His greatness

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In Torah 25, Rebbe Nachman writes about spiritually ascending from level to level. He says that at the entrance, so to speak, of every new level there are klipos (a protective outer space, like a shell) that prevent us from entering. These klipos present themselves in the form of illusions, doubts, strong urges, confusion and obstacles. The only way, says the Rebbe, to overcome these klipos is by revealing Hashem’s greatness. So how do we reveal Hashem’s greatness in the world? By giving charity. Simply understood, this could mean that when we emulate God’s kindness and assist the less fortunate, His greatness becomes known. This idea is similar to how the Talmud (Yoma 86a) expounds the words, “You must Love your God, Hashem”, i.e. that He should be loved [by others] through you.

But then in the last few lines of the lesson, the Rebbe slips in another little something. “You should also know, that in order to overpower the klipos that surround these levels, you need to awaken the joy in your mitzvos. Meaning, [when you do the mitzvah], you should be happy that you were blessed to come close to Hashem. Through this joy, you can overpower the klipa and ascend to the next level”

One might ask, didn’t the Rebbe just say the way to overcome these klipos is by revealing Hashem’s greatness? Why is he saying now that the way to vanquish them is by doing mitzvos with joy?

I’d like to suggest that both paths are one and the same. Unfortunately, but understandably, sometimes we do mitzvos simply because we did them yesterday and the day before. But when we’re excited by mitzvos because we appreciate how fortunate we are to align with our Creator, it’s a major revelation of His greatness.

Imagine you see a guy walking to shul in the morning with a minor frown and slugged shoulders. Do you wanna go where he’s going? I think not! But what about the other guy who’s skipping into shul and snapping his fingers? “Where’s he going?” you think to yourself. “Oh, to shul? What’s there? Davening? Praising Hashem? That’s all?! Just praising Hashem makes him so happy? Hashem must be great!

Cute, right? Do mitzvos with Joy, like what we teach little kids in cheder.

It’s no small thing. Rebbe Nachman writes (Torah 24) that by performing mitzvos with joy, one can reach the light of Ein Sof, which is way above all the levels of souls. And it’s not just a chassidus thing either. The Mishna Brurah (O”CH 669:11) writes that the Arizal said about himself that the highest levels he ever reached were through the joy of performing mitzvos.

When we strip it all down to what’s really important, it’s easy to see that there’s nothing as good as being with Him. Everything else is stained and fragile, but He is perfect and strong. He is far better than anything we could imagine. And he gave us the instructions how to connect; With his mitzvos. That’s something to truly be happy about! Lcha’im!

Let Him

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I ate a lot of junk-food while my wife was away this week. In fact, I felt like I was trying to squash my feelings with it. It’s sort-of like I was trying to fill some void with all the candy and processed foods, but it wasn’t working at all. It actually made the void bigger, leaving me feeling self-destructive and farther away from a healthy state of body and soul. I know about myself that when I’m unable to act with restrain, it leaves me feeling helpless and pitiful. I hate that feeling and the self-loathing makes it that much worse. It’s a vicious cycle that addicts are all too familiar with.

There is a silver lining here though.

One thing that really helped me break out of this funk a few times was trying to be simple. Without even noticing, I find that I contrive such high – and many times unreasonable – expectations of myself; expectations of only positive thoughts and expectations of productivity. The task-master in me doesn’t allow failure or laziness. But I realized it’s all a bunch of חכמות, (sophistication) and it helps me sometimes to let go of all these complicated assumptions and conjectures, and to just put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes I need to put down the scorecard and just live in the moment.

I had another comforting thought too, which also deepens this concept a bit: Hashem is perfect; Really perfectly perfect. I don’t need to be perfect and I shouldn’t expect to be perfect either. I need to just let Him be perfect and let Him figure it out. Serious meditation and prayer with a mantra like this is so very soothing.

Maybe this is what Rebbe Nachman was talking about (in Sichos Haran 2) when he said:

טוב מאד להשליך עצמו על השם יתברך ולסמוך עליו. ודרכי, כשבא היום, אני מוסר כל התנועות שלי ושל בני והתלויים בי על השם יתברך, שיהיה הכל כרצונו יתברך, וזה טוב מאד. גם אזי אין צריך לדאוג ולחשוב כלל אם מתנהג כראוי אם לאו, מאחר שסומך עליו יתברך. ואם הוא יתברך רוצה בענין אחר הוא מרוצה להתנהג בענין אחר כרצונו יתברך.

“It’s very comforting to throw yourself on Hashem and rely on Him. Rebbe Nachman, himself, would give over all his activities to Hashem, so everything can be done how Hashem wants it. Then, there’s no need to worry or think if you’re doing the right thing or not, because you’re relying on Him to do it. And if He wants it another way, let Him do it that way.”

This idea always seemed somewhat esoteric to me, but now I think it’s just plain simplicity. When we conjure up all these ideas, it’s draining and counterproductive. I rather let go and let Hashem be perfect. I’ll just do what I need to do right now. Period.

Surprise surprise

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I find it funny how we still get surprised when our prayers get answered, myself included. I often hear people preface a story of how Hashem took care of them (again) by saying, “You’re not going to believe this”. Why wouldn’t we believe it? Isn’t the idea of praying to Hashem what we’re taught our whole lives, again and again? What’s the big surprise that it works? On the other hand, if it’s so inconceivable that real prayer works, then why do many of us spend so much time doing it? Why climb up a tree that we’re sure has no fruit?

The truth is that Rebbe Nachman says (Torah 7) that prayer is miraculous. It supersedes the forces of nature. But Maybe, since we’re by-no-means accustomed to seeing outright miracles, we get a bit surprised when our prayers force Hashem’s hands to perform miracles on our behalf?

I heard a beautiful story the other day from Rabbi David Ashear of livingemunah.com.  There was a boy named Naftali who grew up in a very religious home and started slacking off in yeshiva. Eventually he got kicked out because he was negatively influencing the other kids in his class. His parents became very concerned. A few weeks later he missed the Friday night meal and his parents had no idea where he was. He finally showed up late at night drunk and smelling of cigarettes, with a cellphone in hand, as if it weren’t shabbos. His parents consulted with an expert in the parenting field who advised them that they cannot allow him to violate Torah and Mitzvos in the home. When they relayed those demands to him, Naftali left home and moved in with his new irreligious friends in Tel Aviv. He finally felt free, but after a few months those friends turned on him. They made fun of him and tortured him until he had no choice but to leave. He was wandering the streets depressed. He knew he couldn’t go home either and he decided that he was going to commit suicide. It was evening time and he started walking towards a large tower to jump off of it. On his way up the stairs, he saw a pamphlet on the floor with the words “Mamma Rochel” on the cover. Usually these pamphlets didn’t interest him, but this time he picked it up and started reading it. It was full of stories of salvation that people experienced at Rachel’s Tomb. He started thinking that maybe he should also go to there and pray before he took his own life. He decided to go. When he got there, it was late at night and he was surprised how busy it was there. He saw a group of men praying very fervently and he noticed a sign that nearly made him pass out. It said “Please pray that our son Naftali Yisroel ben Chana Rochel does Teshuva”. That sign was about him. The people there were praying for him to return to Hashem. Then he heard a voice from ladies’ section that he recognized to be his mothers’! She was saying, “Master of the world, please send my Naftali back. I’ll take him back however he is”. He called out to his mother and they reunited. His parents sponsored that group of rabbis to come and pray that night at Rachel’s Tomb so that he would return. Hashem made him find that pamphlet and it worked right away.

Are you surprised? Don’t be!

Trust your truth

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“It’s known from the Rebbe’s words that people pose a greater obstacle in Avodas Hashem than the evil inclination. And I’m not only referring to evil people, scoffers and naysayers. But even people who fear Hashem can many times confuse someone with their poor advice [and prevent him from] his proper path; And this has unlimited implications”. (Hilchos Geneiva 5:8)

We’re always taught to seek advice, and in fact, it is imperative to get guidance and counsel to be successful. The Talmud says (Berachos 7b),“גדולה שמושה של תורה יותר מלימודה” – “Serving Torah Scholars is even greater than sitting in their lectures”, because when we observe great people in action, we can learn so much from their every movement.  

