Good Night God

Reb Fishel of Strikov was known for a seemingly strange nighttime ritual. Every night before retiring to bed, the rebbe would pour himself a glass of vodka. He would say the blessing over the drink, take a sip from the glass, and then call aloud to God: “L’Chayyim (To Life!), Ribhono shel Olam (Master of the Universe), Source of Life and Life of all the living! A very good night to You, Ribbono shel Olam!” And then he would wash the glass and go to sleep.

As this practice became more widely rumored, his Hasidim came to him for an explanation.

Reb Fishel said, “Is God afflicted by human suffering?”

“Yes,” his students answered. “We are taught that God suffers when humans suffer.”

“So,” the rebbe said, “if God is pained by our pain, it stands to reason that God rejoices in our joy. Now if this is true, then if the suffering of the world were to have a night of peace, this would bring God a good night as well, yes?”

“Yes,” his disciples said.

Nu (So?), when I wish God a good night, there is then only one way in which He can arrange for this. He must give a night’s rest and peace to all the afflicted of the world!”


L’Chayyim: “To Life!” A classic Jewish toast.

Ribbono shel Olam: Master of the Universe, a common Yiddish appellation for God.

Nu: Yiddish expression for “So?”

How can it be that God either suffers or rejoices? Isn’t God beyond such things? The answer to such questions depends, of course, on how you define God. If God is, as the Hasidim thought, the One Thing that manifests as all things, then God is not removed from joy or suffering. In fact, we are among the ways in which God experiences joy and suffering.

Just as a wave is the ocean manifest in a specific time and place, so you are God manifest in and of your unique situation. You are not, of course, all of God, but God is all of you. You are the way God raises your family, or walks your dog, or grooms your cat, or takes out the garbage. You are also the way God laughs and cries, celebrates and suffers. If God is all, then God is you. If God is you, and you know pleasure and pain, then God too — through you — knows pleasure and pain.

This is what Reb Fishel knew, and this is what he did about it. He sought to give God pleasure by doing something pleasurable. What a wonderful practice! Imagine that all you do either pleasures or pains God. Wouldn’t you do your best to maximize the former and minimize the latter? Wouldn’t you do your best to ensure that your actions are truly good and pleasurable and not merely expedient and titillating?

Follow the example of Reb Naftali, and find something to do each day that offers up pure pleasure to God. In this way you will spread joy throughout the world, for the more pleasure the world gives to God, the more pleasure the world receives from God.

Published in: on October 31, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Praying with; Praying Among

While traveling through a small town, Reb Uri of Strelisk stopped to davven Shacharit (Literally, “pray the Morning Prayer service.”) with the local congregation. As was his practice, Reb Uri lengthened the prayers and entered into ecstatic revelry. After the service had ended, the rabbi of the town spoke to Reb Uri in private.

“Does it not occur to you, Rebbe, that your ecstasy and lengthening of the prayers is an inconvenience upon the congregation? After all, the Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva prayed with such intensity that he would begin his prayers in one corner of a room and end them in another. Because of this he chose to pray alone. On those occasions when he did pray with the congregation, he used to keep his prayers brief so as not to inconvenience anyone.”

Reb Uri replied: “Perhaps there is another way to understand the Talmud’s teaching on this matter. When our sages tell us that Rabbi Akiva prayed with the congregation, they mean to tell us that the congregation accompanied their rabbi on his ecstatic journey. Because they were all praying with such intensity, there was no need to lengthen the prayers. When our sages tell us that Rabbi Akiva prayed alone, they mean to say that he alone among the congregation was praying with the proper intensity, and in these cases he had to work much harder and longer to bring them along.

“This would be like you and I walking to the market. If we walked at the same swift pace, our walk would be short. But if you insisted on walking at half my pace, I would have to wait for you to catch up so that we are not each walking alone. This would mean making the walk much longer.”

Talmud: The authoritative body of rabbinic law and legend spanning seven centuries from 200 B.C.E.  to  500 C.E.

Rabbi Akiva (45-135): According to tradition, Rabbi Akiva was an illiterate shepherd whose wife, Rachel, encouraged him to leave home and study. He returned many years later with thousands of disciples. Hence Akiva’s teaching: “Who is wealthy? A man with a virtuous wife” (Shabbat 25b). Akiva supported the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Roman occupation of Israel. He was arrested and tortured to death at the age of ninety.

When it comes to prayer and spiritual practice, you must walk at your own pace. The purpose of practice is not to get from “here” to “there” but to realize that “there” is always “here.” Spiritual practice must be done lishmah, for its own sake, without a goal or purpose. You walk for the pleasure of walking; you sit for the pleasure of sitting; you pray for the pleasure of praying. When we turn practice into work, we mistake its true nature as play.

Conventional language regarding spirituality tends to focus on workrelated words. We speak of spiritual practice, discipline, effort, work. In Hebrew we use the term avodah, work, to refer to prayer and meditation practices. These words distract us from the truth about spirituality. Work is all about earning something, doing something, getting somewhere. But spirituality is all about accepting, receiving, embracing, and surrendering. It is as if we want spirituality to be difficult so as to excuse our not bothering with it.

Better to speak of spiritual play than spiritual work. Play can be no less intense and engaging, but it doesn’t hold out the hope of a prize. You play for the sheer fun of playing. When your spiritual life is done for joy, your life will be filled with joy.

Published in: on October 24, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Receive and Detach

Once, Reb Yisrael of Ruzhin listened to a Hasid of Reb Moshe Zvi of Savran extol the virtues of his teacher.

“Reb Moshe is a man of deep humility,” the Hasid said. “Even the slightest sign of honor given to him would make him question his own worth. He never thought he was worthy.”

The Hasid paused, expecting a comment from Reb Yisrael marveling at the humility of his master. Reb Yisrael said nothing, and the Hasid Continued:

“Indeed, there is one town so taken with my rebbe that whenever he visits, the whole town turns out to honor him.”

“And this troubles him?” Reb Yisrael asked.

“Troubles him, indeed! First he would say it was the carriage they honored, noting its fine construction. Then he would hope it was the horses they honored, marveling at their strength. But in the end he knew it was him they honored. He would worry over the vanity of humankind to the point of making himself sick. He would actually vomit from all the fuss made over him!”

Nebbich! (Yiddish for a foolish person, a loser)” Reb Yisrael exclaimed. “This poor fellow! Could he not find a better way to deal with honor than to vomit? There is a simple method: to receive all honor and yet to be attached to none of it. It wasn’t the honor that caused our dear brother to vomit; it was his obsession with it.”


Humility is highly valued among the Hasidim as a sign of spiritual maturity. But what is true humility? This story presents us with three approaches to humility. The first is the false humility of Reb Moshe’s wondering aloud whether it is the carriage or the horses that the people are honoring and not himself. Although this may fool his devout Hasid, we are not taken in. He knows they are coming out to honor him and not his horse.

The second is a more virulent false humility, which causes Reb Moshe to vomit. His stomach turns because he is convinced that he does not deserve such honor. He is obsessed with his own unworthiness, but the mere fact of his obsession suggests that his focus is fundamentally selfish and vain. This is clearly a Shakespearean case of “the man doth protest too much.”

The third approach to humility is that taught by Reb Yisrael: When honors come, accept them calmly. And when they pass, allow them to pass calmly. Do not place any importance on them, and do not place any unimportance on them. They are like rain: They come and they go, and there is no need to make a fuss about it.

Not making a fuss may well be a truer sign of spiritual maturity than that of humility. Those who crave the adulation of others and those who shun it are both trapped in their own drama. Better to allow reality simply to unfold as it will, and not pretend that we have much to say about it one way or the other.

Published in: on October 17, 2009 at 1:43 am  Leave a Comment  

The Sermon

Each year, Reb Yisrael, the Maggid (literally, “narrator”) of Koznitz, would visit the town of Apta. On one such visit, the elders of the town asked the rebbe to preach in their shul (literally, “school”) on Shabbos (The Sabbath). Reb Yisrael refused, saying: “Last year when I visited you, the same request was made. I spoke in your shul and accomplished nothing. Things are the same today as then; why should I waste my breath'”

Word of the rebbe’s harsh rebuke spread swiftly through the town. All of Apta fell into depression. Then a craftsman asked to meet with the Maggid.

