The Rebbe my father told someone at yechidus: Ever since G-d told our father Avraham, “Go from your land etc.” (Genesis 12:1) and it is then written “Avram kept travelling southward,” (Ibid 12:9) we have the beginning of the mystery of birurim. By decree of Divine Providence man goes about his travels to the place where the “sparks” that he must purify await their redemption.
Tzadikim, who have vision, see where their birurim await them and go there deliberately. As for ordinary folk, The Cause of all causes and the Prime Mover brings about various reasons and circumstances that bring these people to that place where lies their obligation to perform the avoda of birurim.
Shabbat, Cheshvan 1, Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, 5704
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
There are people who do many good things, but with pessimism—because to them the world is an inherently bad place. Since their good deeds have no life to them, who knows how long they can keep it up?
We must know that this world is not a dark, sinister jungle, but a garden. And not just any garden, but G‑d’s own pleasure garden, full of beauty, wonderful fruits and fragrances, a place where G‑d desires to be with all His essence.
If the taste to us is bitter, it is only because we must first peel away the outer shell to find the fruit inside.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
I suppose Rabbi Freeman has hit the nail on the head as far as I’m concerned (though of course, he’s not even aware that I exist or of my circumstances). I tend to see the world as a rather negative place, as defined by the negative people who express themselves in it. You don’t have to go far to see what I mean. Watch any news channel on TV or the Internet and you’ll see tragedy, horror, despair, murder, and many other depressing and disheartening things. The debates and controversies surrounding the upcoming Presidential elections are just another reason to consider our world a negative place. It doesn’t matter which political party you belong to, the supporters of one person invariably use any trick and tactic they can find to sully the reputation their opponent’s supporters. The world of religion and religious blogging is no better, it seems.
According to the Rebbe, “Tzadikim, who have vision, see where their birurim await them and go there deliberately,” however, for the rest of us, “the Cause of all causes and the Prime Mover brings about various reasons and circumstances that bring these people to that place where lies their obligation to perform the avoda of birurim.” In other words, if you are a truly righteous person, you know where you must go and what you must do in order to accomplish the purpose of your life. For everyone else, God leads us to the places we must go and shows us what we must do, but it’s up to us to correctly interpret these events and then take the correct action.
Which is why, for most of us, life and God and our purpose can seem like we’re endlessly trying to solve a mystery by traveling down a dark street late at night hoping for illumination.
This week’s Torah Portion is Noah, which tells a narrative even most non-religious people know quite well. But according to Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski in his Growing Each Day commentary for Cheshvan 1, it tells me something more specific.
God said to Noah, “Enter … into the ark.”
The Hebrew word for ark, teivah, has two meanings: it can mean “an ark,” and it can also mean “a word.” In the above verse, the latter meaning tells us that God instructed Noah to “enter into the word.” Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin expounded on this theme, explaining that when we pray, we should “enter into the words,” i.e. totally immerse ourselves into each word of prayer, as though the word is encompassing us.
A listener once asked him: “How can a big human being possibly enter into a little word?” Rabbi Moshe answered, “People who consider themselves bigger than the word are not the kind of person we are talking about.”
The Talmud states that people’s prayers are not accepted unless they efface themselves before God (Sotah 5a). God abhors those who are egotistical, and therefore the prayers of a vain person are not likely to be received favorably.
People preoccupied with their egos remain external to their prayers. The truly humble person feels small enough to “enter” even the tiniest word.
Today I shall…
try to throw myself entirely into my prayers by setting aside those thoughts and feelings that would inflate my ego.
While I don’t think of myself as someone who struggles with an inflated ego, it has already been pointed out to me (correctly, I might add) that I don’t trust God as I should. I don’t “enter into the word” with complete abandon, trusting that God will take care of my well-being. Terrible things happen to good people every day. Why would I be exempt?
That goes for trying to solve the mystery of my path of faith as well. If I make one decision, how will I manage the consequences? If I make no decision, that’s a decision and it has consequences. Even standing still is really moving backwards. If only all of the “egos” on the web who casually malign their brothers of the faith and the Jewish people (who are sometimes one in the same) never seem to throw themselves entirely into their prayers, setting aside those thoughts and feelings that would inflate their egos, at least as evidenced by their online behaviors.
Maybe it is better to ignore the world and to simply throw myself into a life of prayer, study, and contemplation.
There was a story about a Torah scholar who died young… – 13a-b
The Gemara elaborates and tells the story of a Torah scholar who died young. This man’s wife came to the Beis HaMidrash carrying his tefillin, and she began to complain about his shortened life. Although this student was very diligent, and no one was able to respond to this woman’s bemoaning, finally Eliyahu discovered and exposed the tragic flaw which this young man and his wife possessed.
It is noteworthy that this woman specifically brought her late husband’s tefillin with her, as if it indicated more of a reason why he did not deserve to die. Maharsha explains that she brought the tefillin to increase the anguish of the other students who would see her. Sefer Gilyonei HaShas of R’ Yaakov Engel explains that tefillin specifically represents the connection which we have to Torah study. Her argument was sharper, as she demonstrated that her husband learned Torah and was bound up with Torah as his life pursuit.
Therefore, this woman took her husband’s tefillin as she circulated around the shuls and the Batei Midrash to demonstrate that her husband did not simply learn Torah, but he was bound up with the Torah, just as the tefillin is tied around one’s arm.
Daf Yomi Digest
“Bound in Torah”
But even reading this commentary convinces me that there is an insufficient perspective being applied here. It’s not what you study and learn but what you do with it that counts. I sometimes define the difference between Christianity and Judaism as the difference between what you believe and what you do, but that’s not always a very fair comparison. In some aspects of Jewish thought, the person who studies Torah, binding themselves in it so to speak, is of greater value than the simple person who cannot study but only tries to live a descent life as best they can.
A person can be a Jew just by being born of a Jewish mother and on that virtue, is a member of the covenant and one of God’s chosen people. A Christian can be born anybody and all by itself, that means practically nothing. A person is only a Christian after making a decision and a declaration. After coming to faith and confessing Christ, the only way to tell a Christian from a secular person is by what they do. Even then, many secular people behave more righteously than many Christians.
However, faith and belief are invisible. Only God knows what is in a person’s heart. It is what we do that defines us, sometimes because of what we believe and sometimes in spite of it. When God leads each of us, even me, into any given situation on any given day, there’s an expectation about what we’re supposed to do there. Should we turn left or right? Should we go forward or back? From God’s perspective, the answer is obvious. From a human’s point of view, it can seem like an impossible puzzle, or we might even miss the fact that a decision must be made at all.
Or, we know what we should do and are just loathe to do it. But if God has sent us to “reveal a spark,” so to speak, who are we to say we won’t do it or pretend we don’t understand what He is asking of us?
The answer is that we are human and flawed.
It would be easy just to ignore my dilemmas by ignoring God, but God or my conscience won’t let me do that. But it still feels like He’s asking me to jump off a cliff into a bottomless void with only the promise that He’ll make me fly to sustain me.