Below, this glimmer of a soul craves to return to her primal essence above. She yearns with an obsession beyond reason, as metal is drawn to a mighty magnet, as a flame yearns its own extinction—for she knows full well she will be nameless there once again.
Trapped within the fetters of time and space, body and persona, her yearning swells to its bursting point, generating a fierce power. The power sparks and flames. Her thirst intensifies; it cannot be quenched.
Such is the divine plan. Now you must harness the power. With it, you can transform an entire world.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Glimmer Yearns”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
That sounds almost like certain eastern religions which suggest that when a person dies, their soul returns to the “universal consciousness”, surrendering any sort of individual identity. Christianity is fairly certain that “in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Luke 20:35), and they (we) are pretty sure that in some sense, we will still be the people we are now, though “we can no longer die and we’ll be like the angels” (Luke 20:36). But was the Rebbe (as interpreted by Rabbi Freeman) being literal or figurative?
I like the imagery in Judaism that we are like sparks thrown off the Divine “fire” so to speak, who all long to return to our source. We struggle to rise to heaven while our human existence chains us to earth. But is being “chained” such a bad thing? After all, it is by the will of God that we are here in the first place. If all we want is to “go to heaven,” why are we on earth? Rabbi Freeman says this about exile:
There is nothing larger than a mitzvah. There is nothing more powerful than Torah. When you are occupied in these things, the whole world becomes your servant, there but to stage your actions.
This seems to say that our real “power” isn’t in the heavenly realm but where we are right here and right now. While we can certainly obey all of the mitzvot related to worshiping God when our “spark” is united with His “fire,” how can we serve God in obedience in all of the commandments related to helping other human beings? We only have the power to serve others, to “feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, invite a stranger into our homes, clothe the unclothed, and look after the sick” (Matthew 25:34-36) while in our lived, earthly existence. Only here, as the Master taught us, can we truly do for him by doing for the very least of his servants.
Although traditional Christianity doesn’t believe in the existence of souls prior to conception and birth, some traditions in Judaism do. We can borrow something from this picture and from Rabbi Freeman’s commentary on the nameless to illustrate a point.
High upon her precipice, the soul is nameless, for she has no form—she will be whatever she must be.
Peering below, beneath the clouds, she perceives a faint shimmering of her light in the deep, wet earth. There she finds form, and she calls it a name, and she is called when that name is called, for she says, “This is me.”
But it is not her. It is only a faint glimmering of her light within the frame of a distant world.
I recently told someone that the tales of the Chasidim don’t speak to me of literal facts and events, but of moral and spiritual principles, acting as a guide to some of the deeper things of God, which are hidden in my soul. Perhaps we can see some of the teachings of the Rebbe in this light as well. If Jewish wisdom seems elusive to you, rest assured that you are not alone. Yet it’s not always about finding the right answers, but discovering one really good question and the spending the rest of your life asking that question and attempting to penetrate the mystery of God.
The Tzemach Tzedek, zt”l, was respected throughout the Jewish world as a great scholar who was very astute. Even when asked the most difficult questions he always explained the subject in a manner to which the questioner could relate.
When a group of anti-semites approached the Czar of Russia—a consummate Jew-hater in his own right—and quoted strange-sounding parts of the Talmud taken out of context to convince him that it should be banned, he felt that they were likely right.
Not surprisingly, when the Tzemach Tzedek visited the Czar, the ruler brought up these many questions. “There is so much that sounds impossible in the Talmud. For example, in Bechoros 57 we find that a certain bird lays an egg which completely destroyed 60 cities and three hundred cedar trees. How can this be anything but nonsense?”
As usual the Tzemach Tzedek had a good answer. “As Your Majesty knows, a recent edict enacted was that no Jew may live within a certain distance from the border. Now, I am very respected amongst the Jewish people and am relied upon to publish only sensible things. If I were to write that with one dollop of ink His Majesty eradicated these cities—which were mostly Jewish—people will understand exactly what I mean. But later generations may not fathom how a few drops of ink can accomplish such a feat. Nevertheless, since I am well known, they will give me the benefit of the doubt and assume I mean something sensible although they don’t understand it and it sounds strange. Similarly, the sages of the Talmud meant something which may well be inscrutable now, but was understood by their generation and certainly has an important message.”
Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Hidden Message”
We don’t always understand God. We don’t always understand ourselves. When on earth, we seek to fly back to Him. When in heaven, we long to serve Him on earth. We are a people caught in-between and a bridge between God and the world. We can only be who we are and serve Him as He desires by being a flaming span between the Divine celestial fire above and the mundane earth beneath our feet. We are Jacob sleeping at the foot of the ladder watching the journey of angels. We are also the angels. We are also the ladder.