A Bet

When Rabbi Yitzchak Meir was a small child, his mother once took him to meet Reb Yisrael, the Maggid of Kosnitz. As they stood in line with the Maggid’s Hasidim, each waiting to see the holy rebbe, one of the disciples called to the young Yitzchak Meir.

“Your mother tells us that you are quite bright and worthy of meeting our holy Maggid. But I am not so sure. So I will make a bet with you. I will give you a gulden if you can tell me where God lives!”

The Hasidim laughed at their fellow’s jest. When their laughter faded, Yitzchak Meir looked up at the man and said, And I will give you two gulden if you can tell me where God does not live!”

The Hasidim laughed even louder, and Yitzchak Meir and his mother were moved to the front of the line.


At the heart of Hasidic teaching is the realization that God is the source and substance of all reality. God is Ayn Sof, the Unbounded One. There is nothing that is not God, for if there were, then God would be limited and therefore no longer God.

This is a difficult idea for many people to grasp. We are so used to thinking in dualistic terms (subject and object, self and other) that we naturally think of God as the Absolute Other. But if this were so, we would be equal to God, being God’s Absolute Other. If we are to understand what Yitzchak Meir knew even as a child, we need a new metaphor for God. Let me suggest the following:

A common tool in psychology is the concept of figure and ground, often represented by a graphic that can appear either as a goblet or as the profiles of two young women facing each other. Which image you see depends on where you place your attention. The seen image is called figure; the unseen is called ground. It is common to imagine that God is ground and creation is figure. But this is not what Yitzchak Meir knew. Both figure and ground are manifestations of yet a third unnamed and unknowable reality: the image itself when no one is looking at it. What is the IT that contains both the goblet and the young women? It is not other than them, nor is it reducible to them either singly or together. IT is that which cannot be seen, but which is absolutely necessary if anything is to see or be seen. IT is God, the unnamable reality. God is figure and ground and That Which Embraces Them Both.

Published in: on July 23, 2011 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Your Way

Reb Yissachar Dov of Radoshitz traveled to see his rebbe, Reb Yaakov Yitzchak, the Chozeh of Lublin. Arriving at his rebbe’s study, he said, “Show me one general way that all of us might serve God.”

“One way?” the Seer said. “What makes you think there is one way? Are people all the same that a single practice would suit them all?”

“Then how am I to teach people to find God?” Rebbe Yissachar Dov asked.

“It is impossible to tell people how they should serve. For one, the way is the way of study; for another, the way is the way of prayer; for another, the way is the way of fasting or feasting; for another, the way is the way of service to one’s neighbor.”

“Then what shall I tell those who ask me for guidance in this area?”

“Tell them this,” the Chozeh said. “Carefully observe the way of your own heart, see what stirs your passion for God and godliness, and then do that with all your heart and all your strength.”


Everyone hungers for a system that will take her to Truth. Everyone wants to know the formula that will bring him God-realization. Even if one chooses not to follow the path, it is supremely comforting to know that there is one. And that is what we all want: comfort. We want a God that is attainable. We want a God that is knowable. Ultimately, we want a God that is safe and controllable. But the true God is none of these things.

Torah tells us that God is ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I will be whatever I will be” (Exodus 3:14). God is infinite becoming, arising from infinite being. There is no way to God because God isn’t anywhere but right here. There is no method for achieving God because God is already “yours.” This is what the Zen people call “looking for an ox while riding on the ox.” You already have the thing for which you are looking. What is needed is not d’veikus, union with God, but da’at d’veikus, realization of the union that already exists and always has.

What is your way to this realization? It must be your way, not another’s. To follow another’s way is to imitate truth, and a truth that is imitated is no longer true. The Seer of Lublin says that there are as many ways as there are people. If you are a student –— study! If you are a devotee –— pray! If you are an ascetic –— fast! If you are an epicurean –— feast!

The value of religion is that it preserves examples of the many ways to da’at d’veikus. The problem with religion is that it often insists that only one of these ways is legitimate. When it comes to spirituality, do not fall for “one size fits all.” Find your size, and wear it proudly.

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


Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev used to sing this song, called Dudelleh (Yiddish for “you, my dear one.”):

Where I wander –— You!
Where I wonder –— You!
Only You, You again, You always!
You! You! You!
When I am happy –— You!
When I am sad –— You!
Only You, You again, You always!
You! You! You! Sky –— You!
Earth—You! You above!
You below!
In the beginning –— You!
In the end –— You!
Only You, You again, You always!
You! You! You!


This is the song of an awakened master. God is everywhere and everything. God embraces all duality in a greater nonduality. Good and bad, right and wrong, up and down, male and female, matter and spirit are all contained in the One Without Second. And if this is so, there is no way for us to define God at all.

God cannot be an idea. We can point toward an understanding of God through myth and metaphor, but God Him/Her/Itself is beyond any conceptualization. If we can think It, It cannot be God, for that would make God smaller than us.

God cannot be objectified. But God can be encountered. This is what Reb Levi Yitzchak experiences in this song. He never uses the word “God” or any of the Hebrew names for the Divine. He uses the familiar Yiddish dudelleh, “You, my dear one.” The Yiddish carries with it a loving intimacy. Reb Levi Yitzchak isn’t seeing God; he is embracing God. He isn’t simply acknowledging God; he is loving God the way a child loves his mother when she plays peek-a-boo with him.

And this is what God is doing with you. Every moment, God, as it were, places God’s hands over God’s eyes and then removes them, pretending to see you as if for the first time and to be surprised. But it is you who is surprised: surprised to be seen, delighted to be seen, saved from an imagined loneliness, and embraced in an infinite love of seeing and being seen. When you can look and see, look and be seen, and know that the looker and the seer are both God, then you are awake to the game and ready to play another round.

Published in: on July 9, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

the Child and the Thief

Reb Zusya of Hanipoli went to visit his rebbe, Reb Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch.

“I have heard, Rebbe,” Reb Zusya said, “that there are Ten Principles of Divine Service, but I have yet to learn what they are. I am hopeful that you can teach them to me.”

Reb Dov Ber said, “I cannot teach them to you, but I can point to those who can.”

“And who might these be?” asked Reb Zusya.

“You can learn the first three principles from a child and the next seven from a thief.”

Seeing that Reb Zusya did not understand, the Maggid continued:

“From a child you can learn three things: be merry for no reason, never waste a moment’s time, and demand what you want in a loud voice.

“And from a thief you can learn seven things: do your work in secret, if you do not complete a task one night, return to it the next, love your co-workers; risk your life to achieve your goal; be ready to exchange all you have for even the smallest gain; be willing to endure physical hardship; and be devoted to your work and give no thought to doing anything else.”


We love systems: the Ten Commandments, the 613 Mitzvos, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Twelve Steps. Systems give us a sense of security. If I just do “x,” I am assured of attaining “y.” Systems give us a sense of control: there is something to master, and mastery appeals to us. But here is Reb Zusya, who has yet to learn the Ten Principles of Divine Service, and his master, the Maggid of Mezritch, who does not even know how to teach them. Like all great spiritual truths, these ten principles cannot be taught but only observed and lived.

Published in: on July 2, 2011 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment