Question & Answer With Rabbi Zvi Leshem - How To Identify A Spiritual Fall
A Simple Jew asks:
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that when a person advances to the next level in his avodas Hashem he is immediately besieged by new obstacles which make a person feel as if he has fallen all together. A person should know, however, that he has not fallen at all. He must exert himself tremendously to break through and gain a solid foothold on this new level.
While Rebbe Nachman is telling us that we are not falling in this situation, how are we to know when we are actually are falling in our avodas Hashem since the symptoms of lethargic davening and learning occur with both the person who is exerting himself at the new level and the person who is not exerting himself at all?
Rabbi Zvi Leshem answers:
This is a serious issue (related to the issue I addressed a year ago in the article Peak Moments in Avodat HaShem) that all of us struggle with on our path of spiritual growth. I am willing to admit up front that the question may be better than any answer that we can give. As the holy Besht replied to his students when that asked how to test a new "holy man",
"Ask him for a remedy to be rid of machshavot zarot. If he gives you one he is a quack, since certain things require years of constant effort, and there are no short cuts." (The Piaseczner Rebbe, Hachsharat HaAvreichim 12a).
Here too, to develop the level of spiritual self-awareness necessary to answer our question, which is so personal, may require a long path of trial and error, and general rules may be inapplicable. Nonetheless I will try to give some insights that may be helpful.
In addition to Rebbe Nachman, this topic is addressed as well by the Mei HaShiloach and his student Reb Zaddok HaKohen of Lublin. They were acutely aware of the need to learn from the reality around us (See Rav Zaddok, Tzidkat HaTzadik 177, that all of reality contains the four hermeneutic levels of Pardes), but at the same time fully cognizant of just how misleading that reality can be. (See my article on Nazir and Sota). Regarding our specific issue, Rav Zaddok writes in Tzidkat HaTzadik 151:
"Times of falling, when you have no desire for Torah or Avoda, are preparation for a great aliya. This occurs due to the crying as one thinks about his path and contemplates his lowly state."
On the other hand, since we live in the alma d'shikra, the world of illusion, just as "failure" may actually be a sign of progress, "success" is not always a guarantee that we are in fact on the right path. In Tzidkat HaTzadik 64 he writes as follows;
"Sometimes you see clearly that Hashem is helping you and agrees with your actions, but this is no guarantee that your deeds are truly righteous…for in the path that one wants to go, he is led."
Based upon this principle Rav Zaddok explains how, after the followers of Korach were swallowed up in the ground in an open miracle, the people could still blame Moshe and Aharon, charging, you have killed the people of Hashem.
"For even though they saw the miracle in their demise, they thought that the Torah is not in Heaven, and therefore the Halacha is not necessarily with Moshe and Aharon against Korach and his gang. However, since Moshe and Aharon wanted to defeat Korach, and they had certain merits, they succeeded in killing the people of HaShem."
Perhaps it is this very confusion that Rebbe Nachman alludes to in Likutey Moharan 25:2, when he writes,
"When one ascends from one level to the next, he must pass through illusions (dimyonot), in order to achieve holiness. As soon as he ascends to a new level the shards (klipot) of these illusions are aroused, surrounding him. And he must subdue and shatter them, in order to purify this [new] place from these shards."
Later, in 25:5 he adds,
"Many Chassidim make the mistake of thinking they have fallen from Avodat Hashem, when there is no falling at all…therefore they need to strengthen each time anew to subdue and shatter the shards that prevent them [from growth], at each new level they achieve…"
Perhaps the answer to this quandary is that it may not really matter. I feel attacked by the illusion of the yetzer hara. It may be a fall, yet on the other hand, it may be the sign of my having reached a new spiritual level. Mai nafka mina – what difference does it really make? Of course, it would be nice to "know where I am holding" at any given time, but practically speaking, I have to serve Hashem in all situations, for the whole world is filled with His Glory – no place is empty of His Presence. If the yetzer is attacking, it is my job to optimistically fight it off, not to make cheshbonot, calculations about why this is happening to me right now. This would seem to be a perfect example of tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha, serve Hashem with simplicity. If we adopt this strategy we should hopefully react properly in all situations.
May Hashem bless us with more clarity as we continue to grow in our Avodat HaShem.