Monday, June 30, 2008

Question & Answer With Long Beach Chasid - Gerrer Chassidus

A Simple Jew asks:

You have recently written about your attraction to Gerrer Chassidus. What specifically did you find in Gerrer seforim that you did not find in other seforim that you have learned? Could you imagine yourself becoming a Gerrer Chassid one day?

Long Beach Chasid answers:

Gerrer Chassidus is something beautiful. Not to say that any other form of Chassidus lacks but Gerrer has something in it that ignites my neshama. A Chabad Chasid once told me "Our Chassidus is Chabad and all the rest of Chassidus is Chagas." I smiled reviewing that weeks parsha that the Sfas Emes delivered a maamer on some 130 years ago.

I thought that if this Yid thinks that only Chabad has knowledge wisdom and understanding he has never read anything by the Sfas Emes. My exposure to Chassidus is limited to Chabad, Breslov, Bostoner, and Gerrer Chassidus. What really attracts me to the Sfas Emes is his emphasis on Shabbos and the Weekday. Ger Chassidim were very poor and Kollel wasn't an option. Even the Sfas Emes and his grandfather the Chiddushei HaRim had businesses. Since I have a job and can't devote my whole day to learning, I especially rely on Shabbos to bring kedusha into my life. The Sfas Emes always goes the non-pshat route and the end result is always inspiring. Sure, all Chassidus is intellectual and really makes you understand the deepness of the Torah, but until the Sfas Emes I was never giddy when learning. I'm talking about clap your hands like you are 6 years-old excited. Once I was at a shuir at a very Litvak shul and the Rav quoted the Sfas Emes and the Yidden soaked up every word. That's when I knew he wasn't just any Rebbe. Because even the Litvaks respect his teachings which ones again unites Jews and leaves behind the segregation of Chassidish and Misnagish Torah. Which also made me realize or so it seems that only Chabad continues the terminological mishugas of the Misnag vs Chasid.

Pesach was a defining moment in my learning of the Sfas Emes. I actually quoted him as I spoke in front of a Chabad Shul on the last days of Pesach. It was my first time speaking Torah in front of a large group and I wasn't sure how they would take hearing Torah from someone other than their Rebbe.

In his maamer on Pesach he takes the pasuk of the Hagadah that says that every year we should celebrate as if we are personally leaving Mitzrayim. So instead of trying to picture ourselves as slaves 3000 years ago leaving Egypt the Sfas Emes takes it as usual right out of Pshat mode. He says we should look at what Mitzrayim represents. It represents the truly evil, mundane, and materialistic. This is all still here in Galus. He is saying that to relive the exodus we much bring it into our own life and like they Yidden of Egypt we must leave behind all that Mitzrayim represents today.

It really stuck with me how the Sfas Emes always makes the Torah relate to his Chasidim. Even 137 years later I am able to relate to him on the other side of the world from where he once lived. Other Rebbes do this, but it is unique for me at least in the way the Sfas Emes does this. Yes he is able to get the deep understanding from the Torah and explain what the stories represent and how things happened, but to really connect as a Jew for me at least it is to do like the Alter Rebbe of Chabad said "Live with the times". I'm able to guide my life with Torah based on the teachings of the Sfas Emes. He tells us that if you cant sit in a room and learn Torah all day, that you can go out to work during the week and find Holiness because everything is from HKB. That not only can the Shabbos make the weekday more holy but vice versa.

Its not that other Seforim lack this, but I just relate better to the way the Sfas Emes relays his message.

I could become a Gerrer Chassid. However, I don't know how the politics work now that the shtetl life is gone. Pre-War I could have simply traveled to Ger but I'm not exactly sure how this works now. Do they accept baal teshuva easily? Now that I'm married I also have a wife to consider. Is the way the woman dress, their freedom, etc conflicting with the ideals of my wife. As for now our plan is to learn in Israel for a month in July and daven at their shul, and speak to some of them. I pray that Gerrer Rebbe and chassidim of today reflect what I feel the Sfas Emes stands for, and if this is the case then we found our place.

27 Sivan Links - כז סיון

(Picture by T. Ecklund)

Dixie Yid: Mapping out the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh Seforim

Letters of Thought: Let's Do Coffee Sometime

Revach L'Neshama: A Rough Last Week of The Month

Zoo Torah: The Long Eared Jerboa

Giving & Taking

If one wants not only to remove all negativity from actions, feelings, and thoughts, but also to build for himself a world of purity and goodness, he must first of all think deeply: what is the purpose of a person in his world? He must think about what builds him and what destroys him. Giving is the root of building, while taking is the root of destruction. Once this has become clear to a person, and he contemplates the concepts and sees their truth, he must make a deep commitment in life. Is he ready to devote his life to giving, or will he surrender to his material part and look to take?

(Rabbi Itamar Schwartz)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Guest Posting By Alice Jonsson - A Bas Noach Learning Tehillim

(Painting by Baruch Nachshon)

Recently I have begun studying Psalms with a local Rabbi. I had been looking for a way to further my Torah education by going a bit more in-depth than a beginner course. I also wanted to be able to ask lots of questions without slowing down the whole class. I want to go deep, but at the same time, I must admit I have huge gaps in my Torah knowledge and want to be able to fill those in – a bit of a contradiction. So why not arrange something that would work privately? This I recommend for anyone.

I met with a local Rabbi with whom I and some other Bnei Noach study. We brainstormed subject matter that we would both be interested in pursuing. The massive gap in my knowledge of Jewish history/Torah starts at the kings and goes to about the so called Dark Ages, which, as I understand, in terms of Jewish scholarship weren’t dark at all. But that’s another class. Since I know very little about the Psalms we settled there. We are working our way through each one, one per meeting.

Reading such profound, beautiful, enormously important, popular, influential, and sacred poetry is a joy unto itself. Doing so with a very well educated Rabbi adds so much. The fact that I can’t read Hebrew is very limiting. Rabbi can convey the texture, tone, and movement of the language so that it feels like reading a very different poem.

One aspect of poetry, for example, involves economy of language. Often, and clearly this is the case with the Psalms, each word is chosen very carefully – even going beyond meaning. To which sense or senses is the word appealing? Does it convey motion of any sort? How does the motion it conveys relate to the story within the Psalm, or the message of the Psalm? Is it a formal word or an informal word? Is there a play on words involved? Are there various meanings?

Rhythm of language can be totally thrown off in translation, obviously, especially when the grammar of the languages is so different. Is there a repetition of beginning sounds – or middle, or end? All of this would be pretty much impossible for me to analyze on my own.

Thus far we haven’t focused so much on authorship, solely because we can’t do it all. Rabbi teaches about the structure of the Psalms in terms of stitches, stanzas, and how ideas and messages within the Psalm often follow a formula of sorts.

Of course interlaced throughout we are discussing the religious message of the Psalm and how it applies to one’s life. This particular rabbi is also well educated about other religions, American and European history, and even philosophical movements that have impacted religious life, so we also spend a fair amount of time exploring how some ideas relayed in the Psalms have influenced other faiths or are rejected by other faiths.

If I compare how it feels to study the Psalms versus how it feels to study Chumash, which I also love studying, it’s much more emotional for me. It sounds strange perhaps, but it feels like I am connecting with all of the people who have read the Psalm and been moved by it too because of the way poetry gets into your heart and head in ways studying a book on mussar or a page from Deuteronomy can’t. Clearly they can connect with you in ways that a Psalm might not; it goes both ways.

There is a lyrical quality to a Psalm, even translated, that touches a part of the mind that nothing else quite touches. For example, I was in a toy shop with my son and picked up a fuzzy, stuffed robot that had a clunky little bell in it. The little per plinky plonk sound raced me back to the 1960s. It brought back a sense memory that I didn’t know I had stored away. That’s sort of the place that gets activated when learning Psalms for some reason. When this is combined with a powerful spiritual message, it is an inspiring way to spend an evening. It’s like a heart to heart meeting with the Torah.

24 Sivan Links - כד סיון

(Picture by F. De Gennaro)

A Simple Jew: My Great Uncle

Mystical Paths: Blue Strings

A Fire Burns in Breslov: "Do Not Be Like Korach…" A Righteous Tree

Insurmountable Obstacles

When a Jew is determined to live and carry out his mission in life in accordance with the will of Hashem, he receives aid from on High to overcome even insurmountable obstacles.

(Lubavitcher Rebbe)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Separated From The Community

(Illustration by Issachar Ber Ryback)

Chassidim from Dubno once desired to create a separate kehillah in order not to be under the city’s rabbi who was an opponent of Chassidus, the renowned gaon, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Margulies, author of “Shaarei Teshuvah”. Hoping to find a sympathetic ear, the Chassidim travelled to Sudilkov and asked the Degel Machaneh Ephraim to give them permission to create a break-away kehillah. The Degel responded with these words:

"You would like to be zealots for Hashem on behalf of Chassidus in Dubno. However, let's see who the holy Torah defines as zealots. There are two who are defined as such: Korach and Pinchas. The Torah says, 'And Korach took' regarding Korach. Yet Onkelos translates this as 'And Korach separated himself'. This means that he separated himself from the community - and everyone knows what his end was. Pinchas, on the other hand, was also a zealot, but he was a zealot 'amongst them'. This means that he remained within the community and did not go out on his own. Regarding him it says, 'Behold I am giving him my covenant of peace.'"

Hearing this explanation, the Chassidim decided not pursue their plans to create a break-away kehillah. They returned to Dubno and Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Margulies remained the rabbi for both the Chassidim and the Misnagdim.

23 Sivan Links - כג סיון

(Picture courtesy of

Circus Tent: Remembering the Vanished Kehillos

A Fire Burns in Breslov: The Nature of Sin

Hirhurim: Tekheles Strings

Lazer Beams: Ups, not Downs

Dixie Yid: Machlokes Does Not Truly Exist

Breslov World: The Power of Personal Example

Guest Posting By Rabbi Shmuel Rosenberg - Minhag Yisroel Torah He

I heard the following story from Rav Gavriel Tzinner, shlita, author of Neta Gavriel, an encyclopedic work on minhagim, and a respected Rov in Borough Park. Since I'm a sofer, he mentioned this to me:

Once a group of non-Jews came to the leaders of a certain Jewish community to sell them a Sefer Torah. However, the Jews didn't know if it was written by a Jew or a gentile (in which case it would not be valid). So they asked the illustrious Rav Akiva Aiger. He simply said, "Minhag Yisroel Torah He (the custom of Israel has the status of law)."

They didn't understand him, so he explained what he meant: the "Minhag Yisroel" is to leave a few lines at the end of the Torah for the sium (ceremony of finishing the writing, followed by a celebration) in which the letters are hollow -- just outlined. The people in the community are given the honor of filling them in, and of course, these last words usually gets slightly messed up, because most people don't know how to use the kulmos (quill). (When I write a Sefer Torah, I go over it after the siyum to fix it up and make it as nice as possible.) So Rav Akiva Eiger told the group, "If you see that they followed the minhag Yisroel on this Torah and the writing at the end is messed up a bit, then 'Torah He' -- then it's a kosher Torah. But if it looks too perfect at the end, then you know it was written by a non-Jew and should not be purchased."

So we see from this how important a Jewish custom can be!

The Seat Of Strength

The seat of strength is in the heart. A person whose heart is firm has no need to be afraid of any thing or any person. Such a person can achieve awesome feats and win mighty battles merely through the firmness and steadfastness of his heart. He is never afraid and he does not run from the sight of a fierce battle. So is it in the service of Hashem. Understand this well.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - The Seven Beggars’ Wondrous Gifts - Part 2

(Painting by Baruch Nachshon)

In Rabbi Nachman’s story of the Seven Beggars, each one of the wandering holy men gives the young bride and groom his most essential quality as a wedding present, this being his most fitting empowerment. If our hypothesis is correct (see Part I of this posting), each gift is an aspect of the fully-realized state of being that is the tachlis, or ultimate spiritual goal. Together, these qualities paint a symbolic portrait of what Rabbi Nachman calls the “tzaddik emes,” the perfected human being.

1. The Blind Beggar

The blessing of the Blind Beggar is: “You should be old like me; that is, you should have a long life, like mine. You think that I’m blind, but actually, I’m not blind at all. It is just that for me, the entire duration of the world’s existence doesn’t amount to even the blink of an eye . . . I am extremely old, but I am extremely young. In fact, I have not yet begun to live – but nevertheless, I am very old.” He goes on to describe a contest with other sages about whose memory is the greatest. The Blind Beggar alone remembers the primal Nothingness (Yiddish: “Ich gedenk gohr-nisht!”) that altogether precedes creation. (He is therefore the “Elder on the Side of Holiness” and the “Elder of Elders”; see Chayei Moharan 123 and 272, citing an expression of the Zohar.) And this sublime realization is his gift to the newlyweds – and to us all when we reach the hour of “finding” or spiritual discovery, the unification that is comparable to a wedding. (In Likkutei Moharan I, 65, the tachlis is related to the paradigm of closed eyes, which can perceive the transcendental reality and not be distracted by worldly illusion.)

2. The Deaf Beggar

The blessing of the Deaf Beggar is: “You should be like me; that is, you should live a good life, like mine. You think that I’m deaf, but actually, I’m not deaf at all. It is just that the entire world does not amount to anything to me, that I should listen to its deficiencies. All sounds come from deficiencies, since everyone cries out about what he is lacking. Even the world’s joys are due to deficiencies, since one only rejoices when his lack is filled . . . However, I have a good life in which nothing is lacking.” In the story he tells as proof of his claim, he alone is capable of saving a mythical Land of Wealth, once perfect in its delights, but now corrupted by an evil king and his emissaries. The Deaf Beggar guides the populace to purify themselves of the three poisons of profane speech, which had ruined the sense of taste; bribery, which had ruined the sense of sight; and sexual immorality, which had ruined the sense of smell. Purged of these evils, the ill-tended garden in the midst of the land reverts to its former Eden-like state, and the lost gardener, who had been taken for a madman, is discovered and restored to his former position. Implicit in this sub-plot is the idea that the “good life,” which is the spiritual life, may be experienced through our very senses, if only we would purify ourselves of these toxins.

3. The Beggar With a Speech Defect

The blessing of the Beggar With a Speech Defect is: “You should be like me. You think that I have a speech defect. I don’t have a speech defect at all. Rather, all the words in the world that do not praise God lack perfection. [Therefore, I seem to have a speech defect, since I cannot speak such imperfect words.] But actually, I don’t have a speech impediment at all. Quite the contrary, I am a wonderful orator and speaker. I can speak in parables and verses that are so wonderful that no created thing in the world doesn’t want to hear me. For the parables and lyrics that I know contain all wisdom.” In the course of the tale he tells to “prove” his claims, the Deaf Beggar indicates that his parables and verses sustain the entire universe – and they reflect the animating wisdom of all seven days of creation, which was brought into being through the divine speech. (In Likkutei Moharan I, 65, the tachlis is also related to the perfection of speech, in the Rebbe’s description of “making echad / unity of the words of prayer” in the course of davenning.)

4. The Beggar With a Crooked Neck

The blessing of the Beggar With a Crooked Neck is: “You should be like me. You think I have a crooked neck, but actually, my neck isn’t crooked at all. Quite the contrary, it is very straight. I have a most beautiful neck. However, there are vapors in the world, and I don’t want to exhale and add to these vain vapors. [This is why my neck seems to be crooked: I twisted my neck to avoid exhaling into the atmosphere of the world.] But in fact, I have a most beautiful, wonderful neck, since I have a wonderful voice. There are many sounds in the world that are unrelated to speech. I have such a wonderful neck and voice that I can mimic any of these sounds.” In the extremely obscure tale that the Beggar With a Crooked Neck goes on to relate, this power seems to be the root of all music and prophecy. This is suggested by the symbolism of the two estranged birds that the Beggar With a Crooked Neck reunites, which allude to the two K’ruvim, or winged angelic forms that hovered over the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy Temple and, according to Chazal, served as the channel for prophecy. The Rebbe also implies that this power brings about the spiritual unification associated with the Messianic Redemption.

5. The Beggar With a Hunchback

The blessing of the Beggar With a Hunchback is: “You should be like me. I am not a hunchback at all. Quite the contrary, I have broad shoulders (Yiddish: breiter pleitzes, which also means the ability bear difficult responsibilities). My shoulders are an example of the ‘little that holds much’ (a concept found in the Midrash).“ Reb Noson later adds: “The hunchback was on the level of the intermediate zone between space and that which is beyond space. He possessed the highest possible concept of the ‘little that holds much,’ at the very end of space, beyond which the term ‘space’ no longer applies . . . Therefore, he could carry [his companions] from within space to a dimension that transcends space.” In the tale the Beggar With a Hunchback tells to prove his point, this dimension is symbolized by the wondrous “Tree That Stands Beyond Space,” evocative of the biblical Tree of Life, in the branches of which all beings find repose and peace.

6. The Beggar Without Hands

The blessing of the Beggar Without Hands is: “[You think there is something wrong with my hands.] Actually, there is nothing wrong with my hands. I have vast power in my hands – but I do not use the power of my hands in this physical world, since I need it for something else.” In the course of the story he tells, this other purpose turns out to be the healing of the Queen’s Daughter – another symbol of the collectivity of souls. This healing is accomplished through the Ten Types of Song, corresponding to the Ten Types of Charity, Ten Types of Pulse (mentioned in the Tikkunei Zohar – which seem to be a little different than those used in Chinese medicine), and the beggar’s ten invisible fingers. Then he tells the newlyweds, “And I am giving this power to you as a wedding present.”

7. The Beggar Without Feet

The blessing of the Beggar Without Feet remains a mystery. This final section of the story remains untold until the Mashiach – who in kabbalistic symbology is associated with the feet – arrives and reveals it to us, may it be speedily in our days!

To sum everything up, the gifts of the Seven Beggars are: long life / transcendence of time (eyes); good life / transcendence of need and desire (ears); oratory that contains all wisdom / transcendent speech (mouth); wondrous voice that can produce all sounds / transcendent sound or cosmic music (neck); ultimate degree of “the small that contains the great” / transcendence of space (shoulders); miraculous healing power / transcendence of mortality and sadness (hands); and presumably either perfect faith, or kingship, or joy (all of which are aspects of Malkhus / Kingship), corresponding to transcendence of self, or ego (feet). They make up one structure, just as the parts of the human anatomy to which they correspond form one structure. Acquiring these sublime powers through the grace of the tzaddikim enables one to reach the tachlis at the individual spiritual level.

This is supported by a few more descriptions of the ultimate goal in the Rebbe’s teachings. In Likkutei Moharan I, 18, the tachlis equals the “primordial thought,” or divine intention that underlies all of creation. This primordial thought is revealed only at end of the process it sets into motion, and is the aspect of “ayin lo ra’asah / no eye has seen it” (another hint to the symbolism of the Blind Beggar in our story). (Cf. Likkutei Moharan I, 8, citing Berakhos 34b, where this phrase indicates Chokhmah and the non-dualistic level. This is supported by the principle that “He and what He enlivens are one, He and what He causes are one – in the ten sefiros of Atzilus / World of Emanation” [Tikkunei Zohar, Introduction, 3b], the realm which corresponds to Chokhmah; see the explanation of this in Sefer Ha-Tanya, Iggeres Ha-Kodesh 20).

In Likkutei Moharan II, 83, the tachlis is related to the paradigm of “Mekomo shel Olam / Place of the World“ -- the ohr makkif (encompassing light) or “supra-domain” of creation altogether. And in Likkutei Moharan II, 39, the tachlis is related to Shabbos, the olam ha-neshamos / world of souls, and at the experiential level, the lucid perception of God. This may correspond to the “Tree That Stands Beyond Space” in the tale of the Beggar With a Hunchback.

The qualities that the Seven Beggars confer upon the bride and groom are various expressions of being rooted in the “whole” -- the transcendent Divine Unity -- and not being stranded in the “part,” the illusion of creation as something autonomous, hopelessly conflicted, separate from God. The preeminent tzaddikim represented by the beggars in the Rebbe's story are those who have fully attained this wholeness and who have seen through worldly illusion. Therefore, they are uniquely capable of correcting our confusions and elevating us from the spiritual quagmire, so that we, too, may reach the luminous goal for which we were created.


In Likkutei Moharan (quoted above), the Rebbe teaches that we must engage in the avodah of Torah study, performance of the mitzvos, prayer (especially hisbodedus) and self-improvement in order to reach the tachlis. However, in the story of the Seven Beggars, the main factor seems to be the tzaddikim who bestow their wondrous gifts upon the newlyweds. Is there a correspondence between what the Rebbe is saying in each body of work, or not?

Maybe we can read avodas atzmo, personal spiritual work, into two elements of the story. First, the children must attain maturity before their companions escort them to the chuppah and beg leftovers from the royal banquest in order to put together a wedding feast. Maybe this maturation process equals personal avodah, which elevates one from a lower level to a higher level. Second, the bride and groom express their yearning for each beggar to join them before the desired guest miraculously appears. This yearning is a key factor, too. We must make what the Zohar calls an “isarusa de-le’sata / awakening from below” before we can experience a reciprocal “isarusa de-le’eila / awakening from above.” The longing for the beggars on the part of the bride and groom indicates hiskashrus le-tzaddikim, creating a spiritual bond, which is up to us, as well. These two factors are the prerequisites for our ability to receive the greatest gifts of the tzaddikim: to become “just like them mamash.”

Finally Menukad After 197 Years

יוצֵא הַסֵפֶר הַקָדושׁ מְנֻקָד כֻּלּו בּפַּעַם הָרִאשׁונָה

Degel Machaneh Ephraim - Menukad

התורה ניתנה בלי נקודות וטעמים כדי שתוכל התורה לידרש
בשבעים פנים ולנקוד בניקודין העולין לענין הדרוש

The "I"

A person should set aside some time during the day: five minutes, or two minutes - each one according to his ability - and repeat to oneself the recognition of the truth: "Who is the "I"? The "I" is a holy entity, a pure entity. It was created by Hashem. It has no faults; not even a little scratch. And anything I see in myself that is negative (even if there are many such things) is only the garment that is over me." The person must repeat this, and begin to place this in the daily consciousness.

(Rabbi Itamar Schwartz)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - The Seven Beggars’ Wondrous Gifts - Part I

(Illustration by Dovid Sears - "Tales From Reb Nachman," Artscroll)

In loving memory of my mother Gittel bas Yitzchok / Grace Sears, a”h, who passed away after a long illness on 5 Adar II, 5768 (3.12.08). “Ki malakhav yetzaveh lakh lishmarkha be-khol derakhekha…” – may her neshamah have an aliyah.

This essay is based on Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s “Tale of the Seven Beggars,” which was translated and annotated by the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in “Rabbi Nachman’s Stories” (Breslov Research Institute, and subsequently republished separately by Jewish Lights by special arrangement with BRI). I surely couldn’t begin to do justice to the Rebbe’s masterwork here, and therefore recommend that anyone who is unfamiliar with the full story get a copy of the book and read it. Then what we have written should be less obscure -- even though the entire subject is extremely obscure!

When faced with the blandishments of olam hazeh (or sometimes just the thought of them), Breslover Chassidim typically caution each other with a one-word reminder: “Tachlis!” -- meaning “Don’t forget the true goal!” As Rabbi Nachman observes (Likkutei Moharan I, 268): “If a person doesn’t consider the tachlis, of what purpose is his life?” Life is not a cosmic accident! It has a God-given purpose, which we must not lose sight of.

What is the nature of this tachlis? In the same lesson from Likkutei Moharan, the Rebbe states what may seem to be obvious, at least to his immediate circle of followers: the purpose of life in this world is to serve God. But he also explains that our divine service, though surely its own intrinsic reward, goes hand in hand with another dimension of the tachlis -- at the level of consciousness. This is the da’as, or higher awareness, associated with the “Future World.” As the famous prophecy goes: “The knowledge (de’ah, a construct of da’as) of God will fill the earth like the water that covers the sea” (Isaiah 1:9). This is the Jewish equivalent of enlightenment in its most universal aspect. For the da’as of the “Future World” will reach all beings on all levels, from the highest to the lowest, like the vastness of the water in the prophet’s metaphor (for more on this subject, see the end of Likkutei Moharan I, 21).

In Likkutei Moharan II, 19, the Rebbe brings out another facet of this idea, telling us that this higher awareness is attained by performing the mitzvos and serving God with simplicity and faith, the cardinal virtues of his path. Clearly, the two dimensions of consciousness and action are inextricably connected. He similarly states at the beginning of Likkutei Moharan II, 37: “The main purpose is only to labor and proceed in the ways of God for the sake of His Name, in order to merit to recognize God and know Him. This is the tachlis – and this is what God desires: that we perceive Him.”

He adds that this goal must not be approached in a materialistic way, but in keeping with the deepest longing of the soul. “One person might labor all of his days and pursue worldly desires in order to fill his belly with them,” he explains, “while another might strive to attain the World to Come – but this, too, is called ‘filling one’s belly.’ For he wishes to fill his belly and gratify his desire with the World to Come! The only difference is that he is a little wiser than the first . . . However, I don’t choose to emulate either of them. All I want is to ‘gaze upon the pleasantness of God’ (Psalms 27:4).”

Thus, the “Future World” is not just the spiritual equivalent of cashing in our chips after a lucky day at the casino. It is actually the culmination of our avodah (spiritual effort): the experience of “gazing upon the pleasantness of God.” This may be attained by the meritorious after death, as well as by the tzaddikim even in this world. It is The Gemara (Berachos 17a) says as much when it cites the custom of the sages to bless each other with the words: “May you behold your Hereafter (olam habah) in this life!”

Olam habah is more than a future realm or state of being, but a sublime perception that may be experienced here and now by the tzaddikim – and by those who are attached to them. One way we can achieve this, the Rebbe tells us, is by conquering our anger with compassion (Likkutei Moharan I, 18). In so doing, we transcend our innate selfishness and get in touch with a greater reality – the transpersonal, integrated reality that is so vividly perceived by the tzaddikim. Another way is by heeding the guidance and advice of the tzaddikim, which not only sets our feet in the right direction, but also establishes a spiritual bond between us and the awesome sages who prescribed such holy advice (Likkutei Moharan II, 39).

Rabbi Nachman talks about the primacy of this relationship with the tzaddikim as it bears upon our reaching the true goal of life in his tale of the “Seven Beggars,” the culmination of the thirteen mystical stories for which the Rebbe is best known. The narrative is too lengthy and complex to retell here, but we can summarize a few of its key features: after a storm wind ravages the world, turning sea to dry land and dry land to sea, two little children, a boy and a girl, escape into a vast forest. There, hungry and thirsty and frightened, they encounter seven wandering beggars, who appear one after the next each day, and give the lost children bread and water, as well as a blessing. The nature of these blessings is that the children should become like their benefactors in a particular way. For each beggar possesses a physical disability – one is blind, one is deaf, etc. – but the seeming disability masks an awesome holy power. These blessings are assurances that the children will one day acquire the same lofty spiritual levels. Eventually, the homeless boy and girl find their way back to civilization and join a band of wandering hobos, who adopt them and look after them.

These beggars represent the great tzaddikim throughout history, who sustained us again and again during our long and bitter exile; while the lost children represent the male and female aspects of the Jewish people (or maybe the Jewish people, represented as the groom, and the Shekhinah / Divine Presence, represented as the bride). The seven blessings, and subsequently, seven gifts, are that the children should become “just like” their nameless benefactors. This echoes the Rebbe’s declaration (Chayei Moharan 269), “I can make you tzaddikim ki’moni mamash, just like me!” On the one hand, this sounds pretty democratic: it means that we can all get there. On the other, it indicates that everything essentially depends on the tzaddik, who confers his attainments upon those who follow his guidance.

What are the wondrous blessings and gifts that the children in the Rebbe’s story receive? We will describe the Seven Beggars’ wedding presents in the second part of this posting, and in so doing, try to get a clearer picture of what is meant by the “tachlis” in spiritual terms.

Those Who Are Extra Wise

Every tzaddik knows that he has found the correct path lead people to Hashem - and those who are extra wise also know that the same is true for the other tzaddikim who have found different paths.

(Ahavas Yisroel of Vizhnitz)

Monday, June 23, 2008

Question & Answer With Dixie Yid - Caught In The Storm

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

It has been taught that sincerely thanking Hashem for the obstacles and the daily problems we encounter helps to sweeten the harsh judgements against us.

Has there ever been an occasion in your life where you felt as if you were caught in the middle of a storm and instead of despairing you stopped and thanked Hashem for that very storm?

Dixie Yid answers:

This is an important topic and something that I wrote about most recently when I summarized Rabbi Tepfer's shiur from Shavuos. And yes, something like that did recently happen to me. Because the company I used to work for was shedding almost 50% of its real estate holdings, I was laid off. It was a sudden and somewhat shocking revelation to me that sent me quickly looking for new work.

What I said to myself and to others was that I trusted that Hashem caused this to happen to me (hopefully) because he wanted to open me up for even better opportunities that I would never had been open to if I'd still had my comfy job. In the end, this turned out to be exactly what happened. At my old company, I was involved in a low-level way with an area of the law I didn't really think I'd ever want to go into. (For those who don't already know, I work full time and am in law school at night.) I liked the job, but more as a placeholder till I'd finish law school. However, in the job that I found 4 weeks later, I am now learning and practicing more varied and practical types of law that I have been really interested in. In fact, now I'm practicing in the Elder Law/Wills, Trusts & Estates area, where I'd been trying to get experience for over a year. The point is that now I have a job which is a much greater learning opportunity in much more diversified areas of law. We don't always see that great resolution so quickly, but the attitude that Hashem intends the "bad" thing that's happening to me for the good is the main point.

The Midrash says "וצריך אדם להיות שמח בייסורין יותר מן הטובה" "One must be happier about his suffering than about the good [that happens to him]." (Midrash Tanchuma, Parshas Yisro, 16) But why must one be more happy about the bad than the good. Perhaps it is because being happy about the "bad" is more of a manifestation and expression of Emunah than being happy about the good. I don't "have to have Emunah" that what Hashem is doing to me is good if I already see the goodness of it. But even more so, being happy about the good that happens to someone can give the person the illusion that he even knows what is good for himself!!! In truth, we understand just as little about what's truly good for us than we understand what is "bad" for us. Perhaps rejoicing in the bad is better because it involves a realization that we don't necessarily know what's actually good or bad for me. This yesod is discussed at the end of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh, Vol. 2.

Also, in Taanis 8a, it says "ריב"ל כל השמח ביסורין שבאין עליו מביא ישועה לעולם." "Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi says 'Anyone who is happy about the suffering that comes upon him brings redemption to the world.'" Why is redemption the result of being happy with suffering? Redemption is when bad things that have happened are "redeemed" by being revealed to be truly good in actuality. So when one recognizes the goodness of suffering, he is performing an act of redemption, i.e. redeeming the "bad" thing that happened by bringing the goodness within that "bad" thing out of the hidden state and into a revealed state, which is a great kiddush Hashem. Thus, mida k'neged mida, since he has redeemed the bad in his own life Hashems sends him and the rest of the world redemption as the fitting result/reward.

Instead of being upset about the storms that a person faces, being thankful for them out of a recognition that the problem is really a hidden tova (good thing) is a true expression of Emunah. May we all be zocheh to attaining Emunah Sheleima u'berura (clear and perfect faith) to the extent that we will rejoice in the bad as much or more than we rejoice in the good.

Creating An Environment

A chassid creates an environment. If he does not, he had better check his own baggage carefully, to see whether his own affairs are in order. The very fact that he fails to create an environment should make him as broken as a splinter. He must demand of himself: What am I doing in this world?

(Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Question & Answer With Chana Jenny Weisberg - The Biggest Challenge

(Picture by Jean Guichard)

A Simple Jew asks:

Which mitzvah have you found to be the most challenging to observe?

Chana Jenny Weisberg answers:

When I became observant 15 years ago, I didn’t mind the long skirts, the home-bound Saturdays, the off-limits Whoppers. All of it felt natural. It felt good, even. I liked the way mitzvot connected with
G-d, my people…infinity.

Living a Jewish life became more difficult when I married three years later, and the primary responsibility for a Jewish home fell upon my reluctant, graduate-student shoulders.

For my whole life I had known that doing chesed, acts of kindness, in one form or another would be my central life goal. But I had always envisioned that I would help the world through a humanitarian career, like my mom the psychiatrist or my grandma the education professor. I had dreamt that I would spend my life pushing the world one small step closer towards social justice by working at the United Nations, or with AIDs orphans in Africa, or at a health clinic in Appalachia dispensing vaccinations and sound nutritional advice.

But, five years after I said my first “No” to a BLT, I had become the kind of person that I would have felt intense disdain for only several years before- the lowest of the low: a housewife. As a mother, I discovered that suddenly the human beings most in need of my chesed were asking me for cups of apple juice in my kitchen, crying in my arms exhausted and needing to be put to bed, or running after me with a bedtime story.

Over the past decade of motherhood, I have worked hard to reprogram the way I see the world, and to learn to view my motherly role in a more positive light. Over the past decade, I have read many books and attended many classes about the Torah’s esteemed view of the central role of the Jewish wife and mother. I have also written my own books and articles and established a website called to share why I have come to believe that there is no role more important and no contribution made that rivals that of the Jewish mother.

As a result of my change in worldview, the demands on me as a wife and mother feels infinitely easier than they did when I brought my oldest daughter home from the hospital 10 years ago. The childcare, the housework, the cooking, the afternoons at the playground kissing skinned knees- it all feels so much more dignified, important, and fulfilling than it once did.

But there is one last aspect of this motherly life that still gets to me- my most difficult mitzvah.

If you asked me what mitzvah I love the most, it would be Gemilut Chasadim, performing acts of kindess. I love giving charity, I love helping old ladies with their groceries, I love caring for my children, I love being the matchmaker who helps someone find a job or an apartment or the perfect pediatrician for their child.

But Gemilut Chasadim is also my most difficult mitzvah.

Specifically, when people ask me to serve them something, I often wince. My gut reaction, that I try to suppress (not always successfully), is “You’ve got legs! Get it yourself!” A guest needs a napkin. A child wants a tuna sandwich. A neighbor needs a cake pan from the high shelf.

Even writing this, I feel ridiculous. It sounds so small, so picky, so harmless. But I don’t think it is.

I once heard a story about a young woman who was extremely unpleasant, obnoxious, and generally unlikable. When she came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe to ask how she could become a nicer person, the Rebbe gave her some strange advice. Instead of suggesting therapy or a pile of self-help books, the Rebbe gave her the following simple advice: “Whenever you eat with your friends in the college cafeteria, you should serve your friends whatever they need.”

For the next few months, the young woman did just that. She brought her friends pieces of apple pie for dessert, forks, glasses of water. By the end of the year, she was a different person: kinder, friendlier, less selfish, more loving.

Unlike the young woman in this story, I am, I think, already a nice, likable person. But, like her, I feel that I also have an unused muscle that is in need of special spiritual physiotherapy called giving.

For this reason, for the past year or two, I have been trying to serve people whenever I can. I run to bring a guest another spoon when hers fell to the floor. I tell my husband, “Sit down! I’ll get the salt shaker” even though I would really rather remain sitting and eat my meal. It’s hardest with my kids, because their requests are so frequent, so unrelenting. But I try to give them their tuna sandwiches and cups of apple juice with pink straws (not yellow!) with a smile on my face.

I feel that at this moment in my life, serving others is the mitzvah I need to work on the most. And I see that it gets easier and easier. As though after years of serving through gritted teeth, I have achieved a sort of runner’s high- a giver’s high.

I am working so hard on this because I feel that this struggle indicates that, like the young woman in this story, this is the tikkun that my soul needs the very most.

17 Sivan Links - יז סיון

(Picture by B. Carter)

Lazer Beams: Mizmor L'David - Psalm 23

Sfas Emes: Shelach 5632 First Ma'amar

Dixie Yid: Achieving a Harmonious Shabbos Table (Part 4)

Revach L'Neshama: Those Children You Gave Up On…

Mystical Paths: TODAY in S'Derot, a Pictorial

The Paintings Of David Brook

More of David Brook's paintings can be seen here

The Sign Of A True Leader

The word נשיא (prince) contains within it the letters of the word אין (nothing) and the word יש (something). A prince who makes himself as an אין is a יש. But if he makes himself יש he is really אין.

(Degel Machaneh Ephraim)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A New Insight Into Old Words

Last night as I ran on the treadmill, I listened to Rabbi Nasan Maimon's shiurim on Meshivas Nafesh. One teaching in particular from Meshivas Nafesh 17 resonated with me during my half-hour run.

The very strength of desire which a person experiences to draw close to Hashem can in fact be a danger thrown up by the yetzer hara. At times his "passion" burns far more fiercely than it should. This is the meaning of the warning which Hashem gave to Moshe before the Torah was given, "but the kohanim and the people shall not break their formation to ascend to the Hashem, lest He wreak destruction upon them." (Shemos 19:24) You must pray that Hashem's loving kindness will protect you from this.

Rabbi Nasan Maimon explained that the words והסר שטן מלפנינו ומאחרינו (remove the Satan from in front of us and from behind us) that are found in the Maariv tefillah of Haskiveinu allude to this very idea that Rebbe Nachman of Breslov addressed.

Just as there are times when the yetzer hara tries to cool us off and dissuade us from making advancements in our avodas Hashem - מלפנינו, there are also times when the yetzer hara tries to force us to sprint full speed ahead with the hopes that we will tire quickly or hit a wall in the process and give up - ומאחרינו.

Question & Answer With Shlomo Katz - Inspiration

A Simple Jew asks:

If a musician finds that he is inspired by another musician he would be wise to determine who that musician's musical influences were and to listen to them as well. This analogy can easily be applied to learning the seforim of great tzaddikim.

Has learning an insightful and inspiring sefer ever led you to seek out and learn another sefer that was previously unknown to you but was quoted therein?

Shlomo Katz responds:

One of the most powerful insights to learning is once you realise and see how everything is all one. All the Tana'aim, Amora'im, Rishinom, Achronim and Ge'onim. All the Rebbes and all the Rebbeim are all part of one long chain.

Whenever hearing Reb Shlomo ztz'l quote a certain tzaddik, I'd find myself in the sefarim store purchasing that specific sefer. However the shopping list never ends. Whenever a 'Beshem Mori Verabi' appears, how could you not want to see it inside for yourself?

This phenomena was most clear, to me personally, in the world of Ishbitz Chassidut. From the Mei Hashiloach to his son the Beis Ya'akov, to his other son the Ne'os Deshe. To the next generation of the Sod Yesharim and then to the Tiferes Yosef, we see the most beautiful pattern and depth of the generations. Dor Ledor Yeshabach Ma'asecha.

When we all realise that we are all part of this same chain, which began at Har Sinai, we will hopefully begin to trust that natural love which we have for every Jew, which whether we like it or not, is embedded deep in our kishkes.

16 Sivan Links - טז סיון

(Picture courtesy of

Shiloh Musings: "Give my regards to..."

HNN: בישיבת דרכי הוראה לרבנים

Dixie Yid: Making the Ultimate Choice

Revach L'Neshama: the smallness of people's mind's to comprehend it

"A Failure To Understand The Complex Purposes For Which Language Is Used"

(Picture courtesy of

Yirmeyahu commenting on Two Pet Peeves:

I have to disagree, albeit mildly, on either account. This complaint reminds me of those lodged against the use of "Baruch Hashem" in response to an inquiry on one's well being. To me the error in this kind of thinking is somewhat encapsulated in the following passage:

"A not uncommon complaint of those who take too narrow a view of legitimate uses of language concerns the way in which words are "wasted" at social functions. 'So much talk, and so little said!' sums up this kind of criticism. And more than one person has been heard to remark, 'So and so always asks me how I am. What a hypocrite! He doesn't care in the least how I am!" Such remarks reveal a failure to understand the complex purposes for which language is used." (Introduction to Logic, Irving M. Copi, 5th Edition, page 55)

In the first case, I think it is important to recognize that a community has a legitimate need to ensure more than minimal participation of it's members. Your chaverim need you there. You are an essential part. Perhaps you do have legitimate reasons, even just down time. The phrase does, or at least can, connotate that there was a degree of expectation/obligation for you to come, but at the same time the fact that it was phrased in this manner rather than even a mild rebuke or challenge of your absence indicates that the commenter is probably trying to be dan l'kaf zchus over your absence. I do not agree with your characterization that the phrase is generally reflective of a "misery loves company" attitude or resentment that you failed to participate. What right does one have to take it to mean anything other than the event would have been more enjoyable with your presence, barring any sarcastic tone or other obvious indicator of insincerity?

Likewise, I don't see what basis one has to try to read other people's mind when they qualify an indication to act with an "im yirtzeh Hashem". Even when we can detect that it is said in a way that the speaker believes that the "ratzon" might be that it won't work out, who are we to suspect that it is because they don't plan to give it a serious effort or otherwise think in cannot happen? Shouldn't we rather take it as a sincere commitment that someone recognizes that they will have a great challenge achieving? Why is it better to qualify one's agreement by saying they "intend" to rather than an explicit recognition that Hakadosh Baruch Hu might not allow that intent to come to fruition?

Perhaps I'm reading this all wrong and am just feeling argumentative today. Even so it seems to me that one case is being critical of a perceived use of language perceived as imposing an unsolicited obligation on oneself (and criticizing a failure to met that obligation) while the second is being critical of the perceived use of language to passively evade an unsolicited expectation one has placed on others.

I hope you don't take this as a criticism. We all have things that grate on us and I'm no one who should give mussar about finding other people's behavior annoying. When these things pertain to social norms about how to express oneself, I think the key is to work at being less bothered by them rather than to justify them. It is probably more fair and will lead to less aggravation in the long run.

All that being said, I suspect that your annoyance is more out of the fact that these phrases remind you of instances, or a number of instances, where they were used in a way that indicated the attitudes which you attribute to them more than you really assume that this is what is meant by anyone you happen to hear utter those words.

16 Sivan - 90 Years Later

The Wrong Sense Of Reality

We identify with the material, and think we do Hashem a favor: "Thursday night I have a class I attend, and with that, I fulfill my responsibility to study Torah for the week." This is the opposite of the reality. I have not met anyone who eats a piece of cake Thursday night and says, "I fulfilled my responsibility to eat for the week." Why? Because he's hungry! You don't think about fulfilling your obligation. If the stomach is empty, you need to eat! If we would feel spiritual hunger the way we feel bodily hunger, we would solve the whole problem of life. The problem of life is the identification with the material. People think they have specific problems. One has this problem, another has a different problem. This is all true, but underlying it all is a root problem; namely, that we have the wrong sense of reality.

(Rabbi Itamar Schwartz)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Two Pet Peeves

Ok, I don't often use this blog as a soap box to rant, but please humor me this one time as I do just that about two of my pet peeves:

My first pet peeve is when a person says "We missed you" after you chose not to show up for something or other. These three words are not said to make you feel better. Sure, there can be occasion where the person sincerely missed spending time with you, but in my experience this is very rarely the case. These three annoying words are usually uttered by some peripheral person who is merely trying to make you feel guilty for not attending some event. He or she is lamenting the fact that they were pressured into attending and are now expressing displeasure with the fact that you were able to get out of it somehow.

I would never utter these three words to another person because when I am on the receiving end of them they sound like nails on a chalk board. A few years ago, I witnessed an interchange at a shul I used to daven at which taught me the proper response to these three words.

Yosef, a gentle and soft-spoken Persian Jew, was absent from shul for a few weeks. Entering the shul the following Shabbos, the rabbi looked up and said, "Yosef, we missed you last Shabbos." Without blinking an eye, Yosef sweetly replied, "I missed you too, rabbi." To this, the rabbi laughed in acknowledgement at the brilliance of Yosef's response.

Now, I too have been using this response ever since that day.

My second pet peeve is when people use the phrases "im yirtzeh Hashem" (If Hashem wills it) or "bli neder" (without vowing) as a linguistic loophole to avoid being direct. If you decode the underlying meaning to these words, the person is essentially telling you that they have no intention of doing what you asked them; they are attempting to stealthfully weasel their way out of it by hiding their true intentions in the cloak of a pious-sounding expression.

When I asked Chabakuk Elisha about this phenomenon he responded in an e-mail:

Once I got the im yirtzeh Hashem answer from someone and I said, "Say Be'ezras Hashem [with Hashem's help] instead of im yirtzeh Hashem."

He thought about it and said: "Ok, Be'ezras Hashem"

I then asked, "Why the pause? You wanted to see if you could say that and still not intend to do it, right?

He smiled as I said "busted..."

15 Sivan Links - טו סיון

(Picture courtesy of

Avakesh: A missionary visits the Rebbe

Zchus Avos Yogen Aleinu: Segula from Reb Chaim of Volozhin

Yitz: Miracles & Complaints

Just call me Chaviva: Faith or something like it - Reconciling emunah

Here in HP: Books on Pirkei Avot

Dixie Yid: Rambam & Hashgacha Pratis

Revach L'Neshama: A Quick Trip To Eilat?

A Waxing Wellspring: the world has it backwards, as usual

Inside Me

Search me out, G-d, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. And see whether there is any vexatious way about me, and lead me in the way of the world.

(Tehillim 139:23-24)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Question & Answer With Rabbi Tanchum Burton - Engraving Emuna

(Picture by James Sleigh)

A Simple Jew asks:

The Degel Machaneh Ephraim wrote איו דבר רע יורד מן השמים רק הכל טוב וחסד (Nothing bad comes from Heaven, only goodness and kindness).

Do you consider it a cornerstone of your avodas Hashem to attempt to engrave this belief in your mind on a daily basis? If so, how do you go about doing so?

Rabbi Tanchum Burton answers:

What the Degel Machaneh Ephraim is expressing is essentially that everything that comes from Hashem is tov and chesed, goodness and kindness. But, as the author states, "hakol lefi hamekabel"; we may not experience it as such, but that depends on the expansiveness of our consciousness when we experience it. That does not mean that everything we experience is an ice cream sundae. Just the opposite; when the Degel Machaneh Ephraim subsumes "everything" under the category of tov and chesed, he means that even the worst tragedies imaginable -- may Hashem protect us -- are expressions of His goodness and kindness. How?

Everyone experiences challenges in life. We learn from kabbalistic sources that the Divine expression of mishpat -- justice -- is a means to an end, i.e. the ultimate good end, where the world becomes completely rectified. The balancing of the scales through the meting out of punishment and the distribution of reward, as it were, is the medium through which existence must pass to reach the time that is kulo tov -- completely good. What mishpat is not, therefore, is an end in itself, merely to punish the wicked and reward the righteous. Thus, while it is not always pleasant to experience mishpat, one must keep in mind that it is an intermediate stage, creating the possibility of complete goodness. By keeping this in mind, a person can detect the hatava shleima (immanent complete goodness) even amidst the mishpat, and thus come to experience it as rak tov v'chesed (only goodness and kindness).

I struggle to remember this when I hit hard times just like anyone else. What I have found helpful is to always precede my complaints with the question, "what meaning does this have for me?" or "what is Hashem trying to tell me?". That refocuses me on the personal relationship I have with Him, the fact that I have a connection with Him not shared by anyone else. This, in turn, helps me to realize that the circumstances I find myself in are custom-made for me and will help me grow if I can uncover the deeper lesson that is clothed in the circumstances. Of course, I can fail to retain my own mochin d'gadlus and remain miserable until I get my act together, but it's not worth it.

I remember from the years I worked in business, that peoples' voice mail greetings would usually include, "I'm away from my desk right now...", as if their entire lives revolved around their desk. The truth is, that is precisely how many of us live today; perhaps we should substitute the cell phone for yesterday's desk. Getting to a deeper understanding of what is going on in one's life requires stepping away from one's "desk" and taking even a few minutes to think. I don't just mean talking to G-d, although that is definitely a crucial part of the process, but sitting quietly and thinking, letting your mind zero in on things.

Meshivas Nafesh - Audio Shiurim By Rabbi Nasan Maimon

Helping A Friend

Your friend is also helped when you fortify and break through the obstacles so as to keep moving up to the next level. A moment ago your friend was standing on the very level which you have now entered. So now your friend also has to move on and rise to an even higher level. It is impossible for two people to stand on one level. A person can actually lift his friend up and bring him up higher.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Monday, June 16, 2008

Question & Answer With Yirmeyahu - Telling The Truth

A Simple Jew asks:

Rabbi Ozer Bergman wrote, "If you are genuinely willing to risk everything you hold dear to tell the truth, your growth and peace will be unsurpassed." Have you always found this to be the case in your life, or have their been occasions when telling the truth resulted in unpleasant consequences?

Yirmeyahu answers:

There have certainly been times where I have, out of a sense of honesty and full disclosure, volunteered information and not been entirely satisfied with the outcome. In retrospect I'm not certain that the decision to volunteer such information was correct, but on the other hand I'm not sure it didn't save me more grief later on.

I think that is the lesson though. We are probably all familiar with the admonition to observe chukim as though they were mishpatim, and mishpatim as though they were chukim. Those commandments which we don't understand and accept as divine decrees should be observed with the same rigor that we keep those that seem inline with common sense and social order. Conversely, however, we need to obey such common sense rules as though they were a command of the King which we cannot comprehend.

Many mitzvos of the Torah, even those which aren't readily accepted by society at large, at least today, have a good deal of utilitarian value. Undoubtedly we should not view this as a coincidence. At the same time we should exercise a little caution before asserting such connections to strongly. It may not be the best idea to give the impression that the mitzvos are simply of utilitarian value when the connection may better be understood as resulting from the Torah being the "blueprint" of Creation. By recognizing such utilitarian values of the mitzvos as a sort of "asmachta" in Creation we may, b'ezaras Hashem, avoid the pitfall of rationalization when the utilitarian aspects are not so applicable.

It is appropriate to meditate on the various "pluses" of doing mitzvos in order to machazek ourselves, to build resolve, especially when we anticipate difficulty from doing so. Honesty will give you great menuchas nefesh and encourage you to live in a way you feel fine being honest about. But in the end we need to be honest because it is the right thing to do. Truthfully, there are times where full candor is really not appropriate. This is a halachic matter however (which I am not at all versed in) and if one is overly focused on how one will benefit it will skew one's judgment and prompt one to take liberties when not justified.

It is worth noting that although my decision to offer up such information brought me a great deal of grief it did not turn out to be the end of the world as I knew it (even if it felt like it at times). I had failed to meet my own expectations, standards that I wasn't taught per se, and by sharing those failures I opened myself up to harsh criticism. It was difficult and embarrassing but life went on. The worst case scenario isn't the likely one, it can be more of an excuse to avoid difficulty. On should be "willing to risk everything you hold dear to tell the truth" but should also remember that the odds are pretty good that there will be a better outcome, comparatively at least.

13 Sivan Links - יג סיון

(Picture by T. Ecklund)

A Waxing Wellspring: A New Day

Psycho Toddler: My Tornado Jril

Chabakuk Elisha: External Fears

Mystical Paths: Straight Talk about Jerusalem

Rabbi Dovid Sears: Minyan

Crown A Young Man From Omaha

Da Es Atzmecha

"If a person has a simple basis of emunah in the Creator, and believes that the Torah is true, he must believe that he and all of mankind is very good." (Da Es Atzmecha, Chapter 4)

The Sudilkover Rebbe once told me that the Degel Machaneh Ephraim taught that a main component of our avodas Hashem is to continually seek out the good in others and in ourselves.

An amazing new sefer entitled Da Es Atzmecha provides practical guidance how to do just this. This sefer is written in very simple to understand language, walks the reader step-by-step forward, and provides penetrating insights that are certain to resonate in anyone who reads it. In a sense, it is a synthesis of the Kotzker quest for absolute truth and a modern day elucidation of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's famous teaching of Azamra.

Once again, I have to thank my good friend Dixie Yid for turning me on to this sefer and for posting a link to the English translation. I highly encourage everyone to read it.

Dvar Torah for Anytime

(Illustration by Issachar Ber Ryback)

Received via e-mail from Rabbi Ozer Bergman:

This used to be popular, i.e., more well-known and widely circulated, in the early days of what later became known as "the baal teshuvah" movement. I haven't seen or heard it in a long while, so when I saw it last motzei Shabbos (Saturday night), I decided to send it out and post it.

The author of Shmuot Tovot reports that the following was said by "the great luminary," Reb Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, of blessed memory, to the holy master, Reb Meshulam Zushia [aka the Rebbe, Reb Zushia] of Anipoli, when the latter drew himself close to the path of Reb Dov Ber.

In the service of the Creator, you should teach yourself three things from a child:

[1] Always be happy;

[2] don't be idle;

[3] cry for what you want.

And seven things from a thief:

[1] He works at night;

[2] if he doesn't get what he wants the first night, he works for it a second night;

[3] they all love each other;

[4] he'll work hard for something small;

[5] even though he worked hard to get it, it's not worth a lot to him -- he'll sell a $5 item for pennies;

[6] even if he gets pummeled and tortured, he remains firm in his conviction;

[7] he loves his craft and wouldn't trade it or exchange it for anything.

The Shmuot Tovot concludes: Dear reader -- reflect and consider the profundity of these words and the advice for serving God they contain.

The Middle Path

Truth is the middle path. An inclination to the right, to be overly stringent with oneself and find faults or sins not in accord with the truth, or an inclination to the left, to be overly indulgent, covering one's faults or being lenient in demands of avoda out of self-love - both these ways are false.

(Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson)

Friday, June 13, 2008

Another Week Of Life

(Picture by J. Bollinger)

There is a minhag instituted by the Baal Shem Tov to recite Tehillim 107 every Erev Shabbos. Knowing that this chapter details the four categories of people whose lives were saved from death, a person may ask what connection do we have to the person released from imprisonment, the person who overcame a terrible sickness, the person who survived a journey through the desert, or the person who survey a voyage at sea.

While it is very possible that we have not experienced any of these miraculous salivations the past week, there is one miracle we often fail to consider - that Hashem gave us another seven days of life.

Each Friday afternoon before saying Tehillim 107, I take a few moments to recall all the blessings of the past week and to reflect on the steps I have taken in my avodas Hashem.

I thank Hashem for the past seven days and then hope that I see the next seven.

מִי-חָכָם וְיִשְׁמָר-אֵלֶּה; וְיִתְבּוֹנְנוּ, חַסְדֵי יְהוָה

He who is wise will keep these in mind, and they will contemplate Hashem's kind deeds.

10 Sivan Links - י סיון

(Painting by Alexander Vaisman)

Chabad does not encourage studying other Kabbalists

Chabakuk Elisha: Eldad and Meidad

Lazer Beams:
Yosef Karduner: "Thank you, Beams Readers!" Sinai

Zchus Avos Yogen Aleinu:
Parshas Behaloscha

Frum Outdoorsman: Kayak therapy Camp Gan Israel & Sderot

Neil Harris: Why blog about the Nineteen Letters?

Enticing You

The yetzer hara thus entices you not to study whatever would bring you to fear of Heaven, such as devotional subjects, or Shulchan Aruch from which you would know the law properly. He entices you to study constantly nothing but the Talmud with all the commentaries.

(Baal Shem Tov)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Inner Child & The Drill Instructor

(Picture courtesy of

On numerous occasions my oldest daughter and son will clean up a room or help out with a chore without ever being asked. However, the second they are asked to do one of these chores, they frequently respond, "It's too hard! You ALWAYS make us clean up everything! I can't do it all by myself!!"

It struck me that this phenomenon is mirrored in the avodas Hashem of adults as well. While it may be easy for us to choose to adopt new minhagim or take on additional chumros, we find it increasingly more difficult to do an every-day mitzvah simply because Hashem commanded us to do so.

The inner-child inside us only wants to do what it wants to do, not be forced to comply with rules; it rebel's against "The Drill Instructor's" direct orders.

Just as a father is pleased when his children help out around the house without being asked, Hashem is also pleased at the times when we go beyond the letter of the law in our avodas Hashem.

However, if our avodas Hashem is only based upon our own choices and performing our will at the times we so desire, then our Father's nachas ceases to be nachas.

A Different Chazaras Hashatz

Even Though

If a person davens for something that will bring glory to Hashem - for example if he davens for success in his Torah studies or any other religious pursuit - and he pours out his soul for it, Hashem will answer his prayer even though he has not done many good deeds.

(Sefer Chassidim)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Question & Answer With Rabbi Zvi Leshem - Peak Moments In Avodas Hashem

(Picture by D. Getschman)

A Simple Jew asks:

The Degel Machaneh Ephraim taught, "A person needs to be extremely careful when he is in a state of gadlus [expanded consciousness] to exert himself to connect to Hashem and strengthen the emuna in his heart in order to prepare himself that if he falls from his level, that he does not fall completely."

How do other Chassidic seforim elaborate on this concept of investing in peak moments?

Rabbi Zvi Leshem answers:

My dear friend, Rav Dovid Zeller, z”l, whose first Yartzeit we are now observing, used to say that “peak moments” are actually “peek moments”. Let us try to understand truth hidden within this pun.

Rav Zaddok HaKohen (Pri Zaddik: Pesach 40) quotes the famous statement of the Besht (in the name of the Rokeach), one’s Chassidut is strongest at the beginning. However it often seems to wane afterwards. The context of the discussion is the high level that the Jews reached at Kriat Yam Suf, where even the lowest among them received greater revelations of HaShem than the prophet Yechezkel! And yet, a few days later they were complaining of the lack of water, which symbolizes Torah. Rav Zaddok elaborates in the name of Reb Simcha Bunim of Preshyscha; initially HaShem shows the person “on loan” what he can later achieve through his own efforts. HaShem then takes away this light so that the person will work to achieve it through his own efforts. The Ishbitzer further elaborated on this point, HaShem reveals to you initially exactly what you will be able to later achieve through your own efforts. (Regarding how this idea relates to Kriat Yam Suf, see also Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach, Kuntres Rishimot 4). This idea is related to another famous teaching of the Besht, that when a parent wants to teach her child to walk, she holds her hands, walking backward with the child, but at a certain point pulls away, in order that the child (at first thinking she has been abandoned) will earn to walk on her own. This is a major idea behind Sefirat HaOmer (Lekutai Halachot Sefirat HaOmer). It is also the basis of many major principles of the Torah and our avoda that operate in ongoing cycles, such as galut/geula, darkness/light, tuma/tahara, yerida/aliya, and even the fact that we learn all of the Torah in the womb, only to forget it upon birth and to begin learning all over again. Thus the Meor Einayim (Rav Dovid z"l’s favorite sefer) writes at the beginning of Yitro, no one can stay permanently on the same level for the angels run and retreat (ratzo v’shov), for when one cleaves to G-d he feels vitality and pleasure, and then this is removed and he falls from his level…so that afterwards he can reach an even higher level…when one falls from his level he must try to climb back up towards HaShem from the place that he is at now, for he must believe that the whole world is filled with His glory and that no place is devoid of Him., and even at the [low] level he is at now, there is also G-dliness. (Also see the Breslov work Meshivat Nefesh).

Thus the words of the Degel Machaneh Ephraim quoted above take on new urgency and potency. If spiritual falls are inevitable, it is crucial that I prepare myself when I am in a high stage, so that the next fall will not be devastating, and will actually achieve its purpose, to serve as a catalyst to turn the situation around and climb even higher. The issue of how to properly elevate myself from a fall and how to utilize an elevation are essentially two sides of the same coin. I need to train myself both to recognize that a fall is natural, is not necessarily fatal, and is in fact a crucial part of my spiritual development. But I also need to learn how to properly prepare myself in my high times to cushion the next inevitable fall, so that instead of being shattered, I will bounce back on the trampoline of life.

The holy Piaseczner Rebbe HY”D, wrote extensively on the topic of peak moments, and he added his own unique twist to the topic. For example in his diary Zav v’Zaruz (46) he writes, Sometimes the Jew needs to be higher than what he has achieved. There need to be times when he feels uplifted in a way that he can’t comprehend, so that he sometimes says things that he will need to work hard to understand. In Hachsharat HaArveichim 9:2 he quotes his father, Rebbe Elimelech of Grodzisk, in the name of the Ramban, that when one feels some good thought he should use it to do a mitzva or to learn Torah, thus clothing it in kedusha. Later on in the same chapter he gives advice as to which Tehilim one should recite for different moods that one finds himself in. This is also discussed in Bnai Machshava Tova, pp. 23-24 (interestingly, the Rebbe discourages the “excessive” recitation of Tehilim when one is in a happy mood). The Rebbe explains there (page 27) that any time one feels an unexplained emotional state it is a case of one of your spiritual limbs is pointing out [to get your attention] wanting to affect you and cause you to think pure thoughts. These states are in effect a state of spiritual sha’at kosher (opportune moments) (Hachsharat HaAvreichim 9:3) that must not be squandered. Every emotion, even from worldly matters, opens a spark of the soul, and since the soul is now a bit open, try to bring it even more into the open. (Bnai Machshava Tova p. 21). Additional responses that the Rebbe mentions to utilize these peak moments include singing, hitboddidut or visualization meditations. The most important point is not to squander them. For often, feeling some sense of uneasiness, our first reaction is to head for the refrigerator, looking for something to eat or drink, to drown out our feelings. Thus the soul’s voice is not heard. This is analogous to the priests of Molach who beat their drums so that the father would not hear the entreaties of his son who was being sacrificed. Our physicality becomes so noisy that the quaking of the soul passes unnoticed and is wasted, like a miscarriage of the soul. (Bnai Machshava Tova p. 27). On the other hand, one must be careful not to ruin peak moments with an improper (although well-intentioned) spiritual response. When one feels ecstasy during davening be careful not to engage then in cheshbonot (self-analysis) [which will destroy the ecstatic experience], don’t dirty your hands just then with your deficiencies, continue to daven and learn with ecstasy and closeness. However, immediately after davening, even during the repetition of the Amida, try to perfect each detail. (Chovat HaTalmidim p. 91). For more on how and when to properly do cheshbon hanefesh, see Hachsharat HaAvreichim chapter 13.

For the Rebbe the issue isn’t only how to properly use these moments, but also the necessity of creating such moments which are then used for special spiritual techniques. Regarding this the Rebbe writes in Chovat HaTalmidim (pp. 80-81), a person must occasionally arise above his sins…above the world. In this moment of aliya and tahara he sees and feels as a Jew close to HaShem, and his deeds as foolishness…he is then embarrassed and afraid, saying ‘oy, how lowly am I’…and with all his energy…he overcomes and chooses from now on life, purity and the holiness of HaShem…everyone must occasionally lift himself above himself. (See also Zav v”Zaruz 22). These moments are necessary, for they enable us to see ourselves as we really are, something which is nearly impossible when we are in the middle of the usual “balagan”. We thus need peak moments of clarity that enable us to peek both at our true situation, and even more importantly, at our G-dly potential. May HaShem grant us this clarity in every aspect of our lives.