What is chasidus and what was its chief innovation? We look at four possible answers: 1) Chasidus saved the world from spiritual crisis; 2) Chasidus is an ethical system for going beyond the letter of the law; 3) Chasidus is a system for transforming one's character traits; 4) Chasidus is a language for communicating kabbalistic ideas in relatable terms.
The four proposed definitions of chasidus (ch. 1) are all just particular manifestations of the essence of chasidus, but they do not capture the essence of chasidus which is infinite.
Similarly, all good and truth that may be found in any manmade system may be found in Torah, but this is not the essence of Torah.
On the Essence of Chasidus (Chs. 2-3)
To better understand the essence of Chasidus, we need to first understand the essence of Moshiach. The end of exile, the proliferation of G-dly knowledge, the change in the natural order, and even the revelation of eternality within time are all but manifestations of the essential point of Moshiach. The essence of Moshiach is that the "yechida" of all the worlds will be revealed.
The various innovations brought about by chasidus are but outer manifestations of its true essence, the concept of yechida. We use oil as a metaphor to describe the paradoxical nature of yechida and every essence—while it remains distinct from all parts it is simultaneously found in all parts.
Chasidus not only helps to explain ideas on the levels of pshat, remez, drush, and sod; it brings out a completely new vitality in all of these levels.
The number of subjects dealt with in Torah is infinite. We will focus on the Modeh Ani prayer because of its foundational nature and use it as our example of how the four levels of Torah interpretation differ from one another as well as how chasidus illuminates all of them.
The explanation of Modeh Ani according to chasidus is that nothing can defile the purity of a Jew's simple gratitude expressed in this prayer.
The pshat explanation as illuminated by chasidus is that the only true life is a connection with Hashem. From the perspective of the four levels of the soul, G-d enhances one's life. From the perspective of yechidah, G-d is one's life.
The remez interpretation of Modeh Ani is that it alludes to the Resurrection of the Dead that will occur in the times of Moshiach. How can we compare something as mundane as waking up each morning to something as monumental as the resurrection?
The drush interpretation of Modeh Ani is that just like Hashem returns our souls to us, so should we not hold on to the assets of a debtor even though such a prohibition may seem impractical and even senseless.
We revisit the sod interpretation of Modeh Ani that souls are restored when Malchus unites with Yesod. How does chasidus explain this in a way that we can understand?
The conclusion reached by each of the four levels of Torah interpretation is compatible with that of all the others.
Furthermore, within each level we repeatedly see the theme of how the particulars are not in contradiction with the whole.
The most obvious expression of an essence is in its lowest manifestations. Indeed, the Torah which is beyond even the highest of worlds is described as being the remedy for the lowest problems of the lowest world.