The Jewish Spirit Journal
A Journal of Jewish Mysticism and Spirituality
Vol. 1, No. 2 Feb. 1999



From My Flesh

In 1949, Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo, the Boyaner Rebbe (in the Rizhiner dynasty), left America for this first visit to the Land of Israel. He stopped over in England. From there, he flew to Israel. As the plane overflew the Swiss Alps, the Rebbe's gabbai (aide), who was awestruck by the beautiful sight, wanted the Rebbe to look down at the magnificent view. The Rebbe, however, was engrossed in his seforim (holy books) and was quite oblivious to everything around him. The gabbai, who normally would never have disturbed the Rebbe from his studying, was unable to hold himself back and begged the Rebbe to look out the window, telling him that it was "the wonders of the Creator!" The Rebbe turned to his gabbai, opened his hand, and exclaimed, "From my flesh I can see my God!" and immediately returned to his studying as before.

This is the kind of tale that people of our generation may be less likely to appreciate and for that reason special attention is required. Ordinary people require extraordinary occasions to arouse them to see the wonders of God. Extraordinary, holy people see Him even in ordinary events. Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk said that tzaddikim see the revealed Presence of God not only when crossing the Red Sea, but even when walking on dry land.

According to the Kabbalah, man is a microcosm of the universe. Someone like the Boyaner Rebbe can see the divinity even in his own person and body. In Judaism, Torah study is, for some holy people, a form of meditation and immersion in Godliness. I ask myself: Why would some Jews today understand that a guru in the midst of his meditation would not turn to look out the window at the Alps, but might be critical of a rebbe who would not interrupt his studying for the same reason? Kafka said: "You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet." (Reflections on Sin, Pain, Hope and the True Way)

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe hardly left his Brooklyn neighborhood for 25 years. Why? This was a spiritual level. When a person is on such a high spiritual level, the whole world comes to him. He is totally centered, he has no need to go anywhere. The Midrash said about the stones that Jacob put under his head when he slept (and saw the ladder going up to heaven) that the whole Land of Israel folded itself under his head. The Baal Shem Tov said that an ordinary person must travel here and there to seek the sparks of his soul; when a tzaddik reaches a high spiritual level, the sparks come to him.

This means that an ordinary person must travel to accomplish his spiritual tasks; a tzaddik can accomplish them without traveling, because he knows how to use whatever is at hand, God brings the sparks to him. (To properly understand teachings it is often necessary to "translate" the language into modern language we today understand. A "spark" in this case means that a task that is part of your life's work is "part" of your soul; if you don't accomplish it, your soul is not whole, you are unfulfilled.) To learn from our holy tradition, one must be open, not always negating ideas that at first seem unacceptable. And one need not always accept or learn from the whole idea or concept; one can accept half and still gain.

An Outstretched Hand

Reb Yisrael Yankel was a poor pious Jew who lived in a synagogue basement and wore a scruffy hat twenty years old. But he was a great matmid, studying Torah day and night; he even had a hevruta once with none other than Rabbi Yosef Hayim Zonenfeld, the great chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. But although he was so poor, Reb Yisrael Yankel was famous for the many loans he gave out to those who were in need.

He ran a free loan fund that was so large they used to call him "The Bank of Jerusalem." Big merchants, when in need, loaned money from his fund for gigantic deals. And of course this was without interest or any "arrangement." Important people and ordinary people used to come to him for loans for their needs for Sabbaths and holidays, or for weddings.

He and the Bialer Rebbe often used to be partners in deeds of kindness. They also studied Torah together and both were considered great scholars. Some poor people who were clever and took advantage, used to loan from one to pay back a loan to the other, and then the reverse. But the two holy scholars didn't mind.

Reb Yisrael Yankel was himself a very clever and talented man. When he would enter the Anglo-Palestinian Bank (which later became Bank Leumi), its director would rise before him. When they asked him, "Why do you give such honor to this shlepper?" he replied, "This shlepper directs a bank bigger than mine."

Reb Yisrael Yankel once told a friend a story that shows his great concentration in Torah study and is also connected to his charity work: "Once," he said, "I was deeply immersed in a section of the Talmud, when I noticed an open hand stretched out on the table before me. I motioned for the person to wait for a moment, assuming it was someone who had come for tzedaka or a loan. After a short while, when I was able to take a break in my studying, and looked up, I noticed that it was my hand!"


Once, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk was sitting with the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, and they were studying the talmudic commentary, the Rosh, by a candle. Rabbi Zusya, Rabbi Elimelech's brother, came over and lit his pipe with the candle and extinguished it. When they relit the candle, he came over again and lit his pipe with it, again extinguishing it. They then realized that he was doing this on purpose and they asked him why. He said, "You are laboring so hard to understand the commentary that you've ceased slightly in your d'vekut (God- consciousness)." So he snuffed out the candle. "What will be with the Rosh?" his brother, Rabbi Elimelech, asked [how can they hope to understand this difficult commentary without the kind of concentration that turns them slightly from God-awareness?]. Rabbi Zusya then told them the correct interpretation. Rabbi Shneur Zalman said later that the simple meaning that Rabbi Zusya told them was deeper than what the Rosh himself had intended.

In the early days of the Hasidic movement, it was usually understood that Torah study, especially of complex talmudic topics, took a person away from God-consciousness. They decreased Torah study and increased prayer and meditation. The Baal Shem Tov had said that he reached his awesome spiritual levels not because of his Torah study but because of his fervent praying. Prayer is more face-to-face than is Torah study which relies on the intellect. Rabbi Zusya, more prayer-minded than his brother and Rabbi Shneur Zalman, sought to delicately remind them that their candle was being snuffed out and they should remember to "light their pipe." Various early rebbes, such as the Baal Shem Tov himself, smoked a pipe to prepare for prayer. And the smoke that rose to skyward was considered to be a symbol of prayers rising into heaven. How does this apply to us? Few of us study so much or so deeply that we lose our God-consciousness. But we do study without proper devotion, forgetting that the Torah is not an ordinary book but the words of the living God. When we are studying, we should occasionally pause to remind ourselves and reattach to the Giver of the Torah


D'vekut Meditation

Rabbi Mordechai Shraga of Husyatin (in the Rizhiner dynasty) spent most of the day in total d'vekut (meditative God-consciousness) with his Creator. He would sit still without moving for hours on end, his face a ghostly white, his eyes turned upwards, so that just the white of his eyes was visible. Sometimes the gabbaim (aides) became frightened, for it appeared as if he had passed away; they would bang on the table until they finally aroused him from his deep d'vekut.

Back to Table of Contents

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