INTRODUCTION TO "LOVE LIKE FIRE AND WATER" - KUNTRES HA'AVODA

Some twenty-six years ago, I was present when the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztz'l spoke of the necessity of responding to the hunger for meditation techniques that would be compatible with Jewish sources. As a beginning yeshiva student at the time, I thought to myself that it should be easy to search Jewish sources and find out exactly what Jewish meditation is, or should be. However, it would take me years of learning and practice before I could integrate it and explain it to others. As a rabbi, I have had the opportunity, thank G-d, to gain the experience necessary in order to begin passing on some of that information to others. Through the Old City of Jerusalem, where I live, pass many of the most spiritually inclined Jews of this generation (and in truth, all Jews are spiritually inclined). It is my privilege to have contact with them, and it is to them that this translation and commentary is dedicated.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of our generation is the search for spirituality. Jews are especially active in this regard – we seem to be in the vanguard of almost every spiritual movement that exists. Yet, when we look for the spiritual well-springs of our own heritage, they're not necessarily easy to find. While Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, provides the essential framework within which a Jew is supposed to live his life, in order to find the spiritual connection with the One Above and strive to be more G-dly, our generation needs the inner dimensions of Torah – explained in Chassidic and Kabballistic literature. It is here that we find the intellectual meaning of G-dliness and spirituality, as well as the emotional excitement leading to love and fear of the One Above. But, that only comes about when we embark upon a path of learning combined with meditation. And the latter is an essential which most Jews don't even know exists.

In the 12th century, long before the advent of the Chassidic movement, Maimonides, the first codifier of the Jewish law, wrote that the way to achieve love and fear of G-d is through meditation on the creation and the amazing wisdom that goes into it. First, he said, one will be overcome with love. Then, upon further contemplation, he will be overwhelmed with fear and awe. He then proceeded to describe succinctly the nature of the spiritual and physical realms of the universe (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Chapter 2, Halacha 2 and onwards). It is clear that he intended meditation to cover the abstract and spiritual as well as the physical creation. Following Maimonides, in the 16th century, Rabbi Yoseph Karo authored the Shulchan Aruch which is universally accepted by all Jews today (with amendments for the Ashkenazi community); he wrote, "...the early pietists and men of action would go off on their own and work on their spiritual intentions to the point of abstraction from the physical world and devotion to the spiritual on a level which was close to prophecy." To which the Ramah (Rabbi Moshe Isserles) added, "and one should think of the greatness of G-d and the lowliness of man" (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 98:1). Clearly, Jewish meditation is no latter day augmentation of Judaism. It is a vital and integral element of Judaism that no Jew should be without.

In our own generation, since the 18th century, it is the Chassidic movement that has developed Jewish meditation into a technique. In Hebrew, it's called hitbonenut. The etymological source of the word is boneh, meaning "build." To practice Jewish meditation, you "build" a spiritual structure inside of yourself. Also implicit in the word hitbonenut is the word bina, "understanding" or intellectual analysis. The structure that you build consists of G-dly concepts and ideas that you must understand thoroughly and deeply. They become the framework and girders of your inner "building." When you properly understand a series of G-dly concepts and put them together in your mind, you are building your own inner spiritual structure. When you actively dwell in this inner structure for a certain period of time each day (usually before morning prayers), exploring its nooks and crannies and reinforcing its girders while building it ever higher, you are practicing Jewish meditation, or hitbonenut. The sages of the Talmud (mentioned above) used to do this three times a day, for an hour before each set of prayers. Additionally, they would spend an hour "coming down" after each set of prayers. In our own generation, by studying and meditating upon the infinite concepts and G-dly ideas contained in contemporary Chassidic literature, we gain the proper understanding that allows us to build a spiritual edifice inside of ourselves, climb all the way to the top of it, and cling to the One Above.

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The purpose of this free translation and commentary is to serve as a handbook, an instruction booklet, if you will, of Jewish meditation for the serious person who knows next to nothing about Judaism, but wants to be convinced that there is something seriously spiritual in his or her heritage. Such a book could have been written as a simple, direct set of instructions. However, it makes much more sense to show how a true spiritual master, a Chassidic Rebbe, whose very life was dedicated to G-d and other Jews, explained the subject. From him, we can glean the basics of the technique and hopefully pass it on and explain it to others in terms that they understand.

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The years 1909-1910 (when Kuntres Ha'avoda was written) were tumultuous years in Russia. These were the twilight years of the czarist regime, and the forces of Communism and Bolshevism were on the rise. As always when there is strife, the Jews were the scapegoats. The pogroms and physical suffering were great, and yet somehow the spiritual lives of Russian Jewry not only continued, but in some cases thrived. Such was the case with the Jews of Lubavitch. Under the leadership of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rebbe Shalom Dov Ber Schneerson, they managed (in 1896) to establish a yeshiva dedicated not only to the study of Jewish law, but to the inner dimensions of Torah, as well. Under the leadership of the Rebbe Rashab, as he was called, the yeshiva (called Tomchei Tmimim), grew and developed. Its goal was to cultivate not only rabbis who knew the legal texts of the Jewish tradition-the Talmud and code of Jewish law-but also to develop ovdei HaShem, true "servants of God," pious and learned Jews who knew how to meditate and pray, using the wellsprings of Chassidic literature.

The Zohar predicted that the opening of the "wellsprings" of the inner dimensions of Torah would be accompanied by a corresponding development in the secular disciplines. The period indicated by the Zohar, the sixth millenium (from 5500 to 5600, or roughly 1740 to 1840) saw not only the revelation of the Chassidic movement, but the beginning of the scientific, and soon after, the industrial revolution. But, the prediction wasn't restricted to the scientific disciplines. As the Rebbe Rashab was writing his longest Chassidic dissertations (discourses of the years 5666 -5608, or 1906-1908, and also 5612- 5616, or 1912-1916, but written earlier), Russian novelists (such as Leo Tolstoy, lehavdil, died 1910) were penning their long novels. It was a period that was well-suited to long, detailed, and nuanced literature, and since this was expressed first of all in the G-dly discipline of the Rebbe's Chassidus, it was expressed in secular literature as well.

In addition, the Rebbe penned four kuntresim, or shorter tractates for the specific purpose of guiding the students of Yeshivat Tomchei Tmimim in avodat HaShem, "service of G-d." One of them – Kuntres Ha'avoda – deals with the subject of meditation. The ovdim, the pious students of Lubavitch were guided in their service by the Rebbe's Chassidic discourses and his instructions on how to lose their yeshut (ego), while praying and getting closer to G-d. However, the vicissitudes of the time, including the Bolshevik revolution and with it the uprooting of the yeshiva, nearly caused this meditative approach to disappear from the world. The Rebbe Rashab's son, Harav Yoseph Yitzhak Schneerson ztz'l, continued to teach his father's tradition and avoda, first in Russia, then in Poland, and ultimately in New York during the awful years of World War II. However, the Holocaust decimated the ranks of the Chassidim, and the ovdim of yesteryear are no longer to be found among us. Nevertheless, by reading and studying the Kuntres Ha'avoda, and focusing on the study of other Chassidic texts, we can try to reconstruct the avoda of the Chassidim who lived roughly one hundred years ago.

It was the previous Rebbe, HaRav Yoseph Yitzhak Schneerson (son of the Rebbe Rashab and director of Tomchei Tmimim) who foretold the necessity of this reconstruction. He wrote in his introduction to his father's work:

"The days will come and a young generation will arrive with a claim from the depths of their souls against all of their leaders, and in particular toward the directors of the yeshivas and their heads, saying:

WHY DIDN'T YOU REBUKE US FOR OUR CONDUCT?

WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL US THE TRUTH, THE TRUTH OF THE LIVING TORAH OF G-D, IN ITS COMPLETENESS?

WHY DIDN'T YOU INSTRUCT US IN THE PATH OF LIFE AS IT IS LIVED IN DAILY LIFE, TELLING US:

HOW WE SHOULD PRAY EVERY DAY BEFORE OUR FATHER ABOVE, THE KING OF KINGS, THE HOLY ONE BLESSED BE HE...

HOW WE SHOULD LEARN HIS TORAH, AS COMMANDED "IN FEAR AND AWE, TREMBLING AND SWEAT"...

HOW WE SHOULD FULFILL HIS COMMANDMENTS, AS COMMANDED "IN HAPPINESS AND A GOOD HEART," -WHICH ITSELF IS A TREMENDOUS SERVICE OF THE ONE ABOVE...

And what will we say and how will we justify ourselves on that day?

It is incumbent upon all of us, and especially upon the administrations of the yeshivot to organize our service and to make the schedule and conduct of the yeshiva such that it doesn't only teach the 'sterile' professions of becoming a scholar, rabbi, rosh yeshiva, and the like, but imparts the guidance necessary for the student to become a complete Jew in his body (mitzvot), in his soul (prayer) and in his Torah [learning]. Anyone looking at the student should recognize that in him are combined the three levels of "Israel, Torah, and G-d [are one], all three of them both hidden and revealed..."

That day is upon us, but it is certainly not only the students of the yeshivot who are asking the questions. Every Jew with a G-dly soul in his or her body is asking, "how can I serve G-d?" Sometimes the question is concealed deep inside, and sometimes (especially among those who make their way to Jerusalem, and to the Old City), the question is obvious and on the tips of their tongues. It is also for them that the Rebbe Rashab wrote the Kuntres Ha'avoda, and I hope that I have succeeded in bringing his words to them in a way they can understand and internalize.

Rabbi David Sterne
Chodesh Tammuz and Av, 5765/August 2005
Old City of Jerusalem, Israel


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