Idle Speech

A man once came across a teaching that said if you refrain from idle conversation for forty days you will receive divine inspiration. Thinking this to be a shortcut to God, he set his mind to the task with great diligence. Forty days passed, and not once did an idle word cross his lips. And yet, at the end of his struggle, no inspiration was granted him. Seeking all explanation, he traveled to the Baal Shem Tov.

After listening to the man’s story, the Baal Shem Tov asked, “Did you pray during those forty days?”

“What a question!” the man exclaimed. “Of course I prayed. Three times a day I prayed, just as we are commanded by God.”

“I see,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “And did you read any Tehillim (Psalms)? “

“Again, such a question! I am a Jew, and therefore I read Psalms every day.” And to emphasize his point the man rattled off the first verses of his favorite psalm. “Master,” he continued after the recitation, “can it be that the teaching is wrong? Can it be that after forty days of prayer and psalms and abstaining from idle conversation one does not receive divine inspiration?”

“No,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “The teaching is true. It was your practice that was faulty. I can tell from your recitation of the psalm that while you took care to uplift your conversations, you babbled your prayers. They became your idle speech. You purified your conversation with people and defiled your conversation with God. Your prayers themselves kept you from receiving inspiration from God.”


Forty days: According to Jewish tradition, forty days is the amount of time one needs to free oneself from unwanted habits and instill desired habits in their place.

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.

You are what you say. The quality of your speech reflects the quality of your soul. Idle speech is thoughtless chatter, suggesting a scattered mind. If you wish to improve the latter, improve the former. But this effort must include all the words you use. Whether written, signed, spoken, or sung, a word has the power to heal or to harm. The problem with the fellow in our story is that he made a distinction between prayer and speech. It is all words, and no word should be spoken without full attention.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that a person is born with a fixed number of words to speak; when they are spoken, the person dies. Imagine that this is true for you. Every word you speak brings you closer to death. The next time you are about to utter a word, ask yourself whether this word is worth dying for.

Published in: on August 30, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Know Your Path

A great scholar once visited his rebbe to ask for advice regarding a career change. The scholar was tired of teaching and envious of those who always seemed to have time to relax, smoke their pipes, and meditate on the kabbalistic mysteries of God and creation.

“Teaching is exhausting,” he complained to himself. “All the hours of preparation, and then the classroom time, not to mention the never-ending questions of my students! No wonder I have neither the time nor the energy to partake of the pleasures these others seem to enjoy.”

When he arrived at the rebbe’s home, he found his teacher ill and in bed. Before he could greet his rebbe and wish him refuah shelemah (complete healing), the rebbe silenced him and said:

“Let me teach you the secret of the Torah’s phrase ‘These are the offspring of Noah.'(Genesis 6:9) The word ‘Noah’ means ‘easy’ or ‘convenient.’ The word ‘these’ connects this sentence with another: ‘These are your gods, O Israel.'(Exodus 32:4) What is the connection? We tend to make idols out of the easy and to worship convenience rather than truth. There is no telling whose effort is greater or lesser. All we can say is whether or not our effort is true to ourselves.”

The scholar nodded, awed that his teacher could read his thoughts. But he was not yet satisfied. “What you say is true, Rebbe, yet Torah also tells us ‘Noah walked with God.'(Genesis 6:9) What does this mean?”

The rebbe said, “We each have our own personal path to God. Some through meditation, some through labor, some through scholarship. We always see another’s path as easier than our own, not knowing the strugglles it entails. But if you abandon your path for another, you will find yourself lost, for you will worship the path and not the goal. Stay with your scholarship, my son. Toil day and night to wrest the mysteries from the text and to share them with your students. This is your path. This is the way you walk with God.”

The scholar nodded, turned, and began his journey home.

True spiritual work takes us to the very ends of our endurance. It exhausts all our resources, pushing us to the breaking point. For it is only when we are about to break down that we have the opportunity to break through.

This is what the rebbe knows and what the scholar has to learn. He is mistaking “Noah” for God, ease for reality. He is convinced that if he were to devote himself to some other career, he would have the leisure needed to awaken to the Presence of God. But his longing for God is being replaced by his longing for leisure. And when he gets it, he will discover that leisure is no more a way to God than scholarship. The way depends on the wayfarer, not the wayfarer on the way.

Each person is a unique expression of the infinite diversity of God. While it is true that all of us share the same goal of aligning with God and lifting the veil of ignorance that blinds us to the Divine Presence in, with, and as all things, the ways to accomplish this are as varied as the people who accomplish it. What is your way? And how do you know it is, in fact, your way?

One way we investigate the rightness of our path is to compare our way with the ways of others. But when we do this, we often fail to see the difficulty of others’ paths and imagine that they go through life with ease. It is then that our focus shifts from the goal — God — to the ease of the means. We want to “walk with God” without breaking a sweat. It rarely works that way.

Published in: on August 23, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Why Are You Here?

Reb Avraham of Parisov told this story:

Once I was present when Reb Yaakov Aryeh of Radzymin visited Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk. As Reb Yaakov entered the room, the rebbe turned to his guest and shouted: “Yaakov! In a few words tell me: Why are there humans in this world?”

Without hesitation, Reb Yaakov said: “We come into this world to align our souls with God.”

The Kotsker exclaimed: “Nonsense! Why are we here? We are here to lift up the heavens”

Not content with either answer, Reb Avraham would add his own understanding, saying:

“In fact, both sages are correct. We humans are here to align with God and in so doing to uplift the heavens. We know this from the Mechilta (an ancient rabbinic commentary on the Book of Exodus), which teaches that the first five of the Ten Commandments parallel the second five. Thus, ‘I am HaShem‘ goes with ‘Do not murder.'(Exodus 20:13) To kill a human being is to diminish our capacity to bring godliness into the world.

“Thus, when God asks Cain after Cain had murdered his brother, Abel, ‘Where is Abel?’ Cain answers, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?'(Genesis 4:9) We should understand Cain to be saying, ‘I did not know that my brother was a keeper of I AM, God; I did not know that by killingĀ  my brother I was weakening the influence of the divine I AM in this world.”‘


Align our souls with God: The relationship between God and soul is analogous to that between the sun and its rays. We are the extension of God in time and space. How, then, can we be misaligned with God? Misalignment is a state of mind that arises when we forget our true relationship with God and act as if God were other.

Lift up the heavens: Can heaven fall that it need be “lifted up”? No. Heaven and earth, up and down, go with each other. What falls is a veil of ignorance that blinds us from seeing the truth. When the veil is lifted, it appears to us that heaven is lifted, but in fact it is as it always was.

HaShem: The Name, Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay, the four-letter Name of God, which is said to convey the essence of the Divine. Unpronounceable both in fact and in theory, the letters are a word play on the Hebrew verb “to be.” God is That Which Is, Was, and Will Be. God is not “a being” or even “the supreme being” but rather Being Itself.

In the Book of Exodus 3:14, God reveals the essence of divinity to Moses: ehyeh asher ehyeh, most often translated as “I AM what I AM.” A more accurate Hebrew translation would be “I will be whatever I will be.” In either case, the Hasidic understanding of the text is the same: God is all that is. God is all that is happening at every moment. God is I AM — not a being or even a supreme being, but Being Itself. That means God is Cain, Abel, you, and me. This is what Reb Avraham means when he speaks of each as being a keeper of the I AM; just as a wave is a “keeper of” the ocean in its particular place and time, so are you a keeper of God in your particular place and time. To realize this about yourself is to realize it about all beings. It is to achieve this realization that you were born and blessed with life.

Published in: on August 16, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  


Reb Naftali of Ropshitz (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz [b. Linsk, Galicia, Poland], 1760) once caught his son Eliezer engaged in some great prank.

“It isn’t my fault,” the boy said. “It’s God’s fault. God gave me a yetzer harah, whose only task is to talk me into doing these terrible things. Don’t blame me, blame Him!”

Reb Naftali scowled, then smiled and said: “God has given you the yetzer harah to instruct you.”

“Instruct me, What can I learn from this trickster?” the boy asked.

“Faithfulness and perseverance,” Reb Naftali replied. “look how diligently the yetzer harah goes about its business. It never gets bored or tired of doing what God created it to do — to seduce people to selfish acts. Now you should never tire of doing what God created you to do defeat it.”

Eliezer listened carefully as his father spoke. When Reb Naftali had finished, Eliezer said: “But you have forgotten a very important thing.”

“And what is that?” Reb Naftali asked.

“The yetzer harah goes about its task without fail because the yetzer harah has no yetzer harah to distract it with thoughts of doing otherwise. With people it is different, for ‘sin crouches at the door.’ (Genesis 4:7) Every time we open the door to a new experience, the yetzer harah is waiting at the entrance to trick us into doing something wrong.”


Every door has its own dangers. Every moment you have to make a choice: which inclination will you follow — the yetzer harah or the yetzer hatov?

Or can you honor them both? The yetzer harah is honored when you honor the needs of self; the yetzer hatov is honored when you respect the rights of others. Can you find a way to balance self and other, and in this way honor both inclinations to be in the world in a manner that hallows the world?


People are born with two impulses: yetzer harah, the impulse toward evil, and yetzer hatov, the impulse toward good. The yetzer harah is not evil per se, but rather a proneness to evil when it is not properly balanced by the yetzer hatov. Hence Hillel’s teaching: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” (Pirke Avot 1:14). A more accurate translation of these two impulses, then, would be the “selfish impulse” and the “selfless impulse.” The sages taught that without the yetzer harah a person would not build a home, marry, or raise a family, for these require a sense of self and self-fulfillment (Bereshit Rabbah 9:7). The former becomes “evil” only when it is allowed to function without the counterbalance of the latter. When we act solely for the self, evil is possible: business becomes exploitative, marriage becomes oppressive, and sex becomes abusive. When we act for both self and other, the yetzer harah is given direction; it follows the lead of the good and lends its energy to attaining the good.

Published in: on August 9, 2009 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

You are what you think

It is the habit among Hasidim to gather with their rebbe (Hasidic Master) on the afternoon of Shabbos (The Sabbath) and share food, schnapps, niggunim, and some words of Torah. One Shabbos at the tish of Reb Moshe of Kobrin, so many Hasidim arrived that scores of them could not find room at the table. They crowded around the feast, eager to taste a bit of food, catch a glimpse of their rebbe, and hear a word of Torah.

Despite the crowd, Reb Moshe noticed a fellow standing in a corner. Reb Moshe called to his attendant. “Who is that young man standing over there?” he asked. When he heard the Hasid’s name, he said, “I don’t know him.”

“But Rebbe, you must recognize him,” his attendant said. “He is a pious fellow, who comes often to your table. You have spoken to him on many occasions.” The attendant proceeded to remind the rebbe of the young man, his parents, and several incidents that the attendant thought might rekindle the rebbe’s memory.

Finally, Reb Moshe called the man to his side. “I have been trying to remember who you are and have had a very hard time doing so. Just now I realized what the problem is.

“You see, the essence of a person is found in his thoughts. Wherever you focus your mind, that is who you are. All this time I have been watching you, and your mind has been wandering from one desire to another. First you hungered for this; then you hungered for that. There was no end to your cravings. All I could see was this incessant hunger. As long as I did so, I could not tell whether you were a man who happened to have a mouth, or a mouth masquerading as a man.”

The young Hasid was embarrassed to have had his thoughts read by his rebbe. From that day forth he did his best to focus his thinking on holy things.


You are what you think; so what are you thinking about right now? There are two basic thoughts reflecting our twofold nature. You are born with two inclinations: the yetzer hatov and the yetzer harah. The first leads you toward love, moving you beyond yourself to the world. The second leads you toward fear, moving you away from the world into yourself. These two inclinations give rise to two fundamental categories of thought: love and fear. When your thoughts come from love, you think about caring for self and other. When your thoughts come from fear, you think about only yourself. When you think about only yourself, you are consumed by hunger: hunger for safety, for surety, for security. And because there is no safety, surety, or security in the isolated ego, your hungers are never satisfied. You eat and eat and eat and never become full.

The Rabbis teach that heaven and hell each consists of identical banquets of the finest foods. People sit around the table with forks and spoons six feet in length, far too long to be useful for feeding oneself. In hell, each guest starves. In, heaven, each learns to feed the person across the table, and all are full.

The challenge is not to get rid of your hunger but to satisfy the hunger of another and in this way to be fed yourself.


Niggunim: Wordless melodies. The Hasidic masters taught that song and dance could uplift the soul, and that every melody, no matter how secular, contained a spark of divinity that could be released if sung with the right intention. The Hasidic masters created their own niggunim as direct gateways to God.

Tish: A special meal hosted by the rebbe in which Hasidim gather to eat, drink, sing, and study.

Published in: on August 2, 2009 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment