Placing the Self

Reb Yisrael of Ruzhin paid a surprise visit to his Hasidim and found them sitting around a table, idly eating and drinking. The rebbe frowned, clearly disappointed at the actions of his students.

One among them stood and said, “Rebbe, I heard Reb Pinchas of Korets once say that a gathering such as this — Hasidim reveling in friendship –— could be likened to the mitzvah of Torah study.”

Reb Yisrael said, “I would not think to contradict Reb Pinchas, but the analogy depends on how the thing is done.”

“But all we are doing is talking and eating,” another student said. “As long as we recite the proper benediction, how can we do this incorrectly?”

Reb Yisrael replied, “It is a matter of intention. If you place yourself last that others may go first, then your act is selfless and holy. If you place yourself first, it is selfish and smacks of idolatry. If you do something for another or for God with no thought of reward or gain, you are hallowing the deed and uplifting the act. In that case, your action is holy. When you do something to further your own ends, you are debasing the deed and concealing the Divine. In that case, your action is sinful.”

Still not satisfied, the Hasid said, “Rebbe, what if my action is itself sinful but my intention is pure? What if, heaven forbid, I speak ill of another to save a friend from being hurt. Is that a sin or not?”

“Intention is everything,” Reb Yisrael said. If your intention is for the sake of heaven –— that is, if it is for the good of the other and not to benefit yourself — even a sinful act can reveal the Light of God.”


Here is the essence of spiritual life: putting others first and acting lishmah (for its sake), for the sake of the deed and not for the sake of yourself.

The self is like the foam on the crest of a wave: a natural consequence of the nature of the ocean. You would not think to erase the foam any more than you would think to increase the foam. You just accept it as it is for what it is. The same is true of the self. You cannot erase it; you are it. You need not starve it or feed it; just let it be.

Letting the self be is acting lishmah: acting with the self but not for the self. Acting lishmah does not increase or decrease the self, it simply allows it to function as it was intended: as a vehicle through which God can act godly.


Mitzvah: Divine commandment.

Each morning, observant Jews say, “Elohai neshamah sh’natatabi t’horah he: God, the soul You plant within me is pure.” Your soul is pure, transparent to the Divine. Yet, the way the soul is expressed in the world is often tainted with ego. The soul manifests in three ways, called the Three Garments of the Soul: thought, word, and deed. When these are done selflessly, they, like the soul itself, are transparent to God and allow the Light of the Divine to flow through them. Your thoughts are free of selfishness; your words are free of deceit; your actions are free of coercion. But when the Garments are stained by selfishness, dishonesty, and exploitation, the purity of the soul no longer shines through them. The Garments become opaque, and God appears hidden from the world. It is not that the Divine Light no longer shines; it is that you no longer allow the Divine Light to shine through you.

Published in: on August 28, 2010 at 1:34 am  Leave a Comment  

Ten Letters

Once, during the Days of Awel, the sainted kabbalist Yitzchak Luria heard a Bat Kol telling him that for all his prayerful intensity there was one man in a neighboring town whose capacity for prayer exceeded even his own. As soon as he could, Reb Yitzchak traveled to that town and sought the man out.

“I have heard wondrous things regarding you,” he said to the man when he found him. “Are you a Torah scholar?”

“No,” the man said, “I have never had the opportunity to study.”

“Then you must be a master of Psalms, a devotional genius who prays with great intensity.”

“No,” the man said. “I have heard the Psalms many times, of course, but I do not know even one well enough to recite it.”

“And yet,” Rabbi Luria cried, “I was told that the quality of your prayer surpasses even my own! What did you do during the Days of Awe that would merit such praise?”

“Rabbi,” the man said, “I am illiterate. Of the twenty-two letters of the alef-beis I know but ten. When I entered the synagogue and saw the congregation so fervent in their prayers, my heart shattered within me. I couldn’t pray at all. So I said: Ribbono shel Olam, here are the letters I know: aleph, beis, gimmel, daled, hay, vav, zayin, chet, tes, yud. Combine them in a manner You understand, and I hope they will be pleasing to You. And then I repeated these ten letters over and over again, trusting God to weave them into words.”


Like a babbling baby, the scat of a jazz vocalist, or the niggunim (wordless melodies) of the Hasidim, the repetition of pure sound can open us to a world beyond words and the limited mindset that worships them. To repeat the letters over and again, to simply give voice to sound without locking it into fixed and conventional meanings, is to move from map to territory, from thoughts about God to God Itself. But the repetition cannot be done as technique. It must come from a profound realization that there is no technique. Like the fellow in our story, you have to become spiritually illiterate. Simply offer the sounds as sounds, and let God do the rest. Anything else is still an attempt to control the territory by manipulating the map.


Days of Awe: The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, New Year’s Day to the Day of Atonement, are devoted to deep self-reflection and repentance.

Bat Kol (literally, “Daughter of a Voice”): The Voice of God.

Alef-beis: The Hebrew alef-bet, or alphabet.

Ribbono shel Olam: Master of the Universe, one of the names of God.

Alef, beis, gimmel…: The first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Published in: on August 21, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Finding the Way

The Jewish month of Elul is a time for deep teshuvah and tikkun. Reb Chaim Halberstam of Zanz once helped his Hasidim prepare for this journey by sharing this story:

“Once a woman became lost in a dense forest. She wandered this way and that in the hope of stumbling on a way out, but she only got more lost as the hours went by. Then she chanced upon another person walking in the woods. Hoping that he might know the way out, she said, ‘Can you tell which path leads out of this forest?’

“‘I am sorry, but I cannot,’ the man said. ‘I am quite lost myself.’

‘You have wandered in one part of the woods,’ the woman said, ‘while I have been lost in another. Together we may not know the way out, but we know quite a few paths that lead nowhere. Let us share what we know of the paths that fail, and then together we may find the one that succeeds.’

“What is true for these lost wanderers,” Reb Chaim said, “is true of us as well. We may not know the way out, but let us share with each other the ways that have only led us back in.”


Reb Chaim told this story during the month of Elul. His timing is significant. Elul is the month of forgiveness. It is during Elul that you speak with people, saying, “If I have hurt you in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, advertently or inadvertently, I ask for your forgiveness.”

Asking for forgiveness reminds us that we are all lost in the forest of thoughtlessness and suffering. Reb Chaim is teaching us that we cannot escape from this forest alone. Only when we realize that we are all trapped in the selfishness of ego can we forgive one another and begin the trek home.


Elul: The month preceding Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Normally coinciding with August—September, Elul is called the month of repentance, mercy, and forgiveness. The shofar is blown each morning of Elul with the exception of Shabbat morning, and Psalm 27 is read each day of the month. Elul is devoted to seeking forgiveness from people we may have hurt during the previous twelve months.

Teshuvah (Hebrew, “return”): The act of repentance. There are three steps to teshuvah. First, you must do what you can to make amends to the injured party. Second, you must feel contrition in your heart. Third, you must never repeat the hurtful action.

Tikkun (Hebrew, “repair”): There are two kinds of tikkun: tikkun hanefesh, repairing your soul, and tikkun haolam, repairing the world. The first consists of acts of teshuvah, getting yourself right with other people and with God. The second consists of social action, helping to set the world on a path toward justice and compassion.

Published in: on August 14, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Time to Visit

It was the custom of the Hasidim of Reb Shnuer Zalman of Liadi for newer students to postpone their first private visit with the rebbe until after they had studied the basic philosophy and practices of HaBaD Hasidism with the rebbe’s senior students. In this way, they hoped to use the time they would have with the rebbe to deal with deeper things.

In following this custom, Reb Yitzchak Aizik of Homil spent two and a half years preparing for this first yechidus. On his way to visit his rebbe, he passed through the town of Kazan, near Polotzk. Seeing as this was the home of one of his rebbe’s senior students, Reb Shaul, he thought it both wise and correct to drop in on the rabbi and pay his respects.

Learning that Reb Yitzchak Aizik was on his way to visit the rebbe, Reb Shaul said, “I once heard this from the very first Hasidim. It seems that when our rebbe created the HaBaD way of divine practice, he announced, ‘Six months shall one spend with oils of myrrh, and six months with perfumes, before coming to me for yechidus.'”

Seeing that the meaning of this was lost on Reb Yitzchak Aizik, he said, “The oils of myrrh refer to meditations that give rise to m’rirut, the bitterness caused by seeing deeply into all one’s flaws and selfishness. The perfume is what is left after the oil has gone. What is left? A deep sensitivity to God manifest in the world around you. All this should be done before one goes to the rebbe for yechidus.”

Hearing this, Reb Yitzchak thanked Reb Shaul and returned home for another twelve months of preparation.



Reb Yitzchak Aizik studied the externals, but the rebbe wants to encounter the heart. What good is knowing lots of ideas, or mastering complex and esoteric practices, when you are still ignorant of yourself? At the heart of spiritual awakening is the discovery that the self that is struggling to awaken is in fact that which is blocking the awakening. All this so-called spiritual mastery allows the ego to grow into megalomania, mistaking itself for God. The real work is to observe the slippery oil of ego and experience the bitterness at its root: the fear, anxiety, greed, ignorance, and anger that define it. The more you see the ego for what it is, the weaker the ego becomes. At last, all that remains is the perfume: just enough of a sense of self to function well in the world, but not enough to hamper your seeing God in, as, and through the world. Now you are ready to see the rebbe.


HaBaD: The school of Hasidism founded by Reb Shneur Zalman. HaBaD is an acronym for Hokhmah, Binah, Da’at, three aspects of the Divine Mind experienced by humans as intuition, reason, and awareness.

Yechidus (from the Hebrew yachad, unity): A private interview between Hasid and rebbe wherein the latter explores the former’s soul to help direct the Hasid toward enlightenment.

M’rirut (bitterness): A contrite and humble state of mind that arises when one takes stock of one’s thoughts, words, and deeds and realizes how far they are from the ideal. This feeling is a catalyst for improving the quality of one’s life as expressed through thoughts, words, and deeds.

Published in: on August 7, 2010 at 1:01 am  Leave a Comment