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HOW MUCH DOES HAPPINESS COST? R. Itamar Schwartz

The true nature of human existence is defined by the soul, which is the real “I” of a person. The soul is fundamentally good. Negative feelings and emotions are rooted in the body, which is only the exterior physical garment to the soul. By identifying oneself as a soul garbed in a body rather than a body with a soul, one can subdue and separate the negative thoughts, emotions, and actions rooted in the body. This includes the entire range of negative characteristics and feelings such as anger, hate, jealousy, as well as anxiety, fear, and sadness. Shifting one’s primary identity to one of soul rather than body is a fundamental step in personal spiritual development and connection to the inner world of the soul. The soul is the only place where unconditional love can be felt. It also holds the connection to the Creator of the world. An important step in the process of accessing the authentic world of the soul is to understand the role of desire in the attainment of true joy and happiness.

Someone with a small coin in their pocket is not afraid of losing it since, relatively speaking, their desire for it is very weak. Even if they lose it, its loss is inconsequential. Compare this to someone carrying ten thousand dollars. The average person will be anxious about losing it, since the loss of such a significant sum will be felt. We can immediately see here the role desire plays in a person’s anxiety level. When the desire for something is not strong, the fear of its loss is either very weak or nonexistent. The stronger desire is for something, the larger the fear of losing it. One of the most intense anxieties a person can have is the fear of losing life itself. It is thus clear that the root of the problem is not fear, but rather desire. The work of uprooting fear and anxiety therefore begins on a deeper level at the true source, at the point of desire.

There are two places a person can search for joy and contentment: through acquisitions or through inner experience of self. According to the Rambam, true joy is not derived from that which is external, but rather from an internal experience within the heart. It is only here where true pleasure and happiness resides.

“HAPPINESS” OF ACQUISITION

The root of the Hebrew word for desire, ratzon, is the same as the word for running, ratz. This alludes to the running involved in acquiring something—the run to buy it and the effort exerted to attain it. This occurs when a person doesn’t accept their current situation and leaps onto a fast track to change it. In this context, all ratzon is a race to attain the desired thing and connect it to oneself.

Most desires consist of the illusion that when the desired thing is attained, it will bring a happier and more carefree life. Some people switch cars every two years since they believe a new car will bring more happiness. If it were clear to them that the car will actually not cause more happiness or less worries, they would have no desire for it. They would be unwilling to invest time and effort in the race to get it, and certainly not make it into a major focus of life. Unfortunately, many people believe that their lives are lacking and that greater happiness will come only through the attainment of something beyond their current situation.

“HAPPINESS” OF SELF

In contrast, there is the happiness and contentment that comes from the essential experience of self. Our sages wrote, “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with their portion” (Avot 4:1). They weren’t referring to someone with “everything,” but rather to one who lacks things but is nonetheless happy. How is this possible if someone doesn’t make it through the month financially, or has a child in the hospital, etc.? How can a person be happy with troubles?

This is where happiness from the essential experience of self becomes relevant. It is a happiness that doesn’t depend on what you have, since if you were to do a general inventory, what you think you lack would undoubtedly outweigh what you possess. So where is the happiness? It doesn’t exist with the acquisition of things, since true happiness is rooted in the essential experience of self rather than in acquiring something external to oneself.

A human being was created with an innate happy disposition, and unless there is a specific reason to the contrary, one should be naturally joyful. If you ask someone why they are not 100% satisfied with their lives, they may answer because they don’t have enough money, health or honor, etc. This could be true on a peripheral level, but on a deeper level, their discontent stems from a desire for something beyond their current situation.

However, if one’s natural condition is based on their original inborn state of happiness, then avoiding the desire for something beyond one’s given situation would preserve this natural state. Unless a person undermines their own happiness with extraneous desires, then they need to be naturally satisfied and content. From a theoretical perspective, this doesn’t make any sense. You could say, “What type of life is this? Not to want anything? Impossible!” The truth is, if you offer someone who lives in an airy three-story villa a stuffy windowless basement with a broken air conditioner, they would say, “Thanks, but no thanks. Leave me alone.” On the other hand, the same basement would be a magical proposition to a homeless individual lying on a park bench. A person wants something only when they figure their current situation will improve when they get it. This is quite different when one feels their current situation is wonderful because they have everything they need. In general, people don’t usually identify themselves in this way.

WE HAVE IT ALL ALREADY

“Naked I came from my mother, and naked I will return” (Job 1:21). This can be interpreted negatively, meaning that we are born with nothing. The opposite can also be understood, that we were born with everything. Unfortunately, we educate ourselves, or more accurately our souls, via a world that convinces us we must have all sorts of possessions. We gradually become accustomed to the idea that our lives require a whole range of things to be happy, which causes true happiness to become extremely rare. However, life can be seen from a totally different viewpoint.

For instance, imagine you are window shopping and notice a beautiful luxurious sofa in the store window. You begin to consider how it would feel to sit on such a comfortable couch, complete with newspaper in hand. You further envision living in a penthouse apartment overlooking the sea. It seems so beautiful and bit by bit, even if it is remotely realistic, you are almost there.

What’s the problem? You figure your life is currently lacking a beautiful couch and a penthouse apartment overlooking the ocean. Your happiness would be greatly enhanced if you could only acquire it and watch the waves roll in—a wondrous world. But the truth is, if you would take hold of yourself for a moment, you would realize that your current situation is actually better now, since the level of contentment you enjoyed before the desire will be stolen the moment you want something more. Here is the point where you can discover a deeper inner tranquility than a penthouse overlooking the sea could ever bring. This is a feeling with which most people are completely unfamiliar since their every desire, including the attempt to materialize it, is based on the conviction that they are incomplete without it.

When a person realizes that their fundamental structure is the soul—which at its essence is very good, perfect, and complete—then there is no perceived lack or desire to acquire more. If so, then why would I want to trade this for a sofa and penthouse apartment overlooking the sea? Which is more perfect, my Divine soul or a penthouse apartment? Obviously the soul is more perfect, but a person is not generally conscious of this fact. They think to themselves, “If I stop wanting, I will be unhappy since my contentment depends on a penthouse apartment.” One who has never experienced their inner point of completeness is convinced that desire and its materialization is the key to a better life.

SHIFTING THE THOUGHT PROCESS

This is merely an ingrained way of thinking which can be completely reversed. An utterly different way of looking at life exists. Every time a new desire surfaces, stop a moment and ask yourself, “Will my life end if this desire is unfulfilled? Will I really suffer if I can’t get it?” In the vast majority of cases, the answer is no. If it is a desire to increase possessions, then reflect deeper and say, “If I stop desiring this thing, even if I go on to acquire it, my life will be more complete without the desire.”

Obviously, it is not possible to nullify every desire at once. Instead, it is a slow and steady process of accustoming oneself to think differently about life. The world is filled with nonstop enticements and advertising campaigns meant to convince us of one idea: this particular thing is the key to our happiness, even if it means going into debt for a few months or years.

