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August 28, 2014 / 2 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Baal Shem Tov’

A Mystical Spin on the Polar Vortex

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches us to find Divine providence in everything we see and observe around us. Originally the story began with a leaf falling on a worm to protect it from the elements. But now, as we continue the story into our present day, instead of a leaf, we have a phenomenon called the “Polar Vortex.”

Before I continue, let me first preface that this article is not intended to make light of the situation. To be sure, the freezing cold weather, gale force winds, banks of snow, are not something to take lightly. But as we are encouraged to take lessons from everything we observe, that is why I sat down to write the article tonight.

Conceptualizing the Vortex

The first task when writing these pieces is to conceptualize the event into an idea. Then from that idea or isolated spark, we can then begin to implant it within the landscape of the Torah. Pertaining to the Polar Vortex, the concept we have chosen is a Kabbalistic principle called “they reversed places” (אחליפו דוכתייהו).

First let’s quote from Greg Laden’s article called: “Go home, Arctic, You’re Drunk.

“…the cold air mass that usually sits up on the Arctic during the northern Winter has moved, drooped, shifted, gone off center, to engulf part of the temperate region.  If I go even farther north, at some point it will start to get warm again… In fact, it is relatively warm up on the North Pole right now. Alaska and Europe are relatively warm as well.

The Polar Vortex, a huge system of swirling air that normally contains the polar cold air has shifted so it is not sitting right on the pole as it usually does. We are not seeing an expansion of cold, an ice age, or an anti-global warming phenomenon. We are seeing the usual cold polar air taking an excursion.”

Switching Places

Throughout history, most of the people on earth have lived in the northern hemisphere, while even today only a small fraction of people live south of the equator. Now, the Zohar poses the following question: According to this correspondence, we would expect that the further north we go—relative to most of the world’s population—the hotter it should get, but in reality, we all know that this is not the case. The further north you go the colder it gets.

The answer that the Zohar gives1 is that here we see the most important manifestation of the Kabbalistic principle called “they reversed places” (אחליפו דוכתייהו) in a geographical context. This principle exhibits the essence of what a rectified state of reality is like. It is also very similar to the notion of inter-inclusion. It means that two powers or forces have switched places. Each has left its natural vessel (in this case, its natural location on the globe) and entered into the vessel of the other. The locations where I expect to find cold and hot are reversed. The Zohar says that this is a very important phenomenon of the inhabited part of the Earth.

As mentioned above, the Zohar also knows that there is land south of the equator, but it says that this is the reason that most of mankind, from its very beginnings to date, lives in the Northern hemisphere, because only the northern hemisphere manifests this state of inter-inclusion. The land of the northern hemisphere is better suited for habitation because it is more amenable to reaching a state of the mature rectification or the inter-inclusion between two opposite states of being: that which we think should be hot is cold, and that which is cold is hot.

Time to Go Home

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Here’s the mausoleum in the old Jewish cemetery in Medzhybizh, Ukraine, of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the holy Baal Shem Tov, who changed and healed Eastern European Jewry.

The “Besht” appeared in about 1740, a little less than a century after the holocaust of 1648 (Gzeirot Tach-Tat, the decrees of 5408-9), which were followed by the catastrophe of false messiah Shabtai Tzvi, who heaped even more ruin and chagrin on Eastern European Jews, from about 1655 to 1670.

This man of mystery, whose teachings sounded a whole lot like Shabta Tzvi’s, except for the part about trumpeting himself the messiah, has been used as a model by every known Jewish movement, from extreme Haredim to Soviet Socialists, channeled into the world a wondrous spiritual and psychological change, without which we may have looked very different as a nation—and some say we may not have survived at all.

This is a particularly mysterious looking night image, of a relic in a foreign land, long emptied out of most of its Jews, one way or another.

I bless all of us that we’ll have the courage and the wisdom to turn our backs on these relics, including the very beautiful and mysterious ones, face east and start moving.

Next year in Jerusalem (or Netanya, or Haifa, or Tel Aviv – take your pick).

