Selfless Service

Once the Baal Shem Tov set out to journey to the Land of Israel. Pesach (Passover) was approaching, and he had no money with which to buy the needed supplies. A wealthy merchant, hearing of his plight, came forward and donated a generous amount of money that allowed the Baal Shem Tov to observe the holy week without worry. Knowing the man to be childless, the Baal Shem Tov blessed him for his generosity and promised him that within the year his wife would bear a child.

When the merchant had gone, a Bat Koh pealed out from heaven: “Did you not know that this man’s wife was barren? Because of your promise, the Holy One has to change the very course of nature. For this you will forfeit your place in the World to Come.”

Rather than collapse in despair at having lost his heavenly reward, the Baal Shem Tov danced with joy. “Thank You,” he called to God. “Before this I always worried that my service to You was tainted by the thought of reward, but now I have the opportunity to serve You with no thought of reward, for even the World to Come is closed to me!”


What do you want from spiritual practice? Enlightenment? Bliss? Happiness? Salvation? An end to suffering? A place in paradise? As long as you have a reward in mind, your practice is tainted. Yet, is it possible to act with no goal in mind? Can the ego act without expecting something in return?

When one acts without a goal, with no sense of reward, the act itself becomes the point, and the reward is immediate. This is what all the great mystics know: The doing is the receiving! The doing is the salvation!


Pesach (Passover): One of the three pilgrimage festivals mentioned in the Torah; like the other two, Sukkos and Shavuos, it has a historical, agricultural, and mystical dimension. Historically, Pesach marks the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery; agriculturally, it celebrates the beginning of the barley harvest; kabbalistically, it is a period of deep introspection when we seek to free ourselves from the things that enslave us to the narrow places of selfishness and ego.

The kabbalists derive their understanding from a play on the Hebrew word for Egypt: mitzrayim. The Hebrew can be read as “Egypt” or as “from narrow places” (mi = from; tzar = narrow place; im = plural suffix). Egypt is, spiritually speaking, the narrow place of enslavement, and this can refer to any habit of heart, mind, or body that promotes selfishness and egotism.

Bat Kol (literally, “Daughter of a Voice,” or “Echo”): An audible heavenly revelation.

Rabbi Yisroel (Israel) ben Eliezer (רבי ישראל בן אליעזר August 27, 1698 (18 Elul) – May 22, 1760), often called Baal Shem Tov or Besht, was a Jewish mystical rabbi. He is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism.

Published in: on May 28, 2011 at 1:43 am  Leave a Comment  

Rules of the Game

Reb Nachum of Stefansti surprised his Hasidim in the beis midrash one night during Hanukkah. Instead of finding his students deep in the study of Torah, he found them equally engrossed in a game of Chinese checkers.

Embarrassed at their game, the Hasidim made to put the pieces away, when the rebbe smiled and had them set up for a new match.

“Do you know the rules of this game?” he asked them. No one said a word.

“Good,” the rebbe said. “Then I will share them with you. First, you sometimes have to sacrifice one piece in order to gain two. Second, you may never move two spaces at once. Third, you may only move forward and never backward. And fourth, when you’ve reached the top, you may move anywhere you like!”

Looking from one face to the other, he added: “And the rules of this game are the rules of our game as well.”


Sometimes you must sacrifice one piece to gain two. What is the one whose death brings you two? The inflated ego. If you desire the love of another, then sacrifice the love of self, put the other first, and you will discover that in feeding another you, too, are filled.

You may move only one space at a time. You cannot rush life. Long or short, troubled or joyous, life unfolds one moment at a time. Ecclesiastes teaches “there is a time for every purpose under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Do not cry when it is time to laugh or gather stones at a time for scattering. Know what time it is, and allow it to run its course.

You may only move forward. The past is finished. You cannot undo what has been done. There are no rehearsals and no “do overs.” You can learn from the past, but you cannot remake it. You can replay it over and over, but it always turns out the same, and in the meantime you are missing out on the only time there is: now.

When you reach the top, you are free to move anywhere you wish. But there is nowhere to go! Birthing, dying, loving, hating, embracing, fleeing –— it is all here. Top and bottom, here and there, past and future –— all gone. You win! And then, realizing the fun is in playing the game, you, like Reb Nachum, set up the board for another round. Playing is its own reward.


Beis midrash (literally, “House of Study”): The school.

Published in: on May 21, 2011 at 1:19 am  Leave a Comment  

the Leaf

Reb Shalom Ber of Lubavitch once took his family to a summer resort in the country. Going for a walk with his son and eventual successor, Reb Yosef Yitzchak, Reb Shalom pointed to the ears of corn covering the surrounding farmland.

“Behold divinity!” the rebbe said. “Each stalk of corn, and every movement it makes, is a manifestation of the mind of God. Creation is the thought of God expressed as the physicality of the world.”

Reb Yosef Yitzchak listened to his father’s words and soon found himself lost in the wondrous realization that this world, his body, and all bodies were expressions of God. As he walked, he brushed against a tree and plucked a leaf from its stem. Absentmindedly tearing the leaf into strips, he slipped deeper and deeper into joyous contemplation.

“Yosef Yitzchak!” the rebbe called to him sternly, breaking his son’s concentration and returning him to the world of their walk. “We are speaking of God manifest in creation, and here you rip a leaf from its place and destroy it for no reason at all. Do you imagine that this leaf has no purpose in this world but to sacrifice itself to your thoughtlessness? Is its ‘I’ of lesser value than your own? You are different, yes, but superior? No. Everything has its divinely directed purpose, and you have made it impossible for this leaf to achieve its reason for being.”

Reb Yosef Yitzchak was ashamed of his behavior. His father said: “Remorse is good. Now learn from it. For our sages say, ‘A person can do damage whether awake or asleep.”‘


Are you asleep or awake? And more important: Do you know the damage you do in either state?

There are three types of people: the sleeping, the waking, and the awakened. The sleeping see God as separate from the world: the One separate from the many. There is God and there is creation: two separate realities. The waking see the One at the cost of the many: God is real, but creation is illusory. They revel in the glory of the forest, never noticing the uniqueness of each tree. The awakened see the One as the many. To them, God is both the source of life and the substance that is living. Here the distinction between God and creation is quantitative rather than qualitative. Each tree is a part of the forest, but no tree is the forest itself.

Reb Shalom Ber warns us that asleep or awake, we can do damage. What is the damage of the sleeper? To exploit the other in the name of the One. What is the damage of the waking person? To demand conformity as the proper response to unity. What is the damage of the awakened? To allow the damage of the other two to continue without resistance.

Reb Shalom Ber challenges his son to awaken fully from the nightmare of duality without being trapped in the false surety of monism. He urges him to see the forest and the trees, to know that the One and the many are both manifestations of the nondual God.

Published in: on May 14, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Two Rules

At the wedding of the son of Reb Avraham Yaakov of Sadigora to the daughter of Reb Zvi HaKohen of Rimanov, the groom’s grandfather, Reb Yisrael of Ruzhin, stood up and said to the father of the bride: “Let me share with you the yichus (good blood/well born) of our family. My great-grandfather was Reb Dov Ber; my grandfather was his son, Reb Avraham, who was called the Angel; my great-uncle was Reb Nachum of Chernobyl; and my uncle was his son, Reb Mordechai of Chernobyl. So, my dear friend, please share with us your lineage.”

“My parents died when I was ten years of age,” Reb Zvi said softly. “I did not know them well enough to tell you anything about them other than that they were righteous and good-hearted people. After their deaths, a relative apprenticed me to a tailor, for whom I worked for five years. It was during that time that I learned two rules by which I have governed my life: Do not spoil anything new, and fix anything old.”

With that, the groom’s grandfather leaped to his feet, shouting joyously: “This is a marriage of two great lineages. These children are doubly blessed!”


How might these principles play out in your life?

Do not spoil anything new. Many of us spoil the new simply by insisting that it conform to the old. The past is a shield against the future. Life lived in such a manner is imitative. There is no creativity, only conformity. The new is not allowed to be new and must masquerade as the old.

Fix anything old. The old needs fixing when it no longer functions in the way it was intended. This principle is especially important in the world of conventional religion. It is the nature of religion to fixate on form and forget the principle the form originally embodied. The result is a hollow imitation of deeds without the ethics and joy the deeds once cultivated. How do we fix this? Not by abandoning the deeds but by returning to the principle behind them and reinventing the deed to better embody the idea. Where are you spoiling the new by insisting that it conform to the old? Where are you conforming to the old simply because it is old, and no longer living the principle behind the deed?

Published in: on May 7, 2011 at 1:03 am  Leave a Comment