Sunday, November 30, 2008

Likutey Moharan - Volume 12 Now Available

Breslov Research Institute has just released Volume 12 of the English translation of Likutey Moharan. This volume begins Part II of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's magnum opus and contains lessons 1 through 6.

Chanuka Special: Buy a set of all 12 volumes of Likutey Moharan for the price of 10 and get free shipping on this item. Please use code LM12 when ordering.

Mikraos Gedolos - Me'orei HaChassidus

Friday, November 28, 2008

Ribbono Shel Olam!

Ribbono shel Olam! When a Jew drops his tefillin he is shocked and distressed. He lifts them up from the floor, kisses them with reverence, and fasts the entire day to atone for their humiliation. Ribbono shel Olam! Your tefillin, the Jewish people - for two thousand years they are lying downtrodden on the ground. When will you raise them up? When, when will you raise them up?

(Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev)

Question & Answer With Akiva Of Mystical Paths - Emuna & Eretz Yisroel

(Picture by A. Shtilman)

A Simple Jew asks:

Looking back since the time you made aliya, do you think that your emuna while living in the United States was lacking? How is your emuna living in Eretz Yisroel stronger today?

Akiva of Mystical Paths answers:

When I was a child, my grandparents used to take me on outings to the Franklin Institute - possibly _the_ original children's science museum (located in Philadelphia). At the time, the museum was the ultimate hands on science museum. They actually had full size steam locomotives in the building that you could climb on and partially operate. They had a full size commercial jet you could climb through, and in the cockpit things were wired to light up. Small hands on experiments abounded - pull and lift tons of material with ropes and pulleys, experiment with wing lift in miniature wind tunnels, make huge sparks and pull and push with electromagnets. And when they did demonstration experiments, they were exciting, noisy, messy, and flashy.

The wonders of science were literally in your hand, and that sparked my interest and imagination for a lifetime. Turning on a light is not abstract when you've had a chance to experiment with it.

Judaism is a religion, a way of life, a people, a nation, and a land. These things aren't separate, together they make up a complete package.

Outside of Israel, much of Judaism is theoretical. Parts don't apply and are only studied in abstract (shmittah, trumah). Parts are performed but don't align (prayers for rain are seasonal by schedule in Israel). And parts are hard to understand or relate to (aliyat haregel).

Judaism in the Land of Israel is a hands on experience like the science museum memories of my childhood. While we went down the road to Bet Lechem to Kever Rochel, my 8 year old daughter looked up at me and quoted from the Torah, asking "is this the road she was buried on", yes it was, the words of the Torah where we stood. When we went to Ir Dovid (excavations of the ancient city of King David on the far side of the Old City, next hill over), we went down through the water tunnel (30 minutes in the dark with water up to your ankles) that ends with a plaque saying "we are the workers of King Chizkiyahu, we dug from both sides to prepare for a siege by the Assyrians" (they really found the plaque there, though it's a reproduction there now with the original in a museum) - the words of Melachim in front of our faces.

We discussed shemittah in the market on which vegetables we could buy (or not) and the empty fields we passed. Trumah and maaseros will be taught in the kitchen as we take them.

Myriad generations of our patriarchs and matriarchs, tzaddikim and gedolim can be visited at their kevorim. Learning mishnah, Rabbi Akiva says - been there. Zohar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says - been there. Mishneh Torah, the Rambam says - been there. Shulchar Aruch or Kabbalah, Rabbi Yosef Karo and the Ari, yep. Shimon HaTzadik, Shmuel HaNavi, Binyomin, Dan, Shimon, so many more. Jump in the Ari's mikvah, climb down to the cave of Eliyahu HaNavi. Stand in Elon Moreh when the parshat hashavuah says Avraham Avinu came there, look over to Har Bracha and Har Gerazim where Am Yisroel stood upon entering the Land.

There's a story from the Kedushas Levi, Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev. When he was newly married, he heard of the Maggid of Mezerich and insisted on traveling to learn by him. Upon returning, his father-in-law challenged whether he was wasting his time or not..."What did you learn by the Maggid?" asked his father-in-law. "That there is a G-d." replied the Kedushas Levi. His father-in-law called over the maid and asked her "do you know that there is a G-d?" "Yes" she replied. Said the Kedushas Levi, "she says there is a G-d, now I _know_ there is a G-d."

In America, I read and learned and prayed, and went to work. While I spent time learning chassidus, I didn't spend all that much time contemplating G-d, thinking about the avos and imahos, navi'im and kesuvim. Intellectually I strove to become closer to Hashem, but "sheviti Hashem l'negdi tamid" - keeping Hashem constantly before me or in my thoughts wasn't part of the program. My home felt basically secure, my parnossa basically secure (though that's changed in the US recently, and many of my former colleagues have lost their jobs within the last month), and one could contemplate which tzedakah is more worthy for my giving.

In Israel, much of Judaism is literally within reach or within sight. Parnossa is challenging, I thank Hashem every day for just getting by. Holy sites from generations are nearby, to light up a moment. Life and death threats are more palpable, both from brutal enemies and even from normal traffic. And I encounter our neighborhood poor who literally survive by communal chesed or (G-d forbid) go hungry when it's lacking.

In other words, emunah is more hands on, more literal and in your face. In the US, the gedolim and tzaddikim certainly know that every moment we depend on Hashem. In Israel, not only does every religious Jew know that but even many of the non-religious admit it as well.

In Israel, we live by the hand of Hashem every day.

Unanswered Questions

One can ask questions - all kinds of questions - without those questions undermining one's faith. I was once a student of mathematics. I know about so many unanswered problems and so many paradoxes and so many logical contradictions. Do these things undermine my belief or understanding of mathematics? Not at all.

(Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Guest Posting By Rabbi Ozer Bergman - Alarmists

For better or worse, I am not an alarmist. So when I got an e-mail or two that tzaddikim of various stripes were warning "The End is Near for American Jews! Get Out While You Can!" I was a little underwhelmed. After all, I've gotten e-mails in the past that "Mashiach is DEFINITELY coming by this coming Rosh HaShanah" and, sadly, he didn't. In other words, the track record of alarmists is not an argument to heed any of their warnings.

Mind you, I don't mean to say that their messages should be ignored or summarily dismissed. Rather that current events are fairly inscrutable and people should not hurriedly make life decisions based on what's reported in the e-mail de jour that so-and-so said such-and-such. Did he? Exactly what did he say? In what context? Was he addressing his own congregation/community/adherents or all of Klal Yisrael?

Nonetheless, even Ozer Laidback realizes that what we're witnessing requires a response. The world is certainly undergoing some serious changes, even if those changes aren't leading immediately and directly to Armageddon (you'll pardon the expression). Some of us are old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism. Maybe now it's time for capitalism and democracy to fall. After all, despite any personal affinity we may have for them, neither is kadosh or Torah m'Sinai.

That said, please allow me a digression. I want to publicly express my dismay and distress about the reaction of too many people. The reaction and my subsequent distress go back to 9/11. Too many (even one is too many) in our community feel that gloating is an appropriate reaction to America's trials and tribulations, to its suffering and setbacks. This is an un-Torah and even anti-Torah attitude and view.

Our holy Torah teaches us that converts from certain nations, though they become Jewish, may never marry into what is called Kahal Hashem. Some may marry in after a defined waiting period (Devarim 23:4-9). Egyptian converts may marry after three generations because we we were guests in their land. Even though they enslaved, humiliated and beat us for close to a century; even though they drowned millions of Jewish babies, because they gave us a place to stay when we were in need we are not to totally shun them (see Rashi, v.8).

In Sefer HaMidot (aka The Aleph-Bet Book) Rebbe Nachman teaches that it is forbidden to be an ingrate, to a Jew or to a non-Jew (Tefilah A:62). This seems to be based on "David asked, 'Is there still anyone left of the House of Shaul with whom I can do kindness for the sake of Yonatan?'" (2 Samuel 9:1); and on "David said, 'I will do kindness with Chanun son of Nachash, as his father did for me...'" (ibid. 10:2). The Rebbe also teaches that one is obligated to pray on behalf of his host city (Tefilah A:56).This is apparently based on Yirmiyahu HaNavi words, "Seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you. Pray to God on its behalf because its peace will be your peace" (Jeremiah 29:7).

Whatever the shortcomings and failures of the United States of America in regards to its Jews and the Jewish people, it has been a very, very good home to millions and millions of us. Instead of gloating, we ought to be praying strongly for its protection and prosperity. Amen.

Returning to our initial topic: Mashiach has to come; why not sooner than later? God is shaking things up, and that is certainly part of the unfolding process that will result in Mashiach's arrival—speedily, in our lifetimes. Amen! But in the meantime it is both disconcerting and scary. What can we do get our bearings and overcome our fears of the what the future holds?

Rebbe Nachman recommends holding on to a genuine tzaddik. The Torah teaches that in the Messianic era Hashem will grasp the ends of the earth and shake off the wicked (Job 38:13). But the genuine tzaddik—and those holding onto him—will not be cast off. He/they will survive. Let's work on strengthening our faith in Hashem's unending, loving providence (aka hashgacha pratis), that on the heels of this cloudy whirlwind ride, is clarity and calm. Let's actively seek out the clear wisdom and advice of genuine tzaddikim, past and present, and do our best to live accordingly. Amen.

Our Inner Self

One should not speak one thing outwardly and think otherwise in his heart. Rather, his inner self should be like the self he shows to the world. What he feels in his heart should be the same as the words on his lips.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008


(Picture courtesy of

The Sudilkover Rebbe told me recently that he had some bad news to share with me. The laptop computer he was using to work on his new edition of Degel Machaneh Ephraim was severely damaged and computer specialists could not restore the contents of his hard drive. This hard drive contained the only copy of his commentaries on the Vayikra and Likkutim sections.

Countless hours and of months of work vanished.

When his son asked him why he thought it happened, the Rebbe responded that perhaps he not have the right machshavos (thoughts) when working on it. He had done much of the work on these lost sections following the death of his father. The Rebbe explained to his son that it was also possible that he did not work with the proper simcha that was necessary when working on a sefer as holy as Degel Machaneh Ephraim.

Instead of becoming frustrated and irate about this unfortunate occurrence, the Rebbe accepted it with simple emunah. His reaction thus became an important life lesson to me; don't rush to cast blame on something external when more the likely the problem was created by a deficiency that was internal.

יום הולדת שמח

(My 6 year-old daughter's picture for the Sudilkover Rebbe)

28 Cheshvan Links - כח חשון

(Picture by S. Customs)

Dixie Yid: Our Friend's Child Needs Help

Modern Uberdox: Revealing contents

Alice Jonsson: Descending From the Throne

A Simple Jew: A Day To

Eizer L'Shabbos: Winter Campaign


A person should never let his own smallness insignificance and humility cover up his true greatness. For sometimes a person downgrades himself to excess and forgets that he still has many amazing attributes.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Question & Answer With Rabbi Tanchum Burton - Advice & Initiative

(Picture courtesy of Reuters)

A Simple Jew asks:

In Rabbi Chaim Kramer's book, "Through Fire and Water" he wrote, "It is up to the individual to take the initiative and act on the Rebbe's advice. The Rebbe's lessons are universal, speaking to each individual on his own level in accordance with his unique mission in life."

Additionally, he observed, "What is striking about his teachings is that, while the tzaddik is undoubtedly the central figure, he rarely intervenes as such in the lives of his followers. Rather, he observes and - most important - advises, sometimes with as little as a nod, a gesture, or even silence."

Is this "hands off" approach to leadership unique to Breslov or are you aware of any other Chassidic groups which are predominantly guided by the self-motivation of the chassidim?

Rabbi Tanchum Burton answers:

It seems to me that Rabbi Kramer was utilizing a rather poetic device to describe the experience one has when learning the works of Rebbe Nachman.

In Likutei Halachos, Shluchin 5, Reb Noson indicates that we do not need the Tzaddik for his arms and legs, but rather for his teachings. What he seems to have indicated is that the whole experiential aspect of having a rebbe - the grandeur of the court, the slices of fruit passed from hand to hand at the rebbe's tisch, the rebbe's royal appearance - is not as important as the avodas Hashem that results from the successful learning and integration of that rebbe's teachings. The litmus test of a rebbe-chassid relationship is whether or not the quality of the chassid's faith and service of G-d through Torah and mitzvos has increased by virtue of his encounter with the rebbe.

The Rebbe said that he wanted us to be gebakeneh chassidim, literally, "baked through and through". What he meant was that our integration of his teachings should be so thorough that every aspect of our avodas Hashem should reflect these teachings. That does not mean that we have to follow a particular chassidische dress code, or eat specific types of Jewish foods (although the Rebbe was clear that a Jewish appearance, e.g. a beard and payos, was important, see Chayei Moharan). What it does mean is that, given that his writings are replete with advice on how to serve G-d, we ought to turn to those writings, as they contain everything we need to live and grow as Jews. Thus, the teachings are the most important aspect of the Rebbe.

Breslov has a very unique tradition in this manner. Amongst the Breslover chassidim have been many people who could easily have become chassidic rebbes in their own right, having distinguished themselves as Torah scholars, dayyanim, miracle workers, and intense ovdei Hashem. Nevertheless, these people chose to remain talmidim of Rebbe Nachman. The Rebbe himself was very different from his contemporaries. Most of the time, when we read about the "chassidic masters", we find descriptions of spiritual superstars and their accomplishments, and of the size of their large followings - but rarely do we read about talmidim who have attained high levels. With Rebbe Nachman, although we have a litany of accounts that aptly convey a sense of his stature as a rebbe and tzaddik, the most important mesora we have from him is his advice on how WE can become spiritual superstars. It is this coaching role that the Rebbe plays in our lives that I feel distinguishes Breslov from other traditions.

The Rebbe physically left this world in 1810, but remains with us through the daas he bequeathed to us, and through the mesora that his talmidim in each generation have passed down to us. Since the Rebbe's teachings are the main vehicle by which one, through learning and integrating them, forges his relationship to him, it is up to the individual to take the initiative. That may explain what appears to be a "hands-off" approach in Breslov. But I can assure you that with the right teachers and good friends, when you get caught in the Rebbe's "net", the desire to live these eitzos make them no less than standing orders. May Hashem help us merit this.

27 Cheshvan Links - כז חשון

(Picture by K. Goens)

Breslev Israel:
Boss Blues

A Fire Burns in Breslov: Admitting an Error

Modern Uberdox: Opening My Heart

A Simple Jew: Esav's Questionable Shechita

Rabbi Dovid Sears: A Biblical Generation Gap

Dixie Yid: The Freedom of Shabbos Restrictions

A Simple Jew: וַיֵּצֵא הָרִאשׁוֹן אַדְמוֹנִי

Circus Tent: All by the book, None by the heart

Neither Ethical Nor Healthy

The obligation to judge favorably is incumbent on every Jew - man or woman - at all times, and in respect to every Jew - man, woman, child, or adult. Although there is no Torah commandment not to suspect a non-Jew, nevertheless, it is neither ethical nor healthy to be suspicious of anyone, and it can cause a breakdown of one's fine character traits. One should strive constantly to maintain peaceful relations with everyone and to live in harmony with all.

(Mishpetei Hashalom)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - A Layman's Perspective On Turkey And The Halachic Process

(Picture by Right Brain)

With Thanksgiving on the horizon (for Americans like me) we see quite a bit of Turkey promotion. Of course, most people know that Turkey was not served at that first thanksgiving meal, but being that the Turkey is of American origin, it is "rewarded" with its 24 hours of fame. However, the Turkey's American origin raises Halachic questions as to its Kashrus status, and all you could want to know about the topic can be found here. But, skipping ahead, the bottom line is that Turkey is accepted as Kosher. And the reason? Well, basically, because people were already eating it. The questions raised are post-facto: "Why is Turkey Kosher?" and not "Is Turkey Kosher?"

When I was younger this troubled me. Not only this, but even that there could be different opinions about the status of something according to Torah: How could G-d want us to do the right thing, and then leave it ambiguous? How could He leave everything to fallible humans to figure out and determine, and have them come out with different answers? Different customs I could understand, but differences Halacha? Shouldn't there be one single right and wrong answer? Isn't there a right or wrong answer?

Of course, the question is the answer, but it's still worth discussing. And it's a common problem that I run into: people will say, "If it's Halachically permitted, then we can do it without a second thought – regardless of what people do," or they'll debate if something should be done differently or allowed/disallowed because of XYZ. That's all fine and good from an academic POV, but it's not the way it works. There is a Halachic process, and Klal Yisroel, in fact, plays a very big role in determining the halacha. Halacha is not a cold canonized list in Heaven of Do's and Don'ts; it's just not that way. Halacha is far more complicated; it's a combination of a number of things, and among them is intuition as well as the process of acceptance by observant Jews – and this is a significant element to the underlying difference between what we call Rabbinic Judaism and such strains as the Tzadokim or Karaim (Sadducees or Karaites). Rabbinic Judaism is centered on the rule that "Torah is not in the Heavens" while Tzadokim /Karaim refuse to accept that there can be different answers to the same question al-pi Torah.*

In fact, "Halacha," as we call it, has its own rules and its own reality. For example, Halachic principles such as probability and nullification or how things are defined don't have to match other information that we call "facts." And with us all living in an era that places so much weight on scientific data, it is easy to try to define things in similar terms, but it's not really a good fit and while there is some overlap, they'll never really be aligned. In fact, religion in general is more of a philosophy than a science, and the same is true here:

Perhaps we could compare Halacha in a certain way to a vow. If, let's say, I vowed not to eat chickens, they would become forbidden to me. Similarly, the Halachic process determines the rules. So, along comes the Turkey. It is quite possible, maybe even likely, that it wouldn't have been accepted as Kosher if we analyzed it today from scratch – but that's not the way Yiddishkeit works. Instead, Klal Yisroel paskened, and it is Kosher. Virtually all authorities explain how it is kosher; the actual psak is basically a fait accompli. So, to me, the Turkey represents the power of Klal Yisroel in Halacha. It represents the process. To me, it represents a significant element in the system of Yiddishkeit.

* Of course, there is much more to the battles of the Tzadokim / Karaim vs. Rabbinic Judaism, but it isn't relevant to this piece.

26 Cheshvan Links - כו חשון

(Picture by J. Hol)

Mystical Paths: The End of The Chassidic Movement

Chabakuk Elisha: Honesty

The Sofer: Power of a Mitzva

A Simple Jew: "The Masses Preferred Esav"

Redigging The Well

Each person only receives in accordance with his yearning, his desire and effort, i.e. how much he pushes and digs with the words of his mouth and with his heart to find the water within the holy wells - the wells of fresh, living water that were dug in the days of Avraham and which the Philistines stopped up and filled in with dirt. Afterwards Yitzchok Avinu came back and redug them. He had many fights and arguments over them, because those who opposed him, then called the Philistines, quarreled with him a great deal. He finally dug and found the well of fresh, living water and named it Rechovot. Yet these wells are still stopped up, and since that time the tzaddikim and prophets of every generation have struggled enormously to dig them out and reveal them.

(Reb Nosson of Breslov)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - Chasidic Mysticism Today - Part 2

Continued from Part 1:

Perhaps the first attempt to create a specific technique not reserved for a spiritual elite was the approach to the daily prayer service conceived by Rabbi Aharon HaKohen of Zelichov. His commentary on the siddur, Kesser Nehora, attempts to summarize the kavanos of the Ari z"l in a way that addresses both the mind and heart. He defines the parameters of "the service of the heart" according to four basic themes: awe of G-d, love of G-d, praise of G-d, and the acceptance of G-d's Kingship (Malkhus). These four categories correspond to the four letters of the essential Divine Name (Y-H-V-H). By praying in the manner he prescribes, one fulfills the Psalmist's words, "I have placed G-d before me always." First published in 1794 together with the Siddur Tefillah Yesharah (his own redaction of the formal prayers according to the Chasidic custom, also known as the "Berditchover Siddur"), Rabbi Aharon's system of kavanos is still used by many Chasidim today.

One of the most profound thinkers to develop the Baal Shem Tov's teachings was Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812). His highly intellectual approach came to be known as Chabad Chasidism, borrowing the Kabbalistic acronym for the three sefiros of Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (understanding), and Daas (knowledge). Born of the dispassionate Lithuanian temperament, Chabad distrusted the fervor of many Chasidim as a "delusion of the blood," the self-serving pursuit of an emotional high. Alternately it developed a philosophical-contemplative method by which the seeker might spontaneously experience an intuitive sense of his own nothingness (bittul ha-yesh) and the omnipresence of the Divine. This emotional consequences of such contemplation would be a natural by-product of the quest for unity. In this way, Chabad sought to kindle a steady inner flame in the heart, rather than fan the fires of sporadic -- and possibly false -- ecstasy. The basic practice, still employed by some contemporary devotees of Chabad, entails intensely and systematically contemplating the kabbalistic order of the universe. This is known as the Seder HaHishtalshelus, or "Chain of Being," and the exploration of its intricacies produced a profound literature and a unique spiritual path. The core of these teachings may be found in Rabbi Schneur Zalman's famous Sefer HaTanya, especially in the second section, Sha'ar HaYichud V'HaEmunah. Other key works include Ner Mitzvah V'Torah Ohr and Kuntres HaHispa'alus by Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber of Lubavitch. However, virtually all Chabad texts work out the implications of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's ideas in various contexts.

More suspicious of the rational faculty than the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) wanted the individual to attain a realization of G-dliness through the fabric of life itself. He stressed the path of hisbodedus -- secluded self-examination and spontaneous personal prayer. One sets aside one hour every day to pour out his heart to G-d, preferably in a secluded place in the middle of the night. Rabbi Nachman encouraged the seeker to overcome his worldly attachments by stripping away one level after another of the "false self" until all that remains is the subtlest trace of ego -- and then one may let go of this, too, permitting the Infinite Light to shine through at last. This process necessitates reflecting upon one's life circumstances and experiences, especially by using the Torah one has studied (and Rabbi Nachman's discourses in particular) as a springboard for meditation and prayer. A general description of hisbodedus is given in Likutey Moharan 1, 52, and II, 25, as well as in the anthology Hishtapchus HaNefesh (translated into English as "Outpouring of the Soul" by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan). But actually, the possibilities of hisbodedus are unlimited -- for according to Rabbi Nachman, every aspect of the human condition can be a starting point in one's search for G-d.

Like all Chassidic masters, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch (Eichenstein) of Ziditchov (1765-1831) and his nephew and disciple, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Yehudah Yechiel (Safrin) of Komarno (1806-1874), saw the teachings of the Ari z"l and those of the Baal Shem Tov as part of both an essential and historical continuity, an ongoing revelation of the deepest levels of Torah. On this basis, they felt justified in more openly discussing the mysteries of Lurianic Kabbalah, even delving into the use of kavanos and yichudim, meditations upon various Divine Names. When performed by a worthy individual in a state of purity and with holy intent, these meditations restore spiritual harmony to the universe and elicit Divine mercy and favor. (However, as the Rebbes of Ziditchov and Komarna also warned, when kavanos and yichudim are employed indiscriminately, the results may be catastrophic.) Perhaps the best introduction to this path is Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Yechiel's Netziv Mitzvosecha. His diary of dreams and visions, Megillas Sesarim, is one of the most revealing personal testimonies written by a Chasidic master. (In a similar vein,some of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov's dreams and visions may be found in Chayei Moharan, translated by Avraham Greenbaum and published in English as "Tzaddik". The dream-journal of another major Chasidic thinker, Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, was published as Kuntres Divrei Chalomos.)

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman (Shapira) of Piaseczno (1889-1943), a more recent Chasidic leader who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto, brought an illumination of mysticism to the masses through his innovative educational methods. By imbuing the student (or disciple) with a deep sense of his own essential nature, the Piaseczno Rebbe initiates him into Torah study, prayer, and the performance of mitzvos by using visualization techniques. These improvisational kavanos are sometimes derived from the Kabbalah, but avoid its more esoteric aspects. The Piaseczno Rebbe's ultimate goal is not only to bring the everyday practices of Judaism to life but to initiate his disciples into the ethereal realms of the spirit. His best-known works are Chovos Talmidim (translated to English as "A Student's Obligation" by Micha Odenheimer) and Hachsharas Avreichim. But perhaps the clearest exposition of his approach may be found in a small booklet entitled Bnei Machshavah Tovah. These works began attaining popularity during the author's lifetime and have more recently inspired a growing number of devotees in Chasidic yeshivos, especially in Israel.

However, like everything else in Torah, one can learn only so much from texts. Even since the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, the tradition has been passed down from master to disciple, and especially in this inner dimension of Torah, one must find a teacher. Some Chasidim would argue that this master-disciple relationship is even more important than the particular school to which one belongs.

The Gemara tells us to search for a teacher who is comparable to a "malach Hashem Tz'vaos," "an angel of the Lord of Hosts". The question is: where can one find such a teacher? And how can one know if he is making the right choice? The answer I received from my teachers is that you have to be willing to search as long as it takes -- and, like everything else (and maybe more than everything else), you have to pray for Divine assistance.

A Bar Mitzvah Bochur With The Sudilkover Rebbe

Ramat Beit Shemesh - Tishrei 5769
(Picture courtesy of

Pray For Rain!

Received via e-mail from Rabbi Ozer Bergman:

On my way to Meron this past Monday (of Parshas Chayei Sarah), I passed through Tiverya (Tiberias).


The Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) is shrinking, shrinking, shrinking. What was once part of the seabed is now coast! Wide patches of the lake are BROWN.

That there has been less than sufficient rainfall here in Eretz Yisrael for the last few years, is not news, at least for those of us who live here. But seeing how bad it is, was a clear sign to me that it can chas v'chalilah get worse.

I am not a poseik, but I think we can start saying extra Tehilim and mishebeirakhs (is that a word?), even on Shabbos, that Eretz Yisrael be blessed very soon with gishmei berakhah. Even though it's a tad early for this year's late-in-coming rain, it's not too early for the accumulated dryness from which we're suffering.

May Hashem bless us to soon praise His Name and to be dancing in the rain of gishmei berakhah. Amen.

A Previous Incarnation

I heard that a man is guilty of sins he had committed in a previous incarnation. But when he prays on behalf of sinners, his sins, too, are put right.

(Degel Machaneh Ephraim)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - Chasidic Mysticism Today - Part I

Orginally included as an appendix to "The Path of the Baal Shem Tov" (Jason Aronson 1997), a collection of early Chasidic teachings on various topics, this essay has been revised by the author for this blog.

The teachings of Chasidism have both strengthened and transformed Jewish spirituality. Perhaps the Baal Shem Tov's greatest success was in promoting his values: joy in the performance of mitzvos, love of
G-d as the greatest incentive for ethical behavior, an appreciation of the inestimable worth of the simplest Jew and the smallest good deed, and attachment to tzaddikim as the key to spiritual survival and growth. Not only is the master's influence still felt in the Chasidic world, but, in one way or another, there is almost no sector of Klal Yisroel it has not affected.

But as the quest for deveykus, mystical cleaving to God, there is hardly a yeshiva, even among the Chasidim, where the subject is mentioned. Yet this was probably the Baal Shem Tov's central concern. What happened?

To give this question the attention it deserves, one would have to explore the entire history of the Chasidic movement, its ongoing ideological diversities, and the various currents in Jewish life to which Chasidism has responded. Such a study could easily fill another book. However, without having done my homework, I would venture an unscholarly guess: it is impossible to "mass produce" something as subtle and personal as the experience of deveykus. Indeed, such experiences are inherently elusive. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught:

"For I know that G-d is great; our G-d above all others" (Tehillim 135:5). You may have a vision, but you cannot even share it with yourself. Today you may be inspired and see a new light. But tomorrow you will not be able to communicate it, even to yourself. "I know." I -- as I am now. For the vision cannot be brought back..." (Sichos HaRan 1).

The dangers of charlatanism, on the one hand, and self-delusion on the other, seemed to vindicate the opponents of the movement. Thus, the communal aspects of Chasidic life have fared better over the years than its mysticism. When on a long Shabbos afternoon a Chasid in Borough Park or Williamsburg looks into his Kedushas Levi or Ma'or VaShemesh, he is usually content to savor a Chasidishe vort -- a sagacious insight. But in the practical sense, he is not much more of a mystic than his non-Chasidic counterpart.

Despite all this, searching individuals may be found in almost every group who still pursue the Baal Shem Tov's inner path. Certainly, among the leaders of the various communities there have always been accomplished kabbalists. Some even persisted in the attempt to include the common folk in the mystical quest.

After the original fervor of the Baal Shem Tov's movement began to fade, a number of Chasidic masters developed innovative schools of their own. It is beyond the scope of this work to discuss them all, however, I would like to mention several that incorporate not only mystical concepts, but mystical practices. My purpose in doing so in not to reduce any of these profound schools of thought to the dimensions of a thumbnail sketch, but merely to highlight this latter point. Thus, the interested reader may conclude this book with at least a sense of where to inquire further.

Part 2 continued here.

Filling Your Days

Every hour of the day, see that you extend and enrich that hour by filling it with extra holiness. Do the same every day of your life. Let each day be filled with more holiness than the day before. You will then be blessed with length of days.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Problems Vs. Issues - The Use Of Language

(Painting by Shoshanna Bauer)

The Sudilkover Rebbe stopped me on two separate occasions in the midst of our conversations and suggested that I use the word "issue" instead of the word "problem". The Rebbe explained that I was inadvertently training my mind to think in a negative way by using the word "problem" since this word has a negative connotation while the word "issue" does not.

In order to maintain a constant focus on only the good, the Rebbe told me that it was extremely important to always use words that were both positive and refined.

While I consistently try be cognizant of the words that I speak on a daily basis, up until this point I had never stopped to consider that using a word like "problem" could be an issue.

21 Cheshvan Links - כא חשון

(Picture by H. Hartkamp)

Rabbi Dovid Sears: The Legacy of Avraham Avinu

A Fire Burns in Breslov: Talmud Torah and Chinuch

Artscroll Future Release: Four Chassidic Masters

Dangerous Consequences

The shaliach tzibbur must be beloved by the congregation. If not, when he reads the Tochacha, there may be dangerous consequences for a congregant whom he dislikes. If he hates him, that congregant should not accept the aliya.

(Shulchan Aruch HaRav 53:24)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sensitively Calibrated

(Picture courtesy of

וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן, בָּא בַּיָּמִים

The Degel Machaneh Ephraim taught that each and every single day of Avraham Avinu's life could be accounted for; each day was directed towards the purpose for which he was created.

I came across this teaching in Parshas Chayei Sarah last year and I have been contemplating it ever since my first prima facia reading. I have days where I struggle to shake off my sluggishness and muster even a tiny bit of enthusiasm; where my mind feels clouded and it is difficult to live with the knowledge that there is a deeper purpose behind my routine actions. So, when I attempt to comprehend this level that Avraham Avinu lived on I am simply in awe.

As I continued thinking about the Degel's teaching, I found myself wishing that I could have an instrument that would detect whether or not my actions for that day were directed to the purpose for which my neshoma was sent down into this world; an instrument that could mimic the children's game where one is told whether he is getting "hotter" or "colder" as he attempts to look for an object hidden in the room. I recalled a posting that I wrote three years ago which essentially expressed my wish that free-will could be suspended periodically so I could re-correct my bearing.

Although it is impossible to know whether each individual daily action might register a response of "freezing cold" or "burning up", I suddenly came to the realization that there is, in fact, an instrument in this world that is so sensitively calibrated that it could detect such a thing.

That instrument is the tzaddik who understands that the entire world hinges on his every choice and action.

Tikva & Mikva

Ezra cried out bitterly over the fact that the Jews intermarried and assimilated during the Babylonian exile. After they returned to the Holy Land they wanted to repent. The leaders came to Ezra saying, "But surely there is mikva, hope!" (Ezra 10:2). The usual word for hope is tikva, but the verse intentionally uses the word mikva (מִקְוֶה) to teach us that no matter how serious a person's transgressions, there is always hope: the mikva has the power to bring one to complete repentance.

(Reb Nosson of Breslov)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Question & Answer With Long Beach Chasid - Torah Lishma

(Picture by swa5000)

A Simple Jew asks:

When you are learning Torah, when would you categorize your learning as not Torah lishma?

Long Beach Chasid answers:

My Torah learning evolves like all other aspects of my Avodas Hashem. As a Baal Teshuva most of my time is spent changing my lifestyle to that of a Torah Observant Jew and constantly learning and perfecting my understanding of what is required of me from HaKodesh Baruch Hu.

When I learn the halachas of Shabbos for example, this learning is in a sense selfish because I'm learning it so I can properly keep Shabbos. Same goes with daily halachos and most of Orach Chayim. There are also situations which my yetzer hora thrives off of, such as being publicly embarrassed. Once in a conversation I disagreed with someone and they responded in front of people "Look I've been doing this a lot longer than you have buddy..." I thought to myself for a moment how I couldn't wait to go to Kollel this coming year so I could know more than him. Baruch Hashem, I snapped back into reality realizing how foolish such a notion was and that if I learned Torah for the sake of itself and Hashem, then I wouldn't be in such situations to begin with and if I was, they wouldn't affect me the same way.

So far it sounds like none of my Torah learning, is Lishma but Baruch Hashem there is one area of Torah learning that I feel I learn for its own sake, and that is the ma'amarim of the Sfas Emes. For almost two years, my Rav and I, along with others, have learned his ma'amarim on Chumash and this will be the third time I have learned Parshas Lech Lecha. We use an English translation of part of the ma'amarim but now Baruch Hashem I have enough understanding of the writing style of the Sfas Emes, that we learn it from the original ma'amarim. I learn these for the simple joy of understanding the Torah deeper with the only possible motive of having something nice to give over at the Shabbos table. I hope that as I continue to grow as a person and continue in my Torah learning that I can obtain such a righteous level as the Torah lishma that Pirke Avos (ch.6) speaks about, meriting much joy from this world. We should all be blessed to serve Hashem at such a level and to merit the coming of Moshiach. Amen.

Wearing A Yarmulke

A person removes articles of clothing when he feels at ease, and he covers himself when he believes that he is being judged from above. Therefore, covering one's head is an expression of the sense that the Shekhinah is to be found everywhere and that one is always subject to the immediacy of the omnipresent Divinity.

(Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Guest Posting By Space Cadet - Star-Gazing In The Borscht Belt

(Painting by George Inness)

Space Cadet has devoted the last few years to reviving the eremitic tradition in Judaism championed by Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam in the twelfth century, and the path of seclusion which the Baal Shem Tov and a number of Chassidic masters followed at various times in their lives. He is also trying to learn how to play the Jew's harp without removing all the enamel from his front teeth.

Star-Gazing In The Borscht Belt

Space Cadet dedicates this poem to his old artist-friend Sylvia ("Sura") Zeldis, who first told him about Josef Albers' book, "Interaction of Color."


Catskills shrouded by clouds and mist

Sheltered from inquisitive

Sunlight. In the valley below

Gamblers brave icy roads to Monticello

Minivans en route to bungalows.

In the summer, tourist shops proliferate

Like maggots under a rotted log.

Let me wander these derelict trails

And purify my ears with the song of a mountain stream!


Where once resort hotels straddled the hills

Grossinger’s, The Concord, Tamarack Lodge

Gurus stroll in saffron robes, consoling

Escaped convicts of affluence.

On decrepit porches, Chassidim remember

The country life. Yiddish signs by the roadside

Like old world scholars attempt to refute

These indifferent woods.

Beside the emerald moss, ants build fallout shelters

Flies and chiggers conspire with the wind.

What’s the difference to a bent old man

Preoccupied with making a fire from sticks

Who sips hot tea in the dwindling light

A fading shadow in the unknown

Encroaching night?


I wanted a way out of the city --

Really a way out of my mind.

Be still! I commanded

Enough commotion!

On a wooded slope, beside a flowing stream,

In company of owl, raccoon, and prowling bear,

I made my wilderness camp.

But the noise came along with me:

An endless parade of thoughts, happy and sad

Like unwanted relatives at a country outing.

Help yourself, my friends, I told them.

In these trees, there’s plenty of room.

But I can’t pay attention to you right now.

It is time to gaze at the endless sky

To sit beside the tide waters of my breath.


Once I lived in the city.

Studied, then went to work

Married and raised a family.

Like a fish caught in the net

Floundering in obligations

Struggling with debt

I sought to escape loss and pain

Fought back a smile at praise

And tried to evade blame --

To no avail!

Now the four walls of my house are

The four winds. When I’m hungry

I cook some carrots or potatoes

Stored away from summer

Or swallow a handful of berries

Gathered in hidden recesses of the forest.

Sometimes hikers pass this way

Fresh-faced, wearing their Bean Catalog parkas

When they see me, they laugh at the ragged stranger

And I laugh, too. But my laugh is not their laugh.

In the unformed shadow of sight and sound

The mind finds repose.

From colorless light

All colors come forth and return.


Pausing beside a mountain stream

I lean over to drink – and on the water

See an unfamiliar face, white haired

White bearded, weather-worn

Like a rusty “No Trespassing” sign.

What did I look like before?

Did that face, too, belong to me?

In the ripples of the brook

The face changes shape.

Blurred trees and a patch of sky turn into

A painting by old hermit Monet

With his brushes strapped to his wrists.

What is this world of appearances

But a reflection on the fathomless water

Of the divine thought?


Lipa has become my benefactor.

He works at the Satmar camp all summer

Lets me mooch leftovers from the kitchen.

Now he has brought a portable heater

To my ramshackle bungalow

Plastic for the broken windows

An old army cot to keep my bones

Off the cold floor.

“Get out of here!” I cry.

“God created the world out of kindness,”

Says the burly intruder

Shoving a box across the floor

Crammed with canned peaches, beans and rice.

He probably never had an introspective

Moment in his life.

But heaven’s wondrous purpose

Lipa knows.


Lying on a lounge chair of leaves

I study the white clouds sailing

Across the vault of heaven, like thoughts

Coming out of nowhere

Clouds turn into sky

Sky turns into clouds

Thought dissolves into no-thought

No-thought congeals into thought

Yesh (something) turns into ayin (nothing)

Ayin gives rise to yesh

In essence, it’s all the same.

“When I die,” the Baal Shem Tov

Told his daughter, “It will be like going

From one room to the next.

Not even that!

It will be like going from one corner to the other.”


Josef Albers painted bands

Of color in various combinations.

The same orange surrounded

By turqouise looks so different

Surrounded by crimson.

So what are we

But our contexts?

And if you say, step out of them all

I say, there’s nowhere to go.


Is also a context. Its colors, too

Never stop changing.


City folks say that the hermit’s life

Is a cop-out. If everyone

Cut their umbilical cord to Gas & Electric

IRS, New York Times, CNN

What would become of the world?

Poor world!

I say that taking your mind off what you’re doing

Is a bigger cop-out.


In the Catskills, I devised a plan

For world peace. One that works!

Rabbi Nachman says that all disputes,

All warring nations, are in our minds.

In the moonlight, I listen to crickets

Scratching their legs. The same rhythm

The same pitch. There is no dissonance.

“The desire to achieve transcendence

Is also a desire!” the critic contends.

“Yes,” the sage replies.

“But to fulfill that desire, you must overcome

Every other!”

If the hermit’s life is so easy

Let’s see how long you can last here!

Rushing Through

The Tehillim of Pesukei D'Zimra should not be recited hurriedly, but with composure, word by word, so that one will be able to focus his attention on them as is befitting. Those who recite them hurriedly when there is a minyan present are not acting properly. They are abbreviating the praise of Hashem in order to ask that their needs be satisfied. Is there a ruler who would find this acceptable? The same applies to worshippers who concentrate during the blessings that include supplications and requests for physical needs, but not during the blessings that express praise and thanksgiving to Hashem.

(Shulchan Aruch HaRav 51:13)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Creating A Malach

To many skeptics the story of how the Beis Yosef created a malach (angel) to teach him the innermost secrets of the Torah seems like pure fantasy. However, the Degel Machaneh Ephraim taught that each and everyone of us (וזה יכול להיות בכל אדם ואדם) literally has the potential to create a malach as the Beis Yosef did if we approach our learning with true sincerity.

During his last visit to the United States, I had the priviledge of learning Degel Machaneh Ephraim on the phone with the Sudilkover Rebbe on a number of occasions over the summer. The Rebbe once explained to me that a person can only attain a real success in learning when he learns solely with the intention of uncovering and seeking to put into practice the ratzon Hashem in the sefer that is in front of him at that time. If a person approaches his learning in such a manner he can be assured that it will create a malach that later teach him Torah.

The Rebbe said that we should not think that this malach will be a winged Tinker Bell from Peter Pan flying in front of us, but rather it is an invisible presence that may at times cause new insights to be revealed to us at the time of our learning.

Later I realized, however, that this malach that taught me Torah was neither invisible nor had the appearance of Tinker Bell; it had a black hat, peyos, and shining face. My yearning and years of davening to truly understand Degel Machaneh Ephraim had indeed created a malach; the Sudilkover Rebbe, whose explanations brought this sefer out of the darkness and into the light.

15 Cheshvan Links - טו חשון

(Painting by Yefim Rudminsky)

Rabbi Shais Taub: Tired of Being Tired

Mystical Paths: Problems with Idolatry

Dixie Yid: Rejection Leads to Going Off the Derech

Frum From Rebirth: A Lubavitch Experience


How can you yearn to amass and to build houses and roomy upper stories when you will be brought to the grave, a cubit wide by a cubit long, by a cubit high in the nether earth, with nothing in your hand, and you will leave your wealth to others?

(Sha'arei Kedusha)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Guest Posting By Rabbi Micha Golshevsky - Davening At Kivrei Tzaddikim

(Painting by Esther Zibell)

It is an ancient Jewish tradition to visit the graves of tzaddikim or of one's ancestors. The Chidah, zt"l, records that as a very young man, he accompanied his rebbi, the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh, zt"l, to the graves of tzaddikim in Yerushalayim.

When Rav Yonasan Eibeschitz, zt"l, was appointed Av Beis Din of Metz, he arrived much later than the community in Metz had anticipated. Since he expected that his knew community would be waiting for him, he sent a message forward to Metz to explain his tardiness. "I have a chovas gavrah, a personal duty, to go to Eibeschitz in distant Silesia to prostrate myself at the graves of my forefathers. They will surely petition Hashem for mercy on my behalf."

The Chasam Sofer, zt"l, recounted that before the Gaon, Rav Mordechai Bennet, zt"l, died he said, "If the community needs anything after I am gone, they should come to pray at my grave…" When commenting about the status of a cemetery the Chasam Sofer remarked, "It is likened to a shul, since the living often pray there."

The Maharil, zt"l, writes that although the custom is to pray at the holy graves of tzaddikim, one must be very careful not to place his trust in the dead. One should petition Hashem in the merit of the departed righteous. Although this is brought in the Chayei Adam and the Mishnah Berurah, when someone once asked Rav Shmuel Hominer, zt"l, regarding this issue he said, "I never understood this psak. In Sotah 34 it says clearly that Kalev went to the graves of the Avos and said to them, "My fathers! Plead for mercy from on high that I be saved from the wicked advice of the meraglim!'

Rav Huminer concluded, "We see from here that one may even ask the tzaddik to daven on his behalf as Kalev did. Surely if there was anything improper about this the Gemara would have mentioned it!"

Rabbi Micha Golshevsky's blog A Fire Burns in Breslov can be seen here.

14 Cheshvan Links - יד חשון

(Picture by D. Mosquin)

Avakesh: Natural Faith

Dixie Yid: Why Study Chassidus?

University of Haifa: Tanakh in Yiddish

Dixie Yid: Help the Landon Family

Bringing A Sacrifice

Accepting suffering with love is like bringing a sacrifice.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My Time As A Loner

(Picture by Konstantin Golovan)

During my junior year of college abroad at Tel Aviv University I read Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's book Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide. It was this book that introduced me to hisbodedus and I vividly remember encountering the passage in which Rabbi Kaplan wrote how Rebbe Nachman of Breslov would seclude himself and use the phrase "Ribbono shel Olam" as a mantra at times when he was unable to speak any other words to Hashem.

As an only child, I was used to being by myself and was often content doing things by myself. Being somewhat of a loner during my year in Israel, I would routinely go off by myself and follow this practice that I read about in Rabbi Kaplan's book. Whether it was on a bench overlooking the Mediteranean at sunset on the cliffs at Tel Baruch, up on the roof of the dorms at night, or alone in an empty bomb shelter/shul, I would sit with my eyes closed, envision that I was ascending higher and higher, and whisper the mantra "Ribbono shel Olam" over and over until I reached a point where I would just sit there in silence.

Looking back, I can see that these early attempts at meditation / hisbodedus helped accustom me to the times when I would practice a more evolved form of hisbodedus by speaking with Hashem at length about all the things in my heart and mind.

Today, in addition to hisbodedus, I often use another technique prescribed by Rebbe Nachman. Sitting alone in a quiet room, I envision that there is absolutely no one else in the world. I push any extraneous thoughts from my mind until I am not thinking, just being. I then imagine that I am alone with just the Ribbono shel Olam and I remain in this blissful silence until I feel ready to open my eyes once again.

What does this type meditation do for me? Does it make me calmer and generally more easy going? I honestly don't know. However, I do know that there is still a part of me that has nostalgia when recalling my early attempts more than a decade ago and longs to have the freedom to go off and find that perfect secluded spot.

Fear & Joy

Serve Hashem with fear and joy – these are two friends that are never apart. For fear without joy is depression, and it is wrong to suffer over how to serve Hashem, just to always be happy. For even then, you must serve Him, and there is no time to consider how or what.

(Baal Shem Tov)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Question & Answer With A Talmid - Changing One's Location

A Simple Jew asks:

Sefer HaMiddos, Hamtokas Din 13 states,

"The effects of a decree against a person apply only in a specific place. He can save himself by changing his location."

Nevertheless, there are times when a person has made up his mind and made sincere attempts to overcome the obstacles to move to another location that will help him grow in his avodas Hashem and is prevented from moving. How is this person to save himself by changing his location when ultimately it is Hashem who permits or denies him from moving?

A Talmid answers:

If you do everything in your power to move, and obstacles keep on stopping you, then perhaps Hashem wants you to say where you are. I heard Rav Moshe Weinberger (Aish Kodesh) say that people tell him they would be able to really serve Hashem better if they, for example, moved to Eretz Yisroel, but they can't move for whatever reason. He answered them that if circumstances put you in a particular place, then that is where a person can reach his full potential.

If we could all spend our time learning and davening all day, wouldn't that make Hashem happy? Some are able to, but for many of us going about our normal day is where Hashem wants us to serve Him. For example, this could be done by having emunah that livelihood comes from Hashem and dealing honestly. Similarly, if tries to move to a location that he thinks is more conducive to his Avodas Hashem, but is constantly prevented from doing so, then that may very well be where that person can reach his potential. Perhaps, Hashem wants the person to rise up to the challenge and make a big leap in his Avodas Hashem in the current location, to the level he thinks he thinks he can reach in the desired new location. Maybe then, it will be easier to make the move. Work on that, but by all means keep trying to get to the new location.

התורה נתגלה לבעל הבית

(Painting by Michoel Muchnik)

Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Parshas Vayeira:

"For the guest brings Torah to the host, and according to the guest is the nature of Torah that is revealed to him."

Could anyone further elaborate on this teaching that the Degel recorded in the name of his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov?

See יוקח נא מעט מים for the original text.

12 Cheshvan Links - יב חשון

(Picture by M. Duke)

Frum From Rebirth: Ashlag Chassidus

A Simple Jew: A Conversation On Niggunim

A Fire Burns in Breslov: Why do we Eat?

Rabbi Nasan Maimon: Eating & Parshas Vayeira (audio shiur)

Chabakuk Elisha: Akeida

Distorting Clear Vision

Each person has a great many mental and psychological barriers, ingrained habits, and false opinions - what the world calls sophistication - and these surround the heart and twist it, distorting a person's ability to see clearly.

(Reb Nosson of Breslov)

Friday, November 07, 2008

Question & Answer With Yitz - Chassidic Culture

A Simple Jew asks:

You once wrote, "Hassidut is a huge part of my life, yet I have so little to do with Hassidic culture."

Why do you think this is so?

Yitz of A Waxing Wellspring answers:

You asked why or how it was that I could be so connected to the Torah of Hassidut but have no connection to Hassidic culture.

The answer is a very complex one. On the simplest level it has to do with my upbringing. My father's family is from an old Iraqi family who reached America by a number of waypoints, most notably Calcutta, India. One of the special things about the Iraqi Jews who came to India was the proximity of affluence and poverty. It seems to me that most of those Indian Jews who experienced relative poverty in India benefited the most from the experience. The Indian work ethic and practicality, combined with a sincere (and pragmatic) relationship with HaShem, made my grandfather, a brilliant and very rational individual, a very special gift to the world. His sense of family loyalty, being both an immigrant and a Jew of Sefaradi background gave his children very strong family values. This only gained in strength as it was transmitted to his grandchildren.

As we grew up in a predominantly Ashkenazi American environment my grandfather, father, and uncles recognized the importance in creating a Sefaradi minyan and community so that our heritage wouldn't be lost entirely. This happened around the time I, the oldest of the grandchildren, was about 8 years old.

School was all Ashkenazi, minhagim, nusach, etc. So as I grew up my Judaism deviated pretty significantly from those around me. (I remember getting answers wrong on halachah tests because i hadn't studied enough and answered based on my personal experiences -- we do Tashlich after minha for a nit-picky example)

Having a slightly different Judaism to those around me wasn't very problematic because my family loyalty and values already created a pretty big vacuum between my world outlook and those around me.

Israel was another central ingredient in my family upbringing, and my grandparents eventually built a house in Jerusalem when i was 11 or so. We generally didn't go to sleep-away camp, instead we visited Israel in the summer -- another thing that distanced me socially/ideologically from my peers and modified my values from theirs.

Basically, from the time I was exposed to Hassidut, I was very comfortable being different and very committed to preserving the minhagim of my ancestors. From my perspective Hassidut brought Ashkenazi Judaism a lot closer to what was my normative Judaism.

Whenever there is a clear difference in Sefaradi custom in line with the Mekubalim, (usually based on the Ben Ish Hai) and Hassidic custom, I have a preference (obviously) for the Sefaradi custom. Like wearing Rashi AND Rabeinu Tam for example. I wear my Tzitzith unexposed. Sometimes my grandfather's particular customs take precedence over even these, out of kavod to him. The exact way he showed me to lay tefillin for one. He never did mayim achronim, and I generally abstain out of deference to him. Having said that, he was never happy with my pe'ot, saying it wasn't our custom -- but I maintain them as a specific Jewish fashion statement. It's the only thing about my appearance that I can safely say, no non Jew would ever take on.

I found my heart finally met its home in Hassidut, and so most (often all) of my Torah study centers on it. It has a great impact on my observance of the mitzwoth and my kawanoth. (The intentions involved in the performance of the mitzwoth) But when it comes to the halachah, although I love Likkutei Halachoth, and Shulchan Aruch HaRav, I stick with the Ben Ish Hai and later Sefaradi poskim who taught and guided my ancestors.

There are some overlaps which have allowed me to get inventive, the Ben Ish Hai refers to an avnet, a wide belt, which my tefillin actually necesitate which has allowed me to wear a sort of gartle of my own invention. (Something which my father later found other Mekubalim doing, so there is actually a precedent for it.) My wife's father and uncles, children of the Rishon Le'Tzion (Chief Sefaradi Rabbi) R' Yitzhak Nissim had pe'ot as children, so that gave me the excuse to not feel guilty about my own.

But in general, even when it comes to Hassidic minhagim and mitzwoth, any performance of them is a personal adaptation or acceptance. The question and answer really refers more to Hassidic culture.

Basically it comes down to: How and where would I have gotten into Hassidic culture? I'm used to being different and I wouldn't change my customs anyways, I have prayed in all manner of Hassidic batei knesset, but more out of convenience or happenstance than out of a desire to seek out a different culture. Perhaps Yiddish is a bigger barrier here in Israel than I would have thought, now that I stop to think about it.

Somehow, I feel most at home in a small minyan thats been around for ages, no matter the cultural background. I love connecting to simplicity. Simple Jewishness.

I guess what it comes down to is that I love HaShem, and no Torah can bring you closer to HaShem than Hassidut, what I see (and value) in Hassidut isn't a culture, but closeness to HaShem.

But for me, family comes even before Torah, because family is derech eretz, and derech eretz comes before Torah. Family is also Yirah, which also must precede Torah for the Torah learning to be healthy and fruitful. Family really does lay the framework for how you connect to and understand HaShem.

Perhaps, in the same way the family of partzufim had to be emanated in atzilut before the rest of the world(s) could be created for the very same reason; but that is just hazarding a guess into matters I don't understand, and more than likely misunderstand.

Perhaps also Sefaradim relate more to HaShem as children, and Ashkenazim relate more as servants, and Hassidut came along to help them relate as children as well. Which begs the question, how do Sefaradim handle the servant relationship? I guess the kavod and yirah we are expected to show our parents and grandparents etc.

Learning Torah With Simcha

The Torah, Hashem's precious vessel in which He takes delight every day, should be valued so highly by every individual that he recites its blessings with a joy that surpasses his joy over all the pleasures of the world.

