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What was really the disagreement, between the Vilna Gaon and the early leaders of chassidut?

If we’ve learnt anything at all about the fight between the followers of the Baal Shem Tov and chassidut, and the followers of the Lithuanian path of mitnagdim, as exemplified by the Vilna Gaon and his followers, this is probably what we believe:

The Vilna Gaon and the mitnagdim became ‘anti’ the chassidim and the followers of the Baal Shem Tov, because they were worried about ‘false messiahs’ in the wake of the Shabtai Tzvi affair.

Right?

That’s what we think the whole disagreement was about? That the Baal Shem Tov started this new ‘Tzaddik-centric’ approach to Judaism, and all the Litvak rabbis decided to excommunicate the people practicing chassidut because they were worried that another ‘false religion’ would spring up.

Guess what…that’s not really what happened. Or at least, not at the beginning of this whole story, back in the 1700s. As I started to set out in THIS POST, geula-fever was alive and well in the 18th century, fueled by kabbalistic speculation that the time for ‘the End’ had come, and geula was about to happen.

As I covered in that post, there were a few key dates that the kabbalists had pegged for the final coming of Moshiach, all based on the gematria of the word ‘dawn’, and allusions to that word in the Zohar and in the book of Daniel.

These years were:

1748 – which was proceeded by an ‘elite aliya’ of the Jewish world’s leading kabbalists to Israel, including the Ohr HaChaim from Morocco, the RaMCHaL from Italy, and many kabbalists and mystics from the Ashkenazi world too, including Rabbi Gershon of Kutow, the BESHT’s brother-in-law.

1753 – when three huge kabbalists in Israel including the CHIDA, Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (the Rashash), and Rabbi Chaim de la Roza tried to ‘force’ the end of days via kabbalistic uses of Hashem’s mystical names. Heaven forced them to stop, and the CHIDA had to go into exile for 5 years.

1781 – which was again proceeded by a ‘chassidic’ aliya from the Ashkenazi world, which was led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk.

(The last official ‘date’ as the last possible date for the ‘in its time’ redemption, was 1840, but we’ll leave that alone for this post.)

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Between 1748 and 1781, so many of our leading rabbis believed that the geula was imminent, and the Vilna Gaon and the Lithuanian rabbis were counted firmly amongst them.

In fact, pretty much the only leading rabbi at that time who was saying that geula was NOT going to happen imminently was the Baal Shem Tov. I know I quoted this in the previous post, but let’s bring his letter written to Rabbi Gershon in 1747 again here, to keep all the pieces together in one place. The BESHT wrote:

“I asked the Messiah when he would be coming. “This is how you will know,” he replied. “When your teachings become public and revealed to the world, and your wellsprings of my teachings, which you will have mastered, overflow to the outside, so that [others], too, will be able to perform mystical unifications and ascents of the soul like you. Then all the klipot will be eradicated and a time of [Divine] desire and salvation will come.”

The Baal Shem Tov continues:

“[This reply] left me puzzled and severely troubled. Such a long time! When can it possibly come to pass?”

The Baal Shem Tov was explaining to Reb Gershon that the Moshiach is going to come, and the end of days is going to happen, only when the Jews start to really connect to God, and experience ‘ascents of the soul’, and to really learn and understand Torah on the deep level of chassidut.

Moshiach wasn’t just going to show up, regardless of the spiritual state of the Jews, and regardless of all their bad middot and lack of emuna. He was only going to come when the Jews got real, learned some humility, and started talking to God sincerely every single day, and including Him in every aspect of their life.

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So now, the question is:

Why did the mitnagdim fall out so badly with the chassidim, if everyone at that time was eagerly anticipating Moshiach and geula, and the Lithuanian rabbis were pressing for aliya and for ‘the end’ to come just as much as the chassidim?

The answer lies in the different approaches the Vilna Gaon and the chassidim were trying to take, to bring the geula.

We can set it out like this:

1747 – The Baal Shem Tov writes a letter explaining that Moshiach is only going to come when the Jews make teshuva, and approach their yiddishkeit in a more ‘chassidic’ way.

The BESHT’s leading student, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, sat on that letter for over 30 years, but then published it in 1780, when it started to become obvious that Moshiach was not coming imminently, after all.

In the meantime, the Vilna Gaon had spent years trying to resolve all the kooshiot, or difficulties in the Torah, using just his superb logical abilities and ‘cleverness’. According to documents found by researcher Arie Morgenstern which quotes the Vilna Gaon’s students and sons, as brought in his book The Gaon of Vilna and his Messianic Vision, the Vilna Gaon believed he could bring the Moshiach:

“[B]y force of his supreme halachic authority. [T]he Gaon proposed to move to Eretz Yisrael and write the final halacha there, in order to hasten the redemption. As Joseph Karo[1] had done, so would the Gaon of Vilna do. He wished to be the final arbiter, not in order to write the halacha for its own sake, but rather to hasten the redemption and conclude the ‘sorting’ (birur) process that would usher in the Messiah.”

Here’s what the Vilna Gaon himself wrote, about his aspirations[2]:

“Every unresolved issue is a klipah, and emanates from the Erev Rav that intermingled with the Israelites…This is how unresolved issues insinuated themselves into the halacha. The answer to the unresolved issues is the repair of the klipah.

Elsewhere, he wrote[3]:

“At the end of the galut, in the footsteps of the Moshiach, the tree of life, the Law of Moses will be revealed.”

One of the Vilna Gaon’s senior students, Rabbi Israel of Shklov, explained[4] that his mentor had managed to resolve all the issues in the whole Torah (!) except for in two passages in the Zohar. The Rabbi of Shklov says:

“Had the Gaon resolved these issues, he would have brought the birur (‘sorting process’) to its end, and the path to the Messiah’s arrival would have been readied for use.”

As it was – he didn’t, and it wasn’t.

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The Vilna Gaon set out for Israel in 1778.

But first travelled to Amsterdam, where he hoped to track down copies of the books and manuscripts that would help him resolve his two last remaining ‘issues’, before he made aliya, wrote a new ‘perfect’ Shulchan Aruch in Israel, and ushered in the redemption.

But God didn’t let him do that, his mission to Amsterdam was a failure, and the Gaon returned home to Vilna, without attempting the trip to Israel.

Once home, he decided to take a different tack, and for the first time in his scholarly career, he decided to teach an elite group of students his approach to learning Torah, with a particular emphasis on these students moving to Israel, and helping to lay the practical foundations for the Jews to return to their land.

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In the meantime, nearly all the Chassidic rebbes dealt with the ‘moshiach let-down’ of 1781 by starting to put the emphasis on personal redemption, as opposed to national redemption, and taking the emphasis off of moving to Israel.

Everyone, that is, except Rabbenu and Breslov chassidut.

Rebbe Nachman continued to stress the importance of living in Eretz Yisrael, as well as the importance of working on the ‘inner dimension’ and developing the good middot that would enable each person to achieve their ‘personal redemption’, too.

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1781 approaches, the make-or-break date for ‘geula in its time’, and the Vilna Gaon realizes that his approach of trying to ‘perfect’ Torah, and engage in ‘perfect’ mitzvah observance is out of reach, and that he can’t bring Moshiach this way. Instead, he looks to kick-start redemption by placing ‘boots on the ground’ in Eretz Yisrael, and directs a group of his elite students to make aliya after his death.

Meanwhile, after 1781, the different Chassidic leaders put much more focus on the idea that redemption is internal, not necessarily land-based.

Israel is out of reach, so turn inwards and work on your personal and communal redemption instead, wherever you live!

Only Breslov chassidut actually combined these two, very different approaches, continuing to stress the practical aspects of aliya to the real Eretz Yisrael, together with emphasizing the inner work and importance of being connected to the True Tzaddik and praying for redemption.

