Friday, January 30, 2009

Question & Answer With Rabbi Shais Taub - Iskafia

A Simple Jew asks:

How would you suggest a person practice iskafia in his daily life without vearing too far to an extreme?

Rabbi Shais Taub answers:

We all have our insides and our outsides; in other words, who we are and what we do. The premise of the Alter Rebbe’s Tanya is that our focus should be on our outsides, monitoring and controlling our behaviors in spite of our insides which may or may not be congruent with those behaviors. The simple reason for this approach is that while we are completely in control of what we do, we do not have much say over who we are.

To put it simply, there’s no point in bemoaning the fact that you don’t feel like taking healthy actions. The point is to take those actions whether you feel like it or not.

Now, where does that leave our insides? Are we to totally ignore the selfish, instinctive drives that resist healthy behavior?

Not at all. We are meant to refine ourselves to whatever extent possible. We should try to bring our insides into alignment with our outsides. It’s just that we don’t put off changing our behaviors while waiting for our ideas, emotions and attitudes to catch up.

There are various methods for working on our insides and changing who we are. The most important method is hisbonenus – discursive contemplation on the existence and nature of G-d. By focusing the intellect on these matters, we begin to foster a new outlook on life and eventually change the way we feel so that we will genuinely desire the proper behaviors. This process is transformative, meaning that we actually redirect and reshape our instinctive desires so that they become more holy.

There is another method of internal work that takes quite a different approach. Iskafia – literally subjugation – is the practice of stifling one’s instinctive drives through self-denial. This is an almost opposite, but complementary approach to self-transformation through meditation. The end goal of both is the same. The difference is that in meditation the aim is to truly sublimate unwholesome desires and that in iskafia, the point is to repress them. The purpose of the repression is not to become unconscious of these drives but, to the contrary, to deliberately hold them at bay and exert self-mastery over them. This idea, by the way, is very unpopular in Western thinking. The neo-Freudians will tell you that repression is a source of disease. Of course, they are speaking about repression as an automatic defense mechanism that is unconscious and automatic, whereas we are speaking about a deliberate practice. When speaking with these types, we may avoid some problems by translating iskafia as suppression, rather than repression, but this kind of semantic hair-splitting is at best really only throwing them a bone. Western attitudes are disdainful, or at least suspicious of such things as epitomized by Oscar Wilde’s quip, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to give into it.”

Perhaps the crux of this misunderstanding lies in a lack of appreciation for the goal of self-denial. The purpose of iskafia is not to delay or avoid dealing with desires of which one is ashamed. The purpose of iskafia is to acknowledge, identify and address these impulses so that they actually become quelled. It is a process of self-training, the end result of which is that the person gain a degree of freedom from instinctive drives. In other words, one practices iskafia in order to master oneself, to become “a balabos af zich.”

The understanding that this is the true purpose of iskafia becomes more clear when one considers that iskafia need not only be applied to situations where one stifles immoral or forbidden urges. Iskafia can and should be practiced to subdue completely permissible desires as well. If the purpose of iskafia were repression for repression’s sake, then it would only be applicable where the desire being repressed was somehow deemed as shameful or wrong. But since the point of iskafia is to gain dominance over one’s desires, it can just as well be applied to curbing any desire, even desires of an innocent nature. The effect is the same.

A classic example of this may be seen in terms of one who eats permissible food but delays the time of his meal in order to study Torah. (Tanya, ch. 27) There is nothing wrong with ceasing from one’s studies in order to eat. I mean, you gotta eat. But putting off eating for any amount of time is an exercise in self-discipline. It’s a way of showing the instincts whose boss. It’s like refusing to acquiesce to the tantrum of a child. In other words, iskafia is self-education.

In practicing iskafia, one should be mindful of this purpose. This will help to ensure that one does not inadvertently cross the line between self-education and self-abuse. You don’t have to pain yourself; you have to train yourself.

Another example of iskafia (also from ch. 27 of Tanya) is withholding speech. We’re not talking about forcing oneself to refrain from forbidden talk. When one refuses to speak gossip or slander, the goal is not to engage in the process of training oneself; the goal is to avoid committing a transgression at that moment. In contrast, if one has an opportunity to indulge in completely innocent self-expression and instead stifles that urge, he actually practices self-refinement.

Iskafia should be unnoticeable to outside observers. If one draws attention to oneself, then any gain of self-refinement is directly offset by an increase in self-pride. If you refrain from eating dessert but everyone knows about it, then you really haven’t held your selfish drives in check, you’ve just replaced one indulgence with another – in this case physical pleasure for emotional validation.

This leads us to another important idea. Iskafia is not just eating your bread without butter. Indeed, in an affluent society such as ours, eating bread without butter may be as pretentious as wearing a hair-shirt. Iskafia means knowing that you are not beholden to gratify the ego’s desires. Choosing to forgo emotional validation can be one of the most powerful means for weaning the ego from its position of entitlement. In other words, iskafia means taking out the garbage and even though you feel like mentioning it to your wife so that she can acknowledge your deed, choosing instead to say nothing.

Iskafia means being aware of our instincts and being honest about how they would rule our lives if we would let them, then using conditioning so that these drives will reduce themselves to a more functional size. If through indulgence, we teach our animal to become ever more demanding, then through iskafia, we put it in its place.

In The Field

Once, when the Baal Shem Tov recited the Kabbalas Shabbos prayers in the field, all the flocks gathered around him and bleated the entire time he was davening. It is said that with his prayers, he lifted up all of the lower levels, until even the flocks and the herds attained a realization of G-d, and cried out with him.

(Divrei Elimelech)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

If Your Have To Ask You Are Not Ready Yet

(Picture by E. Leger)

In Parshas Shemos, the Degel Machaneh Ephraim taught that a person should elevate the machshavos zaros (strange and evil thoughts) that come to him. Regarding this topic, one commenter asked how we should practically go about elevating these thoughts.

Last night, I learned a shtickel of Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Parshas Bo with the Sudilkover Rebbe that provided an answer. The Degel taught that a person must know the spiritual level he is on and conduct his avodas Hashem accordingly without attempting to perform lofty avodas above his reach. Furthermore, he should know that it is impossible to comprehend the wisdom of a higher spiritual level when he has not yet reached that level.

The Sudilkover Rebbe explained that an example of this could be a married man who is walking on the street attempting to elevate his machshavos zaros after he sees a beautiful women who was dressed less than modestly. If he had not yet attained an extremely high spirtitual level, he may fall from his current level if he attempts to elevate his thoughts of her beauty and use them as a stepping stone to contemplate the beauty Hashem has made in His creation. If, however, he recognizes his true spiritual level, he will understand that he should proceed by simply averting his eyes and pushing any thoughts about her out of his mind altogether.

The Rebbe said that advancing from level to level can be likened to a person climbing a ladder made out of wood. If a person proceeds too quickly without first testing to see whether the rung above him will hold his weight, he may fall to the ground once it snaps beneath him.

At what time then is a person ready to proceed to the next level and take on a new and higher avoda?

The Rebbe answered that a person is ready when he doesn't have to ask if he is ready or how to proceed and accomplish his new avoda. Chassidshe seforim are like a puzzle; some pieces belong to the earth and some pieces belong the sky. He must know where in the picture the piece he is now holding belongs.

4 Shevat Links - ד שבט

(Picture courtesy of

Breslov Kollel Online: New website

Avakesh: The Rebbe with the Neshuma

A Simple Jew: The Israeli Elections

Revach L' Neshama: The Fine Art Of Book Binding

Rabbi Micha Golshevsky: "Man Is Always Responsible..."

Letters of Thought: La danse de l'idiot

When A Person Lies

A person will speak falsely when he is afraid of other people.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Question & Answer With Rabbi Ephrayim Portnoy - Chernobyl & Breslov

A Simple Jew asks:

The sefer Shivcho shel Tzaddik if full of examples of tzaddikim from the Chernobyl dynasties lauding Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and his teachings. Given all these historical examples, to what would you attribute the negative attitudes towards Breslov that seem to be widely held amongst chassidim from the Chernobyl dynasties today?

Rabbi Ephrayim Portnoy answers:

There are several reasons why we may find that today’s leaders of Chernobyl Chassidus are opposed to Breslov, while many of their ancestors may have held Rebbe Nachman and his followers in high regard.

First of all, the general attitude of Chassidus has changed over time. We find many of the concepts taught by Rebbe Nachman echoed in the works of the earlier generations of Chassidus, such as Hisbodedus and the in-depth study of Chassidus, amongst others. However, as time progressed, many of the leaders of Chassidus in general felt that the masses were not up to these lofty ideas, and felt them to be too dangerous for the average chassid to be involved with.

For example, being preoccupied with one’s shortcomings, even for just an hour a day of Hisbodedus, they felt may lead to depression. Even the path of Hischazkus was deemed to risky, because it required one to acknowledge his shortcomings. Instead, they felt that today’s chassid should concentrate only the positive and not at all make a big deal about the negative.

Therefore, many Chassidishe Rebbes felt that it is better that their followers not learn Rebbe Nachman’s works, as not to be exposed to ideas that they felt too unsafe today.

Breslov, on the other hand, believes that Rebbe Nachman in his unique path provided us with the necessary safeguards in order to protect us from potential danger. The unique paradigm which is expressed throughout his teachings shows us how to strive for the highest levels, while not feeling any unhappiness even while acknowledging how we may presently be at the lowest. The concept of tzimtzumim which the Rebbe teaches helps one to strengthen himself in Emunah and to sharpen it through learning and thinking in Chassidus without compromising on the simplicity of his faith.

Something else to keep in mind is that many Tzaddikim who held highly of Rebbe Nachman himself, may not necessarily felt the same way about his derech. Each Tzaddik has his own distinct path, and while they certainly respect each other, they each direct their followers within their own derech. Not all derachim are compatible with one another, and they may therefore sometimes feel that it’s better to avoid confusion with other paths.

For the same reasons, we find that although the Litvishe Gedolim know of the greatness of the Chassidishe Rebbes, they instruct their followers not to learn Chassidus or take upon its practices when it may compromise the path on which they are leading them.

As a final point, many people have pointed out that every statement we hear from our Gedolim must be taken in context. Not all of the statements of praise in the aforementioned book may have been meant in the way they were quoted. I have found other Seforim which refer to some of the quotes and explain that the Gedolim meant something else altogether. And some of the Tzaddikim may have otherwise been strongly opposed to Breslov even if they may have said a positive statement here or there.

A Breslover Chassid understands that we do not understand the ways of Tzaddikim, and certainly not what we perceive to be disputes between them. We find direction and encouragement in the path that the Rebbe teaches us, and we follow it with full trust in him. Rebbe Nachman himself taught that it will be necessary for his followers to endure opposition from other Tzaddikim. Baruch Hashem, as we become closer to the coming of Moshiach, the opposition is quieting down, and Rebbe Nachman’s teachings are becoming more and more accepted.

Someone once asked Reb Naftali, one of principal talmidim of the Rebbe, where are we holding in the Meggilas Setarim, the document in which the Rebbe revealed the events that will lead up to Moshiach’s coming. He replied, “One thing I can tell you, that when you see that the world starts accepting the Rebbe’s sefarim, you can start preparing for Moshaich” Speedily in our days.

Proper Revenge

If you wish to take the proper revenge on your enemies you should increase your good qualities and conduct yourself in a straightforward fashion. In this way, your revenge on your enemies will take place by itself, for your elevated qualities will cause your enemy distress and he will mourn when he hears your good reputation. However, if you take revenge by perpetrating ugly deeds then your enemy will rejoice over your degradation and your disgrace and he will thus have had revenge upon you.

(Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 30:8)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Respect For Time

"You better be careful. He is going to monopolize your time.", someone told my wife back when we first started dating. I shouldn't have been offended by this statement because in all honesty I can be fairly obsessive about things at times.

Recently, it seems that my propensity for obsessiveness was manifest in my constant attempt to get through to speak with the Sudilkover Rebbe during his last visit to the United States this past summer. The Rebbe had told me then that he would like to make a weekly phone shiur with me to learn Degel Machaneh Ephraim. Needless to say, I agreed with his suggestion with great excitement.

The difficulty in making this shiur a reality was the fact that the Rebbe was always extremely busy, and people came to see him day and night. Invariably, whenever I would call he would tell me that he was with someone at the moment and that he would try to call me if he had a chance.

There were finally times when we were able to have this shiur over the phone, however most of the time it seemed like I was calling incessantly and just simply bothering him. I was quite cognizant of the fact that there was a fine line between being persistent and being a nudnik and I became concerned that I was becoming more of a nudnik.

During my last trip to see him, I saw a very thick stack of papers the Rebbe had on the table in front of him next to his seforim; each paper had the Hebrew name of a person who had met with him. The Rebbe told me that he understood that in his role as a rebbe he belonged to all of Klal Yisroel and that he made sure to take time to speak with whoever came to see him. He also told me that he had only slept six hours in the past two days, and that his last visitors had arrived at 1:30 in the morning and stayed until 5:30 that morning. In addition, he was still planning to see people later that evening.

With this new found appreciation for his schedule, I was ashamed of my past actions when I would call him repeatedly. In particular, I was ashamed of the time when I called him for a shiur and the Rebbe asked the person who was there with him if we could all learn together. This person graciously agreed and we had a shiur, however, in retrospect, I feel guilty that I interrupted a person's precious time with the Rebbe; perhaps this person had a lot of troubles and wanted to tell the Rebbe all the troubles in his heart. I will never know.

I do know that I did not show the proper respect and sensitivity for the Rebbe's time. I apologized to him during my last visit and he responded that no apology was necessary. He understood that when I called that the questions I was calling about were important to me, and that is why he made sure to take the time for me. Nevertheless, I have resolved to use more discretion in the frequency in which I contact him. This is not because I care about him less, but because I care about him more and have the utmost respect for the role he fulfils.

Tzedaka Needed For Families In Tsfat

In order to supply Shabbos food for 60 needy families in Tsfat this week, Eizer Shabbos is attemting to raise $3,000. Donations of any amount towards this goal would be greatly appreciated.

Your tax-deductible donation may be sent to.

Eizer L'Shabbos
5014 16th Avenue, Suite 319
Brooklyn, NY 11204

Secure online donations may be sent via the Eizer L'Shabbos website here.

2 Shevat Links - ב שבט

(Picture by M. Mitch)

A Simple Jew: On The Day Of His Yahrzeit - 2 Shevat

Dixie Yid: When the Revolution Becomes the Establishment

Words Of Torah

How sweet are Your words to my palate, more than honey to my mouth.

(Tehillim 119:103)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Question & Answer With Michoel - Philosophy & Chassidus

A Simple Jew asks:

As someone who had a secular education growing up and later went to college, is it difficult for you intellectually when you are confronted with the anti-philosophical undertones contained in some Chassidishe seforim?

Michoel answers:

I have seen many college-educated, intellectually oriented people hung up on their "groiseh kashes". Baruch Hashem, I have been largely spared this nisayon. In fact, I would say that my (self-perceived) intellectual sophistication and depth was actually a great motivator in my accepting an emunah p'shuta approach.

Let me try to explain…

Back in my college DJ days, there used to be a very popular Reggae singer named Peter Tosh. In all likelihood, he was something of a m'nuvel but he sure could play! In any case, the refrain from his most famous song goes like this: "The harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all-l-l-l. The harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all-l-l-l." You have to sort of bop up and down when you sing that for it to have to proper effect.

When I began to become observant, I had a lot of questions. All the usual ones and plus plenty of others. Feminism, ethnocentrism, death penalty, ben sorer u'moreh, ishah y'fas to'ar, finger nails out of order etc etc. And with time I came to ask, "How does our mesora work? What does it really mean that the Avos kept the Torah before it was given? How can one Rishon say things that are seemingly k'firah according to another Rishon?" And other questions of that nature. And of course even more basic things, like B'chirah Chofshis vs Omniscience.

However, I always remembered that there were things that I had come to accept as emes that I previously would have sneered at. And thus I managed to force myself to have an open mind, even to concepts that seemed very strange. "If I could be so wrong about something so basic as the very existence of the Ribbono Shel Olam, then certainly I have to suspect myself being wrong about other things as well. If I, the big thinker, could think complete nonsense, that the world is just a fortuitous accident, then I must be very careful to not make an avodah zara of my own intellect. And also, I need to know that other very confident intellects can be just as wrong as I was.

I saw a Chasidishe Torah over Shabbos that I would like to mention in this context. Rashi brings down that Yosef Hatzaddik told all the Mitzrim, who were suffering from famine, that they should perform bris milah on themselves. So this is the type of medrash that could cause someone to pause. "Why would Yosef do that? Is this Chazal really to be taken literally?" But when one allows oneself to say, "Hey, I don't know everything. Chazal were a bit smarter than I am.", then sometimes they will be zoche to an understanding that is m'shushav al ha'leiv. And sometimes it takes dafka Chasidishe seforim to reveal those deeper p'shatim. So I saw in one likut sefer that Yosef saw that the Yidden would be coming down to Mitzrayim and wanted to set the tone, that there shouldn't be social pressure against milah. Another sefer mentions that only through removing the orlah is one zoche to parnassa. But Rav Zilberstein (a Litvak) brings from the "seforim hakedoshim" a very chasidishe p'shat which I found to be emesdik and deep. He mentions that Yosef understood that the Mitzriyim had to be nitzul (saved) in his z'chus. And that in order to be nitzul in the z'chus of a tzaddik, one must be misdameh and miskarev to the middos hakedoshos of that tzaddik. So since Yosef's midda was Yesod, he understood that for the Mitzriim (who were “shetufei zimah”,as Rashi mentions by Sarah Imenu) to be saved in his z'chus they needed to be drawn closer to that midda.

So, in conclusion, one must learn the Torah Hakedosha with open mind, not like he knows it all already. And to always remember that the Torah is infinitely deep, not just a story book about regular folks. Then one can hopefully find answers. Emunah P'shuta doesn't mean that one has to accept everything (and one shouldn't). But one should be makir es m'komo and know that far greater minds went forward with questions also.

Lacking Da'as

A person who regards something as bad is a person who has no intelligence.

(Me'or Einayim)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Question & Answer With Rabbi Tanchum Burton - Inside Out

A Simple Jew asks:

The Degel Machaneh Ephraim recorded this teaching that he heard directly from his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov:

"There is a parable of a prince whose father sent him to another country where the air was not good. He gave him a garment so that when he went outside he could wear that covering against the bad air. The characteristic of the air was that of deforming a person's body; and as the deformity entered the body, it also appeared in the garment. One had to keep watch against this. The moral is that the king's son is each person, and the garment is his neshoma. This is enough for one who understands."

Having recently learned Likutey Moharan #29, it struck me that there may be some relation between this parable and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's teachings about how a person's clothes become his judges. Do you think the Baal Shem Tov was also hinting at this concept?

Rabbi Tanchum Burton answers:

The parable is difficult to understand, since usually the concept of "garments" generally denotes that which conceals--or clothes, as it were--something else. The physical is a garment for the spiritual, the body for the soul. It appears, at first glance, that in the parable, the paradigm of guf and neshama are reversed.

There is an idea that the mitzvos a person performs in this world become garments for the soul in the next world. For example, the text of the kavanah preceding atifas tallis includes the phrase, "just as I cover myself with a tallis in olam hazeh, so too may I merit a rabbinic garment and a beautiful tallis in olam haba in Gan Eden". Rabbi Shmuel Homminer z"l, in his Olas Tamid, quotes the Shaar HaKavannos where the Ari z"l describes how sin causes a soul's holy garments to be removed and replaced with soiled ones, in proportion to the sin--grave sins causing the garments to be removed altogether, may Hashem protect us. Thus, when a person makes the bracha of "malbish arumim" in the morning he or she should have in mind that he or she has been given a fresh, new garment with which to serve Hashem, and that the bracha of "hanosen la'yaef koach" refers to the spiritual strength that Hashem endows us with in order to strengthen these garments.

In Likutei Moharan I:29:3, Rebbe Nachman mentions the concept of garments, and the importance of their being kept clean. The Rebbe indicates how this concept is reflected in the idea brought in the Gemara (Shabbos 113), "Any talmid chacham on whose garments stains can be found is liable to the death penalty", because, as the Rebbe explains, Divine judgement with regard to them is more exacting. Clothes represent the Divine attribute of malchus--kingship--and thus, one who mistreats them is as if he has rebelled against the King Himself. Perhaps this also has to do with the fact that talmidei chachamim in particular represent the malchus of Torah, and are by association, ambassadors of Torah. They therefore must keep their "uniforms" neat and clean. The Rebbe goes on to explain that the tikkun has to take place on the level of giddin--sinews, of which there are 365 in the spiritual body, corresponding to the negative mitzvos. Tikkun in this area brings "whiteness" to the garments.

I was thinking that this teaching may also relate to another adage in the Brachos 28b, "Any talmid whose interior does not resemble his exterior is not a talmid", i.e. a person's appearance must reflect his true inner nature. Rabban Gamliel used this criterion to determine who could and who could not enter the beis midrash. Although this policy was rescinded, we can nevertheless understand the importance of this ethic. False appearances of piety and scholarship are hideous especially when they mask a person whose true inner life is perverse and crooked.

I think that, in light of the above sources, we can understand the Degel's metaphor. Our garments ultimately reflect who we are on the inside. Thus, if a person is careful to maintain his or her inner spiritual life, his or her garments will protect him or her from the "air" of this world. Perhaps one of the tools is learning how to be honest and transparent.

27 Teves Links - כז טבת

(Painting by P. Brush)

Lazer Beams: A Ceasefire with Hashem

A Chassidishe farbrengen: Jumping into the mikveh הכנסת אורחים פולנאה

Road Map For The Day

Something may come your way and you do not know whether to pursue it or not. If you learned Torah that day, however, you will be able to determine your course of action from the subject-matter that you learned.

(Baal Shem Tov)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Judging A Book By Its Cover - Being a Seforim Snob

(Picture courtesy of

I am usually not so superficial to judge a book by it cover, however, I have to admit that I have strong preferences about the cover and design of the seforim that I purchase. If I discover that a sefer I learn regularly has come out in a new printing that is noticeably more attractive, I will often "upgrade" to the new printing.

I prefer "classic" looking seforim and have a strong distate for those that are too colorful or have pictures on the cover. My wife once pointed out to me that while I rarely buy anything for myself, that my indulgence in materialism is most evident in my purchase of seforim and the concern for their aesthetic qualities.

I am not exactly sure why I pay little attention to the cover of regular books yet I pay a lot of attention to the covers of the seforim that I purchase. Is it because I have an understanding for the worth of the material that is contained inside and that I do not feel that it is covered appropriately? Or is this just a lofty sounding rationalization for my gashmiusdike desire?

Making Assumptions

When we see someone with a full beard dressed in black poring over the holy books day and night, there is no reason to assume that he is serving G-d more than his neighbor who wears a dime-sized yarmulke and is seemingly distant from observing the commandments on a high level. One who reaches a certain level of effort, becomes accustomed to it, and allows this to be the norm, he is no longer one who is serving G-d. Perhaps he was once.

(Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Question & Answer With Dixie Yid - Bitter-Tasting Medicine

A Simple Jew asks:

The Me'or Einayim taught that if a person can truthfully view the suffering he is undergoing as being ultimately for his own good, he will immediately experience relief from his suffering.

We may fully understand that taking a bitter-tasting medicine can help us feel better in the long run, yet this knowledge still doesn't change the fact that the medicine does not taste sweet to us. How are we, on our lowly level, supposed to honestly regard the suffering and difficulties we experience in a positive light and experience them as such?

Dixie Yid answers:

First, I would like to say that I think that I would read the Meor Einayim differently. Unless you are referring to a different paragraph than I think you are, the piece that you're referring to in Parshas Vayeitze, D"H "v'zeh she'amru razal," seems to be saying a somewhat different point. I think he is saying that when a person is truthfully able to see how Hashem is there and present, in a metzumtzam form, according to the person's ability to comprehend, in any major or minor suffering that he experiences, he will see the Rachamim, the love, mercy and desire by Hashem to benefit him. When he sees the suffering as mercy and rachamim, that Hashem is doing this only because He wants the best for him, then it will be considered as such above. I don't read this as saying that the suffering (which is really) mercy will be transformed into a non-suffering (which is still) mercy. But that it will be considered "mercy" in the upper world, thus affording him as much spiritual benefit from the suffering as he was already able to see.

But whichever way one should read the Meor Einayim, your main question remains. How can we experience suffering as the mercy that we know it must be in the long term? In many ways, this is related to the question I have been writing about earlier this week here and here. So I think it bears pointing out that there are two different situations. One is how one should look at others' suffering and the other is how a person should view his own suffering. In my recent posts, I was focusing more on how one views others' suffering. Moshe, Sorah Imeinu and Rav Levi Yitzchak of Barditchev didn't let their Emunah that people's suffering is ultimately for the good stop them from trying to do whatever they could to stop that suffering. They did not accept the Jewish people's suffering, but rather "fought" G-d to get Him to relieve it.

I think that what you are really asking about is how one can view his own suffering. The only practical way that I know of to achieve what you are talking about, a conscious feeling that the bad things that happen to one's self are actually good, is through an amalgamation of Rebbe Nachman and Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh. One of the major points in these paths, different as they are, is the constant refocusing that one engages in when he's in constant dialouge with the Master of the World. If, before any major suffering comes into one's life, he can speak to Hashem throughout the days, connecting each prat of life to Hashgacha Pratis and Hashem's love for him in His ultimate plan, then the consciousness of Hashem's plan will become a part of his life.

Once that dialogue is already ongoing, and a person is already in that mode of talking to Hashem and seeing Hashem's hashgacha and beneficience in every prat u'prat, every detail of his life, then the transition to applying that attitude to suffering, when it comes, will be natural and will not seem as impossible as it does to us now. It is by starting off when things are easy, and seeing Hashem's goodness, kindness and mercy now, that we will put ourselves into a position to be ready to naturally have that attitude when the hard times come.

It's never easy to see suffering as kindness, and in the case of others' suffering, it perhaps never should be viewed that way. But when it comes to our own suffering, "a boy scout always comes prepared," and "the best defense is a good offense." By being prepared and going on the Emunah offense before the tough times begin, we'll be prepared when they do, IY"H.

Are Chabad Minhagim For Everyone?

Excerpt from L'Chaim Weekly:

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained: "The Previous Rebbe once said in the name of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad Chasidism, that the teachings of Chasidut are relevant to all. The same applies to the customs of Chasidut. It is common knowledge that one ought not grasp at supplementary observances not in keeping with one's own general standards. Moreover, there is sometimes a risk that one will regard the embellishment as if it were the nucleus of the commandment, which in turn will not be given its rightful attention. Nevertheless, with regard to those practices which an individual has heard about, since all things happen by Divine Providence, the issue at hand is a heavenly instruction, and has relevance to him.(14 Kislev, 5714 - 1953)

Left With Anger

An angry person is left with nothing but his anger.

(Talmud - Kiddushin 41a)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Still Young Inside

Although I am 36 years-old, I don't feel this age inside. Me, an adult??? I simply can't believe it. Even though I have children of my own, my first inclination when spilling something or breaking something by accident is to flee the scene, pretend I didn't do it, and let someone else tend to my mess.

Of course as a "mature" adult, I resist this inclination and clean it up.

How Can We Apply This Today?

In Sefer HaMiddos, Hamtokas Din 17, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught,

"When a person sees that he has been beset by harsh judgements, he should talk about his enemies and justify their actions."

How are we to apply this teaching today in light of the events in Eretz Yisroel?

24 Teves Links - כד טבת

(Picture by N. Fairweather)

A Simple Jew: Tanya For 24 Teves

Dixie Yid: Our "Trade Off" For Chabad's Great Mesirus Nefesh

Tzedaka & Emes

A person who gives tzedaka is rewarded with attaining the truth.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Guest Posting From My Wife - Where Can I Find Kosher Grape Seed Oil?

I was inspired at the beginning of the month to turn over a new leaf with regard to diet and exercise. I've always been relatively fit and exercise on a regular basis, but I have always laughed off the idea of turning towards eating more naturally and choosing to make meals that have less refined sugar, whole grain ingredients and no processed ingredients. This is explains why I initially put aside the Naturally Breslov cookbook A Simple Jew bought for me about 6 months ago. I read through it, but at the time decided I was not particularly interested in visiting local grocery stores hunting for kosher grape seed oil and organic spelt flour.

It all changed about two weeks ago, after I spoke with my husband's aunt who happens to be a professional trainer and nutrition guru. She referred me to an article in the NY Times written my Michael Pollan called, "Unhappy Meals". The lengthy article goes into great depth explaining how most of America has gone wrong in following fad diets and media hype telling us to eat more vitamins and minerals. Instead, the essence of his article is that we should approach eating the way our grandmother's did. He suggests buying only those raw ingredients at the grocery store that our grandmother would have recognized. For example, would our grandmothers recognize Fruit roll-up, gushers or mini pizza bagels. Instead, he encourages us to focus on eating a plant based diet, supplemented with fish, chicken and meat.

So, I decided to venture down this road. I began eating a bowl of oatmeal with unprocessed brain added to in the morning, eating fresh veggies and hummus throughout the day for a snack, high protein fruit smoothies for lunch and for dinner, a variety of high protein, whole grain sides and lots of fresh vegetables and salad.

In addition to this, I've been running on the treadmill 3 times a week with intermittent bursts of sprinting. All of the changes have made a phenomenal impact on my overall energy levels and abilities to cook, clean, run errands and shuttle kids to school each day.

In an attempt to enter a third week of this routine, I woke up this morning thinking of meals for the upcoming week. Ironically, I said to my husband, get me that Breslov cookbook off the shelf that I thought was so silly just a few months ago. I diligently went though the cookbook and took copious notes and copied recipes that I vowed to try this week. Grocery list in hand, I set off to Trader Joe's with our oldest daughter on a scavenger hunt for all the healthy things I never buy like, grape seed oil, spelt flour and brown rice syrup. Whereas I could not find all of the ingredients for the recipes that I want to make, I was able to find all the ingredients for the Easy Tofu Lasagna. So, this is what I made for dinner tonight. And, it was delicious and it must be half the fat and calories of my regular lasagna. A Simple Jew himself helped himself to thirds.

So, I owe everyone out there who cooks naturally with whole grain and unprocessed ingredients a heartfelt apology. I am now signing up to be among your ranks to help bring healthier eating habits to my entire family. Stay tuned for recipe reviews on the rest of the things I have on my listing including: Chocolate Chip Cookies, Curry Chicken, Easy Vegetable Soup and Apricot Cake.

Unable To Comprehend

Whoever learns Torah and is unable to comprehend it due to the limitations of his mind will merit to comprehend it in Olam Haba.

(Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 27:5)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Question & Answer With Mottel - The Kernel Of Truth Within Stereotypes

(Illustration courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

My mother once told me, "Another person's opinion of me is none of my business".

While I partially agree with this statement, I think a person must generally have an idea of how he is perceived by others and ensure that his actions are never regarded in a negative light. So, in a sense, another person's opinion of me is certainly my business.

The Gemara identifies the Jewish people as exhibiting three traits: compassion, modesty, and kindness. Yet, the stereotype of Jews is that they are greedy, loud, and rude.

Should we simply disregard such stereotypes as irrational anti-Semitism or should we honestly try to rectify the kernel of truth on which they are based?

Mottel of Letters of Thought answers:

Before we get into the particulars of your question, it's interesting to note a dichotomy in the Torah's treatment of the opinion of others...

On one hand it is stressed in Pirkei Avos (3:10): "He [Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa] would say: Whoever earns the good-will of the creations is the beloved of the Omnipresent, and he who the creations are not happy with, is not beloved of the Omnipresent." In halacha we see an even greater importance placed on what others think - in the form of Maris Ayin - what others could possibly assume by merely seeing one do something seemingly inappropriate.

On the other hand, there is great stress placed on the need to persevere in the face of adversity - no mater what others say. As such we see that the Alter Rebbe quotes a saying of Rabbi Yehudah ben Teima (also from Pirkei Avos 5:20) as the introduction to his Shluchan Aruch: "Be strong like a leopard, light as an eagle, run like a deer, and mighty like the lion to do the will of your Father in heaven." He goes on to explain that "strong like a leopard" refers to the inner strength needed to surmount those who scoff at one's divine service. One must be strong and stick to his inner resolve and initiative to overcome the negative comments and opinions of others.

Returning to your question then, when it comes to encountering negative stereotypes we must also deal with this dichotomy . . .

On one hand we must be strident to rid ourselves of anything that smacks at a negative stereotype or that might lead to a desecration of the Divine name. Besides ignoring obviously negative traits that we may posses, it is important to show others how an Ehrlicher Yid (an upright Jew) ought to act. In my own personal life I try to be generous and humble around others, hoping to break any negative stereotypes they may have (not to be stingy on a tip, smiling and wishing others a good day etc.). On the other hand, prejudice and hate are often symptoms of far more complicated problems - ignorance, personal turmoil in the 'haters' own life . . . there reaches a certain point when the problem is not within our power to correct.

