By Rabbi Dovid Markel
The Chabad Russian Chassid, R. Zalman Duchman, tells the story of his Shabbos, the 11th of Elul 1936.
On Shabbos, I made a Kiddush in honor of my birthday. At that Kiddush, I spoke as one does after making kiddush on vodka. (In those days in Russia we only had wine for Pesach.) Being a little inebriated a spoke with great gratitude towards God and thankfulness.
The Chassid, R. Michael Dvorkin remarked to me: “Zalman, the Torah says that after she (Leah) said “this time I will thank God,” she stopped giving birth.” His point was to say that I shouldn’t thank God too profusely, lest my blessings stop.
He concluded: “This is what an old chassid taught me about being careful in my speech.”
At first glance this story seems rather curious; for how can we not appreciate and show gratitude for the kindness He bestows on us? Is it not gratitude the most basic trait in human decency? Can it be that this chassid’s message was that one should not thank God?
However, his point can possibly be appreciated, when we know the nature of the object of the thanks. Depending on what we are showing gratitude to God about, is the difference if it is a trait that we should focus on or not.
There is an essential difference between spiritual matters and physical ones. In both of these matters, we can be happy and thankful with our lot or constantly desire more. While contentment is most definitely a virtue in physical matters, in spirituality it can be crippling.
Just as contentment is virtues in physicality but not spirituality, the same can be said of gratitude. The person’s desire for more diminishes their contentment and appreciation for what they have, and by extension, the thankfulness is less pronounced. It is due of this that man cannot sincerely show true gratitude towards God for the spiritual achievements that he has accomplished – for in reality he is not satisfied with them and always seeks more and more.
Not only does the appreciation not help one’s growth but it can actually diminish and stunt one’s spiritual growth. This is true both from man’s perspective and God’s; the moment man ceases to ask—as he is content with what he has—is the moment that God ceases to give.
Additionally, the moment man is content with what he has and stops desiring growth in a specific area, being satisfied with what he has already accomplished, is the moment that stops working and growing in that area. The contentment and satisfaction is actually the inhibitor of his growth.
It is for this reason that the moment Leah thanked God for the number of children that she had, she ceased having more children. For though we should be happy with our accomplishments, we should never be satisfied.
It’s never enough
When one looks at various moments of completion in Judaism, we see this point enunciated:
As we complete the Pesach Seder, we immediately yearn for another one; the next year in Jerusalem—essentially asking the coming years Passover Seder be greater than the one that was just concluded. When we complete the Yom Kippur service we do the same; as well asking that next year we have a true service.
The same is true when a tractate of Talmud is completed; we immediately express the desire to study another tractate and return to this one as well; so forth in other areas of Judaic practice.
This mindset of constant growth and lack of contentment in our spiritual accomplishments is reminiscent of the following anecdote:
After R. Avraham of Sochatchov was wed, he became ill with a lung disease. His father, who was a Kotzker Chassid, came to Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk, (who was also R. Avraham’s father-in-law) asking him to pray on his son’s behalf. In his hopes of mentioning his son’s merits—so that the prayer be fruitful—he remarked: “his soul desires to learn and that he studies with tremendous focus.”
However, the Rebbe responded by dismissing his learning, saying “אויך מיר גילערנט,” meaning to say that his learning was not all it was made out to be. While the Kotzker was known to be a sharp individual, it was surprising to everyone that he would mention his sons-in-law demerits in the very moment that he was in a physically precarious situation—in need of divine intervention.
Nonetheless, when R. Avraham of Sochatchov heard his fathers-in-law response, he was pleased, saying that it is akin to Talmud’s story (Kiddushin 20a).
The Talmud there tells the story of a sickness of the sage R. Tarfon. During the period that R. Tarfon was ill, his mother urged the sages to pray for him. In extolling his virtues she mentioned the great honor he showed towards her, in fulfilling the mitzvah of “honoring one’s mother.”
Instead of being wowed by her fantastic descriptions of the great honor that he showed her, they remarked: “Even if he does a thousand times that he still does not possess half the honor for his mother that Torah demands.”
This Talmudic statement is extremely bothersome: Why would the sages denigrate R. Tarfon’s mitzvot in the specific moment that he needed these merits?!
R. Avraham of Sochatchov explained that what the sages were implying was that R. Tarfon still had not completed his service in this world and had much more to accomplish. By saying that he cannot be satisfied in the manner that he had done this mitzvah, they were saying that he still had many more years that he must live in order to properly do the commandment as God intended.
The same was true—said R. Avraham of Sochatchov—of his fathers-in-law statement, that his learning was not so great. His Rebbe was implying that his soul still has much more to do and is not done with its service in life. He was not denigrating him, he was begging God that his son-in-law have the chance to reach the true heights of Talmudic study.
For, when we are satisfied with our spiritual lot and accomplishments we are essentially expressing that we have finished our task in this world and there is nothing left for us to do on this terrestrial plane.
Always happy, never satisfied
Interestingly, this lack of satisfaction was particularly pronounced in the service of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He was relentlessly dissatisfied with all that he did and constantly demanded more and more—both from himself and his followers.
When his Chassidim would tell him of their accomplishments, he’d remark: “do you think I will be satisfied with this, what about the rest of the people you didn’t reach.”
Indeed, he drilled into his Chassidim the notion that they should always be happy but never satisfied. If they inspired one Jew today, they should inspire ten Jews tomorrow.
This is perhaps the true secret to Chabad’s success; that the Rebbe drilled into the Chassidim the notion, that they can never sit back, satisfied with their accomplishments until each and every Jew is touched by the beauty of Judaism and the light of Chassidus.
Towards the end of his life on this terrestrial plane, on a sicha on the 28th day of Sivan 5751 (1991) after he had sent out thousands of emissaries and built an empire of good he remarked: It’s futility and nothingness if we haven’t yet brought Moshiach.”
Perhaps what the Rebbe was conveying is similar to the message brought out in the story of R. Avraham of Sochatchov.
The Rebbe was essentially saying that he has not yet finished his desired mission until he fulfills the ultimate goal of bringing about the messianic era. Until the ultimate goal is accomplished, there is still much work to do, and he is not at all content.
The Rebbe’s singular desire in his spiritual service was to bring about the ultimate spiritual achievement that no one managed to do—yet, that in and of itself did not stop him from coming to the conclusion that most of us make that we should not try to achieve such a lofty aspiration. Only when one has the loftiest of goals can they possibly be accomplished.
What is more; the Rebbe had trust and belief in us. Not only did he have the confidence that this goal achievable for himself, he believed that we all can accomplish this goal and bring Moshiach—if we truly try.
For the Rebbe earnestly believed that the soul is an infinite reservoir of spiritual energy, that if we’d only tap into there would be nothing we can’t do.
For only if you reach for the stars can you land on the stars—the problem is when people become satisfied when they reach the moon. The Rebbe’s approach was that one should not be content when they have reached halfway, instead, they should continue growing and striving until the ultimate goal is realized as well.
The story is told of the Tzemach Tzedek, R. Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, the 3rd Chabad Rebbe:
During his childhood in Liadi, there was a tree in the courtyard of his house that the various children of the townlet would attempt to climb.
His grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, R. Shneur Zalman once peered out his window to watch the antics of his young, beloved grandson.
He saw that while the children were only able to reach a lower branch, his young grandson, Mendele’ was able to climb to the top of the tree.
He later asked his grandson, why he thought that was, to which the child responded, “the other children looked down, but I only looked up.”
When we only look higher and higher, not seeing or appreciating what we’ve accomplished—in the realization that there is so much more to grow—we will continue to climb and reach awesome heights.
The statement “tachlit ha’yedia sh’lo nidacha,” that the epitome of knowledge is that I don’t know, is not only the statement of the person who has reached the ultimate truth a mortal possibly can reach but more so, it is the statement of the person growing in knowledge. The catalyst for growing in knowledge is the person’s statement that “I do not know.”
For when a person believes that he already knows the truth, and is at the end of his journey, he will not have the voracious desire to continue his studies. Only a person that has the attitude that they know nothing, will have the unquenchable thirst and ravenous hunger to devour more and more knowledge.
This is as well the trait of Yitzchak expressed in Parshat Toldot. The parsha tells us of Yitzchak’s work of digging wells. Kabbalah and Chassidus express that Yitzchak was the trait of gevura or ha’alah (raising up) and that this service of digging wells was indicative of his entire approach to serving G-d.
Essentially what is explained in Chassidic thought is that he had the intense desire to keep digging in search for the ultimate truth. Being that God is infinitely removed from man’s understanding, the digging never ends, and neither does the growth.
It is because only an individual that keeps searching will reach the greatest Godly heights that it says we will specifically say to Yitzchak in the messianic time “you are my father.” Only through constantly striving for higher and being dissatisfied in the truth you attained today, will you reach the ultimate truth that will be experienced in the messianic times.