A Kiss Good-Bye

It is not uncommon among Hasidim to find people calling out loudly in the midst of their prayers. Yet, the custom of Reb Pinchas of Korets was just the opposite. When he prayed, his voice never rose above a whisper, and his body remained still and calm. Wishing to understand the way of their rebbe, several of Reb Pinchas’ senior students inquired after his manner of prayer.

“What is the essence of prayer?” he asked them.

D’veikus,” they replied, “becoming one with the One.”

“Yes,” Reb Pinchas said, “and the essence of d’veikus is hispashtus hagashimius, dropping awareness of the separate self, body and mind. This happens naturally when one dies. Our sages said that for some, death is like hauling a thick ship’s cable from the dock to the ship through a narrow hole; it has to be yanked and pulled, and it flaps and flops around in the process. For others, death resembles a kiss and is as smooth and as soft as pulling a strand of hair from a glass of milk.

“The same is true in prayer. For some, the temporary death of the self in prayer is like hauling on board a thick cable. There is much grunting and groaning, and the body flails this way and that. For others, prayer is a kiss from God in which the body and mind simply slip away in silence and stillness. You, my friends, may be like cables. I am a simple hair.”

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COMMENTARY

Which are you: a cable or a hair?

In the early years of spiritual practice, we are cables. We struggle with the discipline. We wrestle ourselves into submission. We seek to control our thoughts, words, and deeds and to conform to a fixed pattern set by our teachers and sages. In time we adapt, and things do get easier; but do not mistake this lessening of effort for being a hair.

One does not shift from cable to hair; one simply stops being a cable. We stop being cables when we realize that effort is not getting us anywhere. Slowly the truth dawns on us that there is no “where” to go to. God is always here and now. We are always in a state of union with God because God is everything. What is lacking is not union but awareness of union.

Awareness requires no work at all. When you have forgotten someone’s name, or are working hard on a problem, you screw up your face to intensify your thinking. Your brow furrows, but your thoughts are not thereby enhanced. On the contrary, they are more thick and heavy than before. It is only when you relax and stop thinking about the problem that the solution often bubbles to the surface. You did not do anything to make this happen, you simply stopped doing those things that keep it from happening.

The cables never stops trying. The hair never starts.

NOTES:

D’veikus (literally, “union with God”): Because the whole world is filled with divine glory (Isaiah 6:5), we are all and always one with God. What is achieved is not union per se, but da’at d’veikus, awareness of union. Union cannot be achieved; it is a given. What must be achieved is seeing through the illusion that union must be achieved.

Hispashtus hagashimius: Dropping the material form.

Published in: on March 26, 2011 at 1:09 am  Leave a Comment  

The Loaf’s Complaint

Reb Yaakov Shimshon of Kosov loved to share with his students the stories of the great rebbes and their Hasidim. It once happened after morning prayer that the rebbe began to tell one story after another without stopping. He and his Hasidim were lifted to such a state of divine rapture that they stepped out of time. The day passed, and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that the rebbe told his final tale.

Slowly, Reb Yaakov and his disciples returned to the needs of the everyday world and realized that they had eaten neither breakfast nor lunch. One of the students stood up and honored his rebbe, saying: “Until this moment, Rebbe, I did not really understand Moshe Rabbeinu when he said that while on Mount Sinai he ate no bread and drank no water. Now I know what it is like to be filled with the very Presence of God and to feel no further need to eat or drink.”

Reb Yaakov nodded his appreciation to his student and said, “Your interpretation is a worthy one, my son, but perhaps Moshe was not celebrating his transcendence of food and drink, but regretting it? We know that everything in this world contains a spark of the Divine and that only when a thing is used properly is this spark uplifted and repaired to God, from Whom it came. This is no less true of food and drink than it is of books and tools. Moshe realized that in those forty days on Mount Sinai he neither ate nor drank and thus failed to uplift the divine sparks in his bread and water. In the World to Come, these sparks will complain to the Holy One that Moshe did them a grave disservice by putting his own love of God before their liberation.”

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COMMENTARY

The way of Hasidism is never at the expense of this world. Your task is not to escape from this world but to hallow it. How? By engaging everything with the utmost respect and concern, and by not ignoring the physical even in the midst of the spiritual.

Reb Yaakov Shimshon’s teaching here is quite radical. Moses is the fully realized spiritual leader of the Israelite people. Can it be that even he was misdirected in his union with God? Can it be that mere bread and water can take precedent over communing with the source and substance of all reality? Yes! Even Moses –— or perhaps especially Moses –— needed to focus on the ordinary. The more spiritual you are, the more careful you must be not to separate yourself from the material.

God first appears to Moses in a burning bush (Exodus 3:1-10). Commentators have made much of the lowly character of the bush. It is nothing special. God manifests through the ordinary. When you see God in the ordinary, it may for the moment appear extraordinary, but it is the ordinariness of things that really matters.

For this reason, the Rabbis took great care in their dealings with everyday things. Honoring matter was a way of honoring God. Some believe that the material is opposed to the spiritual, but this is not true. Material is the way in which the spirit manifests in the world of the five senses. When you honor the material, you honor the spiritual.

NOTES:

Moshe Rabbeinu: Literally, “Moses our Teacher.” The Bible does not refer to Moses in this way. This is the title given to Moses by the Rabbis as a means of identifying him and his role with that of the Rabbis.

Sparks of God: The kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534-1572) taught that all things contain a spark of the Divine, and that the deepest spiritual work is to release those sparks and return them to God by using the things of this world in a righteous and honorable manner.

Published in: on March 19, 2011 at 1:49 am  Leave a Comment  

Stone Soup

A wealthy merchant once visited Reb Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch. He joined the rebbe and his Hasidim for a light meal.

“Tell me,” said the Maggid, “given your wealth and piety, what does a man such as yourself eat?”

The man was flattered that the Maggid referenced not only his wealth but also his devotion to this faith. After all, he worked hard at achieving both.

“Well, Rebbe,” the man said with great pride, “I could accustom myself to the finest foods, but I fear these would tempt me toward worldliness. So I make do with the diet of the poor: a slice of bread and a pinch of salt.”

“How dare you defame the Creator this way!” the Maggid cried. “You have been blessed with wealth and power, and yet you deny the legitimate pleasures that come with it. This is an insult to God, Who gave these things. From now on you are to eat meat and drink wine every day!”

The Maggid’s visitor was shocked; the Maggid’s Hasidim all the more so. When the man left, they begged their rebbe to explain his outburst. Obviously, this man was doing his best to free himself of the temptations of this world, and the Maggid had rebuked him for it.

“Perhaps,” the Maggid replied. “But I will tell you this: If this wealthy fellow grows accustomed to eating meat and drinking wine, he will certainly realize that the poor need to eat at least bread and salt. But if he, a rich man, can make do with bread and salt, then he will surmise that the poor can survive on water and stones.”

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COMMENTARY

What is the one act at the heart of the deepest faith? Is it self-effacement? Humility? Scrupulous adherence to the rituals of one’s tradition? For Dov Ber, the one defining act of faith is generosity.

This rich and pious visitor saw his wealth as a test of his will. He could revel in his riches, but that would seem to suggest a lack of pious humility. So he did not live up to his means but instead took great pride in living well below them. In so doing, the merchant failed in several ways. First, he failed to enjoy the gifts life had bestowed upon him. In this he was ungrateful. Second, he failed to share his wealth with others. In this he was miserly. And third, he failed to realize the true nature of human service to God: being godly to others. In this he failed to love his neighbor as he loved himself. Or did he?

In fact, this wealthy merchant did love his neighbor as he loved himself. His problem was that he did not really love himself. Reb Dov Ber wanted this fellow to love himself so that he might love God and his neighbor. You are here to serve God by being godly toward your neighbor, the stranger, nature, and life itself. The gifts God gives you are to be shared.

The true lover of God is a lover of life and all the living. See what gifts you have been given, and honor them, rejoice in them, use them to the best of your ability. As you do, you will find a generosity of spirit that will open your heart and hand to share your gifts with others.

NOTES:

Reb Dov Ber of Mezritch (1704 [?]-1772): Successor to the Baal Shem Tov, Dov Ber provided Hasidism with a formal theology derived from kabbalistic teaching. Called the Maggid, or Preacher, Dov Ber spoke primarily to his inner circle of Hasidim, focusing on levels of teaching that the average person could not fathom. Essential to Dov Ber’s theology was the notion that God is the only reality, and all things are temporary manifestations of God.

Published in: on March 12, 2011 at 1:33 am  Leave a Comment  

Two Yids, Two Yuds

Once, the Yid HaKodesh asked his Hasidim, “How is it that if two Yiddin sit together and neither seeks to elevate himself over the other, God forgives them all their sins?”

Hearing no reply, the Holy Jew told this story: “When I was a young child first learning the alef-beis, I pointed to the letter yud and asked my melamed, ‘What is this dot?’

“My teacher said, ‘It is the letter yud.’

“I then pointed to two yuds together and said, ‘What shall I make of these two dots together?’

“These two yuds together,’ he told me, ‘spell out the Holy Name of God.’

“I was fascinated, and looked very carefully in the Chumash to find these two dots, these two yuds that were the Name of God. As I did so I came across two other dots, one stacked on top of the other. ‘What is this?’ I asked.

“‘That is called a colon,’ my teacher told me.

“‘These dots look like those dots,’ I said. ‘How will I remember the difference?’

“‘Easily,’ he said. ‘When the two dots sit next to each other as equals, they are the Name of God. When one lords it over the other, then they are not the Name of God.’

“From this I learned that when two yids sit next to each other as equals, they form the Name of God and are forgiven all their faults. But when you seek to raise yourself over another, then you are not the Name of God, and no forgiveness happens.”

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COMMENTARY

The yud is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is nothing but a dot. Yet, two yuds together point to the One Who is All. By yourself you are nothing, a mere speck on the face of the planet. But when you sit together with another in real meeting, the two of you are everything. Why? Because true meeting requires the recognition of another as an equal. If you seek to raise the other above yourself, or raise yourself above the other, there is no real meeting. God is present between self and other when each regards the other as an equal.

NOTES:

Yiddin: Yiddish for Jews.

Alef-beis: The Hebrew alphabet.

Yud: The tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. A yud (also spelled as yod) looks like this:

Melamed: Tutor.

The Holy Name of God: The four-letter Name YHVH, referring to God as all He was, is, and will ever be. The Name is often referred to by an abbreviation of two yuds.

Chumash: The Five Books of Moses, from the Hebrew chamesh, five.

Published in: on March 5, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment