Manning up

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At least twice in my life I got super-inspired spiritually and strengthened my Avodas Hashem with intense focus. The first time was in my junior year of high school. I attended a modern-orthodox yeshiva and was feeling extremely unfulfilled. By the grace of God things turned around very quickly for me and I found myself in a Beis Medrash yeshiva, where I became enthralled with learning the Talmud day and night. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I went from lax mitzvah observance to strong mitzvah observance in a matter of a few weeks. A second time was more recently. My learning and prayers felt forced and one-dimensional. The void was consuming me. Again, Hashem led me to Uman for Rosh Hashana. After that experience in 2016, I felt totally reborn and passionately re-dedicated myself to my mitzvah observance.

The common denominator of those two stages in my life is that both times the enlightenment surfaced after reeling from a severe lack.

Having sort-of an extreme personality, I often experience acute highs and lows. In fact, some people who know me define me that way. “Davy’s being Davy again. What’s he up to now?”

After coming back from that first Rosh Hashana experience I was so intrigued, and determined to uncover what Breslov is all about. I hit the books full-force and jetted forward from that moment, connecting my mind and soul to the Rebbe’s, for (at least) a year without flinching. It was one of the greatest years of my life. But as Newton said, what goes up must come down. So I eventually came back down. But something about my descent changed. The low wasn’t that low. I also noticed that, while feeling low, I didn’t have a strong desire to shake things up, like I’ve done in the past. I was much more comfortable feeling low than ever before. It didn’t phase me as much, and eventually I got another burst of inspiration that helped me glide forward. This pattern repeated itself.

It’s likely that I’m simply more mature than I was in the past, and not willing to turn my life upside down from a mood slump. But I think it’s more than that. To tell you the truth, I think it’s because I consistently do hisbodedus. I take time every day to talk to Hashem in my own personal words. I like to think of it as manning-up. Every day, no matter what, I come clean, express myself and ask Hashem for help. I always have to show my face and I always talk real. Of course, just like anything else, some sessions are better than others but I’ve never had a day where I didn’t say at least a few real words. Maybe you’re the type of guy who can experience this relationship within the organized daily prayers at synagogue? Unfortunately for me, I can’t relate to Hashem in my own unique way often enough within that structure. (In fact, I find the structured prayers somewhat more fulfilling now that I pray outside of communal prayers, because the pressure of connecting creatively is off. If I can connect that day, then great, but if not, I understand that it’s service, similar to the service in the Temple. There are technicals and obligations I meet – many times happily – in the organized prayer, but it’s a different type of prayer entirely).

Consistent personal prayer is an equalizer. I’m always noticing new benefits to this practice. But one thing that I’m experiencing recently is the equilibrium that it brings. You can’t lose your sense of balance the same way when you have to show your face and explain yourself everyday. It kind of always brings you back to reality.

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One of those days

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It’s one of those days. The מוחין דקטנות, small mindedness, is so strong. I couldn’t bring myself to go to shul after carpool, so I went out to the field instead, hoping that I would open up a little.  I could always daven alone later. Thank God it was a healing experience. I sat there a bit in silence and listened to the sounds of nature, instead of my thoughts. After awhile I allowed myself to focus on something that was bothering me and I asked Hashem many times, in many ways, to help me. Then I felt a little grateful and expressed some appreciation. After leaving I felt more ready to daven. I went to my study and I couldn’t bear the weight. I sat there a bit. Finally I started. Sitting wasn’t working. I couldn’t concentrate when standing or pacing either. Eventually I got through it with many ups and downs. Thankfully, I had some very focused moments while others were dreamy. I was pretty ok with it. I can only work with what I have.

Then it was time to learn a bit. The nagging feeling was back again. I don’t want to. What do I want to do? I start to feel like it’s just one of those days when nothing is working for me. It’s a petty day. I can’t get out of my smallness. I just want to space out…check out…

I decided to open up Shivchei Haran, a small book written by Reb Nosson about the greatness of Rebbe Nachman. I remember that in the beginning it talks about the Rebbe’s struggles in serving Hashem. This is what I found:

“He would start every day fresh. Meaning, sometimes when he fell from his [earlier] levels, he wouldn’t give up. He just said, ‘I’ll start now as if I never served Hashem before in my life. I’m just starting now to serve Him for the first time’. So it was every time. He always started over. He was accustomed to starting anew many times a day! (אות ו)

There’s no such thing as ‘one of those days’. Nothing is random. If it’s not working out today, that’s ok. There’s no reason to give up. The falls, the numbness, the laziness, the lack of drive is all part of the plan. Hashem isn’t interested in that perfect image you imagine you ‘could have been’ today. He wants you, in your slumpy fatigued mood, to pick yourself up and do something. Just do something. You could do it. If you can’t do it right now, so relax and try again a little later. Or do something less. But don’t just throw in the towel. The day isn’t over yet. It only started. Today is not just one of those days that you shouldn’t have gotten out of bed. Today is the day where you need to battle through your smallness and forget about what should’ve and could’ve been. In fact, in a funny way, today is really your day.

