A Treatise on the Individual’s Nothingness, and on his Transcendence – Part 2

Rav Yair Dreifuss • 2018

The estrangement and tight-fisted individualism are not an inevitable destiny; that with the slightest push these can be elevated to generosity, compassion, positivity, joy, a good heart. Can there be such a community that can empower an individual so, charge him with the knowledge that this is an opportunity, an absolute good, that such actions are full of blessing, and bring redemption closer?

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I saw the Angel of Death follow you…”

“Moisheleh the water-bearer used to visit the Seer of Lublin every year. Every time, he would come a week before Rosh Hashana. He saved every penny for this journey. I don’t need to tell you how they used to treat water-bearers back then: they were like dirt on your shoe, the lowliest class. Not an ounce of respect. But once a year, when Moisheleh would visit the Seer of Lublin, the Rebbe would receive him with joy and affection, welcoming him with open arms.

The Rebbe’s overflowing love and honor gave Moisheleh – and his wife and kids – the strength to hold on for another year. And so it was for many years.

One year, Rosh Hashana was approaching once more, and Moisheleh set out as was his custom. He was short of breath as he walked, so eager was he to see the Rebbe’s face and receive his heartfelt blessing. But as Moisheleh entered, he noticed all of a sudden that the Seer’s face had soured. Before the poor water-bearer could approach, the Rebbe said brusquely: “Moishele, go home, I don’t want you here.”

Moisheleh: “Rebbe…I saved the whole year round to be with you.”

But the Rebbe responded: “I can’t do anything about that. If you truly consider me your Rebbe, you will have to trust me. Now, go home…”

Moisheleh returned to his lodgings completely broken. He began his way home to the farm, crying bitterly. He could not understand the Rebbe’s words – it was a rejection that felt like the end of the world.

Deep in the night, Moisheleh decided to stop for a rest at an inn. Lo and behold, the inn was crammed with hassidim making their way towards Lublin, eager to join the Rebbe for Rosh Hashana: dancing, singing, aflame with excitement and glee. As Moisheleh entered, his face sad and drawn, the hassidim called out: “Moisheleh, what has caused you such grief?”

He answered: “I don’t understand. The Rebbe does not want me there. He told me to return home.”

A silence fell over the hassidim. Finally, one of them spoke: “Nu, how long can you mourn? Moisheleh – L’Chaim! I wish you the very best, a good new year!”

Then another hassid stood up on a chair and cried: “Moisheleh, don’t be sad, I promise you that this year will be the biggest, most successful year of your life! L’Chaim!”

This continued until a chorus of voices arose, “Moisheleh, L’Chaim!”  And it was so strong, that Moishele’s deeply rooted sadness disappeared.

Then the hassidim started dancing and pushed Moisheleh into the circle. In the end, Moisheleh danced more than anyone else…L’Chaim, L’Chaim!

It was time for the hassidim to leave for Lublin, and time for Moisheleh to head home. The hassidim climbed onto their wagons, and when they saw Moisheleh standing to the side, one of them called: “Moisheleh, don’t be silly, you don’t need to listen to the Rebbe!” Moisheleh hesitated, but the hassidim pulled him onto the cart.

They arrived in Lublin. It was the Seer’s custom to walk out and welcome the hassidim. Moisheleh stepped off the wagon with all the hassidim. As soon as he saw the Rebbe’s gaze fall on him, he was struck with panic. But the Rebbe called him over immediately, hugged and kissed him, and said: “Moisheleh, I’m so glad you returned, I waited for you!” Moisheleh replied: “Rebbe, now I have no idea what is happening…” The Seer answered: “Yesterday, when you entered my chamber, I saw the Angel of Death following you…I knew you did not have much time left. That is why I sent you home, to say your goodbyes of your wife and children. But when you met my hassidim and they started wishing you “L’Chaim,” every single blessing they blessed pushed the Angel of Death further and further back, until he disappeared completely…” He added: “Moisheleh, with friends like yours, you can live forever… L’Chaim!” [1]

So there is the story. Excellent. It would have been appropriate to divide it up, zoom into its contents, its structure, the processes, the series of events. But it must be learned as one learns the deepest secrets – with deep listening, from a place of honesty and empathy. Total submission and listening to the mystical sounds of the story can release us from our fixed, habitual place. We can remember, then, that God dwells among us; that estrangement and tight-fisted individualism are not an inevitable destiny; that with the slightest push these can be elevated to generosity, compassion, positivity, joy, a good heart. I will content myself with these short phrases that best seem to capture my point.