Perhaps the best way to approach the issue is by taking a lesson from the recent Torah portion of "Vayigash". The Torah recounts the reunion of Yosef and Benyomin, saying that Yosef, "Fell on the neck of Benyomin, his brother, and Benyomin cried on his [Yosef's] neck."

On this verse Rashi tells us that Yosef cried for the Beis Hamikdash that was in his brother's territory and destroyed, and that Benyomin cried for the Mishkan that was in Yosef's area.

If these two great tzaddikim are crying for events that will befall Bnei Yisroel in the future, why were they crying about what would happen in the territory of the other brother, and not in their own?

The answer given in Likutei Sichos is that when we see something negative in another that we are unable to prevent, then we must cry to Hashem - to daven - that the person awaken spiritually and rectify the wrong. When something goes awry in our own "territory", then we can't sit back and cry - we must have the resolve to fix it.

What we show to the world is our responsibility to make perfect . . . what more the other thinks - is beyond our power.

A Question For You From Lev Shalem - Finding Another Rebbe

(Picture by H. Tours)

Received via e-mail from Lev Shalem:

Please note that my question is not regarding finding someone to ask questions on halachic issues, I have that area covered. This is issue is strictly neshama related.

After spending a year and a half studying in a yeshiva in Israel, growing a tremendous amount, learning more than I could have ever imagined, I owe much of my spiritual success to my Rebbe who was my guide throughout my entire journey. My relationship with my Rebbe goes very deep. He is a huge "anav" who always turns down kibudim, but accepted the role as mesader kiddushim at my wedding. He is a man who although very difficult to keep in touch with, I felt a special connection to him.

Over the years however, it has gotten increasingly difficult to keep in touch. As we get older, life gets more and more difficult, and the need for a Rebbe, I believe, becomes all the more necessary. Life is a huge challenge, and I believe it should be that way, but no one should have to go through it alone. We need the guidance of our elders, of our mentors and of our Rebbeim.

I guess what I am trying to determine is, I know that my Rebbe and I will always have a special relationship, but at this point, I'm not sure it's enough. I am not sure that the amount we speak and the amount of availability he can give me is enough.

In a strange way, I don't think I will ever find another Rebbe that I can connect to like this. But all things being considered, I do need someone there for me. Someone who truly has my best interest at heart. Who knows me and who understands me.

I am just unsure if I should tough it out, or seek a new Rebbe? I am not sure I even know how to go about finding a Rebbe?

Just Sitting

Even just sitting spending time in a shul is also a mitzva.

(Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 13:3)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Zmanim In Russia & Ukraine

Bahaltener commenting on the topic of Zmanim:

Actually, most Hungarian Chassidim follow the shita of Magen Avraham because it was the standard psak amongst Ashkenazim before the Baal HaTanya and the Gra came with their psak. Russian Chassidim virtually universally accepted the Baal HaTanya's psak, while others didn't change their old practice.

A similar thing happened with zman tzeis hakochavim, that was commonly calculated before according to Rabbeinu Tam, while the Baal HaTanya and the Gra changed to the psak of Gaonim. In this regards, the Breslover practice needs some more research, because in Russia and the Ukraine the Baal HaTanya's shita was normative. Perhaps the Magen Avraham's shita could be held lechumra in this case (not as an ikar hadin). One should also note that similar practice was used by Bershader (Ukranian) Chassidim as a chumra (see Imrey Pinchas).


Machshavos Zaros & The Thorn Bush

(Picture courtesy of

וַיֵּרָא מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה אֵלָיו, בְּלַבַּת-אֵשׁ- מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה; וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ, וְהַסְּנֶה, אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל. וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה-אָסֻרָה-נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, אֶת-הַמַּרְאֶה הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה: מַדּוּעַ, לֹא-יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה. וַיַּרְא יְהוָה, כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת; וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹהִים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה מֹשֶׁה-וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּקְרַב הֲלֹם; שַׁל-נְעָלֶיךָ, מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ-כִּי הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו, אַדְמַת-קֹדֶשׁ הוּא. וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ, אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב

An angel of Hashem appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the thorn bush, and behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, but the thorn bush was not being consumed. So Moshe said, "Let me turn now and see this great spectacle why does the thorn bush not burn up?" Hashem saw that he had turned to see, and Hashem called to him from within the thorn bush, and He said, "Moshe, Moshe!" And he said, "Here I am!" And He said, "Do not draw near here. Take your sandals off your feet, because the place upon which you stand is holy soil." And He said, "I am the G-d of your father, the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzchok, and the G-d of Yaakov..." (Shemos 3:2-6)

Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Parshas Shemos:

Machshavos zaros (strange and evil thoughts) that come to a person in the midst of davening come in order that one may mend and raise up the holy sparks which are clothed in those thoughts. It is necessary to know how to elevate them and attach them to their root.

For example, if evil thoughts of illicit relations come to a person, chas v'shalom, he should understand that they are from the root of chesed which has fallen from above to the very lowest levels. One should raise them up and attach them to their root which is the supernal chesed. Similarly, if thoughts of any dread or external fears come, one should attach himself to the root which is the highest awe and root of all fear. Likewise, when any arrogance and boasting break into one's thoughts, he should join himself to the attribute of tiferes in which is the root of all boasting.

An illusion to this idea can be found the following verses in which a thorn bush refers to machshavos zaros that come to a person in the midst of davening:

An angel of Hashem appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the thorn bush: In the midst of his avoda with hislahavus (fiery enthusiasm) and great deveykus the machshavos zaros come to him.

So Moshe said, "Let me turn now...": I will clear my thoughts and turn aside every disturbing thing.

and see... why does the thorn bush not burn: It is perplexing to a person how could any machshavos zaros come close to him and try to stop him. For it should have been that all the klippos and machshavos zaros would have been burned and destroyed by the breath of his holy mouth and by his hislahavus and the strength of his deveykus.

Hashem saw that he had turned to see: Hashem immediately saw that he turned aside to look and yearned to know the truth of things. At once He became visible and was revealed to him out of those same machshavos zaros.

Hashem called to him from within the thorn bush: And he revealed this secret to him.

Take your sandals off your feet: Take care to turn aside your machshavos zaros and bring them to the sphere of goodness and attach them to their root.

the place upon which you stand is holy soil: You are the one standing on a holy level and your prayer is holy even when machshavos zaros come to you.

I am the G-d of your father: Because of the aspect of divinity which is in those desires and machshavos zaros, they come to you they are thrust upon you during davening. (אָבִיך your father) can also refer to teyva (desire), as in the piyut which reads ואבית תהלה You desire praise).

In this regard there are a number of levels:

the G-d of Avraham: Thoughts that come from the root of chesed.

the G-d of Yitzchok: Thoughts that come from the root of gevura.

and the G-d of Yaakov: Thoughts that come from the root of tiferes.

All of this occurs in order to elevate machshavos zaros to their root, and not to prevent you, chas v'shalom, from davening.


Excerpt from
Understanding the Tanya by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz:

The early works of Hasidism speak of serving G-d by elevating thoughts. That is to say, when such a thought enters one's mind, one rectifies it by raising it to its holy source. At the core of this practice is the distinction of two factors: the impulse itself - a drive to acquire or repel (such as chesed or gevura) - and the object of the impulse.

It goes without saying that to engage in this discipline, one must be able to distinguish between these two components: in other words, to see the object of one's this-worldly desire as a mask behind which to find the true reality. For instance, a person who desires something of beauty must get beyond the object to the first source of beauty. He can then ask himself, Why should I chase something that is a little part, a dim copy, when I can chase and embrace the source of beauty and eternity, such as G-d himself.

One raises a "foreign thought" by delving into it to change its direction, objective, and purpose until it is utterly transformed.

19 Teves Links - יט טבת

(Picture by A. Luggo)

A Fire Burns in Breslov: Balanced Chizuk ספרי חסידות

Revach L'Neshama: Bracha Search

Rabbi Aharon Wertheim: Law and Custom in Hasidism Why We Hate Tachanun

If One Does Not Learn To Apply His Knowledge

Rabbi Micha Golshevsky commenting on "A Greater Obligation":

Chazal teach that study is of great value since it leads to action. Clearly, one should learn not only to fulfill the mitzvah of Torah study but also with a view to changing his actions. It is for this reason that many authorities state that the first thing one must work on mastering are the halachos of Orach Chaim. Without these halachos one could be the greatest lamdan but have no idea how to really apply his learning.

The Chayei Adam, z"l, even writes that it is better to learn the halachos of Shabbos on Shabbos than Mishnayos. To illustrate why, he recounts a revealing story. It is first important to realize that although he served as the Av Beis Din of Vilna, the Chayei Adam was a businessman who never took any money for deciding halachic queries, just as his father before him. As a businessman, he traveled frequently. One Shabbos, he stayed in the same inn as a person whose practice for many years was to learn a chapter of Mishnayos every day.

Understandably, the Chayei Adam was appalled when he noticed this "expert" in Mishnayos weaving on Shabbos! He immediately cried, "Is it not Shabbos today?"

The man was puzzled. "But what possible melachah can this be?"

"How can you be so unaware? Are you not familiar with the mishnah which lists 'hatoveh' as one of the melachos?"

"But I thought that was only if someone does so on a loom like we do at home…"

The Chayei Adam was astounded. "But having learned the mishnah, why would you assume that seeing that it simply says 'he who weaves' implies that weaving is only a melachah with a loom?"

"Do you think when I learn I am trying to apply my learning to my actions? I only focus on fulfilling the mitzvah of learning Torah," the man protested.

The Chayei Adam responded, "Now I understand the words of our sages: 'One who says I only have Torah does not even have Torah.' If one does not learn to apply his knowledge, what earthly difference is there whether he learned or not?"

Much like halacha, mussar is the practical application of Torah into action since it is impossible in our day to have a properly balanced relationship with Hashem or one's fellow man without a genuine path in mussar or Chassidus.

Between Man And His Fellow-Man

As soon as there rises from the beinoni's heart to his mind any animosity or hatred, G-d forbid, or jealousy, anger or a grudge, and their like, he will bar them from his mind and will. On the contrary, his mind will prevail over and dominate the feelings of his heart, to do the exact opposite namely, to conduct himself toward his fellow with the quality of chesed and to display towards his fellow a disproportionate love, in suffering from him to the furthest extreme, without being provoked into anger.

(Baal HaTanya)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Question & Answer With Rabbi Micha Golshevsky - Becoming A Breslover Chassid

A Simple Jew asks:

How did your discovery of the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov lead you to become a Breslover chassid?

Rabbi Micha Golshevsky answers:

I was raised in a frum family, my father is a congregational rabbi, and from high school onward I went to regular Litvishe yeshivos, and got along well in that environment. Eventually, I came to learn in Israel with Rabbi Meiselman at Toras Moshe, but I also had the advantage of having a large family network in Yerushalayim with whom I was able to associate. My father's two brothers came to live here decades ago; both of them married into very prominent Litvishe families, but one of them became a Breslover many years ago. I was close with both of my uncles and their families, but I learned with my uncle Simcha z"l especially, and he was the Breslover uncle. Even so, he was very low-key with me and did not discuss Breslov with me at all. After all, we all have the same boundless Torah from Sinai, so it's not as if there was nothing to speak about. Both chassid and misnaged must learn gemara and halachah, Midrash, as well as Rishonim and Achronim.

This uncle, though, had been a student of Rav Shach, zt"l, had done shimush with Rav Meir Bransdorfer, yibadel l'chaim tovim, and was a prominent talmid chochom in his own right who had been a Rosh Kollel, had taught in Aish HaTorah for eight years, and who was also serving as a maggid shiur in a Breslover yeshiva. My uncle Simcha's father-in-law was the famous Rav Binyamin Zilber, zt"l, to whom the Chazon Ish, zt"l, referred as "Binyamin HaTzaddik"—he was from the earlier generation of Novhardoker talmidim, along with the Steipler, zt"l. (How Rav Binyamin chose Uncle Simcha for a chosson is a good story in its own right!)

Although my uncle was kind enough to learn with me during the afternoon seder and I definitely respected him as a huge lamdan, I showed no real interest in any kind of chassidus, let alone Breslov. If you had asked me then, I would have told you that I found that chassidic teachings simply didn't speak to me and felt no need to learn them. This is not surprising since most of my family were misnagdim. I had a closed mind to chassidus, so it is not at all surprising that I had no interest in its teachings. I have since found that most of the concepts with which most people are uncomfortable in chassidus are also found in other pre- or non-chassidic sources such as the Maharal, Ramchal, Ohr Hachaim and the Shelah Hakadosh, as well as the writings of the Vilna Gaon and his students, such as the Nefesh Hachaim. Chassidus didn't emerge from a vacuum, although it does teach us what to focus on.

During my first year in Israel, my uncle lost his wife of close to twenty-eight years. Less than a year later, my (younger) cousin, Moshe Golshevsky, got engaged to be married (to the grand-daughter of Rav Shmuel Horowitz, zt"l). Understandably, this was an especially joyous time for the entire family. The Shabbos before the wedding arrived. The chasan was slated to be called to the Torah in Breslov Meah She'arim.

As many know, Rebbe Nachman said that one should daven as early as possible. At the very least, one should not miss the Magen Avraham times. In the main Breslov shul, there are two minyanim: one for vasikin, and the second early enough to make the Magen Avraham time. Even so, I found myself at a late seudah Friday night, still up at 11PM with no sign of sleep in sight. Waking up early was never my forte.

Sometimes, with a very powerful alarm, I would manage to get out of bed fairly early. That Shabbos I had not set an alarm and I realized that I had two choices: either go to sleep and wake up with no chance of making it to the shul for my cousin's aufruf, or to stay up all night in the Breslov shul so that I wouldn't run the risk of missing it. I figured that I would daven with the sunrise minyan, put my head down and sort of wake up in time for the second minyan.

I looked at staying up all night as an opportunity to grab some hours of learning, but after an hour or two, I could no longer focus on gemara. I decided to scout around to see if there was something in English that I would likely be able to learn. After a quick search I found a book by one of my all-time favorite authors, Rav Aryeh Kaplan, zt"l. Although I had never read any of his translations of Rebbe Nachman's works, I was familiar with other writings of his. The sefer was a translation of Shivchei and Sichos HaRan that had been compiled together as "Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom." I opened to the first part, "His Praise," and did not relate at all to the incredible avodos of Rebbe Nachman. It was very impressive, but it just did not speak to me. It took only a few minutes to discern that although the English was great, I was not holding by reading through the first part of the book at all. I decided to flip ahead to "His Wisdom." What I found spoke to me in the most direct, the most powerful and moving way—more than any sefer mussar or machshavah had ever done. It was completely gripping and I read the entire remainder of the night literally on the edge of my seat.

I was particularly impressed with Rebbe Nachma's practical advice, especially that one must always be fresh, having good thoughts, and his general recommendations. I was also astounded by the potent chizuk and yiras Shomayim that permeated the sefer. I found myself completely inspired and renewed by the time it was time to daven.

That Sunday, my grandmother was slated to arrive in Israel for the wedding and I traveled with my uncle to meet her. Virtually the first thing I said after we got into the taxi was, "Please teach me something about Breslov…"

My uncle may have been a little surprised at my sudden interest, but he didn't show it. Instead he said, "Do you know what Azamra is?" (That is Likutei Moharan I:282)

"Nope," I blithely replied.

"How can you not be familiar with Azamra? It's the most essential lesson of Rebbe Nachman and definitely the first thing that anyone interested in Rebbe Nachman should know!" And we started from there. The more I studied, the more I found that Rebbe Nachman's teachings both spoke to me and helped me in the areas that troubled me.

I traveled with my uncle and cousins the following Rosh HaShanah to Uman and have been going ever since. That must have been about seventeen years ago. The kibbutz was definitely different in those years! It was maybe two years after the Russians had first opened Uman to the public—if you think the logistics are a pain today, you should have seen it then!

One note: I did not adopt the outward forms of the usual Yerushalmi Breslover dress (except that I did stop trimming my beard) until I was married, with the support of my wife, because I felt that it was positive for me spiritually. But I was definitely a Breslover.

Tachanun In Breslov

(Picture by M. Gerhardt)

Excerpt from the Breslov Center's "Breslov Weekday Customs" document (.pdf):

Tachanun: On yahrtzeits of tzaddikim and Gedolei Torah, Breslover Chassidim recite Tachanun. This is in contrast to certain other Chassidic groups that omit Tachanun at these times. (The reason usually given for omitting Tachanun is because a tzaddik ascends to greater heights on his yahrtzeit, thus it is a day of joy in the supernal worlds for him and for all who share a spiritual bond with him. However, this custom is not found in the Shulchan Arukh or Zohar. Other Chassidic communities that recite Tachanun on yahrtzeits of tzaddikim include Chabad and Munkatch.)

"A Greater Obligation"

Footnote in the Artscroll Kitzur Shulchan Aruch:

See Mishnah Berura 1:12 and Shaar HaTziyun 26 who cites Chayei Adam which states that studying sifrei mussar is a greater obligation than that of studying Mishnayos.

The Focus of Shovavim

Shovavim is a time to repair ourselves and guard against depression, anger, and arrogance.

(Toldos Aharon)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"All You Need To Do Is Ask!"

Early Sunday morning, I asked the Sudilkover Rebbe what we should be doing about the situation in Eretz Yisroel.

The Rebbe answered with the following parable:

A person is travelling through a desert and has run out of water. All of a suden an angel appears to him and tells him that if asks for just one thing, Hashem will answer him.

What do you think that this thirsty person should ask for?

The Rebbe said that most people answer this question by saying that the man dying of thirst should ask for a glass of water. However, the truly intelligent person answers this question by saying that he should ask to be saved and returned to the comfort of his home.

In this time of sakana (danger), we can certainly say more kapitlach of Tehillim, however we need not focus our tefillos on interim goals of the IDF's success in Gaza or the safety of civilians during rocket attacks, we need only to focus our tefillos on the ultimate goal; Moshiach.

The Rebbe said that people are spending too much time listening to the news and not enough time internalizing the hints that are being sent to us. Each day, Hashem is telling us "My precious children, I will send you Moshiach and release you from golus, all you need to do is ask!"

17 Teves Links - יז טבת

(Picture by S. Kaestner)

Mystical Paths: Fasting on Shovavim

Rabbi Nasan Maimon: Shovavim & Tehillim (Audio Shiur)

Lazer Beams: Ashdod's Way of Fighting Evil

Rabbi Ari Enkin: Musings on Gaza

Surrounding You

But as for one who trusts in Hashem, kindness surrounds him.

(Tehillim 32:10)

Monday, January 12, 2009

5½ Hours

Immediately after the news of the Mumbai Massacre was released, the Sudilkover Rebbe contacted me and informed me that he had to delay his upcoming visit to the United States in order to attend the levaya of his close friend Rabbi Leibish Teitelbaum, HY"D.

Even before receiving this news and the news of the horrible attrocity, I had felt that I was in prolonged period of mochin d'katnus due to numerous things that were happening in my personal life. All of these events compounded led to to my decision to take a three-week break from blogging in order to recharge my batteries.

During the week of Parshas Vayishlach, my phone rang minutes before my weekly shiur in Likutey Moharan. The Sudilkover Rebbe was on the other side of the line calling from Boro Park telling me that he had just arrived in the United States. I replied by telling him that I would definitely come to see him the following week since I missed the opportunity earlier in the year.

The Rebbe's phone call immediately gave me a burst of enthusiasm that I had not felt for a long while. I had difficulty that night sleeping and my mind raced with anticipation of the trip. I quickly made train tickets for the following Tuesday and took care of all the other logistical details in lightening speed. I tried to write down a list of questions to ask the Rebbe. In my excitement, however, I had great difficulty remembering anything that I had not had the opportunity to ask him in the past.

Tuesday finally arrived and auspiciosly it coincided with Yud Tes Kislev. Turning off 16th Avenue in Boro Park, I walked down a side street until I came to the basement apartment where the Rebbe was staying. He ushered me in with a smile and a hug and then we sat down to discuss a wide variety of topics. Understanding the distance I had come to see him, the Rebbe told me that he had devoted his whole afternoon to spending time with me.

I began by asking him the only question that I could remember: of all the teachings in Degel Machaneh Ephraim, which one did he find the most inspirational and consider to be central to understanding the derech of the Degel.

The Rebbe responded that the answer to this question was not simple; it has to be answered with an understanding of the level of each person asking. For the majority of people, he said that the first piece in Parshas Ekev on emuna and hischadshus (self-renewal), was the piece to concentrate on and live with. For himself, however, he said that he would often reflect on the teachings from Parshas Noach and Parshas Vayishlach in which the Degel lambasted those who falsely and pretentiously exhibited only the outer trappings of piety.

The Rebbe candidly told me that during the few occasions when he finally had time alone he would ask himself whether he was one of these people whom the Degel spoke out so harshly against; whether he even had the right to call himself the "Sudilkover Rebbe" and wear rebbeishe kleider (clothes worn by a rebbe) on Shabbos and during the week days. He would repeatedly ask himself whether his holy zeide, the Degel, would be pleased with him, or chas v'shalom, be angered by this person who claimed to be carrying on his derech. The Rebbe explained that he continually focused on these two pieces in Degel Machaneh Ephraim as a way to ensure that he always approached his avodas Hashem with complete honesty.

I was absolutely amazed to hear these words that provided a glimpse into the inner world of a rebbe. Perhaps of all the insights that I received during the 5½ hours that I was with him, this was the most remarkable. Days later, I understood that the main lesson that I received from him during this visit was that I must ensure that my focus on hischadshus is counterbalanced with a focus on emes.

My mind has still not completely settled and coherently organized all the disparate pieces of information from our time together. With Hashem's help, I will write more postings detailing the things that I learned during the hours that I spent with the Rebbe; hours that I consider to be some of the most precious hours of my entire year.

The Source of Attraction

When traveling to the tzaddik, the nearer he comes to the place of the tzaddik , the greater his desire becomes, because he is approaching the source of attraction.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Hint For Tomorrow's Posting

Reservation Number: 089C2

Passenger 1: (Adult)

Service: 130 Northeast Regional

New York - Penn Station, NY (NYP)
16-DEC-08; 9:59 am

Why Not Maseches Berachos?

His masechta of choice for newcomers was Mishnayos Zevachim, the detailed and specific laws of the mizbeiach and korbanos, because in his own words, "everything is so precise that it's impossible to fool yourself."

Friday, January 09, 2009

One Among Many

Neil Harris asks:

Do you find that people behave differently in in the workplace due to your Torah observance?

A Simple Jew answers:


Drawing Them Close With Both Hands

וְעֵינֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּבְדוּ מִזֹּקֶן, לֹא יוּכַל לִרְאוֹת; וַיַּגֵּשׁ אֹתָם אֵלָיו, וַיִּשַּׁק לָהֶם וַיְחַבֵּק לָהֶם

Now Israel's eyes had become dim with age; he could not see. So he drew them near to him, and he kissed them and embraced them. (Bereishis 48:10)

Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Parshas Vayechi:

Israel's eyes - This refers to the tzaddikim who are the eyes of Israel.

had become dim - The eyes of the tzaddikim had become dim from observing the deeds of Israel.

with age
- Because of their evil deeds, the people became very "old" and so accustomed to their manner of behavior that it seemed to them like a license. It is therefore totally impossible for the tzaddik to rebuke them concerning their behavior.

he drew them near to him - Viewing the people's evils deeds is difficult for the tzaddik, nevertheless, he still draws them near to him and thinks, "Your people Israel are all tzaddikim. Even the sinners of Israel are full of mitzvos as a pomegranate."

and he kissed them and embraced them - The tzaddik brings near those who want to become close.... For this is the way of the tzaddik, to continually plead for favor for Israel, the holy people, and to draw them close with two hands in love and affection.

13 Teves Links - יג טבת

(Picture courtesy of

A Chassidishe fabrengen: Chassidishe friendship

Halacha For Today: Daily E-mail List

Sofer of Tzfat: "Kesef v'Zahav Chesed v'Emes Aluf"

The Innermost Gate

On Shabbos everything is united; it is the innermost gate.

(Degel Machaneh Ephraim)

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Track Changes & Formatting Tefillos

I absolutely loathe the Track Changes function on Microsoft Word because I routinely have to review documents in which numerous people have added in their comments and corrections. By the time I receive the document, it looks like a band of vandals directed by Jackson Pollock were unleashed on it and I am left to make sense out of it and prepare a clean copy.

My experience dealing with the Track Changes function, however, has helped me in understanding a teaching in Likutey Moharan. In Likutey Moharan # 30, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught:

We must accept rebuke from the tzaddikim, even though occasionally they belittle us in the process. For we must judge them favorably, since, “A person is not held responsible for what he says in his pain” (Bava Basra 16b) — and indeed, the tzaddikim suffer great pain from us. All our mundane activities and conversations are certainly evil as far as the tzaddikim are concerned. But even our good – namely, our prayers, which for us would be considered good — are also bad for the tzaddikim.

For our prayers distract and confuse them greatly, insofar as they are intermixed with extraneous thoughts, distractions and confusion of all kinds; and these prayers with all their attendant confusion come to the tzaddikim to be elevated. Therefore the tzaddikim rebuke us sometimes in a humiliating manner.

Tzaddikim receive our tefillos in a very similar manner to how I receive Word documents; jumbled up with sidebar comments and containing coherent thoughts hidden amidst the layers of confusing multicolored formatting. It is only in their in their great kedusha are they able to elevate these tefillos and bring them up to Hashem.

Putting Everything Aside

Despite the profound levels of understanding that I attained in the supernal roots of the Torah and the mitzvos, and despite all the spiritual ecstasy that I experienced, I put everything aside to serve Hashem in simple faith. I am a fool and believe – Ich bin a naar un gleib! And even though it is written: "A fool believes in everything," it is also written: "G-d protects the fools" (Tehillim 116:6).

(Baal Shem Tov)

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Question & Answer With Yitz - Realistic Expectations

A Simple Jew asks:

How are you able to maintain realistic expectations for your avodas Hashem? Have there been cases where you have stumbled because of unrealistic expections of yourself?

Yitz of A Waxing Wellspring answers:

I think you should have asked the question in reverse: Have there been times where you've succeeded to set realistic expectations for your avodat HaShem? How do you deal with failure in your unrealistic expectations? That's closer to the truth, I think.

There were a few stages in the development of my avodat HaShem centered around a couple of major realizations which enabled me to gain some semblance of control in my inner life.

First, I realized that HaShem is always open to developing our relationship. Even when HaShem is hiding, He's only hiding so we'll work harder to find Him. He's never shutting us down and holding us back, He's always challenging us to grow. (Which is a good role model for parenting by the way.)

Knowing that HaShem is always waiting for us to connect is well and good, but all that does is put the pressure squarely on us. It's all or nothing, it's entirely up to us. Two things help me through this: 1. Rebbe Nachman teaches, and he really meant it, that being happy is the primary mitzwah. (If you aren't happy, you will fall sooner rather than later) 2. HaShem is willing to help us.

It took me a long time to realize that even when the entire relationship rests on my shoulders, HaShem is open to me asking Him for help. Whenever I don't feel up to the challenge, I say to HaShem, you have to make it easier HaShem, I know You know what You're doing but I need You to help me.

Think about a relationship like a marriage, both sides have to give and take, right? Well, in your relationship with HaShem, it's like you have the most flexible, understanding, and accommodating spouse in the world. BUT, you need to take responsibility for yourself. Just like your spouse would be remiss in letting you ruin your own life or causing yourself real and lasting damage, so too does HaShem expect you to take care of your life and avoid intentional harm.

The lesson that happiness is always a work in progress is a crucial one. Rebbe Nachman goes into great detail describing all of the harm that comes from sadness. But it was the Tanya that taught me that even sadness can't stop you from being happy. You can be happy at the same time as you are sad. Sadness in no way rules out happiness. How? well, sadness resides in the left side of your heart, and happiness in the right side. (This is distinctly different from the mind, which Rebbe Nachman explains is only capable of conceiving a single thought at a time.)

In addition to the Tanya, the teaching of Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, in his Tzeitel HaKatan, that in just forty days you can completely change your nature, was invaluable. In just forty days of concerted effort, you can entirely overcome a negative character trait. Forty days is a palatable amount of time, it's not a year, it's not half a year, it's barely more than a month. Once you believe something just might be possible, you've overcome one of the biggest hurdles.

The last and most important realization only really came with practice: A little bit over enough time adds up to a whole lot. If there's a sefer I really really really want to learn, then all I have to do is learn it for ten minutes a day. Every day. Or once a week. But those are the only slots I allow myself, an every day slot, or a once a week slot. And I stick to them with all my effort. Most importantly though, if I slip up, I let it go and pick up the next day, or next week. I'm loath to add any schedule that I know I won't be able to stick to for at least a month.

When you really want to take on a challenge/schedule/learning-regimen you cannot possibly maintain, then tell yourself when you start that you will hold on as long as you can, and be happy with whatever you accomplish, and won't be upset when you fail, because going into the challenge you knew it was impossible. In this way I've learned some masechtot in days or weeks, and did Daf Yomi for a month here or there, rather than looking back and remembering that I twice started Daf Yomi to no avail, I know I learned masechet Berachot in Daf Yomi. In this way I managed to learn all of Tikkunei Zohar this past Elul through Yom Kippur. Every day I said to myself: "I'm not going to give up today, but maybe tomorrow, there's no way I'll make it through to the end, I'm just happy I got this far."

The only way to stay happy is to not let slip-ups get you down. Every positive accomplishment is a huge success and every failure doesn't even register, except as a learning experience. When you fail, you take away any quick lessons about how to avoid that failure in future and just move on.

The secret of my avodah centers entirely around the teaching (I believe it is in Masechet Berachot) that HaShem takes every good intention as if it were a good deed. I rely on HaShem utterly and completely in this regard. In shamayim I'm a gadol haDor, simply by the sheer volume of Torah I want to be learning, the volume of Tzedakah I want to be giving.

The only catch is keeping myself honest. When I say to HaShem I want to be learning Torah, it means if I catch myself browsing the web or reading a book (or watching TV, something I have no ready defenses against) then I have to call myself on it and pick up a sefer, show HaSHem I mean it. But if I catch myself trying to be a Tzaddik, and I want to learn tomorrow's page/chapter/section today, I stop myself -- Rebbe Nachman teaches that the Yetzer Hara encourages you to learn a lot today so that you won't learn at all tomorrow. If you find that every day you have extra time, take on another small seder in learning. Or, the hardest seder of all is to repeat the same learning twice.

Every morning after Shacharit I learn the daily Tanya, something I've been doing now for about 5-6 years. (which is a very long time to keep any kind of schedule for me.) When I had first started I used to learn a perek a day, and once I discovered that Chabad had a daily breakdown for Tanya learning, I switched over to that. The problem is sometimes I feel like the breaks aren't natural and splitting a perek between a few days makes me lose track of the flow of the ideas. (my main problem with Daf Yomi as well.) So for a while I've been thirsting to go back to the perek-a-day style of Tanya learning, but I thought maybe my Yetzer was trying to trip me up, so instead I started learning the daily Tanya section twice in a row. You know how much harder it is to learn a section twice? It's harder than learning a section twice as long once.. much harder. Every day you are faced with the temptation to skimp on the second reading; Or to rush through the first reading. On the mornings when the learning is longer (usually Thursday for some reason) you read it through knowing that you're going to have to go back over this all again, that's a big challenge when you are running late or the gabbai wants to close the shul.

Lastly I just wanted to deal with an interesting part of our avodah: When we feel like HaShem is telling us something. It's so easy to get stuck deep in the mud when we start trying to figure out what it is that HaShem wants from us. I have two simple tools for avoiding these issues: 1. Asking HaShem to make His will more clear. 2. Choose arbitrarily and assess later to see whether the choice feels right.

When it seems like I'm getting hints about how I should perform mitzwoth, what I should learn, what I should do with my life, that's when it's time to say to HaShem: "I'm sorry HaShem, it's just not clear enough, I don't understand, please make it clearer. I realize I'm only simple, please make it glaringly obvious. I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing until you make it clearer, because what I've been doing is my best guess at what I should be doing to properly serve you. Please open my eyes so I can understand your desires more clearly, so I can better serve you."

When I start to really go crazy about signs and hints, I remind myself that my rule is: "Only opportunities are true signs from HaShem." If HaShem sends me a choice, an option, an opportunity, only then will I expend my limited time and resources assessing its relevance to my avodah. If it's just a hint or an idea, but no opportunity is presented, I revert back to the first stage of asking HaShem to clarify the matter for my simple mind. If there is an opportunity and I find myself agonizing over it, then I obviously ask HaShem for clarity, but I often tell myself that either outcome is the same and the choice is an arbitrary one--both ways lead closer to HaShem. When the decision is particularly confusing and time-consuming, it's usually an indication that there really isn't an opportunity at all, and whichever option I choose, the outcome will force my hand in the right direction.

So I guess the short and simple answer is this:

I know that HaShem is there to help me no matter what. I know that HaShem will take care of me if I really screw up. And, I know that everything in life can lead me closer to HaShem.

Of course the safety line is being connected to a Tzaddik who can throw you a lifeline when you've gone astray.