“היום אם בקולו תשמעון”

 

 

 

Don’t be fooled

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“Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chananya said: In my entire life I was only outsmarted by a woman, a young boy and a young girl. [The Talmud tells all three stories. Let’s get right to the story with the young boy.] One time I was walking and I saw a young boy by the intersection. I said to him, ‘Which way should I take to the city’? He said to me, ‘This way is short but long and that way is long but short‘. I went on the short but long path. When I got to the city, I found it to be surrounded by gardens and orchards. I turned around, went back and said to him, ‘My son, didn’t you tell me this was the short path’? He said to me, ‘Didn’t I tell you it was a long path?’ I kissed him on his head and said, ‘Fortunate are the Jews, who have wisdom in their old ones and in their young ones'”. (Eruvin 53b)

When the Baal Hatanya wrote his sefer to teach Jews the way to serve Hashem properly, he wrote in the title page that he is teaching the long but short path.

What does it mean to take the long but short path and why is that better than the short but long path?

There are no quick-fixes in life. Ask any professional athlete how they became successful and they will tell you it was due to their hard work. To us it might seem easy, because we only see them perform that one time in the spotlight, but they practiced that exact scenario countless times before. They were ready to execute because of all the hard work they put in before that moment.

The same is true in our relationship with Hashem. There is a short path, using drugs and alcohol, to make you feel high. It works fast. In a short moment you might feel very connected to Hashem. It’s like all the doors opened for you and everything is clear now. You might like even talking about spiritual matters, singing and dancing in that state. It makes you feel alive. But it doesn’t get you into the city. It takes you right to the gate, but then the high wears off and you’re left stuck in an overgrown orchard. There’s heavy mud, thickets, and long vines in your way. To pass through the plantation will take you a very long time. But then there’s the long path that is short. It’s long because you need to put the work in. There aren’t any shortcuts on this path. It takes dedication. It doesn’t always feel good. You don’t always feel connected and alive. But you trust that you’re on the path and eventually you make it right into the city, way before the guy on the short-long path.

I think Rebbe Nachman taught us the long but short path with the advice of Hisbodedus. He said to talk to Hashem every day (for an hour) in our own words. It’s hard work. Sometimes you can’t get out to a nice spot. Sometimes you have a busy day and you’re very tired, late at night, when you get the chance. Sometimes you feel like you have nothing to say. It doesn’t matter. It’s a long path. It doesn’t always feel good. It doesn’t always flow. Sometimes you feel like your pulling teeth. You might leave the session questioning, “Was that a waste of time”? This is the long path. We’re not trying to get high here. We’re trying to build a relationship. Relationships have highs and lows and are fostered by dedication and faithfulness. It’s ok if it doesn’t feel good every time. We need to keep going at it.

I sometimes think that this blog is really no different than all those videos that get sent around social media with ‘one minute of inspiration’. Those nice vortlich are the short but long path. We get chizuk (encouragement) from them, but it wears off quickly. I hope following this blog is somehow different. I’m not only looking to share words of encouragement, but rather to encourage personal growth through hard work.

Pushing ourselves to talk to Hashem daily is a long path, but in the end it’s really the short path.

Holy chutzpah

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I.  “The Entire redemption of Israel as a people, and the redemption of each one of us as individuals, depends solely on the attribute of yesod, (our healthy expression of sexuality)”. Rabbi Moshe Weinberger

II. Because the kingdom of the other side has no crown, it uses chutzpah to coerce its subjects. The only way to fight back is with our own impudence. This self-imposed nerve is expressed when we move from level to level in our personal growth. A necessary component of our advancement in this journey are the slip-ups and extended fall-downs. These are signs of progress with which we build Jerusalem, the place from where Torah emanates (Torah 22).

Globally and within our small communities too, our society is breaking down. That addiction is more rampant than ever, whereas healthy connectivity is becoming more and more of a scarce thing. This is all the coercion of the other side. It’s ensnaring our young men with its blatant chutzpah. Every Jewish boy knows full-well that those mediums of filth are so below him. But the power and arrogance of promiscuity is unashamed in its drive to bring them down. And that’s exactly what it’s doing: It’s bringing them down. Not only has it engulfed them in self-loathing and self-doubt, but even the despondency from its after-effects have made them casual, at best, in their prayers and marriages. Throughout his writings, Rebbe Nachman teaches that breaking the holy bris brings about depression and despair. It’s not possible to have true joy without this holiness.

What can we do to save ourselves from the claws of this vile beast?

Reb Nosson says (Eiruvei Tchumin 4) that we have to start over all the time! We must revive ourselves and constantly renew our commitments to Torah and prayer. We can’t allow the feelings of self pity to seep in. Every day, no matter what, we have to forget the past and reawaken our desire to serve Hashem. This is our chutzpah! This is how we impose our will over the enemy. The side of evil has convinced us that when we fail time and again, it’s evidence of our worthlessness. But we need to get up with confidence, wipe off the dust from our falls and fight back hard! Our memories have to be super-short. The torah is called a stumbling block (Isaiah 3:6), because everyone slips up and stumbles in it’s laws. Hashem isn’t interested if we’re perfect or not. He’s more impressed by how we recover after we sink. The worst part of this plague isn’t so much the act, but that it leaves its victim with feelings of self-hatred. He believes he can’t stop, he can’t be great and that his mitzvos are tainted. Reb Nosson’s keen advice isn’t so much to stop the behavior as it is to keep going, like it never happened, and fully believe in your personal renewal.

Rebbe Nachman once said that even if, God forbid, he would have transgressed every sin in the Torah on one day, he’s confident that the next day he would serve Hashem with the same intensity. He understood about man’s ability to renew himself.

What’s even more amazing is that the darkness of these times is confirmation of our beautiful future ahead. Before every rise to the top there needs to be a big dip. Jerusalem is being built by our fearlessness and courage to keep advancing. Reb Nosson says that in the times of Purim we were put in such danger because it was time to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the second Temple. The same is true today. This difficult stage is the last in our process of redemption. The walls of Jerusalem are being built before our eyes and the word of Hashem will soon come from within those walls. Don’t look back! Keep marching strong!

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Primary praise

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Three times a day we religious Jews thank Hashem towards the end of the silent prayer in our liturgy. What are we thanking Him for? That’s easy! We’re thanking Him “for our lives, for the daily miracles He performs for us and for His loving-kindness that never ceases”.

Reb Nosson says (Nesi’as Kapayim 4) that the essence of this blessing is thanking Hashem for saving our souls from corruption. Hashem’s greatest mercy isn’t that He feeds us and keeps us healthy but rather that He is constantly working things out and planning opportunities for us to succeed in spiritual matters. Think about it, he says, would it be called kindness to give someone a million dollars and then beat him up for the next few hundred years? Of course not. Certainly His compassion includes the sustenance he gives us, but the heart of His affection is how He’s always conjuring up ideas so that we don’t fall off the face of the ‘eternal’ earth.

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The Talmud says “Every day, man’s evil inclination overpowers him. If not for Hashem’s help, he wouldn’t be able to manage on his own” (Kiddushin 30). For this we are the most grateful. As Reb Nosson so beautifully writes “Not only doesn’t He push us away, but He regularly works wonders to light up our darkness. He flips our slumps into high times and our sins into merits”.

This is why we bow in that blessing. At first we’re bowing to show how we’re falling without Hashem’s help, like King David sings “Our souls are cast down to the dust and our bellies are touching the ground (Psalms 44)”. But then, with Hashem’s help, we rise out of the dust to the highest places. With His unceasing love, our lows ascend higher and higher until we can finally stand up straight when we utter His holy name, שאתה הוא יהו-ה.

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Up up and…up some more

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The Talmud describes the events at Mt. Sinai. “When the Jews said they would perform the mitzvos even before they heard what the mitzvos were, also known as נעשה ונשמע, six hundred thousand ministering angels came down and tied two crowns on the head of every Jew, one crown for נעשה and one crown for נשמע. When they sinned with the golden calf, 1.2 million destructive angels came and removed their crowns…Reish Lakish said, In the future Hashem will return those crowns to us. As Isaiah prophesied “The redeemed of God will return to Zion singing, with everlasting joy on their heads” (Shabbos 88a).

From this last verse in the Talmud, Rebbe Nachman learned (Torah 22) that the idea of נעשה ונשמע is what joy is all about. The Rebbe understood that נעשה ונשמע wasn’t just a moment in time when the Jews in the desert showed tremendous loyalty, but rather it’s something that we experience constantly. Every person on his own level has the things he understands and the things he doesn’t. As he continues his service of God and ascends from level to level, things that were once hidden from him, נשמע, become known to him and doable, נעשה. But now there are new things that are hidden from him, נשמע.

Very beautifully, the Rebbe likens נעשה to performing mitzvos, whereas נשמע is likened to prayer. It’s clear why נעשה would be likened to performing mitzvos, but why is נשמע likened to prayer? Because prayer is the way we attach ourselves to what we don’t have. Prayer is hope. Hope elevates us into the ‘real world’, although we can’t see it. On an even deeper level, prayer is heartfelt and the heart is connected to the infinite (see Torah 49).

So נעשה ונשמע is about elevating ourselves to higher spiritual levels where we have new insight and new mysteries. But what’s the connection to joy?

Here’s where we might be making a mistake:

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Many of us think that we’ll attain our happiness when we reach our goals. We work hard our whole lives waiting to retire and sit on some hammock with a Pina Colada, as if that is the happiness we were always seeking. But happiness isn’t about reaching the destination. True joy is found in the journey itself. The process of growth, with its euphoric victories and emphatic falls give us the greatest satisfaction. Reaching the end-goal might leave us with uncomfortable feelings of emptiness and regret, but working hard towards our goals is where we find true pleasure. There’s something about the נשמע that gives us a glimpse of our smallness when compared to the infinity of God. That feeling makes us turn inwards and pray from the depths of our infinite hearts to reach higher levels of oneness with God and the world. That prayer is the journey with the greatest joy!

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Appreciating the journey

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What is it about elimination games that makes sports so compelling? When I’ve watched the final game’s closing minutes in sports that I don’t follow, I didn’t find them nearly as irresistible. This leads me to believe that what separates these nail-biters from all other games is full appreciation of the long and arduous path taken by both teams to get to this latest stage of the season.

In Torah 65 Rebbe Nachman describes an exalted level of prayer. He says that we need to unite all our words of prayer so deeply, so that we can actually remember the first word we prayed at the time the last word leaves our mouths. Reb Nosson clarifies that clearly this level of prayer is far higher than people like us can understand.

Although I also can’t imagine this type of perfection in prayer, I think there’s a strong lesson to be learned from here to other areas of life. When it comes to our careers, to child rearing and to personal growth we tend to judge our productivity by our latest results. This recency bias stunts our development because we forget all the remarkable achievements and kindnesses that brought us to this point. Also, thinking myopically worries us unfairly because we doubt if we can be successful since we’ve had a recent slump.

Life is about ups and downs. We can’t get fooled by our latest streaks. What makes the elimination game great is recalling all the tense moments that got the team there. The shots that almost didn’t go in. The injuries and key substitutions. Every part of the journey is special, not only the last couple of moments. The Rebbe describes this idea in our devotions because prayer is the ‘labor of the heart’. We can only wish that our prayers were so unified! But when it comes to our other activities as well, the idea is just as true. Life is a long journey with numerous stages. At times when we feel like we want to give up, if we could aspire to see the entire picture, we might appreciate the odyssey for what it is…an adventure!

New perspectives

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Many of us remember the infamous summer day in 2014 when three Israeli teenage boys were kidnapped and murdered in Gush Etzion while hitchhiking home for Shabbos. For the next eighteen days that authorities searched for our boys, the communal unity and heartfelt prayers were infectious. It was a time that I’ll never forget.

No less than three days after the kidnapping a star in Israel was born. Mrs. Rachelle Fraenkel, mother of one of the victims and an experienced educator, burst on to the scene with her exemplary faith and profound words of encouragement. Since then she has become an international speaker and nothing short of a religious heroine.

In Torah 65 Rebbe Nachman teaches that through suffering we can merit a new comprehension in Torah. Reb Nosson (‘נטילת ידים ד) is quick to explain that this ‘new understanding’ isn’t limited to a creative explanation of Talmudic law but it also includes grasping a fresh look on life. After we go through a crisis, God forbid, we experience true dependency on God and catch a glimpse of our life’s purpose. We often come back to reality with new insight and awareness.

Sometimes, thank God, we don’t need to encounter enormous tragedy to experience this kind of awakening. More often this happens to us while we sleep. We frequently go to bed mentally exhausted and emotionally spent. We close our eyes, drift away into another world and wake up, by the grace of God, revitalized not only physically but also mentally.

