By Yochanan Gordon
This is not one of those word association games in which I ask you to determine which of the three locales listed in the title doesn’t belong. Because as out of place as Lawrence seems in the company of Liadi and Lizhensk, the system founded by the Ba’al Shem Tov, revealing the light of G-d in Torah, in the world at large, and in the soul of every Jew, is equally relevant to all people and in all milieus.
Just look at the revolution that has taken place in Woodmere over the past three decades at Aish Kodesh under the tutelage of Rav Moshe and Rebbetzin Myrna Weinberger, who have pumped a spirit and a Torah that lives perpetually in those who continue to sit at the feet of the great fountain of Torah and avodah that has been irrigating the souls of Rabbi Weinberger’s congregants and men, women, and children the world over with the wisdom of chassidus and his inimitable style of teaching.
There is a notion that chassidus is meant to help reconnect disenfranchised Jews with their heritage. Many people will initially rebut that as a mistaken