Dedicated by Deborah Finkelsztein, in honor of her son Eithan Joseph Finkelsztein

Essay Shemos
Souls On Fire
The Story of a Thirst Never Quenched

Irritation, Aggravation, and Misery

A boy asks his father to explain the differences between irritation, aggravation, and misery.

Dad picks up the phone and dials a number at random. When the phone is answered he asks, "Can I speak to Ralph, please?"

"No! There's no one called Ralph here." The person hangs up.

"That's irritation," says Dad.

He picks up the phone again, dials the same number and asks for Ralph a second time.

"No--there's no one here called Ralph. Go away. If you call again I shall telephone the police." End of conversation.

"That's aggravation."

"Then what's ‘misery’?" asks his son.

The father picks up the phone and dials a third time:

"Hello, this is Ralph. Have I received any phone calls?"

The Yartzeit

This coming Tuesday, the 24th of the Hebrew month of Teves, January 1, 2019, marks 206 years since the passing of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), known as the Alter Rebbe, one of those rare individuals who revolutionized the landscape of Jewish thought, synthesizing the rational, legalistic and mystical streams of Judaism into a unified, comprehensive program for life, in a system known as “Chabad Chasidus.” (TheYeshiva.net will be hosting next Tuesday live lectures exploring his works and teachings. Click here to watch or listen.)

For this occasion, I will share today an insight by this spiritual giant on the weekly Torah portion, Shemos.

The Vision

The inaugural vision in which Moses was appointed to become the molder of the Jewish Nation and its eternal teacher, we should assume, contains within it the essence of Judaism.

Moses, shepherding his father-in-law's sheep in the Sinai wilderness, suddenly sees a blazing thorn-bush. "G-d's angel appeared to Moses in a blaze of fire from amid a thorny-bush," we read in Shemos[1]. "He saw and behold! The bush was burning in the fire but was not consumed. Moses said to himself, 'I must go over there and gaze at this great sight—why isn't the bush burning up from the flames.'" When Moses approaches the scene, G-d reveals Himself to him, charging Moses with the mission of leading the Jewish people to redemption.

What was the spiritual and psychological symbolism behind the vision of a burning bush?

Human Trees and Bushes

"Man is a tree of the field," states the Torah[2]. All humans are compared to trees and bushes. Just like trees and bushes, we humans contain hidden roots, motives and drives buried beneath our conscious self. Just like trees and bushes, we also possess a personality that is visibly displayed, each in a different from and shape[3].

Some human beings can be compared to tall and splendorous trees, with strong trunks enveloped by branches, flowers and fruits. Others may be compared to bushes, humble plants, lacking the stature and majesty commanded by a tree. Some individuals may even see themselves as thorn-bushes, harboring unresolved tension and unsettled turmoil. Like a thorn, their struggles and conflicts are a source of constant irritation and frustration, as they never feel content and complete within themselves[4].

All people—all trees and bushes—are aflame. Each person has a fire burning within him or her, yearning for meaning, wholesomeness, and love. Just as the flame of a candle is forever licking the air, reaching upward toward heaven, so too each soul longs to kiss heaven and touch the texture of meaning and eternity[5].

Yet, for many human trees the longing flame of the soul is satisfied and ultimately quenched by their sense of spiritual accomplishment and success. These people feel content with their spiritual achievements; complacent in their relationship with G-d, satisfied with the meaning and love they find in their lives.

The human thorn-bushes, on the other hand, experience a different fate. The thorns within them never allow them to become content with who they are, and they dream for a life of truth that always seems elusive. Thus their yearning flames are never satisfied. Their thirsty palates never quenched. They burn and burn and their fire—their longing, passion, and thirst—never ceases. Since the ultimate peace they are searching for remains beyond them, and the ultimate sense of oneness eludes them, their internal void is never filled, leaving them humbled and thirsty, ablaze with a flame and yearning that is never sated.

With the sight Moses beheld in the wilderness, he was shown one of the fundamental truths of Judaism: More than anywhere else, G-d is present in the flame of the thorn-bush. The prerequisite to Moses' assuming the role of the eternal teacher of the people of Israel was his discovery that the deepest truth of G-d is experienced in the very search and longing for Him. The moment one feels that "I have G-d," he might have everything but G-d.

