The Spiritual Work of Our Generation

The Spiritual Work of Our Generation: Are there emotions after lowliness?

Redefining What You Are…

One issue that remains open after our words in the previous chapter is how the mind can alter the emotions. In the last chapter, we explained that the spiritual task of our generation is to completely immerse in the inner dimension of the Torah, Kabbalah and Chassidut, as opposed to previous generations whose task was to rectify the emotional and habitual realms. We also noted that the immersion of the mind in the Torah has an unprecedented healing effect on our emotions and habits. In principle, the mind is rectified by selflessness, while the emotions and habits depend on a true feeling of lowliness for the same.

This new focus on the mind as the method by which the heart is healed was the staple of Chassidut from the time of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad. Not surprisingly, many of the Alter Rebbe’s disciples misunderstood the focus on the mind as an indication that emotions and heartfelt feeling were to be shunned in the Chassidic doctrine. The Alter Rebbe passed away in 1813. His son Rabbi Dov Ber assumed the responsibilities of leadership after his passing. One of the first problems he addressed in a letter from 1814, was this misunderstanding. This letter, addressed to all his holy father’s followers, was later published as the introduction to A Pamphlet on Excitement (Kuntres Ha’hitpa’alut), which discusses the role of spiritually ecstatic actions and movement in Chassidut. Let us see what Rabbi Dov Ber had to say:

Now the time has come for me to explain before all of our followers those things that the foundation of the teachings of Chassidut lies upon. Almost everyone, from old to young, mislead themselves to walk a crooked path which prevents the light of the Almighty from ever dwelling in them.

The reasons for the misconception and confusion are two. The first is that people remain distant from the Chassidic teachings that they hear. Even someone who has heard a great deal of Chassidic teachings, nonetheless, because of mundane worries, the person is not able to dedicate time to engage the teachings—the only way to truly internalize them in one’s psyche and heart in an individualized manner. This goes so far that there have already been many wise students who have asked what is it that one should do when praying. Even though they have heard the teachings of Chassidut, nonetheless they have not been able to connect to them.1

[The second reason is that] even those who know how to connect to the teachings of Chassidut, are mistaken and mislead others with folly that has spread between our followers. This mistake has to do with the nature of meditation [hitbonenut]. They preach that should a person be successful in his meditation, he should guard his heart from being excited as if it [excitement] was the most grave of prohibitions.2 This because it seems to them that they have heard somewhere that heartfelt excitement causes one to lose one’s mindfulness. For this reason they also preach against intellectual excitement, a grave mistake that ultimately results in substituting holy thoughts and meditation for external objects of thought [i.e., thoughts not related to the teachings of Chassidut], or even falling into a slumber….

And I am bitterly distressed over having seen and heard such folly, which is absolutely upside-down and rightside-up. For, the essence and foundation of all of the teachings of Chassidut, which are more precious than gold, is that they should be sustained in the psyche, the mind, and the heart, and particularly in an excited state; both as intellectual excitement, which is called “good hearing,” and afterwards as heartfelt excitement, condoned by the verse: “and you shall imbue [these teachings in] your heart.”3 These are described as “my G-d is within me,”4 and “each [understands the Almighty] unto his own measure….”5


In the continuation of his letter, Rabbi Dov Ber expounds on the important role that rectified feelings and true heartfelt excitement has. He also explains what is meant by rectified feelings:

The entire goal of my own heart is that the teachings of Chassidut be internalized as specifically heartfelt excitement, for this is the main instance of the revelation of Divinity in Knesset Yisra’el. This is also the foundation and the root of the wholeness that will be during the time of the Mashiach, may it come speedily in our days. As all who are fluent in faith know, the Almighty wants the heart, especially, and “G-d seeks out all hearts,”6 etc.

It is only because of lack of understanding and knowledge that this folly has been passed from one fool to another, that physical excitation that is felt in the heart is of the old path of Chassidut, which has been wholly prohibited. Their eyes have been closed shut and they cannot tell how different (like the difference between light and darkness) is the cry of one who cries out, with no real intent whatsoever, only in order to hear his own voice, for his heart is not with him at all in this cry. In the same manner, even if his heart heats up and this leads to his excitement, again, this is not for the Almighty, it is merely in order to reveal his heart….

