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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Rebbe Nachman’

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.

If Rebbe Nachman were Alive Today

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

With Rosh HaShanah only a few days away, I drove to Hevron yesterday with my wife and two of our children to visit Avraham, Yitzhak, Yaacov, Sarah, Rivkah, and Leah (and Rachel on the way back to Yerushalayim). It’s hard for me to understand how people fly to Uman for Rosh HaShanah when they could far more easily be in Hevron. I mean, when you are sick, do you go to the doctor, or the student of the doctor?

For all of Rebbe Nachman’s genuine greatness, his teachers are buried here in theLandofIsrael– the Arizal, and his teacher, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and his teacher, Rabbi Akiva, and the teachers of all the teachers, Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaacov. It is in the merit of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs that all of our prayers are accepted on Rosh HaShanah – so why go to Uman?

No matter how fervently you pray in Uman, or anywhere else in the world, before ascending to Heaven, all prayers are routed to Hevron for Avraham’s stamp of approval before being passed on to Yerushalayim, where they finally ascend. So why leave the Land of Israel, give hundreds of thousands of dollars to goyim who hate Jews, leave your wife and children at home, and fly off to Uman when your prayers are just going to end up coming back to the Land of Israel to first get the impurity of the Diaspora brushed off by our Forefathers before being rocketed off to G-d?

Also, everything that happens on Rosh HaShanah is a symbol for what will be in the year to come. That’s why we eat the symbolic foods on Rosh HaShanah night. So if you’re not at home on Rosh HaShanah with the family, chances are your relationship with your wife and your children for the rest of the year will be distant too. If Rebbe Nachman were alive today, I’m quite sure he’d spend Rosh Hashanah in Hevron, or Yerushalayim, or Tzfat, or Meron. He himself teaches that all of our of our prayers on Rosh HaShanah are accepted in the merit of the Land of Israel, the Land of our Forefathers, where “the eyes of the Lord look upon from the beginning of the year (Rosh HaShanah) till the end.”

If you want to journey to Uman during the rest of the year, have a nice visit, but on Rosh HaShanah, gevalt!

Happy t’shuva!

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

The month of Elul is known for being the time of the year most favorable for t’shuva – generally known as penitence or repentance. But t’shuva is much more than feeling bad over the transgressions which we have committed. Rabbi Kook teaches that t’shuva is the force that makes the world go around. Here’s how he begins his penetrating and inspiring book on t’shuva, “Orot HaT’shuva.”

“For some time now, I have been struggling with an inner battle. A powerful force is impelling me to speak on the subject of t’shuva. All of my thoughts are concentrated on this. The greatest part of the Torah and life is devoted to the matter of t’shuva. All of the hopes of the individual and the community are founded upon it. T’shuva is a Divine commandment which is both the easiest, since the thought of t’shuva is considered t’shuva in itself (Kiddushin 49B), and on the other hand, it is the most difficult commandment, since its essence has not yet been fully revealed in the world and in life.”

I had the good fortune of translating selections from Rabbi Kook’s book and co-writing a commentary on the book with Rabbi David Samson, a longtime student of Rabbi Kook’s son, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook. Rabbi Samson is a veteran teacher at the Mercaz HaRav High School Yeshiva, and founder and director of five high schools for “youth at risk” in Israel. The commentary, which we called, The Art of T’shuvamay be one of the most important self-help books you can find, opening pathways to a new and more vibrant connection to God and to Torah, pathways which are sure to fill your life with greater light and happiness.

As Rabbi Kook writes:

“With each passing day, powered by the lofty light of t’shuva, the penitent’s feeling becomes more secure, clearer, more enlightened with the radiance of sharpened intellect, and more clarified according to the foundations of Torah. His demeanor becomes brighter, his anger subsides, the light of grace shines on him. He becomes filled with strength; his eyes are filled with a holy fire; his heart is completely immersed in springs of pleasure; holiness and purity envelop him. A boundless loves fills all of his spirit; his soul thirsts for God, and this very thirst satiates all of his being. The holy spirit rings before him like a bell, and he is informed that all of his willful transgressions, the known and the unknown, have been erased; that he has been reborn as a new being; that all of the world and all of Creation are reborn with him; that all of existence calls out in song, and that the joy of God infuses all. Great is t’shuva for it brings healing to the world, and even one individual who repents is forgiven, and the whole world is forgiven with him.”

For those of you who can’t afford the ten odd bucks it costs to order the book at Amazon, in the honor of Rabbi Kook’s yahrtzeit which falls on the 3rd of Elul, we will be serializing throughout the month, here at The Jewish Press, a condensed version of the commentary, chapter by chapter, on this blog. Once again, if you don’t find the book worthwhile, print out the pages, send them to me, and I’ll eat them.

For avid lovers of Hashem who can’t get enough t’shuva, you will find a mini-library on t’shuva on our www.jewishsexuality.com website including the writings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, and the Baal HaTanya’s famous “Letter of T’shuva,” condensed and explained. You’ll also find Rebbe Nachman’s “Secret of Elul” and an online translation of the famous “Tikun HaKlali” confession. Sexual transgressions, knows as Pigam HaBrit, are among the most serious sins, and the website has dozens of articles, written by our holiest Sages, on ways to rectify past errors and rise up to a healthier, holier path. For people who are prone to Internet temptations, the site offers a free download pamphlet on Shmirat HaBrit that Rabbi Shlomo Aviner highly recommends to every teenager, parent, teacher and rabbi.

Happy t’shuva!

Hyman Bloom’s Unreal Rabbis

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Hyman Bloom: A Spiritual Embrace


Through January 24, 2010


Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History


15 West 16th Street, New York



 

 


It is only appropriate to begin a Hyman Bloom review with a Chassidic tale. A young man left his village to train as a menorah maker says Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, and returned years later as a master designer. His father invited the local lamp makers to see his son’s talents but grew angry when each guest found a different fault in his son’s alleged masterpiece. The son then explained he had created the worst work imaginable. If the locals found just one fault each in his work, it was due to their blindness to their own aesthetic errors.

 

The rabbis in Hyman Bloom’s paintings look like rabbis, dress like rabbis, and come with all the usual rabbinic accessories: beards, hats, kippas and Torah scrolls. But don’t let that fool you. Like the Dada lamp of Rebbe Nachman’s story, they aren’t real. 

 

I have nothing against the late Hyman Bloom, who passed away in August. On the contrary, I love his works, which are expertly shown at the Yeshiva University Museum in “Hyman Bloom: A Spiritual Embrace,” an exhibit which originated at the Danforth Museum of Art. I think art history textbooks would be far better if they swapped Francis Bacon’s “Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X” (1953) for any of the dozen versions Bloom painted of “Rabbi with Torah.” Bloom’s works are more respectful to religion and, in my opinion, better painted than Bacon’s controversial portrait.

 

 


Detail of “Rabbi with Torah.” C. 1955.  72 x 54 inches. (Cat. 31)

 

But Bloom’s rabbis are made of the same stuff as Chagall’s shtetlach – dreams, nostalgia and stylization – rather than reality and substance. The rabbis of Bloom’s works lounge around holding Torah scrolls with expressions on their faces that evoke Rembrandt’s “Jeremiah Mourning the Temple” (1630). Though they currently possess the scrolls, the rabbis appear to clutch the Torahs too dearly as if aware they will soon have to relinquish them. It’s almost as if the rabbis know Bloom is asking them to pose for a nostalgic motif dedicated to memorializing their passing rather than celebrating their presence.

 

In the synagogues I grew up in, the rabbis could hardly be found without a tractate of the Talmud in their clutches. But the Torah scrolls mostly remained safely locked up in the ark. In the few instances that they were removed from the ark – always during prayer, or to be rolled to the correct place for an upcoming prayer – the Torahs were in the hands of the person leading the services, or a strongman who lifted them up during hagbah for all to see that day’s portion (and point at with their little finger, which they kissed), before being safely restored to the ark.

 


Detail of “Rabbi with Torah.” C. 1955. 72 x 54 inches. (Cat. 32)

 

The rabbis certainly didn’t sit around studying or praying while holding the Torah scrolls. It’s uncomfortable to hold a scroll while you study; even if the Torah isn’t a particularly heavy one, it is still bulky and awkwardly shaped for coddling. The configuration of rabbi and Torah seems to promise a quintessentially Jewish blend, but it makes as much sense as a latke and matzoh sandwich.

 

In her essay in the catalog, Katherine French, director of the Danforth Museum of Art, quotes Bloom on his imagined rabbi portraits: “I decided to paint what I knew It was a good subject to paint. I don’t think anyone else has painted this subject from the imagination. As far as I know, nobody has painted them from memory.”

 

The 19th century French painter, Delacroix, sketched sleeping lions and tigers at the French zoo – where he was rumored to have shown up for every feeding – and turned them into dramatic scenes of ferocious animals attacking horses and people. Bloom’s rabbis are similarly imaginary constructs, and just as Delacroix’s carnivores often look stiff, Bloom’s rabbis betray their idealized origins.

 


“Rabbi with Torah.” C. 1995. 55 x 37 inches. (Cat. 39)

 

“Rabbi with Torah” (c. 1995, cat. 39) shows a rabbi in three-quarter view holding a Torah scroll with a green cover over his right shoulder. In his left hand, the rabbi holds a book, perhaps a prayer book. The rabbi’s eyes are closed, and he wears a tallit. A warm light floods the rabbi from the top right corner, and mingles with the bold green, black, brown and white palette Bloom used to depict the rabbi. Something about the light recalls Caravaggio’s famous 1599/1600 painting, “The Calling of Saint Matthew.” Bloom’s rabbi is not only carrying the scroll of the law and praying or studying; he is undergoing a revelatory experience. But unlike Caravaggio’s Matthew, Bloom’s rabbi, by turning to the light, is turning his head away from the Torah scroll he holds.

 


Detail of “Rabbi with Torah.” Undated. 47 x 43 inches. (Cat. 48)

 

The rabbi in cat. 48 also pours over a book, following along in the text with his left hand. His right hand embraces a small Torah scroll with a purple cover that bears a stitched representation of the 10 Commandments and a crown. The wooden handles at the top of the scroll are adorned with silver decorations with bells. The rabbi seems to draw the Torah scroll and the book close together, but an ominous purple, white and black form hovers over his left shoulder, invading the soft, pastel-colored background. It would be easy to dismiss the form in the right corner as part of the ark, or as a chandelier, as Bloom depicted in a 1945 painting (cat. 29). But there is more to Bloom’s repertoire than just rabbi portraits.

 

Like Georgia O’Keefe, who painted either flowers or skulls, and James Ensor, who depicted nightmares in festive palettes, Bloom has skeletons in his aesthetic closet. At the exhibit at the YU Museum, the entire right side of the room is stuffed with rabbis and Torahs, but the left side features self portraits with rats devouring Bloom’s head, demons with horns, skeletons, and séance scenes.

 

Bloom’s rabbinic superheroes would hardly be heroic if there weren’t evil spirits and skeletons to tempt them. Katherine French’s essay records that in Lithuania, where Bloom grew up, his mother kept him inside one day for fear that Cossacks would shoot the young boy for target practice. As a child, Bloom also dreamt of the devil peering into his room through the window, French notes. Bloom’s childhood fears may have worn off on his imagined rabbis, whose faces are often smeared with greens and jagged lines. There is violence inherent in expression painting, and in visiting his expressionist strokes on his rabbinic subjects, Bloom afflicts his Jews of the Old World.

 

But in their boldness, the rabbis also become powerful. The Torah scrolls weigh down the old rabbis, but perhaps the scrolls function like the Ark of the Covenant, which was said (Sotah 35A) to be nosei et nos’av (“carry its bearers”). Bloom’s rabbis are inextricably tied to their Torahs. Even if most rabbis today don’t look like Bloom’s rabbis (just as most Jews don’t resemble Tevye the milkman), and even if they don’t tend to carry Torahs, Bloom’s rabbis will live on because the Torah scrolls they clutch continue to live on. In that sense, Bloom’s Torahs realize his rabbis.


 


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

A Mom Like No Other

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

          Mourning for my mother, Leah bas Aryeh Mordechai Chaim, a”h, over the past year was the saddest honor of my life. While the sadness of Mom’s lack of physical presence will linger forever, it is recalling and emulating her unwavering practices of the twin pillars of Judaism – the human practices of Bein Adam La’Makom (man’s relationship with God) and Bein Adam La’chaveiro (interpersonal relationships) – that will honor her memory best.

 

          Ramban stresses the basic ways a Jew must act in order to fulfill his or her religious obligations as it pertains to the aforementioned Judaic principles. He had in mind the character of my mom and others like her, when setting down these timeless values.

 

          Kedushah: Sanctifying God’s Name through one’s holy actions. As an unflinching practitioner of ahavas, emunas,v’yiras Hashem, Mom helped raise the standard of one’s avodas Hashem. Her endless emphasis on furthering the ideals – in thought, study and deed – and observance of Torah was boundless. And Mom always strove in pursuit of these invaluable goals by following King David’s plea to “serve Hashem with gladness, come before Him with joyous song” (Psalms 100:2). She truly enjoyed the obligation of sanctifying God’s Name by doing more than her share to further His mission.

 

          Shabbos: Remembering and keeping yom menuchah u’kedushah (the day of tranquility and holiness). It is written, “Every person must carry the holiness of Shabbos to hallow the other days of the week” (Rebbe Nachman of Breslov). From her unconditional commitment to dually remember (zachor) and keep (shamor) Shabbos, Mom never failed to enjoy extending that day’s holiness to serving Hashem to the rest of the week. She accomplished this as an eved Hashem par excellence – in her roles as a wholeheartedly devoted daughter and sibling, valorous wife to an equally principled husband, endlessly loving mother and grandmother, and devoted rebbetzin, teacher and friend to her constituents and students.

 

          In short, Mom did her share of keeping Hashem’s spiritual flame of Shabbos brightly lit 365/7 by complementing His mandate of kedushas Shabbos and all its virtues with spreading that directive to many of His creations.

 

          Ha’tov v’hayashar: Acting with goodness in upright fashion. Mom took the meritorious path of decency taught her by loving parents, and applied it to every walk of life. She reveled and played a leading role in the successes of her blissful marriage to and life partnership with her mutually adoring husband, our dear dad Rabbi Aaron Chomsky, while standing tall when confronting life’s inevitable adversities. And throughout the roller coaster called life, Mom never ceased imbuing the upright ideals of right over wrong and good above bad in her children and grandson – Alizah, Zephyr, Iris and me, Herschel, and Benjamin.

 

          To Mom it was always about us, not her. It was always our time, not hers. This mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) was displayed with heartfelt dignity in the great spirit of tov v’yashar.

 

          The mixed emotions of the indescribable sadness at Mom’s passing and the honor of forever calling her my mom was perhaps on full display when I merited performing shemirah (the watching over the body) between her death and burial. With my endearing verbal expressions of hakaras hatov (appreciation) merging with a stream of tears, no other voice could be heard.

 

          For once, I wish Mom did not let me have the last word.

 

          May Mom’s neshamah have the ultimate aliyah.

Title: The Lost Princess and Other Kabbalistic Tales of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2005

Title: The Lost Princess and Other Kabbalistic Tales of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
Translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
Preface by Rabbi Chaim Kramer
Publisher: Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont

 

Storytelling conveys profound lessons about Hashem and our relationships with other people, and today’s students and teachers continue to be inspired by these stories. Among the favorites are those of the Chassidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), whose engrossing and entertaining tales are fast-moving, brilliantly structured, and replete with mystical, penetrating insights.

Rabbi Nachman was a Kabbalist and a mystic, yet also practical and down-to-earth. His tales are populated with princes and princesses, beggars and kings, demons and saints, through which he encouraged people to live their lives with faith, honesty, simplicity and holiness.

Says Stuart Matlin, publisher of “Jewish Lights” – “We can learn much about ourselves and the world from Rabbi Nachman. Rabbi Kaplan’s translations, together with the preface by Rabbi Chaim Kramer of the Breslov Research Institute, bring further clarity to these timeless, necessary stories.”

According to Rabbi Kramer, “Rabbi Nachman first started telling his stories… because in generations so far from God, the only remedy was to present the secrets of the Torah – including the greatest of them – in the form of stories.”

The Lost Princess and Other Kabbalistic Tales of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov includes 12 of his renowned stories, each of which delivers a metaphoric message in fable form based on Kabbalistic thought. Rabbi Kaplan’s translation includes voluminous footnotes explaining the more esoteric meanings underlying the simple narrative.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was a multi-faceted, uniquely creative and talented author who passed away at the age of 48 in 1983. In the course of a writing career spanning only 12 years, he became famous for such masterpieces as “The Light Beyond,” “The Living Torah, “Jewish Meditation,” “Kabbalah and Meditation” and many more works which influenced thousands to return to Judaism. In bringing Torah to the masses, Rabbi Kaplan revealed much of which was previously hidden.

Rabbi Chaim Kramer is the founder and director of the Breslov Research Institute in Jerusalem which is dedicated to the translation and dissemination of the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

Other “Jewish Lights” books by the Breslov Research Institute include: The Empty Chair: Finding Hope and Joy – Timeless Wisdom from A Chassidic Master, The Gentle Weapon, and other titles from the prolific pen of Rebbe Nachman. A forthcoming title will be The Seven Beggars & Other Kabbalistic Tales of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (Spring 2005).

For more information see www.jewishlights.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/title-the-lost-princess-and-other-kabbalistic-tales-of-rebbe-nachman-of-breslov/2005/02/02/

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