by Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin
A man living in California once came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe for yechidus (a private audience). He was afflicted with an incurable case of psoriasis and came to ask the Rebbe for help. He told the Rebbe, “I’ve heard great things about you. I’ve heard that you perform miracles and I came to ask you to perform a miracle for me. As for my background, I went through the Holocaust. I don’t pray to G-d and I don’t believe in G-d. But I do believe in tzaddikim (completely righteous people). My father was a Bobover chassid and always went to his Rebbe for blessings, so I’ve always believed in the power of tzaddikim.”
The Rebbe replied that a tzaddik has no power of his own. A tzaddik is merely an extension of G-d here in this world to help people, which he does by tapping into G-d’s powers. “If you don’t believe in G-d, you cannot believe in me.”
The man waved his hand, “Eh! I still believe in tzaddikim.” So the Rebbe told him to take off his shirt and undershirt and stand up. The Rebbe got up from his chair. He took his two hands and put them on the man’s right arm and slid them from top to bottom, upon which the psoriasis disappeared. The Rebbe repeated the action with the man’s left arm and again the man’s scales receded. Then the Rebbe took his two hands and applied them to the man’s chest and back. The psoriasis fell away. The Rebbe told his visitor that he normally did not perform revealed miracles. Generally, Heavenly assistance would appear in a more concealed manner. But there are always exceptions to the rule. He hoped that from that day on, the man would once again believe in G-d and begin living a life of Torah and mitzvos.
Tzaddik is the eighteenth letter of the alef-beis.
The design of a tzaddik is a yud on top of the letter nun. One interpretation of the nun is that it stands for ona’ah, deceit and fraud. By nature, most of us have the misconception that it is the physical world that is the source of ultimate truth and pleasure. But the yud, or Divine intellect, is added to the nun to teach us that the material world is ephemeral, and not the source of consummate goodness and joy. Therefore there must be something truer and more G-dly upon which to focus. This heightened intention is the essence of the tzaddik.
The Zohar recounts that when G-d wanted to create the world, every letter of the alef-beis came before Him and said, “G-d, create the world with me.” The tav came first, and then the shin, and so on. Then the tzaddik appeared before G-d and said, “G-d, create the world with me. I am the tzaddik, the righteous one.” So G-d responded, “Yes, but because you are righteous you must be hidden. Therefore, I cannot create the world with you.”
Chassidus asks why this is so. If the tzaddik is righteous, why wouldn’t G-d have wanted to use it to create the world? Every creature in the world would then be upright and pure. Rather than living in a realm of immorality, theft and deceit, we would live in a world that is safe, peaceful and G-dly. What would be wrong with that?
The answer is that it would be too easy. G-d’s intention is that we should be born into an incomplete physical world and strive to perfect it. With the G-dliness that flows from the yud, we can strengthen our ability to overcome the nun, the pleasures of the corporeal world. The tzaddik must therefore be concealed in Creation so that one strives for righteousness on his own.
The numerical equivalent of the letter tzaddik is ninety. In Ethics of Our Fathers it says: “When one reaches the age of ninety, one is bent over (lashuach).” On a physical level, this means that at ninety, a man is infirm and bowed with weakness. On a spiritual plane, it represents the concept of humility. When one reaches ninety, he has become so spiritual and humble that he bends over for G-d. He is no longer an independent character but an extension of G-d Himself.
At the age of ninety, one has achieved a heightened level of prayer. He has the ability to feel a direct connection to G-d when he prays. Additionally, it is explained in the Midrash Shmuel that the word lashuach means “to pray constantly.” That connection is the foundation of a tzaddik. A tzaddik exists not for his own benefit, but to serve as an offshoot of G-d. We go to tzaddikim to pray on our behalf because we know that the prayers of the tzaddik will be answered.
The name tzaddik means “righteous one,” a leader and teacher of a generation. We also know that many tzaddikim are called Rebbe. This tradition began with Moses, the first Rebbe of the Jewish people. Another famous tzaddik known as “Rebbe” is Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah. There is a Rebbe in every generation, a tzaddik who is that era’s spiritual leader.
What is the concept of a Rebbe? “Rebbe,” רבי, is an acronym for Rosh B’nei Yisrael, “the head of the Jewish people.” What is a head? The head of a body is its control center. It gives life, nourishment, and direction to the rest of the body. It also feels the pain, desires and needs of every aspect of its body.
A Rebbe, then, is both literally and figuratively the head of the Jewish community. When a person has a dilemma, what should he or she do? Perhaps the problem is whether or not to visit Israel, buy a house, or marry a certain man or woman. That person goes to visit the Rebbe. Just as the head houses the eyes, the Rebbe is the eyes of his community. He has the ability to see things that the lone questioning individual cannot.
A Rebbe’s ability to intervene on behalf of the Jewish people is not magic. It is a natural and organic outgrowth of his righteousness. Just as it is perfectly normal for the head to feel and respond to the needs of the whole body, it is natural for the Rebbe to feel and respond to the needs of his people.
What sources support the premise that a Jew can get closer to G-d through communication with a Rebbe? Moreover, doesn’t Judaism frown on “intermediaries” between man and G-d? The answer lies in the mitzvah u’ledavka bo, which means to cleave to G-d. The Rambam, based on the words of the Talmud, asks, “How is it possible that one should cleave to G-d? G-d is fire and we are physical. One who touches fire will burn.” The Sages answer,“‘To cleave unto Him’ means that we should cleave to wise men and to their disciples,” i.e., tzaddikim. We cleave through connection with a tzaddik, who is one with G-d. Furthermore, believing in tzaddikim is based on a verse in Exodus said every day in our morning prayers: “[The Jews] believed in G-d and Moses His servant.” The Mechilta queries, “Why is it important to tell us that the Jewish people believed in Moses His servant? How can we equate our faith in Moses with our belief in G-d?” The answer is, without faith in Moses, or the Moses of every generation, there cannot be belief in G-d.
G-d puts tzaddikim in this world to testify to the fact that He exists. By virtue of our connection to these righteous people and our belief in them, we are provided with a channel to connect with G-d.
The letter tzaddik has two forms. There is the bent tzaddik which occurs at the beginning or middle of a word. Then there is the straight tzaddik which occurs at the end of a word. What is the significance of each? The straight tzaddik represents the baal teshuvah, one who has worked to improve his connection to G-d and returned to his essential holy nature. The bent tzaddik is born righteous, but has not yet reached the level of a baal teshuvah. As we are told, even a complete tzaddik cannot stand in the place of a baal teshuvah. A baal teshuvah stands higher.
What does this mean? How is it possible that a baal teshuvah—one who has sinned all his life and then decides to change—stands higher than a tzaddik? There are two reasons. The first is that the one who has transgressed has already tasted cheeseburgers and lobster, and relished them. Now he must wrest himself from their grip. It is similar to the difficulty experienced by a long-time smoker who now wants to quit. There might be a certain temptation on the part of one who has never smoked to try a cigarette. But having never smoked, it is much easier for him to control the temptation. One who has already experienced its physical pleasure, however, might be hooked. It is very difficult to extirpate that aspect from his life, and it requires tremendous strength and commitment. Thus a baal teshuvah who was born to a non-religious home, who never learned anything about Judaism, and lives according to the secular ways of the world creates an elevated connection to G-d when he decides to change. G-d says, “You, My dear child, stand higher than the tzaddik.”
The second reason the baal teshuvah stands higher than the tzaddik is that the wrongdoings of the baal teshuvah are converted into mitzvos. Once his past sins have been renounced, they are actually credited as positive commandments.
How is this possible? The answer to that question requires a discussion of the method by which neutral and impure entities are spiritually elevated.There are two arenas in the physical world: the realm of the neutral and the realm of the impure. The realm of the neutral contains things that are capable of being elevated to holiness, like kosher food, Shabbos candles, and an esrog (citron) for the lulav. Those things that are completely impure (i.e., pork, forbidden relationships) cannot be elevated and are therefore prohibited.
As an example of how the neutral realm can be affected, let’s say that I take an apple or a piece of kosher chicken and make a blessing on it before eating it. What’s my ultimate purpose in eating? Not to satisfy or gratify my selfish personal needs, but to acquire the strength to serve G-d. Making a blessing before one eats empowers the individual to elevate the food. In so doing, the neutral realm of the food has been elevated to the level of spirituality.
Conversely, consider the fact that I’m eating simply because I’m ravenous. I just want to fill my stomach, and G-d is the last thing on my mind. In this instance, I’m taking the neutral arena and drawing it down into the three levels of impurity. This arena of impurity denotes not only that which is prohibited—pork, shrimp, non-kosher meat and so forth—but that which is neutral and debased through improper action or intention.
Now, how do I elevate that which is impure by nature—that which is unable to be elevated under normal circumstances? By resisting it. For example, you’re walking down the street and see a hot dog stand. You have a desire to eat a hot dog even though they are not kosher. The moment you say, “No, I won’t eat one,” you’ve performed a mitzvah. You get credit for a mitzvah by not eating it, by curbing your desire. This is the meaning of fulfilling a negative commandment. Nevertheless, while the credit for fulfilling a negative (passive) commandment is similar to performing a positive (active) one, it is not quite identical.
Now, to return to the original question, let’s say you’ve transgressed a negative commandment (e.g., done or eaten something prohibited). How do you transform the penalties associated with violating a negative commandment into the rewards generated by performance of a positive commandment? This is accomplished by the decision to do teshuvah. You say, “G-d, I’m sorry for the past. I want to return to You. I will never sin again.” At that moment, all the accumulated sins become positive commandments.
Perhaps by knowing this someone could say, “Great. Now I can go down to the hot dog stand, eat a few frankfurters, and make up for it by doing teshuvah later.” Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. Anyone who says, “I will intentionally sin and then return to G-d later” is not given the opportunity to repent. A person can’t engage in the teshuvah process in a deceptive, self-serving manner. The essence of the baal teshuvah’s return is the pure desire to rectify a previous wrong and return to his intrinsic connection to G-d. Can the one who sins in the present with the idea that he’ll repent later, in fact repent? If he is stubborn, yes. Nothing can stand in the way of teshuvah, and even for the worst sins in the Torah a person can repent. But in general, if one sins in order to repent, he will not be given the opportunity to do teshuvah.
It states in the Zohar that when Mashiach comes to the world, he will cause all the tzaddikim to do teshuvah. This means that Mashiach will bring a heightened awareness even to that person who has served G-d perfectly every day of his life. This is the bent tzaddik. This tzaddik will be blessed with an even greater desire and urgency to perform mitzvos than he previously possessed. He will have the ability to go beyond his nature and do more than he did yesterday. Thus the bent tzaddik will also acquire the qualities of the baal teshuvah, the straight tzaddik.
When a child is born, he is administered an oath, “Be a tzaddik and do not be wicked.” From birth, every individual has the ability to become a tzaddik. If one constantly recalls the existence of this oath, he or she can undoubtedly bring it from potential into reality.
Footnotes: click here: Chabad.org