If you have acquired knowledge, what do you lack? Vayikrah Rabbah 1:6
The foundation of serving G!d as a Hasid is knowing G!d in the sense of the verse, “You have been shown to know that Hashem is G!d and there is nothing else” (1). This is the “knowledge” that our holy rabbis spoke of when they said, “If you have acquired knowledge, then what do you lack? And if you lack knowledge, what have you acquired?” What kind of knowledge is this? Not intellectual knowledge, but intimate knowledge, knowing G!d as you know a person (2). All of our service depends on this intimate knowledge of G!d.
Therefore the evil inclination (3) focuses its attack on our understanding, in order to confuse us and prevent our divine service from reaching its full potential. More than any other seduction or temptation, any other lust or vice, the evil inclination uses this confusion to dig its claws into our minds and hearts, leaving us to lose our way in serving G!d.
The Torah tells us that when we stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah, “All the people saw the voices and the flames…and they fell back and stood at a distance,” and our holy books tell us that “the people” here means the simpletons among them, and even though the heavens were opened wide to show that there is nothing but G!d, they looked only at the external things, the signs and wonders, and so did not notice the awesome revelation of G!d’s own self, and so they remained “at a distance” (4). So the Zohar says, “Wise are those servants of the king who look not at the king’s body and clothes but at the soul of the king” (5). Thus Rebbe Israel of Ryzhin prayed, “Master of the World, I don’t ask for the next world or even for this world — only that You open our eyes so that we don’t wander around this earth like unknowing animals.”
To understand the meaning of “knowledge,” let’s look at a teaching of the Holy Grandfather of Slonim on the saying of our sages, “If a man betroths a woman on the condition that he is a righteous person, even if he is known as a totally wicked person, the betrothal is valid, because he may have a thought of repentance in his mind” (6). The famous question is how a totally wicked person can become righteous simply from thinking of repentance, and the Holy Grandfather points out that the saying of the sages is particular in its language: though they could have used any number of words for “mind,” the word used literally means “knowledge.” “Knowledge” includes both “wisdom” and “understanding,” both “mind” and “heart”(7). Someone could come to repent through reason, using his “mind,” or through feeling, using his “heart,” but either way the repentance is incomplete; it is only when we repent with both our minds and our hearts that our repentance is complete, and then we achieve righteousness.
Thus we obtain the kind of “knowledge” of G!d that we are talking about only when G!d’s light shines in both our minds and our hearts. Then we merit the light of Torah and divine service. In the same way does the Holy Grandfather interpret the Proverb, “By wisdom is a house built, and by understanding is it established, but by knowledge are its rooms filled with all precious and beautiful things” (8). For knowledge is all-inclusive, spilling over from our minds into our hearts, containing within it all virtues and values: “If you have acquired knowledge, what do you lack?” As Rebbe Moshe of Kobrin said, “One hour of true knowledge of G!d is worth more than the whole world” (9).
[As I explained above,] this knowledge is not purely intellectual; it comes only through experiencing G!d. When Moses was trying to explain to Pharaoh why he needed to take all the Israelites out of Egypt, along with all of their possessions, he said, “We do not know how we will serve G!d until we get there” (10). As the Divrei Shmuel points out, this teaches us that we cannot serve G!d through intellectual knowledge alone; it is only after we “get there” and serve G!d that our knowledge becomes experiential and intimate, lifting our service up to the highest level. This is why we said at Mount Sinai, “We will do and [only then] will we understand” (11).
1) Deuteronomy 4:35; the verse is usually translated as “there is no other [god],” but it could just as easily mean — and the Hasidim almost always take it to mean — “there is no other” anything, period. 2) The quote is from Vayikra Rabbah 1:6, and the rest is my free translation of the Nesivos Shalom’s explanation based on Bamidbar Rabbah 10:1, where the sages call this knowledge hakarat habore, that is, “knowing, having met, being familiar with the Creator.” 3) The “evil inclination” is a literal but necessarily poor translation for יצר הרע yetzer hara, which is both opposite of and complement to yetzer hatov, “the good inclination.” The sages famously said that without the evil inclination no one would build a house, have children, or earn money (Bereishit Rabbah 9:7) — all good things in the minds of the rabbis. So a more nuanced translation would be “the basic drive,” what sends us after food and shelter and pleasure, which isn’t bad in itself and only becomes bad when we stop there instead of seeking more transcendent things. Another possible translation, particularly suited to this teaching, is “the impulse for self,” which in itself is only self-preservation but can regress into selfishness. If the key to being a hasid is seeing that there is nothing but G!d, then dwelling on our own selves is antithetical to spiritual growth in Hasidism. 4) Exodus 20:15 5) Parshat Behaalotcha 6) Kiddushin 49b; The Holy Grandfather of Slonim was Mordechai of Lekhovitch, a spiritual ancestor connecting Aharon the Great of Karlin and the Slonim dynasty. 7) Those of you who’ve learned a little about the sfirot will of course recognize these highest three sfirot, Wisdom/ Chochmah, Understanding/Binah, and Knowledge/Da‘at. The Zohar says that “Wisdom is the mind and Understanding is the heart.” 8) Proverbs 24:3 9) Moshe of Kobrin was a disciple of the Holy Grandfather’s son, and the teacher of the first Slonimer rebbe; this quote is from the founding book of Slonim Hasidism, Yesod HaAvodah, Mikhtav 53. 10) Exodus 10:26; the Divrei Shmuel was Shmuel Weinberg, grandson of Avraham of Slonim, the Yesod HaAvodah and the first Slonimer rebbe. 11) Exodus 24:7
My rosh yeshiva, Reb Shmuel Lewis, speaks about this often. He calls the kind of knowledge the Nesivos Shalom describes at the end of this teaching “embodied knowledge,” and he argues that it’s what is missing from most Jews’ lives, even the learned ones, and without it we’re like an anthropologist observing Judaism from the outside, rather than living as Jews. Or as the Sufi poet Hafiz wrote (at least in Daniel Ladinsky’s rendering): “Why just show you God’s menu? Hell, we are all starving — let’s eat!”
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