"Moshiach is ready to come now-our part is to increase in acts of goodness and kindness" -The Rebbe

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Public displays of Jewish observance

Nowadays the way to garner the respect of non-Jews is through public, unabashed demonstrations of Jewish observance:
The honor of the Jewish people should be revealed by performing activities of goodness and holiness in a way that is apparent to all, including the gentile nations. This is along the lines of the verse: “And all the nations of the earth will see that the Name of G–d is called upon you [and they will fear you]” (Devarim 28:10). The Talmud interprets: “This refers to Tefillin on the head” (Berachos 6a). A similar principle applies to all areas of Torah and Mitzvos, for “The entire Torah is compared to Tefillin” (Kiddushin 35a).

Hisva’aduyos 5749, Vol. 4, p. 111.
In past generations, Jews would generally keep to themselves, and for good reason. It was felt that public displays of Jewish identity would likely provoke unhealthy attention from our non-Jewish neighbors. It might be interpreted as an attempt to proselytize them, and arouse their animosity, which could lead to them harming us, G–d forbid.

However, nowadays, thank G–d, we live in a different time, in which the opposite is the case. When we serve Hashem proudly and fearlessly, this evokes the respect and awe of the non-Jews around us.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Painful silence

I recently visited 770 and saw an old friend, Reb Nachman Holtzberg. I never had the good fortune to meet his son Gaby (may his blood be avenged), but as a student in 770 some seven years ago, I was friendly with Reb Nachman. He invited me over to his house for Shabbos meals several times, helped me a bit in seeking a shidduch, and we would chat from time to time. I don’t think I’d spoken to him for a number of years, being that I have lived abroad.

When I saw Reb Nachman, I felt that I should approach him, but ... I hesitated. What would I say? What could I say? I couldn’t think of anything at all to say. So I didn’t approach him. I didn’t decide that I wouldn’t. I just didn’t feel that I was ready.

But he noticed me, approached me, greeted me, and inquired how my life is going. We exchanged pleasantries. And then ... there was an awkward, painful pause. I looked at his face, into his face, and saw a person totally broken. I was supposed to comfort him, I knew. I searched frantically in my mind for something to say, anything, but nothing I thought of could begin to do justice to his suffering. Those few seconds were interminable. Finally, after an eternity, I eked out a pathetic “men zol heren besuros tovos”—“may we hear good news.”

I had failed. He threw up his hands as if to say “what will that help?”—or so I interpreted it.

After he bid me farewell, I rebuked myself. How could I have had nothing to say?! Why did I feel I needed hours of preparation before consoling a fellow Jew? I know that (like countless others) I was deeply affected by the murder of Gaby, his wife Rivka, and the other Jews in the Chabad House of Mumbai (as
my blog posts of that time attest). So why couldn’t I speak? Where was the sensitivity and love I should display toward my fellow Jew?

Or perhaps it is the other way around. Maybe I couldn’t speak
because I cared so much. I don’t know.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Don't Miss the Sale!

Don’t Miss the Sale!

Rabbi Y. Oliver

The Previous Rebbe relates:
When the Mitteler Rebbe settled in Lubavitch 5572-3 (1812-3), Reb Moshe Shlomo became very sick, and for a year and a half he suffered greatly. His father-in-law Reb Yisroel Meir the melamed would frequently write letters to the Mitteler Rebbe asking that he plead for divine mercy on Reb Moshe Shlomo’s behalf, but it didn’t help at all.

Lag Be’Omer of the year 5576 (1816), when the Mitteler Rebbe was sitting together with his brothers Reb Chaim Avrohom and Reb Moshe, and with his sons-in-law and many chassidim at the Lag Be’Omer meal, Reb Yisroel Meir the melamed approached the Mitteler Rebbe with a note on behalf of his son-in-law, Reb Moshe Shlomo, saying that this is the second month that his son-in-law had been so sick that he couldn’t speak.

The Mitteler Rebbe gazed for a long time at the note, and said: “For the sickness of tuberculosis it is good to have a change of climate. Let him come here and hear
Chassidus, and he will be able to speak, and have what to speak about.”

Kuntres Divrei Yemei HaChozrim, p. 9.
Why weren’t Reb Yisroel Meir’s requests effective before? We do not know. But we do know that the Mitteler Rebbe regarded Lag Be’Omer as a very great day, one on which he would perform miracles (see HaYom Yom 18 Iyar), and the fact that it was not until this special day that his plea was effective teaches us a lesson.

From time to time we mark special days in the general Jewish calendar or in the Chassidic calendar, and when each day comes along, we are told that it has special significance. However, in order to connect with the special quality of this day, conscious effort is required, because the external world looks the same. “How is today different from yesterday?” one may ask. Yet one who expends the necessary effort learns that today is indeed very different from yesterday.

Pesach, Sukkos, Chanukah, Purim, Lag Be’Omer, Pesach Sheni, 15 Av, 19 Kislev, 11 Nissan, 3 Tammuz, and so on—all these days can be summed up with one word: opportunities.
On each of these days a special spiritual light shines that only shines once a year, and when we do something to connect with this light—by learning about the meaning of the day,
davvenen with it, discussing it at a farbrengen, reflecting upon it, and trying our best to connect with it, then it can raise us up to a certain otherwise unattainable spiritual level.

Perhaps this is comparable to a sale. All year round, the customer is expected to pay full price, and no bargains are accepted. When the store holds a sale, however, one can purchase the same product on discount for a fraction of the price. But once the sale is over, it is too late to grab those bargains—one has no choice but to wait until the next sale.

Likewise, when a special day arrives, Hashem in His kindness is granting us a special, limited time offer. If we are wise, we will make the most of it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Missing the Fairs—with Good Reason!

At times we Chabad chassidim are distinguished by what we do, but at other times, we are distinguished by what we don’t do. I am not referring to neglecting something that we should be doing, but to our refraining from following certain minhagim (Jewish customs) followed by many (and sometimes most or even all) other groups, Chassidic or otherwise. Although these minhagim are totally legitimate and sublime (“yesodosom beharerei kodesh”), our Rebbeim taught us not to follow them. Below is a partial list. Chabad chassidim:
  • do not grow long pei’yos (sidelocks—see Igros Kodesh, Vol. 20, pp. 9-10);
  • do not sleep in the Sukkah (see Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 20, p. 211 ff.);
  • do not eat shalosh se’udos (the third meal of Shabbos—see Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 21, pp. 84 ff.), although we do eat a morsel—see HaYom Yom 22 Adar I;
  • recite a nusach (prayer text) in which certain prayers and hymns are omitted, such as Aanim zemiros, Veshomru, Yigdal, Akdomos, and so on;
  • do not recite Selichos in the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.
This creates a sort of anomaly. On the one hand, as Chabad chassidim we believe that the derech of Chassidus Chabad is the highest form of serving Hashem. Yet at first glance, the fact that in a number of areas we customarily do less appears to contradict this.

Perhaps the following story can resolve this:
Once I had a private audience with the Rebbe, and the subject turned to the greatness of the Mincha prayer of Erev Shabbos. I asked the Rebbe to explain the reason for the Lubavitcher custom not to recite Shir HaShirim on Erev Shabbos. He told me that the Baal HaTanya was once asked why he doesn’t recite Veshomru and Shir HaShirim, which are known to cause a great fair in the supernal realms. He answered that “one doesn’t need to attend all the fairs.”

The Rebbe said to me that he asked his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, for an explanation. His father-in-law answered, “Certainly at the time of
Erev Shabbos he was at a more important fair, and thus he doesn’t have any free time to take part in this fair.”

The Rebbe asked further: “I can understand that the Rebbe is at a higher fair, but why don’t the
chassidim recite Shir HaShirim, since it causes such a sublime fair.” His father-in-law responded, “When the Rebbe is at a more important fair, he drags all his chassidim and those bound with him along as well; thus, they too don’t have time to take part in the other fair.”

See also Piskei HaSiddur, where a slightly different version of the story is told:[1]
There is a story oft-told among chassidim that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the in-law of the Alter Rebbe, sent him a message (or told him): “When Jews recite the prayer of Veshomru on the night of Shabbos, a fair is held in the heavens; if so, why did you institute that it not be recited?” The Alter Rebbe responded: “A fair is also held in the heavens from the juxtaposition of the prayer of redemption to the Amidah (semichas geula litefillah [and this juxtaposition is missed when one recites Veshomru]), and one cannot attend all the fairs.”
In any case, the relevance is clear. We asked why Chabad chassidim don’t follow these and other sublime minhogei Yisroel (Jewish customs) and benefit from the sublime divine revelations that they bestow? In light of the above story, the explanation is clear. Through our Hiskashrus (bond) to the Rebbeim of Chabad, when we consciously refrain from observing these holy practices (at the same time keeping ourselves busy with other worthy things that the Rebbeim taught us), we connect with other yet more sublime levels of divine revelation that supersede those experienced via those customs. Put simply, when you connect with a higher derech, you connect with higher revelations (however, it should be noted parenthetically that regardless of which derech one chooses, one should choose one specific derech and follow it consistently—see here).

Perhaps this principle can be applied to various other areas as well, such as the choice of which 
seforim to study, and the like.

[1] Another similar story: When the Alter Rebbe and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev were at the Great Wedding [in which the Alter Rebbe’s daughter married Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev’s son], Rabbi Levi Yitzchak suddenly began dancing (without saying “Kadosh”) because he heard how the angels were saying “Kadosh.” The Alter Rebbe commented, “One need not dance at every ‘Kadosh’”. (Sicha of Sukkos 5689)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Rebbe on Co-education

Although the Rebbe’s directives below that children should not attend mixed schools should be obvious to one and all, I believe it is “a Mitzvah to publicize” because I have observed that these directives are in some cases neglected:
Great caution in gender segregation is praiseworthy

Concerning your question whether to establish a girls school in [the city of] Michnaz, this is certainly proper, and not just in Michnaz, but also in other places. However, one must be particular that they not be together with the boys. This means that not only should the boys and girls not learn in the same classroom, but the school should be built such that each gender enters and leaves from a separate entrance. Furthermore, it is preferable that the two schools be housed in separate buildings and streets, for the greater the caution in such matters, the more one is praiseworthy.

Igros Kodesh, Vol. 6, p. 33.
All schools require segregation

I emphasised that my demand for the principle of segregation in Chabad institutions is not exclusive to Chabad institutions, but my opinion is clear that the same applies to all schools. In this lowly, orphaned generation this is not merely a religious question but also one of ethics and modesty in the most simple sense. This can be seen in the institutions where this principle is not practised, where the disastrous consequences have increased to such an extent that despite every effort to conceal them and prevent unpleasant publicity, from time to time they break out and become communal knowledge.

Igros Kodesh, Vol. 14, p. 434.

Single-sex education is equally necessary for non-Jews

... This is not a matter exclusive to the Jewish religion, (although that alone should be more than enough) for in recent years gentiles have also begun to see the harm of mixed schooling. The alarming situation is well known to the teachers of these schools, but for understandable (though unacceptable) reasons it is hushed up. In any case, since ultimately the main thing is to fix the actual situation, [in your case] this matter could be approached differently. By increasing the number of students there will be a need [for a division of classes and] a new teacher, or at least an assistant teacher, and it is possible that if they sense that one is aiming for segregation, and for the above reason [i.e. the need for a division of classes], they will turn a blind eye to the true reason, for there will be an opening for an honourable retraction.
Igros Kodesh, Vol. 16, p. 284.

Single-sex education is an universal ethical and educational imperative

In reality, segregation is not merely a question of religion, but also an ethical and even an educational one, to which the heart readily consents, for the staggering devastation caused by co-education is well-known from an ethical and even a basic educational standpoint. The student’s attention is distracted from his studies, impinging on his academic progress ... With the appropriate and persistent explanation, those who have the ability to correct this matter can surely be convinced to do so ...

A man is compared to a tree. Just as even a tiny scratch in a soft sapling can cause a deformation in a large tree, so is it with a child. Thus alacrity is particularly needed in matters of education.

Igros Kodesh, Vol. 17, p. 29.

Segregation should begin from the youngest age

... It is primary and important that I see that your work is dedicated to educating girls in particularmeaning to say that you maintain with all firmness necessary the segregation between boys and girls in their education.

Anyone with knowledge of education certainly needs no explanation concerning the most serious importance of such
segregation, beginning from the youngest age. For this [segregation] is not only relevant with regard to the obligation of the male and female students to observe Mitzvos, which is related to the ages of Bar Mitzvah and Bas Mitzvah. Rather, it is relevant many, many years beforehand, for the habit of the little boy and girl then becomes their nature in the following years, and so on. This is easy to understand.

Igros Kodesh, Vol. 25, p. 2.

Here is an article that proves just how much boys' performance is affected by being around girls (although it is speaking about adults, the same surely applies to teenagers): Women do make men throw caution to the wind, research confirms

Monday, July 20, 2009

Inner versus external reality

One of the core differences between the secular world-view that enshrines moral relativism and that of the Torah, which teaches timeless, eternal truth, is that according to the secular world-view, reality is determined by externalities, while according to the Torah, the internal, spiritual reality is the true one. Here are some examples.

• Modern thinkers, buoyed by the tremendous accomplishments of science and technology, have dismissed religious belief as outdated and silly, superstitious and uncultured. So how then did the world come to exist? It just evolved all by itself. First there was a primordial mass, that exploded somehow or other, and developed slowly for many billions of years, until the universe as we know it came to exist!

But no amount of highfaluting sophistry can alter the basic principle that order cannot emerge from disorder. As astronomer Fred Hoyle famously declared, the theory of evolution is as unlikely as a 747 forming out of a tornado in a junkyard. Rather, a design reflects upon a designer, and the more complex and intricate the design, the more one is compelled to reach this conclusion. Our world in all its virtually infinite complexity exists because
Hashem created it, and asserting otherwise cannot change this.

• These days, if a man has undergone an operation that surgically removes his private parts, and takes hormone “therapy” and wears feminine clothes and declares that he is now a she, it is considered objectionable to reject this claim, and improper to refer to this person as a he.

But in reality, the artificial removal or minimization of certain typical gender traits and practices cannot change the inner self. Gender is not a matter of whim and preference.
Hashem “hardwired” into the core of a person’s identity ever since he separated Adam from Chava.

• According to civil law in certain areas, euthenasia is permissible, for they deem the person to have the inalienable right to choose between his own life and death.

According to Torah, however, actively ending a life is an act of murder regardless of one’s humane intentions, for one’s life is not subject to forfeiture.

• Some people consider themselves Jewish because they have distant Jewish ancestry or Jewish friends, or because they like Jewish food or Jewish literature ... or because they took a conversion course at a reform temple. Others who were born Jewish have come to tragically reject their identity, and (at least on the surface) identify themselves as no different from the non-Jews around them.

However, Jewishness is a status conferred by
Hashem, and thus only He is qualified to decide who has it. He revealed His will in the Halacha (Jewish law), which declares categorically that Jewishness is not a matter of personal choice and preference, or even of belief and conviction. Rather, only one who was born of a Jewish mother or was converted according to Halacha can be considered Jewish. Conversely, when one who does fall under one of these two categories claims that he is no longer Jewish, his declaration cannot be accepted. His Jewishness is at the core of his inner self, and is therefore not subject to change through any external action.

• Certain arabs have declared that they are entitled to a portion of the Land of Israel, or all of it, because in their way of thinking, it belongs to them. They have terrorized Jews and cruelly murdered thousands of innocents in a bid to promote this agenda. In a craven effort to appease these filthy murderers, certain politicians have ceded certain segments of the Land of Israel to these non-Jews. These concessions are invariably “honored” with solemn declarations of a desire for peace and harmony, brotherhood and cooperation.

Hashem gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people—the
entire Jewish people—as an eternal gift. The external act of physically handing over parts of the land to non-Jews cannot change this fundamental fact. So although non-Jews who receive land from Jews come to physically control it, they do not in fact acquire it. Instead, they become robbers, or, to use a popular expression, illegal occupiers. Thus, in reality ceding them land is spiritually detrimental (not only for the Jewish people, but also) for them, and against their own best interest.

In light of the above, I believe that part of the struggle to cast off insidious secular attitudes (see here) consists of consciously training ourselves to become attuned to the deeper reality of the world in which we live. In order to accomplish this in the deepest sense, it is neccessary to study the “inner,” mystical dimension of Torah. This enables one to see within everything one sees in the world the true inner character and purpose of that thing, and this in turn guides one in how to relate to it according to the wishes of Hashem.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Passionate Yearning, Determined Action

Passionate Yearning, Determined Action

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver

The Previous Rebbe writes:
The core meaning of the terms ratzo and shov is as follows:

Ratzo refers to an intense yearning and longing, in which one on a lower level desires and yearns for something above him.

Shov, in contrast, refers to the calming and relaxing of this intense desire. This brings the person to return to what he was doing earlier, and with intensified devotion.

The entire reason that one yearns for the higher one is that one truly appreciates the greatness of the higher one, and feels deeply bound up with him. Then his deep understanding of the wishes of the higher one induces him to return to his original place, and to apply himself to implementing the wishes of the higher one.

Imagine a student devoted to his teacher with every fiber of his being, to the point that his greatest desire is to be near his teacher. When he is near him, he absorbs every word of his teacher’s teachings and guidance, and these teachings develop within him like a seed sown in fertile soil, that produces fine fruit. Even as the teacher engages in apparently mundane talk and superficial gestures related to organizing simple areas of his life, the committed student will regard it as containing an important lesson that provides him with a fountain of guidance in all areas of his conduct.

Understandably, when such a student becomes separated from his teacher, he feels as if he is separating from his life. Nothing in the world can separate him from his teacher, for in his eyes everything is utterly worthless in comparison with this bond.

Let as imagine that the teacher decreed that this student part from him and spend time in a certain place, as dictated by his teacher. The teacher then assigns a certain task to him in this place, and prescribes a course of study for him, and how he should behave in all areas.

Although the student finds it difficult to part from his teacher, he obeys the decree with the same meticulousness and caution to which he is accustomed in his bond with his teacher. However, since his entire being is devoted to this teacher, even while he is in this other place, he craves and yearns for his teacher. On the contrary, because he is there his yearning for his teacher becomes very intense, to the point that his soul feels that it is about to expire. For he remembers the days of old when he stood before his teacher, and then what he heard, listened, and observed all comes back to him, and he becomes drawn into these thoughts. At that moment he is entirely trembling, and almost about to expire from this pleasant sensation, for his soul craves to return to the state of being in which he stood in the presence of his teacher.

However, while he is still alive, he suddenly recalls his teacher’s decree, who ordered him to be where he is now, and that his teacher’s true wish is that he be where he is. The student’s intense, powerful desire for his teacher, and his devotion and submission to the teacher’s wishes, bring him to a state of external calmness and inner passion.

The teacher’s decree brings him to a state of external calmness, and his intense inner desire is then channeled into a passion in fulfilling the action that his teacher ordered him to do. The reason for this is that the only strand that unites him with his teacher is the fulfillment of the command. This bonds him with his teacher until he becomes truly united with him, as he was originally. It therefore follows that he then invests all his passion and yearning for his teacher into the action that his teacher commanded him.

The intense yearning of the student and his consistent, devoted work affect the teacher as well, and he turns his attention to the student with a beaming face, for “As water reflects a face [so does man’s heart reflects the man]” (
Mishlei 27:19). The reason for this is that the teacher profoundly understands the student’s entire soul journey, his inner ordeal and all his emotions: his tremendous yearning for the teacher—ratzo; his external calmness—shov; and his unlimited inner passion to fulfill his teacher’s command. The teacher understands this because the inner core of the teacher’s being is that he every thing he understands, he grasps in the purity of its essence. This causes the teacher to turn his attention to his student with a beaming face, and to shine upon him a bright light even from afar, via hidden methods that are known only in the emotions of the heart, as the saying goes, “the heart feels.”

Now, if you will take this analogy to heart and apply your mind firmly in an effort to understand it, you will understand the meaning of the words
ratzo and shov—how a true ratzo brings one to a shov, and the shov elicits an even more sublime revelation, such that one comes to perceive with yet more illumination, purity, and clarity. ...

In conclusion, the
ratzo leads to the shov, which brings the one with the ratzo to a higher level. This means that not only does the shov elicit a divine revelation from above, but the person himself rises to a higher level.

Igros Kodesh Admur HaRayatz, Vol. 2, pp. 422-423-424.
This analogy is so poignant. To sum it up:
Ratzo means yearning to transcend the limitations of the external world and connect with infinite G–dliness, and when one realizes that the true method of connecting with Hashem is through performing Mitzvos within the world, it leads to shov. Shov performed after ratzo is totally different, for it is permeated with the intense love of Hashem and passionate desire to connect to Him that characterizes the ratzo. When one performs the shov in this way, he is in turn elevated to a spiritual level even higher than that reached while in a state of ratzo.
It should also be noted that this letter indicates that the meaning of the terms ratzo and shov are not as often conceived. It is widely thought that ratzo means connecting with the spiritual, while shov means connecting with the physical. This is simply incorrect. Ratzo refers to an intense yearning to rise to a higher level, while shov consists of quenching and therefore calming that yearning through actions that actually bond one with that higher level.

On another note: Although it is not written in so many words, there is no question in my mind that the Previous Rebbe is using the analogy of a
chossid and a Rebbe. Although this description presents a much higher level relationship than is common nowadays between a Rebbe and a chossid, it is a powerful expression of what we should strive for as chassidim in our deep personal bond with the Rebbe and in our devotion to implementing his directives.

And how relevant this analogy is for us in our current circumstances, living as we do in a time in which we cannot physically see our Rebbe. The lesson is clear: For the meantime it has been decreed that on the surface, we as
chassidim should be “distant” from the Rebbe. However, during this time of separation we need to make a point of regularly reminding ourselves of the Rebbe, and becoming inspired with a yearning to stand again in his holy presence and directly hear Chassidus from him again. Yet at the same time we should remember that the Rebbe has charged us with a vital mission, and by carrying out this mission with devotion we transcend the external, physical separation between us, and maintain a very deep, mutual bond with the Rebbe.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Criteria in choosing a personal Rav

The Rebbe instructed each chossid to fulfill the dictum of the Mishnah: “Asei lecha Rav”—“Appoint for yourself a teacher” (Avos 1:6), a personal guide and mentor.

Of course, one
Asei lecha Rav needs to be intelligent, knowledgeable, sensitive, wise, insightful, refined, and so on. However, although these qualities are necessary, they are more external. The Rav’s ability to advise us depends upon his bittul to Hashem, and for chassidim, part of bittul to Hashem is bittul to the Rebbe, who is the “intermediary who joins” us with Hashem. So a chossid should seek an Asei lecha Rav who possesses this quality. Then the Asei lecha Rav’s role is not to tell us ideas of his own, but to explain to us what the Rebbe wants of us.

Thus, when we go to an
Asei lecha Rav for counsel, we do not go to him as an individual (albeit one with wisdom and experience), but as an extension of the Rebbe, for “one’s agent is the legal equivalent of oneself” (Nedarim 35b).

Friday, July 10, 2009

Don't Hesitate to Take Action!

Don't Hesitate to Take Action!

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver

From time to time, a person may face a difficult predicament. He notices that a certain area of practice is neglected, or a breach has not been rectified, yet he hesitates to take action because he sees that respected members of the community, who may even be aware of the situation, are doing nothing. The Rebbe addresses this concern in the sicha below:
There are things about which the leaders of the generation are silent, and yet this does not always prove that nothing need be done, and that calculation and scholarly reasoning must be used to slip one’s way out of it. If one sees that he can do something, he must do it.

The fact that those greater than him say nothing may be similar to the fact that Pinchas was granted the opportunity to slay Zimri in order to become a Cohen. This was his portion that he was destined to refine, and only by doing so could he attain personal perfection. Just as everyone is designated his own portion of material wealth, and no one can encroach upon someone else’s livelihood, so is it, and all the more, in the spiritual realm, for everyone has his share in Torah.

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 2, pp. 342-343. 
The leader of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri, committed the sin of publicly taking a Midianite woman into his tent, Kozbi, and having relations with her. This terrible, open rebellion against Hashem caused a plague to spread among the Jewish people. Pinchas was the only one to remember the law taught by Moses that “If one has relations with a gentile woman, zealots may attack him” (Sanhedrin 81b). Even Moshe himself forgot this law. When Pinchas slew Zimri and Kozbi, the plague ceased. Hashem then rewarded him by granting him and all his descendants the status of Kohanim. Rashi on Bamidbar 25:6 says that the reason Moshe forgot the law was “so that Pinchas would come and take that which was fit for him”—i.e., the reward of priestly status.

So if one observes a community leader doing nothing about a certain issue, one should not necessarily conclude that this proves that no action is necessary, or that that leader is at fault for his inaction. Regardless of whether the leader is at fault, the one who sees clearly that a certain task needs to be done for the benefit of the community, and sees that he is able to carry it out, should know that this is his personal duty, and that the reason that he noticed this problem and that he is in a position to fix it, is that in so doing he will reach his personal 
tikkun, the rectification of his neshamah.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

On Following Examples

On Following Examples

Rabbi Y. Oliver

It pains me to write the post below, but I believe that it needs to be said.

In the letter posted earlier 
here, the Mitteler Rebbe condemns the misconception widespread at the time amongst Chabad chassidim that walking back and forth during tefillah is conducive to better concentration and hisbonenus. May I suggest that this also teaches us another lesson.

Sometimes people will argue that “such-and-such a practice is correct, because it is widely followed amongst 

There is legitimacy to this claim. For example, see the Rebbe’s response (
Igros Kodesh, Vol. 17, p. 205; cf. Sefer HaMinhagim here) to whether a certain part of the nusach (prayer liturgy) should be said. The Rebbe writes: “It appears to me that Anash (i.e., Chabad chassidim) say it.” The implication is that there is such a thing as a “custom of chassidim”—that when we observe that in practice a certain thing is customarily said or done, that shows that the custom is proper. Likewise, our sages say of Jewish practices, 
“If [the Jewish people are not prophets, they are the children of prophets” (Pesachim 66a) and “Go out and see what regular people do” (Berachos 45a; Eruvin 14b, Rashi). 

However, in my humble opinion, at the same time, one must be wary. We see that even in the times of the Mitteler Rebbe, odd practices became widespread among otherwise sincere 
chassidim—practices that were in fact baseless, damaging, and the exact opposite of the true instructions of the Alter Rebbe and the Mitteler Rebbe. (See also Kuntres HaHispa’alus here, where the Mitteler Rebbe condemns another widespread misconception amongst his chassidim—the notion that all excitement and demonstrativeness in prayer is undesirable.)

If it could even happen then, it could surely happen nowadays, for we live in a world in which, like it or not, we are far more prone to being subconsciously swayed by foreign influences. And sadly, this is is all the more of a concern after Gimmel Tammuz, when we do not have the Rebbe keeping us in line by correcting us “from above,” along the lines of the above letter of the Mittele Rebbe.

Of course, if the Rebbe explicitly said something, then 
chassidim should certainly follow it. However, if the Rebbe didn’t, and it is just something that “people do, then perhaps one should think twice—especially if one senses that what is being promoted may be problematic. One should not automatically accept a claim that “in fact the Rebbe meant/wants” such-and-such without investigating it further and discussing it with a mashpia or a Rov, to see if perhaps this notion or practice being presented as proper does in fact contradict some idea in the teachings of our Rebbeim, or in our Torah in general.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Designating a place for tefilla

This week’s parsha tells of the Jews who were dying in the plague, and of Pinchas, who prayed for them. Of this it is written: “Pinchas stood and prayed, and the plague stopped” (Tehillim 106:30).

This brings us to the topic of standing in one place during prayer, as the
Gemoro (Berachos 6b) says:
Rabbi Chelbo said in the name of Rav Huna: Whoever designates a permanent place for his prayer, the G–d of Avraham assists him. And when he dies, it is said of him, “Woe, such a humble person; woe, such a pious person, among the students of Avraham our father!” From where do we know that Avraham our father designated a place? As it says, “Avraham arose early in the morning [and went to] the place where he had stood” (Bereshis 19:27) and “standing” means prayer, as it says, “Pinchas stood and prayed” (Tehillim 106:30).
Below I have compiled sources from the Rebbeim of Chabad on this topic:

The Alter Rebbe writes in a holy letter:
Once the Chazan begins the prayer of Hodu no one in the room where the Minyan is held may walk back and forth; it is especially forbidden to walk in front of those who are praying. This is completely forbidden by law of the Talmud. One who violates this should be distanced [from visiting the Alter Rebbe].

From the “Enactments of Liozna”—Igros Kodesh Admur HaZaken, p. 104. See also here.
The Mitteler Rebbe writes in his holy letters:
I have personally observed on several occasions an evil custom, one that has evolved amongst the masses of Chabad chassidim from great to small, though it is not intentional, for they do not know the root of the matter. Each one looks at his fellow and the young look at the adults, until the custom spread widely that one cannot concentrate on meditation [on Hashem’s greatness] in prayer unless one walks back and forth during prayer from corner to corner and runs with all his might as if he is greatly preoccupied with meditation. However, if he stands in his place, [it is thought that] he will attain nothing in his profound concentration and [efforts at] comprehension.

Oh, my brothers, do not treat my words lightly. They are said with sincerity, so may they be accepted eagerly, for they are said purely for your benefit. In worldly matters will any intelligent person say that walking and haste foster better concentration? Even in worldly matters it is the opposite—if one wishes to concentrate and make one’s mind up about something, he should stand or sit and reflect. Unless he is already very preoccupied, in which case he may come to pace back and forth automatically, without even realizing it at all. This is in fact the cause for this wicked, erroneous practice that has evolved among Chabad
chassidim from times of old, for they witnessed those of a high caliber meditating and excited, who in their preoccupation would run around tirelessly.

This too is imaginary, and in fact Hashem does not desire these people. For if one does indeed have what to concentrate on, he should sit specifically in his place, and return to Hashem with a lowly spirit, for he should know before Whom he stands. As is known, the whole concept of prayer in its root is founded on standing. This is known as “designates a permanent place for one’s prayer,” and it is written of anyone who does this that “the G–d of Avraham assists him, as it is written, ‘[Pinchas] stood [and prayed]’ (
Tehillim 106:30), and standing refers [only to prayer].”

The ones who know [mystical concepts] are aware of the secret of the matter: Standing is an external form of nullification, with one’s body. This is higher than internal nullification [to Hashem] in one’s mind and heart. The proof is from a mortal king, before whom the main nullification is external. All the profound intentions one should engage in during
Shemonah Esrei are said while standing. The same goes for Pesukei Dezimra and Shema and its blessings—it must all be said standing in one place, and one must know before Whom one stands ...
However, when we speak of reflecting upon G–d’s blessed Essence, it must be in a state of nullification while standing specifically in one place, as Eliyahu said: “By the life of Hashem before Whom I stood” (Melachim 1:17:1). We find the same concept in several verses, such as “Avraham was still standing [before Hashem]” (Bereishis 18:22), etc. The verses “walk before Me and be pure” (ibid. 17:1) and “Hashem, before Whom I have walked” (ibid. 24:40) refers to [one’s conduct] every day—that one should walk in the ways of G–d, and not deviate to the right or left, as is known to all.

It should not be necessary to explain something that is obvious to children. This declaration of mine is only intended to eradicate [this idea] from the hearts of those who erroneously attribute [their behavior to the example of] the great ones, who did not know [proper conduct], and after whom the masses followed, who did not even understand the meaning of the words [of prayer]. They too walk around while in deep concentration.

What a disgrace and tremendous desecration of Hashem’s name has resulted from this foolish custom. It cannot be described in text how much this has caused damage in all areas that require the acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven and [of internalizing]
Chassidus, etc. The wise ones will grasp these words of truth, and let the adults warn and command the young ones, and may this matter be abolished as if it never existed.

It is my duty to remind those who strive for this all their lives that they should remove sorrow and groaning from the heart of every man who trembles before Hashem and has pity for the honor of his G–d, which has been desecrated without any benefit at all. I testify that they should increase light specifically through the divine service of deep concentration, but they should not make breaches through walking, that is so idle and empty that it cannot be written. I witnessed all these walkers with my very own eyes, and my heart broke within me at these vain fancies. How long will the Satan dance?!

Thus, my beloved brothers, if you truly desire the closeness of Hashem, you will not listen to the voice of those who spread vain rumors. Rather, you will believe me in everything that I write, that this walking is nothing but foolishness and a rejection of the yoke [of the kingdom of Heaven]. It is merely a habit and a practice learned from what their eyes saw. Turn aside from this path of foolishness, which prevents [one from coming close to Hashem]. Every city and
Minyan that accepted these words of truth should inform me, and then I will know that they are faithful to Chassidus, etc. They should do as follows: The Gabbai should declare before prayer: “Let there be a pleasant silence, with prayer aloud,” and also a warning against walking.

The words of the one who pleads, and seeks your welfare with sincerity.

Igros Kodesh Admur Ha’Emtzai, pp. 310, 311, 312.

... Oh, how bitter it is for me when I see those who walk during
davvenen from one corner to another, preoccupied with their thoughts that are empty and dry of any excitement; in my opinion it is clear that the light of Hashem has never touched them in their lives.

Kuntres HaHispaalus, Sefer Hamaamorim Kuntreisim, p. 42.

... One should pay no attention to those who become engrossed in their thoughts and walk back and forth. It has already been pointed out that these walkers should be stopped, and every person should stand in his place ...

Igros Kodesh Admur Ha’Emtzai, p. 274. See also this letter from the Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek.
The Rebbe Rashab writes in Kuntres HaTefillah:
One should also stand in one place during prayer, and not walk back and forth.

Firstly, walking around during prayer distracts one from concentration and contemplation. Some people fool themselves, and claim that specifically when they walk around they are able to mediate better, with a sense of expansion in their mind and heart. This is a complete mistake, for this is nothing but a superficial expansion of the spirit and a sensation of the self; however, it has no internal impact. [On the contrary,] for one to attain true meditation in an expanded state of mind, in a manner that will affect him one internally, walking around detracts.

Moreover, it is unavoidable that [one who paces back and forth] will see everything that is happening inside and outside, and this will bother and distract him. Therefore one should stand in one place, and focus his mind and heart on prayer alone.

Kuntres HaTefillah, p. 23.
The Previous Rebbe says in a sicha:
I wish to rectify a tremendous area of neglect. Those who pace around during prayer, and especially outside (on the roof)—this is against Halacha. When one walks around during prayer, he welcomes the foreign thoughts. Not only does he fail to struggle against the foreign thoughts—he welcomes them.

You don’t just know me from today. I have always been accustomed to speaking softly. ... However, now I am speaking in a harsh manner, because it is of the utmost importance for everyone in terms of the life of his soul and the souls of his family.

I will relate a story. After my grandfather, the Rebbe Maharash, reached the age of Bar Mitzvah, his father, the Rebbe, the
Tzemach Tzedek summoned him, saying: “To know the Talmud is not a high level. To learn Ein Yaakov (a compilation of the Aggada in the Talmud) and know Aggada—that would be an accomplishment.” The Rebbe Maharash immediately began to study Ein Yaakov daily. It used to be the case that when [a Rebbe] would say something, people would immediately obey.

Once the
Tzemach Tzedek entered the room while the Rebbe Maharash was studying Ein Yaakov, and he found him studying the section in tractate Berachos (6b):
When Hashem enters the synagogue and does not find ten people, he immediately becomes angered, as it is written: “Why did I come, and there was no man ... ” (Yeshaya 50:2).
After this statement, the Talmud continues: “Whoever designates a permanent place for his prayer, the G–d of Avraham assists him.” On the words “the G–d of Avraham” Rashi comments: “who fixed a place for his prayer,” and on the words “will help him,” Rashi comments: “in the way that he helped Avraham.”

The Rebbe Maharash paused when learning this statement, and the
Tzemach Tzedek asked him: “What do you find difficult?” “I find the juxtaposition of these statements difficult,” the Rebbe Maharash responded. “Also, why does Rashi divide the one phrase—’the G–d of Avraham will help him’—in two?”

“It may be interpreted as follows,”
Tzemach Tzedek said. “The statement: ‘The G–d of Avraham—who fixed a place for his prayer” means that the G–d of Avraham fixed a place for His prayer. It does not refer to Avraham, but to the G–d of Avraham, and it is saying that He fixed a place for Himself. I.e., [Hashem says that] “In this place I wish to hear the person’s prayer, and not elsewhere; elsewhere I don’t want to hear him at all.”

I want these words not to remain on paper; rather, they should be engraved in the mind and heart of everyone. Out of love for one’s fellow Jew, everyone who heard this should inform his friend who was not present here.

Sefer HaSichos 5696-Winter 5700 pp. 284-285.
  • Walking back and forth during tefilla is forbidden by Halacha.
  • The Alter Rebbe declared that those who act in this way would not be admitted to Yechidus when they would come to visit him.
  • Pacing back and forth doesn’t assist deeper concentration; it only detracts from it. One who truly wishes to engage in Hisbonenus must sit still.
  • One should pay no attention to the poor example in this regard of some otherwise respectable chassidim.
  • This practice desecrates Hashem’s Name.
  • This is not a reason to cease engaging in proper Hisbonenus while sitting in one place.
  • If necessary, the Gabbai should announce, in addition to other things, that no one may pace back and forth during the service.
  • Those who claim that they feel a more expanded state of mind when they walk back and forth should know that this is illusory, and this practice only prevents proper concentration.
  • One who paces back and forth will also be distracted from his tefilla by the things he sees in Shul.
  • Rectifying this breach is of the utmost importance for everyone in terms of the life of his own soul and the souls of his family.
  • Hashem doesn’t want to listen to prayers uttered when one has wandered away from one’s designated place for tefilla.
  • Love of one’s fellow Jew should spur everyone who learns of the severity of walking in tefilla to influence others to be careful in this area.
(If anyone knows of any other sources from the Rebbeim of Chabad that speak against walking around during tefilla, please let me know.)