The Lubavitcher Rebbe Taught That Saintliness Is A Progression
by Rishe Groner
We all try to be the best human beings we can. We look to others who we think are doing it as good, or better, than we are, and try to emulate them. And sometimes, we look up at someone and think, “Whoa. He’s just a saint. There’s no way I can get there,” or, “She’s pretty amazing. I can’t even imagine.”
Or can you?
Not so, and here’s why.
Our progress in life is a ladder, and we can all climb it. Those saintly people out there are made up of humans like you and me, but they’re just doing the work. Walking the walk, not just talking the talk. Sure, some are born with a greater aptitude than others – but overall, that doesn’t mean it’s not a path worth embarking on, a ladder worth climbing to begin with.
One of the most revolutionary teachers of applied Jewish mystical wisdom was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the “Lubavitcher Rebbe,” who lived in Brooklyn through the latter half of the 20th century and was renowned for his prolific written, spoken and interpersonal work. One such work was a daily diary where he wrote short notes and tidbits, varying from anecdotal stories from the mystics of Poland to comments on Jewish ritual and practice. He garnered most of these tidbits from the conversations he had with his father-in-law, another revolutionary Jewish figure, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, who also served, not only as a scholar and saintly mystic, but as a leader of Russian Jewry during the turbulent first half of the 20th century before fleeing Europe and establishing a Hasidic court in the United States. This book, known in Hebrew as “Hayom Yom,” or “Today’s Day,” occasionally brings up a unique comprehensive concept in spiritual work or growth, such as the forthcoming note which is attributed to the father of Rabbi Joseph, Rabbi Sholom Ber Schneerson, who was the preceding leader of this Hasidic group in Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The teaching begins.
There are several levels of saintliness. They are:
(In Hebrew) tzadik, yashar, tamim and chassid.
“Tzadik is so called regarding his fulfillment of positive good deeds, thereby eliciting revelations inherent in the creative order.”
This term is familiar to students of Jewish practice. Translated as the word “righteous,” or “just,” this category defines one who does things as they should be done, who is focused on ensuring that the natural harmonies of the universe are aligned through maintaining structures of goodness and kindness. By acting in this way, the universe continues working the way it does, but is revealed in a positive light. In Judaism, the term “Tzedakah” is commonly translated as charity, but comes from this same root: righteousness. Tzedakah is about putting your earnings back into the system so they come back to you again, about greasing the wheels of life so they continue to turn, about unveiling the positive energy that fuels everything in order to make this universe sustain itself, perfectly, as is. While this person may not be the most attainable of all spiritual levels, it’s certainly one to look up to.
“Yashar is so called regarding his fulfillment of the negative prohibitions – which draws forth revelations beyond the creative order.”
“Yashar” in Hebrew is the word for “straight,” the absolutely refusing to deviate in any direction. Super honest. We know people like this. This person is careful to not break the law and to stay on the straight and narrow. Honesty is their middle name. Acting this way enables us to work with the universe beyond its natural order, for even when we naturally want to just go ahead and yell, scream, do what’s not in the best interests of humanity, we go against it by safeguarding against prohibitions. By making sure that we do avoid infringing those tiny little natural desires – like crossing the street when the light is red, or feeling inclined to eat foods that aren’t the best for us, or snap at a colleague – even when it’s our natural inclination to go for it – that, in doing so, we unveil a tiny peek behind that curtain of what it is to transcend, to be a little less human and a little more Divine.
“Tamim, one of earnestness, elicits revelations (from a level of Divinity at which) “the taste of the tree and its fruit is the same” – the co-joining of the Encompassing (soveiv) and Permeating (memalei) modes of Divine influence.”
And then there’s the fun one, “Tamim.” Tam means simple, but also complete: So earnest, so devout and intense in her focus, that she’s doing it all for the sake of heaven. She’s spiritual but she’s grounded, she’s doing it all for the right reason but she does it so simply and soulfully, you forget she’s weaving it with magic. She’s in the world, while transcending it, she’s unifying the energies that encompass the universe -heady, transcendent all-encompassing bliss, the “Encompassing” – with the energies that are contained within the universe, the grounded perception of the divine in Nature, the “Permeating” energies. “The taste of the tree and its fruit are the same” – no matter whether it’s a heady spiritual trip or a simple act of kindness, it’s all unified in its simplicity and beauty.
“Highest of all is Chassid.”
But then we have another piece, the Chassid piece. A group of mystics who revolutionized Eastern Europe traditional Judaism in the late 1700s, the Chassidic movement flourished in Eastern Europe in the 1800s before facing almost destruction in World War Two. Today, the movement has grown into many who identify as ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews today, though the influence of their mystical forebears is still evident. But what truly defines a Hasid? How can one actually strive towards this as a level of understanding themselves and their relationship to the Divine, rather than a uniform of clothing or a socio-cultural affiliation?
….and here there are three levels:
This explanation takes us into the true understanding of what it means to behave as a Chassid. The root word “Chassid” come from the Hebrew word Chesed: effusive giving and lovingkindness, opening your heart to just give and give and give. There are three levels of Chasid, and here’s where they’re at:
1. Worldly affairs do not disturb or distract him/her. Every individual can, and every individual must, attain this level.
This is the epitome of “in the moment.” It’s someone who remains present and undistracted. Whatever is going on in the world doesn’t faze him or her. This person is focused, and knows that, since everything is Divine and a gift of the universe, why be bothered by sweating the small stuff? This Hasid keeps it doable, and is achievable for anyone, since it involves living in the moment with intention and mindfulness.
2. All his affairs “are Divine.” Though this level “is not distant from you etc.,” it is still not within everyone’s reach.
Living this way involves constantly perceiving the Divine, living in the knowledge that the universe surrounds, encompasses and fills you with intention and bright light. It means that, a person constructs their own reality where all that goes on is a close connection to Spirit and Source, to “all affairs being Divine.” The quote here, from Deuteronomy and frequently referenced in Hasidic teachings, refers to the fact that this is “Not far from you,” but doesn’t mean that everyone can do it. Just because it’s not far, doesn’t mean you can reach it properly. But it’s a target, a goal to set in mind.
3. The level described in Tikunei Zohar, “Who is a Chassid? He who conducts himself with benevolence towards his Creator – towards His nest” – which means that he seeks to unite the Holy One blessed be He, and His Shechina within those who dwell in the lower worlds – not merely to quench the thirst of his own soul; as explained in Tanya.
And now, we hit pay dirt. This third level, described by a Hasidic commentary on the iconic Kabbalistic work the Zohar, is key. This is the goal towards which everyone can work towards – whether they are righteous, straight-and-narrow, or absolutely aligned with the Divine Will in that so-irritating-but-so-inspiring optimistic happy-go-lucky way. This is about the real Hasid: “She who conducts herself with benevolence towards the Creator – towards Her nest.” The focus here is on uniting the different elements of the universe together, the headiness of Great Spirit of God or Creator with the embodied elements of physically-tangible cosmic forces. Bringing a Divine understanding to lower worlds. Taking what we perceive as reality and making it something different not just for ourselves, but for others.