The verse in Proverbs 3,6 is a cornerstone of hassidic reflection and spirituality. One might go as far as to say that one of the great novelties, or at least characteristics of the hassidic movement, was its emphasis on worshiping God and knowing Him through each and every action that one performs. This teaching has its roots in the teachings of the founder of the Hassidic movement, the Ba’al Shem Tov (1698-1760). Following is a collection of short citations that suggest how Prov. 3,6 functions as a topos in hassidic literature. Most of these quotes are attributed to the Ba’al Shem Tov. Some of them are cited in works of later generations.
1. I heard from my teacher, in a teaching attributed to Nachmanides, a great principle in the ways of a person, both with reference to the fulfillment of the commandments and in relation to his own personal affairs, if he wishes to fulfill the injunction “Know God in all your ways’ that all his deeds should be for the sake of Heaven, and not for his own pleasure (the following). Whenever something presents itself to him and his soul desires to do it, he should first remove from himself any personal pleasure he might receive from it were he to do the deed, and then once he has removed from it his own personal pleasure and benefit, then he should reflect, and he can readily calculate how to reckon with the conflicts the deed might present, and to identify the correct middle path, whether to do the deed or not, and having removed his personal pleasure from it, he will attain understanding. (Ba’al Shem Tov on the Torah, Berkshire, 150).
2. I heard from my master the meaning of the verse “all that you can do with your own power do” (Ecc. 9,10), and Enoch, who is identified with the angel Metatron, would make unifications (of the divine name) with every pull of the needle (as he was sewing shoes). And thereby he unites the physical deed in the lower world through thought, which is your power, to the spiritual, supernal world. And thereby he fulfills “Know God in all your ways”, all your material ways. Know him, uniting God and His Shekinah (represented in the heh and vav, the final letters of the wordda’ehu’, know Him). (Ba’al Shem Tov on the Torah, Bereshit, 182).
3. “Know God in all your ways” – this is the great principle, uniting the he with theVA (representing God and His Shekhina) in all his deeds, even in the physical actions that he does, his worship should be for the sake of on high only, and not for any other purpose, even the least of the least should not be for his own sake, but all of it for the sake of Heaven. (Ba’al Shem Tov on the Torah Bereshit, 182).
4. This is a great principle in all your actions, performed for the sake of Heaven, you should see to it that immediately upon performance of the action it will be a service unto God. So with his eating, he should not say that the purpose of his eating is for the sake of Heaven, meaning that later on he will have strength to serve God. Even though this too is a very good intention, nevertheless the perfection of the deed is that it should be performed for the sake of Heaven then and there, that is to raise the divine sparks (that are in the food)… And so it is with all his deeds. (Toledot Ya’akov Yosef, by the Ba’al Shem Tov’s disciple, R. Yosef of Polnoye, Mishpatim).
The verse from Proverbs may be considered one of the great slogans of the hassidic movements. It gives expression to the fundamental recognition that the spiritual life is total, all consuming, finding expression in every action. Nothing is beyond its purview. Thus, the spiritual life is woven into the very fabric of daily life, in its totality. The intensity of the spiritual quest is matched by the intensity of the recognition of God, known in every aspect of life. Accordingly, every act of life becomes a religious act. The spiritual quest is thus one of total dedication. In the process we note several processes. One involves purification of intention, removing personal interest and pleasure, so that every action may be considered a sacrifice, an offering. We also note how central consciousness and intentionality are. It is through consciousness and intentionality that we are able to raise and transform every deed into a sacrificial deed. These provide us with the means of transforming ordinary deeds into spiritual deeds. Thus, the realm of the sacred is no longer limited to proscribed rituals and commandments. Rather, every single deed, without exception, is envisioned as an expression of the spiritual life. With proper and purified intention, everything is sanctified.
One might stop here, noting the enormous power that awareness and proper intention play in sanctifying life in its totality. But we should also note how all this is made possible through a particular metaphysical understanding. In these texts we encounter specific teachings of the Kabbala, that are put in the service of daily spirituality. The process of unifying God and his Shekhina, the focal point of the kabbalistic understanding of the ritual of the Jewish commandments, is here extended to include all deeds performed with proper intention. They all have that unifying capacity. Further, the notion of fallen divine sparks, so central to Lurrianic Kabbala provides the basis for recognizing that every deed is a moment of redeeming divine sparks, thereby engaging the divine, and working on its behalf. Other metaphysical notions are brought to bear on this cluster of ideas. In other texts we find affirmation of God’s omnipresence as a means of worshiping him, recognizing and seeing him everywhere and through every action. (See Yosher Divrei Emet 23). These different metaphysical recognitions are all harnessed by one fundamental spiritual drive, characteristic of the great spiritual vision of early hassidism, that affirms the totality of the spiritual quest and how it informs everything, thereby cutting across distinctions of spiritual and daily life, sanctifying all in a drive for total and uncompromising knowledge and service of God.
When one performs acts out of a sense of duty, will it be a painful burden? Is this the meaning of the line ‘Remove from himself any personal pleasure’? Is a truly spiritual person devoid of joy?
Participants discuss the place of pleasure in the spiritual life and conclude that there is no contradiction between pleasure and spirituality. Indeed, leading a spiritual life can transform pain into pleasure, as the source of true joy is found through the transformation of the individual to one who begins living for a higher purpose. Heaven, the experience of ultimate joy, can be found in daily chores by the transformed individual.