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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Magical Moments of Mesorah - The Kotzker Rebbe

"The first time I came to Kotzk, and I saw the Rebbe in his study, it seemed to me that the Mishnaic sage Akavia ben Mahalalel stood opposite me, thundering: 'Know from where you came! Know where you are going to! Know before Whom you will give justification and a reckoning!' (Pirkei Avot 3:1). This vision remained engraved in my heart all my life, and when I returned home after eight weeks in Kotzk, all desires and empty pleasures were contemptible in my eyes."

Meir Urian, Sneh Boer BeKotzk, p. 88

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Paradox of Freedom: Subservience



אמר רבי אבא אחר שתפשו הקדוש ברוך הוא לירבעם בבגדו ואמר לו חזור בך ואני ואתה ובן ישי נטייל בגן עדן אמר לו מי בראש בן ישי בראש אי הכי לא בעינא
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף קב/א

Rabbi Abba said: After the Holy One grabbed Yerovam [ben Navat] by his clothes and said to him 'Repent, then I, thou and Ben Yishai [King David] will walk in the Paradise.'

Yerovam said to Him: 'Who will be in the front?'

'Ben Yishai will be in the front'

'If so [he replied], I am not interested.'

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I:Line 263


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Magical Moments of Mesorah VIIII - Rav Hutner

"During the past year, the Alter of Slobodka [Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel] worked hard to explain several fundamental perspectives which pertain to me personally, but in no way could I assimilate them, could I integrate them into my consciousness. And now, suddenly, with the death of the Alter, they have all become clear and vivid...'Greater are the righteous in death than in life..'"

Pachad Yitzchak, Letter 159


"When tears well up into weeping, we know why we weep. My tears at this moment, however, surely and surely did not well up now. My tears are old and venerable now, having gathered in the subsoil of the soul now and over time, in their own time. Hidden tears, the soul itself hid them by placing a concealing rock over the entrance to the well of the soul. Across time - their own time - there gathered types of tears, different tears. In this hidden spot of tears there are those of 'My eyes dropped streams of water for not having kept your Torah' and of 'Extend grace to me, wretched am I' - tears of sharing the sorrows of men, of pitying an orphaned generation, of yearning for the countenance of parents and teachers whom I was privileged to view once upon a time, of yearning for the higher light in blessed hours of engagement with the secrets of Torah, of reciting the Song of Songs from out of a mighty sense of their loftiness - tears flowing as water libations upon the altar, the altar of love of God, tears of exaltation. All these types of tears, sentenced to hiding across ages, across years, now coalesced into one unity beneath the concealing rock, and behold! When my fingers just grazed Maharal's tombstone, the concealing rock on my breast split to smithereens and my tears came gushing, like a waterfall cascading downward between clefts in the rock."

Sefer Zichronot, 62

(translations by Hillel Goldberg, Between Berlin and Sloboka)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Magical Moments of Mesorah VIII - Rav Yisrael Salanter and the Alter of Novardok

When he [Reb Yosef Yozel] was a merchant he visited at times the town of Mamel, where Rav Yisrael Salanter was living at the time...On one afternoon, when Reb Yosef Yozel was hurrying in the streets of Mamel in his business dealings, from one place to another, hurriedly and in haste, Reb Yisrael suddenly stopped him and asked him:

 'Why are you running so much?' 

Reb Yosef Yozel answered him: 'I have a milestone around my neck, as I have to feed a large family of eleven; a wife and daughter, with a widow and seven of her children.'

 Rav Yisrael explained to him that even with all of his responsibilities he needed to set his primary time for Torah study.

 After some time, Reb Yosef Yozel visited Rav Yisrael in his house as per his request. On their third meeting Rav Yisrael invited him to a lecture in Mesilas Yisharim, which he was giving in the main synagogue in Mamel. Reb Yosef Yozel accepted the invitation and attended the lecture thirteen times. On the thirteen lecture Rav Yisrael's words had such an impact on Reb Yosef Yozel, to the extent that he felt an inner earthquake trembling within himself. He left the lecture stunned and shaking. On the way home he gathered some bundles of ware and he began planning a way to free himself from business and to devote himself to Torah and Yirah.  

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Magical Moments of Mesorah VII - Rav Ashlag




"I will tell him the story that happened with me, from the beginning to the end,  due to which I merited the wisdom [of Kabbalah], in His great mercy:


“On the Twelfth of the month of Cheshvan, on Friday morning, a man came to me. I discovered that he was a great and wondrous scholar of Kabbalah and of other branches of knowledge. Immediately as he began speaking I sensed and felt the wisdom of God in him, and all of his words were spoken with great amazement and splendor. With this I believed very much with my entire being. He promised to tell me the wisdom of Truth comprehensively. I learned with him for three months after midnight in his home. Mostly we focused on the [practical] ways to holiness and purity. Yet every time I begged him to tell me a secret of Kabbalah, he began to say the basic points but would not completely reveal it to me. Clearly I had this intense longing, and after intensely pleading with him again he revealed one secret. I was boundlessly joyful.

“As this continued to happen I began to acquire some egotism, and the more egotism I acquired the further my holy Master distanced himself from me. Unbeknownst to me this continued for three months, until the last few days I did not find him at home at all. 'I searched for him and did not find him.' Then I realized he was distancing himself from me, and I was deeply pained. I began to better my ways. On the ninth of the month of Nisan, in the morning, I found him and I sought to pacify him and then we were reconciled as before. He told me a big secret regarding “a mikvah measured and was found lacking,” and of course I was ecstatic. Yet I saw that he was becoming physically weak, and I did not leave his house. The next day, on the tenth of Nissan, the year of 1919, he left this world, may his memory protect us and all of Israel.

“The magnitude of my pain cannot be written, for my heart was full of hope to gain wisdom and knowledge. And now I was left naked and destitute, and even what I received from him was forgotten because of the great sorrow. From then on my eyes looked heavenward with limitless longing and desire.  I did not give rest for even a single moment, until I found favor in the eyes of my Creator and Rock, Blessed and Exalted. The merit of my holy Master stood for me, and my heart was increasingly opened to the supernal wisdom, like a flowing river. I even remembered all of the secrets that I received from my Master, in Hashem’s compassion. 'Blessed is Hashem who gave me life and sustained me!' How am I able, a destitute person like myself, to thank God – even from the beginning He knew that I was lacking in intellect and understanding to even give thanks and praise for his tremendous beneficence. But who can tell Him what to do?  My holy Master was a business man and he was well-known in the city as a trustworthy merchant. But no one recognized his knowledge of Kabbalah, and he did not give me permission to reveal his name."
 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Magical Moments of Mesorah VI - Rav Moshe to Reb Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik

"I remember myself as a child, a lonely, forlorn boy. I was afraid of the world. It seemed cold and alien. I felt as if everyone were mocking me. But I had one friend, and he was - please don't laugh at me - Maimonides, the Rambam, How did we become friends? We simply met!

"The Rambam was a regular guest in our house. Those were the days when my father, my mentor, was still living in the home of my grandfather, the great and pious Rabbi Elijah Feinstein of Pruzhna. Father sat and studied Torah day and night. A rather small group of outstanding young Torah scholars gathered around him and imbibed his words thirstily.

"Father's lectures were given in my grandfather's living room, where my bed was placed. I used to sit up in bed and listen to my father talk. My father always spoke about the Rambam. This is how he would proceed: He would open a volume of the Talmud and read a passage. Then he would say 'This is the interpretation of Rabbi Isaac and the [other] Tosafists; now let us see how the Rambam interpreted the passage.' Father would always find that the Rambam had a offered a different interpretation and had deviated from the simple way. My father would say, almost as a complaint against the Rambam, 'We don't understand our Master's reasoning or the way he explains the passage.' It was as if he were complaining to the Rambam directly, 'Rabbenu Mosheh, why did you do this?'

"My father would then say that, prima facie, the criticisms and objections of the Rabad are actually correct. The members of the group would jump up and each of them would suggest an idea. Father would listen and rebut their ideas, and then repeat, 'Our Mater's words are as hard to crack as iron.' But he would not despair; he would rest his head on his fist and sink into deep thought. The group was quiet and did not disturb his reflections. After a long while he would lift his head very slowly and begin, 'Rabbotai, let's see...' and then he would start to talk. Sometimes he would say a great deal, other times only a little. I would strain my ears and listen to what he was saying.

"I did not understand anything at all about the issue under discussion, but two impressions were formed in my young, innocent mind: (1) the Rambam was surrounded by opponents and 'enemies' who want to harm him; and (2) his only defender was my father. If not for my father, who knew what would happen to the Rambam? I felt that the Rambam himself was present in the living room; listening to what my father was saying. The Rambam was sitting with me on my bed. What did he look like? I didn't know exactly, but his countenance resembled my father's good and beautiful face. He had the same name as my father - Moses. Father would speak; the students, their eyes fixed on him, would listen intently to what he was saying. Slowly, slowly, the tension ebbed; Father strode boldly and bravely. New arguments emerged; halakhic rules were formulated and defined with wondrous precision. A new light shone. The difficulties were resolved, the passage was explained. The Rambam emerged the winner. Father's face shone with joy. He had defended his 'friend,' Rabbenu Mosheh the son of Maimon. A smile of satisfaction appeared on the Rambam's lips. I too participated in this joy. I was happy and excited. I would jump out of bed and run to my mother's room to tell her the joyful news, 'Mother, Mother, the Rambam is right, he defeated the Rabad. Father came to his aid. How wonderful Father is!'

"But occasionally the Rambam's luck did not hold - his 'enemies' attacked him on all sides; the difficulties were as hard as iron. Father was unable to follow the logic of his position. He tried with all his might to defend him, but he was unsuccessful. Father would sink into musings with his head leaning on his fist. The students and I, even the Rambam himself, would tensely wait for Father's answer. But Father would pick up his head and say sadly, 'The answer will have to wait for the prophet Elijah; what the Rambam says is extremely difficult. There is not expert who can explain it. The issue remains in need of clarification.' The whole group, my father included, were sad to the point of tears. A silent agony expressed itself on each face. Tears came from my eyes, too. I would even see bright teardrops in the Rambam's eyes.

"Slowly I would go to Mother and tell her with a broken heart, 'Mother, Father can't resolve the Rambam - what should we do?'

"'Don't be sad,' Mother would answer, 'Father will find a solution for the Rambam. And if he doesn't find one, then maybe when you grow up you will resolve his words. The main thing is to learn Torah with joy and excitement."

"This experience belongs to my childhood. Still, it is not the golden fantasy of a little boy; the feeling in it is not mystical. It is a completely historical, psychological reality that is alive even now in the depths of my soul. When I sit down to learn Torah, I find myself immediately in the company of the sages of the masorah. The relations between us are personal. The Rambam is at my right, Rabbenu Tam at my left, Rashi sits up front and interprets, Rabbenu Tam disputes him; the Rambam issues a ruling, and the Rabad objects. They are all in my little room, sitting around my table. They look at me affectionately, enjoy arguing and studying the Talmud with me, encourage and support me the way a father does. Torah study is not solely an educational activity. It is not a merely formal, technical matter embodied in the discovery and exchange of facts. It is a powerful experience of becoming friends with many generations of Torah scholars, the joining of one spirit with another, the union of souls. Those who transmitted the Torah and those who receive it come together in one historical way-station.

"Thus, the Rambam remained my friend even after my childhood, and we are friends to this very day. Indeed, there is only one difference between my childhood experience and my present one. In my childhood, only the Rambam was my friend, while at present my study group has grown and includes many Torah scholars. All the sages of the tradition, from the days of Moses to the present, have become my friends! When I solve a problem in the Rambam's or Rabbenu Tam's writings, I see their glowing faces expressing their satisfaction. I always feel as if the Rambam and Rabbenu Tam are kissing me on the forehead and shaking my hand. This is not fantasy. It is a very deep experience. It is the experience of the transmission of the Oral Torah."

Rav Soloveitchik, And From There You Shall Seek, pp. 143-146




Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Magical Moments of Mesorah V: Rav Kook and Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlap


"It was the days leading up to Shavuot (1904) that I went to Yaffo on the advice of my doctors to bathe in the sea. Shavuot fell out on Friday and I went to prayer at the synagogue "Sha'arei Torah." I was twenty-one years old at that time. I heard how Rav Kook said the Akdamot prayer in front of the congregation, shaking and crying. My entire being trembled. From that moment on I attached to Rav Kook with fierce love and I was his disciple forever...I felt [at that moment] that my entire being was a flame of God, my physicality moved aside and my soul which attached to the soul of Rav Kook rose to the highest worlds."