Wednesday, January 26, 2011


This afternoon, an African American woman on the subway asked me if I was a Chassidic Jew. I hestitated for a moment and replied that I was just an Orthodox Jew.

How could I quickly explain to her that although I am not a chassid, I aspire to be one; that I learn Chassidus everyday, am connected to a Chassidic Rebbe, and adhere to a number of Chassidic practices and yet I am still not a Chassidic Jew?

This leads to a deeper question: At what point can I call myself a chassid? It is a both a level and also identity. It is something that can be defined, and yet no amount of words can properly define it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Guest Posting by Rabbi Dovid Sears: Two Metaphors From the RaMaK

Photo © Dovid Sears

In his classic work of kabbalistic ethics, Tomer Devorah (“The Palm Tree of Deborah”), Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570, also known as the RaMaK) explains how each of the ten sefiros, or Divine powers in creation, instructs us about character traits and behaviors, which we should try to cultivate. The underlying is the well-known principle of Chazal that one should emulate God: “Just as God is gracious and merciful, so you should be gracious and merciful” (Sifre, Devorim 49; Sota 14a).

In his discussion of the sefirah of Keter / Crown (Chapter 2), he offers much advice. One of several points he mentions is that one should respect all creatures, recognizing in them the exaltedness of God, Who created them with wisdom. If one were to disparage any creature, this would reflect on the Creator of All.

Then he goes on to say that one should love all humanity—even the wicked. One should say in his heart, “If only they would renounce their evil and become tzaddikim, they would all be great people and find favor before God!”

How should he awaken this love for them?

The RaMaK suggests that he tell himself two things: 1. “If this poor, despicable person were extremely wealthy, I would delight in his company, as I delight in the company of so-and-so. 2. If he were dressed in the finest garments like so-and-so, there would be no difference between them. If so, why should he lack esteem in my sight?”

Then he concludes with still another concept: “Since this person is crushed with poverty and suffering, which cleanse one of sin, this shows that God cares about him and is bringing about his purification. Therefore, I should regard him as superior to myself, in that he is beloved of God.” Thus, I will see the other in a positive light.

These two metaphors for the wicked need explanation, as does the last paragraph.

The first mashal, or metaphor, is based on the dichotomy of rich and poor; the second, to well-dressed and badly-dressed. When I first read this paragraph, I was troubled by both meshalim. Should one honor people because they are rich or well-dressed, and dishonor them if the opposite is the case? Certainly not. But the RaMaK seems to be addressing the ordinary reader, and we see all around us that these attitudes are commonplace. Therefore, he is using them to point out a deeper truth in his present context, namely how one should regard those whose spiritual and moral condition is one of poverty or shabbiness. His point is that we need to look beyond such externals.

What is the difference between the two metaphors?

Spiritual poverty refers to one’s lack of higher knowledge; one doesn’t know what life in this transitory world is all about. As Chazal state, “Ein oni eleh bi-de’ah . . . The only pauper is one who lacks knowledge” (Nedarim 41a). The RaMaK is telling us that as great as this knowledge is, in a sense it is external—because each one of us is a “work in progress,” and our ignorance can be corrected. Thus when we encounter this lack, we must not pass final judgement. The next year or day or moment, the lights may go on, and everything will be different.

As for the second metaphor, our spiritual garments are mitzvos and ma’asim tovim, our good deeds. In this case, the other’s behavior is deficient, not his wisdom. This, too, is an external factor that may be corrected in time.

Anybody who has gone through big changes in life knows this truth: a person is much more than simply his or her present condition. We all have our ups and downs, and we all are constantly changing. Therefore, we should judge others with a good eye and seek what Rebbe Nachman of Breslov calls their “good points” (Likutey Moharan I, 282). And he assures us that by viewing others this way, they will sense it on some level and be moved to change for the better in actual fact.

This brings us to the third paragraph, which states that God cleanses a person through poverty and suffering—for despite all appearances, the wicked suffer constantly. (“Who is the rich man? He who rejoices in his lot,” Avos 4:1—which leaves the wicked in a perpetual state of mental poverty.) This cleansing process indicates that there is always hope, and that the internal factor is not affected by our outer vagaries. Something within us is indestructible, beyond change.

One last observation: In his second mashal, the RaMaK says that if the shabbily-dressed man wore the same finery as the handsomely attired fellow, “there would be no difference between them.” On the simple level, he seems to mean that they would look the same and make an equally good impression. But maybe we can read this in a deeper sense: If we all were to garb ourselves in mitzvos and ma’asim tovim, we would all enter the domain of kedushah and goodness. And there, all is one.