In answer to a Twitter discussion on our understanding, or lack thereof, of G-d. Many wise things were said on Twitter and this is not intended to be a full treatise on the topic. I just want to explain what prompted my answer here:
— Chavi (@ChavaRisa) October 15, 2013
I’ll open by saying I’m all for genuineness. Therefore, if you’ve been learning Chassidus and have been genuinely overwhelmed by the vastness of G-d and the smallness of your own mind, that’s legitimate, and admirable. Nevertheless as in all things in Chassidus, there are two sides to everything, and I’d like to stress the side of understanding.
Understanding & Applying
I’d like to retract what I said on Twitter, suggesting that if it effects your life it means you’ve understood it. That’s Daas, which comes after Binah. It’s possible to understand something long before its ramifications have hit home. The application of Chassidus to daily life is a related but different process, often called Avoda as opposed to Haskala. Does lack of Daas imply a lack of Binah? I wonder. But from here on I’m referring to the rational understanding.
G-d & His Torah
According to Chassidus there should be no way for finite beings like us to grasp Hashem, not through understanding or any other means. Hashem chose to open up a channel for us through Torah and mitzvos (and teshuva, ahava etc.) It is therefore a fundemental Chassidic belief that we can grasp G-d through the Torah. Perek Hey of Tanya, you’ve wrapped your head around רצונו וחכמתו of Hashem (so not Hashem’s etzem?). Yes, our brains are limited, but that’s exactly the point. Hashem wanted to be grasped by the gray matter inside our skulls that is simultaneously occupied with how to beat the next level in Candy Crush.
Excuses & False humility
What bothers me about these non-understanding disclaimers is that it serves as a block, an excuse. How many people have been frightened away – “I should learn likutei torah? samach vov?” – or made to think they’re arrogant for wanting to.
It’s not an excuse and it’s not arrogant to use the brain G-d gave you. Strip away the esoteric, read the words, and treat it as you would anything else. Use everything you know – math, logic, language, psychology – and form an approximation of what Atzilus is, figure out its component parts, what triggers what. If you’re missing a piece of information, go find it out. Learn it often enough that you begin to form associations with the terms “zeir anpin”, “or makif”,”eser sefiros hagenuzos”. There will always be a lot you can’t understand – because you haven’t learned enough.
As for the humility, don’t worry – no one is accusing you of actually knowing what goes on in Atzilus, only the best approximation your gray matter can come up with.