A Bet

When Rabbi Yitzchak Meir was a small child, his mother once took him to meet Reb Yisrael, the Maggid of Kosnitz. As they stood in line with the Maggid’s Hasidim, each waiting to see the holy rebbe, one of the disciples called to the young Yitzchak Meir.

“Your mother tells us that you are quite bright and worthy of meeting our holy Maggid. But I am not so sure. So I will make a bet with you. I will give you a gulden if you can tell me where God lives!”

The Hasidim laughed at their fellow’s jest. When their laughter faded, Yitzchak Meir looked up at the man and said, And I will give you two gulden if you can tell me where God does not live!”

The Hasidim laughed even louder, and Yitzchak Meir and his mother were moved to the front of the line.


At the heart of Hasidic teaching is the realization that God is the source and substance of all reality. God is Ayn Sof, the Unbounded One. There is nothing that is not God, for if there were, then God would be limited and therefore no longer God.

This is a difficult idea for many people to grasp. We are so used to thinking in dualistic terms (subject and object, self and other) that we naturally think of God as the Absolute Other. But if this were so, we would be equal to God, being God’s Absolute Other. If we are to understand what Yitzchak Meir knew even as a child, we need a new metaphor for God. Let me suggest the following:

A common tool in psychology is the concept of figure and ground, often represented by a graphic that can appear either as a goblet or as the profiles of two young women facing each other. Which image you see depends on where you place your attention. The seen image is called figure; the unseen is called ground. It is common to imagine that God is ground and creation is figure. But this is not what Yitzchak Meir knew. Both figure and ground are manifestations of yet a third unnamed and unknowable reality: the image itself when no one is looking at it. What is the IT that contains both the goblet and the young women? It is not other than them, nor is it reducible to them either singly or together. IT is that which cannot be seen, but which is absolutely necessary if anything is to see or be seen. IT is God, the unnamable reality. God is figure and ground and That Which Embraces Them Both.

Published in: on July 23, 2011 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Your Way

Reb Yissachar Dov of Radoshitz traveled to see his rebbe, Reb Yaakov Yitzchak, the Chozeh of Lublin. Arriving at his rebbe’s study, he said, “Show me one general way that all of us might serve God.”

“One way?” the Seer said. “What makes you think there is one way? Are people all the same that a single practice would suit them all?”

“Then how am I to teach people to find God?” Rebbe Yissachar Dov asked.

“It is impossible to tell people how they should serve. For one, the way is the way of study; for another, the way is the way of prayer; for another, the way is the way of fasting or feasting; for another, the way is the way of service to one’s neighbor.”

“Then what shall I tell those who ask me for guidance in this area?”

“Tell them this,” the Chozeh said. “Carefully observe the way of your own heart, see what stirs your passion for God and godliness, and then do that with all your heart and all your strength.”


Everyone hungers for a system that will take her to Truth. Everyone wants to know the formula that will bring him God-realization. Even if one chooses not to follow the path, it is supremely comforting to know that there is one. And that is what we all want: comfort. We want a God that is attainable. We want a God that is knowable. Ultimately, we want a God that is safe and controllable. But the true God is none of these things.

Torah tells us that God is ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I will be whatever I will be” (Exodus 3:14). God is infinite becoming, arising from infinite being. There is no way to God because God isn’t anywhere but right here. There is no method for achieving God because God is already “yours.” This is what the Zen people call “looking for an ox while riding on the ox.” You already have the thing for which you are looking. What is needed is not d’veikus, union with God, but da’at d’veikus, realization of the union that already exists and always has.

What is your way to this realization? It must be your way, not another’s. To follow another’s way is to imitate truth, and a truth that is imitated is no longer true. The Seer of Lublin says that there are as many ways as there are people. If you are a student –— study! If you are a devotee –— pray! If you are an ascetic –— fast! If you are an epicurean –— feast!

The value of religion is that it preserves examples of the many ways to da’at d’veikus. The problem with religion is that it often insists that only one of these ways is legitimate. When it comes to spirituality, do not fall for “one size fits all.” Find your size, and wear it proudly.

Published in: on July 16, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  


Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev used to sing this song, called Dudelleh (Yiddish for “you, my dear one.”):

Where I wander –— You!
Where I wonder –— You!
Only You, You again, You always!
You! You! You!
When I am happy –— You!
When I am sad –— You!
Only You, You again, You always!
You! You! You! Sky –— You!
Earth—You! You above!
You below!
In the beginning –— You!
In the end –— You!
Only You, You again, You always!
You! You! You!


This is the song of an awakened master. God is everywhere and everything. God embraces all duality in a greater nonduality. Good and bad, right and wrong, up and down, male and female, matter and spirit are all contained in the One Without Second. And if this is so, there is no way for us to define God at all.

God cannot be an idea. We can point toward an understanding of God through myth and metaphor, but God Him/Her/Itself is beyond any conceptualization. If we can think It, It cannot be God, for that would make God smaller than us.

God cannot be objectified. But God can be encountered. This is what Reb Levi Yitzchak experiences in this song. He never uses the word “God” or any of the Hebrew names for the Divine. He uses the familiar Yiddish dudelleh, “You, my dear one.” The Yiddish carries with it a loving intimacy. Reb Levi Yitzchak isn’t seeing God; he is embracing God. He isn’t simply acknowledging God; he is loving God the way a child loves his mother when she plays peek-a-boo with him.

And this is what God is doing with you. Every moment, God, as it were, places God’s hands over God’s eyes and then removes them, pretending to see you as if for the first time and to be surprised. But it is you who is surprised: surprised to be seen, delighted to be seen, saved from an imagined loneliness, and embraced in an infinite love of seeing and being seen. When you can look and see, look and be seen, and know that the looker and the seer are both God, then you are awake to the game and ready to play another round.

Published in: on July 9, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

the Child and the Thief

Reb Zusya of Hanipoli went to visit his rebbe, Reb Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch.

“I have heard, Rebbe,” Reb Zusya said, “that there are Ten Principles of Divine Service, but I have yet to learn what they are. I am hopeful that you can teach them to me.”

Reb Dov Ber said, “I cannot teach them to you, but I can point to those who can.”

“And who might these be?” asked Reb Zusya.

“You can learn the first three principles from a child and the next seven from a thief.”

Seeing that Reb Zusya did not understand, the Maggid continued:

“From a child you can learn three things: be merry for no reason, never waste a moment’s time, and demand what you want in a loud voice.

“And from a thief you can learn seven things: do your work in secret, if you do not complete a task one night, return to it the next, love your co-workers; risk your life to achieve your goal; be ready to exchange all you have for even the smallest gain; be willing to endure physical hardship; and be devoted to your work and give no thought to doing anything else.”


We love systems: the Ten Commandments, the 613 Mitzvos, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Twelve Steps. Systems give us a sense of security. If I just do “x,” I am assured of attaining “y.” Systems give us a sense of control: there is something to master, and mastery appeals to us. But here is Reb Zusya, who has yet to learn the Ten Principles of Divine Service, and his master, the Maggid of Mezritch, who does not even know how to teach them. Like all great spiritual truths, these ten principles cannot be taught but only observed and lived.

Published in: on July 2, 2011 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

The Whistler

A tale is told of the Baal Shem Tov and an illiterate villager’s son. For the first thirteen years of the boy’s life, his father never once took him to shul, but on Yom Kippur of his thirteenth year he did so for fear that otherwise his son would eat on this holy fast day and thus bring sin upon himself. (Note: Until age thirteen, one’s sins fall upon one’s parents. After age thirteen, one is responsible for oneself.)

All around him the men of the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue davvened with great fervor, but not knowing anything about what they were doing, the boy grew bored. Feeling his herder’s whistle (Note: Shepherds used whistles to call their sheep) in his pocket, he asked his father if he could blow on it. Naturally, his father refused. Another hour passed, and again the boy asked for permission to play his whistle. Again his father refused, and he took the whistle from his son and placed it in his own pocket. As the Neilah service began, the boy noticed the whistle sticking out of his father’s pocket. He grabbed his whistle, took in a great gulp of air, and blew a long and loud blast.

Shocked and frightened by the sudden sound, the congregation fell silent. Only the Baal Shem Tov continued to davven, this time more joyously than before.

When the service concluded, the man took his son to apologize to the Baal Shem Tov for disrupting the service.

“On the contrary,” the Baal Shem Tov said, “there was no disruption. The simplicity of the boy’s blowing made my praying all the more easy for me.”


What is true prayer? Is it the recitation of sanctioned words and hymns? Is it the emotional outpouring of the heart? Is it the surrender of self to Self? It can be any of these, or none. The deciding factor is not so much what you do but the state of your heart as you do it. If you are half-hearted in your prayer, there is no praying. If you are wholehearted in your prayer, there is praying even if that praying is nothing more than the loud blowing of a whistle.


Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760): Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer was the founder of Hasidism. He began his public teaching in 1734 and soon earned the title Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name (of God). He was an authentic healer of hearts, minds, and souls.

Shul: Synagogue.

Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement, when Jews confess and seek forgiveness before God.

Davvened: Prayed.

Neilah: The closing service of Yom Kippur. It is thought that at this time the Gates of Heaven are closing and we have one last chance to confess and ask for forgiveness. The service is marked by intense emotion.

Published in: on June 25, 2011 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

The Turkey Prince

Reb Nachman of Breslov told this story:

A prince once took ill and thought he was a turkey. He refused to wear clothes and lived under the dining table, eating crumbs that fell to the floor. The king called upon the finest physicians, but none could find a cure. A wandering sage heard of the case and offered his services. The king agreed, and the sage removed his clothes and lived with the prince under the table, introducing himself to the prince as a fellow turkey.

After several weeks, the sage asked to wear a robe.

“What are you doing?” asked the Turkey Prince. “Turkeys don’t wear robes.”

“There is no law saying we turkeys cannot wear robes,” the sage said, handing a robe to his friend. The prince thought for a moment, and then he, too, put on a robe.

A few days later the sage, dressed in his robe, had a complete meal served under the table.

“What are you doing now?” the Turkey Prince asked.

“There is no reason why we turkeys must live on scraps and crumbs when an entire meal is waiting for us.” The prince joined the sage in his feast.

A week later when dinner was served, the sage chose to eat at the table sitting in a chair. Anticipating the query of the prince, the sage said, “There is no law prohibiting us turkeys from sitting at the table. Besides, it is much more comfortable to eat this way. Come and see for yourself.” The prince did, and in time he recovered fully from his illness.


As the ancient Taoist sage Chuang Tzu might have said: “Are you a turkey pretending to be a human, or a human pretending to be a turkey?” There is no way to know for sure. You are what you think. So, if you do not like who you are, simply think otherwise.

Would that it were so easy. While you have the capacity to influence your thoughts, you do not have the capacity to control them. Thoughts happen faster than the ego that pretends to think them.

Do you actually think your thoughts, or do you simply become aware of them once they are thought? If you look carefully enough, you will discover that the thoughts precede the thinker. So who is doing the actual thinking? No one. Thoughts happen. Consciousness thinks the way an apple tree apples. Thought is natural to consciousness; it is what consciousness does. There is no need for a thinker separate from consciousness to think the thoughts. There is just consciousness and thought.

That is why our wise sage made no attempt to get the prince to stop thinking he was a turkey. The boy could not control his thoughts, but he could control his behavior. The prince thought he was a turkey. Fine. Be a turkey. Just know that turkeys –— at least wealthy, well-educated turkeys –— function a lot like wealthy, well-educated princes.

Maybe you think you are turkey, or a loser, or a fool, or a crook. Fine. Leave the thoughts alone. Don’t control your thoughts; control your behavior. Act holy, and in time you may discover thoughts supportive of these new behaviors. But even if you don’t, at least you, too, will be a prince.

Published in: on June 18, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Until Our Completion

Reb Simcha Bunem of Pshischah once entered into the study of his rebbe, Reb Yaakov Yitzchak, the Yid HaKodesh of Pshischah. Before he could say a word Reb Yaakov Yitzchak said to him, “Cite some verse of Torah, and I will reveal its meaning to you.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Simcha Bunem said: “And Moshe spoke in the ears of all the people of Israel the words of this poem, until their completion (ad tumam).” (Deuteronomy 31:30)

Instantly the rebbe shouted, “Ad tumam, until their completion!”

Reb Simcha Bunem was overjoyed with this interpretation of his rebbe and shared it with a friend, Reb Chanoch Henich of Alexander.

“But all the rebbe did was repeat the final two words of the text,” Reb Chanoch complained. “This is nothing. What did you hear in this that brings you such joy?”

Simcha Bunem chided his friend, saying, “You are no ignoramus! Figure it out!”

“All right,” Reb Chanoch frowned. “Let’s see. ‘And Moshe spoke in the ears of all the people of Israel the words of this poem, until their completion.’ The key is in the grammar. If Moshe had been referring to the completion of the poem, he would have said, ‘until its completion.’ Because he spoke in the plural, he wasn’t referring to the poem at all but to the people themselves. Hmmm. Ah! Until their completion! Until our completion! Until our perfection! The words of the poem remind us that our covenant with God will be repeated and repeated in each of our ears until it transforms each of our hearts. We are never abandoned; God never despairs of us and will teach us continually until we perfectly live the godliness we are called to embody!”

“That’s it!” cried Simcha Bunem, and the two men danced in joy.


What is the essential spiritual practice? Listening. God is forever whispering truth into your ears, and all you have to do is listen. It sounds so very easy, and it is; but its very simplicity is what keeps it hidden from us. Listening requires no mastery of postures or doctrine. It doesn’t require us to affiliate with any group. It can be done alone and in community. It needs no special instruction or master instructor. One just listens.

What listening does require, however, is silence. You cannot hear another if you are constantly chattering yourself. You cannot hear God if you are forever distracted by the talk of self.

We avoid silence, though. It is too uncomfortable. Why? Because we suspect that what we hear will not be to the ego’s liking. And it won’t. So the ego erects complex structures of words to blot out God’s teaching. Religion is often just such a structure. Using sacred words, chants, teachings, and the like, religion mesmerizes us with God-talk when it should be inviting us into God-listening.

If you want to hear God, listen.

Published in: on June 11, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Robbing Yourself

Reb Yechiel Meir of Gostynin went to study with Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk during the holy week of Shavuos. Upon his return, his father-in-law asked, “What did you study during your time in Kotsk?”

“As it was Shavuos,” Reb Yechiel Meir said, “we studied the Ten Commandments.”

“Amazing,” his father-in-law teased. “Since it was also Shavuos here at home, we also studied the Ten Commandments. Do they receive the Commandments differently in Kotsk? And is that why you would journey so far to study what we study at home?”

“Yes, indeed!” Reb Yechiel Meir replied. “The Commandments are different in Kotsk.”

“And how is that?” his father-in-law asked.

“What did you learn from the Commandment ‘You shall not steal’?”

“We learned just what it says: You shall not take from another that which does not belong to you,” replied his father-in-law.

“And therein lies the difference,” Reb Yechiel Meir said. “Here you learned that ‘You shall not steal’ means you shall not steal from another. In Kotsk we learned that you shall not steal from yourself as well.”


What is it you steal from yourself? The things you want most. And how do you rob yourself of these things? By trying too hard to get them. For example, you desire certainty, and to get it you study hard to know what is true. Yet, the more you study, the more you know you will never know enough to be certain of anything, and this anxiety robs you of the very thing you desire.

What you want is not to be taken, but to be received. Do not imagine that you must climb to the top of the mountain to grasp what you seek. On the contrary, you must stand at the bottom of the mountain and receive it as it rolls down of its own accord. The “winner” in life is not the one who reaches the highest peak but the one who knows how to wait at the lowest depths.


Shavuos (Hebrew, “weeks”): The second of three pilgrimage festivals. The name “weeks” comes from the Torah’s instruction to count seven weeks between the Passover barley harvest and the second harvest fifty days later. Historically, Shavuos is said to be the anniversary of the revelation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The mystics prepared for Shavuos with a special ritual called Tikkun Lel Shavuos (Repairing on the Eve of Shavuos). This was an all-night recitation of sacred texts intended to place the kabbalist in the receptive mindset to personally experience the revelation at dawn.

The Ten Commandments (Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Sayings): The Commandments revealed by God at Mount Sinai seven weeks after the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. The Ten Commandments are mentioned twice in the Torah: first in Exodus 20:1-14 and again in a slightly different version in Deuteronomy 5: 6-18. Moses ordered twice-daily recitation of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 6: 6-7), and Jews used to recite them morning and evening. The Rabbis replaced this with the twice-daily recitation of the Sh’ma (Hear 0 Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One) when sectarians argued that only the Ten Commandments were revealed by God and hence took precedence over the other laws of Torah.

