Perfect Repentance

The Maggid of Mezritch was expounding on the Torah verse “You shall make teshuvah ad Adonai Elohecha, You shall repent until the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 4:30)

“What is the meaning of this strange phrasing?” the Maggid asked. “Should Torah not say ‘You shall repent unto Adonai Elohecha, the Lord your God’ rather than until? (Note: In this context, the Hebrew word ad means either “unto” or “until”) And why say both Adonai and Elohecha when either one would suffice?”

Answering his own question, the Maggid said, “To understand the first, you must understand the second. What is the meaning of Adonai?”

A Hasid replied: “Adonai is the four-letter Name of God that signifies the absolute transcendence of the Divine.”

“And what is the meaning of Elohecha?”

This refers to Elohim, the Name of God that signifies the absolute immanence of God.”

“And what is the meaning of teshuvah?”

Teshuvah is the process of returning to God by admitting our mistakes and making amends.”

“So,” the Maggid said, “We are to continue the process of teshuvah until we can see Adonai manifest as Elohim, until we see the one and the many as different aspects of the One and Only.”


Adonai Elohecha: A common phrase in the Hebrew Bible, thought to unite what was once two different ideas of God: Adonai, the euphemism for the unpronounceable YHVH referring to the unknowable and transcendent God, and Elohim, the immanent God present to us in and through nature.

Elohim (plural Hebrew noun used for singular God): The Jewish mystical understanding of why Elohim is a plural noun linked with singular verbs is that the Torah is trying to teach us that the One God is manifest in, and is the plurality of, creation.

Teshuvah is a process of stripping away selfishness by recognizing and repenting the mistakes the self makes.

Think of your soul as a clear pane of glass transparent to the Light of God. The glass itself is pure, hence the daily Jewish affirmation: Elohai nishamah sheh natata-be t’horah he, “My God, the soul You breathe into me is pure.” Yet, the ego often smears the glass with selfish acts that distort or block out the Light. These acts of selfishness must be cleansed so that the glass can do what it is created to do: allow the Light to pass through it. Teshuvah is the act of cleansing the glass.

How long do you need to do this? Forever. Even when the transcendent and immanent are one and the same to you, even when you realize that both self and selfishness are part of God, you must still cleanse the glass. At this point, your cleansing is filled with compassion for the self, and you clean without self-condemnation. But you still clean.

Published in: on July 31, 2010 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  


When Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810) returned home from his first visit to his rebbe, Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg, his father-in-law said, “And what did you learn there that you could not learn here?”

“I learned that there is a Creator of the universe,” Reb Levi Yitzchak replied.

“And for that you had to travel to Nikolsburg?” He then called to his maid and asked her, “What do you say? Is there a Creator of the universe?”

“Of course!” she said.

Nu?” Reh Levi Yitzchak’s father-in-law said.

Reb Levi Yitzchak responded, “She says, I know.”


Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg (1726-1778): Hasid of Dov Ber of Mezritch, who focused on generosity as the center of his spiritual life.

Nu: Yiddish expression for “So?”

What do you know? What do you know the way you know you are hungry after a long fast? It is this kind of knowing that Reb Levi Yitzchak experienced at the rabbinic court of Shmelke of Nikolsburg. It is this kind of knowing — a firsthand kind of knowing — that is at the heart of true spiritual awakening.

Too often we make do with secondhand knowing. We mistake concepts for truth. We know that God is one, but we do not experience oneness. We know that God is love, but we do not experience compassion. We know that God is good, but we do not experience goodness. We know that God is just, but we do not experience justice.

We are filled with a secondhand knowing; we master the menu and never eat the meal; we worship the map and never walk the territory. It is not hard to be filled with such knowledge. Even the maid knows what we know, for she, no less than we, has been brought up on the same menu.

When the Israelites received the Torah at Mount Sinai they said, “Na’aseh v’nishmah: We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7). You would expect the order to be reversed: We hear first, and then do. But the deeper hearing, the deeper understanding, can come only from doing. Experience is the teacher; life is the rebbe.


Published in: on July 24, 2010 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

A Powerful Silence

At the tish (A meal shared by a rebbe and his Hasidim) of most rebbes, hours pass in heated Torah discussion, punctuated by much dancing and drinking L’chayyim (“To Life”). But at the table of Reb Menachem Mendel of Vorki, very little was said, for the rebbe’s way was the way of silence.

At one particular tish, Reb Beirish of Biala was in attendance. Expecting the verbal exchange common to most rebbes, Reb Beirish was soon caught up in the deep silence of this quiet sage. Hours passed, and not a word was spoken. Even the breathing of those assembled fell into silence, and only the buzzing of an occasional fly broke the silence.

After they had finished eating, the rebbe led the community in Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals), and then they all left for their respective homes. Worried that their honored guest was annoyed at the quality of theirĀ  rebbe’s tish, several Hasidim approached and asked Reb Beirish how he was faring.

Reb Beirish said: “What a tish the rebbe gave! He taught me lessons in Torah I have heard nowhere else! And every one of his challenges tore down my understanding of Torah and rebuilt it from the ground up. But I didn’t take his challenge passively. I answered every question he asked of me!”

The Hasidim smiled and welcomed Reb Beirish as one of them.


Tish: A meal shared by a rebbe and his Hasidim.

L’Chayyim (Hebrew, “To Life!) A traditional toast.

Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals): A series of prayers recited after any meal at which bread is eaten. The idea of saying grace after meals comes from the Torah: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10).

Reb Menachem Mendel taught through silence. What, then, did Reb Beirish hear? He heard the sound of the Shekhinah, the Holy Presence, manifest in and through himself. Had the rebbe taught through speech, Reb Beirish would have heard the rebbe’s words, compared them with those he had heard from other rebbes at other times, and filed them away in his memory to be trotted out if needed some time in the future. But through the rebbe’s silence, Reb Beirish could hear what he had never heard before: the ever-present revelation of God.

Revelation is immediate and momentary, continuous rather than continual. It comes through intuition rather than logic; it is right-brained rather than left. To hear it, you must be silent. But being silent is not the same as being passive. You have to offer all you know to the silence and allow it to be torn down. What is torn down is what you know; what is built up is what you didn’t know. But the new becomes the old, and so the sacrifice must be made again and again.

Rest on nothing, and your foundation is secure.

Published in: on July 17, 2010 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  


On his way to the beis midrash, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev saw a man racing across the market square. He ran so fast that his coattails and tzitzis flapped behind him. In one hand he clutched a tattered briefcase; the other hand was clamped on top of his hat to keep it from flying off his head. As the man ran past, Reb Levi Yitzchak called to him. The man stopped for a moment in deference to the rebbe, and greeted him between gulps of air.

“Where are you running to so swiftly?” the rebbe asked.

“What do you mean, Rebbe?” the man said sharply, making, no attempt to hide his displeasure at having to make this detour. “I am earning my living, running alter my livelihood. There are opportunities for success ahead of me, and if I don’t race after them they will escape me.”

“And how do you know,” the rebbe asked, “that these opportunities lie before you? Perhaps you are racing right by them? Or even worse, perhaps they are behind you and you are running away from them?”

The man simply stared at the rebbe uncomprehendingly.

“Listen, my friend.” Reb Levi Yitzchak said, “I am not saying you should not earn a living. I am only worried that in your obsession with earning you are missing out on the living.”


Beis midrash (literally, “House of Study”): A communally run center for religious learning where young men would spend the entire day poring over the Bible and Talmud. Today, such centers are usually privately run.

Tzitzis (“fringes;” modern Hebrew, tzitzit or arbah kanfot, four corners, or tallit katan, small prayer shawl): A four-cornered fringed undergarment worn by observant Jews in fulfillment of the commandment “They shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments for all generations…” (Numbers 15:38). One is supposed to look upon the fringes and be reminded that one is always surrounded by the Presence of God. To be made visible, the tzitzis are worn long so they hang below one’s clothes.

