Salvation Now

Reb Yisrael of Ruzhin once taught: “This is the prayer of my teacher, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch: ‘Ribbono shel Olam! (Master of the Universe!) Your people have suffered such a long exile! And why? Only because of stubbornness — Yours and ours! We have a long-standing argument, You and us.

“We say to You, ‘Return us O God unto You, and we shall return!’ You say to us, ‘Return to Me, and I will return to you.’ (Malachi 3:7; Zechariah 1:3) And because of this mutual stubbornness You withhold our Redemption. Well, You have told us to follow Your ways. If You won’t budge, we won’t budge. This I swear to You: The Children of Israel will not return until Redemption!”

Reb Yisrael then added, “I agree with my teacher that we will not repent until the Messiah comes because we have a legitimate claim against God. And I suspect God will not send the Messiah until we first repent because God has a legitimate claim against us. But there is a way out of this impasse.

“We read in our siddur (Hebrew prayer book), ‘Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.’ If this is true, then we should return to God before God returns to us. But the Hebrew word ‘because’ can also mean ‘before,’ and thus the prayer might say, ‘Before we sinned we were already fated for exile.’ Therefore, Ribbono shel Olam, just as You condemned us to exile before we sinned, You should now redeem us from exile before we repent!”

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COMMENTARY

The feeling of being in exile from God is part of the human condition, but it is only a feeling, a perception — and a misperception at that. It arises from our misunderstanding of the nature of God and creation. We imagine that God is separate from creation in the way a potter is separate from her pots. But God is infinite and without boundaries, and hence incapable of being separate from, or other than, anything. God is everything; yet, given God’s infinite creativity, everything that God is is unique. Just as no two waves are exactly alike and yet all waves are a manifestation of the ocean, so, too, no two human beings are alike, yet each is a manifestation of God.

Your sense of exile is not a punishment but a misreading of the gift of uniqueness. It is through you and your uniqueness that God manifests and experiences the vast diversity of life. This diversity need not be at the expense of a higher unity, however.

Unity and diversity are both givens. The challenge is to see the latter as a manifestation of the former. The answer to human diversity is not human uniformity; we are not richer for being less creative. The answer to human diversity is to see that it is rooted in Divine Unity. Your very sense of exile comes from the One from Whom you cannot be in exile.

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Published in: on May 29, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Fooling the Evil Inclination

On a trip through Ruzhin, a group of misnagedim (The opponents of the Hasidim) thought to visit Reb Yisrael to complain about the behavior of his Hasidim.

“You call us antagonists, but at least we walk in the path of God. We study Torah at set times, we pray with a minyan (Prayer quorum of ten) each morning, and when we are finished with our prayers we sit in our tallis and tefillin and study Mishmayos. But you Hasidim who dare to call yourselves the pious ones pray when you feel like it, and then sit down to a glass of vodka! Why, it is outrageous to call this piety!”

The rebbe listened to their complaint quietly. When they were finished, he said, “My learned guests, as you well know, the times of prayer were set to correspond to the sacrifices in the Temple, which can no longer be performed (notes: The sacrifices stopped with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.). As you also know, an improper thought in the mind can render both sacrifice and prayer unclean. So we wait to pray until our minds are clear of distractions.”

The misnagedim were impressed with this answer. “And the drinking after prayer?”

“As you no doubt also know, the Evil Inclination is the source of these thoughts and has invented many strategies for distracting us. So we Hasidim have a counter-strategy. After formal prayer, we sit and wish each other ‘L’Chayyim!’ (“To Life!”).  At that moment, each of us in turn reveals to the group his most desperate need, and we respond ‘May God grant your request!’ Now the Evil Inclination is listening to all of this, but since it is said in an informal way, in mamaloshen rather than Hebrew, the Evil One assumes we are speaking idly and ignores us. Yet, Torah tells us that prayer can be in any language, so our seemingly informal talk is in fact the deepest prayer, untainted by distracting thoughts and certain to rise all the way to heaven.”

Not knowing how to respond, the misnagedim nodded curtly to the rebbe and returned to their journey.

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COMMENTARY

Misnagedim: The opponents of the Hasidim.

Minyan: Prayer quorum of ten.

Tallis: A four-cornered fringed shawl worn during certain prayers as a reminder of God’s Presence (Numbers 15:38).

Tefillin (“phylacteries”): Two small black leather boxes containing four passages from Torah: Exodus 13:1-10, 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 13-21.

Mishnayos: The Mishnah (teaching, instruction) is the first authoritative collection of rabbinic teaching spanning the period from 250 B.C.E. to 250 C.E.

Notes: The sacrifices stopped with the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.

Evil Inclination (Hebrew: yetzer harah): People are born with two innate passions: the passion for self-effacement (yetzer hatov, the Good Inclination) and the passion for self-aggrandizement, the Evil Inclination. The latter can be channeled to serve the former, creating a balance between self-care and service to others.

L’Chayyim (“To Life!”): Traditional toast when drinking.

Mamaloshen: Mother tongue, referring to Yiddish — the everyday language of Eastern European Jews from the early Middle Ages to the present.

True prayer is the spontaneous outpouring of an open and naked soul. Such prayer cannot be controlled, edited, or fixed, and yet this is precisely what the Evil Inclination urges us to do. It haunts us with the notion that only the old words, the formal words, the words of the past, can reach God, the Eternal Present. It offers us an image of God as habit, a God that is reduced to fixed forms and formulae. Reb Yisrael offers us another view: God as unscripted Presence-in-Life. Therefore the only true prayer is L’Chayyim: To Life!

Published in: on May 22, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

What I Deserve

Reb Asher had recently married the daughter of Reb Naftali of Ropshitz and had moved into the rebbe’s house. One morning before Shacharit, Reb Asher was appalled when his father-in-law stormed into the kitchen, where he was sitting with the women of the house, and called brusquely, “For all my efforts, don’t I deserve a little milk?”

“This is no way to speak to people,” Reh Asher said to himself. “I will have to speak to my father-in-law.”

At that moment, a neighborhood woman came into the kitchen, crying. “Rebbe,” she said to Reb Naftali, “my breasts are dry and I cannot nurse my twins!”

Reb Naftali spoke to her softly and said, “Go home and nurse your children. God will help you.”

The plea of the neighbor caused Reb Asher to forget his vow to rebuke his father-in-law, but several weeks later he was again startled when the rebbe burst into the kitchen, bellowing: “So I get a little milk, but of such poor quality it does no good at all. Can it be that I do not deserve a bit of nourishing milk?”

Again Reb Asher was stunned at the harsh talk of his father-in-law. He recalled the prior event and was about to say something when the very same neighbor came into the kitchen. “Rebbe,” she said. “The milk flowed, but now it is watery, and my children are weak and skinny like sticks. Please, Rebbe, pray to God that I be blessed with healthy milk!”

Reb Naftali again spoke to her, saying, “Go home and nurse. God will help you.”

At this Reb Asher realized what his father-in-law had been doing, and he knew that he was a rebbe after all.

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NOTES:

Shacharit: The morning prayer service, derived from the Hebrew word shachar, dawn. The morning service is the longest of the three daily services and consists of five parts: Morning Benedictions, Songs of Praise, Summons to Prayer, Affirmation of God’s Unity and the Centrality of Love, and the Eighteen Prayers of Petition.

How are you to judge the spiritual quality of a saint? How are you to know whether your rebbe or teacher is truly wise or simply but brilliantly insane? This is Reb Asher’s problem. He married into the household of Reb Naftali, a rebbe whose reputation as an affable guide and mentor was known throughout the Hasidic world. And yet, here is his father-in-law seemingly scolding the servants for something as minor as milk.

Reb Asher’s first inclination is to call his father-in-law to account for his behavior, but when he sees how kindly Reb Naftali treats the needy, he forgets the harshness of a moment ago. In time, Reb Asher comes to see that his father-in-law is not complaining to the servants at all, but to God. It is to God that he makes his demands for milk, that the babies might be nourished and grow strong.

This is the rebbe’s job: to call God to account. The rebbe and God are friends, and the role of a friend is to hold up a mirror to the other that she might see the mistakes she makes and correct them. The rebbe holds up a mirror to God: the dry breast, the watery milk. He says to his Friend in the strongest terms: This is not right; You can do better.

Sometimes the rebbe speaks to God as God; sometimes the rebbe speaks to God as you. When your teacher challenges you, see whether the challenge is to be a better you. If it is, then you are in the presence of a saint. If it isn’t, you may be in the presence of a madman.

Published in: on May 15, 2010 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Partners

The day before becoming bar mitzvah, Reb Yisrael of Ruzhin was called into his father’s study. His father, Reb Shalom Shachna Friedmann said to him: “Tomorrow my son you will receive a very special visitor, one who will not leave you for the rest of your life. Are you prepared to welcome this guest lovingly, as befits one of her stature?”

“Yes, father. This guest is the yetzer hatov, the passion for selflessness, goodness, kindness, and compassion. I began to prepare for her arrival long ago.”

“Really!” Reb Shalom Simcha said. “And when was that?”

“When her partner, the yetzer harah, the passion for selfishness, came to join me. I received her respectfully and said: ‘You know that you and the yetzer hatov are partners. You both dwell together in every heart. It would be unseemly of me to welcome one partner without the other.’

“So I convinced the yetzer harah to leave and return only with the yetzer hatov. So in this way I am prepared to welcome them both into my heart together!”

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NOTES:

Bar mitzvah (literally, “master of the commandment”): A Jewish boy (bat mitzvah is the contemporary equivalent for girls) who has reached the age of legal maturity, age thirteen, when he is responsible for all the ritual obligations and is held accountable for all his deeds.

Yetzer hatov/Yetzer harah: People are born with two inclinations or passions: yetzer hatov, the inclination for goodness, and yetzer harah, the inclination for evil. Without these inclinations, people could not become free agents, making moral choices about the quality of life and how to live it.

The yetzer hatov, the inclination to selflessness, sets the direction of your heart. It points not to the self but through the self to the greater ground out of which the self arises. The yetzer harah, the inclination for selfishness, grounds you in the immediacy of your situation. The early Rabbis taught that without the yetzer harah you would not build a business or raise a family. Without the grounding in this world that the yetzer harah provides, you would ignore this world and get caught up in the ethereal.

Allow the yetzer harah to ground you in your situation. Respect your desires, and celebrate your gifts. Allow the yetzer hatov to direct your desires and gifts toward the greater good, the good that honors both self and other, person and planet. The goal is not to align yourself with one or the other of these inclinations but to align them with each other and to use them both.

Published in: on May 5, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Come with Me

Reb Mottel of Kalshin was a successful entrepreneur, who spoke fluent Polish and had connections with powerful ministers in the Polish government. It once happened that the Polish authorities in Warsaw planned to pass a law forcing the Jews to burn all sections of the Shulchan Aruch that dealt with civil and criminal law, forcing the Jews to settle matters in Polish courts and thus weakening the authority of  their rabbis.

When word of this law reached the Jews, Reb Mottel was summoned to the study of Reb Yitzchak of Vorki. Reb Yitzchak asked him to meet with a certain powerful government official and to convince him to withdraw the bill before it became law.

Terrified, Reb Mottel protested: “Do you know what you are asking? This official is a madman, and his hatred of Jews knows no end. I have heard from others that he vows to kill anyone who goes to him with a request to alter his position on any legislation! To go to him with this is certain death for me, and he will not change his mind.”

Reb Yitzchak listened carefully and said, “When Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses, our Teacher) went to Pharaoh to demand that he free his Hebrew slaves, do you think he was unafraid?”

“No,” Reb Mottel said. “I am certain that he was afraid. Who would not be?”

“Exactly,” the rebbe said. “He was afraid Pharaoh would kill him and nothing good would come of his meeting. It is for this reason that God said to Moshe ‘Come to Pharaoh.’ (Exodus 9:1)  ‘Come,’ not ‘go.’ God knew that Moshe was afraid, so God said ‘Come with Me to Pharaoh,’ reminding Moshe that God is always with him. It will be the same with you. If you go to him alone you are doomed, but if you come with God you will succeed.”

Reb Mottel’s fear melted, and he traveled to Warsaw unafraid. Indeed, so fearless and joyous was he during his meeting with the minister that the official could not summon even an ounce of anger, and he granted Reb Mottel’s request on the spot.

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COMMENTARY

Shulchan Aruch (literally, “set table”): The standard code of Jewish law (halachah) written by Joseph Karo of Safed in the mid-sixteenth century.

Where does fear originate? There are some who claim we fear the unknown, but this is impossible. If something is truly unknown, how can we know to fear it? What we really fear is our projection of the known onto the future. We conjure up the worst fears of the past, impose them on the next moment, and respond to them accordingly. In so doing, however, we are responding not to what is, but to what we imagine.

God invites you to imagine differently. Whenever you confront an enemy, God calls to you, saying, “Come to Pharaoh.” One who says “come” invites you to be with that one. When God says, “Come to Pharaoh,” God is saying, “Come to Me through Pharaoh. Come to Me by engaging the enemy and seeing into the heart of the stranger, that you might find the same heart beating in you both.”

God commands us to “know the heart of a stranger” (Exodus 23:9) and to feel solidarity with the stranger, for you, too, know what it is to be a stranger. To know the stranger is to know the enemy. To know the enemy is to know your own heart. To know your own heart is to know that God is both self and stranger, friend and foe.

This knowing fills you with a deep and abiding courage and joy, and it is this joy that embraces the stranger and invites her or him to come to God through you.

Published in: on May 1, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment