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?

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.

 

Only you

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The Talmud (Taanis 21b) tells of a certain surgeon named Abba, who was on such a lofty spiritual level that he received daily greetings from the Heavenly Academy. The great amora Abaye, who only received weekly greetings, felt dejected because of the great honor given to Abba the Surgeon. Others told Abaye that the honor is given to this blood-letter and not you, because you can’t do what he does.

The Talmud offers a few examples: Abba the Surgeon designed a special garment for women to wear during their procedures with him, so he wouldn’t see their exposed bodies. He also kept a box out of public gaze where the patients deposited their fees. Those that could afford it put their fees there, and those who couldn’t pay were not embarrassed. Not only did he not charge young Torah scholars, but he would also give them some of his own money, telling them to go regain their strength.

One day Abaye decided to test him, sending him two scholars. Abba the Surgeon received them warmly, giving them food and drink and in the evening, he prepared fine woolen mattresses for them to sleep on. In the morning the scholars stole the precious bedding and took them to the market to sell. While in the market, they met up with the kind surgeon and asked him, “how much are these linens worth”? He replied, “Such and such”. They said to him, “Perhaps they’re worth more”? He replied, “that’s what I paid for them”. They said to him, “They’re yours and we took them from you. Tell us, please, what did you suspect when you saw us with your linens”? He replied, “I said to myself, maybe the Rabbis needed money to redeem captives and they were ashamed to tell me”. They replied, “Please take them back” and he answered, “from the moment I saw they were gone, I dismissed them from my mind and I devoted them to charity”.

In Torah 34, Rebbe Nachman briefly mentions this story to show how every Jew has something precious, a nekuda (unique point), that no one else has. Even the great Abaye, one of the most often quoted Talmudists, in some way couldn’t reach this simple surgeon’s level. And as we see from Abaye, we are too often comparing ourselves with others and feeling unimportant because of how we perceive ourselves in comparison. “וְעַמֵּךְ כֻּלָּם צַדִּיקִים; Every Jew is a tzaddik” (Isaiah 60:21). This means, says the Rebbe, that just like the world is sustained because of the tzaddikim, so too, at least, in a small way every single Jew has something that the world must have, and could only attain through him. We need to stop comparing ourselves to the perceived perfect people we dream of our neighbors. Instead we must use those powers of imagination to examine the mysteries of our own minds and souls and find that point we must share with the world.

Self reflection

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Jacob is surrounded by his 12 sons and is about to die. He attempts to reveal to them the exact time of the final redemption and is unable to, because the Divine Spirit leaves him. He assumes it’s their fault, and at least one of them must be attached to unholiness, but they assure him that they are as pure on the inside as he perceived them to be from the outside.

Reb Nosson says (Gezeila 5) at that point Jacob realized his mistake and that one cannot rush matters before their appointed time. It’s then that he began criticizing his oldest three sons, exactly about this matter. Reuben made a mistake, after the death of Rachel, by getting involved in his father’s private affairs. This was also a rushed decision of zealotry that ended up costing Reuben the kingdom and priesthood. Simeon and Levi also acted with haste after the rape of Dina, by raiding the city of Shechem and killing all the males. Jacob admonished his sons to exercise patience; not using aggression and dominance to expedite matters.

I’d like to add a twist here. Jacob makes a futile attempt to reveal the future and when it doesn’t work, he assumes it’s not his fault, but other peoples fault. Reb Nosson says Jacob was wrong. It was Jacob’s mistake trying to rush these matters. Then he criticizes his sons for rushing things. (Reb Nosson doesn’t say the following, but if you allow my puny mind a minute, I’d say that) because Jacob was just presently guilty of rushing things prematurely, that’s exactly what he saw in his sons. The Baal Shem Tov says that we only see faults in others that we ourselves have. Maybe if Jacob didn’t make the error himself, his eternal words to his oldest three sons would have been different?

And what about Judah? Why wasn’t he criticized? Because Judah’s descendant was King David, and, at least in one instance, David exercised the greatest patience imaginable. David longed to build the Temple, but Hashem told him that it wouldn’t be proper for a warrior with blood on his hands to build it. It would only be built by his son Solomon.

This is a powerful everyday lesson. When we’re small-minded, we spread negativity everywhere we look. And it’s because of our own messed-up lenses. But when we feel good, we only see good. Next time we wanna give somebody a piece of our mind, let’s not rush. Let’s stop and notice that we’re probably only sensitive to their imperfections, because we have those same flaws ourselves.

 

Why I love you

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Reish Lakish says (Bereishis Rabba 80:7) that Hashem expressed his love of the Jews using three expressions: בדביקה, בחשיקה, ובחפיצה. (Loosely translated, דביקה means that we cling to Him, חשיקה means that He longs for us and חפיצה means that He desires us). But these expressions are originally found in the story of Shechem and Dina.

ר”ל אמר, בג’ לשונות של חבה חבב הקב”ה את ישראל. בדביקה, בחשיקה, ובחפיצה. בדביקה – ואתם הדבקים. בחשיקה – לא מרובכם מכל העמים חשק ה’. ובחפיצה – ואשרו אתכם כל הגוים כי תהיו אתם ארץ חפץ. ואנו למדים אותה מפרשה של רשע הזה. בדביקה – ותדבק נפשו. בחשיקה – שכם בני חשקה נפשו בבתכם. בחפיצה – כי חפץ בבת יעקב 

Asks the Nesivos Shalom, why does the Torah learn about the awesome love that Hashem has for his chosen nation from the deplorable feelings that Shechem had for Dina? The Torah actually calls Shechem’s actions scandalous (נְבָלָ֞ה עָשָׂ֣ה בְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל). Can’t we find a more refined place to use as the headquarters of love, rather than the abduction of an innocent young woman?

The Slonimer Rebbe answers by explaining how Shechem’s soul was a very high soul, but I’d like to give my own answer.

Rebbe Nachman tells a story of a certain tzaddik who was overcome with a terrible sense of sadness. Eventually this tzaddik fell so deep into sadness that he found it literally impossible even to moveHe wanted to encourage himself and pull himself up, but nothing could make him happy or inspired. No matter what he tried to be happy about, the Evil One found some reason to make him depressed about it. Finally, after trying everything, he tried to make himself happy by dwelling on the fact that Hashem created him as a Jew. This is certainly a reason to feel immeasurable joy, because the vast difference between the holiness of even the simplest Jew and the impurity of the gentiles is beyond all measure. The sad tzaddik started making himself feel happy about this. He started rejoicing and raising himself little by little. With each passing moment he felt greater joy until he reached such a level of joy that he attained the joy Moses experienced when he ascended to receive the Torah.

The Rebbe’s story is so profound because any happiness from a personal achievement can always be scrutinized and criticized. No matter what the achievement is, there are always shortcomings and deficiencies which can bring sadness. But to be created as a Jew is a gift of Hashem alone. Hashem Himself did it, it’s exclusively the work of God, so there is no lacking in that joy. Regardless of what kind of Jew the person may be, there is certainly an immeasurable difference between himself and the gentiles. So there is always a reason to be happy.

Most people either love themselves or hate themselves based on their personal achievements. Successful people are often egotistical because they imagine that they deserve to be loved for their accomplishments. On the other hand, so much sadness and self-loathing today is a product of people believing that due to their failures, they are underserving of love.

By introducing the expressions of love with the despicable relationship of Shechem and Dina, Hashem is showing us what true love is. He doesn’t love us because we are religious or because we are good Jews. He loves all Jews the same because we are His people. Period. Our spiritual accomplishments are certainly beneficial because they allow us to experience our relationship with Him, but even those with no spiritual accomplishments whatsoever have that same loving relationship. If the Torah introduced us to Hashem’s love with the example of our forefather Issac and Rebecca, then we might mistakenly think that Hashem only loves us when we have the character traits of Rebbeca, who entered her home and instantly performed miracles. So instead the Torah initiates the idea with a seemingly disgraceful type of love, to show that the love can’t be broken by our poor actions.

This point is driven home, as the Slonimer Rebbe also points out, from the fact that every time that the Torah uses an expression of love in the Shechem story, it follows with the words בת יעקב. He loves the daughter of Jacob. Meaning, Hashem loves us because we are His children, not because of any other reason.

I think this lesson is so important to internalize. We need to stop hating ourselves because of our shortcomings and we need to stop idolizing people because of their accomplishments. None of that matters. Everyone of us is lovable. Every one of us!

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?!

                                     

Self encouragement

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“Greatness isn’t about accomplishing more, but about fully appreciating what you already accomplish.”

–  Davy Dombrowsky

It’s hard to be mindful these days. We have so much on our plate that even when we’re taking care of one job, our minds are already worrying about the next task at hand. For example, when we pray with the congregation, it’s common to space out. When we refocus, we might start thinking about some important things we need to pray for but we’re still not paying attention to the words of the liturgy. Maybe some of us have assumed a large daily regimen of learning, such as the daf yomi or being maavir sedra. I’m sure you might find that too often you’re catching up or keeping pace and you’re not relaxed in the learning process.

The yetzer hara has so many ways of fooling us. One of his successful tools is to make us figuratively ‘look out the window’. Whether we’re comparing ourselves to others or continuously adding to our workload to make ourselves feel worthy, we might be totally ignoring the special things that we’re already busy with. What’s the point in reciting the korbanos liturgy before prayer if it makes us hurry through psukei dzimra?

Rebbe Nachman teaches that we need to focus on our good points. I’d like to say this also means that we should appreciate the things we’re doing while we’re doing them. It’s definitely valuable to want to achieve, but it’s not always beneficial to be yearning for more. Sometimes it’s important to just enjoy the now. Every now and then we need to stop planning, worrying and dreaming and start appreciating the things we currently do.

Too much of what we do is ho-hum and then, in search of inspiration, we add on a new thing. It’s really a bad idea. If we feel like a sinking boat, we need to stuff up the leaks and stop dumping more water on deck. A better idea would be to pray often to Hashem to help us find more meaning and more patience in the services we’re already engaged in.

In Sichos Haran 239 the Rebbe points out a difference between us and Hashem. The nature of a person is that the older his possessions get, the less he likes them. The first time he wore his new shirt, he felt great. But as time goes on, those garments become less and less important to him. Hashem is the opposite. He created the world in sort of a damaged state. In every generation new tzaddikim come and fix the world up more and more until in the end the world is completely fixed at the times of Moshiach. So the older the world gets, the more Hashem appreciates it.

We need to emulate this characteristic of Hashem. It’s important to get chizuk, but we’re spending too much time looking for it on the outside. How many tear-jerking social media videos do we need to watch to feel inspired? Maybe the goal isn’t to learn ‘just one more mishna‘? Maybe sometimes it’s more important to smile after we learn the mishna? Or to remember the mishna again later on that day and feel honored to have learned it?

We need to look inside ourselves and appreciate what we have already become!

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You don’t get me

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Nobody likes to be judged, yet we commonly pass judgement on others. Why do we feel that we’re being unfairly judged? Because it’s impossible for anyone to truly understand our situation. It’s inconceivable that anyone can fully comprehend all the intricacies of our nature and nurture. And every one of our actions and opinions are inspired by the sum total of all these complexities. So it’s futile for anyone to condemn us by simply seeing us do something that seems to them unorthodox.

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“When someone sits down to talk about another person…he is judging his fellow man. One needs to be very careful about this. He should take a good look at himself and see if he is fit to pass judgement on someone else. “For judgement belongs to God”(Deuteronomy 1:17). Only Hashem is fit to judge a person, as it says, ‘Don’t judge anyone until you’ve reached his place’ (Avos 2:4)”. (Tinyana 1)

Later in the lesson Rebbe Nachman explains why it’s fitting for Hashem to judge someone? Because, as the Midrash teaches, He is the place of the world, מקומו של עולם. This means that there is no one and no thing that doesn’t have a place with Him. Only He encompasses all space. Only He knows each person’s true place and situation, (even the origin of the person’s root soul). And so only Hashem can ‘reach his place’ to judge him. Hashem is called ‘the Master of Compassion’, בעל הרחמים, so He can judge us favorably.

We see here something amazing about love and compassion. There is a strong connection between knowing something deeply and loving it. Why is Hashem the Master of Compassion? Because He fully understands our true place. By mere fact that He knows us so well, He has reason to love us. This is so true with us too. Sometimes we find that we’ll meet somebody and they turn us off. But the more we become familiar with them, the more likable they are. The Torah uses the word ‘knowledge’ for intimacy. Everyone has beauty in them and the more we learn about them, the easier it is to love them.

And here the Rebbe provides an extraordinary example of Divine compassion: Hashem specified that Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgement, should fall out on the New Moon. This is a great kindness of Hashem, because how could we be so presumptuous to ask Hashem for forgiveness? But on the day of the New Moon, Hashem himself, if it could be, asks forgiveness for diminishing the moon. The Talmud teaches (Chullin 60b) that Hashem asks us to bring an offering on His behalf at the beginning of every month to atone for His ordering the moon to diminish herself. Therefore, we’re not embarrassed to ask forgiveness on the Day of Judgement, because He himself also asks forgiveness. The Biur Likutim adds that Hashem, of course, knew that He would regret diminishing the moon. But He did it anyways, to establish for mankind a new and greater way of Teshuva, so even if we intentionally act in ways that we know we’re going to regret, we can still turn to Hashem and plead for forgiveness.

We’re too judgmental of other people. It’s a very serious thing when we belittle people. Hashem, on the other hand, is constantly looking for our good points, so He really despises this type of behavior. Let’s try to take a minute before we dismiss someone. Let’s stop looking so much at the outside and believe there’s more to a person than how he dresses. Just accept it! You don’t know anybody! Anybody!

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נ נח נחמ נחמן מאומן

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Today is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Yisrael Dov Ber Odesser z”l, known as Sabba Yisrael. He was the leader of the Na Nach movement who died in 1994. Late last night I went to the hilula of this Tzaddik, by his burial site on Har Hamenuchos. Here’s a short clip of the festivities:

I don’t use this blog as a political user-face and won’t defend or criticize the ‘Nanach-ers’. That being said, I’m not a Na-Nacher. I don’t believe in the note that Sabba claimed to receive from heaven and I disagree with some of his followers who think that he was mashiach. So why did I go last night to dance and say the Tikkun Haklali by his grave?

In Rebbe Nachman’s most famous lesson, entitled ‘Azamra‘, he taught about the importance of finding the good points in others. Sabba Yisrael spent his entire life serving Hashem with great intensity. At the end of his life, when he was well over 100, he collected close to a million dollars from his wheelchair and started a publishing house where Breslov books are still distributed at subsidized prices. He brought back so many unaffiliated Jews to Hashem. His merits are literally innumerable. Of course I can focus on the graffiti that some of his followers do and the craziness that surrounds them, but my job is to find the good and celebrate it.

One more thought:

As you might know, Rebbe Nachman waged a war against depression.  In Tinyana 48 he said “The most important thing is to always be happy. One should arouse his happiness in any way  that he possibly can, even with utter silliness. He should even act like an idiot and do silly things, with jumping and dancing, to come to joy. Because joy is a tremendous thing”. I credit the Na-Nachers with living by this lesson. I sometimes feel like they hijacked all the joy from the more mainstream Breslovers, but as long as I’m around I’ll make sure that’s not the case 🙂 “Because joy is a tremendous thing”!

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לעילוי נשמת הרב ישראל דב בער אודסר ז״ל

Why I’ll be back in Uman for Rosh Hashana 2018

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Yup! I just arrived back in the Holy Land a few hours ago and the first thing I did after davening was book my ticket for Uman Rosh Hashana 2018. I’m so happy!

Let me share with you why I think Uman is so special:

When I was in first grade, I remember raising my hand bashfully to ask my new teacher a question in front of the whole class. Mrs. Webber, a venerated educator, heard my question and said, “Wow! David, that’s a very good question. You’re so smart and it seems that you’ve been paying good attention. Class, did you hear David’s amazing question”? Needless to say Mrs. Webber’s response made me feel ten feet tall. I’m not exaggerating when I say that moment enhanced my entire elementary school experience.

In Torah 282 Rebbe Nachman urged his followers to search vigorously and find their own good points and the good points of others. It’s advice that he encouraged us to review constantly. The Rebbe, of course, is the absolute master of seeing good in others. When we go to Uman and stand before our Rebbe he only sees our goodness. No matter how bad we were all year long, he can find something good about us and make us feel unique, special and worthy. It’s such a good feeling that it’s just indescribable. But what’s really so amazing about it, is how contagious the feeling is. Because of the Rebbe’s good eye, everybody feels important and somehow we’re able to put aside – for a few days – our insecurities and see our friends’ greatness as well. Somehow everybody in Uman get’s along really well. We’re all brothers there. The unity is palpable. Away from all our comforts, we fall in love with each other, accepting one another for who they are, no matter what. It’s truly a taste of Moshiach!