Dealing with Crisis
I. “DAYS OF SMALLNESS”
People who occupy themselves primarily in spiritual matters, who generally aspire to progress and advancement, are sometimes overcome by temporary depression. At such moments, it is important to remember that this is natural, and it effects even great Torah authorities. It is no cause for alarm.
Rabbi Moshe Chayyim Efrayim writes in the name of his grandfather, the Ba'al Shem Tov (Machane Efrayim beginning of Parashat Vayetze):
This is the mystery of greatness and smallness, as it is known in the name of my grandfather that "the living creatures ran and returned" (Yechezkel 1:14). It is impossible to maintain oneself on the same level at all times; a person must go up or down. The descent is for the purpose of ascent, when one is constantly aware, knowing and feeling that he is in a state of smallness, and praying to God, in the manner of "And from there you shall seek the Lord your God, and you shall find Him" (Devarim 4:29). This is [the meaning of] "from there" – from the place in which a person is found.
We see, then, that there are "days of greatness" and "days of smallness;" it is impossible to remain at all times on one and the same level.
A parallel idea is cited in Mekor Mayim Chayyim (commentary on the book Ba'al Shem Tov; Parashat Bereishit, no. 60) in the name of Likkutim Yekarim, in reference to the well-known story told in tractate Shabbat (31a):
On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him: "Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Thereupon Shammai repulsed him with the builder's cubit which was in his hand.
The Likkutim Yekarim explains:
This is what it means: the heathen said that he should be taught the whole Torah while he stands on one foot – on one level and standing. And [Shammai] repulsed him with the builder's cubit, i.e., the seven days of building, for it is all united, there is night and day, good and bad. A righteous person must at times descend from his [elevated] level.
Shammai wanted to teach the heathen that it is the nature of the world that one cannot observe the Torah and remain at all times at one constant level. Sometimes a person goes down from the elevated level that he had previously reached.
We find in the Ba'al Shem Tov (ibid., nos. 68-69):
When God is served not out of love and fear, but out of necessity and great exertion, and without delight, this is called "days of smallness"…
To understand what is "smallness" and what is "greatness" – for example, when a person sits down to learn Torah without [proper] understanding, he is in "smallness," his mind not being whole. But when he learns with [proper] understanding and enthusiasm, then he is at the level of "greatness," which is connected to heavenly levels. And similarly, regarding prayer and every other mitzva that a person performs, there is smallness and greatness.
It is interesting to note that, according to the Ba'al Shem Tov, this phenomenon is found even among ordinary people (ibid., no. 67):
The smallness and greatness that are found in the heavenly spheres above are found also below in all things, in man himself and even in his garments, i.e., sometimes a garment is made poorly so that it restricts a person…
Every person has his bad days when nothing goes right; the Ba'al Shem Tov emphasizes that these "times of smallness" are no reason for panic.
Another grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, notes in many places in his writings that one must confront times of crisis without going into a panic or falling into despair. In one such place, he writes (Eitzot Yesharot, hitchazkut 61):
Truly, a person must know and believe that every Jewish soul is most exceedingly elevated and precious. All Jews fall into the category of "sons of royalty," and are able to attain extremely elevated and holy levels, just like all the fit and righteous people. For such [alien] thoughts and weakness of mind pass over them as well, but they are smart enough not to allow themselves to be deceived, and they grow in strength until they attain what they attain – fortunate for them. This is: "And his heart was lifted up in the ways of the Lord" (II Divrei Ha-yamim 17:6).
This precisely is the greatness of the righteous – not that they experience no crises, but that they are able to overcome their moments of weakness and emerge from them with added vigor and strength.
II. DESCENT FOR THE PURPOSE OF ASCENT
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook writes in similar fashion (Orot Ha-Kodesh III, derekh ha-kodesh, seder sheni, no. 23):
When a person feels totally empty inside, when he sees himself as amounting to naught, when his soul curls up inside, greatly depressed and sensing its own nullity – he should know that God's salvation will soon shine upon him, and that the measure of good is greater than the measure of punishment, and that just as pride goes before the fall, lowliness in spirit and inner modesty precede greatness and light. He will then immediately grasp all means of internalizing this trait of humility in all the spiritual sources available to him. And he will be lifted up and elevated by the purity of his soul, by his cleaving to the source of peace, the light of the King robed in majesty, God, life of the universe.
Rabbi Kook discusses the idea of descent for the purpose of ascent, and also the promise that the height of ascent will be greater than the depth of descent. Obviously, great people experience this phenomenon in its full intensity, but, as stated above, in smaller measure it can happen to anyone.
Rabbi Kook goes on to write (ibid., no. 26-29):
When a person feels that he is in great spiritual ruin, he should know that the opportunity has arrived to erect a new building, one that is more lofty and elevated, more stable and magnificent that what had been there previously. He must fortify himself and gather strength to improve his ways and deeds with proper order, a courageous heart, pure desire, and a heart filled with strength and inner joy. For God is good and upright, and therefore instructs sinners in the way. He directs the humble in justice, and teaches the meek His way.
When a person feels that he is worthless, empty, devoid of spiritual strength, that he has fallen and collapsed, he should know that a great light is prepared for him. All his deficiencies and deficits, both practical and spiritual, positive and negative, from his entire life stand before him. All his sins testify against him, and he is dumbfounded; he repents out of great pain, and rises up, leaving the lowest depths for the highest heights, going from impurity to purity, from darkness to great light…
When a person feels a fall, a moral slippage due to weakness of spirit, he should remind himself that from the lowest depths he must pull out precious jewels and rise once again, renewing his strength with might and tranquility, even more that in days of old.
Spiritual falls do not necessarily result from weakness; they are part and parcel of the life of a person who has spiritual aspirations, but cannot always maintain himself on the same level. Obviously, there are differences between types of falls, depending on the nature of the fall, its intensity and its duration. Fundamentally, however, a spiritual fall does not warrant despair or extended depression.
(Translated by David Strauss)