Published in: on June 4, 2011 at 1:07 am  Leave a Comment  

Selfless Service

Once the Baal Shem Tov set out to journey to the Land of Israel. Pesach (Passover) was approaching, and he had no money with which to buy the needed supplies. A wealthy merchant, hearing of his plight, came forward and donated a generous amount of money that allowed the Baal Shem Tov to observe the holy week without worry. Knowing the man to be childless, the Baal Shem Tov blessed him for his generosity and promised him that within the year his wife would bear a child.

When the merchant had gone, a Bat Koh pealed out from heaven: “Did you not know that this man’s wife was barren? Because of your promise, the Holy One has to change the very course of nature. For this you will forfeit your place in the World to Come.”

Rather than collapse in despair at having lost his heavenly reward, the Baal Shem Tov danced with joy. “Thank You,” he called to God. “Before this I always worried that my service to You was tainted by the thought of reward, but now I have the opportunity to serve You with no thought of reward, for even the World to Come is closed to me!”


What do you want from spiritual practice? Enlightenment? Bliss? Happiness? Salvation? An end to suffering? A place in paradise? As long as you have a reward in mind, your practice is tainted. Yet, is it possible to act with no goal in mind? Can the ego act without expecting something in return?

When one acts without a goal, with no sense of reward, the act itself becomes the point, and the reward is immediate. This is what all the great mystics know: The doing is the receiving! The doing is the salvation!


Pesach (Passover): One of the three pilgrimage festivals mentioned in the Torah; like the other two, Sukkos and Shavuos, it has a historical, agricultural, and mystical dimension. Historically, Pesach marks the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery; agriculturally, it celebrates the beginning of the barley harvest; kabbalistically, it is a period of deep introspection when we seek to free ourselves from the things that enslave us to the narrow places of selfishness and ego.

The kabbalists derive their understanding from a play on the Hebrew word for Egypt: mitzrayim. The Hebrew can be read as “Egypt” or as “from narrow places” (mi = from; tzar = narrow place; im = plural suffix). Egypt is, spiritually speaking, the narrow place of enslavement, and this can refer to any habit of heart, mind, or body that promotes selfishness and egotism.

Bat Kol (literally, “Daughter of a Voice,” or “Echo”): An audible heavenly revelation.

Rabbi Yisroel (Israel) ben Eliezer (רבי ישראל בן אליעזר August 27, 1698 (18 Elul) – May 22, 1760), often called Baal Shem Tov or Besht, was a Jewish mystical rabbi. He is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism.

Published in: on May 28, 2011 at 1:43 am  Leave a Comment  

Rules of the Game

Reb Nachum of Stefansti surprised his Hasidim in the beis midrash one night during Hanukkah. Instead of finding his students deep in the study of Torah, he found them equally engrossed in a game of Chinese checkers.

Embarrassed at their game, the Hasidim made to put the pieces away, when the rebbe smiled and had them set up for a new match.

“Do you know the rules of this game?” he asked them. No one said a word.

“Good,” the rebbe said. “Then I will share them with you. First, you sometimes have to sacrifice one piece in order to gain two. Second, you may never move two spaces at once. Third, you may only move forward and never backward. And fourth, when you’ve reached the top, you may move anywhere you like!”

Looking from one face to the other, he added: “And the rules of this game are the rules of our game as well.”


Sometimes you must sacrifice one piece to gain two. What is the one whose death brings you two? The inflated ego. If you desire the love of another, then sacrifice the love of self, put the other first, and you will discover that in feeding another you, too, are filled.

You may move only one space at a time. You cannot rush life. Long or short, troubled or joyous, life unfolds one moment at a time. Ecclesiastes teaches “there is a time for every purpose under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Do not cry when it is time to laugh or gather stones at a time for scattering. Know what time it is, and allow it to run its course.

You may only move forward. The past is finished. You cannot undo what has been done. There are no rehearsals and no “do overs.” You can learn from the past, but you cannot remake it. You can replay it over and over, but it always turns out the same, and in the meantime you are missing out on the only time there is: now.

When you reach the top, you are free to move anywhere you wish. But there is nowhere to go! Birthing, dying, loving, hating, embracing, fleeing –— it is all here. Top and bottom, here and there, past and future –— all gone. You win! And then, realizing the fun is in playing the game, you, like Reb Nachum, set up the board for another round. Playing is its own reward.


Beis midrash (literally, “House of Study”): The school.

Published in: on May 21, 2011 at 1:19 am  Leave a Comment