Return to who you are


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Growing up I didn’t like the word teshuva (repentance), as it engendered images of selichos and fasting into my mind. It basically meant that I had to promise I won’t have a good time anymore and also regret the times when I did have some fun. Upon exposure to Rebbe Nachman’s understanding of teshuva, or for that matter Rav Kook’s world of teshuva (see here), I understood that my perception of teshuva was exactly the opposite of what teshuva really is.

“Before teshuva, a person can’t really sustain himself. It’s almost as if he doesn’t exist in the world…[But] when a person purifies himself through teshuva, then he is preparing his birth into the world, so that he may exist. That’s why teshuva is an aspect of the Divine name אהי-ה, which means I am ready to be”. (Torah 6)

I always thought that the process of teshuva was trying to become a different person, as the Midrash Tehillim (120) says, through teshuva we become new creatures. But with the Rebbe’s lessons, like the one above, I now understand that becoming a new creature doesn’t mean something new was created. It also doesn’t mean that a new me was created. It means that I finally have a right to exist. I don’t need to become anybody else, in fact I can’t be anybody else. Teshuva introduces me to the world. It cuts away all my fraudulence and highlights who I really am. I can’t speak for anybody else but that sounds attractive to me. I don’t want to be you anymore. I’m tired of being you! When I try to be you, I’m not good at it and I’m left feeling unsettled. The only way that I feel satisfaction and pride is when I’m being myself.

Teshuva brings out who we really are, not who we can be. We are each remarkably distinct and delightfully unique. The world doesn’t need another one of him. The world needs just one of you. Each one of us has something creative to contribute and teshuva is the process that accentuates our exceptional creative features. How fasting and reciting penitential poems uncovers the real us is for another discussion, but seeing teshuva as the process of readying myself to fully exist sounds healthy and exciting, not burdensome and depressing.



Secrets and deep secrets


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“There is an upper unification, שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה’ אֶחָדand a lower unification, בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. Every Jew should make certain to engender these unifications”. (Torah 11)

How can we make it happen? Says Rebbe Nachman, through our speech we can come back to Hashem in all areas of our life. Coming back to Hashem, Teshuva, is the process of connecting to our own life force.

“For [the words of Torah] give life לְמֹצְאֵיהֶם (to those who find them)” – Proverbs 4. “Read it, ‘למוציאיהם בפה’ (to those who express them verbally)” – Eruvin 54a.

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No situation is too bleak for teshuva, if we can use our speech to enlighten us. But for the words to shine, they must bring out the glory of Hashem. To reveal Hashem’s glory we must embrace humility and minimize our own glory (see also Torah 6).

Later in the lesson, the Rebbe talks about a false humility that is the ultimate degree of conceit. This is when “people act humbly in order to gain honor and prominence. Because they know just how despicable haughtiness is, they act humbly”. But what’s so bad about that? Why is it considered haughty to practice humility from the recognition of how base the ego is? Isn’t it praiseworthy to distance oneself from such an undesirable quality, embracing humility as a valuable characteristic? The truth is that it is indeed admirable to disassociate oneself from arrogance by seeing how awful it is, but that isn’t at all true humility.

Let’s go back to the upper and lower unifications. The upper unification, שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, is believing and knowing clearly that Hashem is the Lord and there is none other. The lower unification, בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם, is comprehending that the ultimate purpose of everything in all the worlds is to serve as the vehicle to reveal Hashem as the one and only. The world only has value when the beings of creation are acting as tools through which the awareness of Hashem as the exclusive one is proclaimed. Consequently, when Hashem benevolently provides man with benefits such as wisdom, power, beauty or wealth, it is only so he should come to understand God’s greatness and his own inconsequentiality. Because, in essence, all wisdom, power, beauty and wealth are manifestations of Hashem clothing Himself in this world. He is the most wise, powerful and beautiful. Recognizing that fact from experiencing ones own virtues is what the lower unification is. It’s appreciating that everything in this world, including oneself, is merely a garment of Hashem and an instrument to bring out His glory. As a result, any virtue that a person does have is only so that he might achieve true humility from it. That is its sole purpose. But if a person prides himself in the special qualities with which Hashem has graced him, then he has completely perverted the intent of this Divine benevolence.


How does one attain this humility? By guarding his brit. The Jewish people’s covenant with God is centered on sexual purity. As is easily understood, when we selfishly blemish our brit, we’re attempting to increase our own glory and belittle His glory. It might be that our intentions aren’t so bad, but the result is never-the-less a reality. Joseph, the personification of one who guarded his brit, attained complete humility. I always marvel at how Joseph was released from jail and placed before Pharaoh, who says, “They say you interpret dreams”. He answers, “It is not me, the Lord will bring Pharaoh’s tranquility”. And of course, when someone perpetuates the glory of God to such a degree, he is the garment of that glory, as it says, “Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him (Genesis 42:6)”.

Finally, a bit deeper, the Rebbe teaches that there are two forms of guarding ones brit. They relate to the lower and upper unifications. The lower unification is likened to someone whose relations are during the week. He guards his brit as the Torah requires and thereby reveals the glory of Hashem in his actions, especially in a crucial procreative action such as intimacy. But then, as the Talmud teaches, the Torah scholar only has marital relations on Shabbos. This is likened to the upper unification, the idea being that his intimacy is complete holiness, because there is none other than Hashem.

Ultra Orthodox students gesture as they pray during a reading class at the Kehilot Yaacov Torah School for boys in Ramot



The King’s attendant


The Talmud tells a story about Rebbi Chanina Ben Dosa who traveled to Rebbi Yochanan Ben Zakai to learn Torah, when the latter’s son became ill. Rebbi Yochanan said, “Chanina, my son, pray for him and he will live. [Rebbe Chanina] put his head between his knees and begged for mercy on the child – and he lived. Rebbe Yochanan Ben Zakai then said ‘Even if Ben Zakai would put his head between his knees all day long, they wouldn’t pay any attention to him’. [Rebbe Yochanan’s] wife [heard this and] said to him, ‘So Is Chanina greater than you’? He answered her, ‘No. But he is like an attendant of the King and I’m like an officer of the King'”. (Berachos 34b)

What’s the difference between an attendant and an officer? Rashi explains that the attendant is a fixture in the home of the King. He’s not high in ranking but he goes in and out as he pleases, without permission. Whereas the officer is of a higher class but isn’t often around the King.

In Torah 6 Rebbe Nachman advises that in order to come back to God, we need to become skilled at entering and leaving. Just like a soldier, we need to know when is a good time to advance and when is a good time to retreat. Sometimes we’re in a higher emotional state and we need to ‘run with it’. Other times, when we have lower feelings, we can’t advance but we need to be clever and hold on to what we have without losing too much.

Maybe this is what was so great about Rebbi Chanina Ben Dosa. The Talmud describes in a few places his unmatched ability to perform miracles through his prayers. But it seems that he wasn’t the greatest scholar or the most pious. He was just the best at praying. Why? Because he was in and out of the King’s chambers all the time. Does that mean that he was always in an uplifted state of mind? No! That isn’t possible. But when he felt good, he pushed himself in front of the King. And when he felt low, he called out to the King.

That’s the meaning of the famous allusion to the month of Elul in the verse “אני לדודי ודודי לי” (I’m for my lover and my lover is for me – Song of Songs 6). Sometimes I’m for my lover. I’m feeling great and I’m ‘giving’ to this relationship. But other times, when I’m too broken to give, my lover is for me. He is picking up the slack and He’s overcompensating to help me. The best relationships are the ones that are balanced and reciprocal.

The Baal Hatanya compared this month of Elul to when the King leaves his palace and is in the field. That means He makes Himself available more now. Every one of us can become more familiar this month with the King, before his imminent coronation. Of course we can always come back to God, but there are certainly more auspicious times and now is one of them. Now we can be more of an attendant to the King just because it’s that time of year. We can go in and out of His chambers at our leisure. Most of us fear that we’ve been gone for so long that He’s probably upset at us. How can we have the chutzpah to call out to Him now, when we need Him most? But really the opposite is true. He makes Himself more available now. He’s longing to reconnect. He just wants us back!

Ups & Downs


In 1822 Reb Nosson made the courageous pilgrimage to Israel. While there he visited the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mt. Meron. As an authentic master in the writings of Kabbala, one can only imagine how excited Reb Nosson was to visit the holy site of this great Kabbalist. But in his autobiography Reb Nosson writes that when he got there he was feeling very weak and he wasn’t able pray as he had hoped. Never the less he didn’t let himself feel dejected, visiting other grave sites that day, and slowly but surely coming back to himself and praying Mincha with great joy!

Rebbe Nachman teaches in Torah 6 that if a person wants to consistently be in the glorious process of Returning to God, he needs to be an ‘Expert in Halacha‘. Halacha literally means to go. One who’s an expert in Jewish Law knows exactly where he can go and where he can’t; What he can do and what he can’t. Although the Rebbe was a big proponent of learning Halacha, the phrase ‘Expert in Halacha‘ here is a play-on-words. What he was really referring to is the subtle craft of knowing when to ‘move forward’ and when to ‘come back’.

You see life is full of ups and downs! All too often we simply can’t influence the circumstances around us, so we need to react appropriately. When we feel brimming with energy and desire, we should attempt to embark on new journeys and increase our workload. But when we’re in a low state of consciousness, we need to just ‘hold on for dear life’ and not expect too much from ourselves. Some people are afraid to accept the challenges when it’s time to move-on and others feel demoralized when they hit a wall, stubbornly banging on it and experiencing unnecessary guilt. It’s truly an expertise to know when to advance and when to retreat.

King David sings:

“אם אסק שמים, שם אתה”

“If I ascend to Heaven, You’re there” (as if to say, I’m with You when I rise).

“ואציעה שאול, הנך”

“And if I descend to the lowest places, there You are”! (Meaning, You sustain me even when I’m low).