The truth is we all will fall time and again. The secret is to not view it negatively. Because life is only truly negative if we don’t use our fall toward elevation. If falling back pushes us forward, it’s a powerful tool towards transcendence. Just living, in and of itself, presents challenges, and each challenge is an opportunity to get it right the next time. If we can greet hate with love, our life can change; if we don’t, we tend to stay stuck in a cycle that doesn’t feel aligned. As Mac Miller so eloquently sang on ‘Hurt Feelings’, “You been going through it, I just go around it.”1 This touches on the concept of the Rebbe Maharash’s: l’chatchila ariber (“leap over it in the first place”). The Rebbe Maharash would say, “The world says that if you cannot crawl under an obstacle, try to leap over it. However, I say, leap over it in the first place!”2 So, when we are faced with challenges, our attitude towards them can affect the very challenge itself. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe addressed when replying to a letter he received:
I have just received your letter . . . in which you describe your present [poor] state of health.
Surely, you have heard of the saying of the Rebbe Maharash: “The world says that if you cannot crawl under an obstacle, try to leap over it. However, I say, leap over it in the first place!”
This applies in your case as well.
Indeed, it would seem that the state of openly revealed joy should be delayed until after you are actually healed. Nevertheless, in keeping with the above-mentioned saying, it is reasonable to express this joy resulting from your eventual healing, although the actual healing has yet to take place.
Not only that, but the joy itself will be a catalyst to hasten your healing. This is in keeping with the saying often heard from the rebbes of Chabad: “Think positively, and you will see positive results.” Most assuredly this will be effective when you transfer these positive thoughts into joyous words and deeds . . . 3
Dealing with negative situations by reacting with hope and curiosity rather than cynicism and depression allows us to change the circumstance for the better. This is done when we remind ourselves that everything is in the hands of Hashem – every descent is for the purpose of ascent – and somehow, even if we can’t fully understand it, everything is for our own good in the long run. This is all part of the journey in the concealed space of the state that we are in. We can’t often see that our challenge is for the purpose of our growth and often to change the path that we are on. Of course, this is all to be applied internally. It is something we have to master to muster the love of life even in the hard times. When it comes to those around us going through their own journeys, we should always respond to their hardships only with compassion.
Last week, we covered the Alter Rebbe’s very powerful teaching from Chazal in the Talmud: “In the place where ba’alei teshuva (penitents) stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand.”4 This comes to remind us that repentance with great love— if someone is at the literal bottom and puts their full heart, faith, and love into their own redemption at the mercy of Hashem, that depth of yearning and hope, the Alter Rebbe teaches that one’s “intentional sins become like merits” for the person, since it is through those sins that the person eventually came to great love.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֗ה לְ֠חֹבָ֠ב בֶּן־רְעוּאֵ֣ל הַמִּדְיָנִי֮ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁה֒ נֹסְעִ֣ים ׀ אֲנַ֗חְנוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֣ר ה’ אֹת֖וֹ אֶתֵּ֣ן לָכֶ֑ם לְכָ֤ה אִתָּ֙נוּ֙ וְהֵטַ֣בְנוּ לָ֔ךְ כִּֽי ה’ דִּ’בֶּר־ט֖וֹב עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Moshe said to his father-in-law, Chovev, son of Reuel the Midianite, “We are now on our way to the place that Hashem promised to give us. Come with us and we will let you share the benefit of all the good things that Hashem has promised Israel.”5
In this week’s Parashah, Behaalotecha, we read yet again of the land we are promised, the land we are named so preciously after– Israel. On the way to the land, the Israelites complain of the suffering they experience wandering in the desert. Rashi6 says the Israelites complained, “How weary we have become on the road; we have not rested for days.” They also complained about the manna, because even if it tasted like anything a person wanted it to, it always looked the same. The Israelites missed the food they ate in Egypt. It’s always when they are focused on what is lacking in the moment that they fill themselves with doubt instead of faith– and that is when they fall.
The word for ‘doubt’ in Hebrew is safek (240), which is the same gematria (numerical value) of Amalek, the nation (and notion) that the Torah commands us to eliminate from the world. So, our deeper task is to be grateful for all that we are given, which strengthens our faith and eliminates the forces that make us fall.
The very first principle of our faith is that Hashem is perfect and the Primary Cause of all that exists. So, doubting that everything is for the good is doubting Hashem, and that is when “bad” manifests. Chidushei Rim says that the Israelites were often unwilling to understand that the Land of Israel, like the knowledge of Torah, can only be earned through suffering. Had they accepted the journey with love and faith, Rashi says, they would have entered Israel three days after leaving Egypt. But because they did not have that gratitude, the journey was much longer.
Rivash explains that their complaints weren’t only of the toil of the road but of the impending battles that inevitably awaited them, and so they were actually eager to prolong their time in the desert. It is written, “the fire of Hashem burned in their midst and devoured the edge of the camp”. Rashi explains that the verse is referring to a group called the erev rav, the riff raff of Egypt that traveled along with the Children of Israel. In their complaints, these “riff raff” remembered the free fish that they had in Egypt but forgot the horror of being beaten and coerced into cementing their own children into Pharaoh’s buildings.
Chazal (Our Sages) interpret “free” from this verse as free from ethical and spiritual responsibilities, the mitzvot. It’s interesting that the verse says “fish we will eat”– future tense– which Oznayim LaTorah says reveals not only a desire for the past, but yearning and hope to return to Egypt. They were afraid of the burden it would be on their Godly souls to have Hashem as master, so much so that they were willing to convince themselves that they would rather have Pharaoh be the master of their physical selves. Focusing on the past or future doesn’t allow oneself to be present. And presence is precious; it’s how we fuel our faith instead of our falls. As Leo Buscaglia said, “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow; it only saps today of its joy.”
‘If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change’
In times of doubt, perspective often goes out the window. Amalek, which is synonymous with the yetzer hara (evil inclination), enters as a powerful and convincing force. It is then that the first of the principles of faith must become a focal point, and we are tasked to rid ourselves of doubt, leaning on bitachon (trust). ‘Bitachon’ is such a deep concept, encompassing optimism and confidence based not on past personal experience or reason, but on emunah (faith).
Rebbe Natan of Breslov emphasizes how powerful the force of the yetzer hara is: that its sole purpose is to distance each person from Hashem, especially for those who begin to get closer. R’ Natan stresses that even though the yetzer hara puts all sorts of barriers and frustrations in each person’s path at these times, one can fight back and overcome with even the smallest effort to come closer to Hashem.7
Focusing on the positive, even the smallest good point or sliver of good, is the key to fighting safek. This is seen in the ritual of Rosh Chodesh (The Sanctification of the New Moon). When two witnesses see a sliver of the moon, they say, “Mekudash, Mekudash” (“sanctified, sanctified”), declaring the New Moon cycle. Seeing just the potential of rebirth and all that that cycle brings is holiness. And all of our festivals and rituals revolve around that practice.
R’ Natan explains that sanctifying even just a tiny bit of the moon’s light elevates it. It’s said that when the moon was created, it was created with a blemish. But our ritual of Rosh Chodesh spiritually rectifies and restores it to its original intended glory. When we rejoice over just a mere speck of that light — that good point that we merit to find, despite it being infinitesimally small and concealed in darkness – we ourselves are rectified and genuinely become deserving of Hashem’s seeing and revealing light in us.8
When the Light of the Moon will Shine like the Light of Sun
The Zohar explains that the Land of Israel is associated with the moon. It says that the reason Yehoshua was able to enter Israel but Moshe wasn’t was that, as Chazal say, Yehoshua’s face was like that of the moon, while Moshe’s face was like the face of the sun, which expresses a higher level of spirituality.
Kabalistically, the sun and the moon are associated with Z’eir Anpin and Nukva, respectively, (the bride of Zer Anpin and the Aramiac for the Hebrew word ‘nekavah’, meaning feminine). The coupling of Z’eir Anpin and Nukva represents the unification of emotion and expression. The radiance of the Z’eir Anpin shines as emotion, which is reflected in its counterpart, Nukva, which manifests its expression. This is seen in both how the moon reflects the sun and how Yehoshua’s face showed his spiritual level as a reflection of Moshe’s light.
The Arizal explains that Israel is associated with Malchut, and heaven and earth are associated with Z’eir Anpin and Nukva. So, Moshe did not enter Israel because he was on a higher spiritual level than the land itself; only his disciple, Yehoshua, was on a spiritual level that perfectly mirrored the land. While Miriam and Aharon questioned why Moshe would not enter the land and saw it as a negative consequence, the Kabbalistic reasoning is that he alone is the “face of the sun”, so he could not enter the land which is known as the “holy moon”.9
As R’ Wisnesky articulates from Arizal on the parashah:
The inner Amalek, doubt, derives from our reluctance to answer the challenge of absorbing and elevating the good elements of materiality and foreign culture out of the fear of the contamination it will entail. These unredeemed elements of non-Jewish culture later come back to haunt us in the form of doubts and the cultured sophistication that cools off our enthusiasm for Divinity…. The lesson for us would then be that only to the extent that we are solidly grounded in and immersed in the holiness of the Torah and it’s lifestyle can we allow ourselves the broad-mindedness to absorb, include, and elevate the elements of worldly culture that can, and indeed, beg to be assimilated. If we do not trust the power of the fire of the Torah to burn off the dross of this unrefined raw material, these elements will eventually plague us as seeds of doubt and as a coldhearted attitude in all things holy.10
We wax and wane like the moon, a reflection of our moments of unification and disconnect. Our task is to strengthen this unification in order to bring about the final redemption, when the light of the moon will shine like the light of the sun.
I love how Rabbi Isaac of Homil writes of the moon:
… when she was first created, [the moon] was a glistening jewel. She did not merely reflect light, but rather transformed it and brought out its inner beauty, much as a precious stone glistens with a secret, hidden light all its own. In her own way, the moon was greater than the sun—for the sun only shines from its surface, whereas the moon shone from its inner essence. The sun holds the light that extends outward, whereas the moon holds the light of being.11
When we transform ourselves and the world with Torah and mitzvot, the redemptive light of both Z’eir Anpin and Nukva will shine equally.
Moshe Feinstein points out that one’s love for a mitzvah brings blessings in this world. Hashem promised Yehoshua, “This book of the Torah will not depart your lips,”12 and with this promise came a blessing that Yehoshua would be able to fulfill the mitzvah he loved without any physical hindrances. This is similar to in Vayikra, when Hashem promises, “If you will follow My decrees… [you will receive blessings]”.13 Rambam says that if you follow the mitzvot, you will receive material blessings from Hashem which will help facilitate greater success in the performance of the mitzvot and the study of Torah.
This sort of doubt and concealment of good is spelled out in the three types of heresy one can commit. The first is pure atheism. The second is a belief in a Higher Power, but a denial of Hashgacha Pratit (Divine providence), which is Hashem’s personal guidance over our lives. In this case, the person believes in happenstance and nature, which leads to blaming others or self-persecution for hardships. The third heresy is a belief in Hashem’s Hashgacha Pratit but not the full bitachon that Hashem runs the world with full loving-kindness and mercy. This is maybe the most difficult one, because it forces full trust that even the “bad” is for the good.
There is Nothing Other than Him
There are many reasons, sources, and explanations for why it’s essential to thank Hashem even for one’s suffering. One is in this parashah: But when the time comes that their stubborn spirit is humbled, I will forgive their sin. ( אָ֣ז יִכָּנַ֗ע לְבָבָם֙ הֶֽעָרֵ֔ל וְאָ֖ז יִרְצ֥וּ אֶת־עֲוֹנָם )14
Gratitude and humility go hand in hand, and they invoke Divine compassion. We see this daily– when someone thanks you, you want to do more for them, you feel seen and appreciated, but when someone ignores or even denies a favor you may have done for them, it destroys any desire you may have for doing it again. The Talmud teaches that a person is led down the path that they choose to follow.15 If the person believes everything is for the good, then reality becomes good for them, but if that person only sees “bad”, then they are treated accordingly with this lack of emunah and “bad” manifests more and more.
People sometimes message me about the positivity I focus on and want to make sure I am not discounting the difficult and sometimes seemingly unbearable times. I tell them that I am not discounting the adversity that we all face on different levels but trying to inspire us to realize that while we are going through these times, we can feel sadness, but depression, on the level of complete faithlessness, is not good. Even with the passing of our loved ones, it’s super difficult, and Judaism has a structure that surrounds grieving, but it is only hopeless if we believe in the physical and our short time here, and not the eternally spiritual and this physicality being only a blip on our journey.
The Tanya teaches that sadness must be avoided at all costs, while a sense of bitterness is permitted. The Alter Rebbe teaches that bitterness can lead to positive results not only for those grieving but also for the soul of the departed.
In Mendel Kalmenson’s transformative book about The Lubavitcher Rebbe, he writes that the Rebbe explains that sadness is a feeling that depletes the person’s energy and leaves them feeling progressively lower and increasingly lost, while bitterness has more of a bite or a sting. It therefore stimulates the person to action. Its concentrated pain presents us with a direction forward. The feeling of hitting rock-bottom leaves us with few options but to rise.16 The Alter Rebbe’s explanation of “In the place where ba’alei teshuva (penitents) stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand” means that it is only when we reach the lowest point that we can then reach the highest point. As King Solomon points out, the world was created with a balance, “zeh le’umas zeh” (where God made one paralleling the other).17
Kalmenson elaborates that The Rebbe tells us that it is our responsibility to transform our sadness to bitterness, in order to incorporate it into our soul‘s purpose, rather than to become comfortably numb and relinquish ourselves to the depressive rhythms of disoriented existence.18
We see this concept as we read this week: The Children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sinai, and the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran.19 There were areas in the wilderness that had concentrations of holiness and others concentrations of klipot (impurities). When the Israelites sinned, it was partly because of being in the areas that manifested such behavior, so, of course, this raises the question: why would Hashem lead them into those areas? The Chatam Sofer teaches that the superfluous journeys come to illuminate that Hashem would choose destinations based on the people’s own inclinations when they were leaving their previous encampments. If their focus was on serving Hashem, the ananei hakavod (clouds of glory) would lead them to a place of holiness, which is conducive to their desires of spiritual growth. But if, on the other hand, they left in a space of self-serving and a desire for physical comforts, they would be led to a place lacking in holiness and conducive to indulgence. That place would present challenges to not fall, but it manifested concretely from their subconscious ruminations. Ramban points out that it says, “on their journeys,” emphasizing their journeys, because they didn’t leave on Hashem’s journey, but with their own visions and indulgences in mind. Because of this, the ananei hakavod placed them on a path that was spiritually detrimental.20
We need to rid ourselves of our self-serving nature by practicing bitul hayesh (negating and nullifying traces of ego, of self-centeredness). It is through this that we can align as creations with our creator. Our focus can manifest our falls, so we need to ensure we are focused on faith and alignment. With humility and gratitude, a person becomes a partner in creation, as Rebbe Nachman explains, “Hashem created this world because of His mercy, and He created the entire world in order to reveal His mercy.”21
By believing that everything is good and thanking Hashem for everything, a person binds himself to the Creator– he fulfills Hashem’s ultimate goal for creating the universe. Hashem’s mercy will always prevail over such a person and constantly increase. It’s as The Tzemach Tzedek would say, “Tracht gut, vet zein gut,” which translates as “Think good and it will be good.” That must be each person’s motto, in realizing that full faith brings ultimate good and redemption. It’s the realization that we can’t get along without Hashem, and that the bitachon in hashgacha pratit brings us closer to the truth of “Ein od Milvado” – “There is nothing other than Him”. It is often the ones furthest from Hashem who are able to find their bitachon when they are suffering. They realize that calling out to God is their only option.
Jumping further into this verse, אָ֣ז יִכָּנַ֗ע לְבָבָם֙ הֶֽעָרֵ֔ל וְאָ֖ז יִרְצ֥וּ אֶת־עֲוֹנָם But when the time comes that their stubborn spirit is humbled, I will forgive their sin.22
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translates the stubborn spirit as an “uncircumsized heart”. This is like the sacrifices that were to be brought in the Mishkan by “anyone who is generous of heart”, as a covenant with Hashem. Circumcision is the ultimate sign of our covenant with Hashem. Therefore, lack of faith is a breaking of our covenant with Hashem in our hearts. We are commanded to strengthen our faith through humility and by pushing away any safek. That is the only way to be at peace and, as we learned in last week’s parashah, the last word of the last blessing of the Birkat Kohanim is shalom, “peace”. Peace is the vessel that contains every blessing. True shalom is one of the hardest things to achieve. It’s a culmination of perfecting so many aspects within oneself, especially faith and positive perspective.
The Rebbe says, “we have only, by faith, to compensate for those moments of faithlessness.” I’ve always seen time as a figment of a fractured world, a perspective limited by finitude. Our limited selves are trapped in a constant struggle: Amalek is the manifestation of safek, the expansion of narrow physicality, while the constant practice of eliminating safek is the expansion of ever-broadening spiritual reality. It’s only by that expansion and unification with the Divine consciousness that each person can tap into the light of the Infinite, our Godly soul, unbound by time.
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Notes & Sources
- “Hurt Feelings,” song by Mac Miller
- Text expansion with Yonasan Perry
- Igrot Kodesh, vol. 16, letter 6026
- Talmud Brachot 34b
- Numbers 10:29
- Ibid 11:1
- Likutei Halachot VII, p.205a
- Ibid 1:12a
- Apples from the Orchard, The Arizal, p.735
- Ibid p.737
- Rabbi Isaac of Homil, Shnei Me’orot
- Yehoshua 1:8
- Vayikra 26:3
- Leviticus 26:41
- Makkot 10b
- “Positivity Bias” by Mendel Kalmenson, p. 231
- Kohelet 7:14
- “Positivity Bias” by Mendel Kalmenson, p. 232
- Numbers 10:12
- Chatam Sofer al HaTorah p. 39 ד״ה ויסעו
- Likutei Moharan 1:64
- Leviticus 26:41