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The Alter Rebbe: Risk Management

The founder of Chabad, Rabbi Shneor Zalman Borochovitz of Liadi, known as the Alter Rebbe, was born on the 18th of Elul 5505 (1745) to his father Rabbi Baruch and his mother, Rivkah, in Vitebsk in White Russia. Already as a child, he became known as a Torah genius, as well as an expert in engineering and astronomy. In 5524 (1764) he became a dedicated disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, who instructed him to compile an updated Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). When Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk made aliyah to the Land of Israel, he directed the Alter Rebbe to remain and serve as the leader of the chasidim of Russia and White Russia.

The Alter Rebbe wrote the Tanya—one of the most important foundational works of Chasidut. Because of its importance in defining the teachings of Chasidut, the Tanya is referred to as the “Written Teachings of Chasidut.” As a result of false accusations by those who opposed the fledgling Chasidic movement, the Alter Rebbe was imprisoned twice. The day of his release from prison for the first time, on 19 Kislev 5559 (1799), is celebrated as the “New Year” of Chasidut. On the 24th of Tevet 5573 (1813), while fleeing from the advancing forces of Napolean, the Alter Rebbe passed away and was buried in Haditch, Ukraine.

Once a Jew came for a private conversation (called yechidut) with the Alter Rebbe. This Jew was dressed in the finest, modern non-Jewish fashion, of which the chasidim strongly disapproved. When the chasidim saw that this man was secluded with the Alter Rebbe for a long time, they put their ears up against the door. They did not like what they heard: The man was talking about his wife’s beauty in great detail. He went on to relate how much he loved her and details about their life together. But then he had a question for the Alter Rebbe. He had found a different woman who was even more beautiful than his wife and he would like to know if he should divorce his wife and marry the second woman? “It is not worthwhile,” the Alter Rebbe answered. “For you are liable to lose the first and not be able to attain the second.”

The chasidim could not understand how the Alter Rebbe could spend so much time listening to these words. When the man left, the Alter Rebbe explained: “This man is a great hidden tzaddik. He told me details of all the levels of the Shechinah (God’s indwelling Presence) that he had attained. Now he wants to ascend to even higher levels. But it is impossible to attain a higher level without first abandoning his existing level. This raises the question of whether to pursue the higher level. I told him that it would not be worthwhile to proceed, for he may abandon his current level yet not be able to attain the next level. And then he will have lost everything.”

(Reshimat Sippurim vol. 1, p. 26)

The parable employed by the hidden tzaddik, according to which the Shechinah is actually his wife, is sourced in the holy Zohar. The Zohar explains that the idiom used to describe Moses, “the man of God”[1] (אִישׁ הָאֱ-לֹהִים), alludes to his role as the husband of the Shechinah. However, this image can raise some questions: Does the Shechinah not refer to the entirety of the Congregation of Israel including the tzaddik himself? And do we not normally find that the Almighty is metaphorically described as the Shechinah’s husband? How could the tzaddik take this crown for himself?

The answers can be found in the questions. The Shechinah represents the imperfect, impoverished, and yearning aspect of the Divine. It requires an intermediate to connect it to the incomprehensible perfection of the Creator. The tzaddik is a unique individual, who is part of the Congregation of Israel while at the same time identifying fully with God. The tzaddik is like a bridge that connects the two. To use Kabbalistic terminology, the tzaddik is an embodiment of the sefirah of foundation (yesod), which connects the sefirah of beauty (tiferet)—representing God, the husband—with the sefirah of kingdom (malchut)—symbolizing the Shechinah.

The man who came to seek the Alter Rebbe’s advice was such a tzaddik, associated with the sefirah of foundation. As such, the Alter Rebbe’s advice exhibits an appreciation for order and gradation, which are characteristic of the sefirah of foundation. Whereas other rebbes may have supported the hidden tzaddik’s blessed aspiration to ascend to ever greater heights, the Alter Rebbe’s approach is that sometimes, one must be satisfied with what one has currently achieved and not strive for something above and beyond one’s abilities.

A sudden jump to a level that is immeasurably higher than the previous level, as opposed to a graded, step-by-step approach, can prove to be dangerous. Following this line of reasoning: if a chasid had come to ask the Alter Rebbe whether to invest in a deal that may yield enormous profit and long-term benefit that would require him to risk everything that he has, the Alter Rebbe’s advice, as reflected in this story, would generally be negative. (There is no rule, however, that does not have an exception).

There is something surprising when we discover a chasidic rebbe with this approach. Chasidut is generally the product of revolutionary thinking and stands outside the established order. The Ba’al Shem Tov would often step outside the boundaries of the world: His “shortcuts” during traveling and even more so, his teachings, which freely sail through the supernal realms are two main examples of this. Nonetheless, Chasidut requires order, reflected, among other things in its special care to preserve the sexual covenant (תִּקּוּן הַבְּרִית).

An illustration of the importance of order can be found in a saying from the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe: “The Ba’al Shem Tov was organized, the Maggid of Mezritch was meticulous about order, and the Alter Rebbe taught the chasidim to be organized.” In the first generation, the Ba’al Shem Tov was satisfied with internal order while initiating both spiritual and physical revolutionary leaps. In the second generation, the Maggid required that order be maintained externally as well, but the Chasidic movement still lacked an organized tradition of instruction. But in the third generations, the Alter Rebbe taught his disciples how to follow Chasidut in an organized manner, without losing the chasidic sense of freedom. As the movement matures and spreads, there is a greater demand for order and regimen that will foster its development.

Turning to the use of marriage as a metaphor for attaining levels of the Shechinah, we find that it reflects the dispute regarding when it is permissible for a person to divorce his wife. According to Rabbi Akiva, he can do so if he has found someone more attractive than her. Translation: to gain a loftier level of the Shechinah, a person can take the risk of losing everything. This fits well with Rabbi Akiva who, of all the Ten Martyrs corresponds to the Shechinah. Thus, he has a special sense for the Shechinah and aspires to elevate it more and more, even at great risk. The Alter Rebbe’s approach is according to the ruling that it is permissible for a man to divorce his wife only if she intentionally burned his meal, i.e., he should not take the risk of losing everything.

Following our analysis, the Alter Rebbe’s advice prefers the benefit of the Shechinah over the tzaddik. The tzaddik would happily spend his entire life in an infinite ascent—skipping from one level to the next. But as the foundation who must be responsible for the Congregation of Israel—the people who depend on him—he cannot take the risks involved and must recognize the implications of a spiritual adventure.


[1]. Deuteronomy 33:1, Psalms 90:1, and Ezra 3:2.

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