Guest Posting By Rabbi Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaiim - The Distinction of Slonim (Part 3)
III. AKShN, Karlin & Modern Orthodoxy
"Abba-Abba, you wouldn't believe it," my boys breathlessly told me, a couple of years back, after a long day at cheider. "The kids say they have an answer to Hollywood!"
"Now why would they be thinking about THAT?" I asked, incredulously.
"Oh, you'd be surprised. They know what's out there. And they know we must combat it. But now they've got a great slogan for doing so…"
"Ok, let's hear it".
"Just like they have 'action', so do we:
A- Emuna (faith)
K- Kedusha (holiness)
N- Nishmas (a major Shabbos morning prayer)!!"
There's no question that action is what makes the world go round. It's just a matter of the dimension in which it's taking place. While some outsiders see the Chassidic lifestyle as repellant to "the good life", the truth is that we're very intensely seeking it – just within a very different dimension.
At the core is Shabbos.
Slonimers begin Shabbos at candle lighting, wrapped in talleisim and then passionately recite the entire Song of Songs and Psalm 107, known as Hodu. The Nesivos writes about the latter as a powerful novelty introduced by the Besh"t as a means for catapulting into the soul liberation that a true chossid seeks every single Shabbos (volume two, Shabbos u'Moadim, p.43):
Behold, the gateway for transisting between exile and redemption is by way of the profound sigh that a Jew emits as he sighs in the recesses of his heart about his distance from his Father in Heaven and about the dividing screens which were (spiritually) created as a result of his blemishes. For a sigh is the beginning of redemption, as we find in the Egyptian exile that the Redemption began by way of four languages of sigh, as it's written (Ex. 2): 'And the children of Israel sighed and screamed and their groans ascended to G-d from the labor. And G-d heard their moans.'
(…The fact is that) they weren't even able to sigh that sigh as it should be as long as the time of Redemption had not come (…) Only when the time came for the blessed Holy One to help them were they capable of sighing in a way that would facilitate the Redemption. As per the dictum of the righteous: 'People say about the issue of effort that G-d helps those who help themselves. Yet the truth is not like this! Rather, only when the blessed Holy One helps is there an opening for doing anything.'
(…) Thus is explained the matter of saying Hodu with the oncoming of Shabbos. For within it are expressed the deepest Jewish susurrations concerning the four types and forms of crisis, materially and spiritually, within which he is absorbed during (the week), which peaks at the time of Shabbos eve wherein he feels utterly incapable of opening his mouth in prayer except for screaming out the simplest of screams!
(…) And so the verses of our psalm develop and allude (… The highest of these sighs) being rooted in the craving, longing and pining for G-dliness (…) This is the sigh of Shabbos itself, emerging from the overwhelming feeling of the sweetly delectable, supreme delight of holy Shabbos.
(…) About this sigh we say in the Nishmas (prayer): 'To the languish of the paupers You hear; to the scream of the downtrodden You listen and deliver'.
So we gain a little insight into the "Akshn" of Slonim. It's all about tapping into the deepest soul pang which, when expressed with an entire community of kindred souls, is unbelievably cleansing and uplifting. The fact that people come from nearly all walks of life, every week, to partake in the leil Shabbos Tisch (festive table), tanz (dance) and zitz (quiet "sitting" and singing, in this case within a totally dark dining room) that follows speaks volumes for the holy action that is taking place.
Yet the general idea is not unique to Slonim. There are more than a few other Jewish communities in the world who tap into this same font of holy Shabbos action. Still, Slonim maintains a fine difference which I dare say goes all the way back to the beginning of the chossidic movement.
Rav Aharon Ha'Gadol from Karlin and the Maggid from Mezritch were two of the most outstanding disciples of the Besh"t. Both were known for their extremely intense preparations for holy Shabbos. Legend has it that once the Maggid sent a messenger to Rav Aharon, living in a completely different town, to ask him to stop saying the Song of Songs with such intensity on erev Shabbos since the way the heavens shake when he does so wakes him up from his sleep! Now you've got to pay close attention to this: Even though Rav Aharon's praying was so real that it affected the Maggid's sleep in a completely different town, the Maggid nevertheless deemed his sleep was more worthwhile!!
For the rest of us, of course, there's no presumption of judging another's Shabbos actions. There are those who do it quietly and those who do it with a bang. The main thing is to pour your whole heart and soul into it. Indeed, as we've learned, Slonim's orientation is to finely balance. So too you'll find in the central Slonimer Shul in Mea Shearim that with candle lighting, as the Rebbe enters, the atmosphere is charged with something akin to a giant, restrained scream. By the time the after-meal Tisch occurs and the niggunim finally burst forth, in full glory, the air is so thick with a mixture of teshuva and oneg that you feel as if you're in a spaceship hurdling into nowhere and everywhere at the same time!
In contrast, if you'd enter the Toldos Aharon or Karliner Shuls down the block, you'd find much more vociferous excitement. Both bodies and voices are moving light years faster than Slonim could ever dream of, clearly at the head of some sort of cosmic race!
There was a wedding a few years back between a couple related to the Rebbes of Karlin and Slonim. The Kallah's side was Karlin and so the chuppa took place in their courtyard. The pre-chuppa Tisch and main dancing took place by Slonim, a ten minute walk away. The difference in energy between those two worlds in such close proximity was utterly mind boggling. To this day I still hear Slonimers recall the daze they felt by the speed with which the Karliners set up the bleachers and how sport like it seemed that they cheered their Rebbe during the Mitzvah-tanz. The Karliners I met say they can never forget the piercing intensity of the niggun we sang for our Rebbe's tanz.
A young Karliner once told me that it's striking how the three chossidic groups from Lithuania all daven so differently: Lubavitch whispers, Karlin screams and Slonim does a little of both!
Which brings me to a final comparison.
I call this last community Modern Orthodox though I'm sure there are plenty who would prefer to subdivide this scattered, Rebbe-less folk based on various ideologies and dress. As far as I'm concerned, however, this is one large community of all those who are concomitantly devoted to Torah Law and modernity; whose source of action is found in both worlds.
The fact that they also need to balance is something that naturally engenders affinity with Slonim. My main reason for comparing them, however, goes much deeper. There is a very real phenomenon of learning the Nesivos within the Modern Orthodox world today. While it's remarkable enough to have one, contemporary seifer learned so extensively amongst different chossidim (the Pitsburger Rebbe calls it THE weapon against our generation's Yeitzer; the Belzer calls its author "the professor of Chossidus" and has ALL his cheidarim learn it, daily!), it's truly revolutionary to see such an attraction amongst the Modern to one of those "fanatical" chassidic texts. In fact, throughout the entire world you can find chaburas of Baalei Teshuva, Litvische-lite, religious Zionist and even Sefaradim with set sedarim (schedules) for learning the Nesivos – or what some may call the Netivot!
I know this from many reports and also from my own, brief globe trotting. Undoubtedly it has something to do with its exceptional written style. There's nothing quite like its fluid, poetic and yet totally unpretentious Hebrew that allows for those who struggle with classic Jewish texts feel like THIS is one Torah ocean in which I can swim. Still, that's not what keeps them coming back.
Rather, I think a key can be found in what I learned at the end of my first meeting with the Nesivos, back in 1995, which was one of his last meetings with "outsiders". I had mentioned that I was about to start teaching an extra curricular Jewish philosophy class for secular Israeli high school students. You know – the virulently anti-religious types. Although I had originally planned on including some excerpts from his sforim within the handouts, after having just been ignited by his world of pristine holiness I was beginning to think that it would be an utter travesty.
"Would the Rebbe agree to me using his teachings in such a secular environment?", I asked, totally prepared to abandon the plan.
"For WHAT ELSE did I write it!", he exclaimed.
Now, in retrospect, I imagine there are quite a few answers to that question. Back then, however, all I could think about is that this seifer was so pure that NO one could pull it down. Indeed, the most striking fact I've learned in the last decade of observing the explosion of the Nesivos's popularity is that EVERY one comes out a little finer and deeper. There's always a "pshhhh" and "auh!" shining straight out of the heart, energizing every limb with a brand new commitment to joining the holy action of serving our Father in Heaven, may His great name be blessed.
Still, there's something else. It's hard to put your finger on it. It revolves around the fact that you'll never find a single Slonimer trying to persuade a single one of these fine yidden to join the community. Nor do they try.
Perhaps it's like the story commonly retold about the Beis Avraham, the third Slonimer Rebbe zy"a, when he visited Eretz Yisroel and stayed in the home of a beardless chossid in Tiveria. A jealous chossid privately approached the Rebbe and asked if it wasn't below his honor to stay at such a place. The Rebbe responded: "It's true, one of the first questions that many Jews are going to be asked when they pass from this world is 'Reb Yid – where's your beard?' But much more condemning is the question, 'Reb Beard – where's your Yid??'
Yes, THAT's the kind of question that pulsates throughout the Nesivos and bonds Slonimers with M.O.'s. For it drives home the Talmudic truth that we all hold so dear (Sanhedrin 106B): Rachmana liba boee, the Compassionate One wants first and foremost the heart.
The purely Jewish heart that is always beseeching, Reb Mitzvah – where's the Ohr!
Reb Yaacov dancing in his Succa with Slonimers and Modern Orthodox