Renewal, at its core


The holy Zohar characterizes Teshuva as “Throwing something back to the place where it was taken”.  Just like if a thief wants to make amends, he must return that which he took to its rightful owner, so too one who sins and desires to repent, must return that which he stole to its original place. Says Rebbe Nachman, our original place is called the emanation of “Chokhmah” (Wisdom). It’s the root of everything, as it says (Psalms 104) “כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ”, Hashem created everything with wisdom.

The truth is that there is an even higher emanation, called Keter, but that emanation is so elevated that it’s unknowable to Humans. Another name for Keter is Ayin, because as far as we humans can comprehend, it’s nothing to us. It’s just too high for our intellect to fathom. That leaves us with Chokhmah as the root of everything, as King Solomon wrote, “הַחָכְמָה תְּחַיֶּה בְעָלֶיהָ”, Chokhmah gives life to all those who possess it.

The Rebbe warns us to be careful from extraneous wisdoms, which impede our ability to connect to our core, Divine wisdom. These unnecessary wisdoms, disturb us from that connection and renewal of Teshuva. This, he says, is the evil of פַּרְעֹה, who disturbs and interrupts the connection of holiness. Likes פַּרְעֹה said, “לָמָּה…תַּפְרִיעוּ אֶת הָעָם”, why are you disturbing the people? The words פַּרְעֹה and תַּפְרִיעוּ have the same root, because the evil in the world that tries to interrupt us from connection (think cell phones😱) is Pharaoh’s evil.

But it’s not enough to merely guard oneself from extraneous intellect. We need to renew our intellect all the time. How do we do that? Says the Rebbe, through sleep a person renews his mind and soul.


When we sleep, our souls rise and travel to Chokhmah, the core of creation. This is the place where the world is recreating all the time. In order to renew our minds, and serve Hashem with a fresh perspective, we need to renew in the place of Chokhmah too.

The way that the soul travels to Chokhmah is with faith (the emanation of Malchus). Faith only starts at the point where wisdom can no longer comprehend. So when we go to sleep, and our minds are inactive, faith is what elevates our soul to a Divine state of evolving, renewing Wisdom. Even the little ounce of faith one has by going to sleep and relying on the Creator to wake him the next day propels the soul to renew at its core.

Of course, says Reb Nosson, this is why we proclaim the Shema Yisrael before we retire at night. We want to strengthen our faith, so that Malchus can escort our souls to Chokhmah.

Rebbe Nachman brings two other examples of sleep, that rejuvenates our minds/souls, so they can feel renewed again. The first type of sleep is learning the simple, plain meaning of the Torah. The Zohar (III. 244b) calls the study of Mishna and Talmud an aspect of sleep, in comparison to the mysteries of Kabbalah.  This is because Kabbalah explores the deepest insights of the Torah and reveals how Hashem can be found in every aspect of creation. On the surface of the Mishna and Talmud one only see laws, anecdotes and lessons for daily living. So Mishna is an aspect of Malchus (or faith) in comparison to Kabbalah, which corresponds to Chokhmah. One exhibits faith when delving into the intricacies of the law, because it’s not readily apparent how he is understanding the Creator in a deeper way.

The other type of sleep the Rebbe teaches about is doing business honestly, מַשָּׂא וּמַתָּן בֶּאֱמוּנָה.  When we act fairly in business, our minds enter faith and find renewal there. We cannot understand, with our intellect, how we are ultimately benefitting when we give up on profit that could have easily been ours had we not acted honestly. But with faith, we believe that we will get whatever is due us. That act of faith allows the renewal of our minds and souls.

Faith is what drives us to renew, at our core and it’s not only available for the greatest Tzaddikim. By reciting the Shema before we retire, learning the Torah in its plain meaning or acting honestly in our business dealings, we will renew, connecting to the ever-changing world in a deeper, truer way.




Going in circles together


The other day I was praying and I said, “Hashem, help me pray to you. Help me say the words I need to say”. Although I was freestylin’, I realized these are similar to the words from Psalms that we say everyday in the Amida prayer, “אֲדֹנָי שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ” (My Master open my lips, and my mouth will speak your praises).

It got me thinking: Here I am, asking Hashem to help me find the words to pray to Him, so that He could answer my prayers with whatever I’m asking for. So in essence, it would be like Hashem putting words of prayer in my mouth, so that He can hear those words (really His words) and give me what I requested.

One could ask, why? Why do we even need to ask if it’s His words? It’s like He’s asking Himself? But I don’t want to go there now. Not for this article.

Let’s strengthen the question.

In Hishtapchus Hanefesh 93, (a collection of excerpts from the writings of Rebbe Nachman and Reb Nosson), the author asks as follows: How can one ask Hashem to draw him close to the service of God, when the Talmud (Berachos 33b) says that “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for Fear of Heaven”?

The answer, he says, is that the essence of our free choice – namely to fear Heaven – is  choosing to pray (a lot) for help to fear Heaven. The Talmud says (Kiddushin 30b) that “Every day the evil one over-powers us, and if Hashem doesn’t help us, we would fall prey to his evil”. We can’t do it alone. We need Hashem to help us. Yes, we have free choice, but that’s just a choice to ask Him for His help. When we do, He’s fighting the battle.

Take it one step further, when we ask Hashem to put the words in our mouths. Not only are we not fighting the battle, not only are we not praying with our own words to Hashem, but we’re asking Hashem to put the words in our mouth, so He can hear our prayers and fight the battles for us. Instead of feeling small, and asking why does He go through all the hassle, think about the following: Hashem wants our success so much that He is willing to do (almost) anything to bring it about. Yes it’s kind of a circle, going from Him to Himself, but He wants our minimal involvement. So what that we’re not hitting the home-run, and we’re just giving the batter his bat. So what? He wants us to give him His bat. Give it to him. Give him the bat! Let him knock it out of the park. Even the bat boy celebrates the game winner.




Uman recovery 101

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This is how I feel today. Totally strung out! Uman Rosh Hashana was so uplifting and memorable, I hope to write about it more over the next month. But today, after a week of singing and dancing with almost no sleep, my body is on strike, my mind is foggy and my heart is closed.

But you know what? I’m not worried.

Rebbe Nachman says (Torah 6) “Whoever wants to come back to Hashem, has to be a בקי בהלכה (an expert navigator), where nothing in the world can make him fall or distance him, whether he’s feeling high or low. Because even in those low places, Hashem can still be found”.

In the Maariv prayer, we ask Hashem והסר שטן מלפנינו ומאחרינו (remove the Satan from before us and from behind us). The Satan, of course, stands in the way of us performing mitzvos, so we ask Hashem to “remove him from before us”, so that we can pass thru and perform the mitzvah. But what’s the meaning of the Satan behind us? It’s equally important to know that after you come close to Hashem, you will experience a fall. This time the Satan strikes from behind, after the mitzvah, making you regret it, or question if you really benefitted at all from the experience.

The solution is to just sit with it. Today’s “Recovery Day”. Yes, it’s the ten days of Teshuva and we want to take advantage of this opportune time to connect, but don’t crack under the pressure and feel bad about yourself. This low is also part of the equation. Don’t be phased by the numbness. Be a בקי בהלכה and wait happily until the next good wave.

<> on May 15, 2015 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The courage to have faith


"עַל כֵּן יַעֲזָב אִישׁ אֶת אָבִיו וְאֶת אִמּוֹ, וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד"
So therefore, a man should leave his father and mother and 
cling to his wife; and they will be as one flesh

In Giluach 4:7, Reb Nosson explains this famous verse allegorically: His father and mother are the kabbalistic emanations of wisdom. Father represents חכמה, or knowledge, and mother represents בינה, or understanding. A person needs to abandon all static, intellectual exercises and cleave only to his wife, who represents the aspect of holy faith. Because the essential revelation of the truest truth (עִקַּר הִתְגַּלּוּת אֲמִתַּת הָאֱמֶת), is when ‘they will be as one flesh,’ when truth and faith unite in the most complete way.

Rabbi Leibish Hundert made a brilliant inference here in Reb Nosson’s words. “Exercising only one’s intellectual faculty is akin to returning to one’s father and mother, as opposed to the daring and less certain act of creating one’s own life with his wife, who represents faith. All of the intellectual constructions out there (חכמות) are at the end of the day static formulations within which the real self can hide and avoid the challenge of an experiential growth and dynamism found in a mysterious relationship with the Divine. The moment one hides is the moment where he lacks faith in himself. It is in that moment of hiding that the fancy constructions become more important than the journey of the self, because one has lost faith that one’s journey is of significant importance. On the other hand, making faith an integral part of one’s cognition of Torah ideas, (which is what Reb Nosson is suggesting above), will lend the crucial dimension of dynamism to one’s life of religious growth, relinquishing one’s ownership of the idea and allowing it to be alive and change, as in a living relationship with a spouse”.

It’s scary to be unique and creative, especially for an observant Jew, who’s used to following a script for everything. It’s frightening to proceed based on just faith. But that’s why everything comes down to just believing, וְצַדִּיק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִחְיֶה. All Hashem wants is for us to leave our comfort zone and make a small move towards him. And then we can reach the highest places, וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד.


Bigger than you know

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I look so small against those tall trees, don’t I?

Let me paraphrase a lesson from Reb Nosson (Pikadon 5:7) “If a person would believe that their soul is very, very high, surely they would never commit a single sin. You see there are three parts of Emunas Chachamim (faith in the sages) that are inseparable. First, we must have faith in the true Tzaddikim. Second, we must believe in our friends and speak to them about the awe of Heaven. And, most importantly, we must strengthen ourselves and overcome every obstacle to believe in oneself. That is, to believe that even one’s small achievements in his Divine service, and one’s study of Torah are very precious to Hashem. And particularly, believing that coming close to the Tzaddikim and believing in them, is in and of itself very, very precious to Hashem. Because even if one has faith in Hashem and in the Tzaddikim and in one’s friends but he doesn’t believe in himself, meaning he doesn’t believe that his faith in the Tzaddikim is very, very valuable, this too is a flaw in one’s Emunas Chachamim, and in a certain way, it is the most severe blemish of all. This spiritual disease is found today among many who have begun the path of Divine service, connecting with true Sages. They believe that their contemporaries are righteous, but they say, ‘how does that help me? I’m not on their level. I am full of sins’. And through this thinking, they fall, becoming completely estranged from observance…until many of them become outspoken opponents”.

You know, what impresses me most about the stories told of Tzaddikim is their unusually developed sensitivities and how much significance they place on what seems like small things. But, ironically, I have a hard time giving myself credit for the small things I do. Reb Nosson says here that simply believing in Tzaddikim is a tremendously great feat in the eyes of Hashem. Just believing in the greatness of other people is enormously precious to Him.

So I have to admit, I really do have faith in Tzaddikim. So now, when I see how tall the trees are, I think maybe I’m not so small in that pic after all?!


Flying with the tzaddik


Rebbe Nachman had a vision after lighting the first candle of Chanukah, December 21st, 1808. A guest entered the house of a homeowner and asked him some questions. They continued speaking until they discussed matters of the heart. The homeowner began to pine and long greatly, asking the guest, “how can a person reach and attain any matter of holiness”? The guest said to him, “I will teach you how”. The homeowner was shocked, and began to wonder: Perhaps this is not a human being at all? But then he observed more and saw that the guest was speaking with him in the way of a human being. Immediately the homeowner’s faith became strengthened to believe in the guest. [Later, the guest said] I must leave here now. The homeowner asked him, “how far should I accompany you”? The guest answered, “until after the doorpost”. The homeowner began to think, “How can I go outside with him? For now we are together among others, but if I leave with him alone, who knows who he is [or what he will do to me]”? The homeowner told the guest, “I am afraid to leave with you alone”. The guest answered him, “If I can teach you like this even now, then no matter what I wish to do with you, no one can stop me. So the homeowner exited the doorway with him. The guest grabbed him and began to fly with him. Meanwhile, the homeowner noticed that he was back in his home again. And he couldn’t believe that he was talking with people, eating and drinking, like the way of the world. Then he looked, and behold, he was flying as before. Then again he was in his home, and again he was flying…And the homeowner was perplexed how sometimes he was here and sometimes there. He wanted to discuss this with other people, but nobody would believe him. He asked the guest, “how can this be”? The guest answered him, “When you agreed to go with me, I took your neshamah and gave it a garment from the Lower Garden of Eden, but your nefesh and ru’ach remained with you. When you connect your thoughts there, you are there, and you bring a ray from me to you, and when you return here, then you’re back here. (paraphrased from Chayei Moharan 85).

It goes without saying that every word of Rebbe Nachman’s stories have multiple meanings. I don’t claim to know what those meanings are, but I just want to highlight a few thoughts about binding ones self to the tzaddik, which might be what this story is about. The homeowner asks, “how can a person reach and attain any matter of holiness”? That’s a very vulnerable and deep question. When we make ourselves vulnerable, we can receive light from places that beforehand were closed-off to us.

Also, we see that the homeowner had doubts, as it says “How can I go outside with him? For now we are together among others, but if I leave with him alone, who knows who he is [or what he will do to me]”? This is so real. We are so afraid to leave our comforts and pursue the truth. We know the truth in our hearts, as the guest shows easily shows him, but we are afraid what will happen to us if we leave our home. What will people say if I’m doing something different? How can I keep it up etc?

Finally, the homeowner is in and out of this world and he feels like he has no one to share the experience with. This limitation of language when believing in Hashem and in the tzaddik is sometimes a difficult reality. You know that you’re sometimes flying with the Rebbe, and then you find yourself other times so mundane. It can be confusing. But as the story ends off, “I don’t know from which world he was from, but he’s surely from a good world…”

The joy of longing

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Is there an end in sight to all of our struggling?
In Torah 72, Rebbe Nachman teaches thought even a complete victory over the physical and emotional appetites of the body doesn’t lead a person to a static state. In fact, the prior stage of victory over ones physicality is but an initiation into an infinite struggle and paradoxical life of oneness with the Divine, while simultaneously struggling to overcome the limitation of each level of awareness to one still higher. So even the greatest tzaddikim still struggle in a more esoteric way.
This never-ending battle sounds kind of depressing. right?
The sense of longing and incompleteness are themselves the greatest pleasure of all. In fact, Reb Nosson identifies the pleasure and delight of Shabbos, (called oneg shabbos) as essentially consisting of a heightened sense of longing (Hilchos Arev 3:7) This is similar to getting to know someone, whereby each new piece of information adds to the formation of a greater sense of the whole of that person, which in turns adds to the attractiveness of the enigma of who the person really is, which begs for ever more profound perceptions of them, ad inifinitum.

So many people associate happiness with attaining the end-goal. “When I finally get ___ , then I’ll be happy”. The truth is quite the opposite. The journey of life and the yearning to reach the goal is the real source of happiness. We associate the word satisfaction with completing something, like being satisfied from a meal. But really the most satisfying pleasures are the ups and downs of the non-static relationship we forge with our Creator. It will never just be bliss, like some might construe, but, thankfully, our souls will always long for more, even when they are already united with His glory.

(gleaned from the writings of Rabbi Leibish Hundert)

The balancing act


“Rav Chisda held a jewel in one hand and a worthless seed in the other hand. The pearl he showed his daughters, but the seed he didn’t show them until they were suffering [from curiosity], and then he showed it to them”. (Shabbos 140b)

Faith in Hashem is the belief that YHVH (God) is the Elohim (Lord). The Holy name YHVH corresponds to the upper worlds and the hiddenness of Hashem, and the Holy name Elohim corresponds to the lower worlds and Hashem’s revealed presence.

In Tinyana 7, Rebbe Nachman teaches that the true tzaddik unites Heaven and earth by developing both his exceptional students and his disheartened disciples. He demonstrates to the outstanding students that, even with all the knowledge they amassed, they still know nothing, and the essence of Hashem is totally hidden from them. But to his floundering pupils he shows how “the entire earth is filled with His glory”. So even in the far away places that they’ve sunk, they can still reveal godliness.  Then, instructs the Rebbe, the tzaddik has to mesh both worlds together, the upper world (of the superior student) and the lower world (of the inferior student), so that the superior students incorporate a measure of the inferior students’ insight and visa versa. Because if the superior student only worships with the insight of “what have I seen”, he might despair of ever developing a relationship with the Creator, thinking that he will never know Him. Conversely, if the inferior student only serves with the insight of “the entire earth is filled with His glory”, he might never strive to develop a deeper relationship with the Creator, because it’s all the same revealed glory anyways.

Hashem is both hidden and revealed. His essence is hidden, but His works are revealed. This life that we struggle through is a balancing act of revealing the hidden, and knowing that the more we reveal, the more hidden He is. Hashem is always showing us one jewel but hiding the other jewel. But that’s ok! It’s not a game that we need to win. It’s just a game that we need to play. One day, in the end of ends, everything will be revealed and the daas (knowledge) will be available to everyone. But until that time, we need to find harmony within this tension by uniting Heaven and earth.

Do you believe in miracles?


Rebbe Nachman said that the reason we’re stuck in exile is due to our lack of faith (Torah 7). But the polls show that an increasing number of Israeli Jews believe in God, so how are we lacking faith? The answer is that we don’t believe in our prayers and we don’t believe in miracles.

In Likutei Eitzos (Emes V’Emunah 4) Reb Nosson says that faith is only found in areas where we lack understanding, because if something is understood, what need is there to have faith in it? But on the other hand how can you know what to have faith in if you don’t understand it? He answers profoundly, based on Torah 7, that faith is dependent on truth. If a person seeks the real truth, he’ll come to faith.

What can you say about prayer and miracles? It’s really hard to believe that my little prayer can make a difference. I know myself and I know my smallness. How could it be that someone as insignificant as me can effect change with my prayers? The answer is that Hashem is simply waiting for your prayer to give you that which you want. A miracle isn’t some far-fetched fantasy that happens once in a lifetime, but rather embedded in the creation is a positive response to our prayers. King David sang “ואמונתך סביבותיך”, your faith encircles you (Psalms 51:17). This means that just like a circle has no edges for one to grab hold of, so too is faith incomprehensible. But it also means that faith, or prayer, surrounds us. The miracles are surrounding us, right there, ready to be revealed!


Heaven and earth

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My soul wants to go higher and higher. It loves when I sit alone in the fields and whisper prayers to Hashem. It feels good when I close my eyes, strum on my guitar and chant a sweet tune. It enjoys exploring deeply the secrets of the Torah. But sometimes the day to day grind of mitzvah observance almost feels like an obstacle in the way of my soul’s ascent to the heavens.

In Tinyana 7Rebbe Nachman teaches that a true tzaddik must have two types of students. Some of his pupils are great servants of God themselves, while his others are sinners. Only the greatest tzaddikim can live in both worlds, spiriting the great ones to move even higher and encouraging the lower ones not to give up. In this way, the tzaddik unites heaven and earth (the great students and the lower students). In Nedarim 4Reb Nosson describes how throughout our history there were many great people who didn’t understand this skill of the true tzaddik. Even on their elevated levels, they couldn’t grasp how a sublime and exalted God can have pleasure from the service of a feeble corrupt human. In fact, this was the mistake of those that entered the pardes and left somehow tainted, and this was the error of the spies as well.

The tzaddik, on the other hand, knows that “the highest form of knowledge is not knowing”. His firm emuna is belief in a God that knows more than he does. And somehow, in the merit of this great man and God’s infinitely great mercy, there is good to be found in those that stray. This is the secret of teshuva, something we mortals cannot understand.

This need to unite heaven and earth must be a personal goal too, so those who enjoy singing haunting melodies in the candle light (heaven), can also attend the stale afternoon prayer services in synagogue (earth). And those who find comfort in studying the dry intricacies of the Jewish code (heaven) will also sing songs of praise at their Shabbos meals (earth).

“The highest form of knowledge is not knowing” means it’s ok to admit that you don’t know something. And that you can be open to more than what you’re presently comfortable with. These are the rungs of the ladder that takes us from down on earth to high in the heavens.