During Time of War
Rabbi Abraham, the Rebbe of Parisov, was asked why he did not pray in congregation [in a synagogue with a minyan] as is required by the Gemara and the Shulhan Aruch.
He answered: "I'll tell you a parable.
There were soldiers who were constantly undergoing training to learn what to do in the event of war -- how to maneuver, how to handle their weapons, and how to fight against their enemies when the battle became heavy. But during the war, when they see that they cannot use their weapons in the ways they were taught, and that if they moved or ran as they were trained, they would be killed, they pay no attention to what they heard during their training. Their only concern is how to save themselves from the enemy without being slaughtered on the field of battle. They act so as not to be killed during the war.
"The application of the parable is this: When a person is confronted with a hard and heavy warnamely, the war against the evil inclination and its legions -- he does not concern himself so much with what he learned earlier and how he was taught. He tries to save himself from the power of the evil inclination by any means he can, so as not to be killed in this difficult war.
This radical teaching of the Rebbe of Parisov is not a license for a person to do anything he wants religiously and to excuse himself. But it is a permission to depart from accepted teachings and requirements in order to achieve the goal of saving oneself from evil and coming close to God. It is also a caution against casually judging other people when they depart from halacha -- for who knows what difficulties they are facing from their evil inclination?
The Parisover Rebbe was in the tradition of the Kotzker Rebbe who was fire, who was radical in the service of Truth. The Kotzker counseled people that kavannah (God-ward sincerity and intention) was the essence and if necessary to achieve proper kavannah, a person could pray alone, not in congregation (see Jewish Spiritual Practices, p.192). He also taught to shorten one's prayers, if necessary, to the same end of true kavannah. The rabbis taught: A little with kavannah is better than a lot without. But few have the guts to even repeat their teaching, let alone follow it. The Kotzker and the Parisover, however, were not afraid of anyone but God.
Again, this is not an invitation to disregard the tradition but to make it real, a path to God.
I Will Bless Those Who Bless You
Rabbi Pinhas Menahem of Ger (the Pnai Menahem) said, when an aide tried to tell someone who wanted a blessing to go away, "How could you want to prevent a Jew from approaching me? It's a mitzvah to bless a Jew. I also derive benefit from it. Doesn't the Torah say: 'I will bless those who bless you'? How can I lose that blessing?"
My rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was always blessing people and encouraging his students to bless people. What is a blessing? It expresses our deepest wish for someone else's good. In blessing someone, you open your heart to become a channel for God's blessing and goodness to pass through you, and you too are blessed.
Fitting Planks Together
Rabbi Simha Bunim of Pshicha and his disciples once watched a peasant building a house, and dealing with a wooden plank that had a knot in it, which was sticking out. Instead of trying to sand down the hard knot, he made a concavity in the other plank he was joining this one to, so that the two planks, convex and concave, fit together. Rabbi Bunim derived a spiritual lesson from this, as is the way of holy people, to derive lessons from whatever they see and encounter. He said: "When the other person is stubborn and hard, don't try to remove his 'knot.' Better to make a concavity in you; then there'll be no argument."
A Shlomo Carlebach Anecdote: Holding On or Letting Go
This took place back in the late 60's. Rafael (Ronnie) Kahn was a guitarist and composer who had recently returned to Judaism. (He wrote the words to Shlomo Carlebach's song "Return Again.")
Once, Rafael, was sitting at Shlomo's feet at a learning session with the Holy Rabbi, and Shlomo was teaching that you have to "hold on," not give up. Rafael, who had not long ago been involved in Buddhist or Hindu practice before returning to Judaism, said, "Shlomo, you have to let go." Shlomo replied, "No, you have to hold on." Rafael, "Shlomo, you have to let go!" This went back and forth about four, five times each, until it ended, as I remember, with Rafael finally letting go!
I think that some Eastern paths teach to let go of material concerns. Shlomo was teaching the more Jewish way, expressed positively, to hold on to spirituality, to God. It was cute, so-to-speak, to see the Holy Rebbe hold on in the face of Rafael's insistence. Shlomo could be very soft and yielding, but not about a matter of principle like this. Or, perhaps the resolution is actually as I've conjectured; just a matter of misunderstanding or perspective. Though probably, too, Rafael still had to learn to be open to the instruction of his rebbe. Yet, perhaps it was also good that he had the courage to express himself too.
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