Hard Work

Reb David Chein, the rav of Chernigov, was late for his yechidus with his rebbe, Reb Shmuel of Lubavitch. Not wanting to bother the rebbe unduly, he thought to wait in the room next to the rebbe’s study and ask his question when the rebbe was through with his last interview. The rebbe’s assistant soon joined him, carrying a fresh change of clothes.

The attendant nodded to the clothes he was holding and said, “I don’t understand why he needs to change after yechidus. And yet, when he comes out, the rebbe is dripping with perspiration. The entire period is but a single hour, and the rebbe sits at his desk the whole time. I mean, he doesn’t move or do anything physical, and yet he sweats as if he were a laborer. After all,” the attendant said sarcastically, “it isn’t as if yechidus is such hard work!”

Just then the rebbe opened his door. Looking straight at the attendant, he said, “Your services are no longer needed. Please go home. I will have your wages delivered to you there.”

Stunned, the attendant handed the rebbe his clothes, turned, and quickly walked away.

“Do you want to know why I perspire so?” the rebbe called after him. Red-faced, the man turned and said sheepishly, “Yes, Rebbe, I do.”

“Over the past hour I have received twenty-five Hasidim for yechidus. If I am to understand each person’s situation, I must divest myself of my clothes and dress myself in his. If I am to give him good advice, I must remove his clothes and change back into mine, for while in his clothes I can see only what he sees, and if he saw a way out of his dilemma he would not have come to me in the first place. So for the past hour I have undressed and dressed myself fifty times. It is very hard work!”


True meeting with another requires you to strip away the self; otherwise all you see is your own projection. Yechidus is this profound stripping away. Reb Shmuel, however, is sharing with us only the rebbe’s side of yechidus. If the rebbe is to dress in the Hasid’s clothes, the Hasid must be willing to stand naked to his or her situation. This is, of course, metaphor. The clothes are our conditioned thoughts, words, and deeds by which we define ourselves, and they, in turn, create the reality we encounter. Both the rebbe and the Hasid must see clearly how we condition our reality to reinforce the fit of the clothes we wear.

The rebbe learns what it is to be this Hasid, and the Hasid learns what it is to confront the world without clothes, without habits of thought, word, and deed. When the rebbe returns the clothes to the Hasid, he is inviting the Hasid to see things from this new perspective. And, since the rebbe knows the inner life of the Hasid, he can help him do just that.


Rav: Rabbinic leader.

Yechidus (from Hebrew for “unity”): The spiritual direction of a Hasid by the rebbe. The word suggests that the rebbe merges with the soul of the Hasid to see where, in this life or a past life, some misalignment with God has occurred. The rebbe then returns to the world of seeming duality and instructs the Hasid on how to repair the relationship with the Divine.

Published in: on January 29, 2011 at 1:34 am  Leave a Comment  

A Leather Belt

A certain Hasid once visited Reb Uri of Strelisk to complain about the behavior of Reb Yisrael of Ruzhin. According to this Hasid, Reb Yisrael would hire musicians to perform for him in private –— an act of conceit this Hasid found highly distasteful.

Reb Uri asked the man to describe Reb Yisrael’s state of mind when he listened to these musicians. What he heard was a portrait of a man transported into pure ecstasy.

“Do you know,” asked the rebbe, “the meaning of the teaching regarding Eliyahu haNavi that ‘the girdle of his loins was a girdle of leather’? (2Kings 1:18)”

“No,” said the Hasid. “I do not.”

“The meaning is this: The ‘girdle of leather’ means his flesh and blood. Eliyahu had the power to put on and take off this girdle at will. He could wear his physical body like a leather belt, putting it on and taking it off whenever he wished.”

Not understanding the connection between Reb Yisrael and the Prophet Elijah, the Hasid stared blankly at his teacher.

Reb Uri sighed and said, “Reb Yisrael is like the Prophet. He can enter and leave his body at will. Music is his means for doing so.”


You are not your body –— which is not to say that your body is not you. Your body is to you the way an apple is to an apple tree. It is part of the “treeing” process, just not the whole of it. To the extent that you identify with your body, you are fearful of your mortality. To the extent that you reject the body, you are fearful of your physical hungers. The balance point is to honor the body without being attached to the body.

You are not your feelings –— which is not to say that your feelings are not you. Your feelings are to you the way clouds are to the sky. Clouds appear in the sky but are not confused with the sky. To the extent that you identify with your feelings, you are trapped on a roller coaster of mood swings. To the extent that you reject your feelings, you are fearful of every mood. The balance point is to feel your feelings without being attached to them.

You are not your thoughts –— which is not to say that your thoughts are not you. Your thoughts are to you the way a chord is to a guitar. Pluck the strings, and a chord sounds; stimulate the mind, and thoughts appear. To the extent that you identify with your thoughts, you are trapped in your own creativity. To the extent that you reject your thoughts, you are trapped in ignorance. The balance point is to honor thinking without being attached to the thoughts.

Music is a way to let go of all this. To surrender to a repetitive chant, an ecstatic niggun (Hasidic melody), or a Bach fugue is to remove the belt and discover your true self.


Eliyahu haNavi: Elijah the Prophet

Published in: on January 22, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Ask Yourself

When Reb Yitzchak of Vorki was a new husband, his wife complained about him every chance she got. Reb Yitzchak chose to endure her insults in silence. When he saw that she treated the servants in the same manner, he went to his rebbe, Reb David of Lelov, for advice.

The rebbe listened and said, “Why are you asking me? Ask yourself!”

Reb Yitzchak was confused by his teacher’s response. He knew his teacher was trying to teach him something, but he was unsure as to what it was. Then he recalled a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov:

“If you suffer from the anguish of servants, it is due to your own error in action. If your spouse curses you, it is because you have failed to master your tongue. If your children trouble you, it is due to your obsession with errant thoughts. If you align these three with godliness –— if your thought, word, and deed are holy and hallowing –— then all this distress turns to joy.”

Suddenly Reb Yitzchak understood what his teacher was saying. If he wanted to improve the situation of others he must begin with himself.


There are three levels of reality –— physical, psychological, and spiritual –— and each has its core epistemological principle. The German physicist Werner Heisenberg proved that at the deepest levels of physical world, we know nothing for certain. Every act of investigation colors that which we are investigating, and even math becomes metaphor. The Baal Shem Tov provides us with the principle governing knowledge in the psychological dimension: Everything we encounter is colored by the quality of our thoughts. God provides us with the third principle: “Be still and know” (Psalm 46:10). When you stop investigating, when you stop reacting, when you stop doing, then there is a knowing that surpasses all self-centered understanding. This knowing comes not from you but through you from God.

Reb David knew that before Reb Yitzchak could engage his wife constructively, he would have to let go of his own view of the situation. He would have to realize that he did not know the whole story and that his sense of justice was colored by his lack of knowledge. Acting and reacting from partiality makes it impossible to be an impartial mediator.

The same is true of you. To engage the world constructively, you have to cleanse your thoughts of partiality; you have to stop acting and reacting from your own limited knowledge; you have to be still and allow what is to be present without bias. Don’t investigate, don’t think, just receive, and then you will know how best to respond.


Deeds, words, and thoughts are called the Three Garments of the Soul, the three primary ways in which consciousness manifests in the world of human beings. The soul is pure and at one with God, but the Garments are stained by selfishness. Cleanse the Garments, and unity of all with All is apparent.

Published in: on January 15, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Direct Seeing

As he grew into old age, Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk found it more and more difficult to see. He visited an eye doctor in Warsaw, who advised him to wear glasses whenever he studied Torah. In this way, the doctor assured him, he would save what little eyesight he had left.

The Kotsker refused, saying, “Nothing shall come between my eyes and the Torah!”

Reb Eliyahu of Viskit, a disciple of the Kotsker rebbe, had a similar problem with his eyes and visited the same doctor in Warsaw. He was given the same advice. Citing the precedent of his rebbe, Reb Eliyahu, too, refused to wear glasses when he studied Torah. But out of deference to the learned doctor, he chose to wear them at all other times.


Why did Menachem Mendel find reading Torah with glasses problematic? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wear the glasses so that he might see the Word more clearly? His reasoning was this: God created me with weak eyes for a reason. What could this reason be? When I read Torah, my eyesight being what it is, I sometimes misread a word or even an entire sentence. Not knowing I have done this, I then go on to interpret my reading to reveal its deepest truths. Sometimes these revelations are deep insights into the nature of life and how best to live it. They are of enormous benefit to both me and my Hasidim. Now, I would not have seen these truths if, every time I read Torah, I did so in exactly the same way –— something that would inevitably happen if I wore glasses. So God gave me weak eyes that I might see things missed by stronger eyes.

Understanding his teacher’s reasoning, Reb Eliyahu also read Torah as God intended him to: without glasses and with weak eyes. But outside of study, he wore his glasses so that he might see the world more clearly and meet it more honestly.

How do you read Torah, God’s revelation? Do you prefer to see things as others do, sharing the conventional 20/20 worldview of corrected vision? Or are you willing to make mistakes and discover new truths? And if you are willing to do this with the Word, are you willing to do it with the world?


Torah (from the Hebrew root yaroh, “to teach”): Best understood as “teaching” or “instruction.” The notion that Torah is primarily a legal code is false and misleading. It is a book of teaching about life and how best to live it, and it contains law but is not limited to law. Technically, Torah refers to the Five Books of Moses, but it is commonly used to refer to the entire body of Jewish teaching.

Published in: on January 8, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

To Be an Angel

Reb Simcha Bunem once spoke to his Hasidim, saying:

“A fellow once came to see me, complaining that even after fasting for forty days he still failed to have a vision of Eliyahu haNavi, as promised in the holy books. I said to him, ‘Let me tell you a story.’

“The Baal Shem Tov, may his memory be for a blessing, once set out on a long journey. As you know, the Baal Shem Tov had the power of kfitzas haderekh, the power to bend space so that he could travel great distances in moments. Yet, he still traveled by horse-drawn carriage in order to disguise his ability.

“On this particular journey, his horses began to speak among themselves. ‘Ordinary horses are fed at every village, and yet we pass through them without stopping. Perhaps we are not horses at all but humans who will eat at a fine inn.’

“When they passed by one inn after another, they thought ‘Well, perhaps we are not humans but angels, for angels travel as we do and neither eat nor drink.’

“At last they arrived at their destination. The horses were led into the stable, and bags of oats were placed before them. They ate just like famished horses.

“‘And so,’ I said to this fellow, ‘it is the same with you. You fast and imagine yourself an angel worthy of meeting the Prophet Eliyahu. And yet, when you complete your fast, you gulp your food like a horse.’

“Do you understand? Is this man any different from the rest of us?”



For the Hasid, spiritual pride is the greatest roadblock on the spiritual journey. As we engage in this or that spiritual exercise, we imagine ourselves growing more holy. This is pride. The quality of your spiritual practice rests on the quality of your intention. And there is only one right intention: to do what you do for its own sake, what Judaism calls lishmah. To engage in a spiritual practice with the intent of gaining something in return is to practice idolatry.

This is what the fellow in Simcha Bunem’s story was doing. He fasted to merit meeting Elijah the Prophet. This is an act of hubris. His egotism made him no smarter than the Baal Shem Tov’s horses, who thought it was their strength and not his spirit that moved them.

Now, how does this apply to you? Where do you find yourself spiritually proud? Where do you let it drop that you are a student of this or that, a disciple of one guru or another, or perhaps even a teacher of some esoteric discipline? Where do you worship at the altar of spiritual success and one-upmanship? Wherever it is, recognize it and let it go. Then go get yourself something to eat.


Eliyahu haNavi: Elijah the Prophet.

Kfitzas haderekh: Shrinking the path. Time and space are not absolutes in the theology of the Baal Shem Tov. They are attributes of God experienced by human beings while God, Itself, embraces and transcends them. The Besht had the capacity to experience the nonduality of God, wherein the seeming duality of “here” and “there,” and “now” and “then,” are transcended. Thus he could shift time and place as a matter of consciousness. Knowing this would frighten the common folk, he hid his power and traveled by coach. Nevertheless, his horses and close disciples knew that a ride with the Besht was unusual, to say the least.

Published in: on January 1, 2011 at 1:11 am  Leave a Comment