the Frog’s Song

When Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, died, his senior students gathered to share their memories of their teacher. Hours passed, and eventually they fell silent, having exhausted all they could remember.

After a few minutes of silence, Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi spoke: “Our teacher was a sage of infinite wisdom, but some of his actions can be a bit confusing. For example, we all know that our rebbe used to leave his home at dawn each morning and walk along the lake where the frogs congregate and croak. What I wonder is, do any of you know why he did this?”

The Hasidim looked one to the other, but none spoke.

Reb Shneur Zalman then answered his own question, saying, “This is what I think. We learn from Perek Shirah that when King David finished writing the Book of Psalms he called to God and said, ‘Is there any creature who sings more praises to You than I?’ Suddenly a frog hopped up in front of him and said, ‘What arrogance, even for a king! I for one recite far more songs of praise than you, and each of my songs contains three thousand interpretations! And that is not all. My very life fulfills a mitzvah, for there is a creature that lives on the edge of this pond whose very life depends on eating me. When he is hungry I give myself to him in fulfillment of the verse ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him. (Proverbs 25:21)’

“Every aspect of creation, from the smallest to the greatest, from the inanimate to the animate, carries a melody into this world and sings it each in its own way. Even frogs have their own song.”

He paused to see whether his friends were following him. “Don’t you see,” he said to them, “this was the reason our rebbe walked to the lake each morning? He went to learn the song of the frog, that he might pray among them.”

COMMENTARY

What is your song? And for whom are you willing to die?

No one can answer these questions for you. No one can give you your song, for no one knows it but you. What you can do is invite your song to reveal itself to you by immersing yourself in the songs of others. How can you do this? By listening attentively to life around you.

What of the second question? The frog’s death was not a messianic atonement but a personal fulfillment. Feeding his enemy, not dying for his enemy, is the point. Your enemy is the nagging sense of meaninglessness that drives you to quest after power and control. When you sing your song, you find your purpose and meaning in life. All hungers vanish, and you are full and fulfilled.

NOTES

Perek Shirah: A tenth-century kabbalistic text that speaks of the earth as a vessel of song that has traveled through space since creation, singing praises of the Creator.

Mitzvah: Divine command.

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Published in: on October 30, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Nothing New

In 1777, Reb Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk established a Hasidic community in Tiberias. Living in Eretz Yisrael raised hopes for the coming of the Mashiach and the redemption of the Jewish people from the galut.

After some months, a prankster secretly climbed up the Mount of Olives and blew a great blast from his shofar,  signaling that the Messiah had indeed arrived. Word quickly spread through the land, and with it a feverish anticipation. People stopped working, and family matters went unattended. Everyone was obsessed with the news of the Messiah’s coming.

When word of the Messiah’s arrival reached Tiberias, Reb Menachem Mendel’s Hasidim heard it and raced to share the news with their rebbe.

“Rebbe! The shofar was sounded on the Mount of Olives! Mashiach is here!”

Expecting their teacher to leap with joy, his Hasidim were surprised to see the rebbe rise slowly from his study table and walk to the window. Throwing open the wooden shutters, Reb Menachem Mendel stuck his head out the window and took in a long, deep breath through his nose as if he were savoring the aroma of a freshly baked pie. He then pulled his head inside and closed the shutters.

Turning to his Hasidim, he said: “My friends, I wish it were true, but I am afraid the Mashiach is not yet among us, for I smelled nothing new in the air.”

COMMENTARY

What does the messianic moment smell like? It smells like something new. What does something new smell like? Nothing. If something is new, it cannot be compared to anything else. It is unique, without precedent, and therefore ineffable. What Reb Menachem Mendel smelled was life as usual: the same old frenzied rush of egos and emotions.

NOTES

Eretz Yisrael: The Land of Israel.

Mashiach: Messiah, the Anointed One. The coming of the Messiah is marked by the restoration of the House of David, the return of the Jews to Israel, and the coming of world peace and universal justice and harmony.

Galut: Hebrew for “exile” or “captivity.” Originally referring only to those Jews taken into captivity in Babylonia in 586 B.C.E., galut came to refer to all Jews living outside the Holy Land after the expulsion of the Jews by Rome in 70 C.E.

Mount of Olives: Tradition holds that the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through the Gate of Mercy (Golden Gate) across from the Mount of Olives, bringing about the resurrection of the dead in the Mount of Olives cemetery.

Shofar: A ram’s horn. The horn is blown on various sacred occasions. The sound of the shofar calls upon the people to repent, and it awakens them to God’s sovereignty, justice, and saving power.

Published in: on October 23, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Horse Sense

A fellow once came to ask the advice of Reb Meir of Premishlan. He complained bitterly that a competitor was robbing him of his livelihood.

“Have you ever noticed that when a horse goes to the river to drink, it strikes its hoof against the bank? Do you know why it does this?”

The man just stared at the rebbe, angry that he seemed to have missed the whole point of his complaint.

“I will tell you why,” the rebbe said. “When the horse bends its head close to the river to drink, it sees its face reflected in the water. Mistaking the reflection for another horse, it stomps on the ground to scare the other away and preserve the water for itself.

“Now, you and I find such behavior silly. We know that the horse’s fear is groundless, and that the river is capable of watering far more horses than just this one.”

“And what does this stupid horse have to do with me and my livelihood?”

“You, my friend, are this horse. You imagine that the river of God’s bounty cannot sustain both you and another, so here you are stomping your hooves to scare away an imagined competitor.”

“Imagined?” the man said.

“God has set the wealth of each of us, and no one can subtract from what God has set aside. Run your business as wisely as you can, and know that whatever comes to you is decreed in heaven. Your only true competition is the reflection of self you see in the river.”

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COMMENTARY

How much time do you spend trying to scare away your own reflection? For any, if not most of us, this can be a full-time job. We look at the world as a pie of fixed size, and then find ourselves in competition with everyone else for a bigger and bigger slice. What determines our competitive approach is our assumption that the pie is fixed. This is called a zero-sum game: If you are to win, everyone else must lose.

But what if the pie is infinite? What if there is plenty for everyone if we would just stop trying to grab and hoard? If this were true, we wouldn’t be fearful or jealous of others; we wouldn’t assume that someone else’s success is always at our expense. Yet, it might still be true that others have more than us.

Reb Meir is not talking about “abundance thinking.” He is not advocating “think and grow rich” strategies. He is simply saying that we are not in charge of our own success. God is in charge; reality will determine your success or failure. All you can do is all you can do. You can make sure your product or service is sound. You can make sure your business practices are ethical. You can make sure your presentation is persuasive. But in the end, you cannot guarantee your own success. You are not in charge of the results; all you can do is maximize the chance of success. Or maximize the chance of failure.

What is the advantage of surrendering the results to God? You get to focus on what you can control: the quality of your own effort. In the end it is this, not any imagined payoff, that will bring you a sense of joy, purpose, and peace.

Published in: on October 16, 2010 at 1:07 am  Leave a Comment  

A Kosher Tongue

Reb Yaakov Yitzchak of Pshischah, the Yid HaKodesh, once ordered his senior disciple, Reb Simcha Bunem, to make a journey to a distant hamlet. When he inquired as to the purpose of the journey, the Yid HaKodesh remained silent.

Reb Simcha Bunem took several hasidim with him and left on the journey. The sky had already turned to dusk by the time they arrived at their destination. Because the town had no inn, Reb Simcha Bunem ordered his coachman to stop at the first cottage. He knocked at the door and was invited in along with his students. When they asked whether they could join their host for dinner, the man replied that he had no dairy food and could offer them only a meat meal.

Instantly, the Hasidim bombarded the man with questions about his level of kashrut. Who was the shochet? they demanded to know. Were the animal’s lungs free of even the smallest blemish, and was the meat salted sufficiently to draw out all traces of blood, as was required by law? The interrogation would have continued had not a commanding voice from the back of the cottage called out to them.

They turned their attention from the owner of the home to a man dressed as a beggar sitting near the hearth smoking a pipe. “My dear Hasidim,” the beggar said. “With regard to what goes into your mouths, you are scrupulous. Yet, regarding what comes out of your mouths, you make no inquiries at all!”

When Reb Simcha Bunem heard these words, he knew the reason for this journey. He nodded respectfully to the beggar, thanked the householder for his concern, and returned to the wagon, saying to his students, “Come, we are now ready to return to Pshischah.”

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COMMENTARY

The Baal Shem Tov taught that every word you overhear, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, is in fact spoken for your ears alone.

Every moment, life presents you with another opportunity to look within yourself and see where you can improve the quality of your thought, word, and deed. Do not imagine that the world revolves around you –— it doesn’t. But know that whatever is in the world is in you as well. Let reality be your rebbe.

Hasidim: Disciples of Hasidic masters. The word Hasid comes from the Hebrew chesed, “compassion.” Hasidism is the way of compassion rooted in the experience of God as the source and substance of all beings. Hasidim are the students of compassion, seeking to experience God and live out godliness.

Shochet: A person trained in the art of kosher slaughtering, being able to take the life of an animal in a manner that minimizes the animal’s suffering.

Kashrut: The laws of kosher. Kosher (Hebrew, kasher) means “fit” or “proper” for human consumption according to the biblical and rabbinic dietary codes.

Published in: on October 9, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Seeking a Precedent

When Reb Levi Yitzchak was asked to be the rabbi of Berditchev, he agreed on one condition: that the local leadership not draw him into their communal disputations unless they were about to make a new law.

Several months later, the leaders asked the rebbe to attend a town council. When he arrived, the council leader welcomed him. “We are honored by your presence, Rebbe, and in need of your advice. We are deliberating a new law making it illegal for the poor to knock on the doors of householders to request alms. Instead, they will be aided monthly from a newly formed community chest.”

The elder stopped and waited for the rebbe to speak. He expected to wait some time, as the council itself had taken months to come to this decision, but instead Reb Levi Yitzchak spoke up immediately.

“It was my understanding,” the rebbe said, “that you are to invite me to these meetings only if you are considering creating new laws –— laws without precedent. This case certainly doesn’t meet that requirement.”

Startled, the elder said: “Rebbe, this is indeed just such a law. There is no precedent for this procedure.”

Reb Levi Yitzchak shook his head sadly. “My friends, you are mistaken. This law can be traced all the way back to Sodom and Amora, for they too had a law that let people escape their responsibility to the poor.”

The council voted down the proposal then and there.

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COMMENTARY

Being kind, generous, just, and holy is not convenient. It requires attention, self-restraint, and great discipline. Why? Because our instinct is not for holiness but for self-preservation. Our reptilian brain comes with a single set of encoded instructions: eat or be eaten; kill or be killed. This is not a moral judgment; there is no morality at the level of the reptilian brain. It is simply an observation. Morality comes with the neocortex, the higher brain, and to impose morality on the lower brain is as difficult and as dangerous as wrestling an alligator. Just as an alligator squirms to slip out of our arms, so the reptilian brain twists and turns to convince us that feeding its endless hungers is just and good.

And sometimes it works. We pass selfish laws draped in the trappings of compassion. We do this as a people, and we do this as individuals. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak knew this, and he made it clear to the legislators of Berditchev. To their credit, they saw the truth of his insight and did not pass their law. But what about you? You are also law abiding. You also make rules that govern your behavior and to which you can point to attest to your piety and righteousness. But is it true? Are these good laws, or just clever excuses for selfishness?

Whenever you are about to make another law for yourself, ask Levi Yitzchak to join the conversation. Ask him to judge whether this new law is for the welfare of others or simply to serve the needs of the self.

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NOTES:

Levi Yitzchak (1740-1810): The most beloved Hasidic rebbe after the Baal Shem Tov, Levi Yitzchak was persecuted by the enemies of Hasidism and was forced to resign from several rabbinic posts before becoming the rebbe of Berditchev in Russia. His main teaching focused on humility. No matter what our achievements, we are as nothing before the majesty of God. Humility comes when we reflect on God’s infinite Presence in, with, and as all things.

Sodom and Amora: Sodom and Gomorra, legendary cities that were destroyed by God because of the violence, selfishness, and greed of their citizens.

Published in: on October 2, 2010 at 1:30 am  Leave a Comment