Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Today is the 4th of Ram Cheshvan, the anniversary of death for the Rebbe of Piaseczna and all the other kedoshim that were part of the liquidation of the Trawniki labor camp.
So what am I missing? Simply to be a Jew. I see myself as a self portrait...Just one thing is missing: the soul. 
God! Master of the World, Who sees my innermost secrets! Before You I confess. You I beseech! I feel so cast aside and distanced from You and from Your holy Presence! Help me - I want to become a simple Jew! 
God! Save me from wasting the rest of my years and chasing the illusions of life! Draw me closer and bring me into Your innermost Presence! Bind me to You forever and ever in wealth of spirit and soul! - Rav Kalonymous Kalman, Tzav v'Ziruz
Oh, Rebbe...

How is it that every word of your holy writings seems to speak directly to my core, the root of my neshama? No matter what my situation is at the moment I can find relevance in your wisdom.

I, too, want to be a Jew.

Unlike you, I am far from perfect, if not drastically so. So much so that I hesitate to look to you, to bind myself to your teachings and legacy, so as not to sully your reputation and zchuyot by association.

In honor of your yahrtzeit, I wanted to do something different, to separate this day from other days. But even that was a challenge that I struggled to surpass. So instead I decided to serve HaShem with simplicity today. To just pray to Him as I am. To be as real and honest as possible - accepting where I am but not resigned to the position - so that I can look forward, seek beyond the sky and clouds, and get a glimpse of the Throne of Glory and the Almighty King.

And maybe, you'll be sitting there as well, basking in the Divine. And you'll have some nachas from me...

Behold, I attach myself in my prayers, to all the true tzadikim in our generation, as well as to all the holy tzadikim who rest in the earth. -- And specifically, to my holy Rebbe, the Sacred Fire Rav Kalonymous Kalman ben R' Eliezer and Chana Bracha, may his memory shield us, may God avenge his blood.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Ocean of Tears

Text courtesy of Dixie Yid; Rav Moshe Weinberger said this story over a few years back at the end of Pesach. It's been on my mind a lot lately.

There's an amazing story about what happened after Reb Ytzchok Vorker was Niftar. 

Reb Yitzchok Vorker was very close to Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. After his fathers passing, Reb Mendel of Vorka was very upset that his father had not communicated with him at all, not even in a dream. Some time after the shiva, he decided to go talk to his father's close friend, Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. 

When he got there the Kotzker asked him what his father had said. Reb Mendel told him there had been only silence. The Kotzker then said that he he had also heard nothing from the Rebbe, so he decided to go look for him in Shomayim. By purifying himself and using certain names of Hashem, he had been able to ascend to there. He was able reach the Heichal (palace) of the Avos. He asked if they had seen Reb Yitzchok of Vorke. They answered that he had been there but left. After that he had gone to see Moshe Rabbeinu ע"ה, but he received the same answer. The Kotsker then explained that he had gone from Heichal to Heichal visiting all the greatest Tzaddikim and everywhere he received the same answer "he was here but he left". 

Growing increasingly desperate, the Kotzker had gone through unbelievable difficulties and trials, but was finally able to make it all the way up in Shamayim, to the Ken HaTzippor (the Palace of the Bird's Nest), where Moshiach sits and waits to bring the Geulah. And there he had asked Moshiach himself if he had seen Reb Yitzchok of Vorke. But the answer was the same "he was here but he left". The Kotsker asked what he could do to find him, and was told to look for him past the great forest that lies at the far edge of Shomayim. He started in that direction and soon found the thickest, darkest forest he had ever seen. It was extremely difficult to get through it, but with great effort he was able to make it. He finally reached a great ocean, with enormous and frightening waves all the way up to the highest levels. There he saw an old Jew with a shtekel, a walking stick, sitting perched on a cliff overlooking the frightening sea. He was sitting there quietly looking at the waves. The Kotzker got closer and realized it was his friend Reb Yitzchok of Vorka. 

He approached him and asked him "Reb Yitzchok, what are you doing here? You could be with the Avos or in a palace learning Torah with Rabbi Akiva and Moshe Rabbeinu. I looked for you all over, in the places that are fit for a Tzaddik to reap the rewards of his place in the world to come. Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe Rabbeinu, even Moshiach are looking for you. What are you doing here?" And Rav Yitzchok answered "Yes, I was by all of those places but I couldn’t stay there yet. So I left and I came here." He then asked "Do you know what this ocean is?" The two Tzadikim stared at the waves loudly crashing below them as they stood atop the rocks above.

Reb Yitzchak explained that the ocean was made of all the tears the Jewish people have shed throughout the years of their bitter Galus. "And I vowed to Hashem not to move from this place until the Galus is over and all the Jewish tears are wiped away".  

We need to understand how much each of our tears mean to Hashem. 

Rav Yitzchok D'vorka kept silent in his last days in the aspect of "מא תיצעק אלי" (Why do you cry out to Me?), of "ואתם תחרישון" (and you will be silent). He was able to understand the times of "B'almim" because he had spent his whole life living with "B'eilim", doing for others and never giving up on a Jew. He waits silently by the Ocean of Tears, crying together with us as we await the thunderous end of the years of silence.

Monday, October 20, 2014

ZUSHA: EP release announcement/review

I am pleased to help spread the word that ZUSHA is set to release their debut EP this coming week, October 28th; a special release party is scheduled for the Sunday prior to that with folk singer Levi Robin.
ZUSHA is guitarist Zacharia Goldschmiedt, percussionist Elisha Mlotek and singer Shlomo Gaisin. These three friends combine their energies and draw from a wealth of influences to create a sound that is at once familiar and fresh. A mix of world music combined with the heart and soul of chassidut, ZUSHA's eponymous EP is a welcome addition to my playlist.

Gaisin (who may be familiar to readers as half of the creative team behind JudaBlue) has demonstrated considerable growth as a vocalist. His soulful crooning has a transcendent effect as the tracks progress from a simple setup into a melodical exploration that almost begs the listener to sway along with the music. Most of the tracks are niggunim, wordless meditations that provide a tapestry upon which the listener can project his own personal meaning. My only real criticism at this point is directed toward the three tracks that have lyrics: while the music/lyrical content are indeed complementary, I always struggle when I hear the same verses/lyrics used time and again (the second track "Peace" uses the oft-repeated expression of Rebbe Nachman Ein yi'ush b'Olam b'chlal as one example). I recognize that the causal link is because there is something significant about those particular expressions, but it can also be indicative of a superficial familiarity with the source material. But I digress - young musicians becoming drawn in to the world of chassidut is a good thing, and I choose to view this as an expression of neophyte excitement.

"Yoel's Niggun" evoked strong feelings that continued long after the initial listen; the best way to describe it is hirhurei Teshuva, making me glad I heard it before Hoshana Rabbah. The final track "Tzion" is a personal favorite; the a capella version below is only a taste a what it is.

One last comment: the band's bio describes them as neo-Chassidic, which is more often a term used to describe groups in the Renewal movement and other groups outside of Orthodoxy. Association is a strong thing, and I don't identify with the need to distinguish myself as a neo-Chassid. Just an observation.

Overall, the debut EP is a strong offering, and I'm looking forward to see what the group does after their tour following the release.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sukkat shalom...

״וחמושים עלו בני ישראל...״ (שמות יג:יז )

Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg quotes the sefarim hakedoshim that explain that "chamushim" (armed) has the root word חמש, which serves as an acronym that reminds us of the three major festivals. Pesach is the time of חירותינו; Shavuot is מתן תורתינו; and Sukkot is known as שמחתינו. These three descriptions in fact refer to the different "weaponry" we Jews have at our disposal - the last one which is associated with Sukkot is the "skill" of joy and comes to us as we draw ever closer to the days of Moshiach. An emphasis needs to be placed on this particular quality as we encounter a progressively darker world.

I'm reminded of this every year as we emerge from the Days of Awe and segue into the whirlwind of activity that is the month if Tishrei. It resonates with me especially now as I attempt to find balance amid the many aspects of my life that constantly vie for my attention.

I had a difficult time preparing adequately for the Yomim Nora'im; a part of that is definitely attributed to the consequences of moving further away from a time when I was immersed in relatively unfettered pursuit of spirituality of my yeshiva years, but it's not only that. Husbandry, parenthood, professional responsibilities, and even the obligation of maintaining the rigorous schedule of Daf yomi all tend to eclipse my other limmudim. I find it considerably more difficult to find time to learn the things that speak to my shoresh neshama although audio shiurim do provide an outlet.

I also become increasingly, painfully aware of my limitations and weaknesses in both the Bein Adam l'makom and l'chaveiro areas. My davening hasn't improved, and I still find myself thinking petty thoughts about my peers even if I hold myself back from reacting to them.

Moreover, I find myself in unfamiliar positions, perceived as a representative of the mainstream and an authority figure in the drop-in center among not only the kids we work with but my fellow volunteers. I have to struggle with an urge to "show" that I'm not the Man and it's surreal.

I went into Rosh HaShana feeling somewhat low; the first day was so difficult. The second day a felt a slight lifting of my spirit, but nothing that raised my spiritual Geiger counter needle significantly.

Yom Kippur was a mix. I found myself unable at times to concentrate even marginally, and that hurt. Surrounded by people shedding tears even as a conceit (as recommended regarding Ne'ila), I couldn't bring myself to do so, either.

But last night I went to purchase my lulav and etrog. I buy from a relative of my wife's who is a special person, a genuinely nice talmid chacham who enjoys what he is doing and desks with people with infinite patience. We discussed Sukkot, shmitta, and a number of topics as we looked for "my" lulav. The whole process took a little less than an hour, but at the end as I left with my new minim (species), I felt confident that I had found the right match. Inexplicably, I felt a sensation of lightness as a returned to my car and carefully placed the lulav in the passenger side. Something about preparing for the mitzvot of the Chag gives me a lift; late last night I prepared the rings that we use to bind the lulav and the process was a meditative one.

Sukkot shares a similar quality with the mitzvot of living in the Holy Land and mikvah - all three are performed by involving the entire body in the act. The seven species are a prominent theme in the decor of the Sukkah, and serve to remind us of where we really belong. All these things fill me with a feeling of nostalgia, and as I spend the majority of my time in the Sukkah over the course of the Chag this little hut becomes more of a refuge for me from all of the insanity of the world throughout the year.

I think Sukkot has displaced Chanukah as my favorite holiday...