Friday, November 27, 2015

What is the “Self?”

Photo (c) Dovid Sears 2011

Some Speculations by Dovid Sears

In the Introduction to the Tikuney Zohar, the Prophet Elijah describes how the various sefiros (Divine powers) correspond to the human form (“chesed / kindness is the right arm, gevurah / might is the left arm,” etc.), and then states that nevertheless G-d transcends them all, as well as all Divine Names: “There is none who can know You at all… Each sefirah has a specific Name… However, You have no specific Name, for You permeate all Names, and you are the perfection of the all (‘shelimu de-khulhu,’ in Aramaic)…” The Tikuney Zohar concludes that all powers and emanations, and all Divine Names, are related to the world and therefore limited, while the Divine Essence is indescribable and beyond all limitation entirely. (Also see a similar teaching from the Baal Shem Tov cited in Ohr ha-Meir, Shoftim, that G-d’s “true greatness” transcends His Essential Name [YHVH], which exists only for the sake of creation.)

This may be related to a cryptic statement of the Rebbe preserved in Reb Avraham b’Reb Nachman’s Chokhmah u-Binah (printed in Kokhvey Ohr and Siach Sarfey Kodesh I, 413): “Ich hobb shum nomen nisht—I have no name whatever.”

That is, just as Hashem transcends all Names and Divine manifestations, so does the tzaddik transcend his own “personality” and presence in the world. The essence of being remains unmanifest and nameless.

The Rebbe also teaches that “the name is the self.” Thus, mesirus nefesh, which is usually understood to mean martyrdom or self-sacrifice, also may denote the defamation of one’s name (Likutey Moharan I, 260). Since the name is the “self,” it may be subject to defamation—or its opposite, glorification or adulation.

In Likutey Moharan I, 52 (“Ha-nei’or ba-Laylah”), the Rebbe outlines the path of hisbodedus and the spiritual realization or breakthrough that is its goal. He explains that in truth, everything proceeds from and is nullified within the Mechuyav ha-Metziyus (“Imperative Existent,” a term borrowed from Maimonides, meaning “Absolute Reality,” or the indestructible essence of being”—which is Divinity). In his recent collection of chiddushim and bi’urim on Likutey Moharan, “Mayim Amukim” (ad loc.), Rabbi Shmuel Moshe Kramer of Yerushalayim equates this with the mystical experience often related to the verse “Ein ode milvado” (Deut. 4:35, according to the interpretation of Shnei Luchos ha-Bris and the Maharal of Prague; also cf. Chullin 7b, Nefesh ha-Chaim III, 12-13, and elsewhere)—that is, despite all appearances, nothing but Godliness truly exists. On that higher plane, what names may we invoke? Who and what are we to invoke them at all?

Also in the above-mentioned Torah 260, the Rebbe describes the souls of Israel as “chelkey ha-Shekhinah / portions of the Divine Presence,” and individually with the phrase “chelek HaVaYaH (YHVH) mi-ma’al mamash … an actual portion of Divinity above” (which interestingly is also the language of the Tanya, as based on the 17th century kabbalistic work, Shefa Tal). This seems to be a mystical reading of the verse from Deuteronomy, “chelek HaVaYaH (YHVH) amo… the portion of Hashem (YHVH) is his people…” If so, this “actual portion of G-dliness above” is who we really are, collectively and individually.

In Likutey Moharan II, 82, the Rebbe cites the retort of Moshe to the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness, “Vi-nachnu mah—and what are we?” The Rebbe interprets this as an expression of “no-ego,” no “self” to impose on others, or to defend from insult or opposition. (And he recommends this model to us all when we are faced with opposition and conflict.) Thus, the concept of a solid or fixed self is negated.

Elsewhere, the Rebbe describes both the tzaddik and the Jewish people as personifying the Divine Name (Likutey Moharan II, 66, 67). For as Chazal state, “Hashem meshutaf bi-shmeinu … G-d’s Name is bound up with our names” (Rashi on Numbers 26:5). Given this principle, it would seem that our names are somewhat provisional. And as the Tikuney Zohar observes, from the Divine perspective, Hashem transcends all Names.

Yet another relevant source is Sichos ha-Ran 40, a Chanukah teaching that I once translated for this website as “The Wheel of Transformation.” There, the Rebbe describes the Holy Temple as being like the dreidel or toy top which children spin on Chanukah, because it embodies the principle that everything in creation is constantly changing, and nothing retains any permanent existence. (See that teaching for how these symbols specifically connect.)

Toward the end of that teaching, the Rebbe mentions that the prima materia (“hyle”), which is the “nothingness” from whence all creation in all of its diversity comes forth, is called “chokhmah.” As in other kabbalistic works, he parses chokhmah as  koach-mah, the “power of nothingness?” This is the same concept as found in Torah II, 82, cited above, and Moshe’s rhetorical question, “Vi-nachnu mah? What are we?” (Meaning: “We are nothing.”)

Therefore, the Big Question is: what is the “self?”

And the person to whom this question expressly must be addressed is oneself—whoever that may be!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Breslov Retreat: A Shabbat of Inspiration and Connection

Join us Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 27-29, for an exciting Breslov Shabbaton, at the scenic SSJEC Retreat Center in Fallsburg, NY.

The program features:
  • Inspiring lectures by Breslov Campus teachers, Chaim Kramer and Yehudis Golshevski, as well as other great teachers
  • Joyful Breslov davening
  • Delectable food 
  • Relax at the heated indoor swimming pool and recreation room
  • A special musical Melaveh Malka with Yehudis Golshevski for women
And much more.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Rav Kenig Visits Monsey Breslov Yeshiva

Rav Elazar Kenig, Manhig of the Breslov community of Tsfat, shlit”a, recently visited the Breslov Mesivta Ha-Bachurim in Monsey. The Rav gave words of encouragement and awakening from the holy teachings of Rebbe Nachman, and expressed his enthusiam for the holiness and diligence in Torah study he saw in the yeshiva, which maintains strong bonds with the Breslov Gedolim in Eretz Yisrael (Rav Yaakov Meir Schechter, shlit”a, in particular). 

Rav Kenig stressed that the study of Gemara with Rashi and Tosefos is central to the spiritual path laid out by the Rebbe, and that it is a Kiddush Hashem to devote ourselves to “davening and learning and davening.” This is the main way to receive the light that the Rebbe wishes to transmit to us through his wondrous teachings. 

He also had high words of praise for the dedication and accomplishments of the yeshiva’s hanholah: the Geonim Rabbi Yosef Dovid Meilish, Rabbi Chaim Ber Sherrer, Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Miller, and Rabbi Yoel Shpitz, and gave his warm blessings to the yeshiva and everyone associated with it. 

Rav Kenig will spend this coming Shabbos in Montreal, returning to Monsey next week. It is not yet clear how long he will be staying here before returning to Eretz Yisrael.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Living like Sarah

From Reb Noson’s Likutey Halakhos, Hilkhos Tefillin 5:28
Translated by Dovid Sears

“And the life of Sarah was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years – [these were] the years of Sarah’s life” (Genesis 23:1). Our sages interpret this to mean that when Sarah was one hundred years old, she was like twenty [regarding innocence of sin]; and when she was twenty years old, she was like seven [regarding beauty] (Bereishis Rabbah 58:1, as cited by Rashi, ad loc.).  

For this is the the gist of attaining wholeness (sheleimus): one should begin to live again in every moment. Even when one reaches old age, it should be in one’s own sight as if he were entirely newborn, as if he had not yet begun to live and to serve G-d. One should always begin anew to live the life of divine service.

This is the paradigm of “when she was one hundred years old, she was like twenty, and when she was twenty years old, she was like seven” [and] “These were the years of Sarah’s life”—they were all equally good. For the older a tzaddik becomes, he still remains like an infant in his own sight, as if he were still a child. In this way, he contantly increases his divine service and merits to attain long life in truth. All of his days and years are years of true life, because he doesn’t lose a single day of his life without increasing in holiness and vitality. This is the meaning of the years of Sarah’s life were equally good, which is the aspect of long life.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Rav Kenig in Monsey

Rav Elazar Mordechai Kenig, leader of the Tsfat Breslev community, will be arriving in New York this Thursday, Oct. 29G-d willing. As in the past, he will be staying with the Klein family at 19 Briarwood Lane, Monsey, NY. Those who wish to consult him for advice or blessings may schedule an appointment through the Klein family: 845-425-6274. They should know if the Rav will be with them for Shabbos and be able to give more details about his immediate plans. He usually teaches while here in America, and speaks publicly during the Third Shabbos Meal. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

“Avraham Was One”

Hashmatah: Likutey Moharan Tinyana

The following teaching is not numbered, but was included by Reb Noson at the beginning of Likutey Moharan Part II (“Tinyana”), which he first published in 1811, the year after our teacher Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s passing. Thereafter, the two parts were published together. We do not know why Reb Noson decided not to include this teaching in the sequence of the lessons, but we may speculate that by placing it at the beginning of Part II, he saw it as a general directive to all who would embark upon the path of Divine service.

This translation and original commentary (based on traditional sources) were authored by Rabbi Chaim Kramer and Rabbi Moshe Mykoff, as edited by Rabbi Ozer Bergman, for the Breslov Research Institute (BRI) English edition of Likutey Moharan, Vol. XII, pp. 2-5. We are grateful to the publisher for allowing us to post excerpts from this and other BRI books.

“Avraham Was One”
“ Echad hayah Avraham (Avraham was one)” (Ezekiel 33:24).

Avraham worshipped God only because he was “one”—because he considered himself alone in the world. He paid no attention whatsoever to people who turned him away from God and hindered him, or his father or others who would interfere. Rather, it was as if he was the only one in the world. This is the meaning of “Avraham was one.”

And it is the same for anyone who wants to embark upon the service of God. The only way for him to get started is by thinking that other than himself, there is absolutely no one else in the world. He should pay no attention to anyone who would hinder him, such as his father and mother, or his father‑in‑law, and his wife and children, or the like; or to the obstacles that he has from other people who ridicule, instigate against or obstruct his service of God. He has to be unconcerned with them and pay them no mind. Rather, he should adopt an “Avraham was one” attitude—as if he is the only one in the world, as discussed above.


Avraham was one. During the reign of King Tzidkiyahu, with most of the Holy Land in ruins, God sent the prophet Yechezkel to rebuke the Jewish people (Radak). Although the Jews were guilty of the atrocities enumerated (loc. cit.), they nonetheless considered themselves deserving of the Land. The full verse reads: “The Word of God came to me, saying, ‘Son of Man, the inhabitants of these ruins in the Land of Israel speak, claiming, ‘Avraham was one, yet he was granted possession of the Land. We are many; the Land has [surely] been given to us as a heritage.”‘ Commenting on this verse, Rashi cites Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s explanation of the Jewish people’s reasoning: Avraham was given only one mitzvah, circumcision yet he inherited the Land; we, who have been charged with numerous commandments, certainly have been granted possession of the Land.

Avraham worshipped God only because he was one ... alone in the world. Rebbe Nachman reads the words “Avraham was one” as alluding to what it was that enabled Avraham to stand up against an entire world of idolaters and proclaim his belief in the one, true God. In the context of our lesson, “Avraham was one” teaches that the first patriarch of the Jews saw himself as though he were alone in the world, as the Rebbe explains next.

Not his father or anyone else.... The Midrash teaches that Avraham’s father, Terach, was an idolater. After Avraham destroyed his father’s statues, Terach turned his son over to the ruler of the land, Nimrod, who had Avraham thrown into the furnace at Ur Kasdim for refusing to worship idolatry (Bereishit Rabbah 38:13). Despite great adversity, even the threat of death, Avraham was not swayed by those who sought to deter him from serving God. Rebbe Nachman explains that Avraham succeeded in overcoming all opposition because he paid no mind to everyone else—i.e., for him, it was as if these obstacles did not exist. It made no difference what got in his way; neither Terach’s power over Avraham as his father, nor Nimrod’s power over Avraham as the preeminent ruler of the region, could force him to be untrue to his belief.

And it is the same for anyone ... as discussed above. Rebbe Nachman now applies his teaching about “Avraham was one” to all those who desire to serve God and come closer to Him. Such a person must pay no heed to anyone who seeks to undermine his determination, whether through logical arguments or emotional pleas. This is true even of the opposition of those closest to him, including parents, spouse, children and in‑laws, all of whom believe they have his best interest at heart. The most important thing in life is serving God. One’s spiritual attainments are the only things that remain with a person after passing from the world. Therefore, the Rebbe teaches, a person has to adopt an “Avraham was one” attitude, as if he is alone with God in the world. Only this will enable him to “inherit the Land”—i.e., attain the World to Come.

In Likutey Tefilot, Reb Noson links this teaching with the words of the psalmist: “I look to the right and see no one who knows me. I have nowhere to escape, no one who looks out for my soul. I cried out to You, 0 God! I said, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living...’ “ (Psalms 142:5‑6). Reb Noson writes that not a day goes by without a person encountering some new obstacle to his devotions and fresh opposition to his worship of God. Let him pray that he not to be influenced by these hindrances or pay them any mind, and let him plead for mercy and assistance in overcoming all challenges to his following the true path to God (Likutey Tefilot I, #149).

Once, while discussing Avraham’s burning desire for God, Reb Noson said that Avraham was not only the first to reveal God in the world but also die first to serve Him with such intensity and sincerity. Hearing this, a disciple sitting nearby groaned. “How can we ever attain such a burning desire?” he wondered aloud. Reb Noson rebuked the disciple, saying, “You also have such a heart! But you don’t make it ‘hearty’ enough!” Reb Noson’s point was that everyone has free choice; there is no one who is not free to strive for the highest levels. This is as our Sages teach (Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah #25:2): A person must always say, “When will my deeds reach the level of my ancestors’ deeds?” (Magid Sichot).

A different time, to prove a point he was making, Reb Noson brought an example from the patriarch Yitzchak. His interlocutor objected that this was no proof, for Yitzchak’s righteousness was beyond human comprehension and comparison. “What do you think,” Reb Noson countered, “that Yitzchak did not have an evil inclination which he had to overcome? If he didn’t, he could never have become Yitzchak!” (ibid.).