Posts

Three Simple Rules for the Pesach Seder : R. Ephraim Kenig

  1. Don’t get angry or irritated at anything!!! That means when a child (or anyone else) spills something, don’t lose control, give a big blessing instead. Sit calmly at the table–it helps to make sure everyone has a place in advance! Conduct yourself with joy and goodness of heart. Seder night is an awesome event filled with tremendous shefa. Maintain a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere, since all the blessing of the evening flows from this point. The Yetzer Hara would LOVE to steal it away from us if we get angry.
  2. Minimize your speech. Prepare yourself in advance and say only what is necessary and directly related to the seder. If it is unrelated to the seder or unnecessary words, don’t say it.
  3. Be simple. Be 100% confident that simply sitting down to eat matza and maror with the intention that this is what the Torah commands us to do, includes all possible mystical intentions and fulfils the mitzvah completely. This CERTAINLY brings the geula closer.

May we all be blessed with exactly what we need for the Pesach seder, including the right frame of mind.

,

THE SECRET OF JOY : R. Ephraim Kenig

Rebbe Nachman taught, “It is a great mitzvah to always be joyful.” Not only does he say that it is a mitzvah, but a great mitzvah, as well. The question is, since when is it a mitzvah to be joyful all the time? There are certain times during the year when we are commanded to be joyful. For example, we are told to rejoice on the holiday of Sukkot, particularly during simchat beit ha-sho’eva, a ceremony dating back to when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem. Those who rejoice on Sukkot can actually begin to sense the joy that existed during the days of the Holy Temple.

Another time in the year when joy is mandatory is during the Hebrew month of Adar, of which our sages instructed us, Mi-shenichnas Adar marbin bi-simchah—“When Adar enters, we increase joy.”[1] The mere fact that there is a special mitzvah to increase joy during this month proves there is indeed a mitzvah to be joyful the rest of the year. Only during Adar, our role is to be even more joyful than usual. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the mourning period known as the “Three Weeks” which falls between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av [Tisha B’Av—a day of fasting and mourning over the destruction of both the first and second Temples and other calamities in Jewish history]. Other times of diminished joy include sitting shiva for seven days and the subsequent mourning period following the passing of a close family member. Nonetheless, this too is included within the framework of the mitzvah Rebbe Nachman refers to, “It is a great mitzvah to always be joyful.”

The reason these two extremes are considered part of the same mitzvah is because “always joyful” may be defined as a broad and functioning mind, i.e., a mind in its proper place. This is an essential concept in Judaism which is mentioned in the Torah itself. To clarify this idea, let’s look at when the mind works in a dysfunctional way. This occurs when one gets angry, which can happen anywhere. For instance, while waiting in line at the post office someone suddenly loses their temper. If you were to ask the individual at that very moment to explain what the problem is exactly, they would probably be unable to give a logical answer. This is because in the moment of anger, a person’s mind falls from the optimal state needed to function properly. Likewise with one who is distressed, for example, by a bank overdraft or bounced check, or even larger financial problems. He might be in such a state of mind that if someone were to call at that very moment, he would have no patience. If the caller is someone he has problems with anyway, he is likely to lose his temper when normally he would be able to control his emotions, possessing a more balanced outlook. A state of constant joy means guarding the mind at the minimum level required to act as a human being with free choice. When the mind is rendered dysfunctional, free choice disappears.

The definitive characteristic of a human being is having balanced choice.[2] When a person is removed from this context, he or she is effectively transformed into an animal, since free choice is what distinguishes a human being from an animal. Guarding the mind’s equilibrium is directly related to happiness and joy in general, which includes the joy discussed by our sages in the context of the annual cycle of holidays, as well as Rebbe Nachman’s concept of joy. Beyond conceptual understanding, attaining this type of joy is simply a matter of accustoming ourselves to the proper definition of what constitutes true joy, since in the heat of the moment there is no time to think rationally.

