Question & Answer With Rabbi Zvi Leshem - Peak Moments In Avodas Hashem
A Simple Jew asks:
The Degel Machaneh Ephraim taught, "A person needs to be extremely careful when he is in a state of gadlus [expanded consciousness] to exert himself to connect to Hashem and strengthen the emuna in his heart in order to prepare himself that if he falls from his level, that he does not fall completely."
How do other Chassidic seforim elaborate on this concept of investing in peak moments?
Rabbi Zvi Leshem answers:
My dear friend, Rav Dovid Zeller, z”l, whose first Yartzeit we are now observing, used to say that “peak moments” are actually “peek moments”. Let us try to understand truth hidden within this pun.
Rav Zaddok HaKohen (Pri Zaddik: Pesach 40) quotes the famous statement of the Besht (in the name of the Rokeach), one’s Chassidut is strongest at the beginning. However it often seems to wane afterwards. The context of the discussion is the high level that the Jews reached at Kriat Yam Suf, where even the lowest among them received greater revelations of HaShem than the prophet Yechezkel! And yet, a few days later they were complaining of the lack of water, which symbolizes Torah. Rav Zaddok elaborates in the name of Reb Simcha Bunim of Preshyscha; initially HaShem shows the person “on loan” what he can later achieve through his own efforts. HaShem then takes away this light so that the person will work to achieve it through his own efforts. The Ishbitzer further elaborated on this point, HaShem reveals to you initially exactly what you will be able to later achieve through your own efforts. (Regarding how this idea relates to Kriat Yam Suf, see also Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, Kuntres Rishimot 4). This idea is related to another famous teaching of the Besht, that when a parent wants to teach her child to walk, she holds her hands, walking backward with the child, but at a certain point pulls away, in order that the child (at first thinking she has been abandoned) will earn to walk on her own. This is a major idea behind Sefirat HaOmer (Lekutai Halachot Sefirat HaOmer). It is also the basis of many major principles of the Torah and our avoda that operate in ongoing cycles, such as galut/geula, darkness/light, tuma/tahara, yerida/aliya, and even the fact that we learn all of the Torah in the womb, only to forget it upon birth and to begin learning all over again. Thus the Meor Einayim (Rav Dovid z"l’s favorite sefer) writes at the beginning of Yitro, no one can stay permanently on the same level for the angels run and retreat (ratzo v’shov), for when one cleaves to G-d he feels vitality and pleasure, and then this is removed and he falls from his level…so that afterwards he can reach an even higher level…when one falls from his level he must try to climb back up towards HaShem from the place that he is at now, for he must believe that the whole world is filled with His glory and that no place is devoid of Him., and even at the [low] level he is at now, there is also G-dliness. (Also see the Breslov work Meshivat Nefesh).
Thus the words of the Degel Machaneh Ephraim quoted above take on new urgency and potency. If spiritual falls are inevitable, it is crucial that I prepare myself when I am in a high stage, so that the next fall will not be devastating, and will actually achieve its purpose, to serve as a catalyst to turn the situation around and climb even higher. The issue of how to properly elevate myself from a fall and how to utilize an elevation are essentially two sides of the same coin. I need to train myself both to recognize that a fall is natural, is not necessarily fatal, and is in fact a crucial part of my spiritual development. But I also need to learn how to properly prepare myself in my high times to cushion the next inevitable fall, so that instead of being shattered, I will bounce back on the trampoline of life.
The holy Piaseczner Rebbe HY”D, wrote extensively on the topic of peak moments, and he added his own unique twist to the topic. For example in his diary Zav v’Zaruz (46) he writes, Sometimes the Jew needs to be higher than what he has achieved. There need to be times when he feels uplifted in a way that he can’t comprehend, so that he sometimes says things that he will need to work hard to understand. In Hachsharat HaArveichim 9:2 he quotes his father, Rebbe Elimelech of Grodzisk, in the name of the Ramban, that when one feels some good thought he should use it to do a mitzva or to learn Torah, thus clothing it in kedusha. Later on in the same chapter he gives advice as to which Tehilim one should recite for different moods that one finds himself in. This is also discussed in Bnai Machshava Tova, pp. 23-24 (interestingly, the Rebbe discourages the “excessive” recitation of Tehilim when one is in a happy mood). The Rebbe explains there (page 27) that any time one feels an unexplained emotional state it is a case of one of your spiritual limbs is pointing out [to get your attention] wanting to affect you and cause you to think pure thoughts. These states are in effect a state of spiritual sha’at kosher (opportune moments) (Hachsharat HaAvreichim 9:3) that must not be squandered. Every emotion, even from worldly matters, opens a spark of the soul, and since the soul is now a bit open, try to bring it even more into the open. (Bnai Machshava Tova p. 21). Additional responses that the Rebbe mentions to utilize these peak moments include singing, hitboddidut or visualization meditations. The most important point is not to squander them. For often, feeling some sense of uneasiness, our first reaction is to head for the refrigerator, looking for something to eat or drink, to drown out our feelings. Thus the soul’s voice is not heard. This is analogous to the priests of Molach who beat their drums so that the father would not hear the entreaties of his son who was being sacrificed. Our physicality becomes so noisy that the quaking of the soul passes unnoticed and is wasted, like a miscarriage of the soul. (Bnai Machshava Tova p. 27). On the other hand, one must be careful not to ruin peak moments with an improper (although well-intentioned) spiritual response. When one feels ecstasy during davening be careful not to engage then in cheshbonot (self-analysis) [which will destroy the ecstatic experience], don’t dirty your hands just then with your deficiencies, continue to daven and learn with ecstasy and closeness. However, immediately after davening, even during the repetition of the Amida, try to perfect each detail. (Chovat HaTalmidim p. 91). For more on how and when to properly do cheshbon hanefesh, see Hachsharat HaAvreichim chapter 13.
For the Rebbe the issue isn’t only how to properly use these moments, but also the necessity of creating such moments which are then used for special spiritual techniques. Regarding this the Rebbe writes in Chovat HaTalmidim (pp. 80-81), a person must occasionally arise above his sins…above the world. In this moment of aliya and tahara he sees and feels as a Jew close to HaShem, and his deeds as foolishness…he is then embarrassed and afraid, saying ‘oy, how lowly am I’…and with all his energy…he overcomes and chooses from now on life, purity and the holiness of HaShem…everyone must occasionally lift himself above himself. (See also Zav v”Zaruz 22). These moments are necessary, for they enable us to see ourselves as we really are, something which is nearly impossible when we are in the middle of the usual “balagan”. We thus need peak moments of clarity that enable us to peek both at our true situation, and even more importantly, at our G-dly potential. May HaShem grant us this clarity in every aspect of our lives.