Praying with the World

It is the custom of certain HaBaD Hasidim to insert into their prayers moments of silent contemplation, when they focus their thoughts on Hasidic insights and teachings that illumine the deeper meanings of the prayer they are about to recite.

It once happened that the Alter Rebbe (Old Rabbi), Reh Schneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Tanya and founder of HaBaD, asked his son, Reb Dov Ber of Lubavitch, to share with him the Hasidic texts he was currently using in his meditations.

“I have been contemplating the text that reads ‘And the peoples of all nations shall prostrate themselves before You.”‘(Psalm 22:28)

Dov Ber then asked his father, “And with what do you pray?”

“With the bench and the floor,” the Alter Rebbe said.


HaBaD: School of Hasidism founded by Shneur Zalman. HaBaD is an acronym for Hokhmah (Wisdom), Binah (Understanding), and Da’at (Knowledge), three aspects of the Divine Mind manifest in humans as intuition, reason, and awareness. HaBaD emphasized panentheism, seeing the world as a manifestation of God based on the teaching in Isaiah: “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:5). The goal of HaBaD is bittul ha-yesh, the annihilation of the seemingly separate self, and hence all existence, as perceived by that self, into the absolute unity of God.

Alter Rebbe: Yiddish for “Old Rabbi.” Reb Schneur Zalman of Liadi, (1745-1812), founder of HaBaD Hasidism.

Tanya: Written by Reb Schneur Zalman and published in 1814; the first systematic exposition of Hasidic teaching.

What is the difference between a Hasid and a rebbe, a disciple and a master? The Hasid becomes fixated on the sign; the master looks beyond it to that toward which it points. What is the work of the rebbe? If the Hasid is lost in ideas, the rebbe points to the concrete. If the Hasid is lost in the concrete, the rebbe points to ideas. The work of the rebbe is to free the Hasid from thinking that God is in one place or the other, and to help the Hasid discover that God is in all as all.

Reb Dov Ber is the Hasid lost in abstraction: What does it mean that the peoples of all nations shall bow down before God? Schneur Zalman is the rebbe waiting to counter the Hasid’s fantasy with the ice-water shock of concrete reality.

The goal is not to be imaginative or literal, but both; allowing the mind to open to all and get stuck on none.

Published in: on November 28, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Seeing or Believing

Reb Meir was a Hasid of Reb Mordechai of Lechovitch. He was also the occasional business partner of Reb Gershon, who was a devout misnaged (An opponent of Hasidism).

Reb Meir was always inviting his partner to join him on his many visits to his rebbe, but Reb Gershon’s hatred of Hasidism was so strong that he could never consent to visiting his partner’s rebbe. Not wishing to hurt the feelings of his friend, he would find many reasons to explain why travel to Lechovitch was out of the question.

It once happened, however, that separate business matters brought both men to Lechovitch on the same day. Discovering that his friend would be in town at the same time as himself, Reb Meir once again invited Reb Gershon to visit his rebbe. Seeing no way out that would not be offensive to Reb Meir, Reb Gershon agreed.

When the two men arrived at Reb Mordechai’s house, they were ushered into the rebbe’s dining room, where he was just beginning to eat his dinner. Reb Meir urged his partner to speak to the rebbe, to ask a question, to say something, but Reb Gershon was clearly in a state of pure ecstasy. After a few minutes they left the rebbe’s house.

Reb Meir said to his friend: “What happened to you in there?”

Reb Gershon said, “I saw the rebbe eating with the holiness of the Kohen HaGadol!”

Shocked, Reb Meir turned from his partner and ran back to the rebbe. When he arrived he said, “Rebbe, here I come to see you as often as I can, and never have I seen the way you serve the Holy One, Blessed Be He. And yet my misnaged partner comes for a minute, under duress, and he sees the miracle of your eating. Is this fair?”

Reb Mordechai said, “it is not about fairness, my friend. Your partner is a misnaged; he has to see the truth with his eyes. You, on the other hand, are a Hasid; you have to trust.”



Misnaged: An opponent of Hasidism.

Kohen HaGadol: High Priest. The first High Priest was Aaron (Exodus 28:1), and all subsequent High Priests were required to be descendents of Aaron. After the fall of the Temple (70 c.E.), the Rabbis taught that the sanctity of the sacrificial altar shifted to the dinner table. Preparing and eating meals with the required prayers before and after eating, and focusing table talk on words of Torah, elevated eating to a spiritual discipline equivalent to that of a High Priest serving in the Temple.

What did Reb Gershon see? He saw Reb Mordechai eating with an awareness of God’s Presence equal to that of the Kohen HaGadol, the High Priest of ancient Israel. What did Reb Meir see? He saw the same thing but did not recognize it as anything out of the ordinary. It is not that Reb Meir didn’t see what Reb Gershon saw, but, unlike Reb Gershon, he saw nothing unusual about it. When his partner was so moved by what was for him an everyday event, Reb Meir began to doubt the quality of his own seeing. His rebbe then shifted Reb Meir’s attention from seeing to trusting.

Trust is about the unknown; seeing is about the known. If you see a bus coming down the street, you do not say, “I trust the bus is coming.” You say, “Look, here comes the bus.” It makes no sense to trust what you know. Trust matters only in relation to what you don’t know. And that is what makes it a higher spiritual quality than sight, but also a more dangerous one.

Albert Einstein said there is one fundamental question we must ask of the universe: Is it friendly or not? We cannot answer that question once and for all. All we can do is take life as an experiment.  All good experiments begin with a hypothesis. In this case, the hypothesis is that the universe is friendly, that it is conducive to human life, love, and meaning. To test this hypothesis, you have to live as if it were so and see what happens. You have to trust that your hypothesis is true, and then risk the consequences of its being false. This is what makes spiritual life so dangerous. It is life on the edge of trust.

Published in: on November 21, 2009 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

A Recipe from Heaven

On a journey to visit the Chozeh of Lublin, Reb David of Lelov stopped at the home of a dear friend with whom he hoped to make the rest of the journey. His friend was quite poor, yet he asked his wife to prepare a meal for his beloved David.

The woman was shocked. All she had was a bit of flour, not even a pinch of salt or a drop of oil to add a bit of flavor. Still, she went out to the forest, gathered twigs for a fire, mixed her flour with water, and boiled dumplings for her husband, their friend, and herself.

When Reb David returned home from Lublin, he told his wife of his journey. “When I ate with my friend, his wife prepared a meal of such delicacy that it tasted as if it was flavored with spice from Gan Eden (Garden of Eden). Never have I eaten such food!”

Knowing her husband to be of a mystical bent and unimpressed by things of this world, Reb David’s wife knew that this delicacy must he rare indeed. She set off at once for the friend’s house and asked his wife to share the recipe with her.

“What delicacy?” she said. “It was flour and water.”

“No, no,” the other insisted. “My David said it tasted like something from Gan Eden!”

Suddenly her friend’s eyes grew wide with astonishment. “Gut in Himmel! (God in heaven!)” she said. “When I was gathering the twigs for the fire, I prayed to God, saying, `Ribbono shel Olam (Master of the Universe), I have nothing with which to honor Reb David, but You, HaShem (literally, The Name), You have the Garden of Eden. So please, won’t You add a bit of spice to these dumplings I am cooking that Reb David might find some enjoyment in them?’ It seems that HaShem heard my prayer!”



Gut in Himmel: “God in heaven! ” a common Yiddish expression of awe.

Ribbono shel Olam: Master of the Universe, considered an intimate name for God.

HaShem: The Name. The Name of God, made up of four Hebrew consonants, YHVH, is unpronounceable according to both Jewish law and the limits of human speech. The euphemism HaShem, or The Name, is used to refer to this Name of God.

What do you have by which to honor another? Your mind? Your heart? Your skill? All of these are gifted to you by God. The thoughts you think and the ideas you nurture can all be traced to teachers and sages of the past. The feelings you feel are not yours; you cannot keep the ones you like and discard the ones you dislike. The works of your hands are the result of tutoring and mentoring by others. All you have and all you are come to you from the efforts of others and, ultimately, the grace of God. Without these gifts you have nothing; indeed, without them you are nothing.

When you realize you are nothing without the constant gifting of God and the universe, you realize you have nothing to offer another and must rely solely on God. “Ribbono shel Olam, I am nothing without You and the gifts with which You grace my life. I cannot honor another and can only turn to You. Use me as a vehicle for the blessings of others, and I shall be grateful for the opportunity to serve.” When you can pray these words with sincerity, you are ready to taste the spice of Gan Eden.

Published in: on November 14, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Without a Doubt

His Hasidim asked Reb Elimelech of Lyzhansk if he were certain that he was assured a place in the World to Come.

“Absolutely,” the rebbe replied without hesitation.

“And how, Rebbe, can you be so certain?”

“When we die in this world, we go before the heavenly court in the World Above. Standing before the divine court, we are asked certain questions regarding Torah, avodah, and mitzvos. Answer these properly, and you will go to the World to Come.”

“And you know these questions, Rebbe?” the students asked.


“And you know the answers?”


“And will you share them with us?”

“The questions are the same for all of us. Your answers must be your own. Yet, I will tell you just what I will tell them. They will ask: Rebbe, did you study Torah to the best of your ability?’ And I will answer honestly: ‘No.’ They will then ask: Rebbe, did you fully surrender to God in worship?’ And I will answer honestly: ‘No.’ They will then ask me: ‘Rebbe, did you do the mitzvos and good deeds you could do while alive?’ And I will answer honestly: ‘No.’ And then they will say: ‘If so, then you are telling us the truth, and for that alone are you welcome into the World to Come.”‘


Torah, avodah, mitzvos: “Torah” refers to the written and oral teachings found in the Bible and Talmud. Avodah refers to the three-times-a-day worship service. Mitzvos are the commandments revealed by God and interpreted by the Rabbis.

Does this mean that Reb Elimelech avoided Torah study, prayed half-heartedly, and ignored the commandments? Not at all. It just means that he realized he had never reached his full potential regarding any of these things. This realization could have driven him to despair. He could have felt himself unworthy of heaven, and driven himself mad with self-flagellation. To do so would have meant that heaven can be earned and that Reb Elimelech simply failed to measure up. But he knew differently: You cannot earn your way into heaven. All you can be is honest with and about yourself.

Reb Elimelech knew the truth of dayyenu, enough. There is always another page of Talmud to study; there is always a deeper level of spiritual awareness open to us in prayer; there is always another act of kindness to seek out and do; but we cannot do everything. We must only do enough.

What is enough? Only you know that. Reb Elimelech, however, gives a hint. He answers the judges of the heavenly court without remorse. He doesn’t deny or defend his life; he simply accepts it. When you can do the same, you have reached dayyenu.

Wouldn’t that excuse laziness and even immorality? If you are looking for an excuse, you are not accepting what is. If your claim to dayyenu is false, meaning that you did not do all you could given your circumstances, then honesty, humility, and grace are lost. Without these, there is no way into this world or the World to Come.

Published in: on November 14, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

A Hidden Tzaddik

It was common for great rabbis to come from lines of great rabbis. Rabbi Mordechai HaKohen was once asked about his grandfather, Reb Shalom, of whom no one had ever heard. Rabbi Mordechai said: “Truly he was a Lamed Vavnik, a Hidden Saint. By day he would earn his living as a goldsmith, all the while focusing his mind on the deepest mysteries of the Torah. And at night he would arise at midnight to study the words of Kabbalah. And not only this,” Rabbi Mordechai continued, “as was customary among all the pious, my grandfather would set aside a tenth of his earnings for the poor.”

The questioner said: “With all due respect, Rabbi, this is not so unusual. Many of us meditate on Torah during the day and study Kabbalah at night. And every Jew is obligated to give a tenth of all earnings to see to the welfare of the poor.”

Rabbi Mordechai smiled. “So there is more,” he said. “My grandfather would give a tenth of his profits to tzedakah, and he would give a tenth of his losses as well.”

“I am not sure I understand,” the other said.

“My grandfather once lost a lot of money when he failed to refine a great amount of gold properly. He calculated one tenth of this loss and took that amount out of his savings and gave it to the poor.”

“But we are required to share only our profits, not our losses, for to do otherwise would compound those losses.”

“Which is why my grandfather was a tzaddik. He believed we are to bless God for all that comes to us, the bad as well as the good. And he believed that the poor should not suffer from his own mistakes. Therefore, my grandfather chose to give thanks to God for his losses as well as his earnings by donating ten percent of each to the poor.”


Lamed Vavnik: Hidden Saint, from the Hebrew letters lamed and vav, whose numerical value equals thirty-six. A Lamed Vavnik is a saint who works selflessly behind the scenes to see that goodness triumphs over evil. There are thought to be thirty-six Hidden Saints in the world at all times, and it is by the goodness of their deeds that the world survives.

Kabbalah (from the Hebrew kabel, to receive): Jewish mystical tradition. Midnight was considered a moment outside normal time. Studying at midnight allowed the kabbalist to slip the bonds of normal consciousness and enter paradise.

Tzedakah (from tzedek, justice): The act of donating 10 percent of one’s earnings to the poor.

Tzaddik (from tzedek, justice): A saint.

Acts of generosity are essential to the spiritual life, reflecting as they do an awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings. Judaism sets a minimum standard for giving: ten percent of your earnings. But the Hasid, the compassionate disciple of God, goes beyond the letter of the law. Reb Shalom gave of his losses also.

You may not aspire to such a level of sainthood, but your connection with others is no less than that of Reb Shalom. The question is: How generous are you? Do you even meet the minimum standard of tzedakah, or are you apt to give less in the hope of having more? The next time you wonder how far you are progressing on the spiritual path, don’t look only to the sacred books on your shelf, but look also to the checkbook in your drawer or purse.

Published in: on November 7, 2009 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment