Letting go

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So how was my Tisha Bav? you ask. Well, not great. Aside from the natural gloominess of the day coupled with fasting, I was suffering from something else too: My own mind games.

I guess I felt some pressure to feel bad and cry about the state of our exiled people, how we miss our Temple and our communal and individual suffering, which I do admit stems from the shechina’s absence in our life. But I didn’t cry. I had a hard time connecting to the pain of any of those things. I hosted a meaningful get-together in my home where we read Eicha and hauntingly hushed songs about Jerusalem. I got up the next morning and went to hear my dear friend Rabbi Shlomo Katz of Efrat elucidate the Kinnos very beautifully. I mean, it seemed that I had all the right ingredients to awaken my sleepy soul, but in-a-sense that just mounted the pressure. “What’s wrong with me?” I was thinking. Can’t I cry, for God’s sake? Am I serious about my Judaism or not?

I started talking to Hashem and I remembered Rebbe Nachman’s timeless advice to be a תם, a simpleton. In Tinyana 44, the Rebbe says that we should “stay far away from the sophisticated ideas that we entertain, even in our avodas Hashem. Like those times when we over-think and over-analyze if we fulfilled our obligations correctly. That type of sophistication is just disconcerting, illusionary nonsense that trips us up in our avoda [and brings us farther from our goal]. Those scrutinizing thoughts lead us to sadness”.

It’s so important to step back and recognize when our thoughts are wreaking havoc on our equilibrium. They’re just silly thoughts; here now and gone later. Serving Hashem with תמימות, simplicity, empowers us to let go of those heavy, pressure-packed, hogwash thoughts and just follow our healthy state of mind in pursuit of our ambitions.

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Simply satisfied

 

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Forrest Gump was right. Life is full of surprises. But the surprises aren’t always as conspicuous as they were in the movie. You might wake up in the morning and feel like the life was sucked out of you. For many people a grumpy morning can lead to a few bad days. For some, it might be the onset of depression. Recently I’ve been feeling very grouchy. This slump was building and I just couldn’t kick it. Because I do hisbodedus often, I had enough self-awareness to know that something was bugging me, but I was too engulfed in my own negative thinking and all the introspection wasn’t helping me. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s making me so irritable, but even with all the alone time I couldn’t crack the code. Thankfully I had the wherewithal to pray for help, and then help came in an unexpected way.

A few days ago I thought of re-reading one of Rebbe Nachman’s great stories called The Sophisticate and the Simpleton. I finally picked it up again today. If you havent read this tale yet, I recommend you do. (Click here).  It’s actually one of the Rebbe’s only stories that can also be understood straightforwardly. In short, the story tells of two childhood friends. One of them was very simple, limited in his education and abilities, while his friend, an intellectual and philosopher, was always looking to improve his situation with more education and training. The simpleton never feels he’s lacking and is always joyous, but his counterpart is perpetually miserable from his insatiable desire to increase his status. As it turns out the simpleton (like Forrest Gump) becomes very successful while the sophisticate, once a wealthy and distinguished craftsmen, loses everything in his quest to prove his shrewdness.

In reading about the simpleton’s innocence, I started to let go of my stubbornness to be the best. In thinking of his plainness, I was more forgiving of myself. I started to allow myself the space to be imperfect, easing the constant demands I place upon myself. When I read about the unfortunate sophisticate, I identified with his unrelenting drive to succeed and improve his situation, but I understood the endlessness and emptiness that more worldliness and overthinking brings with it.

I think what struck me the deepest was the following contrast: When the simpleton, a shoemaker by trade, would finish making a shoe, it was usually crooked. But he derived so much enjoyment from it that he would praise his handiwork saying, “My wife, what a beautiful, wonderful shoe this is”. Sometimes she would answer him asking, if it’s really so great, then why do other shoemakers get three coins for a shoe and you only get a coin and a half? He would answer her, “Why should I care about that? That’s his work and this is my work. Why must we speak about others”? From this we see the tremendous self-confidence of the simpleton. He believed in himself. He was totally unconcerned if other people did a better job than him. It’s precisely this belief in himself that keeps him from sophistication. He is satisfied with the way he sees things, regardless of what his colleagues achieve. The sophisticate, on the other hand, was exactly the opposite. After he became an accomplished physician, craftsman and philosopher, he decided to marry. “But he said to himself, ‘If I marry a woman here, who will know what I have accomplished? I must return home. Then they will see…[that] I left as a young lad, and now I have attained such greatness'”. Even though he had become so great, he still needed other people’s approval. In this line the Rebbe exposes the sophisticate’s deep insecurity. We’re left to assume that, to a large extent, his motivation for success was his lack of faith in himself.

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Rebbe Nachman encouraged his followers to serve Hashem with utter simplicity. In Pesach 9, Reb Nosson develops this theme and says that if a person becomes depressed because others are better than him, that isn’t humility but arrogance. He feels that it’s beneath his dignity to serve Hashem when he is so far from Him, while others are so near. Instead, we must emulate our patriarch Abraham, of whom it is written “Abraham was one” (Ezekiel 33). The Rebbe explains this to mean that he acted as if there was no one else in the world. Reb Nosson relates this concept to the counting of the Omer. The verse says, “וספרתם לכם, you must count for yourself”. No one can count for you. The Omer represents the spiritual progress that our people made when going from Egyptian slavery to the revelation at Sinai. Every person needs to make his own count, without paying any attention to his neighbor’s progress.

Nobody likes to admit that they compare themselves to others, because when we think about it, it’s a pretty shallow thing to do. But besides the comparisons we make, we over-complicate everything. We often are our own worst enemies with how we demand nothing less than perfection from ourselves. If nothing else, this type of perfectionism cheats us out of the joy in performing mitzvos. Just like the simpleton had joy from his triangular-looking shoe, we need to know that if Hashem has even some pleasure from our imperfect work, then it’s better than any treasure and worth a life time of devotion.

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Joseph, the simple tzaddik

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The verse has an peculiar way of describing Joseph, the holiest of all the brothers:

“וְה֣וּא נַ֗עַר, אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י בִלְהָ֛ה וְאֶת־בְּנֵ֥י זִלְפָּ֖ה”

“Joseph was childish, and was commonly found with the maidservants’ children (Genesis 37:2)”.

The Torah is telling us two amazing things about very rare tzaddikim, such as Joseph and Rebbe Nachman, who are “the foundation of the world” (Proverbs 25).

First, in Torah 30, Rebbe Nachman taught that “the farther one is from Hashem, the greater the teacher he needs, similar to someone extremely ill who needs the best doctor to heal him”. This is the Torah’s intention when saying that Joseph ‘hung out’ with the maidservants’ children. Not that those specific children of Jacob were distant from Hashem, but ‘maidservants’ children’ is an allusion to the type of people that are forlorn and in need of help. Additionally, this is why immediately after Joseph was born, Jacob knew that he can overcome his brother Esau. Had Esau not himself strayed from Hashem, his holy task would have been to bring others who have strayed closer to Hashem. It would have been Jacob’s job to study and teach Torah, and Esau’s job to give encouragement to those who felt far from Hashem. But when Esau relinquished his position, it was Joseph who stepped in as the Kiruv Rabbi. Joseph, being the greatest type of tzaddik, was able to reach even the lowest criminals. We see this clearly in Joseph’s outreach to the prisoners in jail, and later on how he circumcised all of Egypt, the most lewd place on earth at the time. Finally, as we find throughout Hassidic literature, Joseph is intimately connected to the festival of Hanukkah. This is alluded to in our custom to light the Menorah very low to the ground, similar to Joseph was able to reach even the most hopeless and lowly people.

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What does it mean that Joseph was childish?

In Tinyana 78 the Rebbe teaches something very mysterious. He says that sometimes the true tzaddik becomes a simpleton. The idea is as follows: The Torah is literally our lifeline (Deuteronomy 30:20). So how do we survive when we’re not learning torah? We only survive because the tzaddik gives us life. But how does the tzaddik survive when he’s not actually learning Torah? He receives life from the אוצר מתנת חינם, the store-house of free-gifts. (Consequently, this is also how the world survived for twenty six generations before the Jews received the Torah). So sometimes the tzaddik legitimately becomes a simple ignoramus, so that he can give life to the other simple people in the world, Jews and non-Jews alike. This is what it means that Joseph was childish. He was literally doing silly things, and with those foolish behaviors, he was giving life to the world.

In the same lesson, the Rebbe teaches that this ‘simplicity’ that a tzaddik experiences is also called דרך ארץ ישראל, the way to the land of Israel. In fact, Reb Nosson writes the when the Rebbe made his pilgrimage to Israel, his behavior was extremely bizarre. At times he was found not wearing a hat or jacket and running around with little kids playing silly games. Other times, on his voyage, he met great scholars. When they asked him to speak, he would talk gibberish! We truly can’t understand the ways of a tzaddik, especially one of Rebbe Nachman’s caliber. His every move was mysterious, as he connected heaven and earth with his every move. All we can do is feel fortunate that Hashem sends us these great people who, with their deep love, reach even the lowest of the low.

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Hold on or let go?

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At times we might find ourselves in very dark places. We feel miles away from Hashem, like we reached the point of no return. We harbor strong doubts, we feel confused and we can’t believe that we’ve sunk this low.

What can we do in those trying times?

Rebbe Nachman says (Tinyana 12) that some questions are unanswerable. He explains that even the klippos, or the forces of evil which cause this doubt and confusion, only exist because Hashem wills it. Without getting in to the depths of his lesson, he teaches that this darkness gets its life-force from a place that is utterly unknowable to us. We can’t possibly understand it. It’s a locked door;  the apex of hiddenness.

So Reb Nosson (Tchumin 6:8) explains that since the answers are incomprehensible, our only solution is to believe – with the simplest purest faith – that Hashem can even be found in such a dark place. Although we’re accustomed to using our cleverness and guise to find answers, this time it will lead us to greater darkness. The only way to survive these times is with simple faith, by saying, “Master of the World! I believe you’re here. I can’t see you at all and it’s inconceivable to me that you’re here with me. But you must be here. Where are you?”

Why is this so hard to do? Shouldn’t it, in a sense, be easier to simply believe than to constantly contrive sophisticated justifications? What is it about the human psyche that stubbornly attempts to rationalize, expound and hypothesize the cause of everything?

I think it’s just so hard to let go. We don’t want to give up control. We’re afraid what the future will bring, if we’re not ‘calling the shots’. So we refuse to admit that we can’t know the answer. Sometimes this characteristic is very beneficial. It helps us hold on in trying times and not fall into despair. But in harder times, we’re ‘shooting ourselves in the foot’ with this futile cleverness. We need to simply let go and admit that we can’t control the outcomes. We need to confess that although we don’t understand how, Hashem is running the show behind the scenes.

The Rebbe says that the small admission of ‘maybe Hashem could be here with me’ is usually the first step to climb out of this misery. Here we were looking for every ‘tool in the book’ to help ourselves and we just kept on falling into deeper water. Then, with a small admission of faith in something other than ourselves, we’re already on our way back up. It’s not as hard as you think. In fact, sometimes it’s hard because you think.

איה

Keep it simple

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This blog is making me a little crazy! On the one hand I really enjoy putting my thoughts into writing and sharing Rebbe Nachman’s remarkable ideas with the readers. But on the other hand I question how much of this undertaking is just to get positive feedback from my readers and bloat my ego?

I think I play these mind games more often than I’d like to admit. I could be a little hard on myself. In speaking to some people who I respect about it, they all encouraged me to keep blogging. Their different opinions and suggestions were very good too. But then I remembered a lesson from the Rebbe that really hit home for me.

Let me paraphrase the beginning of his famous lesson entitled איה : When someone follows their own cleverness, they can make many bad mistakes…The essence of Judaism is to serve God in simplicity and innocence, without any sophistication. We should simply examine everything we do and determine the following: Will it reveal the Glory of God? It if will, then do it. If it won’t, then don’t.

Serving God in simplicity and innocence (פשיטות ותמימות) is something Rebbe Nachman spoke about a lot. One of his famous stories was about this idea as well. Only after the Rebbe’s younger years of self abnegation did he come to understand that the ultimate devotion is that of complete simplicity.

What does it mean to serve God without sophistication?