It is during good moments that we can repeatedly remind ourselves to be aware and on guard when those inevitable times come that can cause us to literally lose our minds. This awareness can help us catch ourselves in time to remain balanced when a test suddenly hits out of nowhere. How many times a day are we faced with such challenges? This is exactly why Rebbe Nachman says it is a great mitzvah to always be joyful. In other words, develop a constant daily awareness that we are human beings who require a certain level of proper mind function in order to think correctly. This is something that demands reflection, prayer, and effort but the payoff is great. May G-d have compassion upon us and grant us what it takes to be a human being—a true ben adam.

  1. Taanit 29a 2. See Likutey Moharan I, 21

UNMASKING HAMAN

It is easy to villainize others. Global wars are waged because of this. On a more intimate level, a simple personal affront can besiege the victim’s heart for years with quiet burning anger. Both levels, collective and individual, are part of a single whole, since everything has an outer and inner reality—a physical and spiritual aspect. Every created entity in the world has a root from which it draws vitality. Anything formed after the root, draws its sustenance from it. Consider a plant: pluck its flower and it is cut off from its source, quickly withering away. Uproot the plant entirely and it dies. The same is true in the spiritual realm, since anything material has a spiritual source. This is one reason why the wisdom found in the Kabbalah is significant, since it identifies the spiritual root of everything in creation.

In mystical writings, Amalek is described as the fundamental root of impurity and the antithesis of faith. When Amalek is condemned in such harsh terms, modern-day sensibilities cringe. On Purim, there is a special commandment to remember who he is—even more importantly, what he is beyond a mere characterization. Yet, in order to remember something, it must be clearly identified.

Haman, the arch-villain of the Jews in the Purim saga, is rooted in the force called “Amalek” (of whom he was an actual descendant). This is why we speak of “Haman-Amalek” in the same breath, since it is the same power. There is no other force in creation that is so unrelenting in its evil. At the highest level, it is considered the antithesis of the Jewish people because it is the spiritual force that actively seeks to obstruct Divine light and blessing to the world. When this happens, it brings a sense of estrangement from G-d, Who is the source of life.

The root of Amalek’s power is deeper than even the first human being, since it precedes creation entirely. The genesis of Amalek originated in the vacuum of the “Vacated Space” that came into being before the world was formed. For this reason, Amalek is called “first”. “Amalek was first among the nations” (Numbers 24:20). The void of the Vacated Space is the source of all doubt and negative characteristics that drive evil in the world. The primordial nature of the Amalek energy is what imbues it with the extraordinary ability to climb so high and “grasp the throne”, so to speak.

The first mention of Amalek in the Torah occurs in Genesis 14:7, when a battle takes place that causes mass destruction by obliterating a large civilian population. This occurred in a location called the “Plains of the Amalekites” despite the fact that Amalek himself would not be born for over a century later. The Midrash explains that death and destruction on such a large scale could only take place on a site connected to Amalek.[1]

On a physical level, the force of Amalek entered the world through Esau, Yaakov’s twin brother, who was blessed with the power of the sword: “By your sword you shall live” (Genesis 27:40). Eliphaz, the oldest son of Esau, had a concubine named Timna who gave birth to Amalek. Haman was a descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites in the time of King Saul. During the days of Mordechai and Esther, Haman distinguished himself through his intricate plan to exterminate the Jews in the kingdom of Achashverosh.

Cycling through generations, the spiritual force of Haman-Amalek operates anywhere ambitions of large-scale genocide and annihilation rear their head. Although modern-day examples are not difficult to find, what is less known are the inner characteristics of Haman-Amalek. Why is this important? Because despite being rooted elsewhere, a person can be nursing vitality from an entirely different place without even knowing it. We are affected by Amalek’s influence any time we entertain negative thoughts or are party to evil actions, even in the smallest way.

Herein lies the work of every individual to begin to identify these characteristics as alien to goodness in order to disengage and separate from them. Since their influence on the mind and heart can be extremely subtle, the first step is to become more aware of their existence and identify them for what they are.

