A Holy Appetite

It once happened that Reb Avigdor Halberstam, the brother of Reb Chaim of Zanz, was invited to spend Shabbos at the home of a man known for his wealth but not his compassion. He was infamous for treating his servants harshly and firing them for the slightest mistake.

As was the custom in those days, the cook prepared a cholent for Shabbos lunch. In deference to their guest, the cook passed the pot of stew to Reb Avigdor, who was expected to ladle it out to the host, the family, and any other guests present.

The rebbe breathed deeply of its aroma. Instead of ladling the stew, however, he took a spoon and tasted some right from the pot. “How unusual!” he cried and ate some more. “This is the best cholent I have ever tasted!” And as his host and Hasidim watched in amazement, he ate all the cholent in the pot, leaving nothing for the rest of them.

Rather than apologize, Reb Avigdor turned to the cook and said, “Fabulous! Perhaps you have a bit more?” The woman brought out the last of the cholent, and the rabbi ate it all.

The host and his family were stunned. Never had they had a guest behave this way, and certainly not one of Reb Avigdor’s stature. Yet, in deference to their guest, they said nothing and made do with challah.

After Shabbos, the rabbi and his students thanked the family for their hospitality and left. When they were outside the town, the Hasidim asked the rebbe about his bizarre behavior. “When our host passed me the pot of cholent,” the rebbe said, “its aroma smelled of kerosene. It was clear to me that the cook had mistakenly added this to our food rather than vinegar. If I allowed our host to taste the cholent he would have fired the girl on the spot. So I ate the whole thing to save her job. They can think of me whatever they wish, but of this young girl they should imagine that her skills are so fine as to cause a rabbi to act like a chazzir.”


How important is your reputation? Are you willing to look the fool to protect another from undeserved retribution? Are you sure?

There are many stories of rebbes, saints, gurus, and the like acting crazy in order to make a point. So many, in fact, that we have a term for this: crazy wisdom. The craziness of crazy wisdom refers to its flying in the face of convention. The problem with crazy wisdom is how to tell whether the wisdom is crazy or the sage is simply insane.

Reb Avigdor’s Hasidim were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt during dinner, but afterward they demanded to know what was going on. This is a good model for all of us.

Reb Avigdor’s willingness to play the chazzir to protect another from unjust punishment shows that he was bigger than his reputation. He would take the bad press and know that his motives were just. Moreover, he was willing to explain himself to his students. He could have said, “Never question my judgment!” Instead, he honored their need to know and explained the reasons for his crazy behavior. This is a way to test all our spiritual teachers: Are they willing to explain themselves to us, and are their explanations rooted in justice and compassion?


Cholent (from the French word for “hot”): A thick stew that could be prepared on Friday and left simmering all day Saturday, developed by the Jews of southern France in response to the law prohibiting lighting a fire on the Sabbath.

Challah: Twisted loaf of bread prepared especially for the Sabbath.

Chazzir: A pig.

Published in: on December 25, 2010 at 1:35 am  Leave a Comment  

The Alphabet of Sorrow

It once happened that one of the grandsons of Reb Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch fell into a deep funk. His friends came to lift his spirits.

“What can it be that is causing you this great sadness?” they asked.

“The alef-beis,” he replied.

“The alphabet?” they exclaimed. “We all learned the alef-beis when we were children, and we are not depressed because of it. What do you know that we do not?”

“Not the whole alphabet,” the young Hasid said, “just the first two letters, alef and beis.”

Seeing that his friends had no idea what he was talking about, he continued: “The alef stands for Anochi, the beis stands for bereshit, ‘in the beginning.’ Now do you see why I am so upset?”

His friends looked one to the other to see whether anyone had even the slightest inkling of what their friend was talking about. They finally returned their eyes to him and shrugged.

“This is what troubles me,” the boy said. “The ‘I’ is always ‘in the beginning’ of everything we do. Every beginning, every venture, is preceded by the ego and selfishness. How am I ever to act selflessly when all efforts are tainted from the beginning?”


Reb Menachem Mendel’s grandson finds himself in the classic double bind that is key to all spiritual awakening. He knows that only by surrendering the “I,” the self, can he experience God; and he knows that as long as it is the self that is doing the surrendering, no real surrender is possible. If the self is first, if “I” initiates everything, including surrender, then there is no escape from ego and no hope of experiencing God.

Yet, Torah opens with a very different picture of reality. The first words of Genesis are Bereshit bara Elohim, “In the beginning God created…” Here, God is clearly first. So who is right: the rebbe’s grandson or the Torah? There seems to be something true about both positions, yet they seem to be mutually exclusive. And that is the bind. The way out is to accept them both, which is what Torah does in a later passage: Anochi Adonai Elohecha, “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2).

Anochi, itself, is God! When you realize that God is all in all, then the true nature of the “I” is revealed, and the selfishness that arises from thinking you are other than God is no more. God and self are not mutually exclusive; self is simply one of the ways God is present in the world.


Alef-beis: The Hebrew alphabet.

Published in: on December 18, 2010 at 1:03 am  Leave a Comment  

Avoiding the Mud

Reb Meir of Premishlan and Reb Yisrael of Ruzhin were the best of friends, yet no two people could be more different. Reb Meir lived in great poverty. He never allowed even a penny to spend the night in his house but would rush outside to give it to the poor. Reb Yisrael, on the other hand, lived like a king.

These two friends once met as each was preparing to take a journey. Reb Meir was sitting on a simple cart drawn by one scrawny horse. Reb Yisrael was housed in a rich lacquered coach pulled by four powerful stallions.

Reb Yisrael walked over to the horse hitched to Reb Meir’s wagon. With mock concern, he inspected the horse with great care. Then he turned to his friend and with barely concealed humor said to him, “I always travel with four strong horses. In this way, if my coach should become stuck in the mud they will be able to free it quickly. I can see, however, that your horse seems barely able to carry you and your wagon on a dry and hard-packed road. There is bound to be mud on your travels. Why do you take such risks?”

Reb Meir stepped down from his wagon and walked over to his friend, who was still standing next to Reb Meir’s horse. Placing his arms around his beloved old horse’s neck, Reb Meir said softly, “The risk, I think, is yours. Because I travel with this one horse that in no way can free this wagon if it becomes stuck in the mud, I am very careful to avoid the mud in the first place. You, my friend, are certain you can get free if stuck and thus do not look where you are going.”



How do you handle the mud in your life?

Reb Meir says it is best to look sharp and avoid the mud in the first place. Reb Yisrael says it is better to prepare for the mud in advance and just force your way through. Both are right, and even taken together, neither is complete.

Reb Meir teaches us that not every muddy road need be traveled. If we are diligent and thoughtful, we can see the mud before we fall into it and take the trouble to detour around it. This is especially good advice when it comes to speech. If we stop and consider the impact of our words before uttering those words, we will avoid some very sticky situations.

Reb Yisrael reminds us that no matter how careful we are, there will be times when we get stuck in the mud. At these times, it pays to have the strength to pull yourself free. This is especially true when it comes to matters of finances. If we take care to put aside money when we have it to help us when we don’t, we will avoid some very uncomfortable times ahead.

Good advice from both our rebbes. Yet, no matter how vigilant we are, no matter how strong and prepared we become, there are times when the mud will overwhelm us. In these cases, you will just have to get into the mud with your horse and pull.

Published in: on December 11, 2010 at 1:36 am  Leave a Comment  

The New Rebbe

When the Sava Kaddisah of Radoshitz died, his son Reb Yisrael Yitzchak succeeded him as rebbe. Two Hasidim set out by carriage to visit the new rebbe, just as they had done many times before during the lifetime of the old rebbe. As they drew closer to Radoshitz, they began to have doubts about this new rebbe.

“It is not that I doubt the judgment of the Old Rebbe,” the one said to his friend, “and I respect his choice of his son to succeed him; it is just that he was so steeped in Ruach HaKodesh that I wonder whether his son can truly lead us in the same manner.”

“You are not the only one with doubts,” the other said. “The Old Man could read minds. When I went to see him for advice, he listened not only to the words of my mouth but also to the thoughts in my brain.”

“And not just that,” the first Hasid said, “but the hidden thoughts of the heart as well. We were transparent to the Old Rebbe, and is it right for us to expect the same from his son?”

Their doubts grew, but as they had already ridden most of the way to Radoshitz, they decided it was wiser to continue than to return home. After all, the rebbe was the son of their beloved teacher, and to spend one Shabbos with him was only proper.

As they entered the rebbe’s house, Reb Yisrael Yitzchak greeted them, saying, “So what if my father could read the thoughts of those who traveled to see him? Is that enough to make him worthy of being a rebbe? Are you so hungry for signs that you are willing to settle for magicians’ tricks?”


What makes a rebbe a rebbe? What makes a rebbe a rebbe is the willingness and ability to stand without pretense before yourself and before God.

Our sense of self is so distorted by the illusion of being separate from God that we take anyone who demonstrates even a modicum of wisdom for a saint, and we mistake hubris for spiritual superiority. There is no less or more in God. We are all equally of the One. Where we differ is in our awareness of this truth. But the more aware we are of our innate divinity, the less we are raised up above others. To see the self as God is to know the other as God as well. A true rebbe is one who can read not only the hearts and minds of his Hasidim but his own heart and mind as well. It is in not knowing the latter that the real danger lies.


Sava Kaddisha of Radoshitz (1765-1843): The Holy Grandfather, or the Holy Old Man, Sava Kaddisha was a miracle worker who lived in poverty.

Ruach HaKodesh: The Holy Spirit. The Hebrew Bible makes more than eighty references to the Holy Spirit (or Ruach Elohim, Ruach Adonai, the Spirit of God), a power that manifests in individuals and allows them to carry out a divine command. The Rabbis said that with the last of the Prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi), Ruach HaKodesh would manifest in the tzaddikim (from Tzadik, meaning “righteous one”), the righteous of each generation: “Piety leads to the Holy Spirit” (Mishnah Sota 9:15), and “All that the tzaddikim do, they do with the power of the Holy Spirit” (Tanhuma, Va-Yehi 13). The power of the Ruach HaKodesh allows one to see into the future, to bestow blessings on the needy, and to discern the spiritual source of creation.

Published in: on December 4, 2010 at 3:23 pm  Leave a Comment