It so happens that we scheduled “Shabbat in Tzfat” for Finals Week 2019 at UAlbany. As the Baal Shem Tov taught, there must be a connection and lesson…
Let’s start with Finals Week. Most of you are taking 4 or 5 classes, usually in a spectrum of different subjects both within and beyond your major. It isn’t unusual for someone to take an economics class along with a history class, maybe a class on oceans or outer space and another could be theater or literature. The mix of subjects will vary by student and by semester. For some it may be heavier on accounting, for others more focus on political stuff or the sciences but most everyone has a pretty varied mix of subjects each semester. And now at Finals Week most of you have tests or papers due for each (or most) of these classes.
Imagine another type of final, where you have to write a paper weaving together and interconnecting all of your subjects of that semester! No matter if it means mixing biology and psychology, economics and anthropology, environmentalism and WWII, medieval poetry and international tax. You need to write one paper that meaningful intersects and connects all of your subjects that semester, in a coherent, well-written essay.
This may give you a little sense of what made Tzfat of the 15th century so unusual and beautiful, and why the impact of that short window of Jewish scholarship and history reverberates down the ages to this modern day. Tzfat then was a community of 700 families, many working on the dyes and textile industry. But Tzfat is remembered most for a group of scholars and visionaries who lived and taught there, and shared and connected with one another despite great differences in background, and study emphasis and style. They each excelled in different fields, but it was their interconnectedness that made their work enduring forever.
You might think of them as all leading one synagogue: Joseph Karo (who authored the Code of Jewish Law) would be considered the Rav or Rabbi, the synagogues legal authority. The Arizal (who founded the school of Lurianic Kabbalah, heavily influencing Chabad thought and perspective) would be the Rebbe, or mystical mentor. Shlomo Alkabetz (a great Kabbalist in his own right, who authored the beloved poem/hymn Lecha Dodi of the Friday Night Shabbat service) could be considered the cantor. And Moshe Alshich (who gave long sermons and taught homiletics) could be the Maggid or preacher. Each so different, yet so complementary! These great teachers and visionaries were close and connected, learning from each other in their lifetimes and also in their passing, as they are all buried alongside each other in the old historic Tzfat cemetery down the hill from the old city. These Rabbis were both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, they were spiritual and practical, they were refugees of the Spanish Inquisition and transplants from elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire. So many differences between them, yet they transcended all that.
This interconnected vision of Torah study is one of the things I appreciate most about the Rebbe’s teachings. Most Rabbis have a narrower area of study and expertise. Not the Rebbe! To the Rebbe all of Torah, all of its facets, layers and approaches, are interconnected and interwoven, “Torah Achas!” it is all one Torah. Not only is it so interconnected within, but it is also totally and utterly bound up with all aspects of life and human experience. I love this interconnectedness, it makes Torah so rich, so relevant, so broad and so personal!
So while most of you probably would not like to have an essay requirement tying together all your diverse subjects, that type of thinking is what made Tzfat so special, and that’s (one of the things) what makes the Rebbe’s unique way of learning Torah so special!
As the former chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks puts it in his introduction to “Torah Studies”:
To hear or read a sicha, of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is to undertake a journey. We are challenged and forced to move: where we stand at the end is not where we were at the beginning. Time and again a talk will be set in motion by a seemingly microscopic tension—a question on a comment by Rashi, perhaps, or a problem in understanding a halacha, a practical provision of Jewish law. Once in motion, however, the argument leads us into fresh perspectives, provisional answers and new questions, until we climb rung by rung to the most elevated of vantage points. From here, as we survey the ground beneath us in its widest of contexts, the initial question is not only resolved but also revealed as the starting point of a major spiritual search. The question only existed because we were looking at the surface, not fathoming the depths, of Torah. Thus a problem in the laws of divorce leads us to consider the concepts of separation and unity and to a radical reinterpretation of the nature of exile. A passage relating to the fruit of trees in their fifth year takes us through the levels of spiritual reality, an examination of the Baal Shem Tov’s life, and a reversal of our normal understanding of holiness and sanctification. A meditation on the name of a Sidra passes through the subjects of leprosy, repentance and personal identity. Each talk moves from the specific to the general, the finite to the infinite, and back again. Each invites us to undergo a profound transformation in our way of seeing the world and ourselves, so that when we return at the end of a sicha to the question with which we began, everything has changed.
Each, in short, is a Chassidic journey of descent and ascent, climbing and returning, through—Torah, the universe and the soul. Key themes recur: the inseparability of the soul from G‑d, the constant demands and possibility of teshuvah, the unity of Israel, the error of despair, the insistent light beneath the dark surfaces of history. These are the motifs of Chassidut, and are like a continuing thread through the Rebbe’s teachings. The very form of the talks—their intellectual rhythms of question and answer, their reasoning and rigor—mirrors a central feature of Chabad, that through a mental journey we affect both emotion and action. A truth grasped first by the mind then shapes heart and limb, and in perceiving reality we become our real selves.
These talks, then, are addressed with relentless clarity to the contemporary Jewish condition. Their implicit starting-point is the darkness of a post-holocaust world in which spirituality, moral conviction, and the Divine purpose of creation, seem almost beyond reach. Their tacit faith is that step by step we can be led from the present moment of confusion to the timeless lucidity of Torah, beyond the low clouds to the Infinite Light.