Let Him

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I ate a lot of junk-food while my wife was away this week. In fact, I felt like I was trying to squash my feelings with it. It’s sort-of like I was trying to fill some void with all the candy and processed foods, but it wasn’t working at all. It actually made the void bigger, leaving me feeling self-destructive and farther away from a healthy state of body and soul. I know about myself that when I’m unable to act with restrain, it leaves me feeling helpless and pitiful. I hate that feeling and the self-loathing makes it that much worse. It’s a vicious cycle that addicts are all too familiar with.

There is a silver lining here though.

One thing that really helped me break out of this funk a few times was trying to be simple. Without even noticing, I find that I contrive such high – and many times unreasonable – expectations of myself; expectations of only positive thoughts and expectations of productivity. The task-master in me doesn’t allow failure or laziness. But I realized it’s all a bunch of חכמות, (sophistication) and it helps me sometimes to let go of all these complicated assumptions and conjectures, and to just put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes I need to put down the scorecard and just live in the moment.

I had another comforting thought too, which also deepens this concept a bit: Hashem is perfect; Really perfectly perfect. I don’t need to be perfect and I shouldn’t expect to be perfect either. I need to just let Him be perfect and let Him figure it out. Serious meditation and prayer with a mantra like this is so very soothing.

Maybe this is what Rebbe Nachman was talking about (in Sichos Haran 2) when he said:

טוב מאד להשליך עצמו על השם יתברך ולסמוך עליו. ודרכי, כשבא היום, אני מוסר כל התנועות שלי ושל בני והתלויים בי על השם יתברך, שיהיה הכל כרצונו יתברך, וזה טוב מאד. גם אזי אין צריך לדאוג ולחשוב כלל אם מתנהג כראוי אם לאו, מאחר שסומך עליו יתברך. ואם הוא יתברך רוצה בענין אחר הוא מרוצה להתנהג בענין אחר כרצונו יתברך.

“It’s very comforting to throw yourself on Hashem and rely on Him. Rebbe Nachman, himself, would give over all his activities to Hashem, so everything can be done how Hashem wants it. Then, there’s no need to worry or think if you’re doing the right thing or not, because you’re relying on Him to do it. And if He wants it another way, let Him do it that way.”

This idea always seemed somewhat esoteric to me, but now I think it’s just plain simplicity. When we conjure up all these ideas, it’s draining and counterproductive. I rather let go and let Hashem be perfect. I’ll just do what I need to do right now. Period.

Trust your truth

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“It’s known from the Rebbe’s words that people pose a greater obstacle in Avodas Hashem than the evil inclination. And I’m not only referring to evil people, scoffers and naysayers. But even people who fear Hashem can many times confuse someone with their poor advice [and prevent him from] his proper path; And this has unlimited implications”. (Hilchos Geneiva 5:8)

We’re always taught to seek advice, and in fact, it is imperative to get guidance and counsel to be successful. The Talmud says (Berachos 7b),“גדולה שמושה של תורה יותר מלימודה” – “Serving Torah Scholars is even greater than sitting in their lectures”, because when we observe great people in action, we can learn so much from their every movement.  

But I believe that Reb Nosson is saying something radical here. So many of us want to just be told what to do. “Give me the handbook to being a good husband” or “where can I watch the video on-line how to make a deep connection with my kids?” This need to be spoon-fed stems from a distrust in our own selves. We’re afraid to believe that we have the answers, because we don’t believe enough in our own self-worth.  Many recovering addicts will testify that they used and used again because they were afraid to cope with their emotions. Once clean, they were usually pleasantly surprised how many tools they did in-fact have to manage their lives effectively. Hashem gives us the tools to be successful. It’s super-important to seek guidance and weigh the different options, but only we can lead ourselves down the right path.

Reb Nosson doesn’t mince words. Even truly God-fearing leaders can lead us astray. It’s not enough to ask and follow. Hashem doesn’t want an army of zombies. He wants us to consider every situation, with the advice of our wise ones, and act upon our faith as only we know how.

Trust your truth. You have everything it takes. Trust in yourself because you will succeed!

 

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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The courage to have faith

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"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.

 

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.

All in its right time

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One of the hardest things for me is waiting. I don’t mean standing in line, but rather waiting for the long processes of life to play out. I feel like I naturally get things right away and I get the itch to sell for a small profit rather than hold-on long-term. I prefer to hit fast-forward and move on to the next scene because sometimes this scene is unfolding just too slow for my taste.

