Back to the basics

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There is a popular Breslov book called השתפכות הנפש. It’s a collection of teachings from the writings of Rebbe Nachman and Reb Nosson on the topic of prayer, authored by Alter Tepliker, a fourth generation Breslover chassid.

The book starts off with a rather lengthy introduction in which he demonstrates how prayer, specifically hisbodedus (the practice of setting aside time for improvisational personal prayer in our mother tongue) was a foundational practice used by all of our forefathers and ancestry throughout Jewish history.

I found it interesting that, after the introduction, the author starts off the body of the book with the following piece from Tinyana 73:

“Whoever wants to be worthy of תשובה (coming back to Hashem), should recite Psalms frequently, because reciting Psalms is מסוגל (propitious) for returning to Hashem”. 

In that piece Rebbe Nachman teaches how King David prophetically embedded Psalms  to the 49 gates of תשובה, so that all the 12 tribes, whose names total 49 letters, can enter the proper gate to return to Hashem.

But why start with this lesson? If I wanted to teach about hisbodedus, surely I would find a better lesson to begin with and inspire my readers. Namely, the second lesson he quotes, “Hisbodedus is a great virtue and higher than everything”! Why begin with a lesson about the importance of reciting Psalms?

I think there is a very profound, and layered message that the author might be hinting at by using this lesson as a starting point. Many people think that hisbodedus and personal prayer is some immensely inspiring practice. When we go out to the woods or enter another place of seclusion and talk to Hashem we want it to be esoteric and life changing. We’re always seeking inspiration to sweep us off our feet and give us wings to fly. But it doesn’t always happen. Anyone who practices personal prayer consistently will tell you that it doesn’t always flow and you don’t feel significantly different after every session.

To too many people, reciting Psalms is a chore. “I can’t connect”, “I don’t understand what I’m saying”, or “What does saying these old texts really do for me?” I very much relate to Psalms and I think the main reason why most people don’t relate to them is because there’s this bizarre pressure to recite many of them. It’s like we don’t feel that we’ve accomplished anything if we didn’t finish our quota, or a significant amount. We need to reframe and put our utmost attention into the few lines we say. Every word is stuffed with holiness, like an overpacked suitcase. If we don’t understand the words, there are available translations in every language possible. Stop trying to finish Psalms and allow yourself to relate in the most simple way to the deepest and simplest words of prayer ever written. Maybe it’s not the most glorious thing to do, maybe it’s hard to focus on but we must slow it down significantly and get real with it. Tehillim is infused with opportunities for תשובה. King David, in his unfathomable greatness, had every one of us in mind when he drew these words down from Heaven, and his ultimate purpose was to draw us back to Heaven.

Try it again…Slow down…Wake yourself up and come back to Him. He’s waiting for you to call…

 

Renewal, at its core

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Uman recovery 101

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

But you know what? I’m not worried.

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

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

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

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

Sharing the remedy

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Here’s a sneak peak at the cover of my new publication. It’s an original English translation of the Tikkun Haklali, according to the commentaries of Tehillim. This work took me 16 months to complete. I called it a narration because it’s not a literal translation. It’s geared to help the modern English reader understand King David’s words in the vernacular we use today. With the help of a very special sponsor, I printed 10,000 copies to give out for free. Below you can see a few of the holy places where we delivered them already.

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But, of course, the essential destination is Uman .

What is the Tikkun Haklali ?

With tremendous personal sacrifice, the great Tzaddik, Rebbe Nachman revealed a precious remedy to his followers and encouraged them to spread it throughout the world. Known as the Tikkun Haklali, these ten specific chapters of Psalms are a complete and comprehensive antidote for every type of sin, although every sin also has its individual remedy.

The Rebbe also made the following promise, with two of his disciples as witnesses:

“When my days are up and I leave this world, I will intercede for anyone who comes to my grave, recites these ten chapters of Psalms, and gives charity on my behalf. No matter how grave his sins are, I will do everything in my power to save him and cleanse him. I will span the length and breadth of creation for him. I’ll grab him by his peyot (side curls) and pull him out of gehinnom.” The Rebbe continued, “I am very positive in everything I say. But about this, I’m more positive than anything else. These ten chapters help very, very much.”

So, off to Uman I go, tomorrow night, for Rosh Hashana to deliver these holy pamphlets to our English speaking friends, so that we can all share in this precious remedy together!

Wishing you all a Happy and Healthy New Year!

!שנה טובה ומתוקה

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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.

Out of this world

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The Arizal taught that before creation, there was only the light of einsof. Hashem wanted to unveil his glory and needed to create humans with which to reveal His greatness. So He constricted His light, so to speak, and created an empty space in which He created all the worlds, synonymous with His attributes. Of course, without the constant connection and life force of the Creator, these worlds cannot exist. Therefore, even though, Hashem created an empty space, there must still be a trace connecting the worlds to Him. That trace is called a קו, a line, or רשימו, the imprint.

In Birkas Hashachar 5, Reb Nosson reveals that the verse Shema Yisraelשְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, יְהֹוָה אֱלהֵינוּ, יְהֹוָה אֶחָד, has 25 letters in it, whereas the verse Baruch Shem בָּרוּךְ, שֵׁם כְּבוד מַלְכוּתו, לְעולָם וָעֶד, has 24 letters in it. I’d like to say that this is symbolic of the above teaching from the Arizal. What is Shema Yisrael? It’s affirming the oneness of God. It’s admission of nothing other than the Creator. That’s an aspect of einsof before the creation; total unity. Baruch Shem is more relevant to us. It talks about Hashem’s glory in the worlds, which is our avoda to reveal. The difference between the 24 letters in Baruch Shem and the 25 letters in Shema Yisrael is, of course, only one. This one represents the trace of einsof in this world that gives it vitality. I think that we express these two phenomenons in prayer often. First in Kaddish. The Kaddish starts off with יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא (His great name should be glorified and sanctified). This is an exclamation of His greatness and oneness, even before creation. Then we praise Him by saying יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא, (His great name should be blessed in all the worlds). Here we’re talking about His greatness after creation, in relation to the worlds. The same is true in the Kedusha prayer. The first proclamation we make is קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ ה’ צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ, this is saying that Hashem is greater than any world can fathom. Then we say בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד ה’ מִמְּקוֹמוֹ, this means that Hashem is great from His place, meaning He, so to speak, has a place in the worlds.

What does this mean to us? The fact that we have a connection to einsof is why there can never be reason to despair. This is the source of all Teshuva. We humans, even when we’re dirtied from sin in the lowest of all worlds, are always connected to something out of this world. We might have to hush the Baruch Shem in silence most of the time, but we still must say it. We recognize that the Creator is beyond any comprehension, but we must also admit that we have a direct line to the highest places unimaginable.

Return to who you are

 

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Growing up I didn’t like the word teshuva (repentance), as it engendered images of selichos and fasting into my mind. It basically meant that I had to promise I won’t have a good time anymore and also regret the times when I did have some fun. Upon exposure to Rebbe Nachman’s understanding of teshuva, or for that matter Rav Kook’s world of teshuva (see here), I understood that my perception of teshuva was exactly the opposite of what teshuva really is.

“Before teshuva, a person can’t really sustain himself. It’s almost as if he doesn’t exist in the world…[But] when a person purifies himself through teshuva, then he is preparing his birth into the world, so that he may exist. That’s why teshuva is an aspect of the Divine name אהי-ה, which means I am ready to be”. (Torah 6)

I always thought that the process of teshuva was trying to become a different person, as the Midrash Tehillim (120) says, through teshuva we become new creatures. But with the Rebbe’s lessons, like the one above, I now understand that becoming a new creature doesn’t mean something new was created. It also doesn’t mean that a new me was created. It means that I finally have a right to exist. I don’t need to become anybody else, in fact I can’t be anybody else. Teshuva introduces me to the world. It cuts away all my fraudulence and highlights who I really am. I can’t speak for anybody else but that sounds attractive to me. I don’t want to be you anymore. I’m tired of being you! When I try to be you, I’m not good at it and I’m left feeling unsettled. The only way that I feel satisfaction and pride is when I’m being myself.

Teshuva brings out who we really are, not who we can be. We are each remarkably distinct and delightfully unique. The world doesn’t need another one of him. The world needs just one of you. Each one of us has something creative to contribute and teshuva is the process that accentuates our exceptional creative features. How fasting and reciting penitential poems uncovers the real us is for another discussion, but seeing teshuva as the process of readying myself to fully exist sounds healthy and exciting, not burdensome and depressing.

 

Secrets and deep secrets

 

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“There is an upper unification, שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה’ אֶחָדand a lower unification, בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. Every Jew should make certain to engender these unifications”. (Torah 11)

How can we make it happen? Says Rebbe Nachman, through our speech we can come back to Hashem in all areas of our life. Coming back to Hashem, Teshuva, is the process of connecting to our own life force.

“For [the words of Torah] give life לְמֹצְאֵיהֶם (to those who find them)” – Proverbs 4. “Read it, ‘למוציאיהם בפה’ (to those who express them verbally)” – Eruvin 54a.

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No situation is too bleak for teshuva, if we can use our speech to enlighten us. But for the words to shine, they must bring out the glory of Hashem. To reveal Hashem’s glory we must embrace humility and minimize our own glory (see also Torah 6).

Later in the lesson, the Rebbe talks about a false humility that is the ultimate degree of conceit. This is when “people act humbly in order to gain honor and prominence. Because they know just how despicable haughtiness is, they act humbly”. But what’s so bad about that? Why is it considered haughty to practice humility from the recognition of how base the ego is? Isn’t it praiseworthy to distance oneself from such an undesirable quality, embracing humility as a valuable characteristic? The truth is that it is indeed admirable to disassociate oneself from arrogance by seeing how awful it is, but that isn’t at all true humility.

Let’s go back to the upper and lower unifications. The upper unification, שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, is believing and knowing clearly that Hashem is the Lord and there is none other. The lower unification, בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם, is comprehending that the ultimate purpose of everything in all the worlds is to serve as the vehicle to reveal Hashem as the one and only. The world only has value when the beings of creation are acting as tools through which the awareness of Hashem as the exclusive one is proclaimed. Consequently, when Hashem benevolently provides man with benefits such as wisdom, power, beauty or wealth, it is only so he should come to understand God’s greatness and his own inconsequentiality. Because, in essence, all wisdom, power, beauty and wealth are manifestations of Hashem clothing Himself in this world. He is the most wise, powerful and beautiful. Recognizing that fact from experiencing ones own virtues is what the lower unification is. It’s appreciating that everything in this world, including oneself, is merely a garment of Hashem and an instrument to bring out His glory. As a result, any virtue that a person does have is only so that he might achieve true humility from it. That is its sole purpose. But if a person prides himself in the special qualities with which Hashem has graced him, then he has completely perverted the intent of this Divine benevolence.

 

How does one attain this humility? By guarding his brit. The Jewish people’s covenant with God is centered on sexual purity. As is easily understood, when we selfishly blemish our brit, we’re attempting to increase our own glory and belittle His glory. It might be that our intentions aren’t so bad, but the result is never-the-less a reality. Joseph, the personification of one who guarded his brit, attained complete humility. I always marvel at how Joseph was released from jail and placed before Pharaoh, who says, “They say you interpret dreams”. He answers, “It is not me, the Lord will bring Pharaoh’s tranquility”. And of course, when someone perpetuates the glory of God to such a degree, he is the garment of that glory, as it says, “Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him (Genesis 42:6)”.

Finally, a bit deeper, the Rebbe teaches that there are two forms of guarding ones brit. They relate to the lower and upper unifications. The lower unification is likened to someone whose relations are during the week. He guards his brit as the Torah requires and thereby reveals the glory of Hashem in his actions, especially in a crucial procreative action such as intimacy. But then, as the Talmud teaches, the Torah scholar only has marital relations on Shabbos. This is likened to the upper unification, the idea being that his intimacy is complete holiness, because there is none other than Hashem.

Ultra Orthodox students gesture as they pray during a reading class at the Kehilot Yaacov Torah School for boys in Ramot

 

 

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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Holy tears

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The Talmud tells a story about Rav Ketina, who was passing by the door of a wizard when the earth shook violently. He asked the wizard, “Do you know what causes an earthquake”? The wizard replied, “When the Holy One remembers that His children are suffering among the nations, He sheds two tears into the Great Sea, and His voice is heard from one end of the world to the other (Berachos 59a).

I just came back from Leżajsk where we visited the grave of the great chassidic master, Rav Elimelech from Lizhensk, who’s yahrtzeit is today. It was a very powerful experience to be together with thousands of Jews who make the yearly pilgrimage. There is a tradition passed down from several chassidic masters that whoever visits his grave will certainly be inspired to come back to Hashem before he leaves this world. I felt that feeling of Tshuva when I was there. It was a little scary, but good-scary. I spent a lot of time talking to the tzaddik about my friends and loved ones. I felt so much unique love for many of the people whose names I brought to the Rebbe, smiling as I pictured them in my head. I had a certain clarity when characterizing their situations to the Rebbe, as well as when I discussed my own circumstances. I shed tears and felt waves of truth crashing over me. I don’t easily cry but sometimes the tears were to be expected and sometimes not.

In Torah 250 Rebbe Nachman explains the meaning of tears. He says that all the pain and suffering of this world stems from lacking the knowledge of Divine providence. If we truly appreciated that Hashem is running things behind the scenes, we wouldn’t experience any suffering. The problem is that we feel like nature is running it’s course, which causes us great anguish. When somebody cries from pain he’s lacking that understanding of Divine Providence. The tears that come out of his eyes are infused with awareness of Hashem and a clearer vision of His providence. In a certain sense, he loses his own vision and is imbued with God’s vision. (The Rebbe brings a number of sources for this). This is why after we cry, we feel better. Because crying is transformative. It’s not only an expression of the pain, but it’s also a remedy of that feeling. Not only that, but seeing someone else we love cry can arouse us to cry too. Truth is contagious. Unfortunately we go through much of life wearing an armor of defense, so we can escape the uncomfortability of feeling vulnerable. But it’s important to be real and allow ourselves to be exposed every once in awhile, so our true soul could shine and draw down all the remedies it knows it needs.

 

 

 

לעילוי נשמת הצדיק של הצדיקים רבינו אלימלך בן הרב אליעזר ליפמן זצ״ל