One morning the Baal Shem Tov asked Chaikel the water carrier, “How are you”? Chaikel responded, “Rabbi, if you really want to know, I’m suffering. I have three daughters to marry off and I can’t pay for a dowry with the pennies that I make shlepping water. My back is broken from the hard labor and my wife is always yelling at me that we have no money to cover our expenses!” So the Rabbi blessed him with success. The next day the Baal Shem happened to see Chaikel again in the marketplace. “How are you today Chaikel”? “Not bad Rabbi. I know this job is tough but at least it’s a steady income and I’m not unemployed. My daughters are so great and I’m sure some good boys will gobble them up. And I can’t blame my wife. She’s had a hard life and she means well”.

So the Baal Shem Tov turned to his students and asked, “What happened? Nothing changed for Chaikel. He still has no money, three unmarried daughters and a testy wife! But today he woke up refreshed. He changed his perspective. He has a new understanding of things” (heard from Rav Moshe Weinberger).

Jeremiah the prophet praises God in Lamentations (3:23):

.”חדשים לבקרים, רבה אמונתיך”

“[Your Kindness] is renewed every morning. Your loyalty is abundant”.

I pray that we all never experience any suffering. Instead we should find those original perspectives without anguish, like from our sleep. But as the prophet Isaiah states, Although God leads the expectant mother in pain to the birthing stool, it’s from there that He brings forth new life!

 

Barely Moving

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Rebbe Nachman tells a story of a certain tzaddik who became so depressed that he couldn’t get out of bed. He tried whatever possible to bring himself joy but everything intensified his depression. Finally, he reminded himself that at least he could be happy that he was created a Jew and it started to work. Because in reality it’s the one thing that we can’t mess up. God made us a Jew and we had nothing to do with it! So he kept meditating on this idea and his joy increased “until he was as happy as Moses was when receiving the tablets”. He started to fly! He was flying millions of miles in higher worlds until it was time to land. When he landed, he realized that although he advanced to unbelievable heights in the other worlds, in this world he only moved a hair’s breadth.

Sometimes we feel impossibly far away from God, and that everything we do just pushes God away more. The Rebbe teaches (תנינא מ״ח) that we need to remember in this low state, that every little movement we make towards God is exceedingly precious to Him. Every ‘insignificant’ movement we make, shoots our soul in the hidden worlds farther than we can ever imagine!

I’m sure we’ve all heard similar words of encouragement before. But let me explain why this lesson is so comforting.

There are two types of people, or better yet there are two types of struggles we all go through. Sometimes we feel so defeated because nothing we do makes a difference at all. And sometimes we feel frustrated that although we do so much and our actions should be ‘changing us’, we end up accomplishing very little.

These negative perceptions couldn’t be farther from the truth. We don’t appreciate the small things we do but God does. Many times we look at our ‘results’ and feel disappointment, but let’s remember that we’re not seeing the whole picture. Nothing goes unnoticed and we’ll be surprised how much we’re truly appreciated!

 

Hold on

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Reb Nosson writes (‘הלכות מנחה ז’ אות ח) that every Jew, without exception, wants to come back to Hashem. At some point in our lives we all feel divine inspiration and even make an effort to take a step closer to Him, but we are pushed back fiercely by the difficulties and obstacles that immediately surface and steer us away from getting closer to Him.

That rejection is usually something we don’t expect. Whatever scenario led us to be more honest with ourselves appeared so clear to us at the moment. It almost seemed as if the move forward would be natural and easy. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. We will always experience a huge rebuff when we try to connect to God. It could come from anywhere! Maybe our spouses, neighbors, parents, colleagues or children will try to stop us? There are many messengers of God in the world and no shortage of instances that will deter us from Divine intimacy. For many people that first rejection is all it takes to knock them off their horse. So they give up on their good intentions…sometimes forever.

Rebbe Nachman encourages us in Torah 155 to exercise firm patience (ארך אפיים). No matter what happens, we can’t let it bother us. We have to see past the rejection and believe that it’s just a test. It’s really hard to do. We tend to ruminate on how we sacrificed ourselves to take a step forward and instead of a little appreciation from God, we got slapped in the face! For most people this sequence of events is just too much to handle.

But the truth is that nobody said it was gonna be easy. It’s not easy and that’s why so many of us stop trying. But there’s one thing that’s extremely important to know before we give up: We can do it!