Nothing

Reb Aharon of Karlin visited his rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch, as often as he could. Returning home from one such visit, Reb Aharon was besieged by a great crowd of friends and fellow Hasidim.

“Tell us what you have learned, Reb Aharon!” they cried. “Tell us what you have learned!”

When the crowd grew quiet, that all might hear what Reb Aharon would impart to them, he said, “I learned nothing.”

Not sure they understood him, his friends asked again, “What did you learn from the Maggid?”

Again Reb Aharon waited for silence. And again he said, “Nothing.”

Certain that Reb Aharon was denying them some great teaching, his friends said sarcastically, “So you bother to make these many trips to Mezritch so that you can learn nothing?”

“Exactly,” Reb Aharon replied. “I gained the knowledge that I am nothing.”

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COMMENTARY

Who are you? This question is at the heart of the spiritual quest, and your answer to it determines the quality of your life. Reb Aharon learned who he was from the Maggid of Mezritch. “I am nothing.” But there is more to this than simple nihilism.

In Hebrew the word for “I” is ani. The word for “nothing” is ayn. Ayn is also one of the kabbalistic Names of God, as in Ayn Sof, the  No-thing Without End. God is the No-thing that is all things. The kabbalists noticed that ani and ayn are both composed of the same three Hebrew letters: aleph, nun, and yud. When different words share the same letters, they are thought to share a deep unity. The only difference between ani and ayn, self and nothing, is the order of the letters. When the yud is at the end of the word, there is “I.” When the yud is in the middle of the word, there is “nothing.”

The yud stands for yadah, consciousness. When consciousness is focused outward, “I” emerges. When consciousness is focused inward, “God” is present. So who are you: the outer I or the inner Nothing? The answer is that you are both. The challenge is to see the Nothing in the other when you are ani; and the self in the Nothing when you are Ayn.

NOTES:

Dov Ber of Mezritch (1704 [?]-1772): Known as the Maggid (Preacher) of Mezritch, Dov Ber succeeded the Baal Shem Tov after the latter’s death and created the institution of rebbe, charismatic leaders of independent Hasidic communities.

Nothing: The Hebrew word for nothing, ayn, is also one of the kabbalistic names of God, Ayn, the No-thing that gives rise to all things. Reb Aharon is not simply making a claim for deep humility; he is also identifying with the One Who Is the many.

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Published in: on November 27, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

The Hidden Spark

During a visit with Reb Yaakov Yitzchak, the Chozeh of Lublin, a schoolmaster from Goray, was told, “There exists in your town a hidden spark of God that needs nurturing. Locate this spark and bring it to me.”

Understanding Reb Yaakov Yitzchak to mean that Goray was home to a fledgling saint, the schoolmaster returned home and spent the night hiding in the beis midrash. “If there is a hidden saint among us,” he thought to himself, “he will surely come to study when all others have gone home to sleep.”

That night Menachem Mendel, an odd fellow thought to be illiterate and perhaps insane, entered the beis midrash. Opening a volume of Talmud, he stood on one foot and entered into pure ecstasy as he read aloud from the text. The schoolmaster was stunned. To be certain this was not a fluke, he spent several nights in hiding; each night at midnight Menachem Mendel sneaked into the beis midrash and slipped into paradise.

On the fourth night, a bit of dust lodged in the schoolmaster’s throat, and he coughed aloud. Menachem Mendel slammed his book closed, leaped over to the stove, and began clapping his hands loudly and babbling insanely. The schoolmaster came out of hiding and spoke to him: “Please stop. I am not here to reveal your secret but to tell you that the Chozeh of Lublin wishes me to take you to him.” Menachem Mendel set out immediately for Lublin.

When Menachem Mendel’s father, a misnaged, heard of his son’s departure, he rode off after him hoping to bring him back home. Finding his son, he said, “Why are you forsaking the tradition of your fathers?”

Menachem Mendel replied softly and firmly, “I am following the teaching of Torah. First, Torah tells us ‘This is my God and I will praise Him. (Exodus 15:2)’ Only later do we read ‘This is my father’s God, and I will exalt Him.”(Exodus 15:2)’

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COMMENTARY

The spiritual journey begins with a radical call to freedom: “God said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, from your kin, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you'” (Genesis 12:1). If Abram was to follow God, he must free himself from everything that made him who he was: the norms of his country, tribe, and family.

God is the unconditioned and unconditionable. God is whatever God will be (Exodus 3:14) and cannot be fixed into any system of thought. So, too, the divine spark is within you. You are the image and likeness of God; you, too, are essentially and radically free, and only when you realize that freedom do you realize your potential as God manifest. You honor your past by claiming your destiny, not by imitating the old but by embracing the new and uncharted.

Notes:

Beis midrash: Communal house of study.

Talmud: The authoritative collection of Jewish law and lore compiled around the year 500 C.E. and containing teachings spanning the previous seven hundred years. The word Talmud comes from the Hebrew root I-m-d, meaning to study or to teach.

Misnaged (literally, “opponent;” plural misnagedim): A derogatory term applied by the Hasidim to their traditionalist adversaries in Eastern Europe. The misnagedim opposed the “cult” of the rebbe, the introduction of rites common to Oriental (Sephardi) Jews, and the lack of emphasis on scholarship.

Published in: on November 20, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Show Me

A woman once visited Reb Shalom of Belz on an urgent matter of personal concern.

“I have done all I can do in this matter, Rebbe,” she said, “If I am to succeed and survive, it will be only because of God’s aid, and I can only get that with your aid. Please, Rebbe, pray to God on my behalf!”

The rebbe refused, saying, “The essential thing, good woman, is to have faith.”

The woman was shocked. She was a good and decent person, and one in true need. There could be no good reason for the rebbe to turn down her plea for help.

Taking a deep breath, the woman said, “Far be it from me to argue with my rebbe…”

“But you will do so anyway?” Reb Shalom barked. “Do you think you know this situation better than me?”

“I am not a learned woman,” she replied evenly, “but I do know a bit of Torah. When our ancestors were about to be slaughtered by Pharaoh’s army at the shores of the Red Sea, Torah first says that God ‘saved’ them (Exodus 14:30) and only later says that they believed in God (Exodus 14:31). Their salvation preceded their faith. I am no different. If God would save me now in this situation, I will without doubt have faith as well.”

“What is this?” Reb Shalom yelled. “An illiterate woman seeks to teach me Torah? No one has ever bested me in Torah study!” The woman stood and waited, neither arguing her point nor turning to leave. Suddenly the rebbe’s face broke into a great smile. He laughed loudly and said, “No one, that is, until now! No one, that is, but you!”

The rebbe prayed for the woman’s welfare, and God granted all she needed.

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COMMENTARY:

There are two kinds of spirituality. One rests on the certainty of God’s saving grace. The other rests on nothing at all. The woman in this story represents the first; Reb Shalom represents the second. In Hebrew, these two types of faith care called emunah and bittachon.

Emunah is faith in something. Bittachon is simply, and literally, trust. For one to have emunah, there must be a “something” in which one believes. Bittachon relies on nothing other than the belief that whatever happens to us is, in and of itself, the way to salvation if we would but engage it with our full attention.

Bittachon is a very difficult state to attain. Reb Shalom was asking something of this woman that even the Israelites could not give. Even though they had just witnessed the power of God displayed through the Ten Plagues, the Israelites could not trust God and engage the challenge of the moment head on. Instead, they panicked and asked God to save them once again.

Asking God for help is a sign of faith, just not the deepest faith. Reb Shalom had forgotten how hard bittachon is to achieve. The woman reminded him that most people need more than trust; we need signs. Given her situation, emunah was enough. Given your situation, which would you prefer?

 

Published in: on November 13, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

The Omnipotent Magician Who Could Not Be Alone

There once was a great magician, noble and goodhearted, but he had no one to receive his affection, to play with, to spend time with, or to think about. The magician also needed to feel wanted, for it is very sad to be alone.

“What should I do?” he thought to himself. “Perhaps I will make a stone, a tiny, beautiful stone, and perhaps this stone will be the answer to my loneliness. Once I’ve created the stone, I will stroke it and feel there is always something by my side. Both I and the stone will feel good, because neither of us would want to be alone.” He waved his wand and in an instant there was a stone, just as he wanted.

The magician stroked the stone, hugged and softly spoke to it. But the stone did not respond. It remained cold and did not return the magician’s affection. Whatever he did to the stone, it remained the same unfeeling object.

This saddened the magician. Why did the stone not respond? He created more stones, then rocks, hills, mountains, planets, galaxies, and finally a whole universe. But they were all the same—cold, unresponsive objects.

He was still sad and still alone. In his sadness, he thought that instead of stones, he would make a plant, a beautifully blooming flower. He would water it, give it fresh air and plenty of sunshine, play it some music, and make the plant happy. Then they would both be pleased, because they would not be alone.

He waved his wand and in an instant there was a flower, just as he had wanted. The magician was so delighted he began to dance around it. But the flower did not move. It did not dance with the magician or follow his movements. It barely responded to what the magician did to make it happy.

If he watered it, the plant grew; if he did not, it died. This was not enough for such a good-hearted magician who wanted to give with all his heart.

He needed something more, so he would not be sad and all alone. He created many kinds of plants in all kinds of shapes and sizes: fields, forests, prairies, orchards, plantations, and groves. But none of them was more responsive than the first plant. Again, the great magician felt sad and alone.

The magician thought and thought. What should he do? “I know,” he said to himself, “I will create an animal! What sort of animal? A dog, a cute little dog that would always be with me. I would take it for walks and the dog would jump and trot and run around.”

When the magician would come home at night, the dog would be so pleased to see him and would run to greet him. They would both be happy and they would no longer be sad and alone.

The magician waved his wand and a cute little puppy immediately appeared, just as he wanted. He cared for the puppy, fed it, gave it water, and stroked it. He even ran with it and washed it and took it for walks.

But a dog’s love depends on being with its owner. The magician was sad to see that a dog could not reciprocate the way he wished, even if it played nicely and followed him everywhere. A dog could not be the true friend that he wanted. It could not appreciate what the magician was doing for it, and could not comprehend the magician’s thoughts and desires, and how much effort he was making for it. That was what the magician really wanted.

So the magician made other creatures: fish, fowl, mammals, all to no avail. None of them understood him. Once again, he was very sad to be so alone.

And once again, the magician sat and thought. He realized that a true friend must be someone who would look for the magician, who would want very much to be with him. The magician also realized a friend of his would have to be similar to him, able to love like him, understand him, and generally resemble him and be his partner. Partner? True friend?

The creature would have to be close to him, understand what he gave it, and be able to reciprocate by giving him everything in return. Magicians also want to love and be loved. And the magician knew that if he had such a friend, they would both be happy, because it is very sad to be alone.

The magician then thought about creating a man. “A man could be a true friend!” he thought. He could be like the magician. He would merely need a little help to become like his creator. Then the two of them would be happy because they would not be alone, and it is very sad to be alone.

But for them to feel good, the man must first feel alone and sad without the magician. The magician waved his wand again and made a man in the distance. The man was not aware that there was a magician who had made all the stones, plants, hills, fields and moon, rain, winds, etc. He did not know that he had made an entire world filled with beautiful things, such as computers and football, which made him feel good and satisfied.

The magician, on the other hand, continued to feel sad that he was alone because the man was unaware of his existence. He did not know there was a magician who had made him, loved him, was waiting for him, and thought that together they would feel good and would not be sad and alone.

Yet how would one who is content and has everything, even a computer and football, want to find someone he does not know. How would he want to get acquainted with the magician, become close to him, love him, and be his friend? Can someone so unaware say, “Come, we will both feel good, because it is very sad to be alone, without you”?

One knows only one’s surroundings, does what everyone else nearby does, speaks as they speak, and wants what everyone else wants. One tries not to offend others and asks them nicely for presents such as a computers or a football. How can one possibly know there is a magician who is sad to be alone?

But the magician is good-hearted and constantly looks out for man, his creation. And when the time is ripe, he waves his wand and very softly calls to one’s heart. Then, one begins to search for something but does not realize it is the magician calling, saying, “Come, we will both feel good, because it is very sad to be alone without you.”

Then, the magician waves his wand once more, and the person feels the magician’s presence. That person begins to think of the magician, that it will be so nice together, because it is very sad to be alone and without the magician.

Another wave of the wand and the person feels there is a magic tower filled with treasures and glory. It is here that the magician waits for him, and only there will they feel good.

“But where is this tower? How can I reach it? Where is the path to it?” the person asks himself, puzzled and confused. “How can I meet the magician?” He keeps feeling the wave of the wand in his heart and cannot rest. He constantly sees magicians and mighty towers and cannot even eat.

That is what happens when a person wants something very much and cannot find it. Indeed, it is very sad to be alone. But to be like the magician—wise, mighty, noble, good-hearted, loving, and a friend—a wave of the wand is not enough. One must learn to make wonders oneself.

So the magician secretly and gently leads the man to the greatest, oldest magical book, The Book of Zohar, and shows him the way to the glorious tower. The man rushes to meet the magician, his friend, and tell him, “Come, we will feel good together, because it is very sad to be alone.”

But alas, a high wall surrounds the tower, and many guards repel the man, not letting him and the magician be together and feel good. The guards are vigilant, and the man despairs. The magician is hidden deep within the tower, behind heavy locked gates, and the wall is high; nothing can pass through.

What will happen next? Can they be together and feel happy?

Every time the man weakens and despairs, he suddenly feels a wave of the wand and he rushes to the walls again to try to outwit the guards. He wants to break into the gates, reach the tower, climb the rungs of the ladder, and meet the magician.

And every time he charges forward and approaches the tower, the guards become more vigilant, arduously and mercilessly fending him off. But with each attempt the man grows braver, stronger and wiser. He learns all sorts of tricks himself and invents things only a magician can.

And every time he is pushed away, his craving for the magician grows. He feels his love for the magician stronger than ever, and wants more than anything else in the world to be with the magician and to see his face. Oh, it will be so good to be together. Now, even if he is given everything in the world, without the magician, he will feel alone.

Then, when he can no longer bear to be without him, the tower gates open, and the magician, his magician, rushes towards him and says, “Come, we will be happy together, we no longer have to be sad and all alone.”

And ever since that day, they are best friends, faithful and true, and there is no finer pleasure than their togetherness, always and forever. And they feel so good together that they never remember, not even briefly, that it was very sad to be alone.

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COMMENTARY by Rav Michael Laitman, PhD

Do you know why only old folk tell stories and legends? Because legends are the cleverest thing in the world! Everything in the world changes, and only real legends remain. Legends are stories about wisdom. To properly tell them, one must have great knowledge and see things others do not.

For that, one needs to have lived a lot. That is why old people are often good legend-tellers. It is written in the greatest, most ancient magical book, The Book of Zohar, “an old person is one who has acquired wisdom.”

Children love to hear legends because they have the imagination to envision everything, not just what others see. If a child grows up and still sees what others do not, he can eventually “acquire wisdom.”

Because children are often able to see what others do not, they know that imagination is real. When they grow, they remain as “wise children.”

Published in: on November 6, 2010 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment