The Better Leg

Reb Chaim of Zanz was lame. His right leg was of almost no use to him. Yet, when he prayed he did so with such fervor that he would leap up on his right leg and dance, totally absorbed in union with God.

One day he visited the community of Reb Naftali of Ropshitz, and there he cleaved so tightly to God that he hopped and danced and spun on his bad leg over and over again. The rebbitzin happened by and saw what was happening. Complaining to her husband, she said: “Why do you let him dance like that on his bad leg? Tell him to dance on his good leg.”

Reb Naftali said: “My sweet wife, if Reb Chaim knew on which leg he was dancing, I promise you I would speak to him as you have suggested. But what am Ito do if in his passionate love of God he no longer remembers he is lame?”


We are all lame –— if not in body, then in mind. We are hobbled by crippling ideas. You are the ideas you hold, the stories you tell about yourself, your upbringing, your dreams and goals. And these ideas and stories are often inherited; they are not original to you, but simply things you have heard so often and at vulnerable times in your life that they have become a part of you. It is as if you become so ardently attached to a role that you forget you are an actor playing that role.

Who would you be without these precious ideas and stories? Imagine a person who suffers from severe amnesia. Her story is gone, along with her memory. Often the person that remains isn’t at all the same person that was there before the amnesia set in. Now imagine that you have amnesia. You can no longer remember the childhood traumas, adolescent angst, and adult struggles that excuse your moral lapses and explain your everyday dis-ease. You are no longer driven by habit, because you no longer remember that to which you are habituated. Who are you without all the remembered conditioning of the past?
When Reb Chaim the lame forgot to be Reb Chaim the lame and became simply an ecstatic lover of God, he forgot the limitations of his crippled leg. If you are ever going to remember who you really are –— God manifest here and now –— you must first forget who you think you are.


Rebbitzin: The wife of a rabbi.

Published in: on April 30, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

A Four-Legged Esrog

In addition to being rabbi of his community, Reb Mordechai of Neshchiz was a prudent businessman. After every business trip he would set aside money from his profits to help the poor. He would also set aside a small sum in order to have enough to buy a fine esrog for Sukkos. As the holy day drew near, Reb Mordechai collected his esrog money and set off to Brody to purchase the fruit.

When he arrived at the edge of the city, he came across the town’s water carrier, sobbing on the side of the road. Reb Mordechai stopped and asked the man what troubled him.

“Do you see my wagon over there? It is a fine strong wagon. When it is filled with barrels of water and harnessed to a strong and loyal horse, I can do a fine day’s work feeding not only myself and my family, but the poor as well.”

“So what is the trouble?”

The barrels I have,” said the man. “The water I know where to get. And the wagon, well, there it is.”

And the horse,” Reb Mordechai said softly.

“Yes, the horse. My horse is dead. Died this morning, and with her my livelihood as well.”

“Wait here,” the rebbe said. “Let me see what I can do.” Walking into town, Reb Mordechai found a horse trader and bought a strong young horse with his esrog money. He returned to the man and presented him with this fine horse. “I came to Brody to buy an esrog; instead, I have purchased a horse. But it is all the same, for God commands us to buy an esrog, and God commands us to help others in need. So, my friends, they shall say their blessing over a fruit; I shall say mine over a horse.”


“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life that you and your descendents may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Making choices for life is at the heart of all spiritual discipline. It may be the most important discipline of all, for it forces you to face the choices, determine which is for life, and then act accordingly. Facing the choices means slowing down enough to notice them. Determining which is for life requires you to have cultivated the presence of mind and clarity of insight needed to distinguish between the desires of the self and the needs of others. Acting accordingly necessitates cultivating nonattachment so that you can save all year for an esrog and yet use those savings to buy a horse for a stranger. Choosing life isn’t an alternative to other spiritual practices; it is the culmination of the practice in the ordinary moments of your everyday life.


Esrog (Hebrew for citron): One of the four species of plant (along with palm, willow, and myrtle) that is used in the harvest festival of Sukkos (Leviticus 23:40). These four plants are held together and waved in the six directions (north, south, east, west, up, and down) to thank God for the bounty of nature that surrounds us.

Sukkos (Hebrew for “booths”; singular, sukkah): One of the three pilgrimage holy days mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (the other two are Passover and Shavuos). Agriculturally, Sukkos is a harvest festival celebrating the earth’s bounty and looking forward to good rains for the next harvest. The main observances of Sukkos are the waving of the four species (see above) and living in temporary huts called sukkos. These huts are reminiscent of the temporary shelters in which the Israelites dwelt during their forty years of desert wandering, and are constructed in honor of those Israelites in Sinai.

Published in: on April 23, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

The Value of Sin

Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was once accosted by a highway robber known for his violence and acts of depravity. The thief grabbed Levi Yitzchak by his coat and dragged the rebbe from his coach. Pushing him up against the coach door, the man shouted, “Do you know who I am?”

“Yes,” the rebbe said calmly, “and I must admit to being envious of you as well.”

“You dare to jest at my expense?” the man screamed, his lips almost touching Reb Levi Yitzchak’s nose. “What do you mean — you envy me? What is there about me, a dangerous felon, that you, a sainted rabbi, should envy?”

“Our sages teach,” the rebbe said, “that God so loves the sinner that one who repents of his sins out of love of God has all of his wickedness counted as deeds of merit. Now take myself: My sins are few and minor, and whatever good God credits me with is not helped by these transgressions. But you! You are famous for wicked deeds. If you were to repent out of love for God, no one could match you in merit! And for this I envy you!”

That said, Reb Levi Yitzchak grabbed the robber by his lapels and begged him so compassionately to repent that the thief’s heart melted, and he returned to God right then and there.


The Hasidim teach that there are five kinds of people in the world: the Perfectly Evil Person, who acts without remorse; the Imperfectly Evil Person, who acts with remorse; the Perfectly Good Person, who acts without any sense of self or selfishness; the Imperfectly Good Person, who acts with some sense of self and selfishness; and the Beinoni, the Inbetweener, who experiences life as a battle between selfishness and selflessness.

The Perfectly Evil and Good persons receive no punishment or reward for their actions, for they are incapable of doing other than they do. The Imperfectly Evil and Good persons can experience consequences for their actions, for they know that what they do is either evil or good, but this knowing is so fleeting as to be almost imperceptible. It is the Inbetweener that truly wrestles with good and evil.

For this wrestling to be real, the capacity to sin must also be real. Evil is not an illusion but a force from God that needs direction. Evil is not to be eradicated but channeled toward the good. Only the Inbetweener can do this, for only the Inbetweener knows good and evil as real forces in her life.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is revealing a great truth to this violent thief: It is because of his intimate knowledge of evil that he is capable of turning toward the good. His sins need not be a stumbling block to redemption, but a catalyst for it.

The same is true of you. Do not think that your misdeeds prevent you from choosing good over evil. You can turn to God at any time, and when you do, your evil deeds will be seen as guideposts leading you to redemption, not fenceposts keeping you from it.

Published in: on April 16, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Bursting the Gates

The Baal Shem Tov asked Reb Wolff Kitzis, one of his senior disciples, to blow the shofar for Rosh Hashanah. To help focus his mind during the blowing, the Baal Shem Tov suggested that Reb Wolff study the kabbalistic kavvanot assigned to the shofar. Reb Wolff devoted himself diligently to the study and wrote notes to take with him to review before blowing the shofar to ensure that his mind would be directed properly.

When it came time for Reb Wolff to go to shul for the holy day and blow the shofar, he looked for his notes, but in vain. And what was worse: without his notes his mind too went blank. Not a single kavvanah could he recall. And so it was that when Reb Wolff stepped before the congregation to blow the shofar he did so with an empty mind and a broken heart.

After the davvenen came to a close, the Baal Shem Tov turned to Reb Wolff and cried: “Yesher koach! Never have I heard such a powerful shofar blowing!”

“But Master,” Reb Wolff said, “I forgot every word I studied and blew the shofar with no kavvanah except the sheer humility of one who knows nothing!”

The Baal Shem Tov smiled and said: “My dear Reb Wolff. In the palaces of earthly kings there are many rooms, each with its own particular key. But one with an ax can enter them all. If this is true of earthly kings, all the more so is it true of the King of Kings. The kavvanot are the keys to each room, but one whose heart is humble can burst into any room!”


What is this ax that brooks no lock? The broken heart. When you realize that you cannot cultivate all the keys needed, when you realize that all your spiritual effort is a subtle support of the ego, when you realize that there is nothing you can do to enter the room of awakening, your heart breaks, and with it all the doors and their locks shatter as well.


Shofar: Ram’s horn. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the shofar has been associated primarily with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The Order of the Blowing of the Shofar is a set ritual of one hundred notes, broken up into three categories: teki’ah, a continuous rising note; teru’ah, nine short notes; and shevarim, three wailing notes.

Rosh Hashanah: The Jewish New Year, the first of ten consecutive Days of Awe, when Jews engage in self-reflection and forgiveness.

Kavvanot: (Hebrew for “intention,” singular kavvanah): Mystical focal points associated with different ritual acts. By attending to the kavvanah associated with the action about to be undertaken, the doer uplifts the doing to an act of spiritual healing.

Davvenen: Worship.

Yesher koach: (literally, “straight power”): A common Hebrew phrase of encouragement and praise equal to “Right on!” in colloquial English.

Published in: on April 9, 2011 at 1:11 am  Leave a Comment  

The Connoisseur

Reb Monye Monissohn, a wealthy diamond merchant, went to visit his rebbe, Reb Shalom Ber of Lubavitch. Reb Monye was eager to show the rebbe some of the diamonds he had recently purchased in the hope of getting a blessing for the success of his business. The rebbe seemed more interested in extolling the praises of certain common laborers whom Reb Monye had criticized for their lack of learning.

“Rebbe,” the merchant said at last, “I just do not see what you see in these people. They are illiterate boors.”

“In fact, Reb Monye,” the rebbe replied, “each of them has many honorable traits.”

“Maybe so, Rebbe, but I for one cannot see them.”

The rebbe sat silently for a few moments. “Nu (Yiddish expression for “So?”), Reb Monye, show me your new diamonds.”

Reb Monye eagerly untied a velvet sack and spread a glittering pool of diamonds on the rebbe’s desk. Lifting one in particular to the light streaming in from a window, he said: “This one is especially fine, Rebbe.”

“I see nothing special in it,” Reb Shalom Ber said.

“I would not expect you to, Rebbe. One must be a connoisseur of gems to see what makes each one worthy of such praise.”

“Every person is also a gem, my dear Reb Monye,” the rebbe said. And just as with your diamonds, you must be a connoisseur to see them truly.”


To be a connoisseur of people is to see the true value of each person. Seeing the true value of a person does not mean that we overlook people’s flaws. On the contrary, we have to find a way of honoring the person despite her or his flaws.

Where do our flaws come from? Are we born flawed? The Torah says that “the imagination of a person’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). This suggests that it is not we who are flawed, but our imaginations. Sometime in our early years, perhaps around six or so, we begin to imagine that we are separate, independent, and autonomous creatures in competition with other humans and perhaps life itself for our personal survival. We imagine ourselves to be an independent “I” and the rest of life to be “other.” As our sense of alienation from the other grows, our ability to excuse our evil and exploitative behavior grows as well. And all of this comes from a flawed imagination.

Reb Shalom Ber was a connoisseur of people. He understood the flawed imagination and how it defines our world. Unlike Reb Monye, he did not equate flaws with rejects. In Reb Monye’s business, flawed diamonds are discarded. In Reb Shalom Ber’s business, flawed people are simply diamonds in the rough; they need cutting and polishing. We cut the rough human by pointing out the flawed imagination and the anxious and painful world it creates. We polish the rough human by treating her with justice and compassion, and responding not to her flawed imagination but to the pure divine diamond that is obscured by the imagination.

When you meet another, do you see the flaws or the gem? Do you respond from imagination or from truth?

Published in: on April 2, 2011 at 1:27 am  Leave a Comment