Do you know the difference between earning a living and earning a livelihood? Many people don’t. You don’t earn your living; your living is a gift from God through your parents. Your livelihood must be earned, but what if earning your livelihood interferes with honoring the gift of your living? This is the question that troubles Reb Levi Yitzchak.

And how are you to know what your livelihood really is? In your scramble for money to pay your bills, could it be that you are missing opportunities not only for living, but for livelihood as well?

There is a tendency to mistake movement for living. If you keep busy, you must be living. The business magazine Fast Company has as its motto a quote from Hunter Thompson: “Faster and faster until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.” Levi Yitzchak wants us to slow down to the speed of life. What is that speed? When Jacob becomes Israel (the God Wrestler, or Spiritual Warrior), he reveals to his brother Esau, the conventional warrior, what the speed of life really is: “I will walk on gently according to the pace of the cattle and the nursing calves, and the gait of the children…” (Genesis 33:14). The speed of life is the pace of the nursing and the nursed. If you want to live well, slow down.

Published in: on July 10, 2010 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

The Prophetic Squire

The Baal Shem Tov would often converse with the Eliyahu haNavi (Elijah the Prophet). His disciples begged him to share one of these visits with them. After much nagging, he agreed.

One Friday afternoon, as was the custom, the Besht led his students into the fields to greet the Sabbath Bride. As they walked, the Baal Shem Tov said, “I would like to smoke a pipe, but I have forgotten to bring mine with me. Do any of you have a pipe I can borrow?” None did. The Besht then pointed out a Polish squire walking nearby, saying, “Please ask the squire if he has a pipe I can borrow.”

It was not the custom of Polish nobles to have much to do with Jews, but this gentleman agreed and followed the students to their teacher that he might give it to him personally. The squire filled the pipe and lit it with the spark of two flints. As he smoked, the Baal Shem Tov asked the squire about the year’s harvest and whether the threshing houses were yielding much grain. The Hasidim quickly grew bored and wandered off. When they returned, the squire had departed.

“There,” the Besht said, “I have kept my promise. That squire was Eliyahu.”

“What?” his Students cried. “And you did not tell us?”

“If you had not ignored him you would have known and understood the two questions I asked him. When I inquired after the year’s harvest, I was asking whether people have turned their souls toward heaven. When I asked him about the yield of grain, I was asking whether the piety of our prayers was calling down the blessings of divine grace.”

“And what did he say?” the Hasidim asked in astonishment.

“He said what he said,” the Besht said.



Eliyahu haNavi: Elijah the Prophet. According to the Hebrew Bible, Elijah never died but was taken bodily into heaven. For millennia, Jews have believed that Elijah regularly returns to earth to honor the pious and to teach the ardent seeker.

Sabbath Bride, or Queen: Thought to be the embodiment of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence in the world. Among the kabbalists of sixteenth-century Safed, it was customary to go out into the fields on Friday at twilight to welcome the Sabbath Bride. This custom can be traced back over a thousand years to Rabbi Hanina, who would stand at sunset on Friday and say, “Come, let us go forth and welcome the Sabbath Queen,” and Rabbi Yannai, who would do the same saying, “Come, Bride! Come, Bride!” (Shabbat 119a). Today we honor these Rabbis and their practices with the singing of Lecha Dodi (Come Beloved), a mystic hymn written in Safed by Solomon Alkabets (1505-1584).

To the Hasidim of Poland, encountering Elijah as a Polish squire was scandalous. Polish squires were infamous for their boorishness and anti-Semitic violence. That, of course, simply makes the Baal Shem Tov’s point all the more powerful: Nothing is as it seems; nothing is beyond the reach of God’s redemptive power.

What does Elijah say to those he meets? He says what he says. There is no way to communicate it secondhand. Either you see him or you don’t. The key is to keep your eyes open. Always.

Published in: on July 3, 2010 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment