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Tuesday
May212019

YOU THINK WE’RE FAT...?

What a peculiar tale. Such fascination with fat Sages? But maybe their waistline is not the point here, and the Talmud is hinting at something very deep…

By Rabbi Boruch Merkur
 
Such flak from last week’s call to “be a tzaddik” you’d think the topic was “be a rasha.” Or would that call be well received? It certainly would be an easier mission…

One critic insisted that we are all in the category of rasha v’tov lo, regretfully wicked. But was that sweeping “accolade” stated with regret, a lament for our compromised condition? Or was it the sigh of complacency, coming to terms with inner exile? Just after Pesach Sheini, do we dare make peace with despair?

Consider the following three complaints about practically pursuing “be a tzaddik”:

1) You gotta walk before you run. First be a beinoni. In fact, halevai beinoni!

2) Why should people fool themselves with visions of grandeur? Have realistic, attainable goals. Torah demands an honest assessment of where we are and how to climb higher from there incrementally. (Thus, the ramp of the Altar was a gradual incline, not steps. That is, approaching the Temple’s Altar, the heart of spiritual sensitivity, even steps are suggestive of inappropriate leaps. Also, see regarding the forbidden slaughter of an animal using a jagged blade, such as a saw.)

3) There is an advantage of the beinoni over the tzaddik. The beinoni does iskafia. He has a more palpable sense of bittul. Why take our eyes off this focal point, the centerpiece of Tanya?

***

To respond:

1) Aiming higher to inspire: The pep talk of champions, for sport or for battle, is thunderous and empowering. It aims high to inspire a heroic effort and performance, to evoke the killer instinct needed for victory. See Rambam’s “Laws of Kings and their Wars” (7:3):

The [anointed Kohen known as] Meshuach Milchama stands in an elevated place with all the troops before him. He addresses the army in Lashon HaKodesh: “Listen, Yisroel. Today you wage war upon your enemies. Do not lose courage. Do not fear. Do not panic. Do not recoil before them. For G-d, your L-rd, walks among you to fight for you against your foes, to save you.”

2) No vain fantasy: Tanya (20a) addresses the concern of engaging one’s imagination in the avoda to “be a tzaddik”: “…although one knows in his soul that he will not reach this level in the truest sense, just b’dimyonos (in fantasy, imagination), etc.” Significantly, the text does not refer to imagination as “dimyonos shavvain fantasies,” just “dimyonos.” Here the power of imagination is used to visualize the goal and to focus in meditation, with the hope of evincing the power to “be a tzaddik.”

An attainable goal: Also, see last week’s lengthy citation from Parshas Emor 5751, where the Rebbe proclaims the revolution of our times, on the threshold of redemption: Whereas in previous generations, tzaddikim were few and far between, a spiritual standing that was generally out of reach – now everyone can be a tzaddik!

3) Beinoni is better? Regarding the avoda of “be a tzaddik,” the Alter Rebbe writes that one must “designate time to contemplate, etc.” It is a mandatory avoda (which the Rebbe encouraged, as above), even if the regular avoda of the beinoni takes primacy.

Consider the following Talmudic story (Bava Metzia 84a):

Due to their excessive obesity, when Rebbi Yishmoel son of Rebbi Yosi and Rebbi Elazar son of Rebbi Shimon would meet, there was room for a pair of oxen to enter and fit between them beneath their bellies, without touching them.

A certain Matronisa, a Roman noblewoman, told them: Your children are not your own! Due to your obesity, it is impossible for you to sire children.

They replied to her: Our wives’ bellies are even larger than ours.

All the more so! she said …

They answered: Love compresses the flesh.

What a peculiar tale. Such fascination with fat Sages? But maybe their waistline is not the point here, and the Talmud is hinting at something very deep…

The tzaddik Reb Nachum Chernobyler became corpulent through his fiery “Amen, y’hei shmei rabba, etc.” (HaYom Yom 15 Tammuz). In this sense, fat embodies delight in serving Hashem, ahava b’taanugim.

The Matronisa encounters two holy men, tzaddikim who delight in G-d. What sacrifice do they show in their avoda? she wonders, projecting her Gentile mindset upon them. They are just as selfish as anyone else, albeit refined and sophisticated. They are guilty of a kind of religious hedonism. How in the world can they form productive relationships and conceive if they are so aloof and self-absorbed?!

You think we’re fat? the Sages respond. You should see our wives…

The Matronisa is not satisfied: Women are more desirous than men. If you are aloof and absent, surely they turn to paramours. (Rashi)

Ah, but “love compresses the flesh,” they finally divulge. Since the wife’s desire surpasses that of her husband, the flesh of both is compressed (Rashi). That is, the woman, Malchus, the feminine attribute, firmly grounded in the world, shows initiative and goes out of herself to reach out to her holy and otherworldly husband. And “as water reflects the face,” the arousal from below is infectious, inspiring him to set aside his nature, as well – and they connect.

(See Tanya Ch. 49, where “love compresses the flesh” expresses G-d’s love for the Jewish people, how He compresses and constrains His infinity to connect with the (finite) Jewish people.)

***

How can a tzaddik truly serve G-d? He loves G-d! It is the tzaddik’s pleasure to serve Him. How can he express genuine bittul? The beinoni seems preferred in this sense. But “love compresses the flesh.” The tzaddik is inspired to go out of himself to form a meaningful, productive relationship and bring G-dliness into the world. ■

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