Thursday, July 03, 2008

Question & Answer With Yitz - The Underlying Water

A Simple Jew asks:

Learning Chassidic seforim can sometimes feel like we are on a journey searching for the lost princess. Days, months, and years of toiling can go by and we may convince ourselves that we have made very little headway; that we have not even penetrated the sefer's cover. Unexpectedly, one day we are finally given an opening and sweet waters very slowly begin to spring forth for us to savor.

As someone who learns many of the most difficult and profound Chassidic seforim, have you encountered this phenomenon? If so, could you describe your experiences?

Yitz of A Waxing Wellspring answers:

To be honest, I need to thank HaShem. Until I discovered Hassidut I was searching (more or less) my entire life for Hassidut. When I was 18 and in yeshivah, (for the second semester of my freshman year of college) and basically writing divrei Torah in the style of Hassidut, before I'd ever encountered any Hassidut, people encouraged me to study midrash. I did study midrash eventually, but looking back, I don't know why no one pointed me in the direction of Hassidut then. It probably wouldn't have made a difference then anyways. As a Sefaradi boy who grew up in very Ashkenazi surroundings, I probably would have dismissed Hassidut in favor of something less 'Ashkenazi.'

I continued learning and searching, never quite feeling fulfilled. I studied some very grounded Kabbalah in Rav Aryeh Kaplan's sefarim, mainly Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer HaBahir. I even took a course called Mysticism and Hassidism, but really only for the mysticism content, I stopped paying attention when they got to Hassidism. Similarly I attended a couple of shiurim at the Chabad house (mainly to support the Chabad Rabbi because I appreciated what he was doing) in Tanya, but I never related to it.

The first taste I really got of Hassidut was a couple of years later when my roommate at the time introduced me to Rebbe Nachman's story, the Seven Beggars. (in English) He wanted to hear what I thought about his interpretation of Rebbe Nachman's story and I read it. I was blown away by how much Rebbe Nachman knew and how much he could condense into a beautiful simplistic story format. This friend also showed me diagrams he had drawn of different Torahs in Likkutei Moharan in order to make sense out of them. At the time I didn't understand what the diagrams were for. Rebbe Nachman's flow seemed pretty natural to me, though I did love the complexity of his divrei Torah. (In the same way (l'havdil) Edgar Allen Poe's rhymes could make your tongue feel like it was dancing; Rebbe Nachman's Torah challenged my mind to follow his lead.) Still, I didn't really know what Hassidut was except for people in streimels. I don't think I was even aware Rebbe Nachman's Torah was Hassidut. I didn't really know anything about Rebbe Nachman except a taste of his Torah.

At the time I was still too absorbed in myself to delve into Rebbe Nachman (though I did read some more of his stories, they didn't have quite the power of the Seven Beggars -- to this day I've still never finished the Lost Princess, The Exchanged Children, or The Master of Prayer, though I always mean to get back to them.) It was only at the very end of university that I started to write out all of my ideas about how HaShem's world worked and realized I had reached the limit of what I was able to understand about the creation of the world. I don't (believe that I) exagerate when I say I nearly drove myself insane trying to understand how the creation began and how it could be that Infinite Singular and Unique HaShem could create limited, plural, and numerous us. [I believe you can still find these writings online here. You can even see from my style the arrogance and provocative nature of my youth.]

When I'd finished these writings I felt I'd emptied myself of everything that I understood and knew, and it was time for me to come home, back to Israel and to start to learn Torah in earnest. I studied Torah in Yeshivah in the mornings and worked till late in the evenings. Somewhere in the middle I came across a store on Rechov Yoel Saloman where I bought a copy of Likkutei Sichot of Rebbe Nachman. I would learn it while on the bus, while walking, all the time. I just sort of started reading, even though the Hebrew had its own style and he would use Yiddish words and all manner of hebrew words I'd never known before, I just read and relied on context to figure out his meaning. I found that if I kept reading I'd almost always understand, and if I didn't understand, I'd keep reading and benefit from what I did understand.

