Likutei Moharan, Torah 8: Spirit, Inspiration and Halacha – part 7

Rav Shagar • 2005

According to the Shla”h, Halacha is a way to preserve the frutiful dialectic between good and bad, and allow us to confront the challenge of evil.

Here I would like to bring in a teaching of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (author of Shnei Luchot HaBrit, also known as the Shla”h). The Shla”h writes that when one happens upon an opportunity to do an aveirah (a sin), he should not block out the prospect completely, thinking “that’s impossible, it won’t happen.” On the contrary, it is once one becomes aware of the free choice to make that sin possible that he should actively abstain from carrying it out:

Every single mitzvah that a person does must be done through an awakening of the heart (hitorerut halev), not as an old habit, and he should do it for the sake of Heaven, although the matter is contrary to him and the desire of his body, nevertheless he must break up his desire, and do the mitzvah with care and diligence. And when a person can do a mitzvat aseh (positive commandment) a person should think in his heart: “From the perspective of my desire and material being, I would not do such a thing - but I am doing it because the Lord commanded me”…And regarding the lo taaseh (category of negative commandments; prohibitions) the opposite applies: “Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught:  ‘A person should not say “I do not want pork.” Rather, he should say: “I do want it, but what can I do? My Father in Heaven commanded me so.”’ (Sifra, Kedoshim 20). For in both mitzvahs - aseh and lo taaseh, positive and negative - one contains the other: the aseh includes the lo taaseh, the lo taaseh contains the aseh. In both mitzvahs, one serves God through the yetzer hatov and yetzer harah (the good and evil inclinations). In the positive mitzvah, it is via the evil inclination saying “don’t do it,” and he overcomes this instinct and performs the mitzvah. In the negative mitzvah, it is via the evil inclination saying “do it”, and he overcomes this so as to refrain from doing it. Thus, the lo taaseh is in the aseh, for the secret to this overcoming is in awakening the heart. This was taught in Makkot 23b: “One who sits and does not sin, he is given the merit of doing a mitzvah.” And it is because of that thought, for the thought joins the action…Namely: he performs the mitzvah of conquering his evil inclination in saying: “I want to, but I will do [otherwise].” (Shnei Luchot Habrit, Jerusalem 1993, P. 73)

It would seem as though the Shla”h is - God forbid - siding with a Christian paradigm of a saintly person who is exposed, open to sin and prepared to suffer from abstaining from it, rather than the holy Jewish man for whom a waywardly inclination is not even a genuine option (given the halachic boundaries that bind him). But this would be a faulty reading. I think there is a deeper idea here. We can understand that the core of a desire to sin is shaped from within a halachic consciousness: if there is no halacha, there is no evil. The great ‘downfall’ happens not because evil is present; it happens when evil disappears entirely. It is in that scenario that we may live out the banality of evil, in-between lives of materialism and routine, indifference and fatigue. And it is precisely this condition that presents a true spiritual danger. Halacha not only allows us to elevate evil without succumbing to it, halacha also preserves evil in its positive form: desire. In Rav Nachman’s formulation, the evil inclination is framed by an inner dialectic, as the rabbis taught: “starve it - it is satiated; satiate it - it starves.” (Masekhet Sukkah 52b).  The evil inclination thwarts its own efforts, too, and this is part of its internal structure. Its ethical dimension can be seen in the fact that it is never fully satisfied - desire is based on this quality. Yet this same desire is also set up precisely through the rigid halachic system that defines what is forbidden. Letting go of halacha dissembles the inner dialectic which sustains notions of good and bad. These terms are left meaningless, for when they break apart, they can no longer hold each up: they need one another to remain relevant. Thus, Rav Nachman’s suggestion for maintaining that tension is a halachic consciousness which creates a definitive separation between the two. At the same - due to this clear differentiation - the tzaddik is able to enter the kelipa (shell) with an awareness of his place, and to extract goodness from there. Rav Nachman does not think that the law exists for people to go around it: his conception of avodat Hashem is that evil was created for us to enter and elevate it through an understanding that it also contains goodness. Halachic consciousness is not only important for the good inclination - it also allows for the existence of the evil inclination, and for redeeming the good within it.

To summarize: halachic consciousness - as Rav Nachman describes it here - is a mindset that we should take on, and is also an essential condition for dealing with the challenge of evil. A book I am reading now presents Orthodoxy not as a condition of stagnation (as modernity often does), but rather as a radical adventure in the modern age. Halacha defines evil in a positive sense, and thus allows for genuine openness to it and encounters with it.

I think Rav Nachman’s perception of halacha in this torah differs from that of Rav Soloveitchik. The latter understands halacha as an establishment of rigid borders which forges a detachment from reality, for the purpose of infusing it with holiness.  Rav Nachman, on the other hand, sees halacha as a flow that introduces a relationship and forbids amorphousness. Its strength stems from its origins in a simple Judaism which does not doubt (unlike the intellectual, who is skeptical of every single matter). The tzaddik who can descend to the klipot is simply someone who does not cling to those negative arenas: he knows how to differentiate between good and bad by studying halacha, which gives him a clear, coherent view of the world.

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