  • There is no greater trademark of Haman-Amalek than anger, self-importance, and arrogance—different expressions of a single attribute. An arrogant person angers easily, particularly from personal affronts and insults to their honor.
  • Feelings of jealousy and hatred.
  • Status-seeking and being obsessed with “only the best.”
  • Extreme materialism expressed as love of money and material objects, particularly the quality of hoarding.
  • Haman-Amalek seeks to hide and obscure the good point.[2] Feelings of worthlessness are the biggest symptom of this effort. Stubbornly seeking the positive in yourself and others in difficult situations is the only antidote. This also includes finding the good point in any given moment, even in the lowest of places. On a higher plane, it is manifested as forgetting there is purpose to life.
  • Just as Amalek attacked the weary and enfeebled Jews on their journey through the wilderness in the time of Moses, in every generation the same force repeatedly targets and pursues those who are “lost” and on the fringes, injecting them with a sense of hopelessness and despair.
  • It includes the following thoughts: “Everything is the ‘same old story,’” “Prayer is pointless,” and most of all, “There is no hope.”
  • Haman-Amalek is the source of all subtle thoughts of doubt and denial of G-d, including lack of faith in oneself. The name “Amalek” bears the same gematria (numerical value) as the Hebrew word for doubt, safek.

Anytime these things are felt, one is subject to the influence of Haman-Amalek. The main spiritual work in life is to realign oneself and draw vitality from the source of light, life, and goodness. This is not only possible but mandatory, and called tikkun olam.

The tenacity of “Haman-Amalek” comes from the fact that its influence is woven into the fabric of creation itself, because it predated the world—well before the advent of humanity. Although the work of uprooting this force entirely is ultimately G-d’s war, everyone must do their part by eradicating the “Amalek” within. When it is finally nullified in the world, all barriers to perceiving the Divine will automatically fall away. What was previously concealed will then be revealed for every eye to see, which is the essence of the messianic tikkun.

1. Breishit Rabbah 42:7

2. Otzar HaYirah, Purim 38

What You Never Knew About Esther

Esther is a “precious stone.” She descended into the depths on a secret mission. Her very name means “hidden.” Only when her mission was accomplished did she and Mordechai record the events on a scroll called Megillat Esther. Written with ruach hakodesh (Divine inspiration) the contents of this scroll are read every Purim around the world, testifying to the hidden and miraculous presence of G-d in the darkest of moments. A prototype of hidden redemption, the Purim story is especially relevant to our generation.

Sometimes there are dilemmas so enormous that the mind cannot fathom a way out. In this case, there is only one solution to circumvent everything: Go to the microcosmic source that holds the root of everything. The Foundation Stone1 in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem had this quality, lying beneath the Holy of Holies—a place radiating unparalleled spiritual symmetry and beauty of irresistible attraction. This innermost point was hidden inside Esther, as well as other great tzaddikim and tzidkaniyot throughout history. Redemption during periods of great peril is sometimes brought about through a lone individual. Other times it involves the interaction between a pair of redeemers, as in the case of Mordechai and Esther.

The potency of Esther’s power lay in its hiddenness; it flowed from the all-inclusive good point she possessed. It wasn’t just any good point, it was the microcosmic hub found within every woman who played a redemptive role in Jewish history: for instance, the three matriarchs Sara, Rivka and Rachel, as well as Ruth, Devorah, Yael, Rabbi Meir’s wife Bruria, Rabbi Akiva’s wife Rachel, and many others who remain hidden. Evil individuals seeking to harm or destroy the Jewish people often met their downfall through women who put their body and soul on the line for the sake of the Jewish people. Esther cried out in profound distress, Hatzila Mi-cherev Nafshi—“Save my soul from the sword!”2 The first letters of this verse spell “Haman.”

Since Esther’s innermost point included the root of every soul, she is said to have encompassed Klal Yisrael. She was also the living spiritual paradigm of ishah yirat Hashem—the “G-d fearing woman” (Proverbs 31:30) spoken about extensively in our holy writings. Her humility formed the basis for every salvation, and allowed her to resist the empty lure of fame and recognition—something that would have undermined her success entirely.

A TIMELESS VS TIME-BOUND REALITY

There is another deeper aspect to Esther’s powerful influence that involves time itself.3 All suffering is the result of existing in a realm bound by time. Exile in particular personifies the pain and anguish of life under the constraints of time. We are unable to see the whole picture, something reserved only for the higher timeless consciousness of the World to Come.4

But at extraordinary moments in history the two realms intersect, bringing redemption. The reality that exists above time is miraculous because it suffers no lack or damage of any kind. Everything is whole and complete, and as such, holds the key to all healing and perfection. The essence of the Purim miracle (as well as that of Chanukah) came from this timeless realm and penetrates deeply into our world every year during Chanukah and Purim. It is the same place that Mashiach pulls down his strength to repair a very troubled and diseased earth. Because Esther possessed this microcosmic good point in her generation, by straddling both realms, she was the conduit of salvation for the entire Jewish people during Purim.

When she descended into the depths of evil, the Other Side rejoiced, figuring it had won the biggest prize by capturing the ishah yirat Hashem, the quintessential G-d-fearing woman herself. She now would be lost along with everything else she held within her. Vi-ka’asher avaditi avaditi, “And if I perish, I perish,” she wept (Esther 4:17). Taken into the inner chambers of Achashverosh, she was submerged in the constraints of time—the ultimate expression of exile. However, the profound humility and righteousness of Esther prevented the wicked Achashverosh from accessing her inner essence.5 She nullified herself entirely and remained unaffected by any contact with him. Her purity protected her during her descent, enabling her to elevate and restore the sparks of holiness that fell into the lowest time-bound realm of evil.

Esther’s “capture” and exile to the lowest time-bound realm of Haman and Achashverosh was intended to suppress all hope for redemption rooted above time. This supra-temporal level is where the Jewish people draw their strength. Therefore, since the dimension of time had engulfed Esther, to prevail over her meant prevailing over Israel—since they were all rooted in her soul. Yet she overcame everything through her heroic efforts on behalf of the Jews. In so doing, she prevailed over the time-bound astrological calculations of Haman to annihilate the entire people on the 13th of the Hebrew month of Adar (usually the day preceding Purim, observed as the “Fast of Esther” today). Instead, the tables were completely turned on Haman and his supporters when the day earmarked for the destruction of the Jews brought devastation to Israel’s enemies. The redemptive light of the timeless realm converted everything into good—all in the merit of Mordechai and Esther, the redemptive duo of Purim.

“For the Jews there was light, gladness, joy, and honor—so may it be for us.”8

1. Called Even HaShetiyah.

2. Psalms 22:21. This entire chapter in the Book of Psalms is attributed to Esther.

3. Toras Noson on Megilat Esther.

4. Berakhot 34b, et al.

5. R’ Chaim Vital, Etz Chaim, Sha’ar Klipat Nogah 4-5; Ma’amar HaNefesh II:3.

6. From the prefatory verses of the Havdalah ceremony recited at the conclusion of Shabbat, based on Esther 8:16.

What you never knew about the last night of Chanukah : R. Ephraim Kenig

FLOODING THE WORLD WITH COMPASSION

With everything we already know about Chanukah, the 8th night of Chanukah—called Zot Chanukah—represents an utterly new concept.

Chanukah is a holiday that touches everyone since it encompasses all ages. Everyone easily relates to it and feels part of this special time. But what are the deeper dimensions of Chanukah?

The very fact that Chanukah lasts for eight days, already distinguishes it as an unusual holiday. Other holidays such as Pesach and Sukkot are seven days long. (Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah,which falls at the end of Sukkot, is considered by the Talmud to be a holiday unto itself.)

Chanukah, however, is different. It lasts eight days rather than seven. What is the significance of the number eight? Chanukah reaches just beyond the seven-day structure, which signifies the creation of the world. The seven-day week is universally accepted—beginning with Sunday and ending with Saturday—the cycle then repeats itself.

The fact that Chanukah extends beyond these seven days and lasts for eight indicates that Chanukah originates in an extremely high and exalted place. It wasn’t taken from this world at all, but rather from the future perfected world. From there, G-d drew down a type of light to give us a certain momentum—a yearning and hope—to exit from this long exile. This is the essential message of Chanukah, and it is a completely new concept having nothing to do with what transpires during the regular annual cycle. Chanukah draws its power from a place far beyond our conception, infusing us with such great hope, despite our inability to see the “light at the end of the tunnel.” This gives us a point of faith from which to draw, infusing us with a spirit of life. The light of Chanukah is a completely different type of light, since its source is higher than the seven days of creation. It is an eternal and everlasting light beyond any familiar concept of light where darkness inevitably follows. This special light, and its hope, is what Chanukah imparts to us, especially on Zot Chanukah, the eighth day of Chanukah which is the culmination of the festival.

CHANUKAH & THE 13 ATTRIBUTES OF MERCY
According to the Arizal, the eight days of Chanukah correspond to the thirteen Attributes of Mercy. How does this work if Chanukah is only eight days? The first seven days each correspond to the first seven attributes: Keil rachum v’chanun erech apayaim v’rav chesed v’emet. “[1] God, [2] merciful, [3] compassionate, [4] slow [5] to anger, [6] abundant in kindness and [7] truth.”

Zot Chanukah, however, encompasses the remaining six attributes in a single day: notzer chesed la’alafim nosei avon va’pesha vi’chata’a vi’nakeh. “[8] Preserver of kindness [9] for thousands of generations, [10] forgiver of iniquity, [11] [forgiver of] transgression, [12] [forgiver of] sin, and [13] Who cleanses.” It is written that these last six attributes of mercy hold the mazal, the heavenly influence, of Israel. The Gemara states, “Israel has no mazal,” meaning that Israel is not subject to the regular zodiac influences like the rest of the world, but is influenced from a much higher plane, specifically from these six attributes of mercy.

To understand this conceptually, the thirteen attributes of mercy are the spiritual channels G-d uses to direct abundant mercy into the world. This includes not only the mercy He bestows upon us Himself, but also the ability we possess ourselves to have compassion on others both individually and collectively. The truth is that if we could succeed in arousing even a single attribute of mercy, it would trigger such an abundant influx of shefa into the world that it would flood the entire planet with mercy and compassion. Only goodness and chesed would exist without any admixture of harsh judgment or tragedy.

If this is true of only one attribute, the power of all thirteen attributes is astounding. The intensity of Zot Chanukah can now be understood in proper context, since on the last day of Chanukah, six attributes of mercy are activated simultaneously to govern over us. If only we had the ability to contemplate this properly, or perhaps even the desire to grasp it correctly, it would bring such an influx of light and divine mercy into the world that we would immediately exit from exile into the wide open space of redemption, geula. However, this very much depends on us and the extent to which we think and pray about these attributes, while realizing that they operate in the world despite our inability to comprehend them. Even the greatest tzaddikim, who discuss these attributes extensively, admit to their own fundamental limitations in understanding G-d’s unlimited attributes.

It is up to us to be aware and joyful on Zot Chanukah that our mazal is bound up with and dependent upon these six attributes of mercy. Here the beauty, strength, and redemption of the Jewish people must be found.

We should never give up or become tired! Instead, we must awaken ourselves more and more. The name “Chanukah” is from the Hebrew word chinuch, education. Chinuch denotes instilling a brand new idea, introducing it for the first time. This is exactly how we should educate not only ourselves, but our children and family, as well as everyone around us: we should constantly begin anew, as if for the first time. Chanukah, Chinuch. Experience Chanukah with a renewed perspective, with hope and anticipation. Don’t catch yourself saying, “How long have I been praying over and over again for the same thing?!” Whatever happened in the past is over. Begin from this moment with refreshed strength. Say, “HaShem, we have absolutely no complaints against You. Everything is undeserved chesed. You promised redemption. Please bring us the complete redemption!”

With the sheer number of prayers, there can be no doubt that G-d will be left with “no choice,” as it were, except to bring the redemption. He will be “compelled” to redeem us because, the truth is, this is exactly what He desires. He only wants us to show how serious and ready we are for the redemption. Our prayers for redemption should not be from a place of force and demanding the end, but rather with chesed (kindness), rachamim (mercy), and much pleading. G-d will most certainly help us. He won’t leave us much longer in exile. He will hasten the redemption, soon speedily in our days, mamash, Amen. Chanukah Sameach.

, ,

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.
, ,

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.