Man's Greatness and His Insignificance

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


By Rav Elyakim Krumbein


Shiur 13: Man's greatness and his insignificance




            In the previous shiur we discussed the relationship between this world and the world-to-come in the teachings of the Gaon of Vilna. We suggested that his position on this issue was built at two levels, one on top of the other. On the first level, he sees this world, in itself, as clearly unsatisfactory, as a mere passageway, through which one must pass and in which one must act, in order to reach the desired existence in the world that is wholly good. On the second level, however, it is precisely man's limited existence here on earth with which the Gaon dares to fall in love, and which he values above all the reward that is promised to man in the next world. This world is preferable from a moral perspective, for in it man can serve God and he can advance and raise himself up, whereas in the world-to-come, he merely receives reward for his actions in this world. According to our understanding, the first stage is a necessary condition for achieving the second. Arguing for the superiority of this world is a paradoxical assertion, because it draws on the awareness of and yearnings for the world of holiness and spirit that is beyond human imagination. The tremendous existential significance of the Torah and mitzvot that are kept here "below," can only be understood when they are placed at the center of a great spiritual universe.


            I wish now to consider the development of this idea over time. If indeed this was the Gra's outlook, it would only be natural that his disciples would wish to spread it. We have already seen part of Rav Chayyim Volozhiner's preoccupation with this issue. We saw him standing before an audience that wanted to skip to the second level without passing through the first, and to focus on this world without the appropriate spiritual perspective. Rav Chayyim recognized that this would, of necessity, lead to distortion. His response to this challenge was to retreat, and to reinforce for his listeners the first level: serving God in order to merit life in the world-to-come.


            This is evident in Rav Chayyim's synagogue sermon on the night of Selikhot in 5572 (1812). His magnus opus, however, is his book, Nefesh Ha-chayyim. In this volume the constraints imposed upon him when he preached before a particular audience – apparently local householders – whose specific needs and religious state had to be addressed, disappeared. In this book, in contrast, the author was given the opportunity to present his position in full. What do we find there? We find a strikingly unique conceptual outlook, when we examine it in light of the teachings of the Mitnaged world of his time.


            We cannot understand the importance of this tract without comparing it to contemporary trends. And I refer not to Chassidic trends, against which Rav Chayyim of Volozhin openly polemicized, but rather to the prevalent approaches in the Mitnaged world. Many see the Nefesh Ha-chayyim as the Mitnaged Bible. But as it turns out, it might not necessarily be representative of that world.




            How can we arrive at a general picture of the world of the Mitnagdim, and of the climate that hovered over their experiences and their thinking? The scholar Allan Nadler did the main work for us in his comprehensive volume, The Faith of the Mithnagdim.[1] He surveys the Mitnaged positions on the key issues that preoccupied them, e.g., the study of Kabbala, prayer, and others. He uses varied sources, but he places special emphasis on the writings of the Gra's disciple, Rav Pinchas of Polotsk. For the sake of truth and in full candor, I must admit that Nadler's research raises doubts about the theory presented above. In the conclusion to his book,[2] Nadler writes that the Mitnagdim believed that while in theory at least "it is possible for the ideal man to commune with the divine presence inherent in the world, that is, to attain devekuth," they nevertheless harbored an exceedingly pessimistic view of the average person:


They believed that he was simply unable, because of the ceaseless decline of the generations as well as the limitations inherent in his own physical and mortal nature, ever to attain such a mystical state… In sum, the Mithnagdim allowed man no genuine mystical experiences in this life. They were thoroughly convinced that it was only subsequent to death and the release of the soul from its material "prison" that man might finally attain the proximity to God and the heightened spiritual state he so craved… Whereas Hasidism encouraged Jews to aspire to both inner spiritual harmony and mystical union with the Shekhinah, the Mithnagdim tirelessly reminded man of the irreparable dualism of his personality and the shattered nature of the universe… They focused almost obsessively on Torah study as the single safe channel for spiritual fulfillment. In so doing, they placed the predominant emphasis of the spiritual life upon the cognition of the religious truths found in rabbinic literature, in contrast to Hasidism's thirst for the more daring and direct conation of the divine… The Mithnagdim were obsessed with Jewish exile and the progressive, irreversible spiritual degeneration it had wrought. They were historically resigned to the inherently alienated nature of the created universe and the chronic dualism of the mortal human soul. Consequently, they offered the individual Jew no path of redemption from his estranged, shattered existence in this world, and no remedy for his divided nature and afflicted spirit…


            And here Nadler arrives at his main conclusion:


The most prominent and consistent teaching of Mithnagdism was the impotence of the human spirit. Mithnagdism absolutely forbade man from attempting to overcome his inherent inadequacies or daring to transcend the material limits of ordinary human experience. In reaction to Hasidism's various attempts – through mystical prayer, study, contemplation, and the sanctification of material existence – to encourage man to transcend those very limits and transform the natural life into the spiritual one, Mithnagdism became increasingly obsessed with human ineptitude and spiritual alienation. And in response to the perceived Hasidic threat to the conservative, confining manner of traditional rabbinic religiosity, the Mithnagdim fortified to an unprecedented degree the limits of spiritual attainment and the boundaries of acceptable religious conduct.


            According to Nadler, the writings of the Gra himself serve as one of the foundations of this gloomy picture. For example, he brings at length the Gra's call for separation from this-worldly pleasures, as well as his description of the supreme bliss of the world after death. But what about the open joy and uplifted spirit that characterized the Vilna Gaon in connection with his achievements? What about the tremendous satisfaction and spiritual fullness which he experienced as a result of his study? Nadler brings these things as well,[3] but he does not think that they undermine the basic picture. The optimistic note with respect to this world exists despite the underlying aspiration and yearning for liberation from the shackles of mortal life, and as it would appear does not necessitate a reassessment of the true order of priorities.


            We, however, see the Gra through the eyes of his devoted disciple, Rav Chayyim of Volozhin. It should once again be remembered that following the description of the Gaon's spiritual cleaving to the supernal worlds, the time came for the decisive judgment, the setting of priorities on the scale of values:


And more than this he would say that even the wonderful and awesome things that the soul attains in sleep, in supernal pleasure in the heavenly academies, he did not regard as being so great, the main thing being what a person attains in this world through toil and labor when he chooses the good and opens himself to the words of the Torah. With this he pleases his Creator, blessed be His Name, this being all of man's duty to occupy himself in His Torah, blessed be His Name….


            This turn is the basis of our argument that the affairs of this world are the Gra's primary concern. All the splendor of metaphysical reality does not cast a shadow on this superiority; on the contrary, it reinforces it. When we closely examine the Nefesh Ha-chayyim, it becomes clear that without this assumption, it is impossible to understand the book. Before we examine the matter, I must admit that were we to present our argument before Rav Pinchas of Polotsk, he would express his reservations. He would presumably have pulled out the proofs brought by Nadler. For our purposes it is enough to demonstrate that this was not the understanding of Rav Chayyim of Volozhin. And if there was a dispute about how to interpret the position of the Gra, this would not be the sole example of such a dispute.




            The Nefesh Ha-chayyim greatly tempers, at times to the point of rejection, a substantial portion of the insights that Nadler gained from his study of the literature of the Mitnagdim. And especially, his primary assertion regarding the "impotence" of the human spirit is nullified, so that no trace of it remains. Already in the first chapters of his book, Rav Chayyim proclaims the merits of man and his centrality in creation. The idea of the "image of God" rules here with its full kabbalistic daring. The name "Elo-him" expresses the idea of the Creator as "the all-powerful," the One who is ultimately and infinitely "able." To the simple eye it would seem that this aspect of God is the last trait that can be attributed to finite man, a driven leaf whose days are like a shadow. But it is precisely this trait that the Creator bestowed upon man, His handiwork, and it is the primary content of the idea of man's having been created in God's "image." Thus writes Rav Chayyim in the chapter 3 of the first part of his book:


In similar fashion, as it were, [God], blessed be He, created man, and set him above an infinite number of forces and worlds, and put them in his hand, that he should lead and control them, through all the particulars of his actions, words and thoughts, and all his conduct, for better or for the opposite, God forbid. For by way of his good actions, words and thoughts, he maintains and gives strength to the various forces and to the holy heavenly worlds, and he increases their holiness and light. As it is written: "And I have put My words in your mouth… that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth" (Yeshaya 51:16). And as [the Sages], of blessed memory, said (Berakhot 64a): Read not "your sons," but rather "your builders." For it is they who arrange the supernal worlds, as a builder who arranges his building, and they fill them with great force… So He gave rule to man that it should be he who opens and closes thousands of myriads of forces and worlds, based on all the particulars of his conduct in all his affairs at each and every moment, in accordance with the heavenly root of his actions, words and thoughts.


            According to the general Mitnaged approach, man is indeed imprisoned in his physical body, and he must have no pretensions of rising up above the limitations of his mortal existence. In contrast, however, Rav Chayyim views man's connection with the spiritual worlds as a given. This is not something that can be avoided or ignored. This is a central fact in religious life, and Rav Chayyim demands constant awareness of it. One who reads the first part of his book can not have any doubts that the person described there can in fact raise himself up over his body. His essence is clearly spiritual, and this essence divides into nefesh, ru'ach and neshama, which parallel the aspects of action, talk and thought. All these sides of the human soul are connected to the very foundation of the universe and influence the spiritual expanses. This exceedingly high point of observation explains man's obligation in his world.


            This reality, in addition to the fact that it defines man's cosmic responsibility, is also very important for his religious experience. Man's awareness of his place and influence help repair the upper worlds, and a person is obligated to develop this awareness. In this way, the presence of holiness and the connection to the heavenly worlds turn into a living reality in man's consciousness. For example, Rav Chayyim writes (part 1, chapter 21):


This is the Torah of man, that when he occupies himself with Torah for its own sake, to keep and fulfill all that is written therein, he purifies himself from head to foot… And just as the person's entire body ascends and is refined through occupation with Torah and mitzvot, so too all the worlds, which correspond to the stature of man… they become refined, and purified, and they ascend. And the upright person, who truly serves [God], will not turn away his thoughts while he is serving Him, blessed be His name, even to raise and purify his own body and soul, but rather the purity of his thoughts and intentions will rise up, and turn above to the repair and purity of the holy worlds.


It is explicitly stated here that he who occupies himself with Torah for its own sake, if he "truly serves" God, will concentrate with the purity of his thought upon repairing the worlds.


            The difference between the teachings of Rav Chayyim and the Mitnaged approach documented by Nadler is also striking in the realm of prayer, as we shall now see.




            It is well known that the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim disagreed about the relative value of prayer in comparison to Torah study. The Chassidim greatly exalted prayer, whereas the Mitnagdim objected to what they perceived as a reversal of the traditional order of priorities, and strongly insisted on the superiority of Torah study. The book, The Faith of the Mithnagdim, emphasizes that this disagreement regarding prayer related not only to its relative importance, but also to the nature of prayer in general. According to the Chassidim, the primary nature of prayer lies in its capacity to create an experiential connection between man and God. The Mitnagdim, in contrast, denied the possibility of such a connection in actual practice (though they conceded that it is available to the elite). The distance between man and the Master of the Universe is infinite, so that man's very standing in prayer is an experience that can lead him to total despair. This stands in contrast to the Chassidic approach, which sees prayer as an opportunity for uplifting and rejuvenating service of God, service that is filled with the excitement and joy over the encounter, to the point of union, between man and the Infinite.


            This disagreement has ramifications with respect to the issue of intentions. What is the desired intention during prayer? Since according to the Chassidim prayer is fundamentally a tool for achieving devekut, concentration on the meaning of the words as they are written is secondary. We can go even further and say that concentrating on "the meaning of the words" creates a disturbance. The Chassidim, therefore, taught that one should not concentrate on the plain meaning of the words of the prayer text, but rather the person engaged in prayer should concentrate on cleaving his soul to the words and letters of the prayer, thus allowing his soul to rise up on the wings of those words to heaven.


An opposing approach is found in the prayer literature of the Mitnagdim. Nadler cites from the commentary of Rav Pinchas of Polotsk to the prayer book, which emphasizes that one should concentrate exclusively on the meaning of the words, and not fill his mind with other matters. Rav Pinchas's commentary is filled with pessimistic reminders of man's existential smallness and lowliness before his Creator. This pessimism also receives a historical shade – the lowly state of a person engaged in prayer results from the spiritual deterioration that began with the destruction of the Temple. Only in the Messianic period will it once again become possible to pray out of a real connection to God.


Against the background of this position, Rav Chayyim Volozhiner's guidance with respect to prayer is exceedingly instructive. In line with his absolute rejection of a pessimistic attitude toward man and his abilities, and with his basing the service of God on the cosmic role of man as bearer of "the image of God," Rav Chayyim encourages the person engaged in prayer to see his prayer as a means of achieving personal spiritual elation, and also of strengthening the Shekhina's connection to the worlds. In part 2, chapter 13, he writes:


Rather the main thing in the service of prayer is that when a person utters with his mouth any word in the prayer, he should draw that word in his mind with its letters as it is formed, and have in mind to add through the power of holiness that it should bear fruit above to increase their holiness and light… For every word in its actual form is what ascends up and up, each word to its source and root, to execute wondrous acts and repairs.


            Later in chapter 14, Rav Chayyim goes deeper with his instructions regarding the way in which a person engaged in prayer can "add purity to his purity":


Before he stands in prayer, he must cancel and remove in his mind all of his body's delights and pleasures, and all of its affairs, to the point that he sets in his mind to detest his body, as is he had no body at all, so that it is only his soul that utters its prayer… And when he utters each word, which is a force and part of his soul, he should strongly cleave his will to it, actually and wholly pouring his soul into it, and attaching it to the heavenly root of the words of the prayer that stand in the heights of the world… Then he will be regarded as if he is removed from this world, and a member of the elite above… His love for [God], blessed be He, should so increase and burn in his soul, to the point that he truly craves and yearns that when he utters some word of the text of the prayer his soul should wholly depart from his body, and it should ascend and cling, as it were, to Him, may His name be blessed.


            All of these aspirations of cognitive detachment from the body and "actual and whole" cleaving to the world of the spirit, stand in absolute opposition to the classic Mitnaged approach to prayer, according to which man is bound by the shackles of his material being, he has no chance of freeing himself from his chains, and he is even forbidden to make the attempt, for only death can liberate him.


            Rav Chayyim understood from the words and actions of his master that limiting himself to material reality will not in any way help in understanding the importance of Torah and mitzvot in this world. On the contrary, if a person is not aware, intellectually and experientially, of his connections to the heavenly spheres, then all talk of the importance of Torah and mitzvot will be empty clich?s, lacking any cover. It is true that on a scale of values, Torah study and observance of Halakha in this world reign over the other values, but their kingdom is not a dictatorship that suppresses and nullifies everything else. The elite, who study Torah for its own sake, must be personally involved in real spiritual aspirations. Only then will it be possible for them to have some idea of the greatness of Torah and its study.


            This insight is novel and unconventional with respect to Mitnaged norms. This fact invites renewed thinking about the work, Nefesh Ha-chayyim. Rav Chayyim of Volozhin highly regarded his book, and very much wanted to publish it. "Perhaps I will merit from heaven that my words in these pamphlets will be accepted, so that the fear of God, Torah and refined service will become rooted in the hearts of the righteous who seek the ways of God" – this is what his son heard from him, as is brought in the introduction to the volume. But the book was not published during the author's lifetime, and before he died, Rav Chayyim assigned the task of publishing it to his son. Rav Chayyim, who was a man of action second to none, who was practically involved in the establishment and administration of an important yeshiva, in the publication of the works of the Gra, in the logistics and financing of the Aliya of the Gra's disciples to Eretz Israel – could he not have carried out the relatively modest project of publishing his own volume? Is it possible that what stopped him is connected in some way to his appreciation of its novelty? We can do nothing but raise the question.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Allan Nadler, The Faith of the Mithnagdim – Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture, Baltimore 1997.

[2] Nadler, pp. 174-5.

[3] Nadler, pp. 115-116.