This is a translated excerpt from an interview with Rabbi Ginsburgh in honor of the new year. The full interview appeared in the weekly magazine, “Karov Elecha.”
Q: Chassidic teachings and stories of tzaddikim mention the idea of doing teshuvah with joy and confessing one’s transgressions with a sense of joy. Is this something that we too can practice today, in our lives, or do these notions only belong to the world of Ba’al Shem Tov stories?
Rabbi Ginsburgh: The question of how to do teshuvah with joy and what exactly is teshuvah with joy is a most important question. As such, this topic is discussed at length in all the chassidic works. In our books too, it is a foundational topic (primarily in the article Perek B’avodat Hashem, which appears in Lev Lada’at). It is a very large topic, but we will try to summarize the main points.
The foundation for this discussion is the holy Tanya, referred to as the Written Torah of Chassidut. Tanya is a book for ba’alei teshuvah (penitents)—not only the third part of the book titled Igeret Hateshuvah [lit., An Epistle on Teshuvah], but the entire book. Not everyone knows that the Tanya (which the Alter Rebbe subtitled, “the book of the intermediary person—the beinoni”) is actually the book of ba’alei teshuvah. There is a way for tzaddikim to serve God and there is a way for a beinoni to serve God. The beinoni is actually a ba’al teshuvah. If the beinoni is exceptionally talented, he makes sure to do teshuvah even before he sins. However, the beinoni has the evil inclination of a wicked person, which makes him predisposed to sin. Thus, his service is the service of the ba’al teshuvah. It is known that the Alter Rebbe wanted to call the chassidic movement “the teshuvah movement” and the chassidim, “ba’alei teshuvah.”
From this perspective, the Tanya’s apex and most important part is the end of chapter 34, where the Alter Rebbe quotes the Zohar, describing the paradoxical nature of the beinoni’s heart, “Weeping is wedged in my heart from one side and joy is wedged in my heart on the other side.” Our entire generation is a generation of teshuvah. The basis for balanced service of God and the rectification for most of the challenges that the soul has to face is in chapters 26-34 of the Tanya. These are the chapters that speak of the relationship between joy and bitterness. These chapters teach us of the paradox that a ba’al teshuvah, a beinoni, carries within him.
Where do we get the ability to carry this paradox? The numerical value of “weeping” (בכיה) is the same as the numerical value of yechidah (“the singular one”)—the name of the soul’s highest level). Likewise, the numerical value of “joy” (חדוה) is the same as the numerical value as chayah (“the living one”)—the name of the soul’s second highest level. In the soul, inner service corresponds to the three lower levels called nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. The two higher levels, chayah-yechidah, are described as surrounding energies of the soul—they are above consciousness. Thus, teshuvah and the ability to bear paradox come from these surrounding energies of the soul.
Another thing we learn from this is that the source of weeping is even higher than joy since it comes from the yechidah in the soul. According to the simple meaning of the Tanya, the weeping is because of that which is not good in me, and the joy is because of that which is good. The weeping is over the sins that I committed, while the joy is in the fact that I am doing teshuvah and am privileged to return to God.
In depth, the weeping comes from the yechidah in the soul. It expresses the soul-connection with God in a place that is completely above reason and intellect, a place in which we feel uncertainty regarding our path in life. Together with this, however, we are confident in our connection with God. The joy comes from a place of great certainty and clarity regarding what needs to be done, which is also part of teshuvah. We need the paradox of weeping and joy together.
Q: So, during the Days of Awe [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur], do we need to present a happy face? Or should we be serious and sad?
Rabbi Ginsburgh: Even before the advent of Chassidut, the book, Chovot Halevavot wrote that the definition of a chassid is a person whose “worry is in his heart and his joy is on his face.” This is the normal conduct of chassidim. Service of God is with joy even if in the heart awe, seriousness, and even bitterness is concealed. It is written, however, that for the tzaddikim—beginning with the Ba’al Shem Tov and through to the Lubavitcher Rebbe—during the Days of Awe this normal countenance was reversed: outwardly they displayed awe while their joy was in the inner dimension.
The entire balance of joy and weeping is the balance between the two verses, “Serve God with fear” [Psalms 2:11] and “Serve God with joy” [Psalms 100:2]. The end of the verse, “Serve God with fear” is “and rejoice with trembling.” The sages explain that specifically on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we see external fear. It is important to emphasize that externality does not mean pretending. A fake exterior is completely rejected by Chassidut. Externality refers to what I consciously feel in the revealed part of my soul. The inner dimension is the concealed part within me. Even I am not consciously aware of it. This is how the Alter Rebbe explains the verse, “How great is Your goodness that You have concealed for those who fear You.” Concealed inside the souls of “those who fear You,” those who serve God primarily with fear, are infinite goodness and loving-kindness (“How great is Your goodness”).
It is written, however, that there were years when the Ba’al Shem Tov turned awe and joy around yet again. During those special years, even during the Days of Awe he was externally happy and internally filled with fear. The Lubavitcher Rebbe also had years like this. Those who paid attention saw that in the later years, this became the regular order. As the generations progress toward the coming of Mashiach, this equation changes permanently and prefers to reveal joy on the external level. This penetrates our emotional state as informs the natural feeling of the heart during the days of teshuvah.
Indeed, the Mashiach is called yotzei dofen in the Talmud, meaning that he is extraordinary. Yotzei Dofen, which literally means, “one who comes out of a wall,” refers to a baby born in a Cesarean section and also refers to the exception to the rule. The exception to the rule of the previous generations becomes accepted practice as we approach Mashiach.
Nonetheless, we do not want to nullify the awe of the Days of Awe. We do not want to nullify the feeling that, “weeping is wedged in this side of my heart.” Without the weeping, everything else is naught. The fear enters and works from inside.
We can say that only a chassid knows what paradox is and can understand that remorse for the past is simply a state of lowliness. The ability to resolve not to sin again comes from feeling God’s infinite love and compassion. We understand that our personal lowliness is the vessel that contains the light of God’s compassion. In this manner, we inspire all of our service of God with the joy of a wedding.