However, there is something very precious at stake here. Begin to close your eyes to the world and believe you possess an inner treasure much greater than anything in the world—more wonderful than anything you could possibly buy or acquire. An inner power of tranquility and contentment already exists inside of you, since true joy and satisfaction do not come from external things. This treasury can only be discovered through the realization that your essential being is a perfect and complete soul, and that it is only the desire for something outside of you that causes unhappiness.

People search the world over for the secret to happiness. If there was a special pill that turned happiness into sadness, would anyone take it? Obviously not, but many take such a pill countless times in the course of a single day. The name of the pill is “desire”.

We want without limit. Our entire life is built on an ideology that causes us to run away from the soul, surrounding us from the first moments of life. It accompanies us until the end of life, unless we catch ourselves in time to reverse the process. If you made a list of everything you want, how many pages would you fill? These desires are actually the road to personal destruction.

THE MINIMUM IS THE MAXIMUM

Our sages call this idea, “Bread with salt you will eat, water by measure you will drink, on the ground you will sleep, a life of discomfort you will live. Happy you will be in this world and prosperous in the World to Come” (Avot 6:4). Most people find this difficult to understand. “Happy in this world? What can I say, at least it will be good for me in the next world. I do good deeds, I learn a little Torah, I’ll be rewarded in the next world.” But this is not the intention of the Mishnah, since it says, “You will be happy in this world…” Yet, it remains illogical to first state, “…a life of discomfort you will live,” and only afterwards write, “Happy you will be in this world…” What kind of happiness is that? You may say, “After all, I have a decent salary, so what’s the problem? What is so wonderful about striving for the minimum?” But this is exactly the point we have been discussing until now.

A person takes another little piece of cake. It tastes sweet and feels good on the palate, bringing momentary calm. What harm is there in a little piece of cake? In and of itself, we know it is nothing, at least almost nothing. Even from a nutritional standpoint, no doctor will say that eating a certain food only once is poison merely because it doesn’t follow nutritional guidelines. The problem is not the eating per se, rather the desire for it—wanting something beyond one’s inborn state of contentment. These desires are effectively banishing you from your inner source of joy and contentment, and robbing you of the knowledge that there is another reality entirely.

We are not discussing other-worldly theories here, rather we are referring to happiness in this world. There is another definition of happiness, joy, and pleasure beyond what we have known until now. If you are unaware of the existence of such an inner treasure, then you’ll search for it on the outside. If you do know it exists, then there is no race to acquire something beyond your essential self.

LIFE VS. THE WORLD OF DESIRES

G-d said to Adam, “…on the day you will eat from [the tree], you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17). Yet, Adam didn’t die on the same day, he lived for 930 years. Nonetheless, the Torah writes that on that day he will certainly die. The problem here was Adam’s essential desire which commenced a process of death from the moment he wanted to eat from the tree. If you realized a process of self-death is set into motion the moment you begin to want something, no matter how small, you would say, “Thanks, but I’ll do without the cake, I prefer life.” It would be clear that it is not worth trading a piece of cake for the connection to an inner world of perfect joy. This perspective should accompany a person throughout life. Of course, a piece of cake is only a minor example of this principle.

A person is driving along the highway and suddenly sees smoke billowing out of the engine. They immediately stop on the side of the road and escape the car in the nick of time before it goes up in flames. Unfortunately, the car insurance just expired yesterday—they fully intended to renew it, but figured one day wouldn’t matter. Alas, $15,000 up in smoke. A normal thought would be, “How can I cover $15,000?! If I had renewed my insurance on time yesterday, I’d have the money in hand today!”

However, if you’d ask the same person that if they needed a life-saving operation costing $15,000, would they spend the money on it? Obviously, they would run to get the money in any possible way. This is because when speaking about life itself, $15,000 is nothing. Yet, a person wouldn’t generally make a connection between this type of financial loss over a car and losing life. One needs to think, “By desiring this $15,000, I have entered into a world of desires that will effectively uproot me from the inner experience of true life and happiness.” Which is preferable? To give in on the desire for the $15,000 or lose life over it?” The answer is obvious.

The truth of such an outlook is known and proven with those who have tried it. A day doesn’t normally go by without some unexpected and unwanted occurrence. Who can claim a full week has gone exactly according to plan? Your upstairs neighbor made a racket all night, you get up in the morning and the baby is sick, you miss work, the car needs to be towed, etc. Choosing and accepting one’s current situation is relevant every time something doesn’t go the way you want, no matter how small and insignificant.

FORGING A NEW PATH TO THE HEART

Our sages define suffering as anything that opposes our desire. As the Talmud states, one who desires a certain coin from their pocket, but takes out another instead, experiences suffering. Begin identifying even the smallest desire for something that causes a tiny pang of unpleasantness in the heart, and ask yourself, “Why am I feeling uncomfortable right now? Is it because I believe that if my desire was fulfilled, I would feel better? Am I unhappy only because my desire has not materialized? Is it really worth it to uproot my entire life over this desire?” Reprogramming ingrained thought patterns takes persistence, since even after you let go of the desire, there is no immediate gratification of feeling inner contentment. At first, one needs a level of faith to believe they have a soul which inherently contains all pleasure and enjoyment. Then, by proceeding with basic faith, one will slowly become accustomed to a certain level where desires are weakened. A feeling of enjoyment will begin to be experienced from an entirely different place.

To illustrate, as long as one has no children, they are unable to comprehend the pleasure they bring, since there is no pathway to that inner point of pleasure. Likewise, someone who has never married is incapable of truly grasping what it means to stand under a chuppah. They could have attended 200 weddings and understand the concept of marriage intellectually—even enough to lecture on the topic—but have no first-hand familiarity with it. Only through making the connection to the inner experience can one know the feeling of what it means to be married.

This is the same for one who has never experienced a desire-free world. They have no source in their soul to fathom the happiness and satisfaction waiting behind the door. Once it is experienced however, the value in giving up desires to access an unparalleled source of inner pleasure and joy will be obvious.

Fears come from the multitude of common desires encountered by the soul on a daily basis, where there is a fear of their loss. Life swings constantly between desire and the fear of not acquiring what it desires. It is far more preferable to give up desire than lose the inner world of the soul. Even when grappling with the fear of death, when there is faith that a world of happiness exists beyond this world, then there is no fear, even of death. Many people do not think in this way, but a person is not afraid of dying when they are already familiar with the experience of inner joy coming from a place of no lack.

THE ULTIMATE TIKKUN

All blemishes begin to fall away when a person works to repair the root point of desire in the soul and gradually enters into a world of authentic happiness and contentment. Without this effort, one searches in all the wrong places for happiness and life is very difficult.

All destruction in the world comes from desire. People attempt to satisfy their desire, if not willingly, then by force. Everyone builds their entire lives around their desires. Somebody wants one thing, someone else wants the opposite, and suddenly a world war erupts. If everyone worked on nullifying their desires, not a single war would have occurred in the world.

The tikkun of the world depends upon revealing a world of no desires. According to the prophet Isaiah, in the future, the wolf will dwell with the lamb (Isa. 11:6). This is because when the wolf has no desire for the lamb, they can co-exist. But when the wolf desires the lamb, the lamb becomes lamb chops. As long as we are filled with desire, we are like wolves, consuming everything around us.

We spoke about the tikkun of the emotional world and its proper balance, arriving at the innermost point of desire (ratzon). When this point is repaired, the entire emotional realm is fixed as well. To the extent the force of desire can be quieted, there will be satisfaction and happiness in life. Since desiring what is beyond the essential self is the source of all personal and global problems, the solution is to uproot this type of desire to access the inner soul where all true contentment and joy reside. ♦


Translated and adapted with special permission from the author. Tzaddik Magazine is solely responsible for the translation.

R’ Itamar Schwartz, shlita, lives in Israel and is author of the popular “Mishkan Bilvavi Evneh Series.” More of his shiurim can be found at www.bilvavi.net.

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ONE THING IS MISSING – THE SOUL : R. Moshe Weinberger

THE REBBE OF PIACEZNA, R’ Klonymous Kalman Shapiro, z”ya[1] was approaching his fortieth birthday:

“My heart pounds from my impending fortieth birthday, my entire body shakes from my oncoming declining years. Still, I will try to muster all my strength to commit myself and my life to G-d. Perhaps, perhaps, something will remain. But to what shall I commit myself? To learn more? I think that as far as possible, I don’t waste any time. To abstain from physical pleasures? If my own desires are not fooling me, thank G-d, I am not so attached to them. So what am I missing? Simply to be a Jew. I see myself as a self-portrait that shows all colors and features real to life. Just one thing is missing: the soul.”[2]

I have often reflected upon these searing words penned by the “Aish Kodesh” a decade before his holy body was consumed by the inferno of the Holocaust. The post-Holocaust generation has come of age. We have prospered financially and religiously. The self-portrait of our Torah community “shows all colors and features real to life.” The Siyum HaShas [3] took place before an audience of 90,000. Our institutions are bursting at the seams. We have a formidable array of daily and weekly publications filled with our own current events and advertisements for the latest, non-gebrokts Pesach getaways. Many neighborhoods take pride in their “minyan factories” where a maariv can be caught until the wee hours of the night. We have morning kollels and evening kollels and gemachs for everything under the sun. “Just one thing is missing: the soul.”

R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once called all the Jews of the city to a massive gathering in the main shul. A hush fell over the crowd, as the Tzaddik climbed to the top of the bimah and cried out, “Yidden, don’t forget! You must always remember that G-d exists! He really exists!!” The “Kedushas Levi” was appealing to a shul filled with strictly observant Jews. Apparently, he felt that despite all the “colors and features” of Yiddishkeit, something very precious was slipping away. Real davening cannot be manufactured in a “minyan factory;” it longs for a soul. True modesty is not just a matter of stockings and sleeves. It has a neshama, a soul. Torah learning that does not lead to a meaningful Torah life filled with sincere joy, authentic yiras shomayim, fear of heaven, and simple human decency, is without a soul.

In the holy books, this intangible ingredient, this soul, is often referred to as ohr, light. A couple might enjoy the security that comes with a marriage in which mutual responsibilities are taken seriously. But if that is all the marriage consists of, it is a dark and dismal home they share. When a relationship is lichtig, “lit up”, when it has a neshama, even the “C minor” of everyday life is illuminated by the light that binds them together.

The “Noam Elimelech”[4] teaches that when HaShem gave us the Torah, He gave us infinitely more than the actual words and commandments. “And HaShem spoke all these words saying, ‘I am HaShem your G-d…’” (Ex. 20:1). “All these words” means not only the actual words, but all their implications, as well, even from the white space of the parchment surrounding them. According to Chazal,[5] “I am” – in Hebrew, anochi – is an acronym for ana nafshi kesavis, yehavis – “I have inscribed My very soul [in this Torah] that I’m giving you!”

In davening, we say, “ . . .with the light of Your face, You have given us a Torah of life.” It is impossible to define this light, but when it’s missing from a marriage, a family, a friendship, or from one’s Yiddishkeit, it is painfully obvious. Some might admit to remembering the lyrics of an old song, “Something inside has died, and I can’t hide it, and I just can’t fake it.”

Our communities—spanning the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy—are swarming with Jews of all ages and backgrounds who feel little, if any, connection to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.[6] This is not a conclusion reached by way of scientific study or formal assessment, and it cannot be proved in a laboratory. It is, I believe, glaringly apparent to anyone who has taken a peek outside the beis medrash.

It is obvious to anyone who is not fooled by the billboard brand of frumkeit that is as shallow and empty as the so-called “Jewish” music blasting at our simchos and family events. Forget about data. The “defectors” who simply couldn’t go on hiding and faking have shed the external uniforms of Yiddishkeit to become the object of our latest outreach efforts. These individuals comprise but a fraction of those who are simply unable, or who are afraid, to disengage, who listlessly drag their feet through the motions of avodas HaShem, service of G-d, while waiting desperately for the next bein hazmanim,[7] break in davening, or any other distraction from the monotony of the charade.

This type of disengagement or disconnection has little to do with the intellect or matters of theology. Thus, enjoying a fascinating shiur provides little assurance that one will find meaning in davening, or even behave in shul. It does not even prove that he believes in anything at all. Attending a seminar on the meaning of davening and the structure of the siddur, while important, has little to do with passionate tefilah. Many of our grandparents knew much less about davening than we do. They, however, knew G-d, cared deeply about Him and lived in an ongoing dialogue with Him.

This void is wreaking havoc upon the spiritual integrity of our communities. Yet, this very same void is itself responsible for a resurgence of spiritual longing among those who are honest enough to admit that something is so terribly wrong and broken that something must be done about it.

We are all familiar with a number of wonderful kiruv[8] initiatives that were initially established as a means of reaching out to the assimilated and unaffiliated. While these are still the populations officially being targeted by kiruv seminars and Shabbatons, a large percentage of attendees are actually (forgive me) “FFB”s[9] of all stripes and colors. Last year, I was asked to speak at such a convention and prepared a talk geared for the uninitiated and newly observant. Upon arriving, it became quite apparent to me that the great bulk of those attending were Chassidish, Yeshivish, Heimish, and Modern Orthodox. What was their common denominator? The intense longing they had to connect to HaShem and the sincere need they had to understand why they were keeping mitzvos and making sacrifices for Yiddishkeit.

Many shared with me a sense of lamah nigara[10]—why should we be kept back and denied the rich spirituality and the open and honest discussions about emunah[11] typically offered to our secular brothers and sisters? Mind you, these were intelligent, observant individuals, most graduates of our finest yeshivos and seminaries. Why do so many of our fold flock to Carlebach minyanim on Friday night, or try valiantly to introduce some of the song and spirit into their shul’s davening? And these are not a fringe element of “holy hippies.” To dismiss or misinterpret these and many other phenomena of this genre would be both wrong and dangerous. Jews—healthy, learned, and sincere Jews—are aching for meaning and inspiration. They are not, G-d forbid, rejecting traditional Torah learning and halacha, nor do they seek to stir some revolution against the old guard. They are simply searching for the soul and light they are missing.

These various trends and behaviors should cause us to wonder whether or not the latest technology is truly the greatest problem facing the Jewish people. Judging by the number of proclamations, as well as their content and tone, one might conclude that our world would simply be perfect but for the Internet and all of the accompanying gadgetry that comes along with it. Life would return to the simpler and more civilized sixties and seventies. It is quite obvious that technology creates a serious threat to all that we’ve worked so hard to achieve, and we must support every effort to combat this malady. Yet, there is something I find profoundly pathetic in the great search for the perfect filter.

The “Nesivos Sholom” cites a parable[12] in which a certain fellow wanted to build a housing development on a huge piece of property that he owned. The property, however, was covered by a forest, so he grabbed an axe and began to chop away. After falling a tree or two, he realized that even if he were to have a whole crew of lumberjacks, this effort would take many years. It dawned on him that what he really needed was a fire—a powerful, controlled conflagration that could destroy the forest in a matter of minutes. The “Nesivos Sholom” explains that it takes a fiery, passionate, and soulful Yiddishkeit to overcome the vast forests of filth and confusion that dominate our environment.

In every generation, the outside world stands as a tempting alternative to Yiddishkeit. History and common sense prove repeatedly that wielding the axe can never provide more than a short-term, superficial respite from the onslaught of secularism. HaShem sent the Baal Shem Tov and R’ Yisroel Salanter to set Klal Yisroel on fire! Only a deep, introspective, passionate Yiddishkeit bursting with a tangible consciousness of HaShem’s presence can expose the emptiness of any alternative.

Let’s face it: if on Monday the anti-Internet convention takes a powerful swipe at the latest technology, by Tuesday the kids (and the “young at heart”) will discover something better and faster. Many express shock upon hearing about the latest fad of Shabbos text messaging. But was this not inevitable? What exactly does Shabbos mean for these kids? In fact, what does Shabbos mean for many of their parents? Aside from some fuzzy familiarity with the do’s and don’ts, what is it about Shabbos that would make the pastime of Friday night texting abhorrent in their eyes? The shock is usually followed by a shaking of the head and the comment, “but he (or she) is learning in a fine yeshiva!?” It is true. The yeshivos are wonderful, and they are filled with many talented and sincere rabbeim and teachers. But there is Torah and there is Torah.

The prophet Amos said (8:11), “Behold days are coming, says HaShem, when I will send a famine in the land—not a famine for bread nor thirst for water, but for hearing the word of HaShem.”

One of Ramchal’s greatest disciples, R’ Moshe Dovid Valli, zt”l,[13] in his commentary Mashmiya Yeshua, explains that, in Tanach, Torah is often referred to as bread and water. During our long exile, there have been an astonishing number of books written and an incredible amount of Torah taught. Is it really accurate to describe our present state as a famine or drought? Whoever is hungry for Torah and thirsting for its wisdom can simply dive into the infinite resources at his fingertips! R’ Moshe Dovid answers that the key lies in the final words of the verse; “but for hearing the words of HaShem—divrei HaShem.”

Yes, never before have as many Jews had the privilege to learn Torah. Neither a famine nor drought has befallen us. Our generation is starving for divrei HaShem—the clear, deep, penetrating and powerful divrei HaShem.

The kids “off the derech” or “on the fringe” are not running away from Yiddishkeit. They have never met it. Rebbe Nachman of Breslev once told an atheist: “I also don’t believe in the G-d you don’t believe in!” Look into the eyes and hearts of the kids on the streets and in the clubs. You will see the hunger and thirst for the divrei HaShem—for the truth and nothing but the truth.

Rav Kook wrote of the chutzpah that our sages predicted would be rampant before the arrival of Mashiach. The time has come when many are simply refusing to settle for merely bits and pieces of the truth. If this demand is not satisfied, if our schools and homes ignore or misinterpret this hungry chutzpah as rejection, it will claim countless more victims.

“The human soul relishes sensation, not only if it is a pleasant feeling but for the very experience of stimulation, even preferring sadness or some deep pain rather than the boredom of no stimulation. People will watch distressing scenes and listen to heartrending stories just to get stimulation. Such is human nature. So he who is clever will fulfill this need with passionate prayer and Torah learning. But the soul whose divine service is without emotion will have to find stimulation elsewhere. It will either be driven to cheap – even forbidden – sensation or it will become emotionally ill from lack of stimulation.”[14]

It is easy to blame the Internet for all our problems. It is much more difficult and painful to consider the possibility that we have failed to communicate the true inner joy and light of Yiddishkeit to a generation that is anxious and ready to hear it.

Recently, a serious, G-d-fearing young man, who teaches math in a yeshiva high school, told me that his students shared with him (though not with their Rebbe) their skepticism about G-d’s existence and the truth of Torah. Many simply admitted that they do not really believe in anything. Mind you, this is an afternoon, secular class. The boys had spent the entire morning engaged in sophisticated Talmudic analysis and by four o’clock in the afternoon they are candidly sharing with a teacher their doubts in the divinity of the Torah. The teacher, a baal teshuva who fought long and hard to become who he is, shared with his class some of the thoughts and insights that inspired him on his journey to Yiddishkeit. The boys were very inspired, and asked to continue the discussion after school hours. The teacher told me that he went to the administrator but was told that these are issues that are best left to the home. Unlike him, he was told, these boys come from frum homes and have a mesorah, a tradition, about these matters (i.e., they can be presumed to have each picked up the correct beliefs they need). Those who are intimately familiar with the situation know that this is far from an isolated or extreme incident.

What is to be done? As the question is posed: “Are there any proven methods to inspire observant Jews experiencing a gap in religious enthusiasm?” The answer, I believe, is a resounding YES! We must pursue two approaches in meeting this challenge: one experiential and one educational.

Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l, often agonized over what he felt was his inability to impart the emotional world of Yiddishkeit to his students. In a lecture delivered in 1968, he said, “In the past, this great experience of the tradition was not handed down from generation to generation through the medium of words. It was absorbed through osmosis; somehow, through silence. We used to observe. Today in America, however, and in the Western world, this is completely lost. The father cannot pass it on to his son. The father does not possess these emotions, because he never observed and experienced them. He cannot expect his son to receive something he himself does not possess. Therefore, it is up to the yeshiva and the teacher to open up the emotional world of Judaism to the student…”

In this lecture, Rav Soleveitchik insisted that the only way to inspire the observant is by having them actually observe inspired Yiddishkeit in the parents, rabbis, teachers, and mentors of the generation. “…I do not believe that we can afford to be as reluctant, modest, and shy today as we were in the past about describing our relationship with the Almighty. If I want to transmit my experiences, I have to transmit myself, my own heart. How can I merge my soul and personality with the students? It is very difficult. Yet it is exactly what is lacking on the American scene.”[15]

In essence, there needs to be a fundamental reconstruction of the traditional model of the teacher/rabbi.

On another occasion, the Rav explained that, “the disconnection of modern man from living examples of religious experience has made self-revelation an educational necessity.” It is fascinating that the most sought-after speakers and teachers generally are not known for their scholarship. Their effectiveness is in their ability to inspire—not by dazzling their audiences with brilliant insights—but by sharing their own experiences and struggles in Yiddishkeit. Self-revelation has become an absolute educational necessity.

Obviously, this is difficult to implement. How can a rebbe or rabbi transform himself into such a person? There are no guidelines for this; it is usually a matter of one’s personal charisma. Nevertheless, there must be constant encouragement in this area. Again, it would be helpful to make use of the methods commonly used in Jewish outreach: storytelling, music, Shabbatons or other such venues of inspiration. All of these have proven to be astonishingly effective in the world of outreach, and the observant are desperately in need of this warm, exciting brand of experiential Yiddishkeit.

On the educational front, our institutions must begin to bring the Infinite into the four cubits of the classroom and of the shul. Rabbis, teachers, and educators must be trained to impart the heart and soul of Yiddishkeit in a lucid and inspiring way. There are many extraordinary influential role models whose talents have been mostly tapped by the world of Jewish outreach. We (the “FFB’s”) must admit that many of our rabbis and educators are simply unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the language of emunah. There seems to be an expectation that emunah will be miraculously conveyed to baalei batim[16] and students by means of some mysterious osmosis that is perhaps complemented by an occasional Shabbaton or seminar. But, it ain’t happening.

The thirteen fundamental principles of faith must become a basic part of the curriculum in all schools and shuls. G-d must be brought back into our institutions and into our homes. It makes no difference if one place prefers a Litvishe G-d and the other a Chassidishe G-d. Open and frank discussions about faith and doubt must be encouraged, not feared and stymied. To ignore these critical dimensions of religious growth by claiming that it would supplant the traditional format of chinuch[17] is, I submit, a grave error. All the regular Torah learning must surely continue. If anything, such learning will be energized and uplifted when taught to individuals who are struggling to get to the bottom of what this whole undertaking known as Yiddishkeit is about.

It would be wonderful if seforim[18] such as “Nesivos Sholom,” by the previous Slonimer Rebbe of Jerusalem, Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh, by Rav Itamar Schwartz, and those of R’ Shimshon Pincus, zt”l, would be adapted as a means of developing a curriculum to teach emunah, beginning even with young children.

I have often been asked whether it is really possible to teach emunah as a subject. The answer is no. A rabbi, rebbi, teacher, and parent must begin with the belief that emunah is inherent to the Jewish soul. The child/student/congregant is already a maamin, believer. Rather than actually being taught, faith already lies in the neshama, but must be nurtured and drawn out through Torah, tefilah, and kiyum hamitzvos.[19] There is a great thirst for the inner light of Torah that cannot be ignored. It is a healthy sign of revival that must be used as a tool of inspiration in classrooms and congregations. We must begin.

I conclude with a story that my daughter, Suri, shared with me. It is apocryphal, but it hits the mark. Years ago in London, a poetry recital was taking place in a large auditorium. The finalists in the competition were given one last poem to recite – the twenty third Psalm. The obvious winner was a young gentleman whose rendition of the Psalm was perfect. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… He restores my soul… and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The audience responded with thunderous applause.

Suddenly, an elderly, Eastern European Jew called out, “Judges! Would it be alright if I had a chance to say the Psalm?” The judges were amused and invited him up to the stage. In his heavy accent, the gentleman made his way through the chapter. A reverent hush fell over the crowd, and many people were moved to tears. The winner received his prize but followed the old man out to the street. “Rabbi, you know that you really deserve the prize.” “Not at all,” he responded. “I wasn’t competing. You did a fine job and it belongs to you.” The young man continued: “But rabbi, perhaps you could explain to me why it is that when I concluded the Psalm the audience cheered, but when you concluded many people were crying?” The alter Yid replied: “The difference between you and me is that I know the Shepherd.”

Hopefully, the recitation of our Yiddishkeit will soon be accompanied by an honest – if somewhat accented and imperfect outpouring of the soul. The Ribbono Shel Olam is waiting for us, and the prize is redemption, waiting right there in His outstretched hand. ♦

Reprinted with special permission from Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012.

R’ Moshe Weinberger is the Rav of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, New York.


1. Acronym for zechuso yagen aleinu—“may his merit protect us.”

2. Tzav V’ziruz, To Heal the Soul, p. 45.

3. A gathering every seven years to mark the completion of learning the entire Talmud.

4. Parshas Yisro

5. Hebrew acronym for chachameinu zichronam l’vrocha—“our sages, may their memory be a blessing.”

6. “The Holy One Blessed is He.”

7. Intersession between studies.

8. Jewish outreach to the less affiliated.

9. Acronym for “Frum From Birth,” a phrase coined to distinguish between baalei teshuva and those born in religious homes.

10. A phrase taken from Numbers 9:7, meaning “Why should we be left out” used by those who were unable to bring the Pesach offering in the time of Moses. Because of their complaint to Moses, Pesach Sheni, considered a minor holiday, was established on the 14th of Iyar.

11. Faith.

12. Parshas Tzav.

13. Hebrew acronym for zecher tzaddik l’vrocha—may the memory of righteous be a blessing.

14. Tzav V’Zeruz, To Heal the Soul, p. 23.

15. The Rav. R’ Aaron Rakefet, Vol. 2, pp. 168-169.

16. Laymen who do not learn Torah full-time.

17. Jewish education.

18. Written works of Torah.

19. Carrying out the mitzvot.

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FIND THE “ALONE” : R. Itamar Schwartz

Are you a body with a soul or a soul with a body? Lest you think this is merely a matter of semantics, the answer to this question either imprisons or transforms a person. While it is common to identify oneself as essentially a body with a soul, the truth is the soul is one’s primary identity with the body serving as its external “garment”. This is significant when attempting to understand what drives emotions, particularly in relation to fellow human beings.

Everyone possesses a world of emotions, each individual with a different level of sensitivity. The ability to deal properly with this world depends on understanding the elements from which it is comprised, and how to separate positive and negative feelings. While positive emotions are part of our essential self—the essence of the soul—negative emotions are external to a person and part of the body force.

Emotions can be divided into two categories: 1) emotions felt in relation to others; and 2) emotions felt in relation to oneself. The first category includes feelings such as love and compassion as well as negative emotions of hate and jealousy, etc. There are times when negative emotions against others drive a person to destruction. For instance, this can be the case when someone is hurt by another and is unwilling to forgive the offender. They invest enormous time, money, and energy ensuring the other side emerges the loser and pays dearly for what they did. In their quest to cause suffering to the other party they are willing to lose property, work-time, and a fortune in legal fees. Their thoughts are consumed by anger and hate, with nowhere to flee.

THE GREAT ESCAPE

Is there any way to escape the trap of negative emotions that drive one’s actions? The path begins with a deeper conceptualization of the emotional world of a human being as well as the ability to correctly identify and categorize emotions in the right way.

The first human being, Adam, was created alone. Only afterwards, Eve was created, and then Cain and Abel were born. However, the first human structure was a single being, not more—a fact holding tremendous depth and significance. While it is beneficial that there are others in the world, however, a human being possesses an inherent inner power to live alone, in a world where no one else exists.

There are two different powers in the soul. One power is the ability to live in a world with others. This was only revealed after Eve was created and the subsequent birth of ensuing generations. However, there is an earlier power created deep within the soul of a person called “alone.” It came into being during a time when there was no one else to love or hate.

When does the power of “alone” become relevant? When you live among others and develop negative feelings against them for whatever reason, this is the time to reveal the internal force called “alone”. Disconnect from the situation even when someone does something against you and you may feel it is an obligation to hate them for what they did. It is here where you should access the world called “alone.” It is a pre-existing inner force implanted in the human soul from the first moment of creation, remaining even after free choice came into play. Only then, it became hidden deep within the inner recesses of the heart. The challenge is to know when to use it appropriately and under the right circumstances.

In and of itself, the power of “alone” is positive, but depending upon how it is used, in can be negative. For example, living only for oneself when it is proper to relate to others is obviously incorrect. However, used correctly, the power of “alone” makes it possible to disconnect from negative feelings towards other people. This is not to say that the main goal is to be cut off from our emotions, but rather to know when to disengage our essential self from detrimental feelings.

TIME OUT TECHNIQUE

It is normal and healthy to seek connection to others. Yet there is another power within us, called “alone.” Both powers are needed to live. Although the desire to connect is good, it is only positive within certain boundaries, which build a person. Used in the wrong place, it destroys. Most of us are surrounded by other people most of the day. Even when alone we are besieged twenty-four hours a day by the gamut of communication devices. You might have two cellphones and answer both simultaneously while typing before a computer screen. Cellphones are left on the entire night next to our ear since who knows who may call?

The desire to connect to others should not consume one’s entire life. It is important to start habituating oneself to the fact that there is an inner world called “alone.” For example, while calculating your bank statement, the phone rings. If you answer, you lose your place and are forced to start over. A new routine, using the power of “alone,” would be to finish your calculations and return the call a few minutes later, resisting the urge to be on call every moment. “What does it matter, I can just begin again,” you think. While this may be true, you are exhibiting an inability to spend even a moment alone with yourself. We are not talking about anything spiritual here, rather about practical behavior in the physical world. While performing a task alone, you are training yourself to do nothing else other than what is before you at the moment. You gain not only the two minutes of computing that would have been lost by answering the phone, but you are sensitizing yourself to something of major personal significance.

It is bedtime and you are reading the children a story. The phone rings in the middle and you jump up to answer. Do you really think the telephone is more important than your children? Of course not, but this is an ingrained habit. Unless you are expecting an urgent call, tell yourself that you are now busy with the children and there is no reason good enough to be disturbed in the middle. If the sound of a ringing phone is irresistible then unplug it temporarily. Our lives brim with scenarios where it is possible to ask ourselves if this telephone call is really more important than what we are doing at the moment. What exactly is at stake? You are losing the innermost power in the soul, called “alone.”

We live in a world of activity and noise. Once, life was much simpler. People would awake early in the morning to go out to the field. They might meet someone on the way before continuing on to work where they would be alone from morning until evening. Or thirty years ago, for example, if one went into overdraft at the bank there was no way to immediately inform them. Here in Israel, not every home had a phone and in some areas when a phone line was ordered it took 10 years before it was installed. This is not ancient history. Today, we have instant notification and are on call around the clock. We have lost the life called “alone.” Again, we are not speaking about spirituality here, or even when someone takes a call in the middle of prayer services and says, “Nu nu nu…” which is of course understood by everyone to mean he cannot be disturbed during prayer. Rather, we are talking about living in a physical world and being fully present in the practical moment.

Yet another example: After a long workday (and talking on your cellphone the entire way home) you return to an empty house. Your wife went out somewhere with the kids and everything is completely silent. You are suddenly faced with an unexpected half hour of silence. What do you do? You immediately pick up a newspaper and no sooner than that the phone starts to ring. You may say, “Is there a problem with reading the newspaper or answering the phone?” Yet, you simply haven’t given yourself a single moment to sit alone in quietude. Granted, usually there are not many opportunities for this in the course of a day, but every so often, we are given a few quiet moments from which to take advantage. No deep thought is required here, only to give the mind a small break. This can be accomplished even through sitting alone in silence for five minutes without news, distractions, or business. In the beginning it seems very strange and a waste of time. A more spiritually-minded individual may say, “I could be sitting and learning Torah these five minutes!” While true on one hand, on the other, without yishuv hadaat, a settled mind, one cannot learn or pray properly. Work isn’t as it should be and neither is shalom bayit, peace in the home between husband and wife. The yishuv hadaat acquired by a person imbues a calming effect on their entire life. It doesn’t hinge upon getting away on vacation, rather on those few moments during the day where there is focus on the task at hand without doing something else at the same time−or simply sitting alone doing nothing for a few quiet moments.

DISCOVERING YOUR TRUE SELF

It is impossible to understand the experience if you haven’t tried this. One who has, suddenly discovers, “I am new!” This occurs because a person’s “I” has two components, one related to others and the other to oneself. If you are accustomed only to the component of living with others, you are acquainted with only half of yourself. Upon deeper examination, it could be said that it is even less than half, since the world called “alone” is the essence of a person. Not many are familiar with this world because of the distractions in the world, as well as the lack of awareness that it even exists, yet it is something that must be striven for. The essence of your “I” can only be discovered through sitting by yourself during a normal time when you are in control of your emotions. There are no additional conditions attached to this besides calm and quiet. If it helps, listen to a calming melody. Inner quiet is the largest treasure one has since it is where the Creator of the world exists. We are not yet talking about olam haba, rather the ability to live a settled, balanced, and measured life in this world. The revelation of “I” in the dimension of “alone” is only attained by entering a world of silence and focus.

OUR FOREFATHERS

The special inner world of “alone” is where our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob live, as well as Moses and King David.1 They all went into the desert as shepherds searching for this world of quiet. We can tread upon the path of our forefathers who are the shepherds of the Jewish people. This world of “alone” is not an innovation, or a product of eastern religions, rather it is our ancestral heritage. Moses specifically requested from Jethro, his father-in-law, to work as a shepherd because it provided him with a quiet setting. It was here where Moses encountered the burning bush, as well as the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai. During this time, the creation was utterly silent; there was not a sound from bird or beast.

Moses was able to stand and receive the Torah directly from G-d only because of the yishuv hadaat he attained while working as a shepherd in an isolated world of quiet and serenity. It was not isolation for the sake of itself, rather for the sake of disconnecting from the evil in the world and connecting to the living G-d. The world of “alone” for the soul is like bread and water for the body. It is built into the basic structure of the soul. If a person is unable to feel this need, it is a sign that their soul is buried so deeply inside materiality that they are unable to feel or hear its inner voice. This is similar to a person with cancer, G-d forbid, who loses their sense of taste and desire to eat.

TWO ROOMS

A man is sitting in his office on the phone, when suddenly he becomes embroiled in a heated argument, and begins to scream at the person on the other end of the call. Everyone in the vicinity hears the commotion. He slams down the phone in rage. No one can speak to him and he is unable to function the rest of the day. That night at home, he can’t sleep as his thoughts churn over the events of the day. He tries to calm himself down, but is dragged back again and again to the same cycle of negative thoughts. The more he thinks, the deeper he is drawn in. However, it is different for the one who begins accustoming themselves to the world of “alone,” since they discover a place in the soul where they can go. It is as if there are two rooms where you can leave one to enter the other. Likewise, there are two rooms in the heart—one for others and one for yourself.

This is like an individual sitting in a room with a friend, equipped with a camera that sees their every move. The person then exits this room to another one, and is able to sit alone unseen. You also have two rooms that exist deep within your soul—one for others, and another silent one which exists only for you. If you accustom yourself during times of balanced emotions to spend a few minutes in this room, an inner world of quiet, you discover, “I am new—I am not the person you knew a moment ago!” When this “I” is uncovered, you have found the room in your soul where there is no one else but you. It is a place to where you can flee in times of anger or other harmful emotions. If there is no one else around, who can be the subject of your anger or jealousy? If you are not familiar with this place, then where can you go? The anger pursues you and there is no place to escape.

IDENTIFYING YOUR THOUGHTS

Even during those times you find yourself alone and decide to take advantage of the opportunity, there is another challenge. Your very thoughts can transport you far away from your inner world of “alone.” Even if you unplug the phone, put the newspaper aside and turn off the computer, you could be carrying all of New York City in your mind. Your thoughts could be on everything going on in the country, or flying throughout the entire world. Thus, even though you may be technically alone, in reality, the entire world is buzzing inside your head. In this case, it is worse than a cell phone, which is only next to your ear.

The first step is to identify where your thoughts are. Say you are sitting alone at home during a quiet moment and the first thought that falls into your mind is about work. Take a few steps back and note that your thoughts are about work. The next step is to evaluate if you are experiencing your “I” or in a place far from your “I”. Ask yourself, “Is my work ‘me’?” You realize that it isn’t, but while your body is sitting at home, your thoughts are at work, with all the noise and pressure. At this stage, it is not an issue of even distinguishing positive from negative thoughts, rather it is the effort to quiet down your thoughts in stages, little by little.

You can know whether or not you have entered the world of “alone” by identifying the nature of your thoughts, with what they are occupied and where they are connecting you. Are you within the confines of “alone” or far away in a distant place?

It should be relatively easy to pinpoint your thoughts and guide them to a quiet inner place if this exercise is done during times of no pressure, and you are dealing with the thoughts that normally drift through the mind. Say to yourself, “I have decided to take two minutes to myself, and there is no need to think these thoughts.” In the next few seconds, check again where your thoughts are. You now notice they have drifted to the bank. Ask yourself another time, “Where am I—at home or at the bank?” Contemplate again how far your thoughts are from the world of “alone.” Are they a part of your “I” or are they far away, connected to the distant outer garments of the soul, called the body. In this way, you become equipped to correctly identify and separate negative thoughts and emotions from your essential self.

This entire subject is vast and requires much more study. However, the basic premise is that a powerful inner world of “alone” exists in each one of us. It is a force that enables us to disconnect from negative and detrimental emotions toward others. It is also the world in which our forefathers exist and can be revealed simply through dedicating a few quiet moments a day to gradually disengage from what is not connected to the essential self.

PREPARATION FOR HITBODEDUT

However, this is just the first step in the amazing process of connecting to the divine, since accessing the world of “alone” is the fundamental preparation for hitbodedut, speaking to God in your own words. Only after discovering the world of “alone,” can you truly connect to God. Just as it is impossible to have two conversations at once, it is not possible to connect to HaShem while your thoughts are caught up in another place. You are speaking to G-d, but your soul is connected elsewhere. The ability to disconnect from the other places in order to access the world of “alone” will release you from the constriction of materiality and transform the quality of your life.

Translated and adapted with special permission from the author. Tzaddik Magazine is solely responsible for the translation.


1. R’ Avraham ben HaRambam

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NEXT YEAR IN UMAN: A JOURNEY TO THE UKRAINE : Ahron Weiner

“Whoever comes to my gravesite [in Uman, Ukraine], recites the Ten Psalms,* and gives even as little as a penny to charity in my name, then, no matter how serious his sins may be, I will do everything in my power— spanning the length and breadth of creation—to save and repair him. By his very payos [sidelocks]I will pull him out of the lowest pit of hell! Only now, he must take upon himself not to return to his foolishness.”  ~ Rebbe Nachman of Breslev

Rebbe Nachman of Breslev made this declaration before his passing in 1810. This promise has since echoed throughout the generations, compelling tens of thousands of Jewish men from every continent except Antarctica to leave their wives and children and undertake a costly, difficult pilgrimage to Uman, a small town in Ukraine, to celebrate the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah.**

To understand why this happens, one needs first to understand Uman’s history and the biography of the unique individual who made this promise.

In the mid-18th century, Uman was a walled city languishing under Polish rule, and host to a sizable Jewish population. In 1768, with an army of anti-Semitic Haidemack pogromists advancing toward Uman, thousands of additional Jews from the surrounding countryside fled to the seeming safety that Uman’s walls provided. The Haidemaks laid siege to the town and demanded that all the Jews be turned over, or else they would massacre the town’s entire population. Uman’s governor refused to turn in the Jews.

When the Haidemaks breached the town’s walls, they erected a cross and demanded that the Jews convert to Christianity, on pain of death. Rather than give up their faith, every single Jew in the town chose to “sanctify God’s name”. Over a three-day period, the streets of Uman ran red with blood as the Haidemaks massacred over 20,000 Jewish men, women, and children. The victims’ bodies were buried in two mass graves.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslev was born in 1772, in the Ukrainian town of Medzeboz. He was the great-grandson of the famed Baal Shem Tov—the spiritual giant who founded Chassidism—a Jewish movement that focuses on connecting with God through focused prayer, and an elevation of the spirit.

Difficult and yet also aloof as a child, Rebbe Nachman developed into a profound Kabbalist and Chassidic leader, who communicated complex concepts cloaked in unaffected yet inventive stories. Through parables, song, and homiletics, he taught his disciples to live with simplicity and joy, and encouraged them to develop a strong personal relationship with God through conversation and meditation.

Following stints in northern Israel (then Palestine) and various towns throughout the Ukraine, Rebbe Nachman moved to Uman only six months before his death from tuberculosis at the tender age of 38. He viewed the victims of the Haidimak massacre as the most righteous of Jews, and so his disciples honored his wish to be buried in the same cemetery as Uman’s 20,000 victims.

Unlike other Chassidic movements that operate on a dynastic principle, with a son or lead disciple assuming the mantle of leadership upon the passing of the founding Rebbe, Breslev has only ever had one leader—Rebbe Nachman. Before his passing, he told his followers, “My light will burn until the coming of the Messiah.” This was interpreted to mean that they should continue following his teachings and not appoint a new leader. This distinction earned Breslev adherents the derisive nickname, “The Dead Chassidim,” and Breslev followers were much maligned by other Chassidic sects throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Devout Breslevers started visiting Uman to pray at Rebbe Nachman’s grave in 1811, the year after his death. While they came at different times of the year, Rosh Hashanah, in the early fall, soon became a focal point for the pilgrimage.

To be close to their Rebbe, a group of Breslevers established a community in Uman, amid a much larger gentile population. Years passed, and control of the region shifted from Poland, to an independent Ukraine. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, they massacred 17,000 local Jews, throwing many of them into a nearby pond. Following the Holocaust, a small group of Breslev Jews returned to Uman to live there under Soviet rule. Since the open practice of religion was forbidden during Communism, they practiced in secret, inviting fellow Soviet Breslevers to come pray for Rosh Hashanah using coded letters and word of mouth.

Under Soviet rule, Uman was not a town where tourists were allowed to travel on account of a nearby military airport. This fact did not deter Breslev Chassidim from Israel and the United States from visiting Rebbe Nachman’s grave. They bribed officials, they made deals, they snuck across borders and risked their lives, all to present themselves at the grave of their leader.

Perestroika resulted in a loosening of travel restrictions and an increase in the number of pilgrims. In 1988, 250 people made the pilgrimage. The following year, over 1,000 people participated. In 1991, a group of Breslevers started to work with the Ukrainian government to build a local infrastructure in Uman that would support the increasing number of pilgrims. This proved to be a prescient move, as the ranks of pilgrims swelled with each passing year, from the initial group of 250 to over 25,000 by the year 2009. As the pilgrimage grew, there was a tremendous resurgence of interest in Breslev Chassidut. Currently, it appears to be the single fastest growing group of Chassidic Jews in the world. Uman’s annual rite has grown to the single largest Jewish pilgrimage made outside of the Land of Israel.

This massive pilgrimage supports the local economy, with Ukrainians renting out their homes, making enough money to carry them through the year. This economic boom has resulted in nicer cars, better clothing, and a higher standard of living for Uman locals.

I first heard about Uman from my father, who had a connection to the Breslev movement through friends, and had traveled there twice in the early post-communist years. He returned, regaling me with stories about taking ritual baths in freezing ponds, sleeping and praying in an unfinished warehouse, and fascinating encounters with Jews from all over the world, as well as with Ukrainian locals.

YEARS PASSED, and I was fortunate enough to move to Prague with my wife and sons from 2001 – 2004 (where I worked in the advertising industry). I returned to America, and found myself so “homesick” for Eastern Europe that when my father invited me to join him in Uman in 2004, I jumped at the chance. I found it far less rustic, and far more moving, than I had expected. With dancing, singing, eating, drinking, and the spirit of communal prayer, the festival-like atmosphere seemed equal parts Woodstock and Mount Sinai. Of course, I felt an eerie dissonance traveling to pray in the Ukraine sixty-five years after the devastation of the Holocaust, but this only intensified my spiritual and artistic commitment to the experience. As a photographer, I brought a camera along to capture what I saw, with no particular goal in mind. When I returned to the United States and developed over twenty rolls of film, I was gratified to find that my images hearkened back to the lost era of the shtetl, and echoed the famous images captured by Roman Vishniak in his journeys across pre-war Poland—but updated, given a 21st century post-Soviet flair. I returned each year, and continued to document this uniquely moving and increasingly spectacular event. I’ve traveled the world, but Uman has been the only place where I’ve ever seen Jews of every stripe: sefardim, ashkenazim, religious, non-religious, and different sects of chassidim gathered in peace, harmony, and singularity of purpose. I forged new friendships. I gained a newfound respect for the religious experience. I experienced an unprecedented awakening of my artistic spirit.

As a devoted husband and father, it is difficult to leave my wife and sons for the Jewish New Year. Fortunately, they have been incredibly supportive of my trips, for which they have my deep and eternal gratitude.As a religious Jew who is also an artist, Uman presents formidable personal challenges. While it is an incredible opportunity for me to exercise my spirituality and art, it is restrictive in the sense that I can only shoot on certain days. My faith dictates that I cannot take photos on a holiday or on the Sabbath. I cannot be a part of a spiritual community and also break its laws. Because I cannot shoot on certain days, I feel that I am constantly shunted between these two identities: me, the Artist, and me, the Jew.

While I felt for a while that these were opposing identities, I came to feel they are actually quite complimentary. During the time I was shooting, I could see myself, the communities I grew up in, and the rituals I was raised with, from the outside. I saw how these things might look to an outsider, who wouldn’t have the background to comprehend why some 25,000 Jews would undertake an annual trip to this forlorn Ukrainian outpost. This provided me with a distance that allowed me to see the event “from above” as it were, to capture its universally emotional moments, and relate this story to the broadest possible audience.

On the holiday though, when I had to put my cameras down, I was able to experience the event from the inside. This experience gave me the intimacy I needed to live in myself, to experience a more self-reflective emotion, and to make a genuine connection with my faith. As a result of my trips to Uman, I have become a deeper person, a better husband and father, and ultimately, a better artist.

*The ten chapters from the book of Psalms that comprise the Tikkun HaKlali are: 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, 150.
**Rebbe Nachman’s promise is effective not only during Rosh HaShanah, but any time during the year, whenever someone comes to his gravesite and fulfills these conditions.