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

TORAH TEACHINGS

1. God's Beard

I've always been perplexed at the fact that God's "beard" (the Kabbalah speaks of God's beard and other limbs, just as the Torah speaks of God's "hand" or "arm" or "feet" or "face") is associated with mercy. The Kabbalah says about the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy that there are thirteen strands in God's beard. To me, a man's beard seems gevurahdik (on the side of severity), not hesedik (inspiring compassion). Recently, I think, I came to understand this properly: The "true" beard (zakan) is the beard of an elder or grandfather (zakain). A man's black beard is gevurahdik -- severe. But the white beard of an elder, a grandfather, is a sign of compassion, of hesed. I've recently regrown my beard, which is now mostly white, and I see that some infants are astonished by it. They want to sit on my lap and touch my beard. This is the "Santa Claus Complex"-- not that infants think I'm Santa Claus, but that is why Santa has the white beard. There is probably an instinctive human reaction that people, particularly infants, have to a white beard -- like the silverback of an elder gorilla, who is recognized as the leader of the troop. Among animals, a male who is not the father may be dangerous. But a white beard is a sign: This male is not dangerous. God's beard, then, is white.

2. Hard and Soft; Life and Death

When the Torah is used correctly, the Rabbis say, it is an elixir of life. When it is used incorrectly, it is poisonous-- a death potion. The Taoists (a Chinese religion) teach that what is living is always soft and flexible; what is dead is stiff and rigid. When a person deals with the Torah correctly, he is soft and flexible; when he deals with it incorrectly, he is stiff and rigid. Therefore, the Rabbis also say: A person should always be soft and flexible like a reed, and not stiff and inflexible like a cedar. There are times to be immovable, when core principles are involved, but the holy people know that it is the ego that makes one stiff; the soul is soft and pliant.

3. Don't Forget

A hasid once came to Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizensk and said to him, "Rebbe, I keep forgetting my Torah learning!"

The Rebbe answered, "Do tshuvah (repent)! It says in the Talmud: 'There is no forgetfulness before the Throne of Glory.' [This is an oblique way of saying that God does not forget. But it also means that anyone near God, 'before His Throne,' will not forget.] And," added the Rebbe, "it also says elsewhere in the Talmud: 'Tshuvah reaches to the Throne of Glory.'"

Why do most of us forget? It is because we have twenty-seven things on our mind at all times. Really, we should have only one thing on our mind: To do what we should be doing in God's service at that moment. Most of us spend most of our time diverting our mind from the one thing we are supposed to be doing. Since we are not one-pointed, there are always conflicting motives and thoughts in our brain and that produces a lot of mental "static." As a result of this "static," there is a lot of confusion, and things and thoughts often can't be found, there is forgetfulness.

When I was younger, I often would forget family birthdays and my father, of blessed memory, would rebuke me. I'd say, "Dad, I forgot, what can I do!" He'd answer, to my confusion, "You don't forget!" Sometime, when I have been on a high spiritual level, and doing tshuvah, I did not forget a thing. I know the truth of this teaching from my own experience. Holy people only think of one thing: What to do for God at that moment; so they don't forget. Everything in their brain is organized and ordered toward the one God. My Rebbe, Shlomo (Carlebach) had an astonishing memory. Sometimes Shlomo would be telling a story and he'd go off on a tangent for five-ten minutes. I'd think, "He's lost the thread." But then Shlomo would amaze me by going right back to his earlier thought. Rabbi Baruch Frankel (author of Baruch Ta'am) said he had a tradition that when somone studies Torah lishma-- for the sake of God-- he doesn't forget a thing.

4. Learning From Other Religions

The ancient rabbinic book Tanna d'Bei Eliyahu records the tradition that Elkanah, the father of the prophet Samuel, merited such a great son because he revived pilgrimage in Israel. He would travel to Shilo (a holy city where the Ark resided before Jerusalem became Jewish) with his family, stopping in each town and lodging overnight in the town square. When people asked him where he was going, he encouraged them to join him on pilgrimage and more people went to the next town and so on. "He said to them, 'Learn how to serve God from the Canaanites and the heathens, who make pilgrimages to their idols, although they are empty and worthless. How much more so then should we make pilgrimage to the Ark of the Covenant of God, for He is a living God!'"

What I find striking about this is the idea that-- although it is forbidden to imitate non-Jewish customs-- it is at least sometimes acceptable to learn from the ways of alien religions. If, like Elkanah, we want to revive the ways of Torah, to restore the holy spirit and prophecy, we can learn from others. I have read about the Hindu processions in India and used to think: How wonderful it would be if my Rebbe, Shlomo, went with his hevreh in Jerusalem during the summer, and we walked through the neighborhoods, singing, to the Western Wall. And as we went we would call to Jews in the houses nearby to join us. I imagined that the beauty of Shlomo's holy music and the joy of the crowd with him would draw hundreds and thousands of Jews who had been turned off to Judaism to join us. Maybe this is still possible! The Jerusalem hevreh should take note! I pictured having a large banner made up. It would have on it the words from the Torah, HaShem Nissi-- "God is my banner!" and the people at the front would take turns carrying it and waving it before the singing and dancing crowd. I even once called up a flag company to price having such a banner made. I wanted the banner to have the verse in black against a black background: black fire on white fire; and the tasseled border would be red and gold to represent the fire of devotion to HaShem.

Rabbi Naftali-Tzvi-Yehuda Berlin, the Netziv, of Volozhin, used to say:

"When I was forty, I got a white hair in my beard,
and I thought: 'Look, every forty years I'll get one
white hair!' But after only a few years my whole
beard was white as snow!"

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