But I believe that Reb Nosson is saying something radical here. So many of us want to just be told what to do. “Give me the handbook to being a good husband” or “where can I watch the video on-line how to make a deep connection with my kids?” This need to be spoon-fed stems from a distrust in our own selves. We’re afraid to believe that we have the answers, because we don’t believe enough in our own self-worth.  Many recovering addicts will testify that they used and used again because they were afraid to cope with their emotions. Once clean, they were usually pleasantly surprised how many tools they did in-fact have to manage their lives effectively. Hashem gives us the tools to be successful. It’s super-important to seek guidance and weigh the different options, but only we can lead ourselves down the right path.

Reb Nosson doesn’t mince words. Even truly God-fearing leaders can lead us astray. It’s not enough to ask and follow. Hashem doesn’t want an army of zombies. He wants us to consider every situation, with the advice of our wise ones, and act upon our faith as only we know how.

Trust your truth. You have everything it takes. Trust in yourself because you will succeed!

 

Lift it up!

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R. Shimon Bar Yochai and his son R. Elazar hid in a cave from the Romans. “A miracle occurred and a carob-tree with a water well were created for them. They would strip their garments and sit up to their necks in sand. The whole day they studied; when it was time for prayers they robed, covered themselves and prayed. [After prayers] they disrobed again, so that [their clothes] should not wear out. This is how they lived for twelve years in the cave. Then Elijah [the Prophet] came and stood at the entrance of the cave and called out, “Who will inform the son of Yochai that the emperor is dead and his decree was annulled? So [R. Shimon and his son] emerged. When they saw a man ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed in surprise, ‘Do people [actually] forsake the eternal life and engage in a temporal life?!’ Whatever the [two men] cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up. Thereupon a Heavenly Voice came forth and cried out, ‘Did you emerge to destroy My world: Return to your cave!’  So they returned and lived there [another] twelve months, saying, ‘The punishment of the wicked in hell is [limited to] twelve months.’ A Heavenly Voice came forth [again] and said, ‘Go forth from your cave!’ and they left. Whatever R. Elazar destroyed, R. Shimon healed, wherupon R. Shimon said to R. Elazar, ‘My son! You and I are sufficient for the world.’ On the eve of Shabbos before sunset they saw an old man holding two bundles of myrtle and running at twilight. What are these for?’ they asked him. ‘They are in honor of Shabbos,’ he replied.  ‘But one [bundle] should suffice you’? The man answered, One is for ‘Remember [the day of Shabbos]’ (Shemos 20:8) and one for ‘Observe [the day of Shabbos] (Devarim 5:12).’ R. Shimon said to R. Elazar, ‘See how precious the commandments are to Israel?’ And their minds were at ease” (Shabbos 33b).

Food is sustenance for the body and smell is sustenance for the soul, and the rule is that by sustaining the body, the soul’s sustenance gets weaker. Asks Reb Nosson (Hilchos Ma’achlei Akum 2), if eating weakens the soul, how can we ever be allowed to eat? He answers that the Jews uplift and sanctify their eating with purity and holiness. And the source they draw from, the essence of all holy and fixed eating, is Shabbos. On Shabbos, our eating is sustenance for the soul. And even our eating during the week needs to draw from that holy eating. “This is the essence of all of our work, during the six days of the week”. says Reb Nosson. “We’re trying to select the good from the bad”.

The twelves tribes correspond to the twelve months. The past month of Tishrei, which was stacked with Holidays is represented by Ephraim, Joseph’s son, who, as the younger of two sons, was standing on Jacob‘s left for his blessing but prophetically received Jacob’s right hand, because he was destined to be the greater of the two boys.

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This month of Cheshvan, which has no holidays, is represented by Menashe. Menashe was the son who would be a master of living in the mundane world and uplifting it. Just as his father, Joseph, was able to remain steadfast and loyal to God as a young man in a foreign land, so too Menashe represents the excellence of raising the sparks of everyday life. This is why there are no holidays in Menashe’s month. It’s just a series of weekdays followed by Shabbos, again and again. Because after the holy month of Tishrei, when we stored away provisions of spirituality for the year, we need to enter Cheshvan, in action mode with an ability to interface with everyday life and find the space to uplift it.

When the brothers first came down to Egypt and didn’t realize that Joseph was the evil minister who was accusing them to be spies, Reuben said to them, in Ancient Hebrew, that this calamity was all happening to them because they sold Joseph. He didn’t suspect that Joseph would be listening in, because there was an interpreter between them. Rashi says that the interpreter was Menashe. This makes perfect sense; that he would be the one to understand all languages and uplift them. Ephraim was studying while Menashe was in the field, uplifting the sparks.

This avodah of Menashe is what Reb Nosson says is “the essence of all of our work, during the six days of the week. We’re trying to select the good from the bad”. We want to bring Shabbos into the week.

I think this is a novel way to understand the selection of the Talmud that I quoted above. R. Shimon and his son were struggling with the balance of Ephraim and Menashe. When they were in the cave, they were in the world of Ephraim, only studying and connecting to the divine, in a cocoon of holiness and miracles. When they exited the cave the first time, they still couldn’t fathom how someone could ‘forsake the eternal life and engage in a temporal life’. But then, when they emerged the second time they saw the old man running with the two bundles of myrtles. Myrtles have a sweet smell, which is the soul’s sustenance. They asked him what the myrtles are for? And he said ‘They are in honor of Shabbos. But what about shabbos? Both aspects. Not just having a holy Shabbos on Shabbos itself, but bringing the Shabbos into the week as well, as he said, ‘One was for ‘Remember the day of Shabbos’. Now the great sages realized that eating food, and sustaining the body, doesn’t necessarily weaken the soul, if one draws Shabbos into the week. So “their minds were at ease”. If our minds’ are connected to the Divine, then even during the routine of the weekday, we can draw down from holiness. That’s the avodah of Menashe and the avodah of this special month. May we merit to uplift the six days of the week with the holiness of Shabbos. Amen!

A new day, a new me

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“The true counsel can only be given by those who have already been released from the hands of the evil inclination. Because someone who is still imprisoned by the evil one is as blind as one who walks in thick darkness, with stumbling blocks placed before him, which he can’t see…What can this be compared to? A garden-maze, the type that was common among the upper class and planted for the sake of amusement. The high trees are planted and arranged into walls of confusing, intertwined and similar paths. The walker in the garden has no way of seeing or knowing if he is on the right path or not. But there was a high porch in the middle of these gardens, and he who has a commanding position on the porch can see all the paths before him. He can discriminate between the true and false paths. Only He can warn the walker where to go and where not to go” (The Path of the Just – Chapter Zehirus).

I always thought this analogy was a beautiful one. I recently learned a piece in Likutei Halachos that opened it up for me even more:

“Hashem saw that the world wasn’t worthy to use [the light], so he hid it for the tzaddikim. And now that the light has been hidden, it’s impossible to understand with our own knowledge that Hashem is recreating the world at every moment. The only way to believe it is with the faith that we get from the tzaddikim, who are nourished by the hidden light”. (Hilchos K’vod Rabo 3:14).

Reb Nosson is saying, based on Tinyana 8, that what makes us impossibly stuck in the garden-maze is our inability to grasp that Hashem is recreating the world. The world looks exactly as it always did. Our intellect doesn’t allows us to perceive its newness. This blockage also makes it impossible to understand how we can change, really change. We tried dieting before, we tried working on ourselves so many times, why would this time be different?

It’s only when we inundate ourselves with the words of faith that the tzaddikim teach us from their exposure to the hidden light, that we can believe in a new world, and a chance to be fresh again. This is so crucial. We must believe with every fiber of our being that we can fix what we’ve broken and be everything we’re meant to be. But we need the encouragement of the loving tzaddikim to infuse us with this faith.

May we merit to hear those words of faith and believe in ourselves and our potential to be absolutely novel. Amen!

Picture this

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So did you have any guests for Sukkos? Well, you certainly did. The holy ushpizin, the seven shepherds, come to visit our sukkah during this festival. Sound weird to you? Well, then you need to ask yourself if you believe it or not. If you (understandably) don’t, then essentially, there’s something integral to this holiday that you’re ignoring. What about the idea that the shechina (the Holy Divine Presence) rests on the schach of our sukkah? Are you into that one? Wait, wait, wait. You know those four species that we hold together and shake every day? The Torah explicitly says that holding them make us happy. The Talmud teaches that they respond to our spine, heart, eyes and lips. Do you buy it?

Reb Nosson recorded in Torah 25 that after Rebbe Nachman taught the lesson, he said “Now we need to call the Evil One by a new name. It’s time to call it the כּחַ הַמְדַמֶּה (the power of imagination)”. Reb Nosson writes that even though the Rebbe said it jokingly, he understood that there was a serious intention there, which Reb Nosson admits he didn’t know.

