Tag Archives: mystic

Brilliant Light

BrillianceDescribing the joy of the Rebbe is something like describing the majesty of the Rocky Mountains to a prairie dweller. We think of happiness as all the outer trappings of smiley faces and the “having-a-good-time” look. But what we saw on the Rebbe was an inner joy – the sort you feel when a sudden, brilliant light bulb flashes inside – except continual and constant. Not a joy that dissipates and burns itself out, but a tightly contained joy of endless optimism, power and life, waiting the special moment when it would burst forth like an unexpected tsunami, sweeping up every soul in its path.

The Rebbe once confided that he himself was by nature a somber and introspective person. With hard work, he said, he was able to affect his spirit to be full of joy.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from the wisdom of the Rebbe
Menachem M. Schreerson
Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

Last March I wrote about Failing Joy 101, mainly because I don’t go around all smiley and happy all the time. I have my moods. I can be “down”. People who are perpetually perky and “up” kind of annoy me. But that’s not what joy is all about.

Yesterday’s “morning meditation” was in part, about the murder of 8-year old Leiby Kletzky and how his death affected his parents, his Borough Park (Brooklyn) community, and ultimately, everyone with a conscience. I lamented at one point that it will be a long time or never, before Leiby’s parents, an Orthodox Jewish couple, will ever experience joy again. After all, how can they?

The words I quoted from Rabbi Freeman’s book at the beginning of this blog post are from a chapter called “From Despair to Joy”. It’s easy, under the circumstances, to imagine the despair being experienced by Nachman and Itta Kletzky, but how can any reasonable and compassionate person expect them to go from “despair to joy”? Certainly it won’t happen very quickly and only a cad would suggest that people who are in severe emotional and spiritual pain should just “pull themselves up by their boot straps” and “get on with life”.

But what can you do when soul-numbing grief steals your last crumb of joy and all you’re left with is a life in the emotional shadows of depression and loss?

Depression is not a crime. But it plummets a person into an abyss deeper than any crime could reach. -The Rebbe

If you stare into the Abyss long enough the Abyss stares back at you. -Friedrich Nietzsche

The Rebbe could easily have been talking about little Leiby’s murder and Nietzsche could have well been describing the consequences of the crime, or at least, the consequences if we allow ourselves to stare too long into that deep, dark place. The Rebbe “responded” to Nietzsche thus:

Fight depression as a blood sworn enemy. Run from it as you would run from death itself.

I don’t think the Kletzkys can run from death just yet. Death is what surrounds them as they sit shiva for their son. And yet, they can’t sit there forever staring into the darkness, and neither can we, unless we want to be consumed.

The Rebbe anticipated our question, “how can I be happy if I am not?” and suggests an answer:

True, you can’t control the way you feel, but you do have control over your conscious thought, speech, and actions. Do something simple: Think good thoughts, speak good things, behave the way a joyful person behaves – even if you don’t fully feel it inside. Eventually, the inner joy of the soul will break through.

Sounds a lot like some of the things the Apostle Paul taught:

…and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. –2 Corinthians 10:5

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. –Philippians 4:8-9

Paul suggested thinking of wholesome things and putting them into practice and the Rebbe asks that we start with our thoughts, if necessarily, set our feelings to one side temporarily, and then behave as if we are experiencing joy. The antidote of both Paul and the Rebbe to despair is to do joy.

To be healthy, a person needs to be affecting his surroundings, uplifting those about him and bringing more light.

InfiniteI’ve heard this teaching of the Rebbe more than once. Even when everything has been taken from us and we feel completely empty inside, unable to fill the void in our very being, we still have something we can offer someone else. In bringing another person light, we may discover some of that light is being nurtured within us, dispelling the darkness of the abyss.

The Rebbe tells us that God created the natural state of human beings to be one of joy. That is hardly apparent as we look around us, watch the news, drive through traffic, and otherwise co-mingle with other people, but as his proof, he says, “look at children and you will see”. He also offers us this:

People imagine a place of G-dliness as serious, awesome and intrepidating. That fact is, where G-d is, there is joy. -The Rebbe

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore. –Psalm 133 (A song of ascents)

There are times when we feel very small, and afraid, and alone, even in the midst of our loved ones. You’ve probably felt this way in the middle of the night, when it’s quiet and dark and when everyone else is asleep, but your private pain and anguish will not give you up to rest. You may feel tormented by a world far larger than you are and you feel yourself shrinking into the night, into the abyss, and you fear in your tininess, that you will be swallowed alive and disappear altogether.

