The sweet moments count

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I was sitting alone in the field earlier today when the sweetest thing happened. In  finishing a private conversation with Hashem, I said the following: “Ribbono Shel Olam, (Master of the World), I don’t know if this was a good session or not, but I want You to know that the main reason I come out here all the time is because I love You and I want this relationship. I hope You feel the same way about me and that these sessions are making a difference in our relationship”. As I’m about to get up, all of a sudden, a red, heart-shaped helium balloon rushes into the field and starts flying up over the trees behind me. I tried to snap a picture of it, but I couldn’t get out my phone in time. (The above pic is just a symbolic memory). I sat back down elated, with a grin from ear to ear.

In Torah 2Rebbe Nachman says that Joseph merited the right of the firstborn because he embodies a certain aspect of prayer. The Rebbe never explained the connection between prayer and the firstborn. In Nachalos 4, Reb Nosson says that just like the first born legally inherits a double portion from his father, so too there is a double aspect of prayer, first praising Hashem and then asking Him for our needs.

But then Reb Nosson adds something special. He says the reason why the firstborn gets a double portion is since they were the first, in a certain sense, they enabled the parents to give birth to more children. The first is the hardest and once the parents get over that hump and have their first child, any future children owe the oldest child a debt of gratitude for ‘breaking the ice’. So too it is, says Reb Nosson, with prayer. When a person recognizes for the first time that his prayers are being answered, it enables him the next time to pray again with more enthusiasm and belief in his prayers. We all have had our prayers openly answered in the past, and those moments of clarity help us develop our prayers over time. That little red balloon was no small thing. It’s reason for me to go back out next time believing – even more – that my prayers truly make a difference.

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Existential hope

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“הַלְלוּ אֶת יְהוָה כָּל גּוֹיִם שַׁבְּחוּהוּ כָּל הָאֻמִּים, כִּי גָבַר עָלֵינוּ חַסְדּוֹ

“Praise Hashem all the nations…because He has been exceedingly kind
to us”.  (Psalms 117)

Many of the commentaries ask on the above verse: Why should the nations praise God for His kindness in dealing with us? They answer that since the nations are constantly planning to attack us with their plans being foiled, only they can fully appreciate Hashem’s kindness to us.

“Prayer is an aspect of miracle-working, because many times nature requires a certain outcome and prayer changes the natural order. The central place of miracles and prayer is in the Land of Israel”. (Torah 9)

I think we too often associate the word miracle with spectacular events such as the parting of the Red sea, when in reality so many of us have experienced personal miracles through prayer. It usually doesn’t happen immediately, because Hashem still disguises His messengers, but most of us can think back to the many times in our lives that we really prayed for something. Back then the odds of attaining that elusive something seemed insurmountable, but now it’s already so commonplace in our lives that we barely appreciate it.

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In the Land of Israel the miracles are remarkable.

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The well-known national miracles, such as the Israeli Air Force wiping out the Egyptian Air Force in the first few hours of the six-day war are exceptional, but even the individual accounts of that war, with inexperienced mine-sweepers passing through mine-loaded fields unscathed, leaves us scratching our head.

Those of us who live here joke how common it is to merely think of someone in the morning and bump into them that afternoon. I once participated in a Friday Night gathering where the participants, who all made aliyah, shared their stories of how they managed to get here. The simultaneous events that had to happen in order for them to pull it off were just uncanny. My point is that we experience miracles all the time, but we see them as everyday occurrences.

Rebbe Nachman continues: “There are people who deny all miracles, saying that everything comes about naturally. Even if they witness a miracle, they’ll cover it up, attributing it to the natural course of things. By doing so, not only do they blemish prayer, which corresponds to miracles. But they also blemish faith by not believing in Divine providence, and they blemish the Land of Israel, the place of miracles.”

What does the Rebbe mean when saying that these naturalists blemish prayer, faith and the Land of Israel? In Nachalos 4Reb Nosson teaches that a fundamental part of faith is believing in ones own prayers. It’s not enough to believe in all powerful God, it’s crucial to believe that we have a personal relationship with Him and that He listens to our prayers. When we hear these Amalekite-rationalists justify miraculous phenomenons as if they’re no big deal, it makes us doubt that our prayers are effective and that Divine providence is the natural order in Israel. When that happens, we become subject to the small-mindedness of exile. In Ancient Egypt, the paradigm for Jewish exile, Moses needed to leave the city when praying to Hashem to remove each plague. A prayer in Egypt symbolizes a blemished prayer, a prayer that isn’t as effective because the one who prays doubts his prayer’s effectiveness, due to the influences of his surroundings.

When we pray the silent Amidah prayer, we close our eyes. Simply speaking this allows us to concentrate more intently on the words, but in a deeper sense we’re trying to shut out the world. We’re acknowledging that this world, with all its information and ingenuity, is too much of a rationalistic one. By closing our eyes, we are entering the real world, one of faith and opportunities. In the beautiful world of prayer, longing is the cause of world order and hope is reality.

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Queen Esther 2018

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“How does Amalek (Haman) conceal Godliness?  At the very end of the exile, when the redemption is ready to be revealed and we need just a few more prayers to arouse Hashem’s mercy, he reminds the Jew how long it’s been and how many prayers have gone unanswered. This slander weakens the heart of a Jew to believe that his prayers are useless” (Nachalos 4)

This happened in the Purim story too. As the Talmud describes (Megilla 11b) even Daniel miscalculated the seventy years of Jeremiah’s prophecy. We were just about to leave Babylon and return to Israel, but there was doubt and hope seemed lost. Enter our arch-rival: Amalek.

But in the Purim story we learn about Queen Esther. Reb Nosson says that Esther is analogous to the Jewish people, but specifically the many weak people among us.

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The name Esther is from the root word hester (הסתר), which means hidden. This is because Hashem seems so hidden from us weaklings, and also because our own inner strength is hidden from us. But Esther never stopped praying. When she was taken into the palace of the wicked Persian King Achashverosh, she cried out “My Lord, my Lord, why did you leave me?” (Psalms 22). She learned this tool from Mordechai the Tzaddik.  Mordechai raised Esther in his home. The tzaddik supports the Jewish people, helping them develop the skills they need to defeat Amalek. “She didnt have a father and mother”, this means, on a deeper level, that she didn’t have the capability to succeed on her own. She needed the Tzaddik to provide for her, as we do too. But even though she was orphaned, with poor chances of success, Mordechai developed her into a sweet smelling myrtle branch, as her other name Hadas (הדס) connotes. (See here for the connection between smell and prayer. The name Mordechai too, the Talmud says, is a reference to one of the fragrances used in the Temple’s Incense [Megilla 10b]).

But really the most amazing quality of Esther was how she didn’t give up. “Whatever Mordechai said, Esther did” (Esther 2,20). The Talmud teaches something astonishing on this verse: “מלמד שהיתה עומדת בחיקו של אחשורוש וטובלת ויושבת בחיקו של מרדכי” (Megilla 13b). Poor Esther was subjected to be intimate with the dirtiest most haughty King in the world, and then she would immerse herself in the Mikveh and have intimacy with Mordechai. Of course even the simplest understanding of this verse shows great inner courage on the part of Queen Esther. But on a deeper level this means that although she fell into the darkest places of depression, where she literally was swallowed up by Amalek and gave up hope, she got up and encouraged herself to go back to the Tzaddik and hear more words of encouragement. She didn’t give up, even after she was involved in the most heinous monstrous behavior.

This is us. We are in the palace of the evil king. We are inundated with the cynicism of Amalek all day long. The hardest thing in the world to believe in is Moshiach. So many of us are numb from the pessimism and sarcasm of the internet and others have fallen prey to the unspeakable. It seems like there’s really no hope. But we need to learn from our precious Queen Esther who had it just as bad, but she never gave up hope. She always got up and went back to the Tzaddik, who told her to keep praying because nothing stands in the way of sincere prayer. She prayed and prayed to what seemed like deaf ears to be free. And then in one minute, ‘ונהפוך הוא’, everything changed. Her prayers were answered, the redemption came and we’ll celebrate it till the end of time. We are Esther! Our hands are also forced by the vulgarity and obnoxiousness of today. But just like our beloved queen, we too can pick ourselves up and believe. We can find encouragement, we can pray and we can be free!

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Me?

Jigsaw Pieces Being Joined Showing Teamwork And Togetherness

They say ‘it takes two to tango’. Reb Nosson says this is true in prayer as well. In order for our prayer to reach its potential we need to have faith. Without complete faith, our prayer isn’t a proper receptacle and can’t be filled with the bounty of Hashem’s blessing.

What constitutes complete faith?

In Nachalos 4 Reb Nosson writes that “just as much as we need to believe that Hashem is the creator of everything, who can change nature at will and bestow endless bounty, so too we need to believe in ourselves – that Hashem listens and pays attention to every word that we pray to Him, even the lowest person on earth. Anybody can have his prayer heard if he sincerely prays”.

Even me? He listens to me? I don’t even listen to myself! How many times have I stood before Hashem in prayer without believing that my prayer is being heard?

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Reb Nosson emphasizes that this is an integral component of faith. It’s not enough to believe in a great God, we also need to believe in our ability to make a difference. So many people judge themselves by their historical track record and just resign themselves to mediocrity. They assume that because they have been uninspired for ‘such and such’ time, this is how it will always be for them and everything they do is lifeless and pointless. The believers imagine there to be somebody out there who ‘has it together’ and his prayers are the ones that matter. But little ole me? What am I good for?

And it’s not just them. Even the more inspired people might acknowledge that they’re good at some things, maybe learning Torah, but praying is just something they’ll never be good at, and they don’t believe in their prayers.

So it turns out that everyone says in the Amidah prayer “Blessed are you Hashem, who listens to prayer” but everyone thinks it’s somebody else’s prayer that Hashem listens to.

Faith means believing not only in Hashem but in our relationship with Hashem. When Rebbe Nachman cried out on a Friday night in Uman more than 200 years ago “Don’t ever give up”, he was talking about this point. Don’t give up on your relationship with Hashem. No matter how much you’ve ignored Hashem until now, your soul is very much alive. Those who believe in a God that has no relationship with us, don’t believe in the God that we believe in. We have a relationship with a God that wants to hear from us. No sin or time away from home can quiet that thirst He has for connection to us. He’s always waiting for us to call home. Nobody can call for us. Each one of us have a special unique phone number to Him.

We need to rid ourselves of the notion that our relationship with Hashem is a product of our Mitzvah performance. It’s true that messing up makes it more difficult to find Hashem, but he’s no further away. He wants to find you just as much even when you’ve endlessly betrayed Him and no one person is more important in His eyes than you. Everyone has something totally unique and beautiful to bring to the table. But it all starts with אמונה בעצמו, believing in yourself.

Look in the mirror, catch hold of your eyes and say “I count. My prayers count. My life counts”. Then get moving!

No doubt

Lost-Child

“[Hashem says] I am always among you, and [I am] always ready to provide your necessities. But then you ask, ‘Is Hashem in our midst or not’? [I swear] by your life that the dog will come and bite you and you will cry out to Me. [Then] you will know where I am. This can be compared to a man who put his son on his shoulder and set out on the road. Whenever his son saw something, he would say, “Daddy, give me that,” and the father would always give it to him. Then they met a man and the son said to the man, “Do you know where my Daddy is?” The father answered his son, “[After all I’ve done for you] you don’t know where I am?” He threw his son down to the ground and a dog came and bit the son.” (Shemos Rabbah 26:2)

The above Medrash is an analogy of our relationship to Amalek (the dog). But as our Chassidic Masters explain, it’s because of Amalek that the child can’t find his father. Amalek’s bold battle with Israel in the desert wasn’t a punishment for questioning the existence of Divine providence, but rather when a person denies or even questions Divine providence, it’s a sign that he’s been smitten by Amalek, the power to deny God.

This isn’t an old story from the Bible. מִלְחָמָה לַיהוָה בַּעֲמָלֵק מִדֹּר דֹּר. Amalek’s war with God is in every generation. It’s happening to you and me right now. Rebbe Nachman says that when we see how we’re crying out and yet the exile keeps dragging on forever, we might  mistakenly feel that all our prayers are meaningless (Torah 2). Reb Nosson writes that this is Amalek’s weapon (Nachalos 4). Amalek wants us to give up hope. The cynicism and mockery of Amalek pervades the world today. All over social media and even in the purest of mouths we find despair and cynicism. Walk into a synagogue and see how Amalek has us in a headlock. The laziness and fatigue in how we pray…וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ…is testament to our doubts in a God that hears our prayers. This is how Haman (a descendant of Amalek) slandered the Jews to Achashverosh. He said ‘their God is sleeping’ (Megilla 11b). Just like the deists of today who believe in a power that created the world some billion years ago, but deny any Divine providence.

So how do we save ourselves from this cynicism? How do we fight off despair?

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By seeking out the Tzaddikim and following their advice we can instill in ourselves Emunah in Hashem and wholeheartedly believe in Divine providence. The Rebbe wrote often that we see this idea in the Torah, when Israel fought Amalek. Moses climbed a mountain and when he lifted his hands, Israel would overcome Amalek. The Torah says that ‘[Moses’] hands were faith’ (וַיְהִי יָדָיו אֱמוּנָה). The Targum translates this to mean that his hands were spread in prayer. Moses’ prayer inspired Israel to believe in Hashem, which is the weapon to defeat Amalek. We see this narrative in the Purim story too. Mordechai the Tzaddik and Esther made prayer rallies to defeat Haman. The tzaddikim infuse us with faith in a living, omnipresent, loyal and loving God.

 לעילוי נשמת רבי יחיאל יהושע בן ירחמיאל צבי רבינוביץ זצ״ל, בעל מחבר ספר חלקת יהושע

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