Yishai Visits Beilis and the Baal Shem Tov in the Ukraine

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

When the call came in to do a media junket in Kiev I could hardly believe it. Generally, I try to avoid leaving the land of Israel, except to do kiruv work, but I had been chalashing to go to the Ukraine for a few years and finally my opportunity had arrived. Two catalysts caused my yearning to visit Ukraine:  family roots in Kiev and Odessa, and a wish to see the graves of the righteous, especially the Baal Shem Tov’s tomb. I guess you could say that I was seeking my physical and spiritual forefathers in the Ukraine.

But the hook that finally got me there was a conference about antisemitism. Yes, it is ironic, and maybe bold: a conference about antisemitism in Ukraine, home of places like Babi Yar, events like the Khmelnysky Massacre, and modern-day neo-Nazism in the form of the Svoboda Party.

In fact, the whole conference was premised on canonical piece of antisemitism – the 100 year anniversary of the infamous blood libel trial of Mendel Beilis. The following are some of the images that caught my eye and which, I hope, tell the story and the spirit of the Ukraine:

Mendel Beilis was a father of five and a clerk and dispatcher in a brick factory that was run for charitable purposes owned by the Zaitsev family who were beet sugar magnates. All the factory profits went to support a hospital for the indigent of the city of all faiths. The saga began in March of 1911 when the mutilated body of 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky was discovered in a cave not far from the Jewish-owned brick factory on the outskirts of Kiev, where the 39-year-old Beilis worked. Beilis was arrested in July of 1911 in the middle of the night and they also took his son who was 8 years old. They put him in the secret police prison and kept him and the boy for a few days and then let the boy go but held Beilis for over two years in the horrible conditions. Beilis told a Yiddish newspaper that he considered suicide but he remembered the Torah injunction to be a hero and resist the evil inclination. If the authorities would find him dead, he thought, it would be a proof of his personal guilt, and would substantiate the accusation of the blood libel against the Jews at-large.

Mendel Beilis was a father of five and a clerk and dispatcher in a brick factory that was run for charitable purposes owned by the Zaitsev family who were beet sugar magnates. All the factory profits went to support a hospital for the indigent of the city of all faiths. The saga began in March of 1911 when the mutilated body of 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky was discovered in a cave not far from the Jewish-owned brick factory on the outskirts of Kiev, where the 39-year-old Beilis worked. Beilis was arrested in July of 1911 in the middle of the night and they also took his son who was 8 years old.
They put him in the secret police prison and kept him and the boy for a few days and then let the boy go but held Beilis for over two years in the horrible conditions. Beilis told a Yiddish newspaper that he considered suicide but he remembered the Torah injunction to be a hero and resist the evil inclination. If the authorities would find him dead, he thought, it would be a proof of his personal guilt, and would substantiate the accusation of the blood libel against the Jews at-large. In the end, Beilis was exonerated, but the murder was still deemed to be of a Jewish ritual nature.

 

Jay Beilis, the grandson of Mendel Beilis, was on hand at the conference. In his talk he remarked that over the years, many have told him that their grandparents were motivated to leave antisemitic environments, like Ukraine, due to the Beilis Trial and in this way he had actually saved their lives. As he finished speaking, a man came up to him and confirmed that assertion - his grandfather had told him that it was the Beilis Trial that changed the course of his life.

Jay Beilis, the grandson of Mendel Beilis, was on hand at the conference. In his talk he remarked that over the years, many have told him that their grandparents were motivated to leave antisemitic environments, like Ukraine, due to the Beilis Trial and in this way he had actually saved their lives. As he finished speaking, a man came up to him and confirmed that assertion – his grandfather had told him that it was the Beilis Trial that changed the course of his life.

Haredi Leader: Wearing a Shtreimel Is Chilul Hashem

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, chairman of Ha’edah Hacharedit, an anti-Zionist faction in the Haredi public in Israel, estimated at between 50 and 100 thousand followers, surprised many on Tuesday when he called on Chassidim to give up their animal-fur traditional shtreimel hats and switch to synthetic fur.

In a conference of animal rights activists, Rabbi Pappenheim, a Yeke (German Jew) who is well respected within the Haredi world, said that the shtreimels are made with disregard to the law prohibiting the causing of needless pain to animals (tza’ar ba’alei chayim).

The shtreimel is a fur hat worn on Shabbat and holidays by Haredi men, especially Chassidim, after they get married. In Jerusalem, the shtreimel is also worn by “Yerushalmi Jews,” members of the original Ashkenazi community of Jerusalem—from their bar-mitzvah on.

The shtreimel is made from the tips of the tail of sable, mink, marten (weasels), or fox, costing anywhere from one to five thousand dollars–since it takes about 30 animals to make one shtreimel. The synthetic fur shtreimel is more common in Israel than elsewhere.

According to the website RespectForAnimals.com, the fur animals are raised in rows of small cages (2 ft. long by 1 ft. wide and 1 ft. high) and are fed with dollops of paste placed on the top of the cage. Water is supplied by hose and nipple.

Slaughter methods of these animals include gassing (using vehicle exhaust), neck breaking, lethal injection and electrocution (using electrodes clamped in the mouth and inserted in the rectum).

Rabbi Pappenheim said that because of the wide public discussion of the need to stop needless pain to animals, wearing a shtreimel today constitutes Chilul Hashem – desecration of God’s name.

“We live in an era in which people are more stringent and they make a lot of noise about tza’ar ba’alei chayim. So we must stop this custom of hurting animals,” he sais, according to Ma’ariv.

“Some would say that the synthetic shtreimel is not as beautiful,” Rabbi Pappenheim argued, “but I say, do we need to be more chassidish than [mythic founder of the Chassidic movement] the Ba’al Shem Tov? I don’t believe the shtreimels worn by the students of the Ba’al Shem Tov were more beautiful [than the synthetic shtreimels].”

He told his listeners that when his own children wanted to buy him a new shtreimel, he insisted: “I told them, only synthetic.”

Other participants in the animal rights conference included Rabbi Pappenheim’s grandson, Shmuel Pappenheim, and Yehuda Schein of Beit Shemesh, founder of the organization Chemla – an acronym for Haredim volunteering to help animals (the word also means “pity”).

Attorney Yossi Wolfson of the NGO Let Animals Live, and one of the founders of Anonymous for Anila Rights, and Dr. Yael Shemesh of the Bible Studies Dept. at Bar Ilan University.

Despite his support for the synthetic shtreimel, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim objected to the idea of legislation to promote its use. “I believe in evolution, not revolution,” he said. we should get to a point where people would be ashamed to wear anything but a synthetic shtreimel.”

Schein said Haredi Jews should be at the forefront of animal rights issues, together with secular Israelis.

Israeli Haredi journalist Israel Gelis, who has written extensively on the shtreimel (it began as an attempt by the gentiles to humiliate Jews, which we turned into a badge of honor) told The Jewish Press that the only driving force that could cause a Haredi man to opt for a synthetic shtreimel is its cost: they sell in Israel for about $600.

Failing in Order to Succeed

Monday, August 19th, 2013

The rabbis teach that we can only truly understand Torah when we allow ourselves to fail at it (Gittin 43a). Unless we push ourselves to reach for deeper understanding, where we inevitably get it wrong before we can get it right, we will not grasp the very essence of the Jewish enterprise. Rashi here seems to think that it’s the public shame of getting it wrong (and the concomitant rebuke) that strengthens one’s intellectual rigor. It is not hard to think about giving constructive feedback (“rebuke”) when it comes to moral matters, but do we care enough about ideas that we (respectfully) challenge others when ideas are misinterpreted or misapplied? How much do we really value the marketplace of ideas and the assurance that we as individuals and as a society get it right?

History is full of examples of leaders who acknowledged that persistence in the face of failure was more important than individual failures. President Abraham Lincoln, whose army suffered many crushing defeats in the early years of the Civil War, said: “I am not concerned that you have fallen — I am concerned that you arise.” A century later, Robert F. Kennedy echoed the optimistic spirit of youth when he said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Besides for being tragically assassinated, what these presidents have in common in that their causes lasted, their legacies carried on, and they are remembered as being among the greatest and most successful men to occupy the Oval Office.

Very often, one can be lured by the traps of conformism (just follow others’ ideas or practices) or isolationism (just follow one’s own marginal ideas and practices). Our job as Jews is to break free from these ploys for mediocrity. We must challenge ourselves and the status quo to reach higher by engaging with societal ideas but without blindly accepting them.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Chassidic movement) and founder and intellectual-spiritual leader in his own right, was anything but a conformist. He not only told his followers to be happy, but he also encouraged them to do silly things, highly unusual for a religious leader. Rebbe Nachman stated that each person had to fall in order to rise, and stressed the universality of this concept:

[E]ach person who fell … thinks that these words weren’t spoken for him, for he imagines that these ideas are only for great people who are always climbing from one level to the next. But truthfully, you should know and believe, that all these words were also said concerning the smallest of the small and the worst of the worst, for Hashem is forever good to all.

However, Rebbe Nachman went further, stating that it is “a great thing for a person to still have an evil inclination.” Even the tendency to evil could serve G-d, as people worked through these passions and eventually overcame them. To Rebbe Nachman, it seems, spiritual stasis is the only unacceptable path.

We must be willing to learn and debate with others. Ideas matter. Inevitably that will lead to some level of shame when we get it wrong, but the promise land afterwards is much greater. It offers a culture of more honest, informed, connected individuals who are willing to be vulnerable for the sake of truth and who are willing to be wrong in order to get it right. Our great rabbinic and presidential leaders wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Scholars Of Brodi

Friday, November 30th, 2012

A famous scholars of the beis midrash in the city of Brodi was Rav Avraham Gershon of Kitov. This modest and unassuming man possessed such wondrous qualities of goodness and knowledge that the great Nodah B’Yehudah referred to him, in part, as follows:

“The complete and all encompassing scholar, the hallowed pious one, light of Yisrael, the pillar of the right hand, mighty hand….”

Rav Avraham Gershon was, as were all scholars of Brodi, a strong opponent of the Chassidus the Baal Shem Tov advocated at that time. Ironically, however, it was his sister who became the wife of the Baal Shem Tov. At first this made no difference to Rav Avraham Gershon, but as the days passed and he came to know his brother-in-law intimately, he began to behold the great and noble qualities that made the Baal Shem Tov the leader he was. It was not long after that that Rav Avraham Gershon became one of the staunchest supporters of the Baal Shem Tov and his teachings. Indeed, it was he who was sent to Eretz Yisrael to lay the foundation for Chassidus there. The tale of how this came about follows.

Rabi Chaim Ben Atar

In those days Rabi Chaim Ben Atar went up from the Diaspora to Eretz Yisrael. This gaon, known to the wise men of his generation as “similar to an angel of the Lord,” was a man of firm views, who never flattered or bowed to any man. Nevertheless, when it came to the community of Yisrael, he maintained an attitude of respect and awe.

He would always say, “The verse says: ‘These are the words that Moshe spoke.’ All the 40 years that Moshe led Bnei Yisrael in the desert he never spoke harshly to them except for this one verse. Here you should ask the question: ‘Does it not say that Moshe declared: Listen rebels?’ The answer is that Moshe did not say this to the entire community, but rather only to a small group who rebelled against the teachings of the law.”

Patience

Despite his refusal to bow to people, Rabi Chaim was a humble and patient man and forgiving to those who insulted him. It is related that he was involved one time in a case of law. He patiently heard both sides and carefully went over the evidence. Finally, he ruled that the defendant was liable for damages.

When the defendant heard this he flew into a rage and began to insult the rav, even going so far as to impugn his honesty. Rabi Chaim sat quietly, never growing angry or answering the man. Later his students, who were shocked by the affair, asked him in amazement, “Rabi, where is the staunch spirit for which you are so famous?”

“What, in your opinion, should I have done?” he asked

“We feel that this man deserved to have been condemned and driven out of the house and a ban placed on him until he apologized,” the students answered.

Rabi Chaim laughed and replied, “And yet, consider this. The man has been found guilty and his soul is bitter because of it. Nevertheless, the general public will understand this and certainly not suspect me of anything. They fully believe that I have judged the case fairly. What would happen, however, if I placed him under the ban?

“If I did that, if I angrily punished him for insulting me in his time of bitterness, then the people would begin to question my objectivity and my judgment.”

Rav Avraham Gershon Sent To Eretz Yisrael

The great name of Rabi Chaim reached as far as Poland, and the Baal Shem Tov longed to meet him and create with him a center of Torah in Eretz Yisrael. However, certain obstacles arose that prevented the founder of Chassidus from fulfilling his greatest dream. Instead, he turned to his brother-in-law, Rav Avraham Gershon, and asked him to go in his place.

This great scholar was only too willing to comply. His love for Eretz Yisrael was enormous and he left immediately to settle in the city of Hevron. His love for the Holy Land was embodied in the following statement:

Chazal in Gemara Menachos 44a said, ‘One who rents a house in the Diaspora is free from the obligation of affixing a mezuzah for 30 days. Only after that period of time is he obligated. If one, however, rents a house in Eretz Yisrael, he must affix a mezuzah immediately.

The Ever-Amazing Reb Elimelech (Part XIV)

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

As has been noted in a previous column, Reb Elimelech – like the Baal Shem Tov before him – asserted that pessimism and depression cause sin and spiritual apathy. Repentance (yes, even repentance!) that causes depression and sadness distances the Holy Presence.

Joy is absolutely essential for Jewish life. And although Reb Elimelech was determined to infuse all Jews with a state of simcha, he was especially concerned over the plight of orphans, and devoted special energy to arrange marriages for them.

The Baal Shem Tov was thoroughly foreign to the concept of evil. Indeed, when a despairing father inquired, “What shall I do with my son? He is so wicked!” the Baal Shem Tov, who shunned reprimands, characteristically counseled, “Love him all the more!”

This was a lesson that Reb Elimelech incorporated and would find essential in dealing with the unschooled and non-observant masses. Like those that preceded him, Reb Elimelech viewed his mission to be the spiritual elevation of the people – whether or not they were affiliated with chassidus.

The chassidic masters (Reb Elimelech is the perfect example) never remained cloistered in their homes or in the synagogues. They went out to the people and implored them to repent. “One cannot arrive at the proper and complete service of the Lord,” instructed Reb Elimelech, “without a guide that will direct toward the path to faith.”

Reb Elimelech championed emunah temimah (pure belief) above everything in the service of God. Like his predecessors, he focused on the importance of emunas tzaddikim (trusting the righteous) and what the responsibilities of a rebbe are. Namely, to raise the spiritual level of the masses who are mired in the pits of poverty – both materially and spiritually. It is the job of the leader to never seclude himself from the world and to be located among his people, so that he can hear their troubles and ease their burdens.

Reb Elimelech explained that some people serve the Almighty and perform good deeds under the impression that they are doing the Lord a favor, and accordingly deserve a reward. A consequence of this perverted thinking is that people need not work on themselves because they are assumedly good, benevolent individuals.

To counteract this mindset Reb Elimelech encouraged that before performing a mitzvah one should recite: “ha’reini oseh zos l’shem yichud kudsha b’rich hu u’shechintei, la’asos nachas ruach l’borei olami – I am engaging in this deed for the sake of the Almighty, so that I may cause pleasure to my Maker.”

For the very same reason he felt that serving God must be anchored in deep, not superficial, Torah learning. This includes Gemara with Rashi, Tosafos and the meforshim, and Shulchan Aruch and the poskim. Learning in depth and with diligence frees one from egotistical thoughts and cleanses the soul.

He instructed, “One should arise and pray, ‘May it be Thy will that my learning will motivate me to act with proper character and Torah knowledge. Spare me from interruption – even the slightest little disruption.’ ”

Among Reb Elimelech’s rules were: A Jew should guard himself against hating any of his folk, except for the wicked for whom no excuse can be found. He should not engage in any conversation at all before prayer, as it is a hindrance to concentration during davening.

One should speak gently to all men and see to it that one’s clothes are always clean.

Reb Elimelech pointed out four customs of zehirus (caution) that have becomes pillars of chassidus:

I) From the moment people arise in the morning, they must quickly wash their hands and accept upon themselves the yoke of Heaven. Their very first steps must be with sanctity and purity, and this will set the tone for the rest of the day.

II) “Chassidus,” as mentioned in the Gemara, means not walking four cubits with an uncovered head, and to live with the awareness of what the yarmulke symbolizes – namely that there is a Ruler above.

III) “Purity of the Home” mandates a staunch religious education for boys and girls so that tradition is never in jeopardy of being abandoned.

IV) One must learn Torah in order to observe and fulfill the commandments. Even those who are not enrolled in a yeshiva are obligated to learn on a steady basis, each and every day.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/jewish-columns/chodesh-tov/the-ever-amazing-reb-elimelech-part-xiv/2012/11/08/

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