(Shulchan Aruch HaRav 47:1)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Lifeless Communication

(Picture by A. Kasesser)

There are occasions when we witness an acquaintance speaking to another person in an all together different manner than the way they speak to us. With the other person they are animated and laughing, and with us there is a rigid formality. At times, this acquaintance will only speak to us only when no one else is around and will completely ignore us the minute another person is present.

We scratch our heads trying to understand the reason for this. Judgementally, we reason that perhaps this other person is just not genuine and sincere; that his friendship is anything but a true friendship and that they are simply using us as a substitute for boredom.

Yet, many of us are guilty of behaving in this very same manner on countless occasions to someone we speak to every day. There are times we speak to Hashem in utter sincerity as we would speak to a close friend, and then there are times when we seem to rudely blow Him off. Sometimes we even visit his house and speak to Him absentmindedly without even really paying attention to what we are saying to Him.

We certainly don't like it when other people do this to us.

So, how do we think it makes Hashem feel?


Hashem wanted to implant in the nation which He had separated for Himself a permanent mark to separate them from the other nations in the shape of their bodies, just as they are separate in the souls and their spiritual attributes, and by this the Jew completes his nature and form. Hashem wanted this completion to be done by man, rather than having the person born complete, to hint to him that just as his body is completed by him, so too must he complete his soul by his actions.

(Sefer HaChinuch)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Question & Answer With Rabbi Dovid Sears - Uman

(Picture by Motty Zeitlin)

A Simple Jew asks:

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov greatly stresses coming to him for Rosh Hashana. But what do you actually get out of the Uman trip?

Rabbi Dovid Sears answers:

First of all, Breslover Chassidim go to Uman because Rebbe Nachman told us to do so, plain and simple. However, there definitely are things we "actually get out of the Uman trip." And as in all things in Yiddishkeit, there are benefits we can see, and those we can't yet see -- and those we might never see at all.

Benefits # 1: I've experienced a lot of positive things in going to Uman (and inevitably a few negative things, like standing in line at customs in Kiev after the "red eye" flight).

Of course, there is the drama of the excursion itself, which can feel like one of those mythic, archetypal journeys in which the hero must overcome all sorts of obstacles, both outer and inner, to obtain the Golden Fleece. And there is the experience of standing beside Reb Nachman's tziyun (grave site) and doing hisbodedus: taking a long look at your life and talking about what you've been through and what you've done and where you're at and where you'd like to be in a spiritual sense. Plus saying the Tikkun HaKlali and remembering the Rebbe's promise to fix our spiritual damage and bring us to the ultimate goal, even if he has to pull us out of Gehenna by our peyos! Then there is the intense, bittersweet Rosh Hashanah davenning: beginning with the selichos of "Z'chor Bris" at around 3:00 AM on Erev Rosh Hashanah and continuing until the Shacharis Vaskin minyan a few hours later; and then that first "Borchu" of Maariv on the first night of Yom Tov, when our chaver, Reb Shlomo Fried, a"h, would always burst into tears; and there is the uniqely moving Breslover nusach and songs during Shacharis and Musaf (not to mention the thunderous roar of clapping hands at "HaMelekh!); and the Tashlich / symbolic casting away of sins beside the Uman reservoir, and the shiurim by various Breslover teachers prior to Maariv on the second night...

For many of us who live in chutz la'aretz, it is a special delight to see teachers and mashpiyim from Eretz Yisrael, as well as chaverim from around the world, whom we may not see the rest of the year. There are social aspects of the trip... and intellectual aspects such as the shiurim... inspired dancing... all sorts of emotions, which can't be described in words... and the biggest mystery of all: each visitor's sense of connection with the spirit of the Rebbe, especially here in Uman, on the "holy soil" he described as destined for him from the Six Days of Creation...

Benefits # 2: My friend Dovid Steinberg once told somebody, "You won't even begin to know what happened to you in Uman for six months!"

The Rebbe's tikkunim seem to work like those "timed-release" capsules they used to advertise when I was a kid (see Rebbe Nachman's Wisdom, 208). It actually took a number of years for me to realize how central spending Rosh Hashanah in Uman had become to my entire derekh ha-avodah for the entire year, and for my understanding of Rebbe Nachman's teachings overall.

We often don't recognize changes in our spiritual life, even as they are taking place. But one morning we wake up and realize, "Something has changed! I don't feel the same way I used to anymore!" We may have had a viewpoint or set of attitudes which were erroneous, and as a result of certain experiences, these viewpoints and attitudes yield to more truthful and positive ones. We may have been struggling with certain negative traits or inner obstacles, and suddenly notice that they are not as formidable as they once seemed to be.

Traveling to any tzaddik for Rosh Hashanah reflects a certain belief in his ability to intercede before the Divine Throne on behalf of his followers, and this is surely true of traveling to be with Rebbe Nachman. But there is much more to spending Rosh Hashanah in Uman than just this. The Rebbe also wants to open our eyes so that we can experience a little of what he experiences: the divine unity to which everything "ascends," and which at the same time illuminates and permeates all creation and all existence. This can happen at certain moments in davening, or while doing one's avodah at the Rebbe's tziyun, or even later, without warning. (Remember the "timed-release" capsule factor!)

Benefits # 3: The Rebbe describes the Rosh Hashanah kibbutz / gathering as a sort of collection of "houses" (batim), and he somehow builds grand structures as a result of our participation in the kibbutz. What are they? It seems that the Rebbe's buildings are cosmic tikkunim, which will ultimately affect all beings. We don't really know what these things are all about. We simply believe. Yet in the zekhus of such belief, we gain the eyes to see. Thus the Zohar speaks of emunah / faith, and of the Jewish people who wholeheartedly rely upon emunah, as a "beautiful maiden with no eyes." These are like the eyes of the Blind Beggar in Rebbe Nachman's awesome "Tale of the Seven Begggars," which gaze beyond all ordinary, worldly sights, being designated for another order of reality entirely.

In conclusion, I'd like to stress the importance of having the right mindset -- to know why we're going to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. Each of us must think this through, and devote some time in hisbodedus to it. Plus we need to do our homework in order to understand what the Rebbe's Rosh Hashanah is all about. We must read at least some of the related teachings in Likkutei Moharan and Likkutei Halakhos and contemplate them as deeply as possible. Lacking such preparation, one will be like the deaf man in the Baal Shem Tov's famous allegory, wondering what the musicians are so busy doing, and why the other guests are acting so strangely. With the help of Hashem, we should all "hear the music!"

Rabbi Micha Golshevsky adds:

Just two very small he'aros. First, it is important to mention that the effects are cumulative, both regarding how much time you spend at the Rebbe's tziyun saying Tehillim and davenning, as well as participating in the Rebbe's Rosh Hashanah in Uman from year to year. In a sense, twelve and twelve do not equal twenty four, and one and one don't equal two. There is a process in combining the numbers which the number on the other side of the equal sign doesn't do justice to. Kol shekain, that three years straight in Uman is much much more than a year here and a year there, even if the person attended three times.

I suspect that a lot of people go once or twice and feel like they have "been there, done that." Yet I'm sure they wouldn't think this way when comparing a person who learned one year in Eretz Yisrael, or in Yeshivah, with someone who learned ten years straight. The first got a taste, while the second is (hopefully, and at least potentially) a ben Torah.

Second, I think that it is important to mention the herculean effort necessary for one to overcome the side stuff (coffee room, shuk, shmoozing in the rooms, etc.) in order to spend as much time as possible by the tziyun supplicating Hashem. Many people spend too much time doing things that cause them to miss out on the tziyun, which is the most powerful spiritual emergency room-workshop there is, with the greatest spiritual professor-workman available! Every second at the tziyun -- especially during Rosh Hashanah -- is priceless!