The Jewish Spirit Journal
A Journal of Jewish Mysticism and Spirituality
Vol. 1, No. 1 Dec. 1998


    I revere and am devoted to my rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. But I feel constrained to say: In honoring Shlomo, I do not mean to deny his faults. I honor his goodness and greatness, not his faults and failings. And, truth be told, his faults were many fewer than my own.

    1. What Does It Mean that Shlomo was Holy?

    From almost the very beginning of my association with Shlomo, I knew that he was a holy man, but I didn't know what a holy man was. Over the years I thought about this: What does it mean that a person-- that Shlomo-- is holy? My first thought was: When you're with Shlomo, you don't have lower thoughts. All your thoughts are elevated. You feel more peace, harmony, exaltation. That was my first idea about what it meant to be holy.

    After some time, perhaps years, I had a second, deeper thought. It says in the Talmud: If a rabbi is like an angel of God, learn Torah from him; if he is not like an angel, don't learn Torah from him. Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol asked: Do we know then what an angel is like that we can know if a rabbi is like an angel? He said: That is just the point. We don't understand an angel. So too with a rabbi: If your thought and understanding encompass a rabbi, if you fully understand him, he's not your rebbe, your spiritual master and teacher.

    How do we understand another person? If I see someone step on your toe and you shrug violently and bark out, "Watch where you're going!" I understand you, because that is the way I act-- from the ego. But if I watch a holy person and someone steps on his toe, he's as likely to apologize for being in the way! His actions are God-centered, so I don't understand him, because he's not like me-- because I act from my ego. Shlomo reflected my own heart-- he was my Rebbe-- but from another perspective, he was incomprehensible, his actions were unpredictable, because he was God-centered. How many times did I see him embrace people from whom I would recoil ... (See the tale below, where when everyone cringed, Shlomo smiled.) This was my second thought about what it meant that Shlomo was a holy man.

    Perhaps years later, I had a third, and deeper thought about what it meant to be holy. When my mother's father, my grandfather, died-- I was very close to him and loved him very much-- I could not cry at the grave and felt bad about it. But when I entered the limousine to go home, my grandmother stretched out her arms to me and, seeing my grandmother, how could I not see my grandfather? So I cried. The Torah says about Adam and Eve, that the two shall become one. In a real marriage the two become one. When you look at one spouse, how can you not see the other? That became my third thought about Shlomo: When I looked at Shlomo, I always saw his invisible "partner"-- God. I couldn't look at Shlomo without seeing God. How could you understand such a person without thinking of God? That is a third and deeper idea of what it means to be holy: A holy person is someone whom you cannot look at without remembering God. Why? Because such a person always remembers God and has God always before him. May we honor Shlomo's memory by fulfilling the Torah's demand that we be holy.

    2. The Inside of the Inside

    I want to transmit a powerful teaching of Shlomo's:

    It was a pious custom (and may still be), though always for the fewest people, to stand in the synagogue all through Yom Kippur. Certain pious people did not leave the synagogue on Yom Kippur; they stayed up all night, saying Psalms, studying Torah, etc. The most most pious not only stayed up, they stood up; they did not sit down throughout the day, like angels that only stand and do not sit. Shlomo said a thousand times: A person eating a ham sandwich on Yom Kippur may be closer to God than someone standing all through the night in the synagogue.

    To explain:

    The person eating a ham sandwich may be saying to himself: Where are all the Jews tonight? Everyone is in synagogue, except me. I'm such a low dog, eating a ham sandwich on Yom Kippur! I so wish I could be close to God, but I don't know what to do!

    The other person may be saying to himself: How many people in the world are standing in the synagogue the whole night like me? Maybe two or three. Certainly I'm one of the greatest Jews there is!

    The point of this awesome teaching is not to eat a ham sandwich on Yom Kippur! The point is not that everyone who violates the Torah's teaching is holy and everyone observant is unholy, God-forbid! The point is to realize that the inside is the essence-- to do everything, if possible, even, God-willing, to stand in the synagogue the whole night of Yom Kippur ... but at the same time to say, "I so want to be close to God, but I don't know anything!"

    This teaching of Shlomo's makes clear that, from the outside, you can never know what a person is. Shlomo's teaching-- which is radical but totally traditional in the path of the Baal Shem Tov and his predecessors-- is that the essence of Judaism is the inside of the inside of the inside.

    3. What Do We Know?

    Shlomo often used to say when talking about people-- in a characteristic intonation-- "What do we know?" Who can tell how holy another person is? Who can know another person's heart except for God? The Torah says about judging people: "Man sees what is visible, but God sees the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). A young rabbi once had an audience with the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and introduced himself by saying that he worked at kiruv (outreach; literally, "bringing close"). The Lubavitcher Rebbe told him that he did not like that word, because, he said, "Who knows who's close and who's far?"

    4. God is Not An Object

    Contrary to what some people imagine, God is not a concept. He cannot be known by thinking. He must be met.

    When I was first returning to Judaism in my mid-twenties, I was taking classes in Boston with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. I was very impressed with Shlomo. At that time I had gone from being an atheist to an agnostic. I had come to realize that God is not like an object about which one asks: "Does it exist?" That was not the right question about God.

    So, during one question-and-answer session after a class, I said to Shlomo,

    "Shlomo, I've never met God."

    Shlomo replied, "Brother, I'd like to introduce you."

    And he did.

    That must be our goal: to meet God, to unite with God.

    God is not a concept.

    5. What God Loves

    Shlomo often used the word "real." He used to tell a story in which he quoted a saying of the Kotzker Rebbe, but the teaching is Shlomo's as well as the Kotzker's. The saying is:

    God only loves what is real.

    This is a short saying, but it has great power. You should understand that God is not interested in anything superficial or phony. If certain aspects of a particular religious path or scene do not seem real to you, you have to remember that God only loves what is real. Learn to trust yourself and do not be confused by what others tell you. If something seems phony, be certain that it does not interest God. Whenever you see anything religious that is phony, realize that it is not from God.

    One only gets to God by being real. You may be in a synagogue where most people are davvening by rote; but you should davven for real. You have to seek God for real; if you do not, you will never find Him.

    6. How to Get Somewhere Spiritually

    Once, discouraged about my lack of spiritual progress, I asked Shlomo how someone can achieve something spiritually. He said: "The person who gets somewhere is the one who is most desperate." There is a story of a disciple who posed this same question to his Hindu guru. In reply, the guru took him to a river and asked him to immerse. When he did so, the guru held his head under water until his lungs almost burst. When the guru let his disciple up, he told him that when he wanted God as much as he wanted that breath of air, he would find Him. When our pain at not seeing God is as great as the pain of someone dying in a blazing fire, we will reach our goal.

    More than a few times I asked Shlomo, although not in these exact words: How did you get to be what you are? A person does not get to be like Shlomo without doing something. But what did he do? Shlomo rarely talked about himself. I so much wanted to know how he had become this realized, loving person; perhaps it would give me a clue to attaining something myself. The above incident is the only time I remember Shlomo giving me an answer. He must have been very desperate once, but I don't know when, why, or what happened.

    7. Gazing at a Face

    Once, I was with Shlomo when I was in Jerusalem on Shabbat. It was after the Friday night davvening and, I don't remember why, we had gone to the synagogue that served as the headquarters of the Conservative Movement in Israel on Kikar Tzarfat. I had told some friends I had invited to meet Shlomo for the first time that, as Shlomo taught, people would leave after a time ... I told them to hang in, it kept getting better and better. Each time people left, it got more intense, because usually the more committed people stayed; and Shlomo got more and more into it, into a spiritual mood. That happened this time too: It was after midnight, I imagine, and people had left in dribs and drabs. Now, there were perhaps twenty-thirty people and the atmosphere was supercharged. You could hear a pin drop. Every word coming out of Shlomo's mouth was from heaven.

    Suddenly, a baby started to wail. A couple had brought their baby with them and he suddenly began to scream. Everyone cringed: Oh no! It had been so quiet and intense! But Shlomo smiled and said, "Oh, a babele! How sweet to hear a baby's voice!" Then Shlomo told us the deepest teaching about babies. He said: "You can only look in another person's face so long; then you have to turn away. Even your spouse, whom you love so much; you can look in his or her face only so long; then you have to turn away. But a baby-- you can look in a baby's face without turning away; because a baby is in God's image." Shlomo used to say: "A baby is not 'like' an angel. A baby is an angel, because it has come directly down from heaven."

    Shlomo was so deep and so wise. But he also was, like some other holy people, very childlike. He had the hein, the grace of a child, and you could look in Shlomo's holy face without turning away. The Rebbes say that it is a pious act to gaze into the face of a holy person, because by doing so, we absorb their qualities. For the same reason, some holy people like to spend time with children, to absorb their childlike qualities.

    8. Shlomo's Spiritual Levels

    a. The Throat Chakra

    I knew Shlomo and was his disciple for thirty years and saw him in countless different situations. In my presence, I never heard Shlomo talk about anything but God. That is a certain spiritual level. The Hindus talk about the throat chakra. When a person reaches that level, he doesn't want to hear or talk about anything but God.

    Shlomo had an amazing equanimity. To me, at least, Shlomo was almost without discernible moods. If he had them, they were below my radar. This is a madreiga, a spiritual level; he was established in God-awareness.

    b. At the Western Wall

    In Israel, we typically would davven on Friday night at the Western Wall late, because there were some fanatics who would insult and curse Shlomo. At a later hour, there was almost no one at the Wall. I remember one time I had to interpose and chase off some people who were yelling at Shlomo.

    Shlomo would davven at a table about ten feet from the Wall, and I would usually stand at the right side of the table, to be close to him. Sometimes, there would be a few young hasidim who would be nearby and would watch Shlomo. They had heard about him and were curious. Once two young chutzpadik hasidim had the nerve to come over and stand with their backs facing the Kotel, at the side of the table opposite Shlomo, and from right across the table stare into his face! I looked at Shlomo who kept on davvening the whole service and it was clear that although his eyes were open, he didn't see them.

    9. Unafraid

    I remember one time walking with Shlomo on Shabbat during the day and a truck driver stopped and called out from his truck, "Shlomo!" Shlomo walked over to the driver, who had a cigarette dangling from his lips, and said, "Hey, holy brother!"

    How many rabbis are there who, someone driving a truck on Shabbat and smoking a cigarette would not be afraid to greet? None. But that is why people loved Shlomo.

    10. Unfolding

    Shlomo would take a hasidic teaching or story and "open it up." A story that I would see in a book and pass over quickly as "ordinary"-- Shlomo would tell and reveal its awesome beauty. I remember when Shlomo was teaching for a period of time in Jerusalem from the Mai HaShiloach (book) of the Peasetzner Rebbe. After a particular session when I was very impressed by the teaching, which went on for let's say three hours, I asked Shlomo where this was found in the book. He told me where. When I looked, I saw that it was only one small paragraph. Yet Shlomo had not added to the Peasetzner's thoughts, he had actually revealed what was there, and "opened it up." This experience made be acutely aware of my own limitations in understanding what I'm studying.

    11. Eating a Leaf

    Once I was walking with Shlomo on Shabbat in New York, and his little daughter, who was perhaps four years old, picked up a leaf to carry it (carrying outside on the street is forbidden on Shabbat). Shlomo pleaded with her to put it down; he did not tell her to do it. That was Shlomo's way: never to command or order.

    At that time, Shlomo told me that, once, his daughter gave him a leaf and said, "Daddy, eat this leaf!" Shlomo said that he ate it. Because, he said: "All her life there'll be millions of people who'll tell her: 'If it occurred to you, it's stupid!' He wanted her to know that if some thought fell into her brain, her father took it seriously. If it occurred to her that he should eat a leaf, there's something to it. The spiritual level of attending to and trusting the first thought that falls into your brain is the level of Elijah the prophet, of the holy spirit, of divine inspiration. That is the level Shlomo was on."

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Copyright 2004-2005, Yitzhak Buxbaum. All rights reserved.