The smiling skies

smiling sky

“You should know, [Hashem’s] presence fills the entire earth and there is no place that is empty of Him…Even if someone does business [far away from his home] with people of different cultures, he can’t excuse himself and say ‘I can’t serve Hashem here, because it’s too dark and mundane here’. In every physical thing and in all the languages of the world one can find Godliness.  Because without His Godliness, there is no ability at all to exist. It’s just that the lower the place is, the more hidden and covered up is its Godliness”. (Torah 33)

צָרִיךְ לָדַעַת, שֶׁמְּלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ וְלֵית אֲתַר פָּנוּי מִנֵּהּ … וַאֲפִלּוּ מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּמַשָּׂא וּמַתָּן בַּגּוֹיִים לֹא יוּכַל לְהִתְנַצֵּל וְלוֹמַר אִי אֶפְשִׁי לַעֲבֹד אֶת הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ מֵחֲמַת עוֹבִיּוּת וְגַשְׁמִיּוּת שֶׁנּוֹפֵל תָּמִיד עָלָיו מֵחֲמַת הָעֵסֶק שֶׁעוֹסֵק תָּמִיד עִמָּהֶם, כִּי בְּכָל הַדְּבָרִים גַּשְׁמִיִּים וּבְכָל לְשׁוֹנוֹת הַגּוֹיִים יָכוֹל לִמְצֹא בָהֶם אֱלֹקוּתוֹ, כִּי בְּלֹא אֱלֹקוּתוֹ אֵין לָהֶם שׁוּם חִיּוּת וְקִיּוּם כְּלָל רַק כָּל מַה שֶּׁהַמַּדְרֵגָה יוֹתֵר תַּחְתּוֹנָה אֲזַי אֱלֹקוּתוֹ שָׁם בְּצִמְצוּם גָּדוֹל וּמְלֻבָּשׁ בְּמַלְבּוּשִׁים יוֹתֵר

So Hashem’s presence fills the entire world, right? But how does that help when we’re stuck in a these low places? How can we recognize His presence when we feel like hell and are having such a hard time coping?

There are 12 permutations of the Tetragrammaton (the name of Hashem יהו-ה). The simplest, and yet most essential permutation is of course יהו-ה. The Arizal writes that this permutation is an acronym for the verse “יִשְׂמְחוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְתָגֵל הָאָרֶץ” (Psalms, 96:11). “The Heavens will rejoice and the earth will be glad”.

I think, on the most basic level, the idea behind this is that the name of God, in its  simplest form, is represented by rejoicing and joy. A name is not a simple thing. The Maharal teaches that one’s name is his essence. שֵׁם (name) is the same letters as שָׂם (there). Meaning, you are where your name is. Whatever your name is, that defines where/who you are. This verse is indicating, that when we refer to Hashem’s name in the most straightforward way, we are referring to a state of gladness and rejoicing.

So maybe this is what Rebbe Nachman means? Hashem’s presence is everywhere, even in the lowest places. But how does one tap-in to this Godliness in a low place? By finding joy! When we can let go of our suffocating feelings and find something to be glad about – even in what seems to be the hardest situation – we can find Godliness absolutely anywhere. Of course, the lower the space, the harder it is to find Godliness (aka joy), but that’s just because it’s hidden. It’s truly there. The skies are always smiling.

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.

 

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!

 

You can’t understand what I’m going through!

 

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The loneliness of pain and suffering can be unbearable. It’s all but frustrating to try and relate the pain, yet so so hard to bear it alone. Sometimes I feel like a skinny kite in a big storm.

Listen to Reb Nosson (Hilchos Gevias Chov Min Hayesomim 3:17):

“Each person will pass through many, many junctures in their life and many oceans and rivers and subterranean waters…and through many deserts filled with large and terrible  snakes and scorpions, until they are able to actually reach the gates of holiness for real. And this matter, the degree to which a person needs to keep strengthening themselves, is impossible for the mouth to speak of, to explain or to relate, from one person to another… for each person will imagine that [any and all encouragement] does not apply to them. Each person will think that their own trials and travails … cause them to be so stuck and so trapped, that there really is no way out, to the point that they will not believe in their ability to ever return from the darkness. So it seems to each individual”.

So what is there left to do? How can we move on if the pain is so real and so unique?What can we do to lift ourselves up?

Reb Nosson continues:

“This is [exactly] what Rebbe Nachman challenged when he said “Gevald!! do not give up on yourself”. And he drew out the word “gevald” very much”.

Gevald has no translation in english. It’s just an exclamation of alarm! In a little room in Ukraine, a bit more than 200 years ago, Rebbe Nachman was addressing this very feeling. He challenged the sufferer: “You think it’s unbearable? You think nobody could understand what you’re going through? You think there’s no hope for you? “Gevald!! don’t give up on yourself”. Even you, with your situation, your pain and your sins! To me this also means, don’t stop trying to heal. Don’t ever stop trying to connect with others. Don’t be afraid lay your heart out on the table. I know it feels like you’re all alone and it seems like it’s useless. Who can understand my pain? But “Gevald!!” There’s more than you know. There’s much more than you know…

 

Stay here!

patience

It was about 10 months since Reb Nosson met the Rebbe. He was on fire in his avodah, spending practically every minute of his time learning and davening. He was already accustomed to leaving the village alone at night and pouring out his heart to Hashem. His family’s anger with his new customs was somewhat subsiding, but they were urging him to make a living. He succumbed to their pressure and agreed to travel to Berditchev to buy some merchandise to sell. Of course, “on the way”, he stopped in Breslov to take leave of the Rebbe.

The Rebbe walked with Reb Nosson up the mountain overlooking the Bug River and they got into a long conversation.

bug river

They started talking about some ideas, later recorded in Torah 52, how the philosophers are mistaken, thinking that the world must exist. But their error stems from an undeniable fact, in that Hashem must exist. So once Hashem created the Jewish people, who can literally unify themselves with Hashem, then Hashem was forced (so to speak) to create the world for them.

Asked Rebbe Nachman, how does one nullify himself to such an extent that he is one with the Creator? Through Hisbodedus. By means of personal prayer, we can neutralize one by one every single physical appetite and completely unite with Hashem. The Rebbe went on to teach that this is best done at night, alone and outside the city.

Recording this incident, Rav Avraham Chazzan writes that when Reb Nosson heard these words from the Rebbe, he totally lost all desire for this world and he yelled out, “Ahhaa! Gevalt! I’m gonna run through the streets of the city and marketplace and scream this out! What are they thinking!?” It seemed that Reb Nosson lost his mind and he was seriously about to run and scream it. Rebbe Nachman grabbed Reb Nosson’s coat and said “Stay here! It won’t work at all”!

There’s so much to say about this holy story, but I wanna share two ideas. The first from Rav Avraham Chazzan himself, and the second a personal one.

Reb Nosson had recently been engrossed in a world of hisbodedus. He realized on his own that the best way was late at night, outside the city. He had been living this reality for quite some time, so when he heard the Rebbe’s words, the validation pierced his soul with such deep truth that he couldn’t bear any other reality. Like it says, that when we recite the words of the sacrificial offerings, all the light and bounty of those offerings that were sacrificed throughout history are drawn down by our mere words. So too, all that avodah that Reb Nosson did over the past few months was drawn down into him by the Rebbe’s words and he literally lost his mind!

I sometimes feel like Reb Nosson. I want to go out in the streets and scream out, “Don’t you see it? Don’t you realize what’s happening?” But more often I feel hopeless and helpless. How am I gonna make a difference? There’s so much corruption and uniformity on so many levels that I just want to give up and crawl into my little box and be left alone.

How I long for a rebbe who could grab me, shake me out of my insanity and say “Stay here! Stay here!”

 

Flying with the tzaddik

longing

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

longing 2

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?
Wrong!
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)

Manning up

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At least twice in my life I got super-inspired spiritually and strengthened my Avodas Hashem with intense focus. The first time was in my junior year of high school. I attended a modern-orthodox yeshiva and was feeling extremely unfulfilled. By the grace of God things turned around very quickly for me and I found myself in a Beis Medrash yeshiva, where I became enthralled with learning the Talmud day and night. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I went from lax mitzvah observance to strong mitzvah observance in a matter of a few weeks. A second time was more recently. My learning and prayers felt forced and one-dimensional. The void was consuming me. Again, Hashem led me to Uman for Rosh Hashana. After that experience in 2016, I felt totally reborn and passionately re-dedicated myself to my mitzvah observance.

The common denominator of those two stages in my life is that both times the enlightenment surfaced after reeling from a severe lack.

Having sort-of an extreme personality, I often experience acute highs and lows. In fact, some people who know me define me that way. “Davy’s being Davy again. What’s he up to now?”

After coming back from that first Rosh Hashana experience I was so intrigued, and determined to uncover what Breslov is all about. I hit the books full-force and jetted forward from that moment, connecting my mind and soul to the Rebbe’s, for (at least) a year without flinching. It was one of the greatest years of my life. But as Newton said, what goes up must come down. So I eventually came back down. But something about my descent changed. The low wasn’t that low. I also noticed that, while feeling low, I didn’t have a strong desire to shake things up, like I’ve done in the past. I was much more comfortable feeling low than ever before. It didn’t phase me as much, and eventually I got another burst of inspiration that helped me glide forward. This pattern repeated itself.

It’s likely that I’m simply more mature than I was in the past, and not willing to turn my life upside down from a mood slump. But I think it’s more than that. To tell you the truth, I think it’s because I consistently do hisbodedus. I take time every day to talk to Hashem in my own personal words. I like to think of it as manning-up. Every day, no matter what, I come clean, express myself and ask Hashem for help. I always have to show my face and I always talk real. Of course, just like anything else, some sessions are better than others but I’ve never had a day where I didn’t say at least a few real words. Maybe you’re the type of guy who can experience this relationship within the organized daily prayers at synagogue? Unfortunately for me, I can’t relate to Hashem in my own unique way often enough within that structure. (In fact, I find the structured prayers somewhat more fulfilling now that I pray outside of communal prayers, because the pressure of connecting creatively is off. If I can connect that day, then great, but if not, I understand that it’s service, similar to the service in the Temple. There are technicals and obligations I meet – many times happily – in the organized prayer, but it’s a different type of prayer entirely).

Consistent personal prayer is an equalizer. I’m always noticing new benefits to this practice. But one thing that I’m experiencing recently is the equilibrium that it brings. You can’t lose your sense of balance the same way when you have to show your face and explain yourself everyday. It kind of always brings you back to reality.

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One of those days

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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”

 

 

 

Don’t be fooled

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“Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chananya said: In my entire life I was only outsmarted by a woman, a young boy and a young girl. [The Talmud tells all three stories. Let’s get right to the story with the young boy.] One time I was walking and I saw a young boy by the intersection. I said to him, ‘Which way should I take to the city’? He said to me, ‘This way is short but long and that way is long but short‘. I went on the short but long path. When I got to the city, I found it to be surrounded by gardens and orchards. I turned around, went back and said to him, ‘My son, didn’t you tell me this was the short path’? He said to me, ‘Didn’t I tell you it was a long path?’ I kissed him on his head and said, ‘Fortunate are the Jews, who have wisdom in their old ones and in their young ones'”. (Eruvin 53b)

When the Baal Hatanya wrote his sefer to teach Jews the way to serve Hashem properly, he wrote in the title page that he is teaching the long but short path.

What does it mean to take the long but short path and why is that better than the short but long path?

There are no quick-fixes in life. Ask any professional athlete how they became successful and they will tell you it was due to their hard work. To us it might seem easy, because we only see them perform that one time in the spotlight, but they practiced that exact scenario countless times before. They were ready to execute because of all the hard work they put in before that moment.

The same is true in our relationship with Hashem. There is a short path, using drugs and alcohol, to make you feel high. It works fast. In a short moment you might feel very connected to Hashem. It’s like all the doors opened for you and everything is clear now. You might like even talking about spiritual matters, singing and dancing in that state. It makes you feel alive. But it doesn’t get you into the city. It takes you right to the gate, but then the high wears off and you’re left stuck in an overgrown orchard. There’s heavy mud, thickets, and long vines in your way. To pass through the plantation will take you a very long time. But then there’s the long path that is short. It’s long because you need to put the work in. There aren’t any shortcuts on this path. It takes dedication. It doesn’t always feel good. You don’t always feel connected and alive. But you trust that you’re on the path and eventually you make it right into the city, way before the guy on the short-long path.

I think Rebbe Nachman taught us the long but short path with the advice of Hisbodedus. He said to talk to Hashem every day (for an hour) in our own words. It’s hard work. Sometimes you can’t get out to a nice spot. Sometimes you have a busy day and you’re very tired, late at night, when you get the chance. Sometimes you feel like you have nothing to say. It doesn’t matter. It’s a long path. It doesn’t always feel good. It doesn’t always flow. Sometimes you feel like your pulling teeth. You might leave the session questioning, “Was that a waste of time”? This is the long path. We’re not trying to get high here. We’re trying to build a relationship. Relationships have highs and lows and are fostered by dedication and faithfulness. It’s ok if it doesn’t feel good every time. We need to keep going at it.

I sometimes think that this blog is really no different than all those videos that get sent around social media with ‘one minute of inspiration’. Those nice vortlich are the short but long path. We get chizuk (encouragement) from them, but it wears off quickly. I hope following this blog is somehow different. I’m not only looking to share words of encouragement, but rather to encourage personal growth through hard work.

Pushing ourselves to talk to Hashem daily is a long path, but in the end it’s really the short path.