But there was so much opposition to Rebbe Nachman, and then to Breslov, that this message was muted back then, and really has only begun to flourish in our days.

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So now, what happened with the excommunication of the chassidim by the Lithuanian rabbis, headed by the Vilna Gaon?

As usual, it’s a sordid tale of petty politics and ego-mania.

In the years leading up to the first ‘excommunication’ of the chassidim, in 1772, The Vilna ‘kahal’, or community leaders had been locked in a vicious struggle with the town’s chief rabbi and rabbinical judge, a fellow by the name of Shmuel ben Avigdor.

Shmuel ben Avigdor had been ‘bought’ his position – as was the custom of the time then, and in many ways still is today – by his wealthy father-in-law. The kahal leaders felt that Shmuel ben Avigdor was throwing his weight around, was out of his depth when it came to making halachically-binding decisions, and – most crucially of all – was impinging on their income by trying to butt into communal affairs that they felt he should play no part in.

So, the kahal went to war against their very wealthy, very connected chief rabbi, to try to get him ousted. His father-in-law had bought him the rabbinate ‘for life’, so the kahal leaders could only get him out of the way if they could prove his was guilty of gross, ‘anti-Torah’ misconduct. So that’s what they set about trying to show.

According to Arie Morgenstern[5]:

“The methods used were illegitimate:…false testimonies, silencing of witnesses, preventing the presentation of exculpatory evidence about the defendants under threat of excommunication, forbidding the lodging of complaints with the rabbinical court by the same means, and even forbidding the rabbinical judges to listen to cries of protest against the abuse being committed.”

Plus ca change.

And having waged war against their town rabbi by dirty means, the kahal then just applied their ‘abilities’ against the chassidim in their midst, too.

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Why did the Vilna kahal turn against the chassidim?

Some researchers claim they were egged on by the Vilna Gaon (more on that in a moment), while others claim that the kahal leadership were worried that people flocking to chassidut would diminish their clout in the Jewish community, and their own legal status vis-à-vis their non-Jewish rulers. (Which in turn, would diminish their ability to levy taxes on the Jewish community….)

In the meantime, the horrible, dirty machloket between the Vilna kahal leaders and their chief rabbi Shmuel ben Avigdor raged almost without let up for approximately 30 years (!) It was so poisonous, Vilna’s Jewish residents were frequently arguing on street corners, and fights would regularly break out in public, even between the women.

That only stopped when the community was hit by a terrible tragedy.

In 1771, an outbreak of plague killed hundreds of small children in Vilna’s Jewish community. It was clear to the kahal leaders that this was some ‘punishment from Heaven’, but rather than accept that their own machloket against the Chief Rabbi could be the cause, they searched around for a scapegoat – and found one, in the nascent movement of chassidim.

According to the mitnaged Maggid of Makow, the reclusive Vilna Gaon was totally unaware of any problem with the chassidim, until the kahal leaders – who were giving the Vilna Gaon a salary of 1400 guilders a year and a rent-free home, even though the Vilna Gaon fulfilled no public duties as rabbi – brought a bunch of false witnesses to slander the chassidim as a ‘deviant cult’.

Rabbi David the Maggid writes:

“Due to his devotion to the Torah and his perseverance, the holy Pious One [the Vilna Gaon] was oblivious to all these matters, until the righteous and honest learners cried out… Then he became their enemy, fighting them and pronouncing the great excommunication of all their rabbis and students… The excommunication went into effect in 1772, after Pesach.”

But none of the other four major Jewish communities in Lithuania, including Horodno, Brisk, Slutsk and Pinsk, joined in with the excommunication of 1772, because they understood that the Vilna kahal was trying to deflect the spiritual heat off its own bad behavior, by using the chassidim as scapegoats. Very quickly, the excommunication died away, and the Lithuanian communities happily sent money to support the Chassidic aliya that began in 1777 – ahead of the ‘end of times’ date of 1781.

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THE SECOND EXCOMMUNICATION

But then, there was a second excommunication of the chassidim that happened in 1781 – and that one stuck, and widened out into a veritable war against chassidut.

What triggered this second attack against chassidut? A few different things:

  • More and more people were flocking to the ranks of chassidut.
  • Chassidut became increasingly organized as a communal force within the Jewish community, and so appeared to be more of a threat to the existing leaders’ status, influence, and ability to use their communal position to make money.
  • The Baal Shem Tov’s students started to print and disseminate some of their ideas and teachings – notably Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, who published Toledot Yaakov Yosef in 1780.
  • May 1781 came and went without Moshiach showing up, and a wave of frustration overtook the Jewish community and led to a whole bunch of internecine fighting.

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The chassidim were not totally blameless, for the war erupting.

By this point, many of them were openly mocking the Lithuanian rabbis for being out of touch with their communities and overly hung-up on pietism and asceticism, instead of serving God joyfully, with their hearts. There were also some Chassidic leaders who were publically complaining about the behavior of other Chassidic leaders, and that might also have fueled external criticism of the movement.

Meanwhile, the mitnagdim communities and their rabbis were having to deal with all these ‘miracle stories’ that started circulating about the Baal Shem Tov – including his infamous ‘conversation’ with Moshiach, in 1747 – after Rabbi Yaakov Yosef’s books came out. To put it bluntly, it was hard for the Lithuanian rabbis to compete, when there was a Tzaddik of the caliber of the Baal Shem Tov wooing their congregants away with his supernatural abilities and awesome, soul-inspiring advice.

In other words: they got jealous.

Plus ca change

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There’s one last thing I want to add here, because clearly what I’m describing above has continued to play itself out in our day and time, too.

At its highest level, there was a dispute for the sake of heaven going on, between the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov, about the way to bring Moshiach and geula.

The BESHT said:

Geula will only come when all the Jews make teshuva, and start to serve God sincerely, and not just to pay ‘lip service’ to the external commandments and mitzvoth. And God will wait as long as it takes, for that to happen.

The Vilna Gaon said:

Geula will come ‘in its time’, once we fix the halacha perfectly. And whoever is not on that level of perfection at that time, won’t make it through to the world-to-come.

(I should mention here, that the Vilna Gaon was kind of obsessed with the Erev Rav, and that he and his students both talked and wrote about them a great deal.)

This mirrored the debate that took place in Sanhedrin 97b, between Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol, and Rabbi Yehoshua, that you can read about HERE.

And we are still having that debate today in the Jewish world.

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On the one hand, there are the people saying geula is ready to come NOW!!! Today!!! And that the world is full of evil erev rav types that just can’t change, and won’t make it through, and that millions of people are going to die before Moshiach is revealed, because they just aren’t on the level to make it.

This is the ‘Rabbi Yehoshua’ approach.

On the other hand, we can see with our own eyes that each of these ‘end times’ keeps coming and going; and that the predicted wars keep fading away. And, that the whole ‘erev rav’ approach is basically unworkable in practice (as I cover in my book), and that with daily hitbodedut, regular visits to Uman, and a strong connection to our True Tzaddikim, people can and do transform into better Jews in some fantastic ways.

This is the ‘Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol’ approach.

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The note from Rav Kook, describing Rabbi Berland as a'spark' of Eliezer HaGadolA few years’ ago, Rabbi Dov Kook of Tiveria famously wrote a note where he stated that Rabbi Eliezer Berland is a spark, or reincarnation, of that selfsame Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol.

God is waiting for us all to open our eyes, and see what’s right in front of them.

After 200 years of trying the ‘Rabbi Yehoshua’ approach – which has clearly not worked to bring Moshiach and redemption – God is waiting for more of us to adopt the ‘Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol’ approach of sincere teshuva, talking to God, and connecting to our True Tzaddikim, instead.

And when we get that message, geula will finally happen.

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FOOTNOTES:

[1] The author of the Shulchan Aruch.

[2] Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Ra’aya Mehemana, Konigsberg, 1858, 28a.

[3] Yahel Or, Commentaries on the Zohar, Parshat Mishpatim 114b (Vilna, 1882).

[4] In his preface to the book: Pe’at Ha’Shulchan.

[5] Page 237, The Gaon of Vilna and his Messianic Vision

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Increasingly, I’m feeling between two worlds at the moment.

Rebbe Nachman tells the story[1] of a man who plays host to a strange visitor who he’s half-scared of, and half in awe of. This strange visitor entices him out of his house, and then grabs him and starts flying all over the world with him. Then, the host starts to notice that he’s kind of in two worlds at once – flying around with the strange man, but also in his house, at one and the same time.

“He couldn’t believe that this was he himself, in his own house. But he looked carefully, and sure enough he was speaking with ordinary human beings and eating and drinking normally. But then, he again noticed he was flying like before. Then he looked again, and lo and behold! He was in his house. Again, he noticed that he was flying…and so it went on for quite a time.”

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I can’t help thinking about this story a lot at the moment, as it seems to be describing what’s going on, at least in my life.

One minute, I’m ‘flying’ with the tzaddikim, and with visions of Moshiach and geula, and God forbid, Gog and Magog and all that supernatural end-of-days stuff. And then, I’m back in my house, trying to figure out what to make for supper, and how best to sell some books so I could actually make 5 cents at some point in my life.

And so it continues from day to day: I’m flying around with thoughts of Beit HaMikdash, and how good life will truly be once all the lies and all the horrible people who enjoy telling them, and turning people against each other, disappear once and for all. And then, I snap back to the so-called ‘real world’ and realise I need to hang my washing up, get the shower door sorted out, deal with more of the mindless bureaucracy that’s taking up more and more of the bandwidth of the world.

“Meanwhile, he noticed that he was in house. It was something extraordinary for him. How was it, that one moment he could here, and the next moment there? He wanted to speak about it to other human being, but how can one explain something incredible like this to other people? They would find it hard to believe.”

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Friday morning, World War III almost started.

Trump almost sent American planes in to directly bomb Iran after they shot down an American spy drone. If he’d done that, we’d be dealing with World War III / Gog and Magog right now, instead of me sitting here in my pyjamas typing this out.

I know so many of us prefer a sugar-coated version of reality, and especially of geula, but if wasn’t for the tremendous self-sacrifice of the Gadol HaDor, who went into hospital with what appears to be some sort of kidney failure Thursday night – and the thousands of people who are spending their time travelling to prayer gatherings, and reciting tehillim on behalf of the Rav and the nation – we’d be dealing with a scenario where millions of people could already have been incinerated with an Iranian nuke.

They already have nukes.

Rabbi Berland has been telling us that for years, already, but no-one wanted to believe him.

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This past Sunday, the world could already have lunged off the cliff of war, and we’d be dealing with many thousands of casualties, already.

Instead, I took Sunday off and went up North with my girls, to a quiet little stream where I sat in the water for hours and swam widths across from one clump of bulrushes to another.

My girls and their friends disappeared up-stream for a while, so I was there by myself, listening to the radio playing ‘Don’t worry, be happy’, followed by: “Don’t worry, about a thing. Every little thing’s gonna be alright.”

Really, God? Is it really? How can that be true?

That’s what I wondered to myself, as I swam backwards and forwards in perfect weather, under blue skies, with nary a person or a mosquito to disturb my personal piece of Gan Eden.

How can I be enjoying myself like this, when two days ago we nearly had Gog and Magog and the whole world is slipping into more chaos and evil every day?

That’s when God reminded me about this Rebbe Nachman story, quoted above.

Life is pretty challenging for all of us. It’s challenging when it is challenging, and it’s also challenging when it’s not challenging, as that kind of feels plain wrong, given the momentous things going on all around us.

What, I should still take some time to buy a pair of new shoes, and to spend a lazy afternoon swimming somewhere quiet in nature with my kids?

Yup.

But what about all the tehillim I need to be saying? What about all the insights I need to be sharing? All the teshuva I need to be making?

There’s a time and a place for everything, I guess.

And God is also showing me the value of my small efforts.

Like, last week the Rav put out a call for 200 people to say the whole book of tehillim every single day, until Rosh Hashana, to help him continue going until then.

I heard that and I was awe-struck.

What, there are people out there who could actually do that? Who are willing to do that? 200 of them?!?!

Me? I can’t. It takes me 5 hours to read through the book of tehillim, so it’s strictly for special occasions when I have nothing else to do and no-one else to look after. That said, I could certainly fit a few tehillim in for the Rav every day, so that’s what I’m doing instead – I’m trying to finish a whole book a week.

It’s not everything, but it’s something, and I know God values the effort very much.

And in the meantime, I’m continuing to ‘fly’ into that much deeper spiritual world, where the soul holds sway, and where the miraculous is normal, while all the time still trying to keep the fridge stocked with milk.

It’s not easy. It’s really not easy to be caught between two worlds like this.

“[H]ow can one explain something incredible like this to other people? They would find it hard to believe.”

But that’s where we’re holding.

[1] New Stories – Tzaddik, pages 213-215

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Refreshing the soul, with Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

The last few days, I was really feeling the heat allegorically and physically.

My landlady has been telling me since last Summer’s 43heatwave that you ‘don’t feel the heat’ in Jerusalem – but of course, she’s wrong. And since L’ag B’omer, I was sitting in my house slow roasting along to constant 40plus heat for weeks already – and I was starting to crack.

Then there was all the ‘regular’ madness if you can call it that. So much to do every day, so many chores to take care of, so much stuff on the boil, personally and nationally.

So I told my husband: we need to go to Uman for Shavuot.

Despite our lack of cash, he borrowed some money and made it happen, God bless him. Then there was another wrinkle in the plans: women weren’t allowed in the Kever for the whole of Shavuot. Did I mind? Of course, yes I did. But I had to get there one way or another, so I made up my mind to have a different sort of Uman trip, minus Rebbe Nachman’s actual grave.

The hotel was understated but quite nice, quite quiet (relatively…) food was simple buy yummy. I had three whole days to try to get my head in order. There was yet another ‘wrinkle’ in the plans, inasmuch as we made plans to head out to Uman the same night that Rabbi Berland then called his atzeret in Hevron last week.

So, we figured we’ll go early to Hevron stay for half an hour, then bomb it back home, try to catch some sleep for an hour a half, then roar off to ben Gurion. In the meantime, there was another wrinkle in that plan, too: when I got home at 11pm Thursday night, it turns out one of my kids needed some urgent help to get her bagrut art project done and turned in on time.

So (long story…) I spent two hours sewing body parts together for 18 felt dollies, before spending 10 minutes packing my case like a madwoman, before departing for Uman.

Obviously, our taxi man didn’t show up in Kiev. Or rather, he did, but just not where we were expecting him, so we had to spend an hour combing the carparks to find him.

But when we actually got to Uman it was nice. Like, pretty much almost ‘normal’ – which was so weird to me, I spent the first day and a half trying to work out how to react to it. Usually, I hit Uman and I get the massive stomachache, the massive challenge, the massive insight, the massive something…. This time, nothing massive.

This time, just lots of walking around and around Uman itself, as I couldn’t get near the Kever and I couldn’t stay in a hotel room for 3 whole days without going totally bonkers. So I discovered all sorts of back alleys and new places in Uman that I’d never been to before, and certainly never by myself.

On Isru Chag, I decided to spend the day walking around Gan Sofia.

In the past, I’ve seen extending walks around Gan Sofia as something only ‘lightweights’ do, instead of pulling all-night prayer sessions by the kever, but as the Tzion was still barred to womenkind, it struck me as just the thing to pass the time. I spent the best part of a day just walking under trees that were three storeys high, bathing my eyeballs in luxuriant green and Victorian water features, and felt so very lucky.

Hey, there’s something to this, after all….

Walking back from Gan Sofia, I got some insight that Rabbenu’s grave is very chazak spirituality – so chazak, it can and does fry people’s brains out of their heads, sometimes. In our spiritually-dead days, most of us need a jolt like that, an electric shock of kedusha like that, to try to get the soul back from its flat-lining position.

But this time around, I also got why Rebbe Nachman used to request that his followers also visit Gan Sofia when they come to Uman, too.

Gan Sofia is total gashmius – the polar opposite of the intense kedusha that is the Tzion.

But we need both, in order to serve God properly.

But in the correct order and dosage, i.e. first the spirituality, and only as an after-thought or a dessert, the gashmius and materiality.

Second day in, I had this amazing dream that Moshiach is coming into the world next week.

I woke up in a really good mood, and it seemed like a ‘real’ dream to me. I needed that good vibe, as I came home to a tip.

We let a teenager have the house with her friends, and one of them managed to shatter the shower door all over the bathroom floor. There’s no milk in the house, they’ve moved all my stuff around…

But I got another ‘message’ from Uman this time around, which was to shower my teenagers with as much love and compassion and understanding as I can, whenever I can, because in this dark generation, unkind words can just propel our children straight into the clutches of  the tumah, God forbid. So I kept my temper and didn’t go off into rant mode.

The world is very hard to ‘be’ in at the moment, especially if you’re trying to put at least some focus on kedusha and God.

The filth is literally seeping in under the doors and through the walls. It’s permeating the atmosphere and degrading everything it comes in contact with. It’s hard to continue, some days. It’s hard to think straight. It’s hard to pray.

Before I went to Rebbe Nachman in Uman, current events had made me feel more than a little despairing about being able to raise my children in anything like a ‘healthy’ spiritual environment. We’re in a little bubble here in Jerusalem, but even here, the cracks are starting to deepen and the tumah is seeping through.

There is a relentless and effective ‘war’ being waged against the soul, and against kedusha, and against God, especially by the media. It’s claiming so many casualties, it’s truly frightening to witness how fast the moral fabric of the world is unravelling.

Which is where Rebbe Nachman really came in to his own.

Torah is eternal. Tzaddikim are eternal. Mitzvot are eternal. The Jewish people are eternal.

Even though the battle for the Jewish soul is currently very intense, if we stick close to our true tzaddikim like Rebbe Nachman and Rabbi Berland, they will act like spiritual bulwarks, absorbing and deflecting most of the ‘cack’. So somehow, us and families can come through the fighting unscathed.

But without that bulwark?

I dread to think.

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The Uman Experience – Part 9

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Rebbe Nachman explains the difference between Moshiach ben Yosef and Moshiach ben David

Over Shabbat, I was reading one of Rebbe Nachman’s stories, which I realized is describing the difference between Moshiach ben Yosef and Moshiach ben David. I’m bringing an abridged version of it below, together with the commentary that goes together with it from Rav Natan, and from Likutey Moharan I:20 [in bold, square brackets]. My own comments will be underlined.

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New Stories: #209 in Tzaddik, by the Breslov Research Institute

 

The beginning of the Summer, 5564 (1804). The Rebbe said: I will tell you what I saw. And you tell your children.

There was someone lying on the ground and around him people were sitting in a circle.

This is Moshiach ben Yosef.

Around this circle was another circle. And around that circle was another circle, and so on – many circles. Then around them were sitting more people in no particular order. The circles contain Moshiach ben Yosef’s followers.

The one who was sitting in the middle – he was leaning on his side – was moving his lips and all those around him were moving their lips after him.

[This refers to teaching / learning Torah – this soul is the source of all the Torah explanations.]

After this, I looked and he was not sitting there – the one in the middle, that is. And all those sitting around stopped moving their lips. I asked, “What is this?” They answered me that he had become cold and had expired and he had stopped speaking.

After this, they started to run, and I ran after them. I saw two palaces – very fine, beautiful buildings. Sitting there were two commanders. They all ran to these two commanders and started arguing with them.

[This refers to the concept of machloket and controversy – the opposition which is aroused against the Tzaddikim when the power to draw forth Torah explanations is withdrawn.]

“Why did you deceive us?” They wanted to kill them.

The followers of the original Moshiach ben Yosef are very unhappy that they didn’t actually get Moshiach / geula, in the end. Rebbe Nachman now explains the spiritual reasons for this, by way of a parable.

The commanders fled outside. I saw them, and their nature was very good in my eyes. I ran after them and I saw in the distance a beautiful tent. From there they cried out to the commanders: “Turn back and seek out all the merits you have and take them in your hands and go to the light which is hanging there. There you will accomplish everything you want.”

They turned back and took their merits – i.e. all their mitzvahs – there were bundles of merits there – and they ran to the light. I ran after them and saw a gleaming light suspended in the air. The commanders came and threw their merits to the light.

[They mentioned their merits and good deeds, and tried to get the geula that way.]

From the light, sparks fell into their mouths. Then the NoR, lamp, turned into a NahaR, river, and everybody drank from the river, and creatures were formed inside them. When they started to speak the creatures came out of them and I saw them running and returning. They were neither men nor any kind of animal – just creatures.

[These creatures are angels, who get their strength from Edom, who has been appointed over all the punishments of the wicked.]

After this they decided to go back to their place.

This is referring to Eretz Yisrael / Beit HaMikdash / the state of spiritual purity that existed at the time of the Garden of Eden, and which will exist again in the world-to-come.

But they said: “How can we go back to our place?” Somebody said: “We should sent to the one who stands there holding a sword which reaches from heaven to earth.”

[This is a reference to the angel of Edom, Esav’s angel, aka the Samech Mem himself.]

Edom, i.e. the West / Christianity is what’s stopping the Jews from returning to Israel en masse and rebuilding the Bet HaMikdash, and also has the ‘power’ the Jewish people requires to punish and subdue the wicked.

They said: “Who should we send?” They thought they should send for the creatures, and the creatures went there. I ran after them and I saw him. He was terrifying. His stature reached from the heaven to the earth. In his hand was a sword reaching from heaven to earth. It had many blades.

One of them was sharp – this was for killing. One of them was for poverty, one of them for weakness. There were also many other blades for other punishments.

They started pleading: “All this long time we have been suffering at your hands. Now help us and bring us to our place.” He said: “I cannot help you.” They pleaded: “Give us the blade for death and we’ll kill them.” But he didn’t want to. They asked for a different blade, but he did not want to give them a single blade.

[He didn’t want to help them to subdue the wicked people, because of the mistake they made by trying to ‘force’ the geula via good deeds etc, instead of breaking their hearts, begging and entreating Hashem to bring it.]

They went back.

Either back to ‘normal’ life, forgetting all about Moshiach / geula, or back to their bad habits before they made teshuva as a result of learning the Moshiach ben Yosef’s Torah teachings.

In the meantime, there was an order to kill the commanders, and they cut off their heads.

[The ‘head’ can refer to daat, internalized spiritual knowledge, as well as the more obvious connotation as the ‘head’ of a particular movement or group.]

Meanwhile, the sequence of event returned to what it had been before – namely that someone was lying in the ground surrounded by circles of people, and so on.

This is now referring to Moshiach ben David, and his followers.

They ran to the commanders – everything happened as described before – except that now I saw that the commanders did not throw their merits to the light. They simply took their merits and went to the light and broke their hearts i.e. did some hitbodedut, which Rebbe Nachman frequently characterizes as spending an hour being broken-hearted before Hashem, while you do a cheshbon hanefesh and acknowledge your faults, flaws and errors.

And they began to beg and make entreaties before the light-  another reference to praying – and sparks fell from the light into their mouths. They entreated more and the light turned into a river, and the creatures were formed etc.

They told me, “These ones will live” – i.e. Moshiach ben David and his followers will actually make it through to geula and the world to come – because the first ones deserved to be killed for throwing their merits to the light and not making entreaties like these latter ones. I didn’t know what this meant.

They said to me: “Go into that room and they will tell you the explanation of this.” I went and there sat an old man. I asked him about the matter. He took his beard in his hand and said to me: “My beard is the explanation of what happened.” I still don’t know,” I said. “Go to that room,” he replied, “and there you will find the explanation.”

I went there and saw a room infinitely long and broad, entirely filled with writings. Wherever I opened I saw the explanation of the story.

[This vision is connected to Lesson 20 in Likutey Moharan Part 1.]

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HERE IS SOME OF WHAT REBBE NACHMAN WRITES IN LESSON 1:20:

“When one prays before giving over a [Torah] lecture, one must pray with supplication, begging God for gratis instead of asking for one’s due….

“But Moses [i.e. the redeemer / Moshiach ben Yosef] did not do this. He rather cited his own goodness and righteousness…as one who grabs something forcefully and without consent, for he sought in the power of his good deeds….

“…whoever tries to ‘force the moment’ (literally, ‘pressures time’) – the ‘time’ pressures him, causing one to die before one’s time. [This is why Moshiach ben Yosef died ‘prematurely’, before the job of bringing the geula was completed.] For this reason, one should never pressure oneself for anything, but beg with supplication. If God grants it, good, and if not, not.”

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Next, Rabbenu turns to the subject of attaining the Land of Israel.

“[T]he land of Israel is one of the three things that can only be attained through suffering (Brachot 5a) and the main suffering is the obstacles of the wicked, who slander the land. These wicked must first be subdued with a sword and death, and only then can one enter the Land of Israel.

“However, the power to punish the wicked can only be acquired from the power of Edom, for that is his power, as in: “You will live by your sword” (Genesis 27:40), and he draws sustenance from the astrological sign of Mars. [Which is related to bloodshed and war, and the Jewish month of Nisan – the month of redemption.]”

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Rebbe Nachman now explains that the Angels which can defeat and kill the wicked are formed from the original Torah insights of the Tzaddik / Moshiach ben Yosef / Moshiach ben David.

But, when the Tzaddik’s followers don’t put an emphasis on personal holiness – i.e. guarding the brit, guarding the eyes, modest behavior and dress – these Angels then lack the power to actually destroy the wicked people who are slandering the Land of Israel.

Depending on how ‘weak’ these angels become, in descending order:

They can’t kill them; then they can’t punish and intimidate them; then they can’t rouse the nations of the world against them; then they can’t even silence them from speaking evil in our presence “so that their words do not enter the ears of the masses. And sometimes even this power they lack – all according to the degree of holiness that is lacking.”

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Rabbenu then goes on to explain that the lack of personal holiness amongst the Jews is the main thing empowering the wicked people who are slandering the land, and preventing the Jews from returning to the Land of Israel.

Moshiach ben David succeeds where Moshiach ben Yosef failed, because he prays before he gives over his Torah lessons, and he focuses on increasing personal holiness amongst his followers, not just doing more good deeds and mitzvahs.

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Rebbe Nachman then explains the nine rectifications of the beard, and how they lead to the Land of Israel, as follows:

  • Take the staff – this refers to the Tzaddik’s Torah lectures that he gives over to his followers. This Torah has to be drawn with prayer, not with ‘force’, in order for the rest of the process to work.
  • Gather the people together’ – to subdue the evil elements the community contains.
  • Speak to the rock with supplications’ and prayers – this refers to the need to have yirat shemayim, or Fear of Hashem.
  • ‘In their presence’, to bond with them – the Tzaddik’s soul has to become ‘bound up’ with his followers / the Jewish people.
  • To draw fiery words – actually an allusion to drawing down Divine mercy on the Jewish people.
  • To draw Torah – the Tzaddikim are judged to a hairsbreadth, and if they are blemished in some way, they can no longer draw the Torah required to bring geula.
  • To create angels.
  • To receive power from Edom to subdue the enemies / wicked who are slandering the Land of Israel.
  • To enter the Land of Israel.

If any of these steps are missing, we can’t ‘enter the Land of Israel’ / truly get to the geula shleima.

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Ad Kan.

There is so much more to say about all this, and it seems to me that so much of what we’ve been discussing here on the blog is alluded to in this lesson in quite an awesome way.

(If you want more insights into the very deep concepts being brought in this story, take a look at Day 3 of Rebbe Nachman’s tale of the Seven Beggars. The ‘heart of the world’ also seems to be refering to Moshiach ben Yosef and his followers.)

Moshiach ben Yosef failed to bring geula, because the emphasis was on stressing how many mitzvoth and good deeds were going on, as opposed to praying heartbroken prayers that God should bring the geula, as a free gift. Trying to force the issue just led to the Moshiach ben Yosef dying prematurely, leaving his movement without a ‘head’, i.e. a real direction, or daat, internalized spiritual knowledge of what to do next.

Hopefully, Moshiach ben David will have more success.

These things are so awesomely deep, there are so many spiritual rectifications going on. It’s totally beyond us to understand what’s really happening by ourselves, and only our true Torah sources and real rabbis can guide us in the right direction.

I wrote this post two weeks before the shooting in the Poway shul in San Diego, but didn’t get a chance to put it up.

Violent anti-semitism is shooting through the roof all over the world at the moment, and the question we have to ask is why?

Sure, we can point fingers at radical Islam, and at fanatical right-wingers, and at all the very many other sources of anti-semitism out there, but when all is said and done, God is the one causing the problem.

If we’re looking at this from the place of emuna, we have to ask why?

Why is God making it more and more uncomfortable for Jews to live in chutz l’aretz? Why is He piling the pressure on Jewish communities all over the world, from NYC to London to Paris to San Diego and back again?

Why is God doing that?

Maybe, we can find some answers in Rebbe Nachman’s Torah:

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As you know, I like to quote authentic Torah sources wherever possible, to support any opinions on this blog, to counteract the growing tide of daas me. Personal opinions certainly have their place, but not when we’re discussing something as important as whether living in Israel is a mitzvah for a Jew, or not.

In line with that, I thought I’d take a look at what Rebbe Nachman of Breslov has to say about Eretz Yisrael, and whaddya know, he has a lot to say on the subject. The following is excerpted from Likutey Etzot, that was translated into English as ‘Advice’ by the Breslov Research Institute:

  • With truth emuna (faith), prayer comes into its own. Prayer is bound up with the concept of bringing about miracles. To attain this level of emuna is only possible in the Land of Israel, for it is there that prayer ascends to the worlds above….
  • If we abuse Eretz Yisrael we go down into exile.
  • Every upward movement we have to make towards holiness can only be accomplished through Eretz Yisrael.
  • It is impossible to come to the Land of Israel without difficulties and suffering. The root of all the difficulties and suffering lies in the slanderous image of Israel, which is put about by the wicked.
  • Through the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael, the true guide and leader of our age will be revealed.
  • The mitzvah of the succah is a segulah for coming to Eretz Yisrael.
  • The motive for making the journey to Eretz Yisrael should be purely spiritual: to draw closer to God. A person who goes there with this as his aim will certainly benefit….On the other hand, if a person’s motive has nothing to do with devotion to God and cleansing himself of his evil, then what help will Israel be to him? The land will vomit him out…
  • Through the holiness of Eretz Yisrael, one can attain pure faith.
  • Pray to God, to ask Him to give you the desire and yearning for Eretz Yisrael. Then you will succeed in reaching there.
  • God repays man ‘measure for measure’. Nowhere is the repayment more exacting than in Eretz Yisrael.
  • The holiness of Eretz Yisrael is the epitome of holiness, encompassing all other levels of holiness. It is there that we can free ourselves completely of the materialistic viewpoint which claims that events take place naturally. We can come to know and believe that everything comes about only through the hand of God.
  • Genuine enlightenment and wisdom come only in Eretz Yisrael.

Rabbenu says a great deal more, these are only snippets, but I think you get the idea.

On Shabbat, I had one of those dreams that seemed to be way more than a dream.

(I know I’ve been writing a lot about dreams recently, and I’m sorry about that! A few other people have told me they are also having unusually intense dreams at the moment, too. This one also just seemed like an important one to share, so here we go.)

In the dream, I was walking up to Rebbe Nachman’s tomb, and Rebbe Nachman was there. As soon as I got to the threshold, he told me:

“Go and get your husband and kids, and bring them here quickly.”

He seemed very pressured, somehow, which is unheard of for Rebbe Nachman. If you read Rav Natan’s accounts of him, what he went through, how he reacted to his own challenges, then you’d know that Rabbenu always took things extremely calmly and with maximum emuna.

So I was very surprised he seemed to be in such a rush.

I called my husband and kids over, and then he opened some sort of underground passage, and he told me:

“You have to get everyone underground.”

I assumed he just meant me and my family, so we were trying to get down there when he said to me:

“No. All of Am Yisrael has to get underground.”

So then, I got a bit frustrated (yes, even in a dream with Rebbe Nachman the bad temper still flared up, what can I do) and I said to him:

“What does that even mean?! There isn’t room down here for millions of Jews, and even if there was, how do you want me to get them here?! What does that mean, that I have to ‘get everyone underground’?!”

He told me:

“The ground is the Tzaddik Yesod HaOlam.”

And with that I woke up.

And then I did some more talking to God about the dream in hitbodedut, and I got some more insights, namely that I have to make maximum effort over the next couple of months to try and write stuff that will hopefully get more people connected to the Tzaddik Yesod HaOlam, because that is the only way people will be protected from whatever is going to happen next.

And I don’t know what that’s going to be any more than you do, but it seems that something is in the offing.

Of course, I’m not hugely thrilled about this job, for a few reasons, including if I actually start spelling out who I think the Tzaddik Yesod HaOlam actually is in our generation, it will be waving the proverbial red rag to anyone who happens to have a different opinion.

But I also realized that God gave me the blog for a reason, and much better that I use it for a holy purpose, then I just keep posting up long screeds full of daas me.

So, BH, that’s what I’m going to try and do. I’m not sure exactly how, but a storm is brewing in the world, and we need to take shelter by our tzaddikim, and especially, by the Tzaddik Yesod HaOlam. And I will hopefully start writing some more about this concept, so more of us can start to form a better opinion of what that actually is, and who he might be, in our generation.

Over shabbat, I went to look up Lesson 44 in Likutey Moharan to see a bit more about what Rebbe Nachman teaches us about what’s really important in life, and particularly, in frum Jewish life.

It was such a great lesson that I’m bringing the whole thing, here:

Emuna is dependent upon a person’s mouth, as in: “I will declare Your emuna with my mouth” (Psalms 89:2), meaning that by expressing emuna with the mouth, this itself is emuna, and it engenders more emuna.

On account of this, one must be extremely cautious to avoid saying even a word or heresy or skepticism, even if one is not saying them from the heart. That is, even if one has emuna and is not a heretic, but is only quoting some skeptical thought that he has heard from others who are skeptics, and is actually mocking them, nevertheless, we must be very cautious to avoid this too.

This is because such heretical speech is very damaging to emuna, and furthermore, it’s absolutely forbidden, for regarding anything relating to God, it’s forbidden to quip, even in jest.

It’s brought in the holy books and our own works in many places about distancing ourselves as much as possible from even glancing at the works of the philosophers. Even the philosophical works composed by the gedolim of our own people should be avoided, for they are very damaging to emuna.

We have all we need from the emuna that we received from our holy ancestors, and the most important, fundamental and essential rule in the service of God is to be simple and upright, and to serve Him sincerely, without any chachmot, sophistication, or philosophical discussions at all.

And we must also stay far away from the chachmot related to the service of God itself, for all these ‘sophisticated’ ways of the world that people engage in when they first start to serve God a little bit is not ‘wisdom’ at all, but only fantasies, nonsense and great confusion.

This chachmot, sophistication [chumras….] are extremely detrimental to a person’s service of God, especially the obsessive thinking, analyzing and scrutinizing oneself to see if our actions have properly fulfilled our obligations. A human being can’t possibly fulfill his obligation perfectly, and ‘God doesn’t make impossible demands’ (Avoda Zara 3a), and ‘The Torah wasn’t given to the angels’ (Kiddushin 54a).

Regarding those who are so obsessively meticulous and excessively stringent the verse says, ‘You shall live on account of them’ (Leviticus 18:5) and ‘not die on account of them’ (Yoma 85b), for they have no life at all. They are constantly depressed since they feel that they are not fulfilling their obligations with the commandments that they perform.

The commandments don’t vitalize their spirits at all, on account of all their meticulousness and depression. (The Rebbe himself didn’t keep any chumra (religious stringency) at all).

And truthfully, after all the chachmot  – even one who really knows wisdom – after all is said and done, one must cast aside all wisdoms and serve God with utter sincerity and simplicity, without any wisdoms at all.

This is the greatest wisdom of all wisdoms – to not be ‘wise’ at all, for no-one in the world can truly be wise, for, ‘There is no wisdom or understanding before God’ (Proverbs 21:30). So the main things is ‘God seeks the heart’ (Sanhedrin 106b).

**

There is a ‘path’ in the world that teaches us that we’re never good enough, can never do enough, can never serve Hashem properly – and as Rebbe Nachman explains here, the reason so many of us fall for this line is because on some level, it’s true!

The ‘luminaries of fire’ excel in pushing this harshly judgmental line in their shiurim and communications – they see the ‘bad’, and the spiritual ‘lack’, and the ‘flaw’ in everyone and everything.

But that’s why the true Tzaddikim came to sweeten this. Rebbe Nachman tells us – you can’t be an angel, and you can’t serve God perfectly – but don’t let that get you down! Don’t get more and more stern, judgmental and machmir, expecting unattainable perfection from yourself and your fellow Jews, because you can’t be perfect!

(Maybe someone should tell the autistics this….)

Rabbenu tells us instead, just do the best you can do with simplicity – every mitzvah you manage to do, celebrate it, and don’t worry too much about accidentally eating gebrochts on Pesach, or that your teenager’s skirt has gone seriously North. Cut everyone – including yourself – some spiritual slack, and serve Hashem happily.

None of us are perfect, but the key is to strive to keep improving, and to not get caught up in chumrot and harsh judgment calls against people (including ourselves…) for not being perfect.

If that chumra is making you feel so darned happy, and fills you up with joy every time you do it, then by all means continue. But if it doesn’t? And it’s adding to a sense of burden and depression? It may well be time to ditch the chumra, and to return to serving Hashem with simplicity and joy.

God wants the heart.

Trying to give it to Him, sincerely, is more than enough work to fill up 120 years, for most of us.

A little while back, when I was talking to God about how One in a Generation, the biography of Rav Eliezer Berland, seemed to have gotten permanently stuck, I got the following insight:

That book can only come out with a lot of shaflut (lowliness) and humility.

Aha! So now I understood the problem: I was still far too full of myself and patting myself on the back for writing the book, and that was the main spiritual issue holding it up. But how to resolve that problem? (Because let’s be clear, working on these bad middot takes years and years and years…)

God gave me another insight:

“Rivka, I am going to send you people to diss you day and night, until the book sees the light of day!”

Great, thanks Hashem!

And you know what? He’s kept His word.

The last month, barely a day has gone past without someone having a go at me either in person, on the phone, via text or online.

One of my kids has been particularly good at dishing out the shaflut in person- her recent PTA meeting was one of the most humbling experiences of the type I’ve had, BH – but she’s by no means the only person drenching me in these ‘dissing diamonds’.

One time, I got chewed out so badly – and so unexpectedly – that I sat on the couch shaking for a full hour after the conversation (which if you follow spiritualselfhelp.org, you’ll know is the body’s natural response to ‘shaking out’ the trauma, so you don’t get PTSD or C-PTSD).

Yes, it was that bad.

There’s also been a flurry of people queuing up to diss my writing, too, and my general lack of editorial professionalism. And then there’s been a few sent along to diss my overall grasp of reality and good judgment.

And that’s on top of all my ongoing, bog standard shaflut that comes from earning zero pence whilst working like a dog; being a really bad housewife; and still being unable to express myself properly in the local makolet (corner shop).

Man, it’s been a veritable dissing extravaganza the last few weeks, with the diamonds literally pouring in through the roof!

And you know what?

It’s working.

Yesterday, on zot Chanuka, I sent the manuscript for Volume 1 of One in a Generation to the designer, and I already know that for this part of the process to get completed in a timely way with minimal issues, I am going to have to continue to be dissed royally for at least the next month.

And that’s even before the book comes out, which let’s be clear, is going to lead to yet another huge ‘diss Rivka’ event on Facebook etc, as the usual suspects gear themselves up for more self-righteous, confused-thinking evil speech.

Yay! I can’t wait.

The upside of all this dissing is that I am definitely seeing a huge number of brachas occurring in a number of areas of my life, just as Rav Berland said would happen.

The downside is that I’m really starting to go off interacting with people, and the thought of retiring to some remote island with no internet connection – or people – is getting more and more appealing.

How to square this circle?

Enter, Rav Ofer Erez, who wrote this great article on his website, last week:

“We have to remember that Yosef was just 18 years old when he was sent to prison. Usually, when something much smaller happens to us – if just two people don’t treat us so nicely we immediately start believing that everyone’s a liar, everyone’s a fraud and there’s no such thing as a good person – i.e. we immediately lose our faith in humanity, and become bitter, angry and harshly judgmental of others….

“For 12 whole years, Yosef worked on this point, that he shouldn’t become angry, bitter and harshly judgmental against other people, inasmuch as everything came from Hashem, and was ultimately for his good.

“…How can a person merit to avoid any trace of harsh judgment and anger? This is called the secret of dancing.

“We need to know that if people are making us angry, or hurting us, then just doing hitbodedut (personal prayer) isn’t going to be enough. We also need to dance during our hitbodedut, and to do at least 8 minutes of dancing.”

Aha!

Just what I needed to know, because while I am still trying to understand the deeper reasons behind why so many people are chewing me out, and while I am still trying to forgive them and to not hold a grudge against them, it’s sooooo hard to do this in practice!

Especially the times when I know I don’t deserve it, and the person is actually just projecting their own issues on to me. (I wish I could tell you that’s always the case, but clearly I often do deserve being dissed, because I’m not always nice, or thoughtful, or considerate of other people.)

So today, I was careful to dance for a full 8 minutes, as recommended by Rav Ofer, and it really did help.

If I’m going to get ‘dissing diamonds’ raining down on my head, let me at least have buns of steel.

It’s easy to serve God when things are going great. But how can we continue serving God on the down?

Four years’ ago, when I was going through the bleakest, most difficult period of my whole life, I was sitting in Uman, by Rebbe Nachman’s tomb, and pleading for some guidance and help on how I could actually continue serving God ‘on the down’.

I opened up a Likutey Moharan, and I got to the lesson where it was talking about how sometimes, you have to throw yourself into all types of mud and filth in your service of Hashem.

(I don’t remember what number that lesson was, sorry.)

Those words made a huge impact on me, because at that time I was neck-high in trying to clarify a number of very difficult issues in my own life and relationships, and it was very murky, yucky stuff.

A little while back, I was talking to someone about how easy it is to serve God ‘on the up’ – when we’re full of spiritual inspiration, and emuna, and mitzvot, and yearning to be a better Jew. And how difficult it is, conversely, to serve God ‘on the down’, when we’re fully of cynicism, and apathy, and questions, and yearnings to go and see the latest James Bond.

Yet, Rebbe Nachman teaches that we can’t have one without the other.

The up is ‘running’, and the down is ‘returning’, when we have to consolidate, hunker down and regain our strength for our next period of ‘running’.

Often, many of us make the mistake of thinking we can only serve Hashem ‘on the up’ – and that’s when we get into massive problems. Because when we aren’t honest about where we’re really holding, and the spiritual ‘downs’ that we’re really experiencing – every single one of us! – then we get stuck with a Hobson’s choice.

Either, we can continue to pretend, to ourselves and others, that we only ever experience spirituals ‘ups’ in life, or we end up having to leave our devotions, and our striving for spiritual growth and we sink back into materialism and spirituality, because we’re finding it so hard to accept the need to also serve God ‘on the downs’.

If we take the first route, we’ll end up becoming fake caricatures of ourselves, externally very pious looking and spouting all the right ideas, but internally completely disconnected from the reality of who we really are, and what we really need to be working on.

If we take the second route, we stagnate spiritually, and we never really attain inner peace, because we know that we took the short road that’s really the very long road, and that’s not leading us to where we need to be going in life.

So what’s the answer?

Rebbe Nachman explains very clearly:

You have to serve God on the downs with just as much enthusiasm as you serve Him on the ups.

Tachlis, if you have a bad habit of talking (or writing…) lashon hara, for example, then at least use that to serve Hashem. Know that at the level you’re really holding at spiritually, you’re going to be talking badly about someone. So at least, talk badly about the people who are genuinely rashaim (evildoers).

Ditto for talking to members of the opposite sex. If you’re going to act in such an untznius way in the first place – and tachlis you are, because that’s where you’re really holding right now – then at least talk about things like emuna, and serving Hashem.

I know, it all sounds so paradoxical, doesn’t it?

But from my own personal experiences, this seems to be the only way to not got sucked into huge feelings of despair about how imperfectly I’m actually serving God.

To say ‘don’t speak lashon hara EVER!!!!’ is clearly impossible, at least for people like me who are really not holding at that level. So then, I have to turn my ‘down’ towards the service of Hashem, somehow, and find some ‘good’ way of talking badly about other people, so that I’m still serving God on the down, too.

I know, it’s completely head-wrecking isn’t it?

But, it’s also the only way to keep serving Hashem at this point in creation, because wherever you look, whatever you do, you’re going to fall somehow. This person is going to fall into Facebook, that one into feeling jealous over someone else’s nicer house, that one into a big, fat pizza pie – what can we do? Except learn how to serve God on the down.

Except, at least make sure that the pizza is glatt kosher and heartily blessed. Or, that if we’re on Facebook we’re at least trying to share some Torah or chizzuk. (I still don’t know how to ‘raise up’ feeling jealous about other people’s nicer houses. Any ideas, wise readers?)

In the meantime, we’re wallowing around down here in the dirt and the muck, and it’s not such a nice feeling. But if we’re doing it for Hashem, somehow – or least, wanting to do it for Hashem – then maybe, that changes everything?

Maybe, that’s how we finally get to the stage of serving God from love, lishma, just for its own sake, and not just because we’re quaking in our boots from not doing the mitzvot right.

King David tells us, if he builds his home in the Heavens, there God is. And if he crashes down to the depths of gehinnom – there God still is.

We just have to open our eyes and see Him.

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Few things are more misunderstood than the concept of the Erev Rav.

Like most of the people reading this, the first time I heard about the Erev Rav in any ‘real’ way was from the autistics.

The more I read the autistics, the more I started suspecting other people of ‘being’ Erev Rav (ER, for short). Initially, it answered so many questions, cleaned up so many problems! I mean, the only reason that a Jew would or could act in such a horrible, disgusting way could only be because they must be Erev Rav….

Like many others, the ER quickly became a kind of obsession by me. And when I get obsessed with things, I research them as much as I can, and I try to bottom them out as much as possible. So, I threw myself into reading anything I could about the ER, including a document called ‘The Modern Erev Rav’, which brings together a lot of the sources in English.

By the time I’d finished going through that document, I had a very clear understanding of what sorts of things the Erev Rav did, and that the Vilna Gaon, amongst others, was telling me that I should cut them out of my life and avoid them as much as possible.

So over the next few years, that’s what I tried to do. (This was when I wrote that series over on www.breslev.co.il.)

As a result, I lost so many friends, stopped speaking to so many close family members, and even started suspecting my husband of being an Erev Rav.

(! – if you ever met the guy, you’ll understand just how crazy that particular statement is…)

And then, I came to the ultimately disturbing conclusion that I myself must also be an ‘unfixable’ ER, because I also spoke lashon hara (sometimes…) and made trouble between people (sometimes…) and was obsessed with making a name for myself (sometimes…)

It’s axiomatic that when you follow God’s laws, and really try to give God what He wants, you see brachas and blessings from doing that. Dear reader, all I got from cutting all the supposed ‘evil ER’ people out of my life was heaping doses of heartache, misery and suffering.

The more I tried to run away from these people, as the Vilna Gaon’s students suggested, the more I came to realize that in 2017, we are ALL Erev Rav people.

At the same time as this was going on, I realized that the secular world was also noticing the negative character traits associated with the Erev Rav, particularly the traits of lack of compassion and empathy for others and rigid thinking, and defining them as the basis of personality disorders, especially Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

According to modern psychiatry, most of these personality disorders, but especially NPD, can’t be fixed. The person with NPD will stay permanently broken, egotistical and nasty. Again, I spent years and years going through all the literature on personality disorders, and measuring it up against my own experiences of difficult people, and it dovetails amazingly with all the ‘Erev Rav’ stuff.

Except, I came to the same problem with that stuff, too: I started to notice that I MYSELF sometimes acted like I had NDP, (especially after I went through the worst year of my life, when I got hit with so many traumatic experiences that my capacity to feel compassion or empathy for anyone else pretty much completely disappeared.)

Which is when the turning point happened, and I realized that TRAUMA is what makes people act like narcissicists, etc, and what makes people act like ER, etc.

So then, I started researching trauma, and C-PTSD obsessively, and again it was a perfect ‘fit’ for what I was seeing around me and experiencing in myself, and it convinced me once and for all that just as personality disorders CAN be overcome, so can ER traits.

Then, I started looking for proof from authentic Jewish sources that this was the case, and I hit the jackpot with various teachings from Rav Berland and Rebbe Nachman himself, a lot of which I bring down in the book Unlocking the Secret of the Erev Rav.

So, here’s where we currently stand:

It’s not a Jewish idea to call someone ‘bad’, anymore than it’s a Jewish idea to call someone ‘Erev Rav’.

Xtians go in for that sort of global, meaningless ‘good and bad’ people rubbish.

By contrast, Jews talk about good and bad DEEDS, good and bad TRAITS, but we don’t give people labels like good and bad, because we understand that is something that only God is qualified to do, at the end of a person’s life, when all their merits and sins are weighed up together in the Heavenly court.

In that sense, the Erev Rav is a completely false paradigm.

Who can claim to be qualified to call someone an ‘Erev Rav’ and to assume that person can never make teshuva and will be permanently consigned to an eternity in Gehinnom?!

People with pronounced ‘Erev Rav’ traits aren’t just left-wing politicians or corrupt journalists, you know. If we’re honest, then we’ll admit that each and every one of us know people, are related to people, talk to people EVERY SINGLE DAY that fit at least some of the criteria set out by RASHBI and the Vilna Gaon (amongst others) for the Erev Rav.

We’re not just talking about Shimon Peres here, we’re talking about your ‘Erev Rav’ mum, and your ‘Erev Rav’ kid, and your ‘Erev Rav’ spouse. Do you really want all these people to be permanently consigned to destruction and Gehinnom?

And if the answer is ‘yes’, then there’s an enormous irony here, because only people who have a severe lack of compassion and empathy for other people (which remember, is one of the key traits of the ‘Erev Rav’ as identified by our Sages…) would willingly go around accusing others of being ‘Erev Rav’, with all that entails.

That’s why the authentic Jewish approach is to talk about EREV RAV BEHAVIOUR, and not EREV RAV PEOPLE.

It’s a crucial, massive distinction.

Because people can always stop behaving like ER, but they can’t stop being Erev Rav.

God is full of kindness and compassion for His creations. Does it really sound realistic to you that this kind, merciful Creator would create a category of person that can never, ever make teshuva, no matter what effort they make to improve, no matter how much suffering they go through? Does that sound ‘right’ to you?

God can do anything!

We saw in the Torah so many times – including in this week’s parshat Korach – that God was going to destroy the Jewish people because of their disgusting behaviour, but didn’t because the Tzaddik of the generation, Moshe Rabbenu, prayed for them.

Which brings me to my last point for today (although I will be returning to this subject again and again, until we all start to really get what I’m going on about here):

If we really want all the horrible ‘ER’ type traits and behavior that are definitely flowering all over the place in our modern world to really disappear, we need to pray for other people, and also for ourselves.

Again, asking God for help, and really believing in God’s mercy and compassion and willingness to help out, and really building a genuine, personal relationship with God is something that people with pronounced ‘Erev Rav’ tendencies find very difficult to do.

That’s one of the reason’s why hitbodedut, personal prayer, is the fastest and most effective way of neutralizing a person’s ‘Erev Rav’ tendencies, because it goes to the very heart of the problem, namely that ‘Erev Rav’ people don’t really believe in God in any real way, and certainly don’t believe that He’s compassionate, kind and good.

SO TO SUM UP:

  • Most people with Erev Rav tendencies CAN and WILL eventually make teshuva (as per the teachings of Rav Ofer Erez, Rav Eliezer Berland, and Rebbe Nachman).
  • We have no way of knowing who is going to ultimately going to make teshuva and who isn’t, so we have no right to call anyone a ‘permanently unfixable’ Erev Rav in the meantime.
  • The people who are most wedded to the idea of calling other people ‘Erev Rav’ are, ironically, themselves demonstrating a number of key traits of the ER, namely a severe lack of empathy and compassion for others, together with pronounced tendencies to speak badly of their fellow Jews, to stoke sinat chinam, and to create trouble, controversy and machloket between the Jewish people.

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You can buy my book, Unlocking the Secret of the Erev Rav, HERE.

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