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  

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  

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.”


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.


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.”


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.


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.”


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.


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