“I am neither scholar nor saint,” the man said to the Maggid, “but I can say to you that you are mistaken about your sermon having no effect. I listened to what you said last year. You spoke of the obligation of every Jew to practice what is written in the Psalms (16:8): ‘I am ever mindful of God’s Presence.’ From that moment on, I have sought to do just that. The Name of God is constantly before me, revealed as black fire written on white fire in everyone I meet and everything I encounter. I tremble in awe of God’s Presence constantly.”

The Maggid smiled at the man and apologized for his hasty rebuke. “If one heart was opened last year, perhaps two will open this year.” The Maggid preached at the synagogue that Shabbos, and the lives of many were turned toward godliness.


Maggid (literally, “narrator”): A Hebrew word used for preacher. The Hasidic preachers used dramatic touches and a singsong style of delivery to move their listeners to redouble their efforts for justice and compassion.

Shul (literally, “school”): A Yiddish term used by Jews of European descent to refer to any traditional synagogue. Because of the strong educational component of the early synagogue, the Gentiles in the Roman world called the Jewish house of prayer a schola.

 Psalm 16:8: Called the Shiviti, this text is often hung in synagogues on a wall in front of the worshippers. It was also used as focal point for meditation, as an amulet, and as a meditative chant: Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid . [also translated as, “I have set (shiviti) the Lord always before me”].

“I am ever mindful of God’s Presence.” This single line from the Psalms speaks to the heart of Jewish spiritual practice. Among the Hasidim, many repeated this line of the Psalms over and over as a means of seeing through the seemingly diverse nature of reality to the singular core that is God.

Living with the awareness of God’s Presence is living the spiritually awakened life. It means seeing the One as the many. It is stepping beyond duality without rejecting duality. It is seeing the nonduality that is God manifest as the duality that is creation. There is nothing other than God. The Shiviti rejects nothing: spirit and matter, heaven and earth, the sacred and the secular, the holy and the mundane are all seen as facets of the Divine.

Published in: on October 10, 2009 at 1:07 am  Leave a Comment  

Why Cry to Me?

Reb Yaakov David, the chief justice of the rabbinic court of Koznitz and a senior student of Reb Shlomo Leib of Linchna, once visited Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk. After some time, their conversation turned to Reb Shlomo.

“I am a great admirer of your teacher,” the Kotsker Rebbe said, “but there is one thing about him that I do not understand.”

Reb Yaakov David said, “I do not pretend to be my teacher’s equal, but perhaps I can explain that which confuses you. Please, share it with me.”

“Excellent,” Menachem Mendel said. “Reb Shlomo is forever calling out to God, asking God to send the Messiah. This is true?”

“Yes, this is very true. My rebbe’s passion for messianic redemption is greater than all of ours put together.”

“Good. So here is my dilemma: If the rebbe is so concerned with messianic redemption, why does he entreat God? Better to call to the Jews and urge them toward teshuvah. After all, when Moshe Rabbeinu called out to God at the shore of the Red Sea, God said to him: ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel …!'” (Exodus 14:15).

Reb Yaakov David smiled and said nothing.


Teshuvah (literally, “turn”): The Hebrew word for repentance. There are two kinds of repentance. Repentance motivated by fear of punishment lessens the severity of the punishment; repentance motivated by love of God transforms sins into merits, for the sins were catalysts to repentance. Thus the sages taught, “The place occupied by one who sins and returns out of love cannot be attained even by the saint who has never sinned at all” (Berachot 34b).

There are two types of faith: self-powered and other-powered. The first means that salvation (redemption, liberation, realization, etc.) is up to you. The second means that salvation is a gift of grace, and there is nothing you can do to earn it or bring it about.

Which is true? Reb Shlomo Leib sides with the former; Menachem Mendel sides with the latter. Reb Yaakov David just smiles. As chief justice he is skilled at seeing both sides of a case, and in this case both sides are true. Ultimately, awakening is a gift, but it is one for which you must prepare. This preparation is called teshuvah, “turning.” You must choose to turn from evil and do good (Psalm 34:14). The turning is in your power and your power alone. But the results of this turning are not yours to control. This is where the other-power comes in. You choose to change, and then God gifts you with change.

Published in: on October 3, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment