The Whistler

A tale is told of the Baal Shem Tov and an illiterate villager’s son. For the first thirteen years of the boy’s life, his father never once took him to shul, but on Yom Kippur of his thirteenth year he did so for fear that otherwise his son would eat on this holy fast day and thus bring sin upon himself. (Note: Until age thirteen, one’s sins fall upon one’s parents. After age thirteen, one is responsible for oneself.)

All around him the men of the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue davvened with great fervor, but not knowing anything about what they were doing, the boy grew bored. Feeling his herder’s whistle (Note: Shepherds used whistles to call their sheep) in his pocket, he asked his father if he could blow on it. Naturally, his father refused. Another hour passed, and again the boy asked for permission to play his whistle. Again his father refused, and he took the whistle from his son and placed it in his own pocket. As the Neilah service began, the boy noticed the whistle sticking out of his father’s pocket. He grabbed his whistle, took in a great gulp of air, and blew a long and loud blast.

Shocked and frightened by the sudden sound, the congregation fell silent. Only the Baal Shem Tov continued to davven, this time more joyously than before.

When the service concluded, the man took his son to apologize to the Baal Shem Tov for disrupting the service.

“On the contrary,” the Baal Shem Tov said, “there was no disruption. The simplicity of the boy’s blowing made my praying all the more easy for me.”


What is true prayer? Is it the recitation of sanctioned words and hymns? Is it the emotional outpouring of the heart? Is it the surrender of self to Self? It can be any of these, or none. The deciding factor is not so much what you do but the state of your heart as you do it. If you are half-hearted in your prayer, there is no praying. If you are wholehearted in your prayer, there is praying even if that praying is nothing more than the loud blowing of a whistle.


Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760): Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer was the founder of Hasidism. He began his public teaching in 1734 and soon earned the title Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name (of God). He was an authentic healer of hearts, minds, and souls.

Shul: Synagogue.

Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement, when Jews confess and seek forgiveness before God.

Davvened: Prayed.

Neilah: The closing service of Yom Kippur. It is thought that at this time the Gates of Heaven are closing and we have one last chance to confess and ask for forgiveness. The service is marked by intense emotion.

Published in: on June 25, 2011 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

The Turkey Prince

Reb Nachman of Breslov told this story:

A prince once took ill and thought he was a turkey. He refused to wear clothes and lived under the dining table, eating crumbs that fell to the floor. The king called upon the finest physicians, but none could find a cure. A wandering sage heard of the case and offered his services. The king agreed, and the sage removed his clothes and lived with the prince under the table, introducing himself to the prince as a fellow turkey.

After several weeks, the sage asked to wear a robe.

“What are you doing?” asked the Turkey Prince. “Turkeys don’t wear robes.”

“There is no law saying we turkeys cannot wear robes,” the sage said, handing a robe to his friend. The prince thought for a moment, and then he, too, put on a robe.

A few days later the sage, dressed in his robe, had a complete meal served under the table.

“What are you doing now?” the Turkey Prince asked.

“There is no reason why we turkeys must live on scraps and crumbs when an entire meal is waiting for us.” The prince joined the sage in his feast.

A week later when dinner was served, the sage chose to eat at the table sitting in a chair. Anticipating the query of the prince, the sage said, “There is no law prohibiting us turkeys from sitting at the table. Besides, it is much more comfortable to eat this way. Come and see for yourself.” The prince did, and in time he recovered fully from his illness.


As the ancient Taoist sage Chuang Tzu might have said: “Are you a turkey pretending to be a human, or a human pretending to be a turkey?” There is no way to know for sure. You are what you think. So, if you do not like who you are, simply think otherwise.

Would that it were so easy. While you have the capacity to influence your thoughts, you do not have the capacity to control them. Thoughts happen faster than the ego that pretends to think them.

Do you actually think your thoughts, or do you simply become aware of them once they are thought? If you look carefully enough, you will discover that the thoughts precede the thinker. So who is doing the actual thinking? No one. Thoughts happen. Consciousness thinks the way an apple tree apples. Thought is natural to consciousness; it is what consciousness does. There is no need for a thinker separate from consciousness to think the thoughts. There is just consciousness and thought.

That is why our wise sage made no attempt to get the prince to stop thinking he was a turkey. The boy could not control his thoughts, but he could control his behavior. The prince thought he was a turkey. Fine. Be a turkey. Just know that turkeys –— at least wealthy, well-educated turkeys –— function a lot like wealthy, well-educated princes.

Maybe you think you are turkey, or a loser, or a fool, or a crook. Fine. Leave the thoughts alone. Don’t control your thoughts; control your behavior. Act holy, and in time you may discover thoughts supportive of these new behaviors. But even if you don’t, at least you, too, will be a prince.

Published in: on June 18, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Until Our Completion

Reb Simcha Bunem of Pshischah once entered into the study of his rebbe, Reb Yaakov Yitzchak, the Yid HaKodesh of Pshischah. Before he could say a word Reb Yaakov Yitzchak said to him, “Cite some verse of Torah, and I will reveal its meaning to you.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Simcha Bunem said: “And Moshe spoke in the ears of all the people of Israel the words of this poem, until their completion (ad tumam).” (Deuteronomy 31:30)

Instantly the rebbe shouted, “Ad tumam, until their completion!”

Reb Simcha Bunem was overjoyed with this interpretation of his rebbe and shared it with a friend, Reb Chanoch Henich of Alexander.

“But all the rebbe did was repeat the final two words of the text,” Reb Chanoch complained. “This is nothing. What did you hear in this that brings you such joy?”

Simcha Bunem chided his friend, saying, “You are no ignoramus! Figure it out!”

“All right,” Reb Chanoch frowned. “Let’s see. ‘And Moshe spoke in the ears of all the people of Israel the words of this poem, until their completion.’ The key is in the grammar. If Moshe had been referring to the completion of the poem, he would have said, ‘until its completion.’ Because he spoke in the plural, he wasn’t referring to the poem at all but to the people themselves. Hmmm. Ah! Until their completion! Until our completion! Until our perfection! The words of the poem remind us that our covenant with God will be repeated and repeated in each of our ears until it transforms each of our hearts. We are never abandoned; God never despairs of us and will teach us continually until we perfectly live the godliness we are called to embody!”

“That’s it!” cried Simcha Bunem, and the two men danced in joy.


What is the essential spiritual practice? Listening. God is forever whispering truth into your ears, and all you have to do is listen. It sounds so very easy, and it is; but its very simplicity is what keeps it hidden from us. Listening requires no mastery of postures or doctrine. It doesn’t require us to affiliate with any group. It can be done alone and in community. It needs no special instruction or master instructor. One just listens.

What listening does require, however, is silence. You cannot hear another if you are constantly chattering yourself. You cannot hear God if you are forever distracted by the talk of self.

We avoid silence, though. It is too uncomfortable. Why? Because we suspect that what we hear will not be to the ego’s liking. And it won’t. So the ego erects complex structures of words to blot out God’s teaching. Religion is often just such a structure. Using sacred words, chants, teachings, and the like, religion mesmerizes us with God-talk when it should be inviting us into God-listening.

If you want to hear God, listen.

Published in: on June 11, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Robbing Yourself

Reb Yechiel Meir of Gostynin went to study with Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk during the holy week of Shavuos. Upon his return, his father-in-law asked, “What did you study during your time in Kotsk?”

“As it was Shavuos,” Reb Yechiel Meir said, “we studied the Ten Commandments.”

“Amazing,” his father-in-law teased. “Since it was also Shavuos here at home, we also studied the Ten Commandments. Do they receive the Commandments differently in Kotsk? And is that why you would journey so far to study what we study at home?”

“Yes, indeed!” Reb Yechiel Meir replied. “The Commandments are different in Kotsk.”

“And how is that?” his father-in-law asked.

“What did you learn from the Commandment ‘You shall not steal’?”

“We learned just what it says: You shall not take from another that which does not belong to you,” replied his father-in-law.

“And therein lies the difference,” Reb Yechiel Meir said. “Here you learned that ‘You shall not steal’ means you shall not steal from another. In Kotsk we learned that you shall not steal from yourself as well.”


What is it you steal from yourself? The things you want most. And how do you rob yourself of these things? By trying too hard to get them. For example, you desire certainty, and to get it you study hard to know what is true. Yet, the more you study, the more you know you will never know enough to be certain of anything, and this anxiety robs you of the very thing you desire.

What you want is not to be taken, but to be received. Do not imagine that you must climb to the top of the mountain to grasp what you seek. On the contrary, you must stand at the bottom of the mountain and receive it as it rolls down of its own accord. The “winner” in life is not the one who reaches the highest peak but the one who knows how to wait at the lowest depths.


Shavuos (Hebrew, “weeks”): The second of three pilgrimage festivals. The name “weeks” comes from the Torah’s instruction to count seven weeks between the Passover barley harvest and the second harvest fifty days later. Historically, Shavuos is said to be the anniversary of the revelation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. The mystics prepared for Shavuos with a special ritual called Tikkun Lel Shavuos (Repairing on the Eve of Shavuos). This was an all-night recitation of sacred texts intended to place the kabbalist in the receptive mindset to personally experience the revelation at dawn.

The Ten Commandments (Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Sayings): The Commandments revealed by God at Mount Sinai seven weeks after the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. The Ten Commandments are mentioned twice in the Torah: first in Exodus 20:1-14 and again in a slightly different version in Deuteronomy 5: 6-18. Moses ordered twice-daily recitation of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 6: 6-7), and Jews used to recite them morning and evening. The Rabbis replaced this with the twice-daily recitation of the Sh’ma (Hear 0 Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One) when sectarians argued that only the Ten Commandments were revealed by God and hence took precedence over the other laws of Torah.

Published in: on June 4, 2011 at 1:07 am  Leave a Comment