The Jewish Spirit Journal
A Journal of Jewish Mysticism and Spirituality
Vol. 1, No. 6 January 2003


1. Over the Wall to the Sukkah

Rabbi Abraham of Slonim (the Yesod HaAvodah) arrived at the synagogue in the morning on the first day of Sukkot and found a Jewish soldier there. The rebbe called him over and said, "I see light shining from you. What did you do?" The soldier was speechless; he had no idea what to say. But when the rebbe pressed him he told the rebbe what had happened the previous night, the first night of Sukkot. He was a guard in his army camp and was feeling badly that he wouldn't he able to observe the mitzvah of being in a sukkah. Then he saw that beyond the wall around the camp there was a Jewish home and in its courtyard was a sukkah. Now, if he left his post he could be shot but he decided that after all the officers left and he was alone, he would climb the wall and be in the sukkah. As time passed he began to be upset because the officers were not leaving and the mitzvah is traditionally performed most perfectly before midnight. But fifteen minutes before midnight everyone left and he was alone. He stuck a piece of bread in his pocket and jumped over the wall quickly so no other soldiers could see him, he made kiddush on the bread (which is permitted if one has no wine) and sat eating in the sukkah. Then he quickly jumped back over the wall. He was so happy, he told the rebbe, that he had fulfilled the mitzvah with self-sacrifice. "That's beautiful," said the rebbe, "but you wouldn't shine so much from that. Tell me more." Then the soldier admitted that he was so happy at what he had done that he had danced in the camp the whole night. "Now I understand why you're shining so much," said the rebbe. (Yehi Or, p.264)

What was the difference between what the soldier did at first (and told the rebbe about) and what he did afterward in the camp? Why was his dancing so special? When he jumped over the wall with mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice), he transcended his own limitations, he jumped over the "wall" of his lower self. Afterward, he made what he had done immanent, he absorbed it into himself. People often do good deeds, holy deeds, but they don't have the vessels to appreciate their own acts, so they can't derive the full benefit or garner the full spiritual reward from what they've done. This soldier acted with great self-sacrifice to be a Jew and that was wonderful; it was wonderful that he was happy about it. But what caused him to shine was that he truly allowed himself to rejoice in his own deed, to rejoice in himself. Many people don't work to create the spiritual vessels to enjoy who they are, what they've become as Jews, their own spirituality, to enjoy their own goodness and holiness. If doctors were spiritual enough, they would be great tzaddikim, shining with the light of their many good deeds. But because they don't truly appreciate what they've done, they don't derive the full spiritual benefit of their goodness. The rebbes and kabbalists talk about the lower Garden of Eden and the upper Garden of Eden. One meaning of this is that the lower Garden of Eden is doing everything for God, especially with self-sacrifice. The upper Garden of Eden is experiencing the joy of serving God. Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said that a person should focus on his good points to give himself joy. He also said that when one looks toward the sun, one squints, but then one relaxes and sees more light. Squinting is the muscular activity of self-sacrifice; relaxing is experiencing the deep joy of being a Jew, a servant of God. May we learn to rejoice in our own goodness, the portion of God's work, little or much, that He has put in our hands.

2. In His Sickbed

Rebbe Shmuel of Kaminka was once very sick in bed on the night of Shabbat, and did not go to the synagogue to pray or to lead his Shabbat table for his hasidim. One of his hasidim in Kaminka was also celebrating a Shalom Zachar (for the birth of a son) and when the congregation was returning from his home they danced under the rebbe's window, to cheer the rebbe up. Rebbe Shmuel sent out a message to them saying, "They're dancing, rejoicing over the Sabbath and over the Shalom Zachar. What they don't know is that I'm lying here in bed and rejoicing even more." (Maamar Mordechai, vol.2, p.205, #7)

The hasidim assumed that the rebbe's spirits were depressed because he could not pray and lead his table on the Sabbath and could not attend his hasid's celebration. But the rebbe rejoiced even while ill because his trust was sure that everything, including illness, that God brought on him was good. May we be consoled in our illnesses and suffering and reach toward that confident and shining faith.

3. A Time to Weep and a Time to Laugh

A simple Jew entered for an audience with Rebbe Baruch Hager of Seret-Vishnitz. He was bitter of heart with a big pack of troubles and pains that cannot be described and he told the Rebbe of his terrible sadness and anguish. The Rebbe tried to speak to him and console him as much as possible. But it seems that the man's troubles were so great that he could not be consoled. The more the Rebbe tried to comfort him, the more he continued to tell of his troubles in every aspect of his life-- with his children, his health, and his livelihood. The Rebbe listened patiently to every word and after the man finished speaking the Rebbe once again tried to minimize in the man's eyes the severity of his problems. He quoted sayings of the Rabbis and told tales of the tzaddikim throughout the generations that teach a person to accept his afflictions with love for God and to reinforce himself with pure faith, for if suffering has been decreed for him, so too has the duration and end of his suffering been decreed, and when that time arrives his salvation will quickly come. Morever, there are segulot [mystically potent ways] to cut short the time of a bad decree even one as bitter as wormwood. And they are repentance, prayer, and charity, that remove the evil decree.

Finally, the man accepted the Rebbe's consolations that were offered with sense and wisdom. The Rebbe had, it seems, convinced the man that his problems were not as terrible as he had thought and that he certainly would overcome them.

The Rebbe's son-in-law who was present and sitting next to the Rebbe was greatly surprised at his father-in-law's manner. The Rebbe's even-temperedness during the whole length of the conversation gave the impression that he did not fully appreciate the seriousness of the man's troubles, as if his suffering was just part of life's problems that did depart from the normal and that they were easily dealt with. Yet the ears of anyone who listened to the man's woes would tingle with the awesomeness of the judgment that afflicted him and was his portion. But the moment the man left the room the Rebbe burst out in bitter weeping and in sighs that broke the body of whomever heard them. "I don't know where this poor Jew gets the strength to deal with his terrible problems!" cried the Rebbe with a broken heart. The Rebbe continued to sob and wail without ceasing as he shared in the man's distress, like a compassionate father who shares in the troubles of his only son. (B'Maalot Kedoshim v'Tehorim, Part 3, p.82) When should one cheer a person up and when should one weep with him sharing his suffering? Some hasidic tales show a rebbe weeping with the person recounting his troubles and that weeping is also an effective prayer. This tale at least makes us aware that there is a wisdom to the matter of when to do this and when that.

4. On the Street Shouting "Shabbos!"

When Rebbe Shmuel of Slonim married off his daughter in Lublin he stayed there to celebrate Shabbat with his new in-law. On erev Shabbat he went to the grave of Rebbe Shalom Shachna of Prohobitch, and from his fervor and d'vekut, he reached the level of total divorcement from materiality.

After the Sabbath evening prayers, when he was expected to go to his in-law's home for the sheva brachot party, his disciples were afraid to go to him and tell him that his in-law was already waiting for him, because he was in a state of intense d'vekut, in an ecstatic trance. Even his closest and most intimate disciple, Rabbi Moshe Midner, was afraid to approach him.

When some time had passed and the Rebbe remained in the synagogue, the disciples asked the Rebbe's son Avraham to take his father to the sheva brachot party. Avraham took his father's fur coat, then he took his father's arm and put it in the sleeve, while Rebbe Shmuel felt nothing at all. It was somewhat harder to put the second arm in the coat but slowly, slowly he managed to do so. Then Avraham took his father's hand and led him outside and down the street, while all the disciples followed. But Rebbe Shmuel was totally unaware of what was happening because he was in a state of intense d'vekut and unaware of his body or the outer world.

While they were leading him along on the street, they heard him softly singing to himself the well-known song, "If I had the strength, I would go out on the street and shout 'Shabbos!'" Rabbi Moshe Midner said, "Baruch Hashem [Praise God], He has the strength. And he's not saying a word, but he's going on the street shouting, 'Shabbos!'" (From Yehi Or, vol.2, p.327, #694).

The Rebbe's very being silently shouted to all who could hear, "Shabbos!" And what would lead a non-religious person to turn to Judaism more than this silent vision of bliss? Look at what spiritual levels a Jew can reach! Look at the levels we can aspire to if we don't delude ourselves about the efforts needed to reach holiness.

5. Each Hears What He Needs

Rebbe Hayim of Tzanz was once asked why he did not eat cheese on the sixth day (Thursday night and Friday day). When he replied that he had received that custom from his rebbe, Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz, they said, "But doesn't Rebbe Shlomo of Kaminka specifically make it a point to honor erev Shabbat by eating cheese then? And he says that that's what he received from his master the Ropshitzer. How can you both be right?" The Tzanzer answered, "It's true. Both of us were in Ropshitz at the same time when our holy master, the Ropshitzer, spoke about eating cheese on the sixth day. But I heard and understood that it's not right to eat and my dear friend, the holy Kaminker Rebbe, heard and understood the contrary, that one should make it a point to eat cheese then. Each of us heard and received what he needed according to his spiritual level." (Beit HaYayin, p.184 n.269)

6. A Meditative Glance

It is told about Rabbi David Moshe of Tchortkov that when he set his eyes on something he could focus his glance on one place for many hours without moving his eyes the least bit. It is said that it was harder for him to move his glance from one place to another than it would be for an ordinary person to move a heavy bookcase full of books. (Yehi Or, vol.2, p.170)

7. Fun and God-consciousness

Rebbe Menahem Nahum of Shtefinesht used to joke around with his hasidim by playfully pushing them [like when youthful friends playfully push each other]. He once told a few of his younger hasidim to try to wrestle to the ground a very strong young hasid in the synagogue. The rebbe's father said, "If he didn't joke around, he would expire from his d'vekut." (Maamar Mordechai, vol.2, p.225)

We often think of Judaism as being only a matter of "serving" God, always directed and purposeful. But there must also be a place for fun. The young rebbe's actions may be even deeper than the danger of his expiring from d'vekut. What could be deeper? The rebbe's d'vekut during holy fun.

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