Friday, December 27, 2013

Regards from Carl


Tonight is the "yartzeit" of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, most often remembered as the author of the holy work called, "Tanya". True to his nature, he refused to publish his "Tanya" until he received approval from two holy sages and colleagues, Rabbi Zusya of Anipoli and Rabbi Yehuda Lieb HaCohen, both of whom are memorialized in the collective memory of the Jewish people for outstanding saintliness and spirituality. Their approvals came in written form and are printed on the early pages of any standard edition of the "Tanya".

Last night, Rabbi David N. Krasnjansky told me that there was a third approval which was not published, because it was entirely oral and came from a mysterious source. As with much of what’s Jewish, this too comes with an interesting story.  

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi had a follower who eked out a pittance of a livelihood teaching children Torah. In a private audience, Rabbi Shneur Zalman guided him to enter into business. In time, his business was very successful. When he visited for his next private audience, he was guided to expand his business. Again, he heeded the advice and his business grew in size and success. With each subsequent visit, Rabbi Shneur Zalman advised him to expand his business yet further and yet further, until he became a fabulously wealthy man - fully beyond his expectations.

Then one day, during an audience, Rabbi Shneur Zalman advised, "I think it would be good for you to do business at the large annual fair in Leipzig, Germany. While you are there, I want you to purchase a theater ticket to watch a show."

This was a strange request, as going to the theater was generally considered a sheer self indulgence - something normally outside the whole framework of a very devout Jewish lifestyle. However, since the request came as part of spiritual advice, he accepted.

Indeed, he traveled to Leipzig and when the opportunity arrived, he attended the theater. Once settled into a plush seat, he relaxed and his eyes closed in exhaustion. By the time they opened, the audience was making their exit. A theater usher casually shuffled by and pleasantly inquired, "Where are you from?"

"From Liozna", came the groggy reply.

"Who's your spiritual master?", inquired the usher.

"Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi", the follower responded.

"Ah yes, I know him. When you see him next, please tell him that Carl sends regards.", smiled the usher.

Back in Liozna, by his spiritual master, the follower sent regards from Carl the theater usher. To the his utter surprise, Rabbi Shneur Zalman's face lit up with a huge smile of celebration. The follower wondered what the joy was all about. It seemed too disproportionate. After all, Carl appeared to him as an ordinary human being, going about his ordinary routine. The joy didn’t seem to fit a simple “hello” from an ordinary acquaintance.

He was even more puzzled when on his next journey to Leipzig, Rabbi Shneur Zalman handed him a bag containing a large loosely bound handwritten manuscript. "Please buy a theater ticket again. When you see Carl, lend him this manuscript and ask him to please return it in the morning.", came the instructions.

In the Leipzig theater, Carl inquired, "How's your holy master?"

"He's doing fine. He asked me to hand you this bag.", offered the follower.

Carl briefly looked over the manuscript. "Can I keep it?, he inquired.

"Sorry, my instructions were to retrieve it in the morning.", came the reply.

They arranged to meet the next morning. In the morning, Carl handed back the bag and smilingly requested, "Please tell your holy master that Carl said that it is very good."

Then they parted ways and the follower made his way back to Lioza.

Once in Liozna, he relayed Carl’s message that the manuscript is “very good”. Again, Rabbi Shneur Zalman's face lit up in celebration. "You've accomplished your mission. Now, you can go back to teaching children.", he smiled.

Soon after Carl's approval, Rabbi Shneur Zalman published his "Tanya". Till today, nobody knows who Carl was. Jewish mystical tradition teaches that each generation has 36 revealed saintly people and 36 hidden ones, who conceal their saintliness. Apparently, Carl was among the hidden ones.


Rabbi Avraham Y. Shemtov advised that this story somehow incomplete without it providing a practical lesson about the “Tanya”. Under the circumstances the best I can provide is what the story meant to me - which may or may not be it’s real lesson.

