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THE WORLD OF UNITY & THE JEWS : R. Elazar Mordechai Kenig

WHEN A PERSON FACES A LIFE OR DEATH JUDGMENT, they customarily dress in black, neglect their physical appearance and let their hair and nails grow. They are terrified because the final outcome of the judgment against them is unknown.

This is in stark contrast to the behavior of the Jewish people on Rosh HaShanah, the “Great Day of Judgment.” They don white clothing, and cut their hair and nails in preparation for the day. When Rosh HaShanah arrives, they eat, drink, and rejoice in a festive manner, since they are confident that G-d will perform a miracle and they will emerge meritorious from judgment. What is their source of joy and confidence as they enter the Great Day of Judgment? Why are they so certain of a positive outcome?

The answer lies in the difference between the Jewish people and the rest of the world. Am Yisrael possesses an inherent quality of achdut, unity. They are completely unified at their spiritual root since the source of Am Yisrael is from the “world of achdut.”

On the other hand, the other nations are structured as separate worlds, since they draw from a spiritual root called the “world of separation.” Thus, it is the quality of achdut which defines the difference between the Jewish people and the other nations of the world.

It is written, “…all the soul(s) of the house of Jacob who came to Egypt were seventy.” (Gen. 46:27) We learn that Am Yisrael were seventy souls when they were exiled to Egypt. Yet, despite numbering seventy, the verse refers to them in the singular tense as nefesh—soul. In contrast, the people of Eisav numbered six and are referred to as plural, nefashot—souls. (Gen. 36:6) Even as seventy souls, the Jewish people are considered a single soul—nefesh, since they are rooted in the “world of achdut.” The other nations, however, are considered separate worlds even at six, since their spiritual source is rooted in the “world of separation.”

UNITY & THE JEWISH BOND

In addition to Torah and mitzvot observance, the Jewish people also took upon themselves the quality of achdut—unity. Each Jew serves as a guarantor for his or her neighbor, and this guarantee extends to the entire people, as well. It is understood that the mitzvot are binding upon a Jew, but how can we explain the obligation to be guarantors for one another? It can be understood when we realize that the source of the Jewish people is unity—a single unseparated root. This is true to the extent that the obligation falls not only on the individual for his or herself, but for everyone else as well, since what one Jew does influences every other Jew. This is a very subtle and spiritual issue, so it is worthwhile to be aware of it in the proper way, and important to understand its practical significance.

Despite its lofty spiritual nature, Jewish unity is clearly manifested here in olam hazeh—our lower physical world. To better understand this concept, it is known that everything in the physical world requires separate space. There are four levels of life: inanimate, plant, animal and human, which are connected to the four elements of earth, wind, fire, and water. The more physical something is, the more it manifests separateness. The opposite is true with things of a more spiritual nature. The more spiritually-oriented something is, it possesses a more unified nature. For instance, earth is a physical element that exhibits a stronger quality of separateness. Water, air and fire are elements more spiritual in nature, and thus more unified. Thus we witness the expression and interplay between spiritual unity and physical separateness even in the physical world.

A SPIRITUAL DISTINCTION

The achdut of Israel is spiritual, not physical. They are rooted in the very source of achdut. Furthermore, when the Jewish people are united, they are united with HaShem. This is referred to in the Sabbath afternoon prayer, “You are One and Your name is One; and who is like Your people Israel, one nation on earth.” As a result, the Jewish people are closer to each other, which is expressed in many ways. For example, whenever one Jew hears about another, regardless of where they are in the world, they will always feel a strong connection and concern. While it is true that everyone experiences a sense of individuality in the world, the Jewish people must nonetheless always remind themselves of their spiritual root in achdut. It is the fundamental difference between Jews and the other nations of the world, despite the fact that to outward appearances, everyone appears identical.

The denial of this difference is actually one of the biggest tragedies to befall the Jewish people. To our great sorrow, many have distanced themselves from the Torah and mitzvot, thinking it is better to imitate the non-Jewish manner of behavior or dress, etc., even participating in non-Jewish competitions as if there is no distinction between the two. The Jews are a single unit, a great and spiritual nation, with a completely different root than the rest of the world. After millennia of exile and tragedy, including the holocaust of the previous generation, time has proven they are different through the countless number of Jews bound to Torah and mitzvot today. This is the proof of their spiritual nature, since everything depends on its root. It is important to remind ourselves of this and not err by thinking there is no difference.

The source of our confidence on Rosh HaShanah comes from our spiritual root in achdut. Normally, when an individual faces a life and death judgment it is frightening since the final outcome is unknown. In the case of the Jewish people however, each individual is judged together as a whole because of their single root. Because of this, they face judgment on Rosh HaShanah with confidence and hope. They eat and drink festive meals and are joyous in the knowledge that G-d will perform a miracle for them.

ACHDUT ON ROSH HASHANAH

There is another aspect relevant to Jewish achdut. Halacha obligates everyone to make peace with his or her neighbor well before Rosh HaShanah, without waiting until Yom Kippur. Of course teshuva is necessary for any wrongdoing, but there is a specific obligation to repent of any misdeed committed against another person.

If the confidence of the Jewish people on Rosh Hashanah flows from their root in achdut, then the moment someone insults another in any way, it diminishes the ability to approach the Great Day of Judgment with the power of achdut. This is why is it so good that people make an extra effort to attend prayer services on Rosh HaShanah to show their unity and connection to HaShem.

The entire purpose of life is to accept the kingship of HaShem. Rosh HaShanah in particular is when we “crown” the Creator to show this acceptance. By living our lives according to the way He desires, we crown the Creator here in olam hazeh. The uniqueness of the Jewish people comes from their extremely elevated spiritual root of unity, and their ability to reveal it here in the physical world.

Although there is always free choice, we see how the Jewish people are prepared time and time again to give up their lives al kiddush hashem—to sanctify HaShem’s name. History has shown that this is not something restricted only to great tzaddikim. Even those far away from the Torah, when faced with certain death, chose to sanctify G-d’s name, rather than abandon their Jewishness. It is a wonder how a person who found it difficult to uphold the Torah was nonetheless willing to give up their life for it. Throughout history, when faced with difficult tests, or forced to participate in religious debates, Jews were prepared to forego the riches of the world to remain a Jew. Even when offered vast rewards by kings to convert, they didn’t consider it for a moment. It was incomprehensible to the other nations from where the Jews drew their strength to stand firm. This shows the lofty root of the Jewish people.

RELATIVES OF HASHEM

The gemara discusses the verse “Who is a great nation?” Mi goy gadol? (Deut. 4:7) The question is asked, who is this nation who knows the customs of their G-d? The Midrash explains that the Hebrew word gadol comes from the root g’dal, meaning “upbringing,” alluding to the Jewish people being “raised” by HaShem. As a consequence of their more “familial” relationship, they are familiar with the nature of HaShem, which gives them the confidence that He will perform a miracle on their behalf on Rosh HaShanah.

Because they share the same source of achdut, the Jewish people are considered “relatives” by HaShem. Yet, despite this, we are still put to the test here in a world of free choice as to whether we will consider ourselves like the other nations or draw down and reveal our intrinsic achdut in the world by observing the Torah and mitzvot—especially Shabbat. After six days of creation, HaShem rested on the seventh day, Shabbat. This is the same Shabbat that the Jewish people have observed throughout history.

May we be blessed with a renewed sense of achdut and clear sense of purpose in the world. And may we see the rebuilding of our Temple, speedily in our days, Amen. ♦


1. Likutey Halachot, Arev 3
2. See Likutey Moharan 27 and 52

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THE SECRET TO THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF THE FUTURE : R. Elazar Mordechai Kenig

Everything is for the Good

When one knows that everything they go through in life is for the good, it is as if they exist in the World to Come, m’eyn olam haba.[1] It is written that a person must make a blessing over the bad as well as the good.[2] What does it means to recite the same blessing over the bad as the good? It is obviously easy to make a blessing over something good, but how can we sincerely say the same blessing over something bad?

For this reason, a distinction is made between them, and practically, there are two separate blessings. Over good, we recite the blessing ending with hatov v’hameitiv, “…Who is good and does good.” A separate blessing is recited over bad, baruch dayan ha-emes, “Blessed is the True Judge.” Even a blessing over something bad should be said wholeheartedly and with joyful acceptance, together with the realization that difficult things are for the good as well.

A story is told about Rabbi Akiva who approached a city to spend the night, but was refused entry. He immediately exclaimed, “Whatever G-d does, He does for the good.” Prevented from entering, he was forced to sleep in an open area outside city limits. He had a candle, rooster, and donkey. All of a sudden, a gust of wind blew out the candle. This was followed by a cat, who came and ate the rooster; then a lion came and ate the donkey. After each incident, he said, “Whatever G-d does, He does for the good.” Anyone else in a similar situation could have easily complained and blamed others for their woes. Yet Rabbi Akiva had the ability to sincerely say that everything G-d does is for the good.

In the course of the same night, enemy soldiers infiltrated and captured the city. Rabbi Akiva then said, “Did I not say that everything G-d does is for the good? If the candle was lit, I would have been found and taken captive. If the donkey brayed or the rooster crowed, I would have been easily discovered and captured.” In spite of the suffering he inevitably experienced, it was a clear and simple matter for Rabbi Akiva to say, “Everything G-d does is for the good.”

At times, a person seems to have everything, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, everything changes. Every step brings new trouble, with no chance to rest. Eventually, whatever they do have is taken from them as well, like Rabbi Akiva’s candle, rooster, and donkey. Nonetheless, even in such circumstances, there is still a practical obligation to say with full sincerity, “Everything G-d does is for the good,” because the world doesn’t run on its own. There is Someone who leads and guides everything that happens. Since He is good and acts only for our benefit, anything that occurs to us is for the good. When this awareness becomes absolutely clear in our minds, we enter into a state of olam haba, the World to Come.

It is written, “On that day, G-d will be One and His Name One”.[3] The question is raised, “Is He not One now?” Our Sages explain that presently, since the full revelation of G-d’s unity is still lacking in the world, we have separate blessings for good and for bad. In the future, it will be different. Evil will be completely nullified and everything will be perceived in its true light as good. At that time, we will say only one blessing—hatov v’hameitiv. This means that if one is able to achieve an awareness that every occurrence in life is good right now, they are actually living in a state of the World to Come, while existing in this world. Happy is one who achieves such a level.

ACCEPTING GOD’S KINGSHIP

Yet the challenge remains. How is it possible to avoid uttering an empty blessing over the seemingly bad and be completely clear that everything is really for the good? Rebbe Nachman reveals a practical way to achieve this: Accept the sovereignty of the Creator over your life. This is done by consciously acknowledging the existence of a G-d who runs the world both on a macro and micro level. This is how G-d’s Kingship, called malchut, is elevated from exile. The term “kingship” is relevant to G-d, since there is no king without a people. We are His people because He created each one of us. In this sense, He “needs” the creation, as it were, since the world was created only for the revelation of this kingship.

The fundamental nature of true kingship, malchut, is not a rule by force, but rather ratzon, i.e., desire from those being ruled. Thus G-d’s kingship must be revealed in the world through willingness and desire on the part of Creation. This was the situation during the Exodus from Egypt, when the Jewish people willingly accepted G-d’s kingship and authority upon themselves. However, in the case where the Jewish people are distant from G-d, He rules over them with anger, chas v’shalom. This is not what G-d wants, rather He desires that we willingly accept His sovereignty over the world.

This is the essence of free choice. On the surface, it appears we can do whatever we want, since one can choose between good and bad. Free choice is necessary within creation in order to reveal G-d’s kingship. It is also the vehicle for willingly accepting Divine authority, and having desire to serve Him, by asking ourselves, “How can I best bring pleasure to the Creator?” Our actions should not be driven by our own desires, but rather be completely directed toward what G-d wants. Practically, this is how the kingdom of holiness is redeemed from exile, and through this, the entire purpose of creation is realized.

In the future, the Jewish people will possess the consciousness that every occurrence is truly good, including the most difficult things that happen in general as well as on a personal basis. If we know we are already destined for such a level, then it is easier to understand Rebbe Nachman’s statement that even now, it is possible to realize that everything is for the good. On a deeper level, we will also understand that there was no bad in the first place.

As mentioned earlier, the first step towards this level of awareness is to accept G-d’s kingship in the world. Although this is an ongoing process, a person shouldn’t live with complaints and in a depressed state. One can suffer greatly over a perceived lack, or suffer because what they do have is not perfect, thinking that everyone else has more and better. If you ask them what is good in their lives, they are unable to tell you. Feeling bad does not need to be a reality of life. If a person really wants to suffer, reasons abound. One can descend to a very low level just by being overly caught up with themselves and surrounding themselves with the rationale to suffer. However, it doesn’t need to be like this. Sometimes rediscovering the good and blessing in our lives is like reinventing the wheel. While it is true that trouble and pain at times can be so overwhelming that it is experienced only as suffering, when you are really aware that everything is for the good, you can be happy and thankful for the blessings you do have. This gives the strength to adjust to any difficulty, leading to a happier and calmer life—a life not dependent upon what we, or others, have or not. This translates further as not only being happy for another’s good fortune, but also believing that our neighbor’s happiness is good for us as well. A person can be happy and fulfill, “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion” (Pirkey Avot).

WEALTH & HAPPINESS

Rebbe Nachman tells a story about a country of wealth where one’s importance was measured solely by how much money they had. This determined how much honor was due the person. Those with the most amount of money were considered angels and gods, while those with no money were not even considered human, rather a type of animal.

In reality, financial hardship can cause a person to fall so much in their own eyes they consider themselves subhuman. Lacking the ability to adjust to their current situation, they become apathetic and act in ways they would never consider otherwise. Things are very different for one who accepts G-d’s sovereignty over their life. Even if suffering has been decreed upon them, they are able to withstand and accept whatever they go through without confusion. They remain “human” with the capacity to function and be happy.

Obviously, true wealth and happiness are not determined solely by material attainments. A person can have many possessions, yet be full of suffering. Someone else, on the other hand, with next to nothing, can live a happy and fulfilled life. It all depends on one’s awareness. When it is clear that events are not random and that there is an Owner of the world Who arranges everything, what others have does not disturb us in the least. Rather, it makes us happy, since when it is good for someone else, it is good for us too. It is a fundamental point to realize that whatever one has, is given directly from G-d Himself. Despite appearances to the contrary, no one can lift a finger over anything that was not decreed for them from Above.

Another story is told about two people who needed to travel abroad by sea for business. On the way to the port, one broke his leg and missed the ship. He took it badly, thinking, “I am trapped here while my friend has it good. He’s going off to make a fortune while I am forced to stay behind.” A few days later, news arrived that the ship had sunk and all aboard perished. He then viewed his situation in a completely different light. He realized that not only he was saved from death, but the suffering he underwent leading up to the disaster was also for the good. This is the level of understanding we can attain, and it begins by accepting G-d’s kingship in our lives.

In the future, everything will be understood as good. A great consciousness will be revealed and we will realize how two thousand years of Jewish exile with all of its suffering, was for the good. It will be completely clear that it couldn’t have been any different, and we will thank G-d for everything with a sincere heart.

May HaShem enlighten our hearts and minds with an increasing awareness of G-d’s profound goodness in every detail of our lives.

Translated from a shiur given in Tsfat.

  1. Likutey Moharan II, 4
  2. Berakhot 54a; Pesachim 50a
  3. Zecharia 14:9
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THE FIRE OF REBBE NACHMAN : R. Elazar Mordechai Kenig

A conversation with HaRav Elazar Mordechai Kenig, shlita, on the Breslev phenomenon today.

Q. Generations have come and gone in the two hundred years since the passing of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev. After all this time, and perhaps contrary to logic, Chassidut Breslev and the teachings of Rebbe Nachman have garnered tremendous interest, touching the lives of thousands upon thousands of Jews. How is it possible to explain this phenomenon?

Rav Elazar Mordechai Kenig: Within the last two hundred years, we have seen something remarkable about the influence of Rebbe Nachman. He had not yet reached the age of forty years old when he passed away in 1810. Toward the end of his life, he said in Yiddish, Mein firerl vet shoin talyuen biz mashiach vet commen. “My fire will burn until the coming of Mashiach.”My father and teacher (Reb Gedaliah Aharon Kenig, zt”l) would always say in the name of his teacher, Rav Avraham Sternhartz, zt”l, that the Yiddish word talyuen (burning) connotes a certain type of fire, that, for example, catches onto a piece of wool clothing. In the beginning, it burns strongly in one place, and then goes out; it then unexpectedly breaks out in another place. Thus, when Rebbe Nachman said, “My fire will burn until the coming of Mashiach,” he meant to say that suddenly there will be an awakening in one place, and then just as suddenly, the same fire will be ignited in a different place.

When we look back over the last two hundred years, we see this quite clearly. During his lifetime, Rebbe Nachman lived in the Ukraine, in the vicinity of the town, Breslev. This was where the fire started. When the communists came and took over Russia [during the First World War] it looked as though his fire was extinguished. But all of a sudden it broke out elsewhere in Poland. This same phenomenon occurred after the Holocaust. It appeared as if the fire expired, perishing along with everything else. Again, it was precisely at that point that his fire reignited elsewhere, this time in Israel.

Today, two centuries later, the fire is no longer in the category of talyuen, where it intermittently breaks out here and there. It is ablaze nonstop at full force. [Two millennia ago] the new moon was announced each month from Eretz Yisrael through signal fires lit from mountaintops. In describing this process our sages state, “In the beginning, they would lift up beacons of light from mountain to mountain, until at the end, they would see the entire golah, the lands outside of Eretz Yisrael, lit up as one bonfire.” Likewise today, we see that there is no place in the world not influenced in some way by Breslev Chassidut. Tens of thousands, and in certain cases millions, of Rebbe Nachman’s books are printed in every language, reaching every corner of the globe. Jewish communities around the world have heard of Rebbe Nachman, and are familiar with his sayings: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, the main thing is not to be afraid at all.” “It is a great mitzvah to be always happy.” “There is no such thing in the world as despair!”

His teachings have the potential to touch anyone along the Jewish spectrum from those not particularly learned in Judaism, to talmidei chachamim, accomplished Torah scholars, who have also spent years learning Likutey Moharan, Rebbe Nachman’s main work. Both these types of people, as well as anyone in between, receive wondrous uplift in their lives from learning the teachings of Rebbe Nachman. Thus, Rebbe Nachman’s “fire” possesses an impact that is all-inclusive, and is an inheritance that belongs to the entire Jewish people.

We witness his encompassing reach in Uman on Rosh HaShanah, where both Breslevers as well as those from every conceivable community or background come to Rebbe Nachman’s grave. A Chabad chassid recently told me that in the Chabad minyan in Uman, there were 220 people last year on Rosh HaShanah. This was true with the other minyanim as well. There were hundreds upon hundreds of people from all religious backgrounds, each group praying in their own style and tradition.

Q. What is the explanation for this incredible phenomenon?

The explanation is simple. We see now, in a revealed fashion, what Rebbe Nachman saw with his ruach hakodesh, divine inspiration, two hundred years ago, regarding the current situation of the Jewish people. Our generation is called the generation of ikva d’meshicha, the “heels of the Messiah”. One needs to understand that two hundred years ago, the situation of the Jewish people was quite different. Unlike today, there were not many Jews who were far from Judaism. Nonetheless, Rebbe Nachman’s entire message is essentially directed toward the fallen souls of our generation, to encourage and uplift them. The task of the tzaddikim is always to strengthen fallen souls, and this is exactly what Rebbe Nachman is doing at the highest levels.

It is important to point out that “fallen souls” can also refer to those who grew up in a Torah-observant home. Anyone can encounter circumstances that weaken the soul and cause unhappiness. Rebbe Nachman strengthens these souls, as well as those who are completely distant and almost completely lost. It is as if he says to them, “You went too far? There is still hope.”

Q. Is there a special importance connected with Jews, who are so distant from Judaism, coming to Uman?

They have a spiritual situation we cannot judge. Despite their distance from Judaism, these are nonetheless Jewish souls. It is hard to understand exactly who or what is attracting them, but they make the journey because they feel a desire to come. Indeed, it is impossible to see the spiritual dynamics involved, but something is pulling them there. Anyone who arrives in Uman receives [a spiritual gift] and undergoes transformation. This is not always immediately apparent, but something certainly happens to the soul.

Similarly, we see the same phenomenon on Lag B’Omer at the gravesite of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, buried in Meron in the Upper Galilee of Israel. People who are very far removed from observant Jewish life come to celebrate the day at his resting place. Afterwards, it appears as if nothing changed in their lives. However, on a spiritual level, it is clear that something affected them.

The entire subject of what exactly goes on with those who are distant is a spiritual matter. The tzaddikim are completely involved in rectifying these souls and we have absolutely no permission to interfere with their work repairing these individuals.

Q. On the face of it, it looks like Breslever Chassidim have it easy. They come to Uman, recite the ten specific chapters of psalms, called the Tikkun HaKlali, atone for their misdeeds, and Rebbe Nachman starts pulling them out of the lowest pit… Is this really the case?

Rebbe Nachman’s [path] certainly provides the tools to strengthen a person, but this doesn’t mean that one has it easy as a Breslever chassid. On the contrary, every chassid knows that Rebbe Nachman demands total investment of one’s strength in prayer. He demands an hour a day of hitbodedut, i.e., speaking to God in your own words, with a spiritual accounting of your deeds and praying for your needs. He also stipulates rising at midnight to say tikkun chatzot, the lament over the destruction of the Temple, and afterwards, many then go out to a field for an hour of hitbodedut. He also requires the learning of Jewish law every day, as well as diligence in Torah study and mitzvot observance. This isn’t easy work. The power of Rebbe Nachman infuses light and vitality into a Jew so he can function as needed, with joy and enthusiasm.

Q. Now that many have drawn close to Breslev, we see there has also been an increase in different types of communities, even within Breslev itself, each with another style. Isn’t Rebbe Nachman’s path singular?

Rebbe Nachman’s way is open to everyone in Klal Yisrael. As with anything in life, there are many gradients in the spectrum of holiness. Wherever in the spectrum a person falls, Rebbe Nachman’s teachings enlighten them in their place and according to their level of knowledge. This being said, it is always possible to make a mistake in one’s spiritual path. Shigiot, mi yavin? (Psalms 19:13) Who can understand mistakes? Everyone must constantly examine themselves to ensure they are not in error. Even for those who learn Torah, it is possible to err in one’s learning. Happy is one who has a good teacher who gives proper instruction as to how to learn, and gives the ability to understand in a straightforward and in-depth manner.

Q. So variation in Breslev is desirable?

My father and teacher (Reb Gedaliah Aharon Kenig, zt”l) used to quote the verse, Ki yasharim darchey HaShem, to make the point that the ways of God are many. Everyone lives their life according to their place and their in-born nature. The holy Zohar comments on the verse, Yisrael asher b’cha etpa’er— Israel in whom I take pride,” saying that within the Jewish people, there are many types of Jews who excel in different ways of learning and service of God. Take, for example, the mitzvah of tzedaka. There is variation even within the mitzvah of tzedaka itself, where there are those who focus on redeeming captives, or those exclusively involved with collecting funds for new brides. God takes pride in the tremendous variation within the Jewish people (see Likutey Moharan 17). The more variation there is, the more everyone is joined together and transformed into a special and unique harmonious entity.

Perhaps the main point in discussing variation among Jews, is not to dismiss or disrespect one’s fellow man. Everyone has their own path in serving God, and it is incumbent upon each of us to value and see the delightful beauty in someone else who serves God in a different way than we do.

Q. In conclusion, two hundred years after Rebbe Nachman’s passing, millions of his books have been printed and distributed, tens of thousands of people are coming close [to Judaism], many of whom fly to Uman for Rosh HaShanah, and the name of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev is famous throughout the world. Where do we go from here?

We aspire to what our sages described regarding the beacons of light that signaled the new month from mountaintop to mountaintop. The light spread out to the entire diaspora in a way that it appeared as one big bonfire. Thank God, we indeed witness how Rebbe Nachman’s message and teachings are publicized throughout the world today. We all await the moment, with God’s help, when “the entire world will be filled with the knowledge of God” [like waters that cover the sea] and “all of your sons are learned in Torah.” We await the time when the entire people will return in teshuva, and we will be worthy of being completely redeemed.

May the entire Jewish people be signed and sealed for a good year, and be blessed with health, livelihood, happiness, and nachat from our children. May we merit educating our children in the way of God, together with the complete redemption, the coming of Mashiach, and the building of the Jewish Temple speedily in our days. Amen.

Excerpted and translated from the original interview in the Hebrew language daily newspaper, HaMevasser. Originally published in Tzaddik Magazine, Rosh HaShanah 2011.

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