Listen up

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In preperation for Rosh Hashana, Breslovers always review a certain lesson in the month of Elul. Torah Vav, as it’s called, discusses Rebbe Nachman’s approach to Teshuva, returning to Hashem.

The Rebbe makes the following statement:

וְעִקַּר הַתְּשׁוּבָה – כְּשֶׁיִּשְׁמַע בִּזְיוֹנוֹ, יִדֹּם וְיִשְׁתֹּק

“The essence of Teshuva is to hear oneself being insulted and remain silent”

Simply understood, as has been said in this forum many times, returning to Hashem means aligning your will with His will. In order to align our will with His, we need to be the party that concedes. After all, His will is perfect and righteous. It’s only our will, controlled by our ego, that’s messing up the alignment and stuffing up the pipes of blessing that should flow down on us. This act of teshuva takes quite a measure of humility.  Typically when someone is insulted by another, his ego becomes unleashed. The Rebbe says that the blood in his heart boils from an insult. We need to turn the דם (the blood of the heart) into דום (silence), by shutting our mouths when someone lays it on us real thick. Although it’s a simple act, it’s quite difficult to do. Overcoming the ego’s blood-boil, can have majorly positive results on our character and also make big noise in Heaven.

When my wife, Yocheved, was learning this lesson, she questioned it’s relevancy to those that are oppressed. Wouldn’t such an avodah, of letting oneself be humiliated, be unhealthy for them? How can it be beneficial for someone who is abused, or even someone who feels abused, to allow himself to be ashamed?

One can easily answer that the Rebbe is only addressing someone who is emotionally stable and not a person who is suffering from legitimate abuse. Although this might be the case with another tzaddik, it’s hard for me to believe that the super tzaddik (צדיק האמת) that Rebbe Nachman was wouldn’t address even the most unfortunate of us. I mean, that was what he was/is all about!

Yocheved had a great answer and a novel interpretation of this idea. The Rebbe doesn’t say that the essence of teshuva is when you hear another insult you and remain silent. He says real teshuva is when you hear your own humiliation and remain silent. It’s not as easy as we think to be truly honest with ourselves. Although we seem more ashamed before others than when we are in our own private space, we still hide from ourselves in the most humiliating situations.

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It’s hard to truly hear our own criticism. Even this generation, with all its openness and vulnerability, suffers from terribly low self-esteem. That’s because we’re afraid to be real about our most serious shortcomings. We’re ashamed to even admit these things to ourselves. But how can one align himself with something else, if he’s unaware of his true self?  And all the more difficult it must be to align with the source of all truth if we aren’t truthful to ourselves.

We need to open our minds and ears to our souls’ calling. We need to let go of our illusion of control and admit to ourselves who we really are. That’s the essence of teshuva, it’s coming back to the real you. Hashem already knows it anyways. It’s only us that’s still in the dark.

Keep going

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~ The following is based on a lesson from Rabbi Leibish Hundert.

The Mishna Brura writes, (O”C 125:5): “It says in the Sefer Heichalos (an early Kabbalistic work), ‘[Hashem says to the Heavenly angels], You should be blessed if you go and tell my children what I do when they sanctify My name and say קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ. Go teach them that [when saying it] they should raise their eyes up to the skies and lift up their bodies to Me. Because no pleasure I have in this world compares to the moment that their eyes look into my eyes, and my eyes in theirs. At that moment I grab the image of [their grandfather] Jacob on the Holy Throne, and I hug it and kiss it. Then I remember their merits and hasten their redemption“.

What is קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ? Kadosh means separate, or utterly unique. The commentators say that the idea of repeating it three times symbolizes its eternal continuum. So what we’re saying is that Hashem is totally without equal. But more, is that the recognition that He is beyond our comprehension is considered looking into Hashems’ eyes.

The difference between seeing and hearing is that when you see something you see all of it, but when you hear something it’s sequential. You need to keep on hearing and hearing to capture something. There is one exception. Looking into another’s eyes. When you look into someone’s eyes, it’s forever…

When the Mishna (Shabbos 73b) counts the 39 primary prohibitions of labor on shabbos, it lists planting and then plowing. The Talmud asks, doesn’t one plow before he plants? It answers that the author of the Mishna lived in the Land of Israel. In Israel, since the earth is hard and rock-like, one had to plow, plant and then plow again to cover the seeds. In Israel one has to do a second act of covering the seeds. What this means, allegorically, is that covering up is a profound sense of letting go. You thought you plowed and seeded and you’re done, but then Israel requires you to do it again.  It’s hard in Israel. Israel makes you do things again and again (not just going to the משרד הפנים) and that builds the relationship. קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ – again and again, looking into His eternal eyes!

You know, if you look at the blessings that Isaac gave Jacob and Esau, they both got the same blessing! They both were blessed with rain and dew. The difference is that in Esau’s blessing, he gets it once and he’s set, but Jacob gets his flow and then he has to ask again to get it (Rashi says on the vav of וְיִתֶּן לְךָ, that יתן ויחזור ויתן. That’s the blessing, not the rain and dew, but the relationship. To keep and asking and getting, asking and getting, again and again.

This could be what Rebbe Nachman means in Torah 6 that we need to do Teshuva al Hateshuva, we need to constantly be in a state of longing. The tzaddik never stops searching for Hashem, אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ again and again. The more he knows the more he understands that he knows nothing. Hisbodedus every day! Never giving up. Hashem isn’t as interested in one good prayer as he is a series of prayers. Again and again!

!קַוֵּה אֶל יְהוָה חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּה אֶל יְהוָה

 

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.

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

 

 

The King’s attendant

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The Talmud tells a story about Rebbi Chanina Ben Dosa who traveled to Rebbi Yochanan Ben Zakai to learn Torah, when the latter’s son became ill. Rebbi Yochanan said, “Chanina, my son, pray for him and he will live. [Rebbe Chanina] put his head between his knees and begged for mercy on the child – and he lived. Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakai then said ‘Even if Ben Zakai would put his head between his knees all day long, they wouldn’t pay any attention to him’. [Rebbe Yochanan’s] wife [heard this and] said to him, ‘So Is Chanina greater than you’? He answered her, ‘No. But he is like an attendant of the King and I’m like an officer of the King'”. (Berachos 34b)

What’s the difference between an attendant and an officer? Rashi explains that the attendant is a fixture in the home of the King. He’s not high in ranking but he goes in and out as he pleases, without permission. Whereas the officer is of a higher class but isn’t often around the King.

In Torah 6 Rebbe Nachman advises that in order to come back to God, we need to become skilled at entering and leaving. Just like a soldier, we need to know when is a good time to advance and when is a good time to retreat. Sometimes we’re in a higher emotional state and we need to ‘run with it’. Other times, when we have lower feelings, we can’t advance but we need to be clever and hold on to what we have without losing too much.

Maybe this is what was so great about Rebbi Chanina Ben Dosa. The Talmud describes in a few places his unmatched ability to perform miracles through his prayers. But it seems that he wasn’t the greatest scholar or the most pious. He was just the best at praying. Why? Because he was in and out of the King’s chambers all the time. Does that mean that he was always in an uplifted state of mind? No! That isn’t possible. But when he felt good, he pushed himself in front of the King. And when he felt low, he called out to the King.

That’s the meaning of the famous allusion to the month of Elul in the verse “אני לדודי ודודי לי” (I’m for my lover and my lover is for me – Song of Songs 6). Sometimes I’m for my lover. I’m feeling great and I’m ‘giving’ to this relationship. But other times, when I’m too broken to give, my lover is for me. He is picking up the slack and He’s overcompensating to help me. The best relationships are the ones that are balanced and reciprocal.

The Baal Hatanya compared this month of Elul to when the King leaves his palace and is in the field. That means He makes Himself available more now. Every one of us can become more familiar this month with the King, before his imminent coronation. Of course we can always come back to God, but there are certainly more auspicious times and now is one of them. Now we can be more of an attendant to the King just because it’s that time of year. We can go in and out of His chambers at our leisure. Most of us fear that we’ve been gone for so long that He’s probably upset at us. How can we have the chutzpah to call out to Him now, when we need Him most? But really the opposite is true. He makes Himself more available now. He’s longing to reconnect. He just wants us back!

Ups & Downs

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In 1822 Reb Nosson made the courageous pilgrimage to Israel. While there he visited the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mt. Meron. As an authentic master in the writings of Kabbala, one can only imagine how excited Reb Nosson was to visit the holy site of this great Kabbalist. But in his autobiography Reb Nosson writes that when he got there he was feeling very weak and he wasn’t able pray as he had hoped. Never the less he didn’t let himself feel dejected, visiting other grave sites that day, and slowly but surely coming back to himself and praying Mincha with great joy!

Rebbe Nachman teaches in Torah 6 that if a person wants to consistently be in the glorious process of Returning to God, he needs to be an ‘Expert in Halacha‘. Halacha literally means to go. One who’s an expert in Jewish Law knows exactly where he can go and where he can’t; What he can do and what he can’t. Although the Rebbe was a big proponent of learning Halacha, the phrase ‘Expert in Halacha‘ here is a play-on-words. What he was really referring to is the subtle craft of knowing when to ‘move forward’ and when to ‘come back’.

You see life is full of ups and downs! All too often we simply can’t influence the circumstances around us, so we need to react appropriately. When we feel brimming with energy and desire, we should attempt to embark on new journeys and increase our workload. But when we’re in a low state of consciousness, we need to just ‘hold on for dear life’ and not expect too much from ourselves. Some people are afraid to accept the challenges when it’s time to move-on and others feel demoralized when they hit a wall, stubbornly banging on it and experiencing unnecessary guilt. It’s truly an expertise to know when to advance and when to retreat.

King David sings:

“אם אסק שמים, שם אתה”

“If I ascend to Heaven, You’re there” (as if to say, I’m with You when I rise).

“ואציעה שאול, הנך”

“And if I descend to the lowest places, there You are”! (Meaning, You sustain me even when I’m low).