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Pirkei Avot 4:22: The Purpose of the Tzaddik's Descent

He [Rabbi Elazar Ha-Kappar] would also say: “Those who are born will die, and the dead will live. The living will be judged, to learn, to teach and to comprehend that He is God, He is the designer, He is the creator, He is the discerner, He is the judge, He is the witness, He is the plaintiff, and He is destined to judge…[1]

The Notzer Chesed explained that this mishnah[2] is discussing the descent of the tzaddik for the purpose of elevating others. “Those who are born” refers to righteous people. That they will die refers to their descent from their lofty spiritual level because of the trials they have to navigate. “And the dead will live” means that the righteous will have a connection with the wicked people, likened to “the dead,” with the purpose of enlivening them and bringing them close to God’s Divine Presence. They will also elevate souls and create the souls of converts. To this end, they must descend from their spiritual level, akin to death for a tzaddik, in order to enliven the dead, who are the wicked and the souls that have fallen into the impure husks.

The living dying and the dead living does not refer to life and death for the body. True life, the true meaning of being alive, is measured in one’s closeness to God, as in the verse, “And you who cleave to God, your God, you all live today.”[3] Death symbolizes being distant from God. “Tzaddikim in their death are called alive. The wicked in their lifetime are called dead.”[4] But “those who are born will die” also refers to the living tzaddik who experiences a moment of death, a certain descent from his level and closeness to God, which relatively speaking, for him, is called death (even a hairsbreadth of descent). For, “a tzaddik will fall seven times and arise.”[5] Every tzaddik falls from his level and “dies.” Sometimes his consciousness descends from a state of magnanimity to a state of pettiness. He manages, however, to rise from his fall. Why is it necessary for a tzaddik to fall? So that he may elevate others, as our master, the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches.[6]

This teaching from the Notzer Chesed is an important foundation for education. The educator engages with those who are in a state of petty consciousness. In addition to his efforts to help them grow and develop, he must also ensure that his disciples will be able to function even when they are in a state of contracted consciousness. The very ability of the educator to engage in matters that are relevant to contracted consciousness depends on the level of his identification with this state in the first place. Otherwise, he will not be able to handle the contracted mindset of his disciple. Hence, the relative fall of the tzaddik is what makes it possible for him to educate, guide, and lead his students. The fall itself is what enables a person to identify with another person who is in a state of smallness and ultimately transforms him into a good and effective educator.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

[1]. Avot 4:22.

[2]. Based on the writings of the Toldot Yaakov Yosef for the Torah portion of Kedoshim.

[3]. Deuteronomy 4:4.

[4]. Berachot 18a-b.

[5]. Proverbs 24:16.

[6]. See for example, Kedushat Levi on the Song of Songs, s.v. Lerei’ach shemanecha in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Maggid.

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