Eventually I tried Tanya as I think I mentioned in the past. From my theories in college I realized there had to be a fifth unified level of Torah, just as there were fifth unifying levels of the soul (yechidah) and of the world, (adam kadmon) and I once asked someone (maybe the Chabad rabbi?) who said it was Tanya [and Hassidut.] I started a perek every morning, just running through it and letting my mind get the feel for his style, his language. Every Hassidic sefer has its own language, and if you don't fight it or try to translate it back into "your" language, you can just absorb it. This is basically my style for all my learning, make room for the style and language of the mechaber (author) to come through. Judge and understand the sefer on its own internal merits.

Perhaps I'm not the right person to really answer this question though, because when it comes to Hassidut, it just feels right. Maybe my struggle with all of Torah until I came to Hassidut is my closest analog. Hassidut for me is the sweet waters of the Torah I struggle to attain. There have definitely been an occassional difficulty along the way, sometimes I attribute it to my yetzer hara and sometimes I believe it is an element of something being distant from my soul root. For the first example, I had a hard time in the middle of the Noam Elimelech, it felt like it wasn't relevant to me, or that he was rehashing earlier hiddushim, but I assumed it was my yetzer hara and kept pushing forward, and I can say I truly love the Noam Elimelech and I'm changed because of it.

For an example of the second, (where my soul feels a disconnect) the Hassidut of the Maggid doesn't speak to me the way the Baal Shem Tov's does. Which is a strange thing to say as the Maggid is considered the main disciple of the BeShT. I think it has to do with Hesed and Din. Just as Avraham and Yitzhak, our forefathers, embodied the complimentary middoth of Hesed and Din. But perhaps this is also a matter of time and maturity, as the more I learn the more palatable it becomes and the more the Maggid's style of Hassidut (also) resonates with who I am. But still, I don't have the immediate afinity with the Maggid's Torah that I do with the Baal Shem Tov's; so part of it is clearly spiritual.

Another sefer that I had to work on myself to get through is the Sha'ar HaYichud of the Mittler Rebbe. I pushed myself to learn it all the way through, but it was rough going. This is perhaps because my style of reading quickly and surrendering to the author's intentions might not be applicable. The Mittler Rebbe speaks at length about fleshing out an idea and really processing and digesting it. I think I will, B"H, have to revisit his work again soon with the patience I've started to introduce into my learning. Until now I've always learned with great urgency, feeling the need to cover a lot of material. Only in the past couple of months have I begun to feel and understand the sweetness of Torah that has no place and/or no bearing on the quantity of your Torah knowledge. Learning slower, with more depth and more feeling is something new to me.

Still, as I said, I don't know if I'm the one to answer this question, because when I feel a connection with a sefer, (usually a sefer of Hassidut) it's not difficult. But, I might be able to explain why: Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, in his sefer Orot, towards the beginning, explains that without Eretz Yisrael the Jewish people can't begin to connect to the Midrash, the Agaddeta, the Kabbalah. The hidden side of Torah is only knowable in the context of Eretz Yisrael. The Jewish soul needs to be exposed to the air, the atmosphere, of Eretz Yisrael which fills the soul with wisdom. This, Rav Kook, explains is why since Eretz Yisrael has returned to us and we to her, so many Jews are interested in all of the hidden disciplines of the Torah.

People often find difficulty reading Rav Kook, and I think it is for the same reason. The galut-mind can't relate to this Torah. It's only when you expose your thoughts, your understanding, your mind to Eretz Yisrael that you can receive the 'hidden' Torah.

If you read Rav Kook from this place it's not confusing, it's mind-opening. Similarly, Hassidut, written mostly in the galut, infuses the Jewish Neshamah with so much of the kedushah of the hidden Torah. Kal v'chomer, when someone lives in Eretz Yisrael and opens the pages of a sefer on Hassidut, it's enough to make you cry.

All of the emotion, all of the struggle, and in the end realizing that HaShem isn't far away at all.. it's too much feeling to know what to do with.

Basically, my advice to someone struggling through a difficult sefer is to come learn it here in Eretz Yisrael, and taste and see the sweetness of HaShem.

טעמו וראו כי טוב השם


At July 3, 2008 at 4:49:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great interview. Wonderful insight. Thank you ASJ and Yitz.

Something struck me apart from the subject of seforim. I wonder if Yitz’ words reveal as much about the point we have reached in Jewish history as they speak to the question you raised ASJ. I am talking about searching for derech. It seems that many of us are occupied with this search.

I am also Sepharadi who sought (and continues to seek) deeper understanding and upon reading Yitz’ response I recognized a certain parallelism in our paths. This included early stops with Rav Kaplan, followed by learning with Chabad and then through unusual machinations Rebbi Nachman, including his wonderful stories. Yitz’ words “beautiful” and “simplistic” are almost the exact ones I would have used (I would have said beautifully simple but deep). We even encountered a sense of urgency--although while I continue to feel this, Yitz has been able to relax. And I wonder how much this is attributable to a lofty existence in EY, while I (for the limited time being, b’Ezrat HaShem) remain toiling in physical galut.

I don’t know why Breslov seems so inviting. Perhaps it is the simplicity that we need. I once read a fascinating article in Yated about a shoemaker in Yerushalayim who cured people from all over the world of back and other injuries and illnesses with his specially-designed shoes (and other methods). He was a tzaddik, who in his spare time wrote a commentary on the Zohar HaKodesh on scrap leather(which I have not found). He was also Sepharadi and interestingly, kept a derech halacha Sepharad and a derech hachaim of Breslover chassidut. He named his sons Nachman and Natan.

Yitz wrote “The hidden side of Torah is only knowable in the context of Eretz Yisrael.” Is Rav Kook the source for this? I ask because this statement hit very hard as truth. I can understand how this can be so, although I have not really learned Rav Kook.

As for “ the end realizing that HaShem isn't far away at all.. it's too much feeling to know what to do with.” May we all be zoche to experience such feeling. Soon.


At July 3, 2008 at 4:50:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is said somewhere in the name of Ari za"l, that the statement אוירא דארץ ישראל מחכים refers to the air of Tzfas.

At July 3, 2008 at 11:36:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting in that Tzfat is the place we are considering to live.


At July 4, 2008 at 4:48:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz said...


i will have to go into more depth about the patience in learning---it's sort of a different technique, not a level of satiation with what i've learned.


that makes sense in accordance with a number of other things i've heard/learned; but if there's one thing i've learned from my limited brushes with the Torah of the Arizal, it's that everything is made up of bechinot of everything else, so, Tzfat might be the essence of avirah d'eretz yisrael; but there exist other representations of this, one of them is the avirah of eretz yisrael.. ie. the pshat. furthermore, Rav Kook certainly was familliar with all the writings of the Arizal, so his statement, which clearly (imho) refers to ALL of Israel, can be assumed to shtim (ie. concur) with the Arizal.

At July 4, 2008 at 6:15:00 AM EDT, Blogger steve mcqueen said...

This is amazing for me to read, I feel pretty on my own sometimes trying to learn hassidic seforim without any (or much) outside help. I didnt appreciate others might be trying the same thing as well. Much of what you say really resonated, such as appreciating a learning that you dont need to cover quickly, just deeply, getting a background in kaballah to help work out what is being said, but most of all the incredible feeling when you realise you may have understood. Even if it is only one in very few pieces reviewed, the taam is worth it.

At July 4, 2008 at 12:40:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

finish the reb nachman stories.

rav kooks amazing words are easily available in english. there's a fine collection on (sorry!) paulist press called 'lights of penitence'. and ben-zion boxer has translated alot of rav kook. see also 'art of teshuva' by samson and fishman.

At July 4, 2008 at 1:09:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I look forward to your future writings,

Shabbat shalom



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