Rabbi Hillel of Paritch, one of the great masters of Divine Service among the chassidim of Chabad had a very keen definition for mitnagdim (those opposed to Chassidut), Chassidim and Rebbes. His words were: “A mitnaged is about limits, a chassid is about the unlimited and a Rebbe is unlimited contained within limits.” These three definitions can be understood as reflecting a development: from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. This development captures the life-process experienced by many Chassidic masters, particularly those who led the first few generations of the Chassidic movement.
Most of these first generation chassidim grew up and were educated in the old world, mitnaged-style of Judaism that was contracting and limiting. At some point they rebelled against its framework and burst through its borders. This included indelicate statements against the old ways and somewhat chaotic conduct, including a pinch of purposefully ire-inspiring acts, which had negative consequences in the form of a rejection of the new, Chassidic thought and ways. This behavior engendered shock amongst those who continued to live according to the accepted norms.
Those avant-garde Chassidim, products of the limiting education who went to the opposite, limit-free extreme, knew (at one point or another) that the ultimate purpose is to reach a balance or synthesis, to return with the empowerment of the unlimited into the limited world, to act upon it and influence it. This is the maturation from being a chassid to becoming a Rebbe. The Rebbe is truly not limited by the natural world order, but invests effort to infuse that order with God’s unlimited, infinite light. (The very process of accepting the leadership role upon himself, building a following and a public movement places certain limitations on the high-energy he possesses).
In our times, we can also identify limit-busters (such as the hilltop youth and others) among us. They are those individuals who received very rigid and restrictive education and who with stinging counter-actions rebel and break away to lead a life with no limits. They continually perplex the establishment, challenging and threatening it. Thankfully, there are some educators who have a positive approach and have enough patience to see the process through. Eventually, the youth who have thrown social norms to the wind will take the energy they wield and rejoin the establishment they left with leadership abilities that will positively influence the systems in which they were raised.
By Divine Providence, our teachers the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe, the founders of Chassidut in general and Chabad Chassidut, respectively, did not grow up with this order of Mitnaged-chassid-Rebbe as thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Instead, they started first with Chassidic inspiration: The Ba’al Shem Tov, inspired by his father’s last will to him, wandered through the forests as a child and connected to the hidden tzaddikim. The Alter Rebbe grew up with a father and rabbi who were connected to the Ba’al Shem Tov (even the Ba’al Shem Tov himself instructed them to hide this from him). Thus, for the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe, Chassidut was their foundational thesis. What opposition Chassidut evoked was their antithesis, and as a result the synthesis they arrived at was opposite from the one attained by others. How so?
For most people, the synthesis of becoming a Rebbe in order to unify the limited with the unlimited, is not practical (until the Redemption). Thus, the Alter Rebbe proposes a different combination: Education should be based on the recognition of the infinite nature of Divine goodness and the unlimited power invested in our souls before they descend to the world. Against this thesis rises the recogniton of our limitations: the nature of the animal soul (which is almost impossible to expel) and the weightiness of the world; this forms the antithesis. The synthesis of these two is the power of the Beinoni, the intermediate, limited human, who reveals the unlimited and nurtures it from within his limitations. With his struggles, the Beinoni manifests how it is possible to make a dwelling place for God down here on earth – with every commandment he performs and every time that he forces himself to perform a positive act – despite his limited world.
In our day, few are charged with the role of breaking through limitations. For the majority, our service of God is to learn how to engender change without breaking through all the world’s limitations – how to foster change, rectify reality and create a perfected synthesis of service of God.