Maybe we can say that by renaming the Evil One, Rebbe Nachman taught us something amazingly unique about faith. We must use our imagination to believe. We have to paint pictures in our minds and hearts and dream with certainty. Believing in Moshiach, in world peace, and in our personal salvation seems impossible. So does believing in the seven holy guests. You know the Talmud tells us that Hashem taught Moses on Sinai a number of leniencies in the laws of Sukkah, where we imagine walls to exist in our sukkah that actually don’t. The bottom line is that with mere cerebral faith, our observance is dry  and uninspiring. It’s incumbent upon us to see past what we can understand and believe in our imagination as if it is reality. Because once we do, it will be the reality.

Everything the Rebbe taught can be summarized in two words – simple faith. He foresaw the atheism (or maybe cynicism)  that was starting to spread and he taught like no other to believe in ones self, believe in the tzaddikim and believe in Hashem. To me it’s no coincidence that he passed away on Sukkos, a holiday that takes a lot of imaginary-type, simple faith to connect to. He actually passed on the fourth day of sukkos, the day the sefira of Netzach shines through. The Arizal taught that prophesy flows through the sefiros of Netzach and Hod. Maybe because a prophet needs a good measure of simple faith and imagination to prophesy? Nachman actually has the same numerical value  as Netzach (148). One might say that the Rebbe’s main mission was to get an increasingly cynical nation to believe in a reality that exists only through the power of imagination. Even his most famous lesson charges the reader to work on finding the good points in everyone and imagining that good point to be their essence, (because it really is). And what about his famous advice of hisbodedus? Again, charging his devout followers to get away from all the noise of heresy in the marketplace and imagine oneself sitting and talking directly to God. Did you know that the Rebbe said of himself, “I am a river that purifies all stains” (Chayei Moharan 332). Do you believe it? Well he knew he would have contenders who would dismiss all his extraordinary statements. He even said, (Chayei Moharan 262) ‘There really is no middle road here. Either I am what all my opponents say against me, or I really am a True Tzaddik that I claim to be!’ You see, the Rebbe’s essence doesn’t allow for a middle road. He taught only simple faith, without sophistication; Just allowing the imagination take you to another dimension. This is what Sukkos is about too, living in the clouds. 

May we all merit that in the zchus of this magical holiday, and in the zchus of a Rebbe who was “more novel than all before him” (Chayei Moharan 247), we can let go of our coolness and fears and be free to imagine a world that we know nothing about, a world more beautiful and warm than anything we every knew. Because we can’t know it, we can only imagine it. 

לעילוי נשמת הצדיק האמיתי, רבינו נחמן בן פיגע, זיעועכ״א

Still thinking about Uman

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They say that everything goes after the beginning (הכל הולך אחר הראש), so even though most people are preoccupied with Yom Kippur thoughts today, my mind is still by the Rebbe.

When I was growing up I found that the more cynical and sarcastic I would be, the more people would like me. I was daring and witty so I ended up getting all the laughs.

For some reason, after my first Rosh Hashana in Uman, the first thing I started working on was minimizing my cynicism. I prayed for help to adjust my personality a bit and find more hope in life and in people.

After this epic Rosh Hashana, I realized that even for the biggest naysayers, cynicism is absolutely absent in Uman. Rebbe Nachman was so hopeful! Belief was so real to him that in his presence, it’s so hard to see things in a negative light.

That light of hope is so healing that we feel so safe to share and be vulnerable in his presence. It’s almost as if everything is ok, no matter what, and we want to test the waters to see if EVEN WE, with all our mess ups, are acceptable and loveable.

Of course, it goes without saying, that this is how Hashem sees us. (The Tzaddikim see with Hashem’s eyes). His eyes only see good. כי מדי דברי בו זכור אזכרנו. Only good, only loving.

Please God we should see ourselves, our loved ones and everyone in this light. End the cynicism and live a life of hope. The real life. The good life.

 

גמר חתימה טובה מאד מאד!

 

Processing Uman Rosh Hashana 2019

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Shlomo Katz once said over that years back at a certain musical event Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Bob Dylan were participants of a question and answer forum. The Master of Ceremonies asked Shlomo first, “What would be your dream come true”? Shlomo said “To meet every person in the world”. At that point Dylan piped up, saying “That would be my worst nightmare”.