When someone once asked the Rebbe what devotions he should have while reciting the Shma Yisroel, the Rebbe answered, “Isn’t it enough to have in mind that Hashem is our God and Hashem is one”? You see sometimes when we want to connect and have a ‘real’ prayer, we’ll close our eyes tightly, shuckle a lot and try to force ourselves to think of the most lofty things. That’s sophistication! The Rebbe taught straightforwardness. “Just try to think about the simple meaning of the words” (השתפכות הנפש י״ג).

So what does this have to do with my mind games?

Well, part of the sophistication that the Rebbe detested is ‘overthinking’ things. People who overthink things are slow to achieve their goals because they get side-tracked debating insignificant details. Let’s say it’s true that my ego inflates when someone tells me that my article changed their perspective. So what? Why should I stop writing? I have to stop worrying about having impeccable intentions and producing ‘the perfect product’. Will it reveal the Glory of God? It if will, then do it. If it won’t, then don’t.

P.S. The world has it all wrong! Everyone thinks their life is so simple now because we can do everything on our phones. It’s true that now we can accomplish so much in one place. But at the same time we’ve let ourselves become inundated with new tasks and tools that have made our lives super-sophisticated. Keep it simple!

 

 

 

 

Are we there yet?

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A few years ago I spent two years diligently studying how to day trade. I analyzed thousands of charts and watched the market for hours on-end looking for the winning setups that I learned. Over that time I met a number of profitable traders who took an interest in my sincerity and mentored me. Although I had some good runs, I never became a consistently profitable trader because I always imagined that ‘I was there already’. If I would see some success, my ego convinced me to trade more aggressively. If I suffered a few losses in a row, I’d deviate from my system to ‘make up the losses’ and I had a hard time seeing things without bias. It’s interesting to note that all the traders I befriended who were successful started with at least 10 years of poor trading. Success isn’t something you can learn and apply without failure. In life we must fail to gain experience and have success.

Sometimes we think ‘we’re there already’! The truth is that we can reach great heights intellectually quite fast and in a way we get ahead of ourselves. Rebbe Nachman says in Torah 25 that at first we need to learn many pre-requisites before we can understand something. But after we get it we don’t need all the previous steps and we can understand it in just one grasp. The challenge is that our bodies and actions have a hard time following suit to the quickness of our minds.

Reb Nosson taught (הל פריה ורביה ג, טו) that this was King Solomon’s mistake as well. The Torah forbade a king from marrying too many women because they will turn his heart away from God. Solomon reasoned that because of his great wisdom and purity he can marry many women and he wouldn’t deviate. Not only that, he felt that with his pure intentions, of marrying many gentile women, he would be able to subdue the side of evil and change the spiritual world as we know it. This was his motive for marrying the daughter of Pharaoh on the day the Temple was consecrated. On his highest day, he wanted to uplift and rectify the lowest place of impurity.

We find this idea over and over in Tanach. Korach saw that Samuel the Prophet will descend from him and reasoned that he should have a more esteemed leadership role. Samson marries Delila, (which means to raise up), thinking he can raise the sparks from the dark side. But, as we know, she ultimately caused his downfall. And finally, in this week’s portion, Zimri, the Prince of the Tribe Simeon, saw that Cozbi, the Midianite princess, was his soul’s destined partner and was defiantly intimate with her causing a plague that, had not Phinehas ended, nearly killed-out all of Israel in the desert.

One of the lessons the Rebbe taught often was the need to be simple in our devotions and not pursue sophistication. He even said over an amazing story about this idea. (See here). We all have great yearning and deep spiritual potential. We often have glimpses of awakening and revelation in worldly and spiritual matters. But we can’t get caught up in our thinking and imagination. We have to be honest with ourselves and love who we are now and appreciate where we are holding. If we seek sophistication, we’ll cause ourselves unwanted anguish. But if we can be patient and consistently progress at our own pace, we will definitely look back and see the big mountain we climbed over time.

We can do it!

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It’s so hard not to give up! We try countless times to succeed but when the door seems shut we just want to ‘call it quits’! It’s far easier to accept defeat than to encourage ourselves to keep trying unsuccessfully. “So what?” we say. “I’ll be ok without it”! But what we’re not realizing is that by surrendering we are relinquishing who we truly are and selling ourselves short!

What do I mean? Well, I’m always hearing people say things like “I’m not good at math”, “I don’t like playing sports”, “I can’t do puzzles”, “I don’t dance”, “I can’t sit still”,  “I have terrible balance”. But it gets worse! Sometimes we say things like “I’m short-tempered”, “I’m in a bad mood”, “I’m too spaced out” and “I’m a bad parent”.

Most of the time the reason why we say these things is because we’re so frustrated and/or ashamed by our failure to succeed that we subconsciously rather stop trying than make another attempt and suffer defeat. You know the kid who gets embarrassed in school by his friends? He comes home, slams the door and yells “I’M NEVER GOING TO SCHOOL AGAIN!!” That’s pretty much what we’re doing when we file away (for life) our talents, in fear that somebody (not sure who?) will laugh at us if we fall down in the process.

On Rebbi Nachman’s last Shabbos Nachamu in Uman, about two months before he passed away, many chassidim gathered at his meal on Friday night to hear him speak. Although he would usually go to his private room right after kiddish and prepare himself for the meal, instead he sat at the table quietly. Appearing weak and tired he said, “Why did you come to me? I don’t know anything at all! If I had something to say then I understand why you would come here. But I’m a simple peasant. I don’t know anything at all”! He kept on repeating these types of things for awhile until he finally said, “The only thing that’s keeping me alive now is that I was in the Land of Israel”. Slowly he began to expound on that idea until he delivered a long lesson on it (תנינא ע״ח). After the lesson it’s said over that he was ecstatic and instructed the chassidim to sing zemiros and he sang with them, even though he hadn’t sang in recent months due to his illness. Then he spoke to the chassidim the entire meal with tremendous sweetness and encouraged them greatly. Finally, he yelled out from the depths of his heart “Gevalt! Don’t give up on yourselves! There is no reason to ever give up!״

We might not understand the Rebbe’s mysterious simplicity at that time. But in some concealed way, although his mastery of Torah was unparalleled, at that moment in his mind, he really knew nothing at all! But he didn’t give up. He found some way to open himself up and succeeded in saying over beautiful Torah with awesome joy! In doing so, in his greatness he saw that there is never ever a reason to quit. The chassidim describe how he cried out and lengthened the words “Don’t give up”, like he was charging every Jew eternally never to despair!

This story happened more than 200 years ago in a small house in the Ukraine but it couldn’t be more true and relevant today. We have so much potential. Hashem, the Jewish people and the world at large needs us. Let’s not write ourselves off because of some past difficulties. We have too much to offer! “Gevalt! Don’t give up”!

Think to do

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Buddhism teaches that ones goal is to reach Nirvana, where you’re no longer serving your insatiable cravings. I find that sometimes I also set my goals to be liberated from my own thought enslavement.

I once heard that “Judaism starts where Buddhism ends”.

Rabbenu Bachya writes (חובות הלבבות שער חשבון הנפש) that from the following verse the Torah requires us to do a self-inventory :

“וידעת היום והשבות אל לבבך, כי ד’ הוא האלוקים בשמים ממעל, ועל הארץ מתחת, אין עוד”

“And today you know, and will take into your heart, that God is the ruler in the heavens above and on the land below. There is no other”

Rav Kook asks (מוסר אביך פ״ד), How does this verse obligate us to consider our actions? It seems only to necessitate our firm belief in the oneness of God? He answers that “in the heavens above” suggests our thoughts and “on the land below” alludes to our actions. So the verse requires us to contemplate if our thoughts and actions demonstrate the oneness of God.

That’s a charming allusion, but is the verse really saying that?

Here’s the idea: If we know in our minds and adopt in our hearts that God is everywhere, above and below, then we should feel compelled to act in unison with that knowledge. It’s simply foolish to believe that God created the world and doesn’t expect something from us in return. Real belief in God behooves commensurate action from us; duties of the heart and aligned performance. It’s not enough to feel God in our lives, we need to serve God.

One of Rebbe Nachman’s most essential themes is to serve God without sophistication (תנינא י״ב). We must simply clarify to ourselves in every situation, “Will this action bring out the glory of God? If it does, then do it. If it doesn’t, then don’t”.

Our goals shouldn’t be to achieve feelings or to detach from inferior feelings. Those landmarks are merely a means to our greater goal of performance and ultimate unity.