Sunday, January 31, 2010

Aseh Lecha Rav: Vus Meint a Rebbe?

In Pirkei Avos, R' Yehoshua Ben Perachia says the famous line, "aseh lecha rav" ("Make a teacher for yourself"). This line forms a strong part of Jewish life, as each Jew is required to accept the authority and guidance of a particular rav/rabbi. In doing this, the individual connects himself to the long line of Torah, all the way back to Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) himself. The Rambam and Rav Chaim Volozhiner are both of the opinion that one should accept a rav even if the only rav available is less learned than the student accepting this rav. Each group within Orthodoxy has a different approach to the concept of having a personal rav, with Chasidism accomplishing this through the rav/rebbe balance.

Throughout the development and lifetime of Chasidic Judaism, Chasidim have been led by a manhig (leader) who traces his leadership back to talmidim (students) of the Baal Shem Tov, who established the Chasidic movement. Early on in the history of Chasidism, the Chasidic rabbi of each town became the "rebbe" (spiritual teacher) of the particular Chasidim in his town, and the position of rebbe would then be passed on to his nearest available male heir upon his death. For those people who attached themselves to the Chasidic movement in general, and a particular style of Chasidism through a particular rebbe, their leader was determined by heredity. Eventually, as certain Chasidic leaders grew in popularity, people living far away from a rebbe began to become his Chasidim. As this happened, they would still look to the rebbe for spiritual inspiration, but would have a secondary person nearby to serve their immediate needs and questions, and to give general guidance: the rav. Today, as many Chasidic groups are rather large, giving the individual person little connection to his rebbe, and a few Chasidic groups no longer have a living rebbe, the role of a personal rav has become even more central to Chasidic life. A rebbe today is a tzadik (intensely righteous person) upon whose wings you fly spiritually, through inspiration, and a rav is the everyday person who takes a personal role in your life, being able to give you guidance in particular areas of difficulty.

While this has become the general picture of what a rebbe does in the lives of Chasidic Jews, this has not been the case with all forms of Chasidism. Because most of the rebbes and Chasidim who survived the war were from Hungary and Galiczia (southeastern Poland/western Ukraine), this has become the idea of what the word "rebbe" means. However, Chasidic groups that grew out of the teachings of the rebbes of Peshis'cha (mostly form central Poland) have an altogether different view of a rebbe.

The Peshis'cha Chasidic philosophy began with the Holy Jew (Reb Yaakov Yitzchok Rabinowitz), a student of the Chozeh (Seer) of Lublin. The Chozeh of Lublin was known for his complete humility, constantly requesting that his thousands of Chasidim not follow him as he was not worthy to have such followers, which actually drew more and more people to follow him. His student the Holy Jew, dedicated to the Chozeh's teachings of humility and simplicity, was succeeded by his student Reb Simcha Bunim ztvk"l. Reb Simcha Bunim was the rebbe that popularized what has become the Peshis'cha philosophy of Chasidism. His teachings, which drew much criticism from other Chasidic leaders of the time, emphasized personal individuality over blindly following a rebbe, as each person has unique needs and is given a unique task in this world. He added this to the Holy Jew's important value of knowing oneself, and only being able to contemplate the greater world through intellect and understanding gained through deep personal introspection. For Reb Simcha Bunim, a rebbe should be someone who has discovered the tzadik within themselves, and works to help his followers discover the tzadik within themselves, always within the framework of non-conformist mentoring. Within his understanding of Chasidus, one was meant to do everything "lifnim mishiris hadin" (beyond what the law requires), and this applies to oneself as well. The rebbe said that just as one is forbidden by the Torah from deceiving a fellow person, a true Chusid is forbidden from deceiving himself.

An interesting story has been told regarding how Reb Simcha Bunim saw his role as a rebbe and manhig. Once, when a man came to Reb Simcha Bunim to join his Chasidim when the man's previous rebbe died, Reb Simcha Bunim asked how his previous rebbe had taught discipline and Chasidus to his followers. The man replied that his previous rebbe emphasized the ideals of humility and service by requiring any person wishing to meet with him to go to the village center, fill two buckets with water, and carry them back to the rebbe. Reb Simcha Bunim took issue with teaching each person such a value in the same way. He related a story to the man regarding his own ideas of what it means to be a rebbe. Reb Simcha Bunim said that there were once two wise men and a foolish man placed inside of a dark prison, where there were now windows and the roof was high above them. Each day, their captors would give them food and drink, but the intensity of the darkness confused the foolish man, and he was unable to discern what was a cup, what was a plate, and what was food. Therefore, he was unable to eat until one of the two wise men began to give him the food and drink so that he could fill himself. In exasperation, the first wise man asked the other, "Why do you sit there? While I help this man eat and drink, you do nothing to help him!" The second wise man replied, "You give him food and drink, but the cycle doesn't stop. Each day, you have to do it all over again, as nothing that you do changes the reality of the situation. I, however, am sitting here thinking of a way to make a hole in the roof, so that light will come in and he will be able to see everything!" For those of the Peshis'cha school of Chasidus, the role of a rebbe is not to give his Chasidim the ability to fly by attaching themselves to his wings, but by showing them how to use their own wings. To do so only based on other people's ability is a disaster.

Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the successor of Reb Simcha Bunim, carried on his rebbe's legacy and philosophy. He stressed the importance of each person looking within in order to understand themselves, and that each person should be able to seek out truth based on their own questions and needs. According to the Kotzker, people do not find the truth by imitating others, for this itself is untrue, in that it forces someone to conform to the "true being" of another person. This untruth of self, even if the path worked for the person that is being copied, does not lead to greater truth. A rebbe is then given the task of helping someone find their authentic self, however difficult and painful it may be, and then begin the process of refining the individual self through a unique path that works for the specific person. This goes along with an interesting reading of the initial statement, "aseh lecha rav," which can also mean, "make yourself into a rav." This is the essence of one of the Kotzker rebbe's most famous sayings: "If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. However, if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you." It is not our job to be Moshe Rabbeinu, or to be any other great leader, for they have their own time and place, and to copy them is to fail our own unique task and self. We were created with our own essence, in our place, in our time, to be the best "us" we can be, not the best "them" we can be.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Ain't It Just Like the Night...

In BeShalach, this week's parsha, we find the record of the Jews leaving Mitzrayim (Egypt). When they exited, the Torah tells us, "VaHashem hoileich lifneihem yoimam b'amud onon lanchoisom haderech, v'laylo b'amud aish l'ho'ir lohem," ("And G-d goes before them by day in a pillar of clouds to guide them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire providing them with light"). The Medrash teaches that anytime the Torah says, "And G-d", it refers to G-d and the Heavenly court of judgement. If the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire were both meant for the good of the Jews, why do we see the reference to G-d and the court of judgement?

In his commentary on Shemos (Exodus) 21:1, Rashi explains that the Torah and the precepts within the Torah should be set out before each person in a way that is easy to understand and access based on each person's individual level. The same is meant in the verse in the opening paragraph, "G-d goes before them." This is to teach us that at all times, both when life is good and easy (day) and when we are suffering difficulties in our lives (night), G-d and the precepts in the Torah are meant to be there for our good, guiding our way in the daytime, and showing us light in our personal nights.

From the Gemara, we see that miracles from the Jews' time in the desert were used to answer specific Jewish legal questions. For instance, if there was a dispute over the ownership of a slave, the community would watch to see near whose tent the extra manna for the slave fell, and this would show who owned the slave. If this is so, a large Jewish legal discussion could have been answered by the pillars of fire and cloud. In Judaism, there is a great debate over when the day ends and night begins, as the time determines when holidays, Shabbos (the Sabbath), and other things begin and end. Even today, since the time is unclear, people are strict to start holidays before it is fully night, and end them a while after night has already fallen. If the pillars of cloud and fire changed based on whether it was day or night, it should be easy to determine the actual time of night, since one could have watched the pillars. The Aish Kodesh answers that this is not the case. As we showed based on Rashi's explanation of the verse in Shemos (Exodus), saying that something is "before them" means that it is according to the needs of the people. Therefore, it is possible that there were times when the Jewish people could not see so well, regardless of it still technically being day, and so the pillar of fire would appear. This reinforces the principle that G-d is with us, being present with us in the form that we need when we need it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Get It While You Can

"Vayikach Moishe es atzmois Yoisef imoi," ("And Moses took Joseph's bones with him"). Many commentators on the Torah ask why it specifically states that Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him, since this task had been charged to all of Bnei Yisroel (the Children of Israel). The Medrash states that the reason why it states that Moshe took the bones was because the rest of the people, while preparing to leave Mitzrayim (Egypt), were busy collecting the riches of the Egyptians as spoils after G-d defeated the Egyptians through the plagues. However, how is it that Bnei Yisroel is spoken of negatively as being "busy" with this task, when we see in last week's parsha that Moshe ordered the Jews to take from the Egyptians all that they could get out of them?

The Kedushas Tzion zt"l, one of the previous Bobover rebbes, gives an answer to this question. He says that clearly, if Moshe commanded the Jews to do something, it was a Divine directive, and cannot be seen as negative, but actually quite the opposite. The problem, says the Kedushas Tzion, was not in what was occupying their time, but the manner in which they were doing it. To explain, the Kedushas Tzion gives a different, but equally valid, translation of "atzmois Yoisef". The Kedushas Tzion says that it means the "essence of Yosef," meaning that Moshe was able to channel Yosef's great kavanah (Divine intention) in the activity that was being done. When Yosef had been a powerful minister in Egypt, he made sure to bring great wealth to the kingdom, knowing that one day the descendants of his father would leave Mitzrayim and be able to take the wealth with him. Because of this, he wanted the people to have enough wealth to take care of themselves in the wilderness so that they would be better equipped to do the will of G-d. When the Jews were going around collecting the wealth, however, they were collecting it only to be wealthy, and did not think at all about the greater reason for material wealth. Moshe Rabbeinu, on the other hand, took the "atzmois Yosef" with him, and collected the riches with the sole purpose of using it to use it later doing whatever G-d asked of him regarding what he collected.

Friday, January 22, 2010

People Get Ready

In this week's Torah portion, Parshas Bo, Moshe summons the elders of Israel and told them, "Mish'chu ukichu lochem tzoin limishpachoiseichem v'shachatu haposach" ("Draw forth and take for yourselves a sheep for your families and slaughter the Pesach offering," Exodus 12:21). Rashi explains the verse to mean that those who have flocks of sheep should take from what they already own (draw forth), and those who do not have should buy one in the market (take), and use these for their families. However, since we know that the Torah has countless levels of interpretation, there is a much deeper understanding to be found regarding this verse.

The Noam Elimelech notes that since this verse speaks about the performance of a specific act commanded by G-d, it has deep explanation regarding the way in which we are to carry out mitzvos. The first level is that of "draw forth". The Noam Elimelech compares this to meditation, which was the practice of the pious of previous generations. Before doing a mitzvah, they would sit in contemplation on the mitzvah, which would bring them to astonishment (the Hebrew word for "meditate" shares a root with the word "astonish"). By doing this, the Noam Elimelech says that we draw our souls upward, and then "take for yourselves," and we are able to partake in the elevated understandings and hidden secrets behind the mitzvos. By participating in this intense type of meditation and preparation, we become able to return with a "sheep for our families," by giving over our personal insight and reflection to others, so that they may also benefit from what we have uncovered in meditation, and to be aware that we have a greater responsibility to the community as a whole. The last step is the "slaughter," which is to actually carry out the mitzvah itself, doing the great act that connects this world with the next.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Gam Zu Letovah

In Va'eira, this week's parsha, as well as in other places in the Torah, we find that Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) refers to himself as having difficulty speaking. In this portion specifically, Moshe says, "v'ani aral sefosoyim" ("I am of closed lips"). The specific issue that he continues to address is explained by commentators as being related to an event that happened when he was a very young child. After being taken into beis Paroi (the house of Pharaoh), Moshe was sitting on the lap of the king. While playing, he reached up and removed Paroi's crown and placed it on his own head. Becoming enraged and insulted, he initially wanted to have Moshe killed. However, his advisors suggested that Moshe had only done this unknowingly due to the fact that the gold was bright and attractive, and that were he given a choice between riches and burning coals (which are also bright), it would necessarily end with Moshe choosing the riches. To test the theory, the servants of Paroi brought two dishes before Moshe: one with gold and jewels, and another with hot coals. Even though Moshe was a young child, he was still intelligent and began to reach out for the jewels. However, G-d sent a malach (angel) to force Moshe's hand to grab the coals. Upon doing so, he immediately withdrew his hand and placed it into his mouth to sooth the heat. When he did this, his tongue and the inside of his mouth became severely burned, causing him to have a certain difficulty in speaking clearly. One must wonder why, with all of his ability and spiritual greatness, Moshe was never mispallel (prayed) that his speech difficulties be taken away, as it would relieve him of much difficulty and trouble, and also allow him to speak to Paroi without his brother Ahron serving as the mediator.

Several weeks ago, in Parshas Vayeitzei, the story of Leah was told. Leah, who was not Yaakov's first choice as a wife, outlived her sister Rochel, and gave more children than any of his other wives. As each one of the ancestors of the Jewish people have ruach hakodesh and were able to see what was coming, Leah assumed that since there would be four wives and twelve sons, each wife would have three sons. Therefore, whenever she became pregnant, and then gave birth to a fourth son, she said, "HaPaam, oideh es Hashem" ("This time, I will thank G-d"). The commentators give several explanations to what Leah said upon Yehudah's (Judah) birth. Famously, the mefarshim (commentators) say that Leah was the first person to thank G-d in the Torah. As there were many great people before her, it seems strange that she would be the first person to give thanks to G-d. Did Avraham, Yitzchok, Yaakov, and Noach never thank G-d? The explanation given is that Leah looked back on her life, seeing that she had difficulties in her life, and realized that this merited her to become the mother of more of the shvatim (tribes), and thanked G-d for the previous bad in her life. Therefore, this time she would thank G-d for the troubles in her life, and not feel bad that she didn't have an easier life, as this gave her the merit for many more wonders.

A second explanation of her words offers a different reading of her words. As the Torah does not have any punctuation marks, the syntax is decided by tradition. One tradition states that she didn't say, "This time I will thank G-d," but asked, "'In this instance I will thank G-d?' Therefore, she named him Judah." As she felt completely indebted to Hashem, she didn't want this to be the only time she remembered His wonders, and wanted to recall the greatness of G-d and thank Him over and over. Because the name Yehudah is from the root "to thank", each time Leah would say Yehudah's name, she would be reminded of the greatness of G-d, and therefore would offer up her thanks constantly.

This is how the commentators answer the initial question about Moshe: Why didn't he pray to have his speech impediment removed? The reason was because he realized that had the malach (angel) not caused him to move his hand and grab the coals, he would have been killed by Paroi (Pharaoh). Therefore, his speech impediment was a result of the miraculous act that saved his life. Because he never wanted to forget the greatness of G-d, he didn't pray for the problem to be fixed, remembering each time he spoke that G-d had saved his life, and he would be thankful every moment.