In Torah 72, Rebbe Nachman discusses two aspects of our evil side. The first aspect, which we are all too familiar with, can be described as a physical (blood boiling) urge to seek the unholy, whether it’s something that is prohibited to us or even a desire to release a negative emotion without limitation. But the second aspect of the yetzer hara is where the more spiritually aware might become ensnared.  This is the evil of דינים, judgements. Our job is to overcome and sweeten the judgements, so there is only absolute good. The Light of the Infinite One (einsof) exists where there is only good, and no judgements. In order to be absorbed in that highest place, we need to be free of any judgements.

To briefly explain judgements, we need to understand that there is no aspect of creation that stands outside of Hashem’s domain. This applies equally to good and bad. However, whereas the good is a direct outcome of Hashem’s Infinite Light manifesting in the world, the bad is a byproduct of hester panim, Hashem’s withholding His Light in response to our sins. Although the light doesn’t disappear entirely (for the world would cease to exist), its presence is greatly diminished. These tzimtzumim, or contractions of the Light, empower the Divine Attribute of Din (justice) to exact punishment. These ‘unholy dinim‘ are the root of all pain and suffering in the world.

A person may receive that which is destined to be his only after eliminating the impediments that had been holding it back from him. One of the ways of vanquishing the obstacles can be by forcing the issue. While this approach may hasten a person’s accomplishing his goal, it is not without cost. Alternatively, one can exercise perseverance and patience. This forbearance is also rooted in tzimtzumim and dinim. The difference is that these dinim remain attached to holiness. The restraint one exhibits by not forcing the issue has the power to mitigate the dinim and eliminate all obstacles at their root. Then he can receive that which he is meant to receive, all in its right time.

Letting go

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So how was my Tisha Bav? you ask. Well, not great. Aside from the natural gloominess of the day coupled with fasting, I was suffering from something else too: My own mind games.

I guess I felt some pressure to feel bad and cry about the state of our exiled people, how we miss our Temple and our communal and individual suffering, which I do admit stems from the shechina’s absence in our life. But I didn’t cry. I had a hard time connecting to the pain of any of those things. I hosted a meaningful get-together in my home where we read Eicha and hauntingly hushed songs about Jerusalem. I got up the next morning and went to hear my dear friend Rabbi Shlomo Katz of Efrat elucidate the Kinnos very beautifully. I mean, it seemed that I had all the right ingredients to awaken my sleepy soul, but in-a-sense that just mounted the pressure. “What’s wrong with me?” I was thinking. Can’t I cry, for God’s sake? Am I serious about my Judaism or not?

I started talking to Hashem and I remembered Rebbe Nachman’s timeless advice to be a תם, a simpleton. In Tinyana 44, the Rebbe says that we should “stay far away from the sophisticated ideas that we entertain, even in our avodas Hashem. Like those times when we over-think and over-analyze if we fulfilled our obligations correctly. That type of sophistication is just disconcerting, illusionary nonsense that trips us up in our avoda [and brings us farther from our goal]. Those scrutinizing thoughts lead us to sadness”.

It’s so important to step back and recognize when our thoughts are wreaking havoc on our equilibrium. They’re just silly thoughts; here now and gone later. Serving Hashem with תמימות, simplicity, empowers us to let go of those heavy, pressure-packed, hogwash thoughts and just follow our healthy state of mind in pursuit of our ambitions.

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Simply satisfied

 

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Forrest Gump was right. Life is full of surprises. But the surprises aren’t always as conspicuous as they were in the movie. You might wake up in the morning and feel like the life was sucked out of you. For many people a grumpy morning can lead to a few bad days. For some, it might be the onset of depression. Recently I’ve been feeling very grouchy. This slump was building and I just couldn’t kick it. Because I do hisbodedus often, I had enough self-awareness to know that something was bugging me, but I was too engulfed in my own negative thinking and all the introspection wasn’t helping me. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s making me so irritable, but even with all the alone time I couldn’t crack the code. Thankfully I had the wherewithal to pray for help, and then help came in an unexpected way.

A few days ago I thought of re-reading one of Rebbe Nachman’s great stories called The Sophisticate and the Simpleton. I finally picked it up again today. If you havent read this tale yet, I recommend you do. (Click here).  It’s actually one of the Rebbe’s only stories that can also be understood straightforwardly. In short, the story tells of two childhood friends. One of them was very simple, limited in his education and abilities, while his friend, an intellectual and philosopher, was always looking to improve his situation with more education and training. The simpleton never feels he’s lacking and is always joyous, but his counterpart is perpetually miserable from his insatiable desire to increase his status. As it turns out the simpleton (like Forrest Gump) becomes very successful while the sophisticate, once a wealthy and distinguished craftsmen, loses everything in his quest to prove his shrewdness.

In reading about the simpleton’s innocence, I started to let go of my stubbornness to be the best. In thinking of his plainness, I was more forgiving of myself. I started to allow myself the space to be imperfect, easing the constant demands I place upon myself. When I read about the unfortunate sophisticate, I identified with his unrelenting drive to succeed and improve his situation, but I understood the endlessness and emptiness that more worldliness and overthinking brings with it.

I think what struck me the deepest was the following contrast: When the simpleton, a shoemaker by trade, would finish making a shoe, it was usually crooked. But he derived so much enjoyment from it that he would praise his handiwork saying, “My wife, what a beautiful, wonderful shoe this is”. Sometimes she would answer him asking, if it’s really so great, then why do other shoemakers get three coins for a shoe and you only get a coin and a half? He would answer her, “Why should I care about that? That’s his work and this is my work. Why must we speak about others”? From this we see the tremendous self-confidence of the simpleton. He believed in himself. He was totally unconcerned if other people did a better job than him. It’s precisely this belief in himself that keeps him from sophistication. He is satisfied with the way he sees things, regardless of what his colleagues achieve. The sophisticate, on the other hand, was exactly the opposite. After he became an accomplished physician, craftsman and philosopher, he decided to marry. “But he said to himself, ‘If I marry a woman here, who will know what I have accomplished? I must return home. Then they will see…[that] I left as a young lad, and now I have attained such greatness'”. Even though he had become so great, he still needed other people’s approval. In this line the Rebbe exposes the sophisticate’s deep insecurity. We’re left to assume that, to a large extent, his motivation for success was his lack of faith in himself.

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Rebbe Nachman encouraged his followers to serve Hashem with utter simplicity. In Pesach 9, Reb Nosson develops this theme and says that if a person becomes depressed because others are better than him, that isn’t humility but arrogance. He feels that it’s beneath his dignity to serve Hashem when he is so far from Him, while others are so near. Instead, we must emulate our patriarch Abraham, of whom it is written “Abraham was one” (Ezekiel 33). The Rebbe explains this to mean that he acted as if there was no one else in the world. Reb Nosson relates this concept to the counting of the Omer. The verse says, “וספרתם לכם, you must count for yourself”. No one can count for you. The Omer represents the spiritual progress that our people made when going from Egyptian slavery to the revelation at Sinai. Every person needs to make his own count, without paying any attention to his neighbor’s progress.

Nobody likes to admit that they compare themselves to others, because when we think about it, it’s a pretty shallow thing to do. But besides the comparisons we make, we over-complicate everything. We often are our own worst enemies with how we demand nothing less than perfection from ourselves. If nothing else, this type of perfectionism cheats us out of the joy in performing mitzvos. Just like the simpleton had joy from his triangular-looking shoe, we need to know that if Hashem has even some pleasure from our imperfect work, then it’s better than any treasure and worth a life time of devotion.

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Joseph, the simple tzaddik

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The verse has an peculiar way of describing Joseph, the holiest of all the brothers:

“וְה֣וּא נַ֗עַר, אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י בִלְהָ֛ה וְאֶת־בְּנֵ֥י זִלְפָּ֖ה”

“Joseph was childish, and was commonly found with the maidservants’ children (Genesis 37:2)”.

The Torah is telling us two amazing things about very rare tzaddikim, such as Joseph and Rebbe Nachman, who are “the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 25).

First, in Torah 30, Rebbe Nachman taught that “the farther one is from Hashem, the greater the teacher he needs, similar to someone extremely ill who needs the best doctor to heal him”. This is the Torah’s intention when saying that Joseph ‘hung out’ with the maidservants’ children. Not that those specific children of Jacob were distant from Hashem, but ‘maidservants’ children’ is an allusion to the type of people that are forlorn and in need of help. Additionally, this is why immediately after Joseph was born, Jacob knew that he can overcome his brother Esau. Had Esau not himself strayed from Hashem, his holy task would have been to bring others who have strayed closer to Hashem. It would have been Jacob’s job to study and teach Torah, and Esau’s job to give encouragement to those who felt far from Hashem. But when Esau relinquished his position, it was Joseph who stepped in as the Kiruv Rabbi. Joseph, being the greatest type of tzaddik, was able to reach even the lowest criminals. We see this clearly in Joseph’s outreach to the prisoners in jail, and later on how he circumcised all of Egypt, the most lewd place on earth at the time. Finally, as we find throughout Hassidic literature, Joseph is intimately connected to the festival of Hanukkah. This is alluded to in our custom to light the Menorah very low to the ground, similar to Joseph was able to reach even the most hopeless and lowly people.

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What does it mean that Joseph was childish?

In Tinyana 78 the Rebbe teaches something very mysterious. He says that sometimes the true tzaddik becomes a simpleton. The idea is as follows: The Torah is literally our lifeline (Deuteronomy 30:20). So how do we survive when we’re not learning torah? We only survive because the tzaddik gives us life. But how does the tzaddik survive when he’s not actually learning Torah? He receives life from the אוצר מתנת חינם, the store-house of free-gifts. (Consequently, this is also how the world survived for twenty six generations before the Jews received the Torah). So sometimes the tzaddik legitimately becomes a simple ignoramus, so that he can give life to the other simple people in the world, Jews and non-Jews alike. This is what it means that Joseph was childish. He was literally doing silly things, and with those foolish behaviors, he was giving life to the world.

In the same lesson, the Rebbe teaches that this ‘simplicity’ that a tzaddik experiences is also called דרך ארץ ישראל, the way to the land of Israel. In fact, Reb Nosson writes the when the Rebbe made his pilgrimage to Israel, his behavior was extremely bizarre. At times he was found not wearing a hat or jacket and running around with little kids playing silly games. Other times, on his voyage, he met great scholars. When they asked him to speak, he would talk gibberish! We truly can’t understand the ways of a tzaddik, especially one of Rebbe Nachman’s caliber. His every move was mysterious, as he connected heaven and earth with his every move. All we can do is feel fortunate that Hashem sends us these great people who, with their deep love, reach even the lowest of the low.

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Hold on or let go?

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At times we might find ourselves in very dark places. We feel miles away from Hashem, like we reached the point of no return. We harbor strong doubts, we feel confused and we can’t believe that we’ve sunk this low.

What can we do in those trying times?

Rebbe Nachman says (Tinyana 12) that some questions are unanswerable. He explains that even the klippos, or the forces of evil which cause this doubt and confusion, only exist because Hashem wills it. Without getting in to the depths of his lesson, he teaches that this darkness gets its life-force from a place that is utterly unknowable to us. We can’t possibly understand it. It’s a locked door;  the apex of hiddenness.

So Reb Nosson (Tchumin 6:8) explains that since the answers are incomprehensible, our only solution is to believe – with the simplest purest faith – that Hashem can even be found in such a dark place. Although we’re accustomed to using our cleverness and guise to find answers, this time it will lead us to greater darkness. The only way to survive these times is with simple faith, by saying, “Master of the World! I believe you’re here. I can’t see you at all and it’s inconceivable to me that you’re here with me. But you must be here. Where are you?”

Why is this so hard to do? Shouldn’t it, in a sense, be easier to simply believe than to constantly contrive sophisticated justifications? What is it about the human psyche that stubbornly attempts to rationalize, expound and hypothesize the cause of everything?

I think it’s just so hard to let go. We don’t want to give up control. We’re afraid what the future will bring, if we’re not ‘calling the shots’. So we refuse to admit that we can’t know the answer. Sometimes this characteristic is very beneficial. It helps us hold on in trying times and not fall into despair. But in harder times, we’re ‘shooting ourselves in the foot’ with this futile cleverness. We need to simply let go and admit that we can’t control the outcomes. We need to confess that although we don’t understand how, Hashem is running the show behind the scenes.

The Rebbe says that the small admission of ‘maybe Hashem could be here with me’ is usually the first step to climb out of this misery. Here we were looking for every ‘tool in the book’ to help ourselves and we just kept on falling into deeper water. Then, with a small admission of faith in something other than ourselves, we’re already on our way back up. It’s not as hard as you think. In fact, sometimes it’s hard because you think.

איה