This is true even when the holy person, the saint, speaks of trivial matters. A great mathematician may talk to a layperson about the simplest elements of arithmetic. Still, the listener can sense – perhaps in the mathematician’s side remarks – that he has a vast amount of knowledge beyond this basic level. One senses it, one feels it. It is true of masters in almost any field of knowledge: a feeling that you experience in their company. A man who has had a full and very adventurous life may talk to us about crossing the street. Yet, if we are perceptive, we feel behind his words that he has crossed rivers and glaciers, climbed mountains and sailed seas.
So it is when a person is saintly. We sense that he or she is attached to a higher realm, or has some knowledge beyond what we
can understand. Holiness lies in the connection, the continuation, into a realm beyond our familiar world.
Words such as “higher,” “above,” and “beyond,” are inadequate in this context, and demonstrate perhaps an unconquerable limitation of language. As we approach the ineffable and the mysterious, words become opaque. Whether all saintly people are connected to the same beyond, however, is a difficult question. It is enough for us to say here that they are connected to the beyond. We have at least the notion of something that is “elsewhere” – something essentially sacred.
The concept of holiness is not confined to traditional Jewish thought; nor are holy people only Jews. An entire book of the Bible tells the story of one such holy man who was not a Jew: Job. His con- versation, as presented in Scripture, speaks of the spiritual realm, about a connection beyond the everyday world. Sigmund Freud is not known to have thought he was connected to something beyond the empirical world. Still, he understood that others could experience an “oceanic feeling” – an experience of being as one with a limitless external reality, an immense vastness, an intimation of infinity.
I myself have met holy people, foremost among them the Rebbe. In these holy people, we see the connection with the beyond or hear it more in the spaces between sentences – more so than in their words. As they speak, we understand that there is more above the line and below the line, or in between the lines.
In Jewish thought, the holy person is known as a tzaddik – a word with many connotations. The Talmud describes one whose conduct is in accord with religious tradition as a tzaddik. Over time, the term has come to mean someone larger than life, a human being with a truly sublime presence. As the seminal work of Chabad Chasidut, the Tanya, tells us, for the tzaddik, spiritual and worldly desires are all connected with the divine.
We do not ask of a tzaddik, “What did he write?” He or she may not have written anything at all, yet still be a tzaddik. The question is also not “What did he say?” He may not have said anything worth repeating – and still be a tzaddik. The question is even not “What did he do?” Unconnected to a social or religious hierarchy, the essence of a tzaddik is in what he is. The essence of being a tzaddik is something primordial, like the essence of a precious stone. A precious stone does not have to do anything: it simply exists.
While each of us can strive to connect to holiness, not everyone can merit to be a tzaddik, as the Tanya defines the term. There are people who write important books, others who do great deeds and still others who produce pearls of wisdom – all possibly great people, each on his or her own level. But a tzaddik, specifically one who is “the foundation of the world,” is likely to have been born a tzaddik. In secular terms, the same is true of the genius. Geniuses are born that way, but they nonetheless have to develop their talent. Not everyone born with this potential actually develops into an acclaimed genius. One may have an affinity for beauty and a gift for words, yet remain unrecognized, his contribution merely a stillbirth. As for the tzaddikim, perhaps the Almighty scatters all over the world some special “sparks,” people who, if they nurture this gift, evolve in strength and grow into tzaddikim.
A group of students once asked the Rebbe the ultimately difficult question, “What does a rebbe do?” The Rebbe answered that the Jewish people are like the earth that contains nature’s treasures hidden underneath. The question is, where to dig? Freud dug in the human soul, and found trash. Adler found big, heavy stones. Contemporary psychiatry searches for ills and traumas that must be uprooted. But when a rebbe digs, he finds gold, silver and diamonds.Those of us who are not tzaddikim need not capitulate, need not give up on the quest for holiness. If we cannot access the saintly on our own, we can nevertheless be drawn toward it. In the holy person’s light, we are ourselves illuminated and discover our own capacity to illuminate others. A train has only one locomotive; the other cars are connected to it. Together with the locomotive, a car can move somewhere; without it, the car remains in the same place, not moving. For generations, individuals – both simple and sophisticated – have been drawn to chasidic rebbes in order to experience the connection with a different level of being: a higher spiritual world.
Tzaddikim cannot be imitated. They are like a rose, or a star. What does a rose do? Or a star? They are there. Wherever they are, they shed a glow. It emanates from their presence: from their smiles, gestures and their very being. This definition of the “tzaddik” is perhaps the best introduction to the subject of this book: the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
“My Rebbe” by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is published by Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem. It is available online and at your local bookstore.