But even at that moment, when you feel as if you are about to vanish from God’s universe, there is something you own that no one can ever take away from you. It will anchor you and safeguard you. Here’s the secret:

A person is happy when he knows something worthwhile belongs to him. A person is very happy when he feels he is small and yet he owns something very great.

We are all finite owners of the Infinite.

We could argue with the Rebbe that we belong to the Infinite and not the other way around, but that’s the secret. He also belongs to us and as long as He does, we can never disappear. It’s not just that we are small and He is large. If God were only big, He would have limits, He could be eclipsed by something even bigger, God could be measured, God could be quantified. God wouldn’t be God.

But God is not big, He is Infinite. He has no limits. He cannot be measured. He does the eclipsing. In fact, being Infinite means God is not like anything or anyone we have experienced or can experience. That’s the secret. That’s the miracle. In our tininess, in our smallness, in our minuscule existence, we own something more than worthwhile, something very great, something Infinite! And belonging to Him and having Him belong to us, we can never truly be lost. Our breadcrumbs can never be consumed. We always know the way home, even in the darkest night.

Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” –John 10:25-30

Searching for Sparks

Holding SparksAt one time there were tzaddikim who would look into the soul of a disciple, see the place where the G-dly sparks were awaiting this soul and tell the disciple to go to that place to liberate those sparks.

All that has changed is the perception of the disciples. If you are where you are with the blessing of the Rebbe, you are where you belong. And you are there with a profound purpose.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from the wisdom of the Rebbe
Menachem M. Schreerson
Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

Well, I – I think that it – it wasn’t enough to just want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em – and it’s that – if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

It is said that we contain Divine Sparks from our Creator and those parts of us that belong to Him yearn to return to the Source. It’s what causes people to search for something beyond themselves; sometimes not even knowing what they are looking for or how to find it. It’s the part of us that brings some people to God and others to less than noble destinations, believing some false teaching is the answer they need.

It’s also believed that there are other sparks in the world that correspond to those we contain and that finding and liberating those sparks defines the purpose of our lives. Put in less mystic terms, we all have a purpose that gives meaning to our lives. We only need to discover that purpose in order to experience accomplishment, fulfillment, and to understand why we were created by God.

Some people search for this all their lives and die with the truth about themselves still undiscovered. While Hamlet calls death the undiscovered country, I think that “country” is rather the truth of our existence which we must discover while we are still alive. Even David said that once dead, we can offer nothing:

Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave? –Psalm 6:5

It is not the dead who praise the LORD,
those who go down to the place of silence;
it is we who extol the LORD,
both now and forevermore.
Praise the LORD. –Psalm 115:17-18

Continuing with this theme, Vine of David’s commentary on Levertoff’s Love and the Messianic Age tells us:

“Although every man has the divine potential of a godly soul planted within him, this is not a guarantee that every man will enter into a relationship with HaShem or even that every soul will be redeemed. Instead, the soul is separated from God by a wall of partition – sin and guilt. HaShem removes the wall of partition between man and Himself through the work of the Messiah. When the wall is removed, then the soul can connect with HaShem. Then He can “use it for the gathering of these ‘sparks’.”

We journey near and far looking for and gathering sparks in order to fulfill the script of our lives written by God on our souls. But must we necessarily travel to distant and strange lands to find what we seek? Rabbi Freeman gives us part of that answer as he again relates the Rebbe’s wisdom:

People want to run away from where they are, to go to find their Jerusalem. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing there, make that a “Jerusalem”.

I wonder if the Rebbe ever saw The Wizard of Oz?

Hide and SeekGod is mindful of the days of our lives, where we go, what we are doing. He watches us as a father might watch his small son take his first, halting steps. We watch our children as they learn to walk, almost willing them in how to take the next step and in which way they should go. We cannot interfere unless they are about to be hurt, because otherwise, they’d never discover how to walk on their own. God is like that with us. The difference is, we should know that we are learning how to walk and be paying attention to the path. We should know that our Father is watching over us and that He’s ready to keep us from harm. Often, we don’t:

A certain chassid who had suffered a major financial loss stood before Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi and lamented over his debts. “All you are telling me,” Rabbi Schneur Zalman replied, “is what you need. Who needs you, you don’t say much about. Do what G-d expects from you, and He will provide what you want from Him.”

Lest you think that God only expects us to serve and that He doesn’t care about who we are, our fears, our needs, and our concerns, we have two messages that console us; one from the Rebbe, and the other from “the Maggid of Nazaret”, Jesus:

The teaching of the Baal Shem Tov: Not only is the movement of a leaf as it falls off a tree, the quivering of a blade of grass in the wind-each and every detail of existence directed, vivified and brought into being at every moment from above-but beyond that: Every nuance is an essential component of a grand and G-dly scheme, the gestalt of all those vital minutiae.

Meditate on this. And then think: How much more so the details of my daily life.

-The Rebbe
as related by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. –Matthew 6:25-33

Finally, in our little game of “hide-and-go-seek” with the Divine in ourselves and in the Universe, Rabbi Freeman presents the Rebbe’s teachings on this matter, again from his book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth:

G-d is not something of a higher realm that you cannot reach Him. Nor is He made of stuff ethereal that you cannot touch Him. G-d is “That Which Is” – He is here now, everywhere, in every thing and in every realm – including that realm in which you live. The only reason you do not perceive Him is because it is His desire that you search for Him.

Life is a game of hide and seek. G-d hides, we seek.

God does not play “hide the ball” with the Universe. He means for us to not only find Him, but everyday, to find who we are in Him. Start gathering the sparks. He’s there. And so are you.

Beyond Reason

Out of the darknessA mind directed entirely by its own reasoning will never be sure of anything.

As good as the mind is at finding solutions and answers, it is even better at finding questions and doubts.

The path of Torah is to ponder its truths, so that your mind and heart will resonate with those truths, until all your deeds are guided by a voice that has no second thoughts.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

How many of us ever take the time to stop and think about our theology, our deeply cherished and hard fought over arguments? Recently a popular blogger I know expressed a concern about even entertaining opposing arguments lest one lose one’s faith as a result of sown doubts – to him it wasn’t a good idea to engage the opposition in a non-polemic way, that is in a way that actually allows that other peoples arguments may, by some odd chance, hold water. And then I came across the following poignant remark that puts all this into better focus.

Gene Shlomovich
Ever thought you may be wrong about your cherished theology?
Daily Minyan blog

Questioning your own faith is a horrible thing. I know. I’ve been there. I spent an entire year, actually two, questioning the assumptions of my faith in virtually every detail. Eventually, I came to a crisis and fortunately passed through it with my faith in God intact. I recall the day I discovered what this person has just mentioned at Christian Forums:

wow, I never considered that 2 Peter was not written by Peter. Some say it was, some say it wasn’t. Hmff. Is there like a guarunteed listing of who wrote what or who didn’t write what?

Actually, most New Testament scholars acknowledge that not all of the Gospels and Epistles were written by the people to whom they are attributed. I discovered this reading Bart D. Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted (a challenging book which I highly recommend). Once I got past this, and the fact that there actually are inconsistencies in the Bible (compare the different Gospel versions of the day Jesus died and then try to figure out which day it was…the accounts conflict), I recovered my balance a bit. Then I realized that I didn’t have to depend on the Bible reading like a history book or a court deposition in order to gain wisdom and understanding from the stories the Bible tells us.

Questioning our assumptions isn’t a disaster and in my case, it resulted not only in a “course correction”, but in a greater zeal in returning to the Bible and seeing God in the writings of the Jewish prophets, apostles, and sages. However, in Judaism, the Torah isn’t simply a document or a way to try to grasp the essence of God through study. It is so much more and to understand this, we must step outside of what we consider a “rational reality”, for God doesn’t manifest in only the material world:

The answer depends on insight into the nature of the Torah. The Torah is one with G-d, an expression of His essential will. Therefore, just as His will is above intellectual comprehension, so too is the Torah. Nevertheless, G-d gave the Torah to mortals, not because He desires their obedience, but because He is concerned for their welfare. He wants man to develop a connection with Him, and for that connection to be internalized within man’s understanding, so that G-dly wisdom becomes part of his makeup. And with that intent, He enclothed the Torah in an intellectual framework.

This intellectual dimension is, however, merely an extension of the Torah. The Torah’s essence remains transcendent G-dliness, and cannot be contained within any limits even the limits of intellect. To relate to this essence, man must approach the Torah with a commitment that transcends wisdom or logic.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Beyond the Ken of Knowledge”
Parshas Chukas; Numbers 19:1-25:9
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVIII, p. 229ff

Christianity doesn’t even imagine the Bible being more than the Bible; a book written under the Divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit and recorded by many different people across thousands of years. It’s hard for me to imagine that the church misses this, since it’s stated quite plainly here:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. –John 1:1-5

Path of TorahCertainly “the Word” is not just “the word” printed on a page in a book and in fact, this particular Word “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Of the four Gospels, John’s is considered the most “mystic” and it reads more like a chasidic story, which was a large part of what attracted a young Chasidic Jew named Feivel Levertoff at the end of the 19th century, to become a Chasid (a “devoted disciple”) of the “Maggid of Nazeret”, Jesus of Nazareth.

There’s a special depth in how Jews look at the Torah and find not only information about God but actually find God inhabiting the pages that are not just pages. There, they also find devotion and longing for the coming of the Moshiach (Messiah):

Yad HaChazakah is a book of laws, not a history book. What difference does it make from the perspective of Jewish law how many Parah Adumos were offered in previous generations? Moreover, why does the Rambam go on to add a prayer for the coming of Moshiach?

With regard to the obligation to believe in the coming of Moshiach, the Rambam states: “Whoever does not believe in him, or does not await his coming, denies not only [the statements of] the other prophets, but also [those of] the Torah and of Moshe, our teacher.” In other words, mere belief in Moshiach’s coming does not suffice, we are also obligated to hope for and await his arrival.

Moreover, this anticipation is to be in accordance with our thrice-daily recitation of the Amidah prayers: “Speedily cause the scion of David Your servant to flourish. for we hope for Your salvation all day.”

-Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
A Commentary on Torah Portion Chukas

For those of us who have faith and trust in Jesus as the Moshiach, who came once and will come again, we should take even greater comfort and meaning in the insights the Rambam and Rabbi Schneerson share with us. If we depend on “knowing God” through a Bible that must be completely internally consistent and absolutely a record of historical fact, we will become confused and disappointed or we will be forced to “bend reality” and make the text to fit our needs and preconceptions. As Rabbi Freeman says, the purpose of Torah (and the Bible as a whole) is so that we can “ponder truths” (not facts), not the least of which is the truth of the Messiah in our lives, allowing God’s Word to become intertwined into the fabric of who we are and letting all our deeds become “guided by a voice that has no second thoughts”

Good Shabbos.

When the Heart is Still

A still nightIt is well known that the laws of Yoreh Dei’ah, especially those of shechitah, are very complex. The Pri Megadim, zt”l, wished to write a comprehensive explanation of the first part of Yoreh Dei’ah, and to ensure that he had the right understanding of the subject, he spent twenty years delving into maseches Chulin. Only afterward did he begin to write his essential commentary on the Shach and Taz in the first volume of Yoreh Dei’ah.

But some people lack this understanding and believe that these halachos are exceedingly easy. They breeze through them quickly and expect to receive semichah from the greatest halachic authorities. One such simpleton went to the famously sharp Rav Aizel Charif, zt”l, to be certified as a shochet. After a short time it was clear to Rav Aizel that the young man did not really understand the halachos. He had perhaps learned them through on a superficial level but had apparently felt that they would remain anchored in his mind with hardly any review.

Rav Aizel wanted to send him a message that he was not nearly ready for kabbalah. The gaon said, “I am afraid that it is impossible to give you kabbalah. You see, I am worried about shechutei chutz…”

Despite the rav’s well-earned reputation for acerbity, the young man could not leave well enough alone. Rather than retreating, he foolishly asked what exactly Rav Aizel meant by this. “How could I transgress shechutei chutz when today there is no Beis HaMikdash?”

Rav Aizel Charif retorted, “I am referring to the chutz in the first mishnah in Chulin: ‘All may slaughter and their slaughter is kosher —except for—a deaf mute, a lunatic and a minor…’”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Except for..”
Chullin 2

On the other hand, in Menachos (43a) the Beraisa declares that all are commanded about tzitzis and when the Beraisa enumerates the people obligated in the Mitzvah it includes women as part of that list. R’ Shimon, however, disagrees and exempts women from tzitzis, consistent with the Mishnah in Kiddushin, giving the reason that it is a positive time-bound mitzvah…

Rambam rules that women are exempt from the mitzvah of tzitzis. Ran, however, notes that according to some texts the Beraisa in the Gemara Kiddushin does not list tzitzis as an example of a positive time-bound mitzvah. The Tanna, following the Beraisa in Arachin, holds that the mitzvah of tzitzis applies even at night. Shulchan Aruch rules in accordance with Rambam that women are exempt from tzitzis because it is a positive time-bound mitzvah. Rema adds that a woman who wears tzitzis appears haughty; therefore a woman should not wear tzitzis.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Women fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzis”
Chullin 2

If you’re not religiously Jewish (or Jewish at all), you may not understand what is being said in the quotes above and may feel they are irrelevant or even a bit foolish in terms of a life of faith. However, the sages have much to say to both Jew and Christian if we will only quiet ourselves and listen.

I’m not trying to start a controversy about whether or not a woman appears “haughty” if she wears tzitzis, but you may ask yourself, so what is if a (Jewish) woman is or isn’t obligated to the commandment of tzitzis (Deuteronomy 22:12)? The “Story off the Daf” may make even less sense to you, except to the degree that you can read how a “simpleton” overstepped his bounds and arrogantly thought he could pass off a superficial level of learning as scholarly.

But what of it? What can we learn from these two stories; what do they have to do with us?

The human heart is beautiful.

The human heart can know secrets deeper than any mind could fathom.

The mind cannot contain G-d,
but deep inside the heart there is a place for Him.

Yet there is nothing more dysfunctional than a brain controlled by its heart. Indeed, the finest mind is capable of the most horrid crimes when under the management of the heart.

Let the heart be quiet and hear out the mind. In that quiet listening, she will discover her true beauty and her deepest secrets will awaken.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“A Quiet Heart”

Sometimes, in our passion to learn and our zeal to draw closer to God, we can start driving our journey of faith mainly with one part of our personality or another. While it’s easy to fool ourselves and believe that we can study and learn and thus truly conceive of God, Rabbi Freeman tells us that it is the heart and not the mind that contains the Divine Presence. The mind cannot conceive of infinity and the vastness of Ayn Sof, but the heart can choose to contain His love. However, passion cannot be the ruler, and the heart must in stillness, listen to the mind or there is no room for God.

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.” –Psalm 46:10

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. –1 Kings 19:11-12

Where is God? He is a small, hot ember nestled in the ash of our lives waiting for the opporunity to burst into flames. He is a light radiating from us whenever we perform an act of faith and kindness. He is the Divine Spark inside of us striving to rise upward and rejoin God’s burning heart. He is the Torah in the night; our companion when fear and pain and anguish cause us to drench our beds with sweat and when sleep eludes us on a hot wind.

God is not in the haughty or the arrogant. God is not in our lofty thoughts nor in our unbridled passions. God is only there when we contract some part of ourselves and allow Him room to enter.

At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, He first drew in His breath, contracting Himself. From that contraction darkness was created. And when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), the light that came into being filled the darkness, and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light. –Tikkun.org

Among the mystics, it is believed that to allow room for Creation, God, who occupied literally everything, voluntarily compressed Himself and willingly withdrew some portion of His essence so that enough space would exist for the Universe. All of Creation exists not for God’s benefit but for ours and it was for humanity and humanity alone that God chose to do this. If God, the Master of All, the Infinite, and the Radical and Unique One, who has no needs, chose to make room for us, how can we not reserve some portion of our hearts for Him?

You need only be still –Exodus 14:14

Drawing Near

Kohen GadolThe name of this week’s Torah reading, Korach, provokes an obvious question: It is written: “The name of the wicked shall rot,” and on this basis, our Sages state that a person should not be named after a wicked man. Why then is an entire Torah reading named Korach? For with this title, Korach’s identity is perpetuated forever, since the Torah is eternal.

Among the explanations given is that Korach’s desire was, in essence, positive. Korach wanted to be a High Priest, to experience the absolute closeness with G-d that results from entry into the Holy of Holies. Indeed, when Moshe responded to Korach, he did not tell him this objective was unworthy. On the contrary, as Rashi relates, Moshe said he shared the same desire; he also wanted to be a High Priest.

Moreover, at Mount Sinai, G-d told the Jewish people that they are “a kingdom of priests,” and our Rabbis interpret this to refer to the level attained by a High Priest.

Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of Torah
“Korach’s Positive Import”

A third gentile wanted to convert so he could become the High Priest, and wear the Priestly garments. Shammai said no, but Hillel accepted him. After studying, he realized that even David, the King of Israel, did not qualify as a cohen, not being a descendant of Aaron…Hillel’s welcoming personality complements his saying: “Love people and bring them close to Torah.” (Avoth 1).

from -Hillel, Shammai and the Three Converts
citing Shabbos 31

“My job is not to distance anyone, but to draw them closer. If a person needs to be rebuked, let someone else take care of that.”

-from a letter of the Rebbe
quoted by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Bringing Closer”

I write a lot about praying, about reading Talmud, Chasidic stories, the Bible; and I write a lot about living out the life that God gave us, not just praying, reading, and studying. But what’s the point? Why do we do this? Why do I do this?

Why did the convert in the story about Hillel want to be a High Priest?

The motives are all the same. We want to draw closer to God. Even Korach, the subject of this week’s Torah Portion is said to have had good motives, though a bad way of expressing them. We all want to draw closer to God.

But what does that mean? I’m not sure anyone really knows.

What would we do if we were really close to God? You probably think you know the answer. You probably think it would the the most wonderful, peaceful, loving experience of your entire life. But do you know what you’re really asking for?

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” –Exodus 20:18-20

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. –Revelation 1:17-18

Do not be afraid? Are you crazy? who wouldn’t be afraid?

Sure, Abraham spoke with God “face-to-face” and Moses talked with God at the top of Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights, but that was Abraham and Moses. The Bible doesn’t relate tales of every one who encounters God having a perfectly comfortable and casual conversation and in fact, in the two scriptures from which I just quoted, we see that the more typical response of a meeting with the Divine was to expect to die in the next second or two. Why do we want to get closer to God?

We think we want to get closer to God when we imagine God is some sort of “cosmic teddy bear” who is all comfy and cozy and we can sit on His lap like kids telling Santa Claus what we want for Christmas. But it doesn’t work that way as we’ve seen in abundant measure. So why do we want to grow closer to God, abandoning all common sense and reason, desiring to have such an intimate and terrifying experience?

In Jewish mysticism, it’s believed that we contain a spark of the Divine; something of God, within each of us. That spark is always striving to return to the source. It’s like trying to hold a beach ball underwater in a swimming pool; the more you try to drive it downward, the more it pushes back toward the surface. The more darkness we pour into our being, the more sorrow and sin we find in the world, the more the Holy fire within us seeks out the conflagration of God.

From this life and light proceeds the divine “spark” which is hidden in every soul. Not all men succeed in rising to this close union with God at prayer, because this spark is imprisoned in them. “Yea, even the Shechinah herself is imprisoned in us, for the spark is the Shechinah in our souls.

-Paul Philip Levertoff
Love and the Messianic Age

Ezekiel's VisionIn yesterday’s morning meditation, I said that meeting God requires our “time, effort, and an unquenchable need to learn“. It’s that unquenchable, insatiable, unstoppable drive; like a spark seeking the fire, that pushes us forward, over the edge of the abyss, sometimes without our conscious will, pressing us across the threshold from our familiar world into the Presence of the Throne of God. This is what drives mystics to leave the universe and seek higher Heavens in vision and in spirit. This is what we see in the Merkabah or the Ezekiel’s chariot event and this is what John experienced in the vision he recorded in Revelation. Daniel’s visions all but drove him insane.

Most of us won’t have such intense encounters with God, but we seek something of Him nonetheless. It’s why we pray. It’s way we read the Bible. It’s why we study Talmud and Kabbalah. It’s why, night after night, we seek Him in our dreams and day after day, we call to Him to be with us along our way.

You shall teach them diligently to your children and you shall speak of them, while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire, and when you arise. –Deuteronomy 6:7

This small portion of the Shema is part of what Jesus taught as one of the two greatest commandments; the commandments that are the “containers” for all of the Torah and the Prophets. Perhaps this is a clue telling us how we draw closer to God.

We know that Korach’s intentions were good, but intentions are not nearly as meaningful as the actions we take. His actions ultimately cost the lives of over 14,000 people. And while the actions of the convert who approached Hillel with the desire to become High Priest didn’t result in tragedy, he still was given the opportunity to learn a hard lesson in what it means to draw nearer to God.

Interestingly, the letter from the Rebbe quoted by Rabbi Freeman seems to speak somewhat of Hillel who, unlike his contemporary Shammai, did not rebuke the foolishness of the three converts but rather, welcomed them and gave them the time and the room to discover their mistakes. We make our own mistakes in trying to draw nearer to God. A lot of the errors we make have to do with arrogant presumption and the idea that the life, death, and life of Jesus Christ turned God the Father from a horrible, vengeful creature into everybody’s favorite uncle. Fortunately, God, like Hillel, gives us time and room to discover our errors.

It’s in our sincere attempts to encounter God that we actually discover when we’re walking the wrong path. Like Moses who saw only God’s “back” but not His “face”, when we’re ready, we realize just how vast and overwhelming even a momentary glimpse of God’s awesome glory is when it breaks into our world. However, to meet with God, we must make our humble efforts to seek Him out, in the pages of the Bible, in the halls of study, in the realms of prayer…and then we must wait.

From a mystic perspective, it is explained that Korach’s desires reflected the spiritual heights to be reached in the Era of the Redemption…The rewards of that age cannot, however, be attained prematurely, but only as a result of our Divine service. It is only through our selfless devotion to the Torah of Moshe and the directives of “the extension of Moshe in every generation” the Torah leaders of our people that we can elevate ourselves and the world to the point that “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d.”

-Rabbi Touger

Good Shabbos.

Significance in the Vortex of God

The VortexThere we saw giants… and we were in our own eyes as locustsNumbers 11:33

Someone once asked Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch: “What is true learning?”

The Rebbe replied: “When one studies a section of Talmud or an idea in chassidus, one is there, together with its illustrious author. He is building upon the sage’s wisdom like a midget perched upon a giant – he is riding on the giant’s shoulders. “One must be grateful to the giant that he doesn’t fling the nuisance from his shoulders.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“The Irksome Burden”
Commentary on Parshah Shelach

Heaven above and the soul of man below are two halves of a single form, two converse hemispheres that fit together to make a perfect whole.

Attuned in perfect consonance, they dance a pas de deux of exquisite form, each responding to every subtle nuance of the other, mirroring and magnifying the most subliminal inner thought, until it is impossible to distinguish them as two.

Within the human being is the consciousness of G-d looking back upon Himself from within the world He has made.

We sit upon the vortex of Creation.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Heaven Above, Man Below”

We have this idea that we are connected to God. I wrote yesterday that part of the function of God’s commandments is to connect people with the Almighty. Yet, the two commentaries I quoted above seem to paint different pictures about the relationship between created being and Creator. Are we annoying gnats sitting on the shoulders of giants, or are we fully integrated into the very fabric of God’s eternity?

I have a hard time judging my relative position to God. Oh, I realize that in absolute terms, God is infinite and I am beyond insignificant by comparison. It is only through God’s mercy and grace that He’s even aware of me at all:

LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? –Psalm 8:1-4

Yet without human beings, what is the point of Creation?

As much as I try, there are days when I wonder how or why God would attend to any single individual. Yes, I know that “God so loved the world” and all of that (John 3:16), but does every single, specific person who is alive or who has ever lived really have a critical, irreplaceable part in God’s majestic, eternal, infinite plan?