The story teases out the irony of the hassid’s attempt to uproot himself from a stuck place – by sticking, instead, to the Rebbe. The hassid pins all his hopes for success and life on this trip to the tzaddik on Rosh Hashana. This describes us all, how we locate a relative point outside of our circle of life without which existence has no meaning: the memory of a Yom Kippur in yeshiva, a niggun that awakens something inside, the obsessive grasping of a professional rung on the ladder, one’s status and role in the synagogue as gabbai, etc. That’s where one’s chances lie. But one day, against our will, we will lose our place. We will have nothing to hang on to. And what then? Will we fall into despair, into meaninglessness?

This perspective is poison. The world will end with loss, despair, collapse. Every construction is fated to fall. The great effort to hold onto something at any cost: this is the tragedy of a human being who acts blindly, senselessly. For modern man eventually comes to this conclusion. Buried in his own ego, witnessing his fears and phobias, full of folly, shame, insecurity in himself and the meaning of his existence – man has no trust, no faith in himself or in God. He can only hang on to a fiction, a trip to the Rebbe – literally and metaphorically.

This, then, is the greatness of the Rebbe: revealing to the hassid that he, the tzadik, is not the key to a hassid’s life. The hassid’s chance is within his own awareness of the tzaddik inside – in the integration in a society of hassidim, in the revealing and illuminating of another’s face. Moisheleh’s turning point (both physical and internal) happens in the hassidim’s directed call to him: “Moisheleh, L’Chaim!”

I was once in the audience at a ceremony held by drug addicts. Each person stood and shared how long he’d been ‘clean.’ One man by the name of Yossi stood and spoke about himself, and everyone roared: “We love you, Yossi!” And again, and again: “We love you, Yossi!” Anyone who has been powerfully moved by a compassionate, encouraging environment knows its effect well. By contrast, there is the nihilism of the individual living alone, folded into himself. Any heart would melt at the flood of empathy that a crowd can summon to lift up an individual.  Each person, in turn, is both a giver and receiver – and together a society of humanity, compassion and mercy can be born.

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What does this mean for us? Can there be such a community that can empower an individual so, charge him with the knowledge that this is an opportunity, an absolute good, that such actions are full of blessing, and bring redemption closer? A community where each individual lives with an awareness that his purpose is to bring others ‘to light,’ with self-sacrifice? Where no one is lost in the cracks, anonymous? And on the other hand: a community with no violation of an individual’s privacy, where each person can live his private life, where public and private spaces are not mixed? Can there be a society where, along with respect for privacy, members know – in implicit but clear codes – how to ennoble others, give warmth and empathy, to bring a deep, real investment in the other’s world (even if it is not expressed explicitly? Where each person knows that the other is obligated towards him with all his heart – not out of good will, but in an absolute recognition that one person has what the other lacks –  that any redemptive, existential hance lies in contracting the ego, giving of oneself to bring the other ‘to light’….is such a community possible?

I would like to claim that changing the social structure in order to allow the individual to ‘belong’ more to a community will not fundamentally change his feeling of estrangement, his insecurity as long as that society does not grant him a deep trust in himself as a subject, a unified ‘one.’ In the modern world, amidst the reign of individualism and sensitivity to particulars,  the instinct to survive as an individual in the ‘system’ – among all this, we have lost the ability to hold a trust in humanity, one that creates and is manifest precisely in those spaces between the public and private domain. I am not making light of a community’s steadfast assistance to a person or family in their time of need, the basic provisions of security that reassure a member that someone cares.  But none of this offers an answer to the deep distress of loneliness.

A persons urge to escape his loneliness can only be satisfied through transformation, metamorphosis: a profound consciousness shift in human discourse. We need a different, higher approach, one that can bring back energy and intimacy to our lives. The kernel of that tikkun is in the incidence of humanity between partners. This is what the Ariza”l refers to as ‘sawing’ or separation: from an infantile, mindless co-dependency between spouses, “back to back,” to a relationship of light, clarity, freedom, “face to face.” The seeds of the tikkun of the relationship between an individual and his human surroundings are embedded in this dynamic.

In the words that follow, I hope to draw a preliminary outline of a utopian society, one that neither appropriates the individual for its own purposes, nor sees him as a statistic lacking any identity or agency. This society would see in an individual and his loneliness not only his freedom, his liberation, an individual for himself and for God – but also his chance to empower the public through his freedom and light, and in doing so to move society away from its dulled, normative, blind state of mind.

Changing this discourse begins with conjugality, partnership. The seeds of redemption are planted in a simple conversation between husband and wife. The ability to cast aside the shells of loneliness, bachelordom, to head into the unknown, the twilight zone of the other, and to come to the desire for unity, for real partnership. An authentic, fruitful marriage begins when the two partners can find a way to surprise themselves. To give the abundance, longing, magic, secrets, infinity, the Shekhina between them a chance. The experience of revealing the partner’s otherness is almost always made to occur in those times in the ‘twilight zone,’ in the depths of crisis, when there is nothing left to lose and the path is a dead end.

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[1] Shlomo Carlebach, Lev Hashamayim for the high holidays, p. 133.

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