When Moses observed this spiritual truth, he exclaimed: “I must depart from here and go over there and gaze at this great sight—why isn't the bush burning up from the flames." This vision inspired a transformation even in Moses himself. This saintly man, the greatest prophet in history, recognized the infinity one encounters only in the void, in the longing, in the hunger, in the fire that never ceases to burn, because the thorns refuse to quench the flames.

The Master Key

A story[6]:

One year, the Baal Shem Tov[7] said to Rabbi Ze'ev Kitzes, one of his senior disciples, "You will blow the shofar for us this Rosh Hashanah. I want you to study all the kabbalistic meditations that pertain to shofar, so that you should meditate upon them when you do the blowing."

Rabbi Ze'ev applied himself to the task with trepidation over the immensity of the responsibility. He studied the kabbalistic writings that discuss the significance of the shofar and its mystical secrets. He also prepared a sheet of paper on which he noted the main points of each meditation he needed to reflect upon while blowing the shofar.

Finally, the great moment arrived. It was the morning of Rosh Hashanah and

Rabbi Ze'ev stood on the platform in the center of the Baal Shem Tov's synagogue, surrounded by a sea of worshippers. In a corner stood the Baal Shem Tov, his face aflame. An awed silence filled the room in anticipation of the climax of the day -- the piercing blasts and sobs of the shofar.

Rabbi Ze'ev reached into his pocket and his heart froze: The paper had disappeared. He distinctly remembered placing it there that morning, but now it was gone. He searched his memory for what he had learned, but his distress over the lost notes froze his mind. Tears of frustration filled his eyes as he realized that now he must blow the shofar like a simpleton, devoid of spiritual meaning and ecstasy. Rabbi Ze'ev blew the litany of sounds required by Jewish law and returned to his place, an emptiness etched deeply in his heart.

At the conclusion of prayers, the Baal Shem Tov approached Rabbi Ze'ev, who sat sobbing under his tallis. "Gut Yom Tov, Reb Ze'ev!" he exclaimed. "That was a most extraordinary shofar-blowing we heard today!"

"But Rebbe... Why?..."

"In the king's palace," said the Baal Shem Tov, "there are many gates and doors leading to many halls and chambers. The palace-keepers have great rings holding many keys, each of which opens a different door. The meditations are keys, each unlocking another door in our souls, each accessing another chamber in the supernal worlds.

"But there is one key that fits all the locks, a master key that opens all the doors, that opens up for us the innermost chambers of the Divine palace. That master key is a broken heart[8]."

[1] Exodus 3: 1-3.

[2] Deuteronomy 20:19. Talmud Taanis 7a.

[3] Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 6 pp. 308-309. Igros Kodesh of the Lubavitcher Rebbe vol. 1, pp. 247-250.

[4] See Tanya chapter 15, 27, 29, 30, 31.

[5] See Tanya chapter 19, based on Proverbs 20:27.

[6] Week In Review (VHH, 1996, edited by Yanki Tauber) Vol. 7 No 51.

[7] 1698-1760. The Baal Shem Tov was the founder of the Chassidic movement. This year marks the 250th anniversary of his yartzeit.

[8] This essay is based on a discourse by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), founder of the Chabad school of Chassidism. The kernel of this discourse he received from his mentor, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezrich (d. 1772), who heard it from his teacher, the Baal Shem Tov.

During a public debate that took place in 1783 in the Russian City Minsk, between Rabbi Schneur Zalman and the great Lithuanian scholars who fiercely opposed Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman explained how Moses' vision of the burning bush served as the nucleus of the Chassidic contribution to Judaism. He pointed out that this quality of an unquenchable flame embodied the uniqueness of the simple Jew who's heartfelt prayer was filled with an Insatiable yearning for G-dliness, vs. the accomplished Torah scholar whose fire has been quenched by his intellectual creativity and innovations (The complete episode around the debate was related by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch in 1942 and published in Sefer HaSichos 5702 pp. 46-47; Kesser Shem Tov, 1998 edition, section b, pp. 19-21).

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The Story of a Thirst Never Quenched