Experiencing Israel with fresh eyes. What a treat!
I spent the past week in Israel with my son Shlomo who had never been before. Through him, and specifically through the many, many questions he asked me, I had the absolute joy of seeing Israel ‘as if’ for the first time. To some degree, all of us who have been to Israel before, and certainly those of us who have spent meaningful time there, take Israel for granted – just a little bit, and that’s normal. But to see the sights of Israel for the first time – the majestic view from the top of Masada, the barbed wire and security walls, the ancient mikvaos, the Kotel; to hear Israel for the first time – the harmony of languages, the blaring of the car horns, the revival of our ancient tongue and the “Baruch Hashems!” shouted by people from whom you least expect it; and to smell Israel for the first time – the spices, the sewage, and the shawarma, that’s special.
Everywhere we went Shlomo had questions: What’s with all the traffic? Why does everyone honk endlessly? Are there more mopeds than cars in Israel? Why do the moped drivers drive between the cars? Are they crazy? Can we buy a souvenir?
How do they know that this walkway goes back two thousand years? Did Dovid Hamelech really live here? Can I climb that ancient wall? Can we buy a souvenir?
Are all the Arabs dangerous? Why is there so much barbed wire? How do the security guards protect the Kotel if all they’re doing is flirting with the women?
Oh yeah, and can we buy a souvenir?
Okay, he didn’t really ask me all those questions though he did ask plenty. There was one question he asked that really took me back to some very warm and eye-opening memories. We were at the shuk one night and we heard really loud techno music. I assumed it was some club down the block, but it wasn’t. It was a van with a walled-in structure built on top of the van. The car had souped up speakers that were blasting songs with the lyrics, “Rebbe Nachman Mei’uman,” and there were three guys dancing on the van’s roof with abandon.
“What,” Shlomo asked me, “is THAT?”
I asked the same question twenty years ago, though, as I’ll explain,
with fall less tact. You see, my ‘happy place’ in Israel is Tzfat. When I was studying in Israel, I didn’t leave my yeshiva often but when I did, I would go to Tzfat, usually without any plans, no meals and not even a place to stay, knowing that it would somehow work out, which it always did.
I would usually daven in the Breslov shul. Breslov is a Chassidic group that was started by a man named Rav Nachman. He was a charismatic and complicated Chassidic Rebbe who lived in the late 18th century. Rav Nachman was most famous for preaching hisbodedus, private communion with G-d, for long and complicated parables, and for encouraging his followers to always be happy. He went so far as to add a 614th Mitzvah – mitzvah gedolah liyhos b’simcha tamid. He himself likely suffered from depression or was bi-polar and many read his teachings which speak about extreme highs and lows as being somewhat autobiographical.
After he died, his primary student, Rav Nosson wrote all his teachings down, but no one assumed the mantle of leadership. There has not been a Breslov Rebbe since the death of Rav Nachman, leading some to describe Breslov Chassidim as the dead chassidim, as their teacher is dead – even though his teachings are very much alive.
In Tzfat, I would often attend lunch at one Breslov chassid who would have huge crowds of guests. After a delicious meal he would share a story from Rav Nachman. The story would go on for at least an hour and I would invariably get lost at some point. The story had so many twists and turns, I am pretty sure my host was lost as well. Then after finishing his story, he would teach us a Breslov song that went like this: Lo yodeiah kloom, I don’t know anything. Lo meivin kloom, I don’t understand anything. Rak ma’amin, rak ma’amin, shehakol l’tovah. I only believe that everything is good. Todah rabbah l’cha Hashem yitborach, thank you Hashem…”
You get the point. This song symbolized to me what Breslov chassidus was all about. Song, gratitude, and not a lot of deep thought.
This is all leading to the following story: One weekend, my friend and I made our way to Tzfat. We found a place to stay. We davened Friday night at the Breslov shul and when davening was over, we waited by the door for an invitation. None came. We said ‘Good Shabbos’ to everyone who walked by, but no one took the hint. Finally, the last person left. And just as he was walking away, he turns around, and says, “Do you need a meal?”
All the while home, he doesn’t talk, he just hums the tune, to Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha, a song about serving G-d with joy. I rolled my eyes. Classic Breslov chassid.
At the meal, the host told us that he used to be a Chassid of Chabad. Now Chabad is known for the intellectual rigor of its founder. Breslov to me represented the exact opposite – absent-minded story-telling and singing. And so, like my son, just without any tact, I turned to my host and said, “What is this? How did you go from the most intellectual Chassidic group to the one that is the most illiterate and childish?” Yeah, not very tactful, I know.
He smiled – again, classic Breslov. He surprised me, he went on to share a profound answer about the differences between Chabad and Breslov, which was honestly way above my head.
But then I got my real answer. Before the main course, he and his wife went into the kitchen. I needed the restroom and as I walked by the kitchen, I overheard them discussing how to best cut up the one piece of chicken they had for their meal so there would be enough for me and my friend and that we would not notice how little they had so we wouldn’t feel bad.
You see, the singing, the stories, the dancing, the seeming simplicity of the Breslov chassidim is a reflection of one of Rav Nachman’s central teachings. It is built around a single term that is repeated over and over in the book of Devarim – atah, now. Why does Moshe keep on repeating that word, asks Rav Nachman? To teach us the importance of the present. Don’t worry about how people are going to perceive you. Don’t worry about the past. Don’t worry about the future. What’s most important is what is happening ata, right now.
And you and I may say that’s completely irresponsible, and it is. But then again, you and I would not turn around after leaving shul to invite two complete strangers to our home, would we? You and I are weighed down by our stress and can’t just walk through the streets happily humming a tune, can we? You and I would not share a meal when we don’t have any food of our own, right?
But if we trained ourselves to stop worrying so much about tomorrow, if we worked on ourselves to appreciate the beauty of the here and now, if we allowed ourselves to get lost in our emotions from time to time, if we were Breslov chassidim, then maybe we would.
We just started the month of Elul. I was always taught how the great rabbis of yesteryear would tremble with fear at the mere mention of the word, Elul. But Rav Yaakov Weinberg, the former Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, taught that the true character of Elul is happiness and joy. That’s a theme that I think we can all use a good dose of. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing a weekly exercise meant to increase my happiness and my joy during this month of Elul and I invite you to join me.
We hear so much these days about rising anxiety about the future, rising depression about the past. Rav Nachman’s philosophy of ‘living in the now’ as impractical as it may be to do so fully is a breath of fresh air.
As I was flying home from Israel, I realized just how difficult it is for us to do so. I spent too much time on the flying worrying about what I was going to speak about on Shabbos. There I was flying, flying like a bird! thousands of feet above the air using technology that should blow our mind, with stunning views of the sun and clouds right out the window – the earth is thousands of miles below, sitting next to my precious son, breathing! and I am worrying about tomorrow?!
Can we take a moment each day this week, literally a moment, maybe when we open our eyes in the morning, maybe at a meal with loved ones, maybe before we go to bed, to pause and appreciate what we have right now. You could do it right now. You’re surrounded by people who care about you. You’re sitting in a comfortable chair, feel it. You’re in the presence of G-d. You’re in a moment.
We don’t have to sing, we don’t have to dance, but if we can just turn off the worry, turn off the sadness, and appreciate what we have in this moment, we can take a small first step in ensuring that we have a joy-filled month of Elul.