In previous stories I have heard about the hidden saintly, they always came across as “off personalities” - perceived as somewhere on the spectrum between weird and cruel. I chalk this up to what the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach related when he retold “Shvartze Volf”, that the hidden saintly are absolutely our mirrors. Whatever one projects at them, is mirrored back. So on the encounter, one sees his/her own personality flaws mirrored and mistakenly thinks that they belong to the other. It’s like making ugly faces into a mirror and then accusing the mirror of being ugly.

Interestingly, I noticed that “Regards from Carl” is the very first story I have heard about the hidden saintly where the character is not depicted as an “off personality”, but merely as an “ordinary one” - as a simple theater usher.

Though the “Tanya” was not yet published, the unnamed follower had access to it’s teachings even more fully than someone who has studied the published work. After all, he was under the personal guidance of the author of the work himself. It is my understanding that having been spiritually molded in the style of the Tanya, he was able to view the hidden saintly without anything untoward being projected back at him. Far from seeing an “off personality”, he merely saw an “ordinary one”.

In a sense, he is the true hero of this story. He served as a walking advertisement of his master’s spiritual path. Just by relating to Carl as an “ordinary person”, the unnamed follower might have unwittingly provided Carl with a most satisfying introduction to the value of the “Tanya” - a kind of proof in the flesh. In the follower’s reaction to him, Carl saw how far “Tanya” can go to help a standard person attain purity.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Happiness Stream

Today I realized that happiness is simply the default state of the soul. If you have a soul, you are naturally happy. If you aren't feeling that way then there's something blocking the psycho-spiritual flow between your higher self and your conscious mind. Getting rid of such blockages restores the flow. Essentially, celebrations and spiritual experiences don't "create" happiness. Rather, they temporarily remove the blockages, allowing the happiness stream to flow.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Step by Step

I've waited a while for an opportunity to make a lentil soup, like I used to. Finally, the opportunity came last night. I threw in sufficient lentils into a pot of water followed by a heaping spoon of red miso paste. Then I chopped in onion and garlic cloves. Finally, I sprinkled in cumin and curry to complete the taste.

While my soup was boiling, I realized that if I threw in the right amount of rice, it would absorb the flavor rich soup making a wonderful rice and lentil dish. So I did it. Thank God, it worked!  I had the most wonderful, delicious and nutritious dinner these last two nights. 

In fact it worked so well that I was too full to finish my dinner tonight. So thank God another idea arose. I mashed up the remaining rice and lentils in my bowl with a spoon and made a delicious spread, which I smeared across spelt cakes, making little sandwiches for breakfast tomorrow. God willing, I'm looking forward to a delicious and healthy breakfast tomorrow.

You see God sends some nice and helpful ideas step by step. You never know what He will teach you, if you are only patient. What a delicious way to learn such a lesson.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Ultimately Only Oneness

Yesterday, I was asked, “What's Judaism's idea of Satan?”

I answered that in Judaism, he's simply another angel. He's a good angel with a dirty job. The proof is that if one looks at the beginning of Job, one sees that the Creator orders him around and sends him on errands.

Then I was asked, whether the presence of such an angel sets up a kind of cosmic duality between good and evil, Zoroastrian style. I responded that in Judaism cosmic duality exists as part of the creation, not as part of the Creator.

Then I was asked whether the presence of angels deliberating in a heavenly court before a soul being judged possibly allude to the presence of multiple forces controlling destiny, a possible multiplicity. I responded that when the Creator deliberates within His Oneness, the various points of view under consideration are experienced on the soul's more fragmented level as angels deliberating in a cosmic court. However, in the ultimate sense, there's only Oneness.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Parable About a Parable

Last Saturday night I heard an interesting teaching from Rabbi Yoel Kahn about one difference between our perspectives and the Creator's. 

He explained that when a teacher uses a parable to teach a lesson, initially the student does not see the lesson in it's purity. He only sees the lesson by way of the parable. The parable is one thing and the lesson is another thing. Let's say a physics teacher wants to express an overarching principle of physics. He'll likely begin with a practical example and then work his way up to the underlying abstract principle. Initially, the students are only able to relate to the abstract principle by way of the parable (i.e. the practical example). For the students, grasping the abstraction is a "two step" approach, first the parable and then the lesson - a real "bottom/up" view.

However, the teacher primarily sees the lesson (i.e. the abstraction). For him, the parable he taught is only one of many possible expressions of this core idea. These parables barely arise in his mind, unless he needs them for teaching or for other practical applications. He sees the core lesson in it's purity. For him, grasping the lesson is a "one step" approach - a real "up/down" view.

Similarly, the Creator gives us the Torah and the world as parable material about Him.  We have a "bottom/up" view. First, there's the parable material, which we live with, and then there's the lesson - the Creator Himself. This is a "two step" approach, giving us a fragmented view. In contrast, the Creator's view is "top/down". There's only the lesson - only Him! Fragmentation never even begins. All's Oneness!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

In Touch with Personal Truth


I thank the Creator for allowing me conversations with others about higher matters. This way, higher levels of beingness are brought into my conversations, forming a union of sorts among the souls participating in the “give and take” of the discussion.

While it’s true that no matter what ideas I express from whatever soul level, there are always even higher levels of truth. The truth about truth is that truth is layered. Humans don’t experience Absolute Truth. The only Absolute Truth is the Creator Himself. To know this kind of Truth is to be Him. One can’t know Him without being Him. To be Him is not to be human or any other kind of creation. That’s why all other levels in existence present only “relative truths”.

Still, I don’t think anyone has ever spiritually advanced by ignoring his/her personal take on truth. The Creator seems to like it when people are in touch with their personal truths; however “relative” these truths may be. Baal Shem Tov stories are replete with such episodes. It’s likely that the reason for this is because those people are truly doing the best they can. Since they’ve done their best, the Creator does the rest. He carries their efforts to an appropriate destination. It’s only just and fair. One can’t expect people to behave outside the box of their awareness and guidance.  

While I certainly believe in this notion and celebrate it, I still think there’s something more to the value of following a personal truth than a person doing his/her very best. I think that a personal truth is the piece of Absolute Truth which is appropriate for this person at this time to latch onto. It’s the piece of Absolute Truth which has been spiritually parceled out to this person. This piece is the seed by which the person will grow and extend his region of personal truth into new territory; taking in more of the surrounding body of truth.

On the other hand, if a person jumps and skips over this step in favor of an imposed position presented by someone else, the person has effectively abandoned his/her piece of Absolute Truth. The parcel has been forsaken. A real spiritual master works to bridge a disciple with the broader surrounding truth from the spot where s/he already is holding. It appears to me that this is the way the late Lubavitcher Rebbe worked with people. Whatever life role a person was playing, the Rebbe found a way to “widen scope”, leaving the core role intact, yet enlightened. He understood that a person’s role and perspective that came with it was his/her healthiest foundation for continued spiritual growth.

In addition to being a person’s point of contact with Absolute Truth, bearing one’s personal truth while acknowledging that there are more levels of truth to grow into, can be very humbling. Since the Creator favors humility, this might be an additional reason why actions which express personal truths seem to carry Divine favor.  

Based on this awareness, I pray to the Creator to please help me come more in touch with my own personal truths. At the same time I beg Him to continually expand the scope of my personal handle on truth. I implore Him to help me proceed with a constant awareness that there are always truths which are truly beyond my awareness at any given moment. If I knew these truths, they may fill the gaps, widen my scope of understanding or reach for greater depths. Yet, I beg Him to please prevent me, based on such considerations, from being too timid to stand up for my own personal truths, as valid positions continuous with His Absolute Truth.

I further pray to live in connection and harmonious cooperation with people who can help my perspective grow and expand.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Partzuf !

This morning I was particularly inspired by what I reviewed in “Otzrot Chaim” regarding the development of “partzufim”, i.e. the divine attributes, “sefirahs”, expanded into fully developed structures. These attributes have lights and vessels, which serve as their souls and bodies.

Rav Chaim Vital explains that the lights don’t need to develop, only the vessels do. This parallels what I have learned in Chabad teachings that the soul is already holy and pure. She did not descend so much for herself as much as to refine her body and by extension the portion of the world assigned to her.

In the process of the development of divine attributes into “partzufim”, the vessels develop capacity to express more and more of the soul, i.e. the light. The light has huge potential. However, this potential can only be expressed on a lower (less energetic) realm if there’s a vessel present to do so.

For example, an embryo already has a soul assigned to it. However, until the embryo develops eyes and ears, the soul’s capacity for sight and hearing cannot be expressed on the earthly realm. These potentials would simply remain latent within the soul. Once the body or vessel develops eyes and ears, these potentials can be expressed.

I would presume that if the body could be genetically or medically enhanced, even more potentials of the soul than are typically expressed today can be expressed. For example, let’s say the wavelength ranges which the eyes and ears can perceive are expanded. Or let’s say mental functioning is enhanced. Maybe, these are developments for tomorrow.

It seems to me that a person’s possessions are also part of his/her personal “partzuf”. By means of possessions a person has the ability to express more and more of his/her soul on the earthly realm. For example, If one has more wealth, one can give to more causes and to the needy. Or in a nice home, one can perfect the kindness of hosting guests. Or with a car one can travel to do deeds of kindness. The list goes on and on... Basically, the totality of one’s “partzuf” includes his/her possessions. In a sense, they are tools which extend what one can do with one’s bodily organs even further.

The path of Torah and Mitzvahs is the path by which the soul uses her earthly vessels to express herself. Additionally, through Torah guidance and refinement, the body and/or possessions continue to develop into an even more enhanced “partzuf” - leading to even further soul expression or download down the road.

As part of one’s possessions, technology also fits into this picture. The fact remains that technology manifoldly increased what the soul can express. For example, today we can reach further with kindness, conversation and Torah. One can publish a Torah thought which will instantly be seen around the world.

Since the soul is layered, it is best to use technology to express the highest level of soul one can access. Then we’ve truly used technology properly in the self of being a cohesive “partzuf”. If a person uses technology to express his/her animal soul only, then it’s a wasted opportunity. However, if one distills messages from the highest accessible reaches of the divine soul and shares those messages with the world, it is so worth it.

Continuity with Oneness


Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pequda taught me about the Creator's Oneness, while Rabbi Shneur Zalman taught me about the universe's continuity with His Oneness.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Reclaiming Lost Judaism !

It seems likely to me that one of the attractions of Hellenism to Jews during the era of Chanukah might have been the presence of "lost Torah wisdom" contained in Greek Philosophy.

The Maimonides' "Guide for Perplexed" is a work of Judaism styled on an Aristotelian thought template. In Part 2, chapter 11, he explains that these ideas originally belonged Judaism. Due to persecution, the Jews lost touch with these notions, while the Greeks retained them. Therefore, he felt that by digging into Aristotelian philosophy he can reclaim lost Judaism.

Truthfully, Aristotle predates the story of Chanukah. So it's likely that whatever Aristotle had was already lost to Judaism then. The Jews of that era may of had a fuzzy feeling that there was something undefined, yet very familiar in Greek philosophy. Their souls must have heard the voice of Torah ideas calling out to them from a state of exile, like someone hearing the voice of a dearly beloved calling out for rescue from prison.

Truthfully, something like this happens in every generation. The trick is to learn how to distinguish between the prison and the prisoner.

Chag Chanukah Same'ach

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Inner Chasid

This past Saturday night, Rabbi Altein told me that the measure of a "Chasid" (a follower of the ways of the Ba'al Shem Tov) is the extent to which s/he believes that the withdrawal of the Creator's Infinite Light is not literal. Rabbi Altein was referring to the rolling back of the Infinite Light at the dawn of creation to make room for a finite reality. He continued that the stronger one's belief in the literal ever-presence of the Infinite Light, the stronger one's inner "Chasid" is.
This also applies to the ever-presence of every past, present and future expression of the Infinite Light as well. As the Infinite Light did not literally withdraw, neither have his expressions ~ as they are inseparable from him.
So in this sense, all the expressions are still happening: the Torah is still being given at Mt. Sinai, all the holy teachers of Torah throughout the ages are still here, the Messiah was always here, the world is still being created by the "ten utterances", the miracle of Chanukah is happening now, etc.
Chag Chanukah Same'ach :)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

All Contribute

Today, I learned from Rabbi Meir Soloveichik (at his inaugural address at Congregation She'arith Israel) that there's an interesting connection between Chanukah and Thanksgiving. Both were inspired by the Biblical event of King Solomon thanking the Creator for allowing the Holy Temple to be finally built; thereby, fulfilling a deeply seated milestone in humanity's spiritual growth.

Additionally, Rabbi Soloviechik pointed out that the Temple's master craftsman was a Jew who was culturally and religiously estranged from his Jewish roots. He lived in Phoenicia and had a Phoenician name "Hiram" (very unusual during the first commonwealth era). So it turned out that the building of God's Holy Temple was a collaborative between Jews on all levels of the religious/spiritual spectrum - from the most religiously immersed Jew, King Solomon, to the least immersed, Hiram the craftsman.

It seems only logical to me that the such collaboratives between all kinds of people (on various levels) will normally occur on the eve of the messianic era - bringing forth a new dawn.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Divine Strength: Clothing the Highest in the Lowest

Background Introduction:

The following excerpt is translated from “Explanations on the Zohar” written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789 – 1866) [1]. The excerpt is short selection embedded in the midst of an extensive discourse discussing the Torah’s role in the creation and maintenance of the universe. I selected this excerpt to translate because of its ability to stand alone as a teaching in itself. I feel that it fits nicely with my ongoing project to translate meaningful selections of Jewish spiritual thought into English for the benefit of others.

Mainly, the excerpt is about the Creator’s “strength”, which is defined as His ability to bring the highest spiritual lights down into the lowest realms. By doing so, the Creator demonstrates that limitations found in lower levels don’t ever present a barrier to His designs. His ability clothe the highest in the lowest extends to the Torah as well and is the main subject of this excerpt.  In the Torah, the sections where the Creator cloaks the highest spiritual mysteries are in the stories and mundane teachings.

The excerpt refers to two spiritual realms Adam Kadmon or Primordial Man and Atzilut or Emanation. Truthfully, there are five basic realms. In Hebrew, from up to down, they are Adam Kadmon, Atzilut, Briyah, Yetzirah and Assiyah. In English their names translate as (in the same order) Primordial Man, Emanation, Creation, Formation and Action. Since humans are microcosms of the universe, humans and the universe parallel each other. The universe can be loosely said to be a “giant human being” with these five realms roughly tracing his/her contours to outline a body and multileveled soul. The body is the parallel of the earthly realm and each level of the soul parallels a different spiritual realm. Therefore, we can use the human body and soul as a springboard for understanding something about the five realms of the universe. Please note that we commonly experience illuminations of our souls via our psychological side. For example, our thoughts and feelings flow from our souls. In Jewish mystical thought the psychological and spiritual are intertwined.

The core driving impulse in a human being, which is often referred to as will or volition, is a sampling of Adam Kadmon.   Here, exist the core impulses used by the Creator to direct the universe. The subconscious and near-subconscious thinking associated with the right hemisphere of the human brain is a sampling of Atzilut. Here, exist generalized sweeping concepts which will later become more defined, so as to serve as the divine blueprint for the universe.

The next three realms down, are not mentioned in the excerpt. However, they are worth mentioning in this introduction for the sake of clarifying context. The defined left brained thinking is a sampling of the realm of Briyah. Here’s where the divine architectural design of the universe exists.

Emotions and personality are samplings of the realm of Yetzirah. I think of this realm as where the “packaging” happens. Here, the higher blessings on their way down are “packaged” to be presented into the next realm down - namely, Assiyah.  Yetzirah is where proportions, relationships and presentations are fashioned. This is a realm of art more than of mind. It’s the realm where the angels sing.

The human bodies, along with their attending biological souls, are samplings of the realm of Assiyah – the earthly realm and its immediate spiritual level.

Lower realms are said to be layered over higher realms or alternatively, described as “dressing them”. In the excerpt, Atzilut “dresses” Adam Kadmon from the waist down. This anthropomorphic language is not intended to be taken literally. There are no human forms in the higher realms. Being the initial impulse behind the creation of the universe, Adam Kadmon certainly does not have a literal “waist” any more than a human impulse has one.  This has to be understood as the point of demarcation where the initial impulse of creation moves from being Creator oriented towards becoming creation oriented.

It is my sincere hope that with the above introduction the translated excerpt will become an easier read. If there is any practical lesson I derived from this selection, it’s that strength is not about domination, destruction or control. It’s about successfully reaching across seemingly difficult barriers.

The Excerpt:

The Zohar states, “All higher inaccessible mysteries are found in the Torah.” [2]  To explain this quote, Etz Chaim [3] states on the topic of “you are permitted to ask about the mysteries from one edge of heaven to the other” that you are permitted to ask questions up to the region of Adam Kadmon’s waist [4].  Above the waist, however, it is impossible to ask [5]. Regarding this, we are taught, “What is too wondrous for you, don’t seek.” [6]

To further explain, much of Adam Kadmon is far above the realm of Atzilut [7]. All the spiritual structures of Atzilut, even the very highest (like the “Crown”[8], also called “Ancient of Days” and “Patient Faced” [9]) only dress Adam Kadmon from the waist down.  Since only this area is dressed by Atzilut, this is why it’s only possible to ask questions in the region up to the waist. However, what is above this region of Adam Kadmon it is impossible to ask about at all, as it is not dressed by Atzilut. The “higher inaccessible mysteries…” mentioned by the Zohar, refers to mysteries and matters of Adam Kadmon which are above the waist, a region not covered by even the highest reaches of Atzilut. Yet, even such mysteries are found in the Torah. They are dressed and hidden in the letters of the Torah; indeed, very covered and hidden.. (When the Torah relates stories, in them are hidden these higher mysteries which are far higher than Atzilut.)

“In the Torah are found all higher matter, both revealed and concealed.”  The meaning is consistent with what was just mentioned, that the spiritual structures of the realm of Atzilut are referred to as “revealed”, while what’s above Atzilut is referred to as “concealed”.

(It’s also possible to say that Atzilut itself contains many aspects of both “hidden” and “revealed” realms; namely, aspects of the spiritual structures respectively referred to as the “Cosmic Parents” [10] and “Cosmic Couple” [11] - yet, another of understanding “revealed” and “concealed”.  Alternatively, “revealed and concealed” can refer to aspects of Atzilut which contain both a revealed and hidden side, sides which are open to questioning, but, not to answers - see the Zohar and commentary “Mikdash Melech” [12] to the Introduction of Genesis. )

Therefore, “Who can recount God’s strength?” [13]  To explain: After all the supernal mysteries are dressed and hidden in the Torah, both those which are too beyond Atzilut for even Atzilut to clothe and those belonging to Atzilut proper, God’s strength is His ability to dress up these supernal mysteries in mundane teachings and stories.  His ability to bring down what’s high up into lowly expression [14] is an aspect of “His strength”.  Indeed, His “strength” is in dressing these mysteries in the mundane teachings of the Torah.

[1] Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch was the third Grand Rabbi of the Lubavicher Chassidic dynasty. His work explaining the Zohar is called in Hebrew “Biurei HaZohar”. This particular excerpt is from Volume 2 of the work, Parshat Toldot, the very first discourse, paragraph 3.
[2] Zohar, Volume I, Parshat Toldot, 135A
[3] A classic of Lurianic Kabbalah compiled from the writing of Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543 – 1620).
[4] See introduction for an explanation of Adam Kadmon or in English, “Primordial Man”.
[5] For the sake of simplicity, I referred to the sefirot of netzach, hod and yesod as “below the waist” of Adam Kadmon. I did not want to unnecessarily encumber the body of the translation with concepts which aren’t directly central to the topic.
[6] Chagigah 13A
[7] See introduction for an explanation of the realm of Atzilut.
[8] The Sefira of Keter
[9] Atik Yomin and Arich Anpin
[10] The Partzufim Abba and Ima
[11] The Partzufim Z”A and Nukvah
[12] A commentary on the Zohar written by Rabbi Shalom ben Moshe Buzaglo (1700 – 1780).
[13] Psalm 106:2
[14] Tzimtzum (divine contraction)