But, how did people exchange that which is light for dark. G-dly excitement in the heart, from whence originates the cry to G-d, comes from meditating upon the unity of the Almighty, and how far he himself is from feeling that. This causes the heart to feel bitterness, and to seek repentance, and tears, from which comes the sudden cry, unintentionally. This is the true repentance that comes from the depth of the heart, and is the essence and foundation of teshuvah and prayer, which is called “the pouring out of one’s soul.” Even if one meditates quickly on the ideas of G-d’s transcendence and His imminence, one’s heart will immediately be moved to feel love, to feel a yearning to cling to the One G-d in joy and happiness and the like. This is the main instance of the commandment of loving G-d… by exciting the mind, as is well known to any beginner in the ways of Chassidut who seeks to be close to G-d. And so, how has the light been switched with the dark. On the contrary, the more such excitement is translated into a stronger cry, so it is evident that the teachings have been internalized more deeply and that the light of the Almighty has entered one’s heart, causing the cry.

This is then called intellectual love and fear ( dechilu verechimu) that is both in the mind and in the heart. Natural love and fear, of which the verse says, “I am uneducated… I am like a beast accompanying You,” is below the sefirah of knowledge, and yet still, it “accompanies You.” All this is unlike the heated excitement of the heart, which is not for G-d at all.

So, in short, the goal of the study of the inner dimension of the Torah is the pursuit of heartfelt emotion, which is genuine in that it is the result of the teachings. Without the burst of rectified emotion that the teachings of Chassidut are meant to cause, the goal of the learning has not been reached. This stands in contradistinction to the unrectified type of emotions that stem from our feelings of self, and by which we seek our own instant gratification of having expressed our hearts yearnings, pains, etc.


1. The ability to pray is identified by the sages as a power of the heart: “What is the toil of the heart? Prayer!” If Chassidic teachings remain intellectual and do not affect the heart, then even the greatest Chassidic scholar will find him or herself void of inspiration and feeling when praying. Prayer depends on the sensitivity and delicate nature of the heart, which can only be refined by truly connecting to and internalizing the “lessons” gathered from one’s study of the Torah. Indeed, the Hebrew title of the volume from which our present series comes, is A Heart of Knowledge, referring to the heart’s ability to grow into a sanguine and fully developed center for one’s sensitivity to feelings.

2. Later in this letter, Rabbi Dov Ber describes the nature of this excitement and the mockery it would get:

The excitement of the heart too, they have treated as a grave prohibition. That if some Jew suddenly cries out from excitement and with heartfelt passion, everyone will be surprised and the youth will laugh at him until he is full of shame, and until he “repents” and decides to forever keep his spirit in check and his voice silent. Better, [he decides,] to just sit back and fall asleep.

To get an idea of what else excitement might look like it is enough that we note that while the Alter Rebbe was saying over a Chassidic teaching, because the words touched him so deeply, he would many times fall off his chair and roll around the room in sheer excitement. During those times, it is related that only one of his eldest disciples was able to continue hearing his words, by rolling around at his side.

Some disciples, like Rabbi Aharon of Streshela, mistook this to mean that the goal of Chassidut is to excite the heart, and therefore if the heart is not naturally excited by understanding the teachings of Chassidut, it is proper to excite it artificially, by jumping up and down, crying, or yelling. The goal of Rabbi Dov Ber’s A Pamphlet on Excitement was to explain the correct interpretation of his father’s actions: though excitement is a goal, authentic excitement cannot be turned on artificially. True rectified sensitivity and feeling of excitement are the desired consequence of the meditative Divine service that precedes them.

3. Deuteronomy 4:39, 30:1.

4. Ibid. 31:17.

5. Zohar I, 103b. See Tanya chapter 44.

6. See I Chronicles 28:9.

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