From Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch, Likkutei Dibburim (“An Anthology of Talks”) (Kehot) Vol. I, sec. 26-30 translated by Rabbi Uri Kaploun. (Footnotes have either been incorporated into the text or omitted. We took the liberty of creating our own subtitles for this online version.)
No matter how lofty the avodah of solitude may be, it has a notable disadvantage that outweighs all of its virtues, namely, that it causes one to be torn away from the world.
True indeed, through solitude one attains the highest levels of haskalah. One moves to a world that is all good, a world in which heaven and earth, mountains and rivers, trees and grass, birds of all kinds, and the varied works of the Creator, all proclaim in their own way, "How manifold are Your works, O G-d!" to the point that one arrives at an understanding of the exclamation, "How great are Your works!" And from this one begins to yearn for higher levels of perception, arriving, too, at a certain level of k’los hanefesh, expiry of the soul out of sheer love for the Creator.
True it is, that the genuine seeker of solitude advances by this means to the highest levels of haskalah, his thoughts soaring unencumbered throughout the loftiest worlds. With his spiritual faculties and senses, with his whole being, with his entire self, he is utterly devoted to the highest of things, to the point that he becomes completely drawn into the loftiness and the holiness in which his thoughts are occupied.
But all of this is not the divine intention underlying the descent of the soul to one's body, and the creation of the world at large. No matter how lofty hisbodedus may be, it is not the intention underlying the descent of the soul to one's body.
Before this descent, when it was in the store-house of souls, the soul had already experienced solitude, and had seen sights more beautiful than one sees in This World. Here one sees creatures with bodies; there one sees Divinity. It follows that when the soul was sent down from that treasure-house to This World, this must have been for a specific purpose -- and that purpose cannot be realized through living in solitude.
Now our master the Baal Shem Tov lived in solitude for many years. He was in a world that was all good, all light. He studied under Achiyah HaShiloni, saw things from one end of the world to the other, heard the conversation of creatures and palm-trees, walked about in celestial worlds -- and was very loath to take his leave of the world of solitude.
From the letters that R. Adam Baal Shem wrote the Baal Shem Tov, in which he compelled him to reveal himself, two things are apparent -- the virtue and the greatness of solitude, of being separate from the world, and the loftiness and the necessity of revelation, of living in the world.
We, who live in the seventh generation after the Baal Shem Tov, can see the palpable difference between solitude and revelation. Consider how many hidden tzaddikim and Masters of the Name there were until the time of the Baal Shem Tov. R. Yoel Baal Shem, R. Adam Baal Shem, R. Mordechai the Nistar, R. Kehas the Nistar -- each of them accomplished great things in his generation, both by bringing salvation and healing to individuals and by bringing salvation and blessing to communities. Likewise, before he was revealed, the Baal Shem Tov wrought mighty deeds unperceived. These, however, were all the revelations of a tzaddik in solitude, not the revelations of a tzaddik in a state of revelation. But when the Baal Shem Tov revealed himself there began a state of affairs in which light was revealed, its accompanying avodah characterized by order and leadership.
Among my notes of the year 5663 (1903), there is a record of a talk of my father's on Shabbos Chazon, which fell that year on the eve of Tishah BeAv [which commemorates the date of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem] at the last meal before the fast. The talk, addressed to myself and to R. Yitzchak Gershon the Melamed, was a long and wonderful discussion of the generation of the Baal Shem Tov. We'll talk about it one day, with G-d's help. It is a subject that deserves a special niche of its own, not the kind of thing to be mentioned in passing. It is a talk both profound and seminal, rich in haskalah, and amply instructive as to the ways in which avodah should be tackled.
A Virtue and a Drawback
Solitude and revelation, then, are two distinct paths in avodah, each of which has a virtue and a drawback. The virtue of hisbodedus is that it serves as a handle for intellect; its drawback is that through such a kind of avodah the divine intention of “sifting” and “refining” the world is not realized. [In the original: birur ve-zikukh ha-olam.”] The virtue of hisgalus is that it causes light to be revealed in the world; its drawback is that the initial revelation sears and shatters the world.
"Praise G-d for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting!" (Psalms 118:1). For the Almighty had compassion on His holy people, His sons and His inheritance, and arranged circumstances in such a way that the Baal Shem Tov should become revealed; moreover, that a new path in avodah should thereby become revealed through him, a path that would combine the advantages both of hisbodedus and of hisgalus.
The roots of this subject go back to ancient times -- to the respective generations of Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu. Both were generations of light and of revelation, yet they are essentially different. "Until Avraham the world was conducted in darkness; Avraham appeared, and light began to appear." Until the time of Avraham there had also been great tzaddikim, but in general the light that was then revealed was above hisyashvus; that is to say, forces of a different order would have been needed if this light were to be drawn down and (so to speak) settled in the universe.
This we see in a statement of the Gemara: "It was taught in the school of Eliyahu: 'The world will last for six thousand years -- two thousand years of Tohu (‘chaos’), two thousand years of Torah, and two thousand years of the Days of Mashiach" (Sanhedrin 97a). Though during the two thousand years of Tohu there were revelations from on high to tzaddikim of stature, we see that these revelations are nevertheless classified as the light of Tohu -- and in the world of Tikkun [“Repair,” meaning where the primordial “vessels” of creation have become orderly and interactive – ed.], the light of Tohu is called darkness.
Avraham Avinu lived at the beginning of the two thousand years of Torah, so light began to appear, for Torah is a radiating light. But this is the light of hisbodedus, a light without order -- the outpouring of lovingkindness on all comers, turning everyone into servants of G-d -- for this is a light that transcends vessels and that can have no relation with them.
The generation of Moshe Rabbeinu, however, is quite a different matter. Moshe Rabbeinu represents the chochmah of the world of Atzilus (“Emanation”). Chochmah also transcends actual (i.e., independently existent) vessels, for they are at the level of binah (“understanding”). Nevertheless, though chochmah transcends keilim, it is a light that comes down and (so to speak) settles in the confines of vessels. Indeed, even the highest level of chochmah can be held in some way by a vessel.
We observe in our own experience that when someone beholds an exceedingly beautiful picture or hears a wise saying of rich profundity, he can become so enthralled by the experience that he can lose his tongue, as it were. He can find no words nor means of expression. He is filled to overflowing -- with light.
When one studies one's portion of Chumash day by day, and along comes the ordinary workaday Wednesday of Parshas Shemos, and one studies the passage beginning "And Moshe used to pasture..." and ending “This is My Name forever, and this is My remembrance from generation to generation" -- and when with one's mind's eye one examines closely the theme that underlies this passage, then one can have some inkling of the question at issue in the spiritual tussle between the Baal Shem Tov and R. Adam Baal Shem over the subject of hisgalus, self-revelation.