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.
“Imagine if I mamish believed that I should walk the streets all day, every day and give out gifts to everyone I see. I could do it, but I would have to stop doing everything else. I’d have to leave my wife and children and just walk around the streets distributing gifts. It’s a very holy thought, but I’ll end up going crazy. So instead I think to myself, “No, I can’t do that, because I have a job and I need to support my family”. So I abandon the gifts distribution idea. Either way is bad…either way is bad. You see, the world doesn’t yet know the secret of light and vessels. Either they have small vessels with not enough light, like the thought of abandoning the gift idea, or they have too much light and no vessels to contain it, like the idea of 24 hour gift distribution. The Baal Shem Tov would bless people that ‘your body should be strong enough for your soul’. Everybody can make their soul shine but what about the body?” (Adapted from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach)
So how do we contain the light? Rebbe Nachman says (Torah 56) that the words of Torah are the greatest vessels to hold the light. In the most infinite, miraculous and immeasurable way, Hashem shined the light we need into those little black letters. A real holy teaching isn’t something that makes you crazy. A real holy teaching makes your light deeper and your vessels stronger. Similarly, the holiness of Jerusalem, says Shlomo, isn’t that there is no light anywhere else. The whole world is full of light. Jerusalem is the perfect vessel to contain this holy light.
It’s rare, but when you witness someone who has the-light-and-the-vessels-thing goin’ on, it’s a beautiful sight to behold. That’s the type of person who’s really bringing down the light.
It’s one of those days. The מוחין דקטנות, small mindedness, is so strong. I couldn’t bring myself to go to shul after carpool, so I went out to the field instead, hoping that I would open up a little. I could always daven alone later. Thank God it was a healing experience. I sat there a bit in silence and listened to the sounds of nature, instead of my thoughts. After awhile I allowed myself to focus on something that was bothering me and I asked Hashem many times, in many ways, to help me. Then I felt a little grateful and expressed some appreciation. After leaving I felt more ready to daven. I went to my study and I couldn’t bear the weight. I sat there a bit. Finally I started. Sitting wasn’t working. I couldn’t concentrate when standing or pacing either. Eventually I got through it with many ups and downs. Thankfully, I had some very focused moments while others were dreamy. I was pretty ok with it. I can only work with what I have.
Then it was time to learn a bit. The nagging feeling was back again. I don’t want to. What do I want to do? I start to feel like it’s just one of those days when nothing is working for me. It’s a petty day. I can’t get out of my smallness. I just want to space out…check out…
I decided to open up Shivchei Haran, a small book written by Reb Nosson about the greatness of Rebbe Nachman. I remember that in the beginning it talks about the Rebbe’s struggles in serving Hashem. This is what I found:
“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)
There’s no such thing as ‘one of those days’. Nothing is random. If it’s not working out today, that’s ok. There’s no reason to give up. The falls, the numbness, the laziness, the lack of drive is all part of the plan. Hashem isn’t interested in that perfect image you imagine you ‘could have been’ today. He wants you, in your slumpy fatigued mood, to pick yourself up and do something. Just do something. You could do it. If you can’t do it right now, so relax and try again a little later. Or do something less. But don’t just throw in the towel. The day isn’t over yet. It only started. Today is not just one of those days that you shouldn’t have gotten out of bed. Today is the day where you need to battle through your smallness and forget about what should’ve and could’ve been. In fact, in a funny way, today is really your day.
“היום אם בקולו תשמעון”
The Talmud tells a story about Rebbi Chanina Ben Dosa who traveled to Rebbi Yochanan Ben Zakai to learn Torah, when the latter’s son became ill. Rebbi Yochanan said, “Chanina, my son, pray for him and he will live. [Rebbe Chanina] put his head between his knees and begged for mercy on the child – and he lived. Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakai then said ‘Even if Ben Zakai would put his head between his knees all day long, they wouldn’t pay any attention to him’. [Rebbe Yochanan’s] wife [heard this and] said to him, ‘So Is Chanina greater than you’? He answered her, ‘No. But he is like an attendant of the King and I’m like an officer of the King'”. (Berachos 34b)
What’s the difference between an attendant and an officer? Rashi explains that the attendant is a fixture in the home of the King. He’s not high in ranking but he goes in and out as he pleases, without permission. Whereas the officer is of a higher class but isn’t often around the King.
In Torah 6 Rebbe Nachman advises that in order to come back to God, we need to become skilled at entering and leaving. Just like a soldier, we need to know when is a good time to advance and when is a good time to retreat. Sometimes we’re in a higher emotional state and we need to ‘run with it’. Other times, when we have lower feelings, we can’t advance but we need to be clever and hold on to what we have without losing too much.
Maybe this is what was so great about Rebbi Chanina Ben Dosa. The Talmud describes in a few places his unmatched ability to perform miracles through his prayers. But it seems that he wasn’t the greatest scholar or the most pious. He was just the best at praying. Why? Because he was in and out of the King’s chambers all the time. Does that mean that he was always in an uplifted state of mind? No! That isn’t possible. But when he felt good, he pushed himself in front of the King. And when he felt low, he called out to the King.
That’s the meaning of the famous allusion to the month of Elul in the verse “אני לדודי ודודי לי” (I’m for my lover and my lover is for me – Song of Songs 6). Sometimes I’m for my lover. I’m feeling great and I’m ‘giving’ to this relationship. But other times, when I’m too broken to give, my lover is for me. He is picking up the slack and He’s overcompensating to help me. The best relationships are the ones that are balanced and reciprocal.
The Baal Hatanya compared this month of Elul to when the King leaves his palace and is in the field. That means He makes Himself available more now. Every one of us can become more familiar this month with the King, before his imminent coronation. Of course we can always come back to God, but there are certainly more auspicious times and now is one of them. Now we can be more of an attendant to the King just because it’s that time of year. We can go in and out of His chambers at our leisure. Most of us fear that we’ve been gone for so long that He’s probably upset at us. How can we have the chutzpah to call out to Him now, when we need Him most? But really the opposite is true. He makes Himself more available now. He’s longing to reconnect. He just wants us back!
In 1822 Reb Nosson made the courageous pilgrimage to Israel. While there he visited the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mt. Meron. As an authentic master in the writings of Kabbala, one can only imagine how excited Reb Nosson was to visit the holy site of this great Kabbalist. But in his autobiography Reb Nosson writes that when he got there he was feeling very weak and he wasn’t able pray as he had hoped. Never the less he didn’t let himself feel dejected, visiting other grave sites that day, and slowly but surely coming back to himself and praying Mincha with great joy!
Rebbe Nachman teaches in Torah 6 that if a person wants to consistently be in the glorious process of Returning to God, he needs to be an ‘Expert in Halacha‘. Halacha literally means to go. One who’s an expert in Jewish Law knows exactly where he can go and where he can’t; What he can do and what he can’t. Although the Rebbe was a big proponent of learning Halacha, the phrase ‘Expert in Halacha‘ here is a play-on-words. What he was really referring to is the subtle craft of knowing when to ‘move forward’ and when to ‘come back’.
You see life is full of ups and downs! All too often we simply can’t influence the circumstances around us, so we need to react appropriately. When we feel brimming with energy and desire, we should attempt to embark on new journeys and increase our workload. But when we’re in a low state of consciousness, we need to just ‘hold on for dear life’ and not expect too much from ourselves. Some people are afraid to accept the challenges when it’s time to move-on and others feel demoralized when they hit a wall, stubbornly banging on it and experiencing unnecessary guilt. It’s truly an expertise to know when to advance and when to retreat.
King David sings:
“אם אסק שמים, שם אתה”
“If I ascend to Heaven, You’re there” (as if to say, I’m with You when I rise).
“ואציעה שאול, הנך”
“And if I descend to the lowest places, there You are”! (Meaning, You sustain me even when I’m low).