה הַצְּדָקָה שָׁלוֹם וַעֲבֹדַת הַצְּדָקָה הַשְׁקֵט וָבֶטַח עַד עוֹלָם). In that previous class, we also explained that the verse’s first half (the service of tzedakah) refers to giving according to one’s nature. While its second half (the toil, or work, of tzedakah) refers to giving above and beyond your natural inclination.

When you are victorious over your nature, you merit that the tzedakah you give, leads to “quiet and trust forever.” This is like the difference between the fact that the tzedakah “works” in the world and when it “works” and affects you yourself. This is always the case with going beyond your nature. If you learn something a hundred times, you will reach a state of peace, but if you repeat it one more time, going above and beyond what is normal, than you will see not only peace, but miracles—even physical miracles.

The power to perform miracles

So now let us extend this concept of going above and beyond to the category of psychological work associated with victory. If someone comes seeking advice and we see that they cannot go beyond their nature, there are a few different options. With regard to the crown, we diagnosed it as a problem with having no yearning for that which is hidden, for mystery, for what is beyond. With regard to victory, the problem is that the person cannot go beyond his nature. He gives, but he cannot work to create a miracle in his psyche. It might be that in secret, he does not believe there are miracles. He might rationalize it by quoting the sages, “One should not rely on a miracle,” but the fact that you should not rely on a miracle makes him think that there are no miracles; certainly, that he would not be able to create a miracle in his own psyche by going beyond his nature in dedication to others.

The root cause of this problem is linked with the beginning of the right axis, wisdom. In wisdom lies the power of self-nullification. If one has not nullified his ego properly, it affects the final extension of the right axis, victory, and prevents him from devoting himself above and beyond to make a miracle happen.

Sefer Yetzirah describes ten “depths” or dimensions.[13] The one that corresponds with victory is “the depth of above” (עֹמֶק רוּם), which again refers to going to the depth that is above and beyond nature. In the Torah we are told that one should not say, “It is my prowess and the strength of my hand that has made me this success.”[14] One should instead, “Remember Havayah your God, for it is He that is giving you the prowess to succeed.”[15] This is according to some opinions[16] one of 10 verses of recollection that a person should recite every day. Of those 10 recollections, this one corresponds to victory. If a person pretends to act only with his own strength, then he can never surpass nature. But the moment he attributes his abilities to the Almighty and identifies all his success with God, he can go beyond his nature. Thus, this type of work is associated with transformation, it’hapcha. Loving-kindness—the work of giving—was associated with submission (itkafya) and victory, its extension, is associated with transformation, or sweetening (it’hapcha).

[1]. Numbers 18:7.

[2]. Psalms 100:2.

[3]. Ibid. 2:11.

[4]. Berachot 30b.

[5]. Exodus 20:12.

[6]. Leviticus 19:3.

[7]. Maimonides explains that difference between these two commandments as follows,

What is the distinction between reverence and honor? Reverence signifies that the son must neither stand nor sit in his father's place; he must not contradict his father nor decide against him. What does honoring signify? The son must provide his father and mother with food, drink, and clothing, paid for by the father. If the father has no money and the son has, he is compelled to maintain his father and mother as much as he can. He must manage his father's affairs, conducting him in and out, and doing for him the kind of service that is performed by servants for their master; he should rise before him, as he should rise before his teacher (Hilchot Mamrim 6:3)

[8]. Ibid. 2:11.

[9]. Proverbs 8:14.

[10]. In this case the reference is to spirit as air, one of the four elements—fire, water, air, and earth—which correspond in order to the sefirot might, loving-kindness, beauty, and kingdom

[11]. 2 Samuel 23:8 and Mo’ed Katan 16b.

[12]. Isaiah 32:17.

[13]. 1:5.

[14]. Deuteronomy 8:17.

[15]. Ibid. v. 18.

[16]. Sefer Zechirot with commentary by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Most siddurim, beginning with the Alter Rebbe’s siddur print six recollections that should be recited daily. Sefer Chareidim adds two more and Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, the Chida, adds two more.

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