Ants marching

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Do you ever feel like you’re losing your individuality? Sometimes my yiddishkeit can morph into a mindless zombie march. I feel like shul is a jail and I’m unenthusiastic about my learning and mitzvah observance. I don’t know about you, but when this happens to me, it swallows me alive. I lose my passion and I feel stuck in my negative thinking.

In Hilchos Geneiva 5, Reb Nosson discusses Hashem’s first instructions to our patriarch Abraham. Hashem told him to leave his homeland, לך לך. The words literally mean “go to yourself”, or maybe “go for yourself”.  The commentaries are bothered by the unusual language in this directive. What did Hashem mean when he said ‘go to yourself’? Since Abraham was the first to popularize monotheism in a generation of paganism, Reb Nosson sees him as the one who discovered the truth. Hashem was telling him to go to yourself, enter your truest place. We have bodies and souls, but, as Rebbe Nachman taught in Torah 22, only the soul can truly be considered our true self. So Abraham was commanded to leave his land, because as Reb Nosson writes, in every neighborhood no matter how good it is, there’s always phoniness and lies that hide the truth. He was also told to leave his place of birth – This is a reference to the hangups and lies we tell ourselves about our childhood. We too often limit ourselves and distort the truth based on our adolescence. Finally Abraham was urged to leave his father’s house – This is an indication of the silliness and absurdities that we convince ourselves about our families.

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Abraham was told to move away from his hangups and follow his own truth. He was asked to march to the beat of his own drum. We too often believe our own lies. We think that the community limits us or our childhood inhibits us. Now more than ever we have names for life long excuses. I’m ADD, so I can’t learn or I’m claustrophobic so I can’t visit that place. We need to let go, take a stand and trust our own truth. Don’t be scared to be different and creative. Stop following everyone else because it’s the safer thing to do.

Reb Nosson himself risked everything to follow the Rebbe. He had major opposition from his own family and even more from his wife’s family. After the Rebbe died, Reb Nosson was exiled, ridiculed and even nearly assassinated. But what would we have left from the Rebbe today, if not for the dedication and creativity of Reb Nosson? He writes, “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.”

Nobody knows you better than yourself. Don’t be afraid to hear your own voice and take action. Everyone has something unique to contribute, but if we just follow the guy next door’s lead, then not only will we be an inferior version of him but we’re denying the potential stardom of who we really are.

כִּי כְּבָר מְבֹאָר בִּדְבָרָיו זִכְרוֹנוֹ לִבְרָכָה שֶׁבְּנֵי אָדָם הֵם מוֹנְעִים גְּדוֹלִים יוֹתֵר מֵהַיֵּצֶר הָרָע, כַּמְבֹאָר שִֹיחוֹתָיו הַקְּדוֹשׁוֹת בָּזֶה, עַיֵּן שָׁם. וְלֹא מִבָּעְיָא שֶׁיֵּשׁ מוֹנְעִים רְשָׁעִים אוֹ קַלֵּי עוֹלָם וְלֵצָנִים וְכוּ’ הַמּוֹנְעִים בְּדִבְרֵיהֶם מִן הָאֱמֶת אַף גַּם יִרְאֵי ה’ יְכוֹלִים  לִפְעָמִים לְבַלְבֵּל אֶת הָאָדָם בַּעֲצָתָם שֶׁאֵינָהּ טוֹבָה לְפָנָיו לְפִי דַּרְכּוֹ וְיֵשׁ בָּזֶה כַּמָּה בְּחִינוֹת בְּלִי שִׁעוּר

 ליקוטי הלכות – הלכות גניבה ה:ח

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Holy chutzpah

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I.  “The Entire redemption of Israel as a people, and the redemption of each one of us as individuals, depends solely on the attribute of yesod, (our healthy expression of sexuality)”. Rabbi Moshe Weinberger

II. Because the kingdom of the other side has no crown, it uses chutzpah to coerce its subjects. The only way to fight back is with our own impudence. This self-imposed nerve is expressed when we move from level to level in our personal growth. A necessary component of our advancement in this journey are the slip-ups and extended fall-downs. These are signs of progress with which we build Jerusalem, the place from where Torah emanates (Torah 22).

Globally and within our small communities too, our society is breaking down. That addiction is more rampant than ever, whereas healthy connectivity is becoming more and more of a scarce thing. This is all the coercion of the other side. It’s ensnaring our young men with its blatant chutzpah. Every Jewish boy knows full-well that those mediums of filth are so below him. But the power and arrogance of promiscuity is unashamed in its drive to bring them down. And that’s exactly what it’s doing: It’s bringing them down. Not only has it engulfed them in self-loathing and self-doubt, but even the despondency from its after-effects have made them casual, at best, in their prayers and marriages. Throughout his writings, Rebbe Nachman teaches that breaking the holy bris brings about depression and despair. It’s not possible to have true joy without this holiness.

