This post and the Torah learning invested is fully dedicated to the Ilui Neshama of Chaim Schneur Zalman Yehuda “Yudi” ben Aaron Leib, may his family only know comfort and love.
There is a fundamental Torah teaching that the function of the world relies on the balance of Torah (study), Prayer and Chesed (kindness.) A balance so beautiful when done right, but fatal when ignored. I feel more present now, is the weak balance between differing opinions and the constant shift of blame between two sides. The weight of the world unfortunately balances very heavily on the level of polarization, censorship and mental segregation that has been increasingly normalized and encouraged. Thus now serving as a modern mirror to the Jewish concept and Hebrew phrase of, “שנאת חינם” – Baseless Hatred. There is basis in disagreement and validity to an argument—however there is no justification for the rising hatred between friends, family and communities on a global scale under the premise of opinion.
Finding solid soil to grow an opinion is virtually impossible considering the threshing of the once open and fair “field” of opinions we once knew as a society.
I find my previous nature metaphor ironic because the state of the world that I once felt familiar with cannot be farther than natural. But when our definition of “natural” reaches its capacity of logic, we must return to the ultimate source—G!d and spirituality.
How can we reclaim our world’s balance? Was there a time where we even experienced a reality of G!d’s complete trifecta of Torah, Tefilah and Chessed?
When studying biology we know that before we even begin to understand the macro, we must begin with the micro. There is a phenomenal quote and message by Rav Yisroel Salanter of the Mussar Movement that perfectly articulates this “micro to macro” fix we desire.
“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.
I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town.
I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family.
My family and I could have made an impact on our town.
Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”
I think the motivation and determination to make large scale changes represent a beautiful aspect of humanity, however when the focus of improvement becomes so detached from the self, the progress of elevation only deteriorates. I believe that from the infinite wisdom of Hashem and the perfection that is Torah, we have been given the knowledge and privilege to facilitate change and improvement.
This so-called “change and improvement” really boils down to a single word which may be one of the most powerful attributes of G!d’s relationship with people.
The power of “Teshuva.”
I think that Teshuva is oftentimes a misrepresentation of Jewish philosophy under the premise that our sins and misdemeanors don’t matter as long as we say we’re sorry. A phrase I heard often in high school was, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” I don’t necessarily agree and definitely do not think that is the charge behind Jewish Teshuva. Teshuva, if anything, is asking for permission rather than forgiveness. Teshuva–translates to the word, “Return.”
When we realign through Teshuva, we are asking our identity, our peers and G!d for permission to be ourselves wholeheartedly.
Dedicating significant time to self reflection and evaluation of values, one is not becoming a new version of themselves or accessing something beyond them. The premise that we “grow upward” in Jewish observance and connection, infers that this spiritual core was once foreign. However, in the truest sense and a perspective brought down by the teachings of the Sefer HaTanya is that Teshuva and associating oneself with spirituality brings one deeper into their truth, rather than elevating them to “the next level.”
Our spiritual capacity is so fluid and free that the effort to actualize a spiritual identity is not one of hard work, but rather of active consciousness. Being aware of the goodness hidden in plain sight; appreciating the righteousness that exists within oneself and within those around us.
Teshuva in itself has also had an evolutionary development through the various interpretations and teachings throughout Jewish history. According to the Mussar Movement (19th Century, Lithuania) the Hebrew word Teshuva is actually an acronym, and within it live the steps of achieving this “return of self.”
According to this teaching:
ת- Taanit, the act of fasting works as a level to physically separate in order to spiritually focus.
- The Jewish nation recently celebrated the holy holiday of Purim but before there was an entire day(s) dedicated to eating and other physical celebrations, we had Taanit Esther. A fast decided by the valiant Esther in preparation for pleading mercy for the entire Jewish nation not only in front of the “King” Achashverosh, but also for the Master of the Universe, G!d.
ש correlates to the Hebrew words of wearing mud and wearing dirty clothes, an act done when mourning to signify sorrow and lowliness.
ב- The Hebrew word ביכי which translates to crying
הספד-ה, which translates to eulogizing.
In summary, the Mussar Movement’s interpretation of “return” is through the steps of active and passionate sorrow and regret. However dark and depressing this perspective may be, I also do think that the ideas are also heavily associated with humility and with that the greatest of success is attainable.
Within the overall perspective and teachings of the Chassidic Movement, specifically by the Rav Zusha from Anapoli the acronym of Teshuva is drastically different. The approach of Chassidic movement in general offered a more celebratory and joyful observance of Torah and Jewish lifestyle which heavily contradicts that of the “Litvish” stern teachings that preceded them.
According to Chassidut, Teshuva stands for;
ת-תמימים ה’ אלוקיך, which blesses Hashem, representing an unconditional love with Hashem
ש-Shivit Hashem Nagid–to always see G!d in front of you
ו-ואהבת לרעך כמוך, love another like you would love yourself
ב-the Hebrew words translate to knowing Hashem in all of one’s ways, i.e. to be constantly aware of spiritual presence
ה-HaTzne–connecting to the word of Tzniut (modesty) when it comes to your relationship with G!d
So now that there have been two very opposing understandings of the process to “return” there is actually a groundbreaking common denominator. Between the Mussar Movement and the Chassidic movement there has been a long history of a painful relationship that too is baseless between the two mentalities. However, Torah can always ground and realign a severing reality between the Jewish nation. The common denominator between these two very different interpretations is that of understanding of G!d’s infinity and the embrace of honest humility.
Both acronyms embody the most powerful of qualities a person can have. Humility was arguably the most famous characteristic of Moshe Rabeinu and provided him with the candidacy to lead a nation of slaves to freedom.
So to reflect back on our question of reorientation and healing of our fractured communities, our answer is simple; to accept one’s simplicity with love. As Rav Amos of Midreshet Amit once said, “It is not Pashut (simple) to be Pashut (simple)” Simplicity does not mean incapability or inadequacy, rather the essence of the embrace of our limitations reminds us how relevant we are within a grand scheme.
So we now have also moved closer to the Macro through the Micro, spirituality is that wonderful.
Now then, how does the humility of Teshuva play a role in our day to day lives? I believe this question also begs us to define the logistics of this intimacy with the spiritual self.
Rabbi Alon Anava in his Shiur about the fast of Esther explains that Teshuva does not only serve after the fact of sin, but is also massively relevant in the future tense. He explains this through the reasoning as to why we fast in general on Taanit Esther. Do we fast simply because the Jews way back when also did? He then answers that we don’t just fast to commemorate something that happened in the past, we also seriously aim towards something in the future. He says that reminding ourselves of our past is important to Teshuva, but an even deeper effort is to think of our future with Teshuva in mind. Real Teshuva is change.
So now, our Teshuva is not only asking for permission in the present tense, but also is a plea for the same privilege in the future.
Parshat Ki Tetze, which sometimes is the correlated Torah reading to the holiday of Purim offers additional insight on “true Teshuva.” This year the reading lands a week later, and so as we exit from the highest form of jubilation and G!d’s miracles, we enter into the lowest point of faith and highest of arrogance facilitated by the nation of Israel. This week’s parsha is the reading of the Sin of the Golden Calf.
The fact that Bnei Yisrael sought to spiritually connect to a physical idol after the miracles and established trust following their redemption is extremely baffling and in essence challenges the nature of the nation’s conviction. However, much like before and many other times in the Jewish story, when nature reaches its breaking point, G!d and spirituality must take center stage.
Rabbi Alon Anava additionally explains that nature too was not present in this case. He quotes the Gemara in Masechet Yoma that explains the sin of the golden calf was already inscribed in Hashem’s divine plan.
“נורא עלילה לבני אדם” meaning that Hashem purposefully wanted Bnei Yisrael to sin because their level at the receiving of the Torah was the highest it could be. They were defined as Tzadikim–righteous people. However, Hashem does not expect nor demand perfection. Hashem loves and welcomes Baal Teshuva.
A Baal Teshuva also does not necessarily mean one who grew up “secular” or strayed from observance, because as we know one cannot abandon or falsify their spiritual truth and identity—it is the most core and definitive factor of our existence.
This week I was introduced to a person and his story not only brought me to tears, but showcased a reality where all three divine layers of balance can be attained. Chaim Schneur Zalman Yehuda “Yudi” ben Aaron Leib suffered from severe medical conditions which resulted in the conclusion of his life in this world. The video I had the privilege to see highlighted not only the dedication of his wife, but also that of Am Yisrael. When he was in a coma, when he was too weak for basic daily functions the world held his hand. Through his wife’s efforts and campaign, thousands of individuals put on Tefillin when he could not. In the merit of his recovery, huge numbers of people took upon themselves learning Torah through a 1 on 1 chavruta. Within his hospital room which became his home for weeks, his wife made a place for charity and encouraged visitors and hospital staff to place a coin in order to give Tzedaka. Born out of the suffering was the success of this man and his family to attain all three; Torah, Tefila and Chesed.
The conditions of his success are heart-breaking and G!d forbid should ever be the way to bring spirituality into the lives of others, however I do believe that the world merits more time to heal because this family gave us support to stand.
Without the use of his legs, Yudi held up the world with his soul. Yudi and his family have shown the world real teshuva, the return to a lifestyle guided by spirituality and devotion to a higher belonging.
Yudi reflects on his experience with pure gratitude and appreciation of life. Before he passed away he had miraculous progress towards recovery, he refers to healing as “crowd surfing,”—where you don’t have to support yourself because the care and connection that others invest their energy into have the ability to hold another.
With the humility of Teshuva and gratitude of life I pray we allow ourselves to be carried by others but remember to be the force of strength as well. I pray we abandon our divisions and seek our common denominator, being the eternal connection of spirituality that exists within each and every individual.