Monday, January 14, 2019

Turning Suffering into Simcha

Remembering Rabbi Elazar Mordechai Kenig, zatzal
L’ilui nishmas Rachel bas Binyamin (Rose Sears), yahrtzeit: 4 Shevat
u-l’ilui nishmas Chaim ben Binyamin (Charles Righter) yahrtzeit: 8 Shvat
Dovid Sears

Rebbe Nachman’s “The Tale of the Seven Beggars,” begins with a remark the Rebbe made before he began telling this thirteenth and last of his “stories from primordial times.” In the standard printed editions of Sippurey Maasiyos, this remark is: “I will tell you how they once rejoiced…”

However, Rabbi Avraham b’Reb Nachman, in his collected writings on Sippurey Maasiyos, published as “Chokhmah u-Tevunah,” states that this is an imprecise rendering of what the Rebbe actually said. He possessed a tradition from his father, Rabbi Nachman of Tulchin, that Reb Noson had told him personally that he had abridged the Rebbe’s words. What the Rebbe actually said was: “I will tell you how once from sadness (morah shechorah), they became joyous” (sec. 15:1, p. 116).

This nuance puts a slightly different spin on the saying. In Reb Avraham b’Reb Nachman’s version, the Rebbe is emphasizing a transformation of sadness to happiness, analogous to the transformation of darkness to light.

My teacher Reb Elazar Kenig, zatzal, once taught me something about this transformation, which is so necessary for us all.  Many years ago, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, I called him about a certain “rut in the road” I had hit, which in my mind was like falling off Mt. Everest. After listening to my tale of woe, he gave me his advice (and it was astute advice). Then he added, “Reb Dovid, zeit freilach—be happy!”

I answered, “Reb Elazar, I don’t mean to sound chutzpadik, but I’m lost! I don’t remember how to be happy. I have forgotten everything I ever knew about simchah!”

He was quiet a moment and then said, “Kol de-avid rachmana le-tav avid (whatever the Merciful One does, He does for the good).” Then he added, “When the Rebbe said, ‘Mitzvah gedolah l’hiyos b’simchah tamid (It is a great mitzvah to be happy always),’ he didn’t mean when everything is wonderful. He meant that it is a ‘mitzvah gedolah’ at times like this, when things are difficult!”

That’s when we have to see through the appearance of evil, and find the hidden good (Likutey Moharan I, 33).  We have to know that whatever we are going through is part of a greater good, and in fact, contains hidden goodness. And we have to search for a simchah that doesn’t depend on our outer circumstances, but transcends those circumstances—a simchah that is intrinsic to life itself.

The verse states: “Oz v’chedva bimkomo… Strength and gladness are in His Place” (Divrey HaYamim I, 16:27). (We say this in “Hodu” every morning at the beginning of davening.) Reb Elazar used to say, “The closer you are to Hashem’s ‘Place,’ the closer you are to strength and gladness!” And as the saying goes, he practiced what he preached. Reb Elazar lived with that strength and gladness, because he constantly sought to be in Hashem’s “Place.”

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