What can we do to save ourselves from the claws of this vile beast?

Reb Nosson says (Eiruvei Tchumin 4) that we have to start over all the time! We must revive ourselves and constantly renew our commitments to Torah and prayer. We can’t allow the feelings of self pity to seep in. Every day, no matter what, we have to forget the past and reawaken our desire to serve Hashem. This is our chutzpah! This is how we impose our will over the enemy. The side of evil has convinced us that when we fail time and again, it’s evidence of our worthlessness. But we need to get up with confidence, wipe off the dust from our falls and fight back hard! Our memories have to be super-short. The torah is called a stumbling block (Isaiah 3:6), because everyone slips up and stumbles in it’s laws. Hashem isn’t interested if we’re perfect or not. He’s more impressed by how we recover after we sink. The worst part of this plague isn’t so much the act, but that it leaves its victim with feelings of self-hatred. He believes he can’t stop, he can’t be great and that his mitzvos are tainted. Reb Nosson’s keen advice isn’t so much to stop the behavior as it is to keep going, like it never happened, and fully believe in your personal renewal.

Rebbe Nachman once said that even if, God forbid, he would have transgressed every sin in the Torah on one day, he’s confident that the next day he would serve Hashem with the same intensity. He understood about man’s ability to renew himself.

What’s even more amazing is that the darkness of these times is confirmation of our beautiful future ahead. Before every rise to the top there needs to be a big dip. Jerusalem is being built by our fearlessness and courage to keep advancing. Reb Nosson says that in the times of Purim we were put in such danger because it was time to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the second Temple. The same is true today. This difficult stage is the last in our process of redemption. The walls of Jerusalem are being built before our eyes and the word of Hashem will soon come from within those walls. Don’t look back! Keep marching strong!

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It’s all good!

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The Talmud tells us that Hashem prays and keeps the mitzvos of the Torah. The following is Hashem’s prayer: “May it be my will that my compassion suppresses my anger, and that my mercy supersedes my other attributes, so that I deal with my children kindly and not exact the full penalty of justice from them” (Berachos 7a).

In my last blog I wrote about how life is a journey where we ascend from level to level. At every stage of this adventure we have new insights and new mysteries, which is encompassed in the idea of נעשה ונשמע. The insights, which are meant to act upon, is embodied in Torah. The mysteries, or the insights we’ve yet to grasp, are embodied in prayer.

Lets go deeper:

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Later on in Torah 22 Rebbe Nachman says that a person can continue ascending levels, higher and higher, by humbling himself. Some tzaddikim he says – and obviously it takes one to know one – ascend via their humility into the highest world of emanation. In that world, which is far beyond our comprehension, the נעשה is actually Hashem’s Torah and the נשמע is Hashem’s prayer. Hashem’s Torah is the judgement of the world. This Torah obligates Him to mete out punishment and fix man’s wrongdoings. But then there’s Hashem’s prayer to deal kindly with his creation. This Godly prayer is beyond any comprehension – it’s totally mysterious. Yet this prayer is exactly the place where the Tzaddikim enter…

It was in the beginning of this lesson where the Rebbe taught that when Hashem wants to exact punishment on the world, He first convenes with the tzaddikim, who can often stop the decree and sweeten the judgement. We also find this idea in the weekly Torah reading where Hashem feels the need to tell Abraham that he intends on destroying the city of Sedom. When the tzaddikim hear of heavenly decrees and pray for mercy, they turn the Torah of Hashem, (the נעשה of the exacting punishment) into the prayer of Hashem, the נשמע of a new understanding. In a sense, when Hashem prays, the tzaddikim can teach Hashem a new insight how to view the situation favorably and stop the decree. This is hinted to by the verse in Isaiah (54:13) “All my children are ‘לימודי ה, (students of Hashem)”. Allegorically, ‘לימודי ה can mean that they teach Hashem.

Such is the power of man’s prayer, who we see throughout the written and oral Torah, can overturn Hashem’s impending decrees. This is why, throughout history, the Jewish people have sought after the tzaddikim, live and dead, to pray on their behalf and overturn the wrath of Heaven. Why did Hashem create the world this way? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s astoundingly clear to me that Hashem’s love for His creation knows know bounds. Just like we can go from level to level, ascending to places that were previously unknowable to us, so too Hashem, in His righteous humility, in some way, can reach even higher unknowable places where everything is good. No sin is too great and no person is too evil for Hashem’s boundless mercy. How encouraging that there’s always a deeper place where Hashem’s loving compassion can shine!

לעילוי נשמת רחל אמינו ע״ה

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Up up and…up some more

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The Talmud describes the events at Mt. Sinai. “When the Jews said they would perform the mitzvos even before they heard what the mitzvos were, also known as נעשה ונשמע, six hundred thousand ministering angels came down and tied two crowns on the head of every Jew, one crown for נעשה and one crown for נשמע. When they sinned with the golden calf, 1.2 million destructive angels came and removed their crowns…Reish Lakish said, In the future Hashem will return those crowns to us. As Isaiah prophesied “The redeemed of God will return to Zion singing, with everlasting joy on their heads” (Shabbos 88a).

From this last verse in the Talmud, Rebbe Nachman learned (Torah 22) that the idea of נעשה ונשמע is what joy is all about. The Rebbe understood that נעשה ונשמע wasn’t just a moment in time when the Jews in the desert showed tremendous loyalty, but rather it’s something that we experience constantly. Every person on his own level has the things he understands and the things he doesn’t. As he continues his service of God and ascends from level to level, things that were once hidden from him, נשמע, become known to him and doable, נעשה. But now there are new things that are hidden from him, נשמע.

Very beautifully, the Rebbe likens נעשה to performing mitzvos, whereas נשמע is likened to prayer. It’s clear why נעשה would be likened to performing mitzvos, but why is נשמע likened to prayer? Because prayer is the way we attach ourselves to what we don’t have. Prayer is hope. Hope elevates us into the ‘real world’, although we can’t see it. On an even deeper level, prayer is heartfelt and the heart is connected to the infinite (see Torah 49).

So נעשה ונשמע is about elevating ourselves to higher spiritual levels where we have new insight and new mysteries. But what’s the connection to joy?

Here’s where we might be making a mistake:

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Many of us think that we’ll attain our happiness when we reach our goals. We work hard our whole lives waiting to retire and sit on some hammock with a Pina Colada, as if that is the happiness we were always seeking. But happiness isn’t about reaching the destination. True joy is found in the journey itself. The process of growth, with its euphoric victories and emphatic falls give us the greatest satisfaction. Reaching the end-goal might leave us with uncomfortable feelings of emptiness and regret, but working hard towards our goals is where we find true pleasure. There’s something about the נשמע that gives us a glimpse of our smallness when compared to the infinity of God. That feeling makes us turn inwards and pray from the depths of our infinite hearts to reach higher levels of oneness with God and the world. That prayer is the journey with the greatest joy!

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Fight fire with fire

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I’ll never forget the first time I heard Reb Tzvi Meyer Zilverberg say Krias Shema. In NY, after a talk he gave, he led the Maariv prayer. When he finished the second blessing, the congregants went right into the Shema as usual. About 15 seconds later we were all startled by a shrieking cry, “Sh—maaaaaa” followed by a groaning and drawn out “Yisruuuuuh-elllll”. There was a hush. Then maybe 10 seconds later he continued the rest of the verse…Growing up modern orthodox I was accustomed to treat the synagogue as a library, where there’s no talking (not even to God). This novelty of expression was curious and made a big impression on me.

In Torah 22 Rebbe Nachman says that the way to perfect faith is via עזות דקדושה (holy courage). Because the ‘other side’ is a king without a crown. When a king doesn’t have a crown, he forces his subjects to obey him. In this case the coercion is the immediacy of pleasure we feel when we follow our immoral desires. It’s almost too hard to stop. Since the other side uses force, we must be bold as well to combat the allure of evil.

The Rebbe says that sound is an expression of that holy courage. It could be the sound of our yelling or groaning, the sound of the shofar or the sound of an instrument. These sounds display a certain courage that allows the holiness to engage the evil head-on.

Now, obviously, if someone grew up in the Hassidic court of Karlin, where screaming during prayer is commonplace, then yelling won’t be effective. I think even if someone were to imitate Rav Zilverberg’s jumping and theatrics, it also wouldn’t be adequate. So how do we have holy courage?

Here’s the secret:

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The Mishna (Avos 5:20) teaches that this ‘courage’ is a characteristic found in the leopard. The leopard employs all sorts of clever tricks to get his prey, and isn’t intimidated by animals that outweigh him. A British hunter once watched a leopard prepare for its stalk of a buffalo calf by first rolling in buffalo dung in order to disguise its body-scent and get closer to the calf without frightening it. So the boldness of the leopard, and the courage necessary to fight off the forces of depression, anger and anxiety, takes a certain ingenuity. We need to be creative, innovative and imaginative in our service of God. This is why the sound of an instrument exudes that courage. Because when you play music, your insides are expressed creatively and uniquely via the instrument. We need to stop blindly following everyone else’s lead and be our true selves. Each one of us has something unique and brilliant to contribute. We need some nerve to express ourselves and it’s our only hope to living with perfect faith.

In english we say that someone courageous has ‘guts’. Why guts? Because when you’re fearless, your insides (your guts) can show on the outside. But when you’re a coward, your insides stay on the inside and your outside isn’t the real you.

We live with too much fear. Fear of others and fear of ourselves. But one thing I can tell you with perfect faith: No one in the world could be you. Only you can be you. And when you’re not you, you’re sorely missed.

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