Learn from Everything

Reb Avraham Yaakov of Sadigora was once sitting with his Hasidim. Their conversation was light and covered many topics. Almost as an aside, Reb Avraham Yaakov said, “You know, my friends, it is possible to learn great truths from even inanimate things. Everything can teach us something.”

Taking the rebbe’s statement as a challenge, one Hasid asked, “Tell me, Rebbe, what might we learn from a train?”

“That because of a single second you might miss the whole thing.”

“And from a telegraph?” another student asked. “What might we learn from a telegraph?”

“That every word is counted, and that every word carries a cost.”

“And the telephone, Rebbe,” yet another Hasid asked. “Tell us what we can learn from this.”

“That what you say here,” Reb Avraham Yaakov said, “can surely be heard there.”



Life is our rebbe. Ordinary things are our teachers. Reb Avraham Yaakov offers three examples. The train reminds us that each moment is precious and unique. If you are asleep to what is happening now, you cannot reclaim it later. The telegraph reminds us that words matter. A single word uttered in anger or spite can sour years of love and trust. Weigh the value of your words before speaking them. The telephone reminds us that distance is no defense against foolishness. “Here” and “there” are two ends of a single stick; do not think you can wave it here and not do damage there.

But there are other rebbes lurking in the ordinary things of everyday life:

A microwave: that which can heat up a meal can blow up a cat.

A television: that the foolishness of some can capture the imaginations of many.

Advertising: that the full can be made hungry simply with images.

Internet: that wisdom can be lost in too much information.

Religion: that disease must be learned before cures can be sold.

Politics: that serving leaders is much easier than servant leadership.

Look around you. Who are your rebbes? What are they teaching? What are you learning?

Published in: on September 25, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

The Reminderer

In the richer sections of Ropshitz, the town in which Reb Naftali was the rebbe, it was common for householders to hire night watchmen to guard their property. One evening, the rebbe went for a walk in the woods and returned to town through the neighborhood of the well-to-do. A watchman saw him coming through the forest and called for him to halt.

“I am sorry, Rebbe, I did not recognize you in the dark,” the guard said as the rebbe drew closer to him under a gaslight.

The rebbe smiled and asked him, “For whom do you work?”

The watchman told him. Then he asked the rebbe the same question: “And for whom are you working this evening, Rebbe?”

The question hit Reb Naftali like a fist in his stomach. He stepped back a pace or two and then stammered, “I am not working for anyone at the moment.”

The rebbe then began to pace back and forth under the gaslight. Suddenly he stopped, turned to the watchman, and said, “I would like to hire you.”

“Me?” the man said. “I am a watchman. I know nothing of rebbes and their matters. I protect what matters to my master. What could I possibly do for you?”

“The very same,” Reb Naftali said. “What matters to me is my soul, and to protect it I must work for God.”

“But what would my job be?”

“To remind me,” the rebbe said.



The word “remember” appears at least 125 times in the Hebrew Bible. This is what the Jewish philosopher and biblical scholar and translator Martin Buber calls a key word: a word whose frequent repetition is deliberate and intended to point us toward some important truth.

What does it mean to remember? You might think that the emphasis on remembering implies an almost obsessive concern with the past. Torah is calling us to live in the past, to conform to the past, to uphold the old as superior to the new. But where does remembering happen? Can you remember the past in the past? Of course not; all remembering takes place in the present. You cannot live in the past. You can live only in the present. You can, however, use the past as a veneer, an overlay that makes the present look like the past. You can repeat old patterns of thought and action to give yourself a sense of continuity with the past. Indeed, this is part and parcel of normative religion: to conform to the past in the present.

But this is not the only use of “remember.” Reb Naftali was not seeking to remember the past but to be reminded of the present. He desired someone to call him back to this very moment and ask: For whom are you working? For yourself or for God?

The contemporary mystic and activist Andrew Harvey suggests you carry a small icon in your pocket to remember to return to the holy work of this moment. Torah suggests that you wear fringes on the corners of your garments to remind yourself of God and godliness (Numbers 15:38). The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that you use the ringing of a bell or telephone as a call to return to the present. Reb Naftali hired a watchman. What will you do?

Published in: on September 18, 2010 at 1:13 am  Leave a Comment  

Where Am I?

Reb Chanoch Henich of Alexander told this story:

“There was once a fellow who was very forgetful. Indeed, his memory was so short that when he awoke each morning he could not remember where he had laid his clothes the night before. Things got so bad for him that he could not fall asleep, so great was his nervousness about finding his things upon waking.

“One evening, however, he hit on a great idea. Taking pencil and paper, he wrote down exactly where he had placed each item of clothing. Placing his notes on the nightstand, by his bed, he quickly fell asleep, confident that he would find everything just perfectly in the morning.

“And indeed he did. He woke up, took the notes from his night-stand, and read off each item in turn: ‘Pants—on chair back’; and there they were. He put them on. ‘Shirt—on bed post’, and there it was. He put it on. ‘Hat—on desk’; and there it sat. He placed it on his head. In a few minutes the fellow was completely dressed. But suddenly a great dread came upon him.

“‘Yes, yes,’ he said aloud. ‘Here are my pants, my shirt, and my cap; but where am I?’

“He looked and looked and looked, but he could find himself nowhere.”

Reb Chanoch Henich paused for a moment and then concluded, “And that is how it is with each of us as well.”



“Where am I?” This is the existential question Judaism places at the heart of human experience. Not “Who am I?” but “Where am I?” The difference between these two questions is critical.

“Who am I” sets the self in isolation. To answer this question, you must turn inward. Turning inward, you separate yourself from the world around you. “Where am I?” sets the self in relationship. To answer this question, you must turn both inward and outward; you must situate yourself in the world—both the world of self and the world of others. Indeed, to answer the question “Where” you must drop the notion of inward and outward altogether and see reality as a seamless whole of doing, feeling, thinking, and being.

When God calls to Adam in the Garden of Eden, Adam steps out of hiding and says, “I heard the sound of You in the Garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10). Adam admits to both his feelings and his actions. He is aware of where he is both physically and emotionally. And with all his fears intact, he steps out of hiding.

This is the ultimate spiritual challenge. Without changing a thing, can you step out of hiding? Most of us imagine that we must change before we can be present to God. We need years of therapy, meditation, and spiritual discipline before we have earned the right to be present. But the truth is that there is nowhere else we can be. Right now, with all your fears, shame, mistakes, and muddleheadednessjust come out of hiding!

Published in: on September 11, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

True Prayer

The Beadle of Rimanov, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch, came to his rebbe, Reb Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, to seek advice about a problem he was having during prayer.

“When I settle into my prayers,” Reb Zvi Hirsch said, “I am distracted by flaming Hebrew letters and words. Whole sentences seem to flash before my eyes. It is impossible for me to concentrate on the prayer I am supposed to be praying.”

“What you are seeing,” Reb Menachem Mendel said, “are the innermost kavvanot of our holy teacher, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria. You are receiving the deepest secrets hidden in the letters and words of the prayers you are praying. Others would give almost anything for such a gift, and you are complaining?”

“But Rebbe,” Reb Zvi Hirsch said, “this is all well and good, and I have nothing but love and admiration for the Ari, but all I want to do is concentrate on the simple meaning of the prayer.”

Reb Menachem Mendel closed his eyes and sat quietly for a moment. “What you desire,” he said in a half whisper, “is a very rare thing. One person in a generation can achieve what you are asking. To master the great secrets of prayer, to be privy to the kavvanot, and then to put it all aside to pray as a little child –— oy! –— if only this could be done, then would we know the Truth!”



Why is simplicity so rare? Because the ego thrives on complication.

Spirituality is simply the act of seeing what is. But to see clearly, we have to act simply. And this is the problem. We are taught that seeing is a complex act requiring a lifetime of study and rigorous practice. This is like someone shaking a jar of muddy water in the hope of catching a glimpse of a treasure hidden within it. What we need to do is put the jar down and allow the mud to settle to the bottom of its own accord. Then the water will clear, and you can see what the mud has hidden. But this seems too easy. After all, if things are that easy, why do we have such convoluted teachings and massive hierarchies of teachers? Could these serve only to keep the jar shaking, thus keeping the treasure hidden?

Life is complex but not complicated. The complexity of life reflects its diversity and creativity. The complications of life reflect our inability to be present and honest, kind and just.


Kavvanot (singular, kavvanah): The intellectual intentions one should focus on during various prayers and rituals.

Ari: An acronym for Holy Rabbi Yitzchak (Luria).

Oy: Yiddish exclamatory phrase.

Published in: on September 4, 2010 at 1:32 am  Leave a Comment