Reb Shalom Ber of Lubavitch once took his family to a summer resort in the country. Going for a walk with his son and eventual successor, Reb Yosef Yitzchak, Reb Shalom pointed to the ears of corn covering the surrounding farmland.
“Behold divinity!” the rebbe said. “Each stalk of corn, and every movement it makes, is a manifestation of the mind of God. Creation is the thought of God expressed as the physicality of the world.”
Reb Yosef Yitzchak listened to his father’s words and soon found himself lost in the wondrous realization that this world, his body, and all bodies were expressions of God. As he walked, he brushed against a tree and plucked a leaf from its stem. Absentmindedly tearing the leaf into strips, he slipped deeper and deeper into joyous contemplation.
“Yosef Yitzchak!” the rebbe called to him sternly, breaking his son’s concentration and returning him to the world of their walk. “We are speaking of God manifest in creation, and here you rip a leaf from its place and destroy it for no reason at all. Do you imagine that this leaf has no purpose in this world but to sacrifice itself to your thoughtlessness? Is its ‘I’ of lesser value than your own? You are different, yes, but superior? No. Everything has its divinely directed purpose, and you have made it impossible for this leaf to achieve its reason for being.”
Reb Yosef Yitzchak was ashamed of his behavior. His father said: “Remorse is good. Now learn from it. For our sages say, ‘A person can do damage whether awake or asleep.”‘
Are you asleep or awake? And more important: Do you know the damage you do in either state?
There are three types of people: the sleeping, the waking, and the awakened. The sleeping see God as separate from the world: the One separate from the many. There is God and there is creation: two separate realities. The waking see the One at the cost of the many: God is real, but creation is illusory. They revel in the glory of the forest, never noticing the uniqueness of each tree. The awakened see the One as the many. To them, God is both the source of life and the substance that is living. Here the distinction between God and creation is quantitative rather than qualitative. Each tree is a part of the forest, but no tree is the forest itself.
Reb Shalom Ber warns us that asleep or awake, we can do damage. What is the damage of the sleeper? To exploit the other in the name of the One. What is the damage of the waking person? To demand conformity as the proper response to unity. What is the damage of the awakened? To allow the damage of the other two to continue without resistance.
Reb Shalom Ber challenges his son to awaken fully from the nightmare of duality without being trapped in the false surety of monism. He urges him to see the forest and the trees, to know that the One and the many are both manifestations of the nondual God.