Why did Shlomo Carlebach want to meet everyone he possibly could? I think it’s because he believed, with his deepest depths, that every single human-being on Earth has a unique aspect of God to reveal that no one else possibly can. Only I can bring out what I’m meant to, and only you can uncover the facet of God that you’re meant to. If that’s the case, then Shlomo wanted to see every face of God that’s out there. After all, we’re meant to attach ourselves to God, (וּלְדָבְקָה בוֹ), so wouldn’t we want to see as many angles of His presence as possible? That would certainly make the connection more relatable and easier.

On the other hand, with all his poetry, coolness and musical pioneering, Bob Dylan was small minded. He saw people as a burden and a nuisance to his chill, so he couldn’t imagine a worse idea than Shlomo’s fairytale dream.

Everyone who’s been to Uman will testify that there’s something totally unique about the Rosh Hashana experience there. Many say the brotherly love is on a level that can’t be matched. But it’s not just a coincidence. Rebbe Nachman told his followers to never stop reviewing Azamra (Torah 282), in which he teaches to search out and hunt for the good points in yourself and in others. The Rebbe himself was the master of this quality. He was always able to see the good. (Is it a wonder that he wanted everyone by him on Rosh Hashana, when we’re all being judged? With his ability to see the good in others, it’s only fair for Hashem to see that same good and judge us favorably). But this skill that the Rebbe developed is absolutely contagious in Uman. For some odd reason, we travel to one of the crummiest places in the world and we’re suddenly able to see the good in one another like never before. No one is ‘better than’ and everyone belongs, no matter what he looks like, where he’s from and what he did in the past. Finally finally, we can see each other with the Rebbe’s holy eyes, the eyes of Hashem Himself. What better day, the first day of the year, could there be to start anew and see ourselves and others as the one-of-a-kind Godly beings that we truly are?

Don’t stop after step one

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Thank God Rebbe Nachman’s advice to practice hisbodedus daily is heeded by many people worldwide.  I don’t like to be a stickler but can I suggest that we’ve been missing a key part of the formula?

Let’s see the text (Tinyana 25):

“וְיִזָּהֵר מְאֹד לְהַרְגִּיל עַצְמוֹ לְהַתְמִיד בָּזֶה מִדֵּי יוֹם בְּיוֹם שָׁעָה מְיֻחֶדֶת כַּנַּ”ל. וּשְׁאָר כָּל הַיּוֹם יִהְיֶה בְּשִׂמְחָה”

“One should be very careful to accustom himself to practicing [hisbodedus] consistently, designating an hour every day for it. And the rest of the day he should be happy“.

What happened to the second part? “And the rest of the day he should be happy”. When we finish our daily session with Hashem, there’s nothing to worry about anymore. He’s got our back. We need to stop going around moaning and groaning still about how hard everything is. That’s (partly) what hisbodedus is for. Let it all out there and then after, feel the relief and trust that the boss will take care of His part.

The truth is, the Rebbe writes that one can actually determine if he truly let go and opened his heart to Hashem based on his feelings afterwards. If he doesn’t feel happy, maybe his broken heart wasn’t what he thought it was? (Sichos Haran 45)

.אחר לב נשבר בא שמחה, וזה סימן, אם היה לו לב נשבר כשבא אחר כך לשמחה

There are so many benefits to practicing this type of unique prayer, but what could be better than feeling happy all the time? It’s like everything else in life, the more we believe it, the more it affects us. If we truly believed that we just finished entreating the most loving King of the Universe, who wants nothing else but to help us grow and succeed, then we must follow through after it with a real feeling of comfort, ease and simple happiness.

 

Hashem, help us make the time to talk real to You. Put the rights words in our mouth and open up our hearts of stone. Lead us deeper and deeper into our minds and souls, so we can tear through our fakeness and shallowness. We’re sitting here anyways, help us be real! Help us believe in You all the way. Help us believe that You truly hear our voices calling You. Let us break down and cry to You, like a child to their father. Then lift us up and help us trust that You will take care of the rest. All we can do is call out, so help us talk the truth. We know that if we can do it, nothing feels better. You got this! There’s nothing left for us to do, but sing and dance all day long!