Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Letting in the Light, Part II


(c) Dovid Sears

Letting in the Light, Part II
Likutey Moharan I, 172
Dovid Sears

In Part I we discussed the Rebbe’s teaching on going beyond the ego, particularly through hisbodedus. Here we will explore some of its implications in terms of tzedakah and the mitzvos, citing a section of Reb Noson’s Likutey Halakhos and a mystical insight from Rav Kook.

The Art of Giving

Reb Noson uncovers still another dimension of this lesson's meaning by relating the negation of the shadow to tzedakah, giving charity, and by implication, performing all the commandments.[i]

The charity one gives to a needy person is a most lofty thing; as our sages taught, it is comparable to fulfilling the entire Torah.[ii] For through tzedakah, one removes the "shadow" and reveals G-d's glory. All deficiencies are the result of the shadow, which blocks the light. However, giving charity eradicates poverty and deficiency. Through this, one removes the shadow that disrupts the light of G-d's beneficence.

Thus, the verse states in reference to tzedakah, "With righteousness (tzedek), I shall behold Your face" (Psalms 17:15). When the shadow departs, the "light of G-d's face," so to speak, is revealed. This is the aspect of "The entire earth is full of His glory" (op cit.). This, too, is the meaning of the verse, "But unto you who fear My Name, a sun of righteousness (tzedakah) shall shine" (Malachi 3:20) - for when the shadow departs, the light of the sun shines brightly. All this is accomplished by tzedakah.

Therefore, tzedakah brings about atonement for sin, as it states, "Redeem your sin through tzedakah…" (Daniel 4:24). Sin creates a dividing barrier, a shadow that interferes with divine illumination, occluding the revelation of G-d's face according to the severity of the transgression. All harmful effects of sin are the result of this obstruction of the light. However, tzedakah draws down heavenly beneficence, directing it to the place of impoverishment and deficiency and removing the shadow. Thus, by undoing the effects of sin, tzedakah brings about atonement.

This is why giving tzedakah is equivalent to fulfilling the entire Torah. The encompassing purpose of the Torah is to reveal G-d's glory, as it is written, "For My glory I created it…" (Isaiah 43:7); in the holy Zohar's phrase, [the purpose of creation is] "bi-gin de-ishtimodin lei . . . in order to know Him."[iii] Through the performance of all the commandments, the barrier, which is the shadow, disappears, allowing the light of G-d's glory to shine through; and this is especially true of tzedakah.[iv]

The act of giving nullifies the root of all negative traits: ego. It represents the shift from the illusion of the self as “something special” – that is, an autonomous entity, seeking its own gratification – to the perception of true reality: the interconnectedness of creation. And it expresses the ethic of striving to benefit all creatures that goes hand in hand with this perception. In the words of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570):

Divine wisdom gives life to all things. As it is written, 'Wisdom gives life to those who possess it' (Ecclesiastes 7:12). Likewise, one should teach the ways of life to the entire world, obtaining for them life in this world and the World to Come, and providing them with the means to live. This is the rule: one must be flowing with life toward all beings.[v] 

The Commandments

The mitzvos, too, express this paradigm of giving. The kabbalists compare the mitzvos to "620 pillars of light."[vi] Each mitzvah is a channel for the divine light, bringing about an accord between G-d, Whose will it expresses, and man, who receives an influx of spiritual illumination in fulfilling G-d's will. Performing the mitzvos thus accomplishes the unification of the highest and lowest of the ten sefiros, or divine powers that make up the infrastructure of the universe. Keser, the "Supernal Crown" (which bears the gematria of 620) is the source of G-d's primordial will; thus it is conceived as hovering above all manifestation. Malkhus, "Kingship," reflects the fruition of that primordial will on the lowest plane of creation.

Because it transcends all form and limitation, Keser is also associated with the aspect of ayin (nothingness) in relation to the rest of the sefiros. Man, being "created in the divine image" (Genesis 1:26), possesses powers analogous to those of the Creator. Thus, through our performing the positive and negative mitzvot, the aspects of both doing and non-doing, all expressions of human power, return to the true source of power, which is the divine will. In the phrase of the holy Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), the ani ("I") reverts to ayin ("nothingness").[vii]
When we give tzedakah or fulfill the mitzvot with bittul - no ego - we become spiritually reoriented. We understand that we are inextricably bound up with the entire universe, and with the One Who continually brings everything into existence, every moment. We realize that the "self" is but a note in a chord in the silent symphony of all creation. This perception is the Song of the Future World of which Rebbe Nachman speaks in the last discourse of his life:[viii] the Song of the Four Letter Name YHVH permuted as yud, yud-heh, yud-heh-vav, yud-heh-vav-heh, corresponding to the Four Worlds: the Song of Oneness that we are all waiting to simultaneously sing and hear.[ix]
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, one of the seminal Jewish thinkers of the 20th century and a great admirer of Rebbe Nachman, also speaks movingly of this “Fourfold Song” and explains it as an expression of compassion:

There is one who sings the song of his own soul, and within his soul he finds everything: full spiritual satisfaction.

Another sings the song of his people. He leaves the circle of his individual being because he finds it without sufficient breadth, lacking an idealistic basis. He aspires toward the heights, and attaches himself with ethereal love to the community of Israel entirely. Together with her, he sings her songs. He suffers in her afflictions and delights in her hopes. He contemplates sublime and pure thoughts about her past and her future, and probes with love and wisdom of the heart her spiritual essence.

There is another whose soul expands until it goes beyond the boundary of Israel to sing the song of humanity. His spirit extends to the wider vistas of humanity as a whole, and the splendor of the divine image [in which man was created]. He aspires toward man’s collective goal and looks forward to his higher perfection. From this source of life, he draws the subjects of his meditation and intellectual inquiry, his aspirations and visions.

There is still another who rises toward even wider vistas, until he links himself with all existence, with all creatures, with all worlds; and with all of them he sings his song. Of one such as this, tradition has said that whoever sings “Perek Shirah” [a rabbinic work mentioned in the Talmud which attributes various Scriptural verses to the various birds and animals] every day is assured of a place in the World to Come.

And then there is one who ascends with these songs in one great symphony, and they all lend their voices. Together they sing their songs with sweet delight, each transmitting vitality and life to the other: a sing of happiness and joy, a song of mirth and exultation, a song of gladness and joy!

The song of the self, the song of the people, the song of humanity, and the song of the universe all merge in him at all times, in every hour. And this unity rises in its fullness to become the song of holiness, the song of G-d, the song of Israel, in its awesome strength and beauty, in its truth and greatness.

The name “Israel” stands for shir E-l, the “song of G-d.” It is a simple song, a twofold song, a threefold song, and a fourfold song. It is the Song of Solomon (Hebrew: “Shlomo”), whose name means “peace” or “wholeness.” It is the song of “the King unto Whom wholeness belongs”(Shabbos Zemiros).[x]




NOTES:
[i] Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi observes that throughout the Jerusalem Talmud, tzedakah is simply termed "the mitzvah (commandment)" (Likutey Amarim-Tanya, chap. 37). Thus, tzedakah implicitly includes all of the mitzvot; see Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Sefer haMiddos, Tzedakah II, 14; Rabbi Gedaliah Aharon Kenig, Chayei Nefesh, chap. 23.
[ii] Yerushalmi Pe'ah 1:1.
[iii] Zohar II, 42b.
[iv] Reb Noson Sternhartz, Likutey Halakhos, Hil. Tzedakah 3, s.v. vi-zeh bechinas mitzvas tzedakah.
[v] Tomer Devorah ("Palm Tree of Deborah"), chap. 3.
[vi] Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Sefer haTanya, Igeres haKodesh, Letter 29, 149b (p. 298), citing Pardes Rimonim 8:3, et al.
[vii] Rabbi Chaim Vital, Etz Chaim, Sha'ar Drushey A-B-Y-'A, 1. "Ani" is spelled alef-nun-yud. Rearranged, these letters also spell "ayin"; also cf. Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch, Likkutim Yekarim, 154; Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, Me'or Einayim, Likkutim, s.v. Ma'amar "Tik'u ba-chodesh shofar." The latter teaching relates this to the paradigm of the soundings of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah: the first long sound represents the transcendent divine essence, which precedes creation; the broken sound represents the realm of multiplicity; and the third long sound represents the return to the divine essence.
[viii] Likutey Moharan II, 8 ("Tik'u / Tokhachah").
[ix] This is called the Shem be-Achorayim, or "Divine Name That Goes Back to the Beginning." That is, each of the four "phases" of the Name begins with the first letter yud, in a pattern of 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4. These four phases correspond to the Four Worlds, and collectively represent what the Zohar calls "The Song That Will Be Awakened in the Future" (Tikuney Zohar, Tikkun 21, 51b).
[x] Rabbi David Cohen, ed., Oros haKodesh (Jerusalem: Mosad HaRav Kook, 1985) Vol. II, “Be-Achdus ha-Koleles,” 30 (pp. 444-45). Cf. Reb Noson’s homiletical interpretation which compares the Fourfold Song to four levels of simchah (joy):  the simple song corresponds to the spark of faith that is “hardwired” into the soul of every Jew; it is a “simple” song because in the depths of his being, every Jew believes in the absolutely simple Oneness of G-d. The doubled song corresponds to one’s faith in the true tzaddikim. The tripled song corresponds to one’s discovery of the good points that one still possesses, despite all of one’s past failings; and the quadrupled song corresponds to one’s present ability to latch onto the good and to accept with joy the “yoke of the kingdom of heaven.” In doing so, one’s life becomes an expression of the fourfold Song and a vehicle for the four letters of G-d’s Name Y-H-V-H (Likutey Halakhos, Minchah 7:53).

Monday, July 30, 2012

Letting in the Light, Part I

(c) Dovid Sears

Letting in the Light, Part I
A Shiur on Likutey Moharan I, 172
Dovid Sears

It is told that when the notoriously acerbic Chasidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1789-1859) was a little boy, his schoolteacher once jestingly remarked, "I'll give you a penny (or whatever a small coin was called in Poland back then) if you can tell me where G-d is!"

            "I'll give you two," the child shot back, "if you can tell me where He isn't!"

G-d is absolutely transcendent - infinite, omnipotent, above all change, all limitations; an absolute unity and not a compound. Yet at the same time, He is right here with us, for "His Glory fills all of the world."[i] G-d is also immanent.

In Likutey Moharan II, 7 ("For a Compassionate One Shall Lead Them"), Rebbe Nachman relates these two ways of thinking about G-d to a passage from the Shabbos and Yom Tov prayer service.[ii] The congregation quotes the words of the Ministering Angels, who ask: "Where is the place of His Glory (i.e., G-d's Revelation)?" - which is a rhetorical question meaning that G-d is unknowable. Yet in the next breath, the worshippers declare "His glory fills all of the world!" How these two perceptions fit together is a paradox that the rational mind cannot grasp; but in truth, they are two sides of the same coin. G-d's essential nature is a total mystery; the kabbalists call Him "E-l Mistater . . . G-d Who Conceals Himself."[iii] Nevertheless, solve this riddle we must - for the very purpose of creation is, in the Zohar's phrase "bi-gin de-ishtimodin lei . . . in order to know Him."[iv] Certainly this can’t mean intellectual knowledge, for it is utterly above our heads. It is mystical knowledge.

Another story is told of Rabbi Barukh of Medzhibuzh (1757-1810). Once his grandson and a few friends were playing a game of hide and seek. After awhile the little boy came out of his hiding place, and realized that his companions had run away without even bothering to look for him. Crying, he ran to his grandfather and complained about his uncaring friends. Rabbi Barukh's eyes, too, filled with tears. "G-d says the same thing,” he explained. “He hides, but no one bothers to seek Him!”

The first thing we must realize is that encountering G-d's hiddenness is not the end of the story, but only marks the beginning of our quest - even if we must begin anew again and again, even if we must do so seemingly ad infinitum.

The Chasidic Way
The Baal Shem Tov paved a unique path for seekers of G-d, a way not only to understand something of G-d conceptually, but also to experience Divinity.[v] To understand Rebbe Nachman's teachings, we must have at least an inkling of the approach of his illustrious great-grandfather, which he imbibed in his very mother's milk.

The Baal Shem Tov wanted us to realize that the world and the self are no more than a mask for G-dliness. Thus, he taught:

"Shema Yisrael . . . Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our G-d, the Lord is One" (Deuteronomy 6:6). When you recite the word "One," you should contemplate that the Holy One, blessed be He, is all that truly exists. A person must realize that he is nothing - for the essence of a human being is the soul, and the soul is but a "portion of G-d Above." Therefore, nothing truly exists except the Holy One, blessed be He.[vi]

This particularly applies to those times when G-d seems to be completely hidden from us:

It is written, "And I will surely hide (haster astir) My face" (Deuteronomy 31:18). As soon as you realize that the Holy One, blessed be He, is hidden, there is no longer any concealment, and all negativity disappears. Thus, the verse uses a double expression of concealment - haster astir. There are times when G-d will also hide the knowledge that He is present in the midst of His hiddenness.[vii]

That is, G-d is only concealed when we let the world fool us. In truth, “no place is empty of Him.”[viii] G-d is right here, because there is nowhere else for the universe to exist but within G-d. Anything less than this would contradict the basic belief that G-d is infinite and absolutely one. The Baal Shem Tov also insists that perception of G-d's omnipresence is not only attainable through "peak experiences," but can illuminate our most ordinary activities:

When you realize that the Master of the Universe is actually present in your every word and gesture, however great or small, all confusions disperse that eclipse the light of the Mind.[ix]

This is the solution to the problem of suffering, which is only possible when a person becomes alienated from G-d. As the Baal Shem Tov states:

It is written, "I, I am the One Who consoles you" (Isaiah 51:12) [repeating the word "I"]. When you realize that the true "I" is G-d, and nothing exists aside from Him - then [the divine assurance is fulfilled that] "I am the One Who consoles you."[x]

Thus, the Baal Shem Tov paved a path illuminated by and directed toward this perception of G-d's Oneness. The only catch was how to open our eyes so that we, too, might share it. As we shall see in the following teaching, this was Rebbe Nachman's concern, no less than that of his holy great-grandfather.

Light and Shadow

In this brief lesson, Rebbe Nachman further develops what scholars of religion term the Baal Shem Tov's panentheism - the belief that G-d is present within all things, despite His ultimate transcendence. And he zeros in on our most practical concern, namely how one can penetrate the illusion of the world and glimpse the Divine Essence within all things. Rebbe Nachman explains:

Whatever one lacks - whether concerning children, livelihood, or health - everything is from the side of the person himself. For the light of G-d flows upon one continuously; however, through evil deeds, each person makes a shadow for himself, so that the divine light does not reach him.[xi] According to one's actions, a shadow is cast which obstructs the light of G-d. The deficiency is commensurate with the deed that created the shadow.

Now, a shadow is produced by a physical thing that stands before a spiritual thing [i.e., something of a more subtle nature] - just as a physical stick or stone placed opposite the light of the moon or sun will cast a shadow. Likewise, a solar or lunar eclipse is due to the shadow of the earth.[xii] Moreover, the sun itself is physical in relation to that which is above it, and casts a shadow against it.[xiii]

Therefore, according to one's materialistic attachments and actions, one creates a shadow within him that prevents G-d's light and bounty from reaching him. However, if a person nullifies himself and no longer exists in this [illusory] world at all, he no longer casts a shadow, and receives the light of G-d, may He be blessed.

The essence of the divine light is glory; for "all that the Holy One, blessed be He, created, He created for His glory, as it is written: 'For My glory I created it…' (Isaiah 43:7)."[xiv] 

This is the meaning of "The entire world is full (mi-lo kol ha'aretz) of His glory" (ibid. 6:3). That is, if one is "not of the world altogether [mi-lo kol ha'aretz, a play on words]" and has no part in this world at all - then he receives the light of G-d, which is the divine glory.

This, too, is the meaning of "The wise will inherit glory" (Proverbs 3:35), for "wisdom comes forth from nothingness" (Job 28:12).[xv] Therefore, the wise, who are "nothing," are granted a perception of glory. Having overcome all materialism, they do not create an obstructing shadow.

            The concluding paragraph of this lesson introduces the idea that mystical perception also depends on one's emotional state:

When G-d, may He be blessed, displays a joyous face (panim), this brings life and good to the world; and the opposite is also true, G-d forbid. Similarly, when the tzaddik displays a joyous face, it is good - and vice-versa.[xvi] This is the meaning of the verse "See, today I have placed before you [lifneykhem, which is etymologically related to the word panim, meaning 'face'] life and good, as well as death…" (Deuteronomy 11:26) - that is, lifneykhem, according to your face.

At a glance, this may seem to have a somewhat tenuous connection to the previous theme. The lynch pin is Rebbe Nachman's reference at the beginning of his teaching to both a solar and lunar eclipse and the cosmic hierarchy. Let’s take a closer look at his words: “Likewise, a solar or lunar eclipse is due to the shadow of the earth. Moreover, the sun itself is physical in relation to that which is above it, and casts a shadow against it.” In kabbalistic terms, the sun and moon correspond to mashpi'a, the "giver" or source of influence, and mekabel, the receiver. On the one hand, the tzaddik is like the moon, being a receiver in relation to G-d. On the other, he is like the sun, being a giver in relation to the world, particularly to those on lower spiritual levels. Only a perfect tzaddik can attain total bittul - absolute nullification of ego that eliminates every trace of the shadow. Thus, in order to fulfill our potential, we who occupy lower levels must receive illumination from the tzaddikim.[xvii]
With his last remarks, Rebbe Nachman lets us know that this illumination is conditioned by our approach, the "face" we display. G-d's "face," or manner of revelation, depends on our "face," meaning our spiritual state.[xviii] If we wallow in coarse materialism, we block the light. If we detach ourselves from worldly vanities and let go of our all-consuming self-interest, we immediately become receptors for G-dliness - and, by implication, the light of the tzaddik, who transmits the divine light to us, just as the sun illuminates the moon.[xix]

Hisbodedus

Elsewhere, Reb Noson adds that he heard a slightly different version of this teaching from another disciple of Rebbe Nachman. This version is even more lucid:

You must nullify each of your negative traits until you have annihilated the ego completely, as if it were utterly non-existent.

Begin with one negative trait and nullify it completely, until not a trace remains. Then work on your other negative traits, one at a time, until they no longer exist. As you nullify the ego, G-d's glory will begin to shine through and be revealed. G-d's glory is like light, as the verse states, "And the earth is illuminated with His glory" (Ezekiel 43:2).

After reiterating the analogy of the physical object placed before the sunlight that casts a shadow, this second version of the teaching concludes:

Thus, it is written, "The entire world is full (mi-lo kol ha'aretz) of His glory" (Isaiah 6:3). When there is nothing to cast a shadow and thereby obstruct the light, His glory is revealed through all the earth.[xx]

This corresponds to the path of hisbodedus Rebbe Nachman outlines in Likutey Moharan I, 52 ("HaNe'or baLaylah / One Who Awakens in the Night"). Through hisbodedus - going out alone at night to a secluded place where people do not commonly go even by day, and speaking to G-d in one's own words - one may systematically nullify all negative personality traits until one attains bittul, total self-effacement. Rebbe Nachman's descriptions of this process in both lessons are almost identical. By removing these negative traits, we remove the shadow, allowing the light of G-d, Who is the “Imperative Existent,” to shine forth. (We should add that bittul is not to be confused with low self-esteem or self-hatred, traits that are merely the "flip side" of self-importance. We are supposed to hate our evil traits, but not become morbidly obsessed with ourselves in so doing. Rather, bittul denotes transcendence of the ego - seeing through the illusion of the self as something that exists apart from G-d.) Thus, it seems that the most basic way to put this teaching into practice is through hisbodedus.




NOTES:
[i] Siddur, based on Isaiah 6:3.
[ii] Musaf, Kedushah.
[iii] Rabbi Avraham Maimon, a disciple of 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, composed a mystical song paraphrasing Isaiah 45:15 ("For You are a Self-Concealing G-d") that is still widely sung today during the Third Sabbath Meal.
[iv] Zohar II, 42b. This concept is often cited by the Chasidic masters, e.g. Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, Me'or Einayim, Chayei Sarah, Ma'amar "Vi-Avraham Zaken."
[v] Thus, when Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, first visited the Baal Shem Tov, his future mentor challenged his understanding of a passage in the Arizal’s Eitz Chaim that discussed the names of various angels. When the Maggid countered by asking the Baal Shem Tov to offer a better explanation, if indeed he knew one, the Baal Shem Tov began to speak. The room immediately became suffused with light, and the Maggid actually beheld the awe-inspiring angels in question. Later, the Baal Shem Tov explained, "Your interpretation was not incorrect - but it had no soul!" (Keter Shem Tov, Kehot 1982 ed., sec. 424).
[vi] Likkutim Yekarim 161; in the Breslov literature, cf. Rabbi Nachman Goldstein of Tcherin, Otzar haYirah, Emes vaTzedek, "Bittul el Ohr Ein Sof,” sec. 9 (citing Likutey Halakhos).
[vii] Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye, Toldos Ya'akov Yosef, Bereshis.
[viii] Hakdamah, Tikuney Zohar.
[ix] Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Yehudah Yechiel Safrin of Komarno, Nesiv Mitzvotekha, cited in Sefer haBaal Shem Tov, Vayelekh, note 6.
[x] Rabbi Gedaliah of Linitz, Teshu'os Chen, Tzav.
[xx] Also cf. Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, Me'or Einayim, Noach, s.v. va-tishaches ha'aretz (New Square 1997 ed., vol. I, p. 30).
[xii]It is almost certain that Rebbe Nachman was familiar with Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna's Sefer haBris (Brunn, 1793), the first half of which attempts to integrate 18th century science with rabbinic and kabbalistic thought; see Mendel Piekarz, Chasidut Breslov (Jerusalem 1972), p. 193ff. In Sefer haBris I, 4:12-13, Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu states that a lunar eclipse is caused by the shadow of the earth, while a solar eclipse is caused by the shadow of the moon. Therefore, it is unclear if Rebbe Nachman disputed this, or if there is an error in the text. Perhaps significantly, a similar version of this teaching appears in Sichos HaRan 136 that does not mention this point.
[xiii] That is, the terms "physical" and "spiritual" are relative. This is implied by the Midrash, which states, "The light of the sun is dark when compared to the light that G-d created on the first day of creation" (Bereishis Rabbah 3:6). Similarly, the Zohar declares, "Even the Supernal Crown (Keser Elyon) is considered 'black' before the Cause of Causes" (Tikuney Zohar, Tikkun 70, 135b).
[xiv] Avot 6:11.
[xv] We have translated the verse in keeping with its context. More literally, it should be rendered "Wisdom - from whence (me-ayin) does it come forth?"
[xvi] This is because "tzaddikim resemble their Creator" (Likutey Moharan II, 52); also see Rabbi Gedaliah Aharon Kenig, Chayei Nefesh, chap. 18, passim.
[xvii] I am grateful to Rabbi Symcha Bergman for this insight.
[xviiii] Rebbe Nachman interprets the verse "And Hezekiah turned his face to the wall" (Isaiah 38:2) to mean that he turned his awareness within, "for one's true 'face' is one's state of mind" (Sichos HaRan 39).
[xix] Thus, Abraham interceded on behalf of Sodom (Genesis, chap. 18), and Moses interceded on behalf of Israel (Exodus 32:1-14), as did the subsequent prophets. Another testimony to the role of the tzaddik as intermediary is the tradition of the Talmudic sages that the Children of Israel heard the last eight of the Ten Commandments as if uttered by Moses; see Rashi, Exodus 19:19, citing the Mekhilta. The prophets repeatedly intercede for Israel. However, this does not mean that we do not have a direct relationship with G-d. The tzaddik is an intermediary only in the sense that a prayer leader serves as an intermediary: he represents the congregation, yet each member must pray to G-d directly on his own. In the Breslov literature, see e.g. Rabbi Nachman Goldstein of Tcherin, Zimras Ha'aretz I, 52; Rabbi Avraham ben Nachman Chazan, Biur haLikkutim 10:17.
[xx] Sichos HaRan 136 (abridged). 

Breslov Book Sale


Received by email:

An enormous shipment of Breslov books has arrived from Eretz Yisrael, which are being sold at the cost price. For further information, please contact Reb Alter Wagshal 845-538-0238. (We still don't have the main phone number of the sponsors of this sale.) All the Breslov books they sell can also be purchased from the Breslov Shul, 70 Main St, Monsey, NY, at their low price. They are on display there. The sellers also recently obtained a bus so that they travel around selling the sefarim. In addition, there is a donor who will give a free a full set of "Chok Breslov" to anyone who agrees to learn it. Please ask Alter Wagschal about this offer if you are interested. Although most of the books are in Hebrew, there is a nice selection of English translations and other works, as well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rabbi Nachman on Speech and Silence, Part II



Rabbi Nachman on Speech and Silence, Part II
Dovid Sears

L’ilui nishmas Yehudis Yenta bas Chaim Yisrael / Janet Shafner, whose first yahrtzeit will be on 2 Av, which falls on Shabbos Matos-Mas’ei / July 21st, 2012. May she have a “lechtigeh gan eden.”

To read Part I, click here.

We left off with the question of why Rebbe Nachman’s discussion of silence and self-nullification seem to be presented as a “last ditch” measure.

As we have discussing in previous postings, Judaism affirms this world as an opportunity for the performance of mitzvos and tikkun (spiritual repair) – even though this may compromise the higher degree of bittul and deveykus achieved during hisbodedus. Therefore, bittul as a means of transcending suffering must be a last resort. The Jewish ideal is somehow to participate in the world for its benefit – even if one must inevitably suffer, as all mortal beings suffer. The catch is to do so without being taken in by the world’s false blandishments. (Christians call this to be “in the world, but not of the world”; however, it is a very Jewish concept.) This requires overcoming worldly desires and cravings, so that one will remain indifferent to such allurements and never “bite the bait.” One who succeeds in doing so lives in the “World to Come,” even here in this world (see Likutey Moharan I, 33, which describes how the tzaddik can enter realms of unholiness and remain unharmed).

However, I confess that I’m not sure if this is the whole story.

We find an important exception to the rule in Likutey Moharan II, 82. Although this teaching revolves around the problem of things going one’s way (ke-seder) or contrarily (shelo ke-seder), it does not present bittul as a last resort. To cite the translation in The Tree That Stands Beyond Space, p. 69:

“By manifesting the paradigm of mah (literally, “what”) – nullification of the ego – you draw Godliness upon yourself. Bind your mind to Godliness constantly. Through this, you will nullify all conflicts, all opposition. Thus, when Moses and Aaron were confronted by there opponents, Moses replied (Exodus 16:7), ‘What [mah] are we, that you oppose us?’ When one eliminates the factor of self-importance, there is no conflict.

“This lesson is implicit in the Hebrew word machashavah (thought). The letters may be rearranged to spell chashov mah – ‘think of nothing.’

Mah is one of God’s holy names [corresponding to YHVH on the plane of the World of Yetzirah / Formation]. Draw forth the Divine Name Mah into your thought, so that your consciousness will be imbued with Godliness.

“The letter mem equals 40; heh equals 5. The word mah (45) has the same numerical value as the word adam (man). When you make yourself as nothing, then you are a true human being.”

Another possibly anomalous case is Likutey Moharan I, 234. This teaching address what the Rebbe calls “entering the World of Thought,” which I take to mean mochin de-gadlus / expanded consciousness – a realization of unity. The section germane to our discussion is:

“[T]o enter the World of Thought, you must be silent. Even if you were to utter a holy word, this would disturb your state of mind. For thought is extremely lofty, higher than speech.

“[Moshe is the paradigm of da’as / consciousness. God showed Moshe a future vision of the martyrdom of the saintly Rabbi Akiva at the hands of the Romans, which prompted Moshe to ask, ‘This is the Torah, and this is its reward?] God answered, ‘Be silent! Thus it arose in thought…’ (Menachos 29b). That is, to ascend to the World of Thought, one must be silent.

“Even if you remain still and do not speak, there may be distractions that disturb your state of mind. To remedy this, you must purify your consciousness. This is accomplished through the stories of the tzaddikim…” (The Tree That Stands Beyond Space, p. 55)

I said that this teaching was “possibly anomalous,” because the Rebbe does not overtly mention the issue of transcending suffering; however, as we see from the bracketed sentences, it is implicit in the Gemara he quotes.

Reb Noson also discusses silence and self-nullification in both contexts of escaping from conflict and pain and as an edifying practice in its own right. Several examples are Likutey Halakhos, Shabbos 6:5, 8; ibid. Shabbos 7:43 (portions of which are translated in The Tree That Stands Beyond Space, pp. 70-73).

Whatever the verdict is on the silence of transcendence as l’chat’chilah or b’di’eved, we see from all this that silence is also part of hisbodedus.

Many years ago, during the early 1990s, I asked Rav Elazar Kenig of Tsfat about how this works at the practical level. I had assembled a folder of 50-60 pages of photocopies of various Hebrew texts that discuss silent hisbodedus. These texts ranged from the works of Rabbi Avraham Maimonides to Rabbi Chaim Vital to the Piacetzna Rebbe, overlapping with and extending the material found in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s books about meditation. (This was before the creation of the solitude-hisbodedus website, which has much of this material in English translation.) When Rav Kenig and his Rebbetzin came to Borough Park and stayed at Rabbi Yitzchak Eichenthal’s private hotel on 47th St., I presented this material to him.

One evening as the two of us sat alone in his room, I brought up the issue of silent meditation again. The Rav asked me what I found lacking in the Rebbe's hisbodedus (which is primarily verbal), and a little guiltily, I tried to state my case. When I finished, the Rav said (in Yiddish), "The silence we need is the silence of deveykus" - meaning, I assume, that he did not regard silence as a “meditative technique,” which may or may not have anything to do with God.

"This kind of silence…" he added. Rav Kenig then closed his eyes, and became perfectly still. Several minutes passed. Then he slowly opened his eyes again – as if returning from another galaxy – and sighed, gazing at me calmly but intensely. I thanked him, took several steps backward (as a student does in leaving his teacher), and left the room.

Neither This, Nor That
If bittul / nullification were the ultimate goal of our avodah, this might foster a attitude toward worldly life that would be regressive, passive, seeking dissolution and reabsorption. Yet there is a truth to this point of view: as many Jewish mystics, including the SheLaH and the MaHaRaL, as well as the Baal Shem Tov and the Chassidic masters taught, the ultimate reality is G-dliness; “ein ode milvado … There is nothing else but Him” (Deuteronomy 4:35). As we say in the morning prayers, “Mah anachnu, meh chayeinu? What are we, what is our life?” That is, we realize that are nothing and our life is nothing before the ultimate reality. Without this awareness of the Divine Oneness that is the essence of all existence, we immediately become stranded in temporality, division and conflict.

Perhaps this is why according to Rebbe Nachman’s teaching in Sichos HaRan 279 (see Part I), self-nullification is presented as b’dieved—because God created the world and pronounced it “good’; the Jewish approach to the spiritual life is world-affirming and creative. (As the Rebbe’s contemporary William Blake observed, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”) Therefore, we should only come onto such a radical form of transcendence in extreme circumstances.

Yet Rebbe Nachman’s teachings are characteristically ironic and multi-leveled, and this is no exception. I think he actually combines these two opposite trends, transcendence and immanence, and celebrates both eternity and time, silence and speech, unity and diversity, space and form. 

One example that comes to mind is the discussion in Likutey Moharan I, 65 concerning how during prayer one must procede from one letter to the next while not “forgetting” what was said previously; rather one must make “echad / oneness” of the prayer. That is, the individual must consciously function on the temporal and eternal planes simultaneously – an attainment reached by the tzaddikim. (Compare this concept to that of the Baal Shem Tov, cited by Rabbi Aharon of Zhelikhov in Ohr HaGannuz LeTzaddikim, Mattos. There, the davenner is compared to a pearl-diver in the “Sea of Oneness” and is cautioned not to remain submerged in a state of bliss but to collect the “pearls,” which are the words of prayer.)

Perhaps this, too, is the meaning of the blessings and gifts conferred upon the bride and groom by the wondrous beggars in the Rebbe’s tale, “The Seven Beggars.” The beggars – who, according to Reb Noson, represent different aspects of the tzaddik emes – function in the world, yet remain essentially bound to the transcendental realm. They are both “here” and “there.” Thus, for example, the Blind Beggar only appears to be blind; in fact, his greatest power is that of sight, which he uses exclusively to behold the sublime dimension. The Deaf Beggar only appears to be deaf; in fact, his greatest power is that of hearing, which he uses to hear the “sound” of wholeness and unity, rather than the deficient sounds of the fallen world; and thus with the other holy beggars. Most importantly, at the end of each sub-plot, the beggar in question confers his greatest power upon the bride and groom. With this we may infer that through the spiritual gifts of the tzaddikim, we are all destined to reach these wondrous levels – thus to be “in the world, but not of the world.”

Monday, July 16, 2012

Rabbi Nachman on Speech and Silence, Part I


(Painting by Rabbi Elya Succot)

This essay first appeared on the Breslov-oriented blog “A Simple Jew,” March 2008. It has been slightly modified in the interim.

Rabbi Nachman on Speech and Silence, Part I
Dovid Sears

L’ilui nishmas Yehudis Yenta bas Chaim Yisrael / Janet Shafner, whose first yahrtzeit will be on 2 Av, which falls on Shabbos Matos-Mas’ei /July 21st, 2012. May she have a “lechtigeh gan eden.”

Since we are going to talk about silence – an undertaking which some might argue is self-contradictory – we must begin by appreciating the great value of speech. Both Jewish philosophers and kabbalists define man as medaber, the “speaking being.” Speech endows us with one of our most precious assets. And one of the first things the Torah tells us is that God created the universe through the Asarah Ma’amaros, Ten Divine Utterances, which are the very essence of speech. So when we speak – if we speak in a holy manner, meaning words of Torah and tefillah, words of truth and compassion and faith – we become attuned to something deeply rooted in our own nature and in creation.

Speech in Avodas Hashem

In propounding his path of self-realization through hisbodedus (secluded meditation and prayer), Rebbe Nachman tells us to speak to God in our own language at length, without holding anything back (Likutey Moharan I, 52; ibid. II, 25, et al.). The power of this practice is due to the sanctity and power of speech. He also states, “Holy words are the Shechinah, the Divine Presence . . . God’s Kingship and the truth of His existence are revealed through them” (Likutey Moharan I,  78).

Words of Torah and prayer are vessels for divine illumination, both for those who hear and those who speak. As the Rebbe explains, “Speech is the medium through which we receive the flow of blessing (shefa); as it is written, ‘May [God] bless you according to what He has spoken of you’ (Devarim 1:11) – that is, the flow of blessing corresponds to the speech. One who attains perfection in his power of speech receives abundant blessings by means of the vessels formed by his words” (Likutey Moharan I, 34:3). (This, too, is why we must recite our prayers verbally, and not only in thought, as mandated in Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 101:2. However, the “silent” Shemoneh Esreh should be recited barely audibly and should not be heard by anyone worshipping nearby, which can be extremely distracting—see Be’er Heitiv and especially Shaarei Teshuvah, ad loc., at length.)

Just as the Shekhinah is the emtzai, the intermediary that unites Creator and creation, speech unites self and other; when we communicate with words, we can bring about a “meeting of the minds.” In terms of the individual, speech can also unite the inner and outer aspects of a human being, awakening thoughts and feelings that had been dormant or suppressed. Both intermediaries, Shekhinah and speech, may be described as luminous, radiating wisdom. In fact, the Zohar states that the Shekhinah and speech are part and parcel of one another (Zohar III, 230a, 291b).

In the works of the Baal Shem Tov, a key mystical practice is deveykus b’osiyos, binding one’s thoughts to the letters of Torah and prayer, thus to perceive what he describes as the “lights within the letters” (for example, see Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye, Toldos Yakov Yosef, Vayeitzei, cited in Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Va’eschanan, no. 36; also Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Bo, 5). This concept appears in Breslov seforim, as well (such as Likutey Moharan I, 94, which contains an important discussion of the nature of holy speech in general).

However, just as letters require the white space that surrounds them in order to be recognizable, so speech goes together with silence. This is especially true in spiritual practice. Thus, not only speech but silence, too, is part of Rebbe Nachman’s path of hisbodedus (secluded meditation) and deveykus (cleaving to God).

Silence and Self-Nullification
Silence is associated with the sefirah of Keser / Crown, which transcends creation. This is the kabbalistic meaning of the Mishnah, “Silence is a fence for wisdom” (Avos 3:13). Like a fence, Keser / Crown “surrounds” the sefirah of Chokhmah / Wisdom from which the rest of the array of sefiros devolve (Likutey Moharan 6:5, 15). Thus, through silence one can connect to the level of Keser / Crown, which is beyond all form and division – and beyond words.

In Sichos HaRan 279, the Rebbe describes to his disciple, Reb Noson, the practice of self-nullification, which entails making oneself silent. Reb Noson recalls how this conversation came about:

“Once Rebbe Nachman told me, ‘When things are very bad, nullify yourself completely [mevatel zikh].’

“I asked him, ‘How can one nullify the self?’

“He answered, ‘Close your mouth and close your eyes. This is nullification.’

“From this we can learn practical advice: When the Evil One overwhelms us and disturbs us with all sorts of evil thoughts and confusions that we cannot seem to overcome – that is when we should nullify ourselves.

“Everyone can accomplish this, at least from time to time. Simply close your mouth and your eyes and clear away your thoughts, as if you possess no intellect or reason, and nullify yourself completely before God” (translation from The Tree That Stands Beyond Space, Breslov Research Institute, p. 15).

A related teaching appears in Likutey Moharan II, 5, which speaks of a technique called “Yichud HaMerkavah / Unification of the Merkavah.” There, the Rebbe states that one can transcend suffering and inner conflict by intensely focusing the mind on one point. Reb Noson elaborates on this subject in Likutey Halakhos, Rosh Chodesh 6:20.

Again, to cite The Tree That Stands Beyond Space (p. 68):

“Sometimes a person may experience a spiritual decline so great that his only tikkun is through the ‘unification of the Merkavah.’ Each person may accomplish the unification of the Merkavah by focusing his power of thought on one place. One’s consciousness should not be scattered, but attuned and intensely bound to God. The unification of the Merkavah is brought about by the tikkun of the mind. Evil thoughts correspond to the ritually impure animals, whereas pure thoughts correspond to the animals depicted in the Merkavah vision – the lion, ox, and eagle – and man rides upon them all. [Note: In one sense, the human form on the Merkavah alludes to God; in another sense, it alludes to the tzaddik; and in still another sense, it alludes to the mind or essence of the mind; see also Likutey Moharan I, 13:6. Here, the Rebbe seems to be interpreting the symbol in the third sense.]

“Every Jew must become a Merkavah, a vehicle for the Divine Presence. As our Sages say, ‘The tzaddikim are the Merkavah.’ This is attained through sanctifying the mind, which is the essence of a person.[1] In this manner, one may be incorporated into the highest level of the Merkavah: the paradigm of the ‘man sitting upon the throne.’ When one focusses his thought on God, not allowing it to stray beyond the bounds of holiness, one accomplishes the unification of the Merkavah.

“However, it is extremely difficult to tame the mind. One can truly succeed only through the spiritual merit and power of the tzaddikim who attained these abilities through their perfect simplicity and their willingness to throw themselves into the mud of human confusion for the sake of God [see Chayei Moharan, 41].”

So we see that intense concentration on God enables one to rise above all conflicts and difficulties and connect to the Shekhinah. This requires hiskashrus, or forging a spiritual bond with the tzaddikim, because they personify the goal for which we are striving; and given the devotion of the tzaddikim to elevate the world, they can enable us to actualize our potential.

In a related vein, in Likutey Moharan I, 65:3, the Rebbe observes that when we are in pain, we close our eyes instinctively, as if squinting in order to see a faraway object. The “faraway object” we ultimately seek is the World to Come, which is the world of unity, beyond all conflict; closing the eyes entails bittul, self-nullification, the prerequisite to this perception. And when the ego is nullified, there is no suffering (at least not existential suffering).

Just One Question

The $64,000 Question (I know I’m dating myself – Rabbi Ozer Bergman says that the price has now inflated to $1,000,000) is: Why are these solutions only b’dieved, measures to be taken when all else fails?

Part II of this posting will attempt to answer this question.



[1] A friend who proof-read this posting asked me what Reb Noson means in this context by “sanctifying the mind (taharas ha-machshavah).” I’m tempted to say that he means to clear the mind of thought, as in Berakhos 2a-b, where the sky is described as being tahor, “clear” or “erased” of light when evening falls; it is hard for me to accept that he simply means to think only “good” or “holy” thoughts. The first approach would be a more meditative way of understanding Reb Noson’s words, which fits the broader context of his teaching. But I’m not sure.

A key to this question would seem to be the Rebbe’s similar reference to taharas ha-machshavah / purifying or clearing the mind in Likutey Moharan I, 234. There, he states that negative thoughts are the result of mochin de-katnus / “small mind,” or constricted consciousness; the way to attain taharas ha-machshavah, purity of thought, is therefore by attaining mochin de-gadlus / “big mind,” or expanded consciousness – which also goes along with clearing the mind. The Rebbe takes up the subject of silencing the mind in this lesson – but he also stresses becoming cognizant of God’s constant providence and sovereignty in all times and circumstances, particular by hearing the stories of the tzaddikim and the things that happened to them (which reflect more intense manifestations of Divine Providence).