Do I?

Someone once posed the following question to Rav Yechezkel Landau, the author of Teshuvas Noda B’Yehudah. He wanted to know whether it is permitted to place Sifrei Torah that are invalid and incapable of repair into the Aron Kodesh that was made to store valid Sifrei Torah. The questioner initially cited our Gemara as proof that it should be permitted. The Gemara relates that the broken set of Tablets was placed in the Aron Kodesh together with the second set of Tablets that was complete. Even though the Aron Kodesh was made for the second set of tablets, nevertheless, the broken Tablets were stored inside indicating that as long as an item had sanctity before it became broken or invalid it may continue to be stored in the place designated for intact and valid sacred items.

The questioner then rejected this parallel since it is possible that the broken Tablets were placed in the Aron Kodesh because they were made by God and that added sanctity allowed them to be stored in the Aron Kodesh even though they were broken. This would not allow for the storage of an invalid Sefer Torah to be stored in an Aron Kodesh since the Sefer Torah was not made by God. Noda B’Yehudah rejected this distinction and cited our Gemara to prove his point. After the Gemara teaches that the broken Tablets were stored in the Aron Kodesh the Gemara comments that this teaches that one must continue to treat a Torah scholar who forgot his learning with respect since he is similar to the broken Tablets. The Torah scholar was not the creation of God and yet the Gemara finds it to be a valid parallel to the broken Tablets and as such an invalid Sefer Torah could also be equated with the broken Tablets.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Storing an invalid Sefer Torah in an Aron Kodesh”
Menachos 99

I’ve felt like an invalid Sefer Torah “incapable of repair”. My life has been like a “broken set of Tablets”. Am I worthy of being contained in a holy place just because I was made by God? Am I like a Torah scholar who has forgotten his learning? Once having been made holy, can my holiness be diminished?

Menachos 99 answers the latter question, “No”:

The Mishnah tells us that the lechem hapanim loaves were placed upon a marble stand as they were being brought to be placed upon the Shulchan in the Sanctuary. The set of loaves which were removed were placed upon a golden table after being taken out of the Sanctuary. This was a fulfillment of the adage, “we rise in holiness, and we do not descend.”

I admit to taking liberties with the interpretation and applying what is being said here to human beings , but I think this is a valid perspective (considering the Torah scholar with memory problems). If we are each made by God in His image, then individual people are sacred because we are His creations. If, as Rabbi Freeman states, “Heaven above and the soul of man below are two halves of a single form, two converse hemispheres that fit together to make a perfect whole”, then people enjoy a special unity with God that nothing else in Creation can possess. If this is true, then how can we dare to feel broken, or lost, or alone, or afraid?

And yet, we do. I know I do.

The Noda B’Yehudah is at odds with the parallel between the broken Tablets and the invalid Sefer Torah because:

…he maintains that the Aron Kodesh was built to store the broken Tablets and since that was the original intent it is permitted for them to be stored therein. An Aron Kodesh in a Beis HaKnesses was designed to store valid Sifrei Torah and as such one that is invalid and irreparable should not be stored in the Aron Kodesh. He observes, however, that common custom allows for the storage of invalid Sifrei Torah in an Aron Kodesh…

This seems to match up with Rabbi Tauber’s interpretation that we exist like insects riding the shoulders of giants every time we even learn one small section of Talmud or other holy lesson, building on the insights of those people much wiser and more righteous than we. We exist as a “convention” in the sense that broken pieces of the Tablet are stored in the holy ark simply because the ark was designed for that purpose and not because we have any intrinsic value of our own.

It’s more than a little puzzling. Are we important to God (or for that matter, other people) as individuals or not? Sometimes the answer seems to be “Yes” and at other times, “No”. Perhaps it’s the difference between allowing the full experience of connection between ourselves and God vs. the realization that God is amazingly, awesomely, vast, and my own presence on earth, by comparison, is like a hardly visible bit of flotsam barely staying above the waves of some expansive, turbulent, unfeeling sea.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” –Matthew 11:28-30

I could use some of that “lightness of burden” right now. Contemplating the unimaginable intensity of God and sitting upon the vortex of Creation has become too much for me.

Good Shabbos.