Deeds Not Words

One winter a delegation of scholars visited the rabbi of Viedislav, the father of then five-year-old Simcha Bunem. The rabbi prepared a meal for his guests and, as they were eating, called to his son: “Simcha, go and prepare some new interpretation of the laws of hospitality that you can share with our learned guests.”

“The boy left the table and returned a few minutes later. Everyone was surprised at his quick return. True, Simcha Bunem was a child prodigy when it came to Torah, but even he should have taken longer to come up with a new and innovative interpretation of hospitality. Still, his father welcomed him back and said, “So, have you found a new interpretation of Torah?”

Simcha said that he had and that he would be happy to share it after his father’s guests finished eating. When the meal was done, his father invited him to share his insights.

“I have nothing to say, father, but rather something to show.”

Expecting a novel interpretation of law, both father and guests were perplexed. Seeing that the men remained seated, Simcha said, “Come and I will show you.”

The entire delegation followed Simcha into another room of the house, and there they found his interpretation of hospitality: Simcha had prepared a bed for each guest complete with pillows and quilts folded neatly in place.

“And where, little one, is the novelty in your interpretation?” one of the rabbis asked.

“With all due respect, Teacher,” Simcha Bunem said, “if I had simply provided you with a new set of words you would have a chance to rest only your minds, but in this way I offer you a chance to rest your bodies as well.”


Hospitality is a central tenet of Judaism: “Let your home be wide open, and treat the poor like members of your household” (Avot 1:5). The sages of the Talmud list hospitality as among those acts “whose fruit is eaten in this world, and whose principle remains for the World to Come” (Shabbat 127a).

Torah (from the Hebrew root yaroh, “to teach”): Best understood as “teaching” or “instruction.” The notion that Torah is primarily a legal code is false and misleading. It is a book of teaching about life and how best to live it, and it contains law but is not limited to law. Technically, Torah refers to the Five Books of Moses, but it is commonly used to refer to the entire body of Jewish teaching.

The Hasidim speak of the Three Garments of the Soul, three ways in which the Divine enters into the world. We encounter these garments as thought, word, and deed, and we experience them as a cascade: thought leads to words, and words lead to deeds. The quality of each garment depends on the cleanliness of the one preceding it. Thus, we can see that everything depends on the quality of our thoughts.

When you were born, all three garments accompanied you into the world. Originally clean and free of the stain of selfishness, over time they become soiled and need refining. What soils them is selfishness. You begin to think only of yourself, speak only of your needs, and act in ways that exploit others in order to fulfill those needs. Cleansing the Garments of the Soul is the goal of spiritual practice.

But where to start? Because thought is key, you might expect to begin with that. But to think thought clean is like washing a windowpane with muddy water; this only smears the dirt but doesn’t remove it. The way to cleanse thought is not to think but to do. This is what Simcha Bunem knew instinctively, and what we must know as well. If you wish to know God, begin by doing godly.

Published in: on September 26, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Eating in the Presence of God

Reb Baruch, the Maggid of Rika, was the melamed (tutor) to the household of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. When his contract with the rebbe was to be renewed, the rebbe added a stipulation that Reb Baruch would eat with him from the same plate — a great honor. Reb Baruch asked for some time to consider the matter.

At just this time, Berditchev was host to two other famous sages, Reb Elimelech of Lyzhansk and his brother, Reb Zusya of Hanipoli. Reb Baruch decided to ask their advice regarding his eating with the rebbe.

As he approached the attic room where they were staying, he heard Reb Elimelech say to his brother, “Torah teaches: ‘Aharon and all the elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moshe in the Presence of God.’ The Talmudic sages ask why Torah says ‘in the Presence of God’ (Exodus 18:12) when it should have said ‘in the presence of Moshe.’ They answer their own question, saying that Torah is teaching us that whenever one eats with sages he eats in the Presence of God.

“Now, brother,” Reb Elimelech Continued, “I have a problem with their understanding. How could the Talmud doubt that they ate in God’s Presence, The whole universe is filled with God (Psalm 72:19); wherever one eats, one eats in the Divine Presence. To my mind, what the Talmud is really asking is whether Aharon and the elders knew they were eating in the Presence of God, or whether they were distracted from this by eating in the presence of Moshe.”

Hearing this, Reb Baruch suddenly knew the answer to his own question. He returned to the rebbe and respectfully declined his offer. “Sometimes,” he said, “it is not wise to eat in the presence of a tzaddik .”

NOTE: Tsaddik (from tzedek, justice): A saint. Hasidism considered their rebbes to be tzaddikim (plural of tzaddik).

The whole world is filled with Divine Presence — not that life contains God, but that God contains all life. God suffuses life the way wet suffuses water. God is the very essence of reality. Because of this suffusion, we often are unaware of God in, with, and as all things.

We may be unaware of God in the same way a bird may be unaware of the air or a fish unaware of the sea. That is why we are willing to go through such stringent spiritual disciplines: We have to do something strange in order to finally see that which is common. Yet, we sometimes become so infatuated with the discipline that we forget it is a means to something else. This is when spirituality and religion become idolatrous; the sign replaces the thing toward which it points.

In Hasidism, the rebbe is a gateway to God. Levi Yitzchak’s invitation to Reb Baruch was an invitation to move closer to God. Reb Baruch feared, and Reb Elimelech confirmed, that it is all too easy to get attached to the gateway and forget to walk through it.

Published in: on September 19, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

The Value of Wisdom

Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi had a great library of sacred texts and teachings. Among his books was a rare manuscript of Hasidic philosophy. On the cover of the book was the following inscription: “The ban of Rabbeinu Gershom respecting the secrecy of documents is hereby invoked — in This World and the Next.”

It once happened that a fire broke out in the rebbe’s home, destroying all his books and manuscripts. The Alter Rebbe (literally, “The Old Rebbe”) called his son, Reb Dov Ber of Lubavitch, to his side.

“Did you ever open this book?” he asked, tears stinging his eyes.

“No, father, not once.”

“Perhaps you were curious and opened it. Read a chapter or two. Can you recall a chapter of this manuscript? Even a single discourse from this book would restore my spirits.”

Astonished, Reb Dov Ber said. “But father, the ban of Rabbeinu Gershom clearly states that one who opens this manuscript will he cursed in This World and the Next.”

“And you didn’t think that the discovery of some new wisdom was worth the sacrifice?”


Alter Rebbe (literally, “The Old Rebbe”): Term of endearment applied to the founder of HaBaD, Reb Shneur Zalman.

Was the Alter Rebbe crying because he had not read the book or because his son had not read it? We can assume that if Reb Shneur Zalman was willing for his son to risk the ban of Rabbeinu Gershom, he himself had already done so. Yet, if he knew what was in the book, could he not simply teach his son, even though the book itself was gone?

The Alter Rebbe was not crying over a book. He was crying over his son’s unwillingness to risk everything for wisdom. Wisdom is worth every sacrifice. Look carefully at the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6).

Unlike her husband, Eve did not simply take of the fruit and eat. She thought about it long and hard. First, she saw that the tree was good for eating; that is, she saw that it would ease her hunger. But that was not enough to make her violate the ban against eating it. Second, she realized that the fruit was beautiful, that it satisfied her craving for the aesthetic. But that, too, was not enough to motivate her to violate God’s decree. Only when she saw that the fruit would make her wise did she take and eat it. It was not hunger, desire, or passion but wisdom alone that motivated her. She was willing to risk death for wisdom, and we should do no less.

Published in: on September 12, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

A Healing Broth

The Baal Shem Tov was passing through a town in which a man lay critically ill. Word of the Besht’s (an acronym for Baal Shem Tov) arrival spread quickly, and the man’s doctor asked the Baal Shem Tov to visit his patient.

The Baal Shem Tov came to see the man and looked at him for a brief moment. He then turned to the man’s wife and asked her to prepare some chicken broth for her husband. The man sipped some of the soup and immediately began to speak. The Baal Shem Tov stayed with him for a few hours, during which the man’s health returned.

As the Baal Shem Tov prepared to leave, the man’s doctor asked for a moment of his time. “I know this man was close to death,” the doctor said. “There was nothing I could do, and certainly chicken soup would not be enough to cure him. What did you do?”

The Baal Shen, Tov said: “Illness appears in the body but is caused by the spirit. You looked at the man as a body; I looked at him as a soul. When a man uses his body in ungodly ways — acting without thinking, speaking cruelly, violating the mitzvos (Divine commandments) and derekh eretz (literally, “the way of the world”) — then his spirit suffers and cannot keep the body well. This was the case with your patient. I spoke to his soul and urged it to turn from selfishness to selflessness. As soon as it agreed, the body responded by returning to health.”

“And the soup?” the doctor asked.

The Baal Shem Tov simply smiled, shrugged, and took his leave.


Derekh eretz (literally, “the way of the world”): Deeds that are intrinsically good, though not commanded by God (those being mitzvos). Among the deeds the Rabbis highlighted as derekh eretz are courtesy (Berachot 6b), personal hygiene (Avodah Zara 20b), respect for women (Shabbat 10b), honoring parents and teachers (Sanhedrin 100b), avoiding coarse speech (Pesach 3a), and good manners (Yoma 4b).

The Hasidim teach that the soul manifests in the world through Three Garments: thought, word, and deed. When the soul is healthy, your thoughts are positive, your words are compassionate, and your deeds are just. When the soul is weak, the Garments become soiled: thoughts become obsessive; words become hurtful; and deeds become arrogant, greedy, and mean. How is the soul weakened? When you willfully think, speak, and act contrary to the natural inclination of a healthy soul, you cause the soul to weaken. As the soul weakens, sinful thoughts, words, and deeds become more and more natural, more and more an expression of a diseased soul.

Healing comes when the soul is made right and returned to its pure state. How? The Baal Shem Tov had the ability to intervene and do this directly. But you cannot rely on finding someone of his caliber to heal you. You can heal yourself by cleansing the Garments of the Soul and rectifying the soul itself: think positively, speak kindly, and act graciously. In time, your soul will return to its pure state and empower you to turn from evil and do good (Psalm 34:14).

Published in: on September 5, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment