Goody goody

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“…And this is the aspect of Yosef Hatzaddik (Joseph), of whom it says, ‘איש אשר רוח אלקים בו’ (‘A man who possesses the spirit of God within him’). Because Yosef is the type of tzaddik that can go down to the lowest places and extract souls from the dungeons. Yosef himself also fell to those dark places, as it says ‘לעבד נמכר יוסף’ (‘Joseph was sold as a slave’). Slavery is the aspect of sadness, (as we learned in another place) which comes from the poison of the snake, which is an aspect of Ham, the forefather of Egypt, who was cursed to be a slave of slaves. Yosef went through all that. He was in jail for many years and he had gigantic challenges with lust, which comes from sadness. But precisely because he went through those challenging times and was able to hold one to his faith, he merited to attain additional holiness. And that’s why he has the power to reverse everything to GOOD; to reverse pain and suffering into joy. This is what Rachel prophesied when Joseph was born. She said ‘אסף אלקים את חרפתי’,  ‘Hashem collected (אסף) my disgrace’. Because that’s Yosef. He can go through all the disgraces and remove them. And then Rachel said, ‘יוסף ה’ לי בן אחר’ ‘Hashem should add (יוסף) to me another son’. Because not only does Yosef erase the disgrace. He can do even more (יוסף); He can turn it all into GOOD”.  (Hilchos Hoda’ah 6:32)

“Joseph was a seventeen year old shepherd” Says Reb Nosson, (Hashkamas Haboker 4:16), “A shepherd is what we call the leaders of the generation. He was the greatest of his generation. And he was seventeen, which has the numerical value of טוב (GOOD). Because Yosef was good to everyone and was able to bring everyone closer to God. He was able to see the good in the lowest people”.

This is the power of the real tzaddikim. They don’t put us down. They aren’t looking for the ‘elite students’, whatever that is (if it even exists?) They are masters of finding the good. No matter what adversity they go through, they pray and pray to see the good. They believe so strongly that Hashem is perfectly good that they won’t entertain the thought that their circumstance can be bad. Instead they hope endlessly and profusely to see the good. The same is true with how they interact with others. They only try to find the good. They’re not foolish. They know that the low people have bad traits. But they also know that their eyes should only be used to see good. It’s not always easy. But they won’t yield until they can find something good and bring the lowly person back to Hashem.

As I was reading through the story of Yosef this year, it struck me again how often the torah uses the word ויהי (and it was) in the story. That word is found in the story an abnormal amount of times. The Talmud in Megilla (10b) says that the Torah uses the word ויהי to precede a difficult time. I decided to count it up. From Chapter 39, when it says ‘ויוסף הורד מצרימה’ (‘and Joseph was brought down to Egypt’), the Torah writes the word ויהי a total of 17 times till the end of the parsha, which is just when things start to turn around. As Reb Nosson said above, 17 has the numerical value of טוב (GOOD). This is a beautiful clue the Torah is dropping us to show how even in the darkest, scariest time of his life, Joseph doesn’t stop clinging to Hashem and turning everything into good.

No doubt, this type of faith and ability to turn everything into good is really hard to do. Most of us sink further and further away from Hashem – and positive thoughts – when we experience adversity. But Breslov Torah teaches that we need to trust in the tzaddik. He did it, he can do it, and if we believe in him, attach ourselves to him and his ability to find the good, then we’ve admitted that there is a possibility of good, even in the adversity. This is how we can slowly grow to see more and more good in our lives. This is the greatest investment. The more we see good, the better life gets – no matter what position we are in. It’s worth the work. Good luck!

 

Finding the space

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Sometimes the stress of life, specifically in hard times, can become so intolerable that it feels like our whole world is crumbling before us. They say “when it rains, it pours”. It’s almost like the side of evil is going for the knockout punch. He sees us floundering, with very little resolve or hope, so he brings an onslaught of – maybe even small – inconveniences or nuisances to finish us off in a final blow.

What do you do when it seems like everything is going wrong?

King David sang (Psalms 4:2) “בצר הרחבת לי”, “You gave me space in my pain”. צר literally means narrow. So David was saying something like, I was narrow-minded, and only thinking about my pain and struggles. It seemed that everywhere I turned, there were more obstacles and suffering. My world was caving-in on me. But You, Hashem, gave me space, even in that constricted mindset.

Reb Nosson says on that verse (Kilei B’heima 4:8) that in every state of pain or suffering, our minds can find a space that’s free of the pain. We need to search for those spaces of ease when we’re feeling squashed by the stress around us.

Reb Nosson suggests that the space can simply be recognizing the good that Hashem gave us until now. I hate to say this, but in my inferior opinion, I think that his suggestion is for someone on a high level. When my world is crumbling, I find it very difficult to be thankful for the good in my life. My narrow-mindedness doesn’t really allow me to focus on the good of the past. I need to get back my equilibrium before I can start being thankful. I find that breathing can be very helpful. I’m not even talking about fancy meditation and not even necessarily following my breath. Just putting my phone away and breathing quietly for a few minutes, maybe with my eyes closed; maybe not, gives me some space. When I find myself too worked up to even breathe, I find it can even be helpful to merely recognize that I’m flooded with emotion. Just noticing that I’m overwhelmed makes me feel a bit less overwhelmed. Maybe even say something like, “I’m overwhelmed. I feel like the whole world is against me. Everywhere I turn, I get more and more stressed”. But even without using words, just observing the feeling is a space that’s free of the feeling. When things are so tough, we tend to think that we need an enormous miracle to get out of it, but it usually doesn’t take that much to release the pressure.

This is why when Jacob sent the gift of many animals to Esau, he left a space between each herd. Rashi says it was to make the gift look very big, but Reb Nosson adds that symbolically, it was to show that in every time of struggle (like the one Jacob was having with Esau), there is a space that’s free of struggle. Our job is simply to find it. It’s not easy, but it’s simple and it makes all the difference. Good luck!

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!

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!

Keep going

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~ The following is based on a lesson from Rabbi Leibish Hundert.

The Mishna Brura writes, (O”C 125:5): “It says in the Sefer Heichalos (an early Kabbalistic work), ‘[Hashem says to the Heavenly angels], You should be blessed if you go and tell my children what I do when they sanctify My name and say קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ. Go teach them that [when saying it] they should raise their eyes up to the skies and lift up their bodies to Me. Because no pleasure I have in this world compares to the moment that their eyes look into my eyes, and my eyes in theirs. At that moment I grab the image of [their grandfather] Jacob on the Holy Throne, and I hug it and kiss it. Then I remember their merits and hasten their redemption“.

What is קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ? Kadosh means separate, or utterly unique. The commentators say that the idea of repeating it three times symbolizes its eternal continuum. So what we’re saying is that Hashem is totally without equal. But more, is that the recognition that He is beyond our comprehension is considered looking into Hashems’ eyes.

The difference between seeing and hearing is that when you see something you see all of it, but when you hear something it’s sequential. You need to keep on hearing and hearing to capture something. There is one exception. Looking into another’s eyes. When you look into someone’s eyes, it’s forever…

When the Mishna (Shabbos 73b) counts the 39 primary prohibitions of labor on shabbos, it lists planting and then plowing. The Talmud asks, doesn’t one plow before he plants? It answers that the author of the Mishna lived in the Land of Israel. In Israel, since the earth is hard and rock-like, one had to plow, plant and then plow again to cover the seeds. In Israel one has to do a second act of covering the seeds. What this means, allegorically, is that covering up is a profound sense of letting go. You thought you plowed and seeded and you’re done, but then Israel requires you to do it again.  It’s hard in Israel. Israel makes you do things again and again (not just going to the משרד הפנים) and that builds the relationship. קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ – again and again, looking into His eternal eyes!

You know, if you look at the blessings that Isaac gave Jacob and Esau, they both got the same blessing! They both were blessed with rain and dew. The difference is that in Esau’s blessing, he gets it once and he’s set, but Jacob gets his flow and then he has to ask again to get it (Rashi says on the vav of וְיִתֶּן לְךָ, that יתן ויחזור ויתן. That’s the blessing, not the rain and dew, but the relationship. To keep and asking and getting, asking and getting, again and again.

This could be what Rebbe Nachman means in Torah 6 that we need to do Teshuva al Hateshuva, we need to constantly be in a state of longing. The tzaddik never stops searching for Hashem, אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ again and again. The more he knows the more he understands that he knows nothing. Hisbodedus every day! Never giving up. Hashem isn’t as interested in one good prayer as he is a series of prayers. Again and again!

!קַוֵּה אֶל יְהוָה חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּה אֶל יְהוָה

 

Tadasana

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“Sometimes someone falls into a rut. And this time the rut is really really low, God forbid…And he starts having doubts and negative thoughts. Some of his thoughts even seem bizarre and dizzying. He’s constantly confused. Very confused (בִלְבּוּלִים רַבִּים)! Even though in this dark place it seems absolutely impossible to find Hashem, he still has some hope if he seeks out and looks for Hashem from that place. [How does he do that? How can he find Hashem in such a slump. By] asking ‘אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ’, ‘Where are You Hashem’? The farther he feels from Hashem, the more he should express his pain and search for Hashem even more. [‘Where are You now Hashem? Look how far I’ve fallen now, can You possibly be here with me?’]. Through this method of longing and yearning for Hashem, recognizing how far one is from Him, one can actually rise out of this pit with a perfect ascent, because the aspect of אַיֵּה is exceedingly Holy and powerful”. (Meshivas Nefesh 30)

Rebbe Nachman urged his followers to live with this teaching; To constantly review it and to always ask אַיֵּה. In fact, even the greatest tzaddikim never stop asking אַיֵּה. The more they learn and ascend, the more they feel, in a sense, humbled and distant from Hashem. They ask אַיֵּה again and again. ‘Where are You now? I thought I knew where You were but now I realize that I didn’t know anything at all’.

I want to point out something very obvious from this teaching. The Rebbe talks about בִלְבּוּלִים, the uneasy feeling of confusion. It’s not uncommon these days to feel this feeling very strongly. Life moves really fast nowadays and there are so many expectations that we have from ourselves and that others have from us. We can literally walk around feeling drained from an overload of disorder and perplexity.

In Psalms 86, King David says  יַחֵד לְבָבִי לְיִרְאָה שְׁמֶךָ,  ‘Align my heart to be in awe of You’. The heart is the place of our thoughts (Torah 49). This is a cry to Hashem to straighten us out. Sometimes we just want to get to zero! Just put me back together. “Align us”, Hashem. There are so many בִלְבּוּלִים nowadays. We can’t do it without You. Unbend us, help us breathe; Help us think straight at least. יַחֵד לְבָבִי – Turn my many hearts into one heart, your heart!

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Back to the basics

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There is a popular Breslov book called השתפכות הנפש. It’s a collection of teachings from the writings of Rebbe Nachman and Reb Nosson on the topic of prayer, authored by Alter Tepliker, a fourth generation Breslover chassid.

The book starts off with a rather lengthy introduction in which he demonstrates how prayer, specifically hisbodedus (the practice of setting aside time for improvisational personal prayer in our mother tongue) was a foundational practice used by all of our forefathers and ancestry throughout Jewish history.

I found it interesting that, after the introduction, the author starts off the body of the book with the following piece from Tinyana 73:

“Whoever wants to be worthy of תשובה (coming back to Hashem), should recite Psalms frequently, because reciting Psalms is מסוגל (propitious) for returning to Hashem”. 

In that piece Rebbe Nachman teaches how King David prophetically embedded Psalms  to the 49 gates of תשובה, so that all the 12 tribes, whose names total 49 letters, can enter the proper gate to return to Hashem.

But why start with this lesson? If I wanted to teach about hisbodedus, surely I would find a better lesson to begin with and inspire my readers. Namely, the second lesson he quotes, “Hisbodedus is a great virtue and higher than everything”! Why begin with a lesson about the importance of reciting Psalms?

I think there is a very profound, and layered message that the author might be hinting at by using this lesson as a starting point. Many people think that hisbodedus and personal prayer is some immensely inspiring practice. When we go out to the woods or enter another place of seclusion and talk to Hashem we want it to be esoteric and life changing. We’re always seeking inspiration to sweep us off our feet and give us wings to fly. But it doesn’t always happen. Anyone who practices personal prayer consistently will tell you that it doesn’t always flow and you don’t feel significantly different after every session.

To too many people, reciting Psalms is a chore. “I can’t connect”, “I don’t understand what I’m saying”, or “What does saying these old texts really do for me?” I very much relate to Psalms and I think the main reason why most people don’t relate to them is because there’s this bizarre pressure to recite many of them. It’s like we don’t feel that we’ve accomplished anything if we didn’t finish our quota, or a significant amount. We need to reframe and put our utmost attention into the few lines we say. Every word is stuffed with holiness, like an overpacked suitcase. If we don’t understand the words, there are available translations in every language possible. Stop trying to finish Psalms and allow yourself to relate in the most simple way to the deepest and simplest words of prayer ever written. Maybe it’s not the most glorious thing to do, maybe it’s hard to focus on but we must slow it down significantly and get real with it. Tehillim is infused with opportunities for תשובה. King David, in his unfathomable greatness, had every one of us in mind when he drew these words down from Heaven, and his ultimate purpose was to draw us back to Heaven.

Try it again…Slow down…Wake yourself up and come back to Him. He’s waiting for you to call…

 

Always more

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Korach had completely neutralized his bodily desires. As one of the Levites that carried the holy ark, he was on such a spiritual level that he had absolutely no appetite for lusts and animalistic passion. This led him to believe, says Reb Nosson (Hilchos Shiluach Hakan 4), that he was perfect. He couldn’t understand why he needed to subjugate himself to leaders if he had attained such spiritual heights.

What he failed to recognize is that there are infinite levels of growth and connection to the Divine. It’s not game over when one has fixed his body alone. There are levels upon levels of sweetening the judgements that exist for those special individuals who soar at spiritual heights. Korach needed Moses to teach him and lead him higher, but his ego stopped his ascent.

How in the world is this relevant to us, who are nowhere near perfect? We, who struggle, every moment with bodily lusts and cravings – What can we learn from Korach’s mistake?

The truth is we make the same mistake all the time, because we think that on our low level, we can never rise up and reach new heights. By giving up on ourselves, we are essentially believing that Teshuva is not available for someone as bad as we are. The opposite is really true. The farther we are from Hashem, the greater glory He gets from our Teshuva. We too must believe that no matter how many times we tried, we can still be successful and reach places we’ve never been.

This is the job of the tzaddik. He encourages the sinners that there is still hope and they can certainly come back to Hashem, and he challenges the great ones to keep striving because they haven’t seen nothin’ yet. The tzaddik believes this with all his heart. He believes that the lowly Jews are the most precious jewels that fell in the dirt. And he believes that even on his awesome level, he essentially knows nothing.

When Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld was on his deathbed, his last words to his children were מער, בעסער, גרעסער – more, better, bigger. Greatness is always available. Always available.

 

This is how it is, or is it?

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Although the intellect of a child is typically much weaker than that of an adult, the opposite is true when it comes to his imagination. We’ve all seen how powerful a child’s imagination can be. They literally believe their thoughts to be an alternate reality.

In Tinyana 8, Rebbe Nachman says that the key ingredient to true faith is a clear imagination. The intellect is limited by its knowledge. Faith only starts where the intellect can no longer go. By means of a pure imagination we can soar to heights of faith and come close to our Creator.

So often in our life we’re faced with trying situations where we feel stuck. We don’t believe that we can ever break out of the cycle that we find ourselves in. Whether it’s a financial hole, a substance addiction or a bad job, we rack our brains exploring all the options to free ourselves, but we’re left with that dejected feeling of “the same old me”. I think this despondence comes from the opposite of imagination; cynicism. When we see a child lost is his imagination, it’s comical to us. We think it’s ridiculous that the child can believe in something that we can’t understand. We’re too limited by our intellect. Our ego doesn’t allow us to entertain something we don’t know exists. But the sweet child is in touch with a force that catapults him to another world. He imagines. He believes.

The Rebbe goes on to say that the role of the true tzaddik is to refine our imagination. With his ruach hakodesh (Divine Spirit), he teaches us about faith and cultivates our imaginative faculty.

Says Reb Nosson (Hilchos K’vod Rabo 3:6), this is what’s so bitter about the destruction of our Holy Temple. When the temple stood, there was a great spirit of prophecy. The tzaddikim drew down that Divine spirit and blew into our souls words of optimism that refined our imagination and enhanced our faith.

How sad that with so few true tzaddikim left, we feel stuck in a one dimensional world of repetition. Our only hope is to soak up their holy words and open our minds to another reality – The space of imagination, the world of faith.

 

Living in the now

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Life can be a rollercoaster. They say that when it rains, it pours. I notice that when the obstacles and challenges pile up, my thoughts trip me up. I feel like I wanna give up and I linger in the negativity for too long.

There is an interesting Mishna in Avos (5:11) which talks about the four types of temperaments that people have. Some people are easily angered, while others are slow to anger. Some are easily appeased after they get angry and others are very hard to appease.

I feel like when we vacillate in the negative thoughts, we’re acting like that guy in a bad mood who is just impossible to appease. It’s almost like the stubborn angry guy wants to simmer in his anger because he believes that he deserves to be angry for a long time, based on what happened to him. If he allows himself to feel better, then the bad cards he was dealt will be under-appreciated. But why would we want to feel bad for longer? Wouldn’t we feel better if we got over it? It’s obviously a trap that our mind (aka the other side) plays on us. It attempts to convince us that we’ll feel better if we brew in our anger, and the ego is easily fooled by this trick.

In Shivchei Haran, a small book written by Reb Nosson about the greatness of Rebbe Nachman, it talks about the Rebbe’s struggles in serving Hashem.

“He would start every day fresh. Meaning, sometimes when he fell from his [earlier] levels, he wouldn’t give up. He just said, ‘I’ll start now as if I never served Hashem before in my life. I’m just starting now to serve Him for the first time’. So it was every time. He always started over. He was accustomed to starting anew many times a day! (אות ו)

This level absolutely amazes me. That is so difficult to do! It takes such mental toughness to just start again, like you never started before and for the first time.

I always admired the professional athletes who can access this short term memory. When a pitcher takes the mound and gives up two home runs in a row to the first two batters, but then settles down and pitches lights out for the rest of the game, that is impressive. Or when a player is in a must-win game and has a poor first half, but then comes out in the second half and dominates, it shows that he was able to just hit the refresh button. It’s worth practicing. So much of why we get down and stay down is because we give too much credence to our thinking. We can easily be more like Rebbe Nachman and let go of trying to fix the past. We gotta focus on the now and let the good positive feelings that naturally flow from Hashem penetrate and fill our minds, so we can move forward happily again.

Please Hashem help us let go of our negative thoughts. Please fill our minds with positivity and quiet our egos, so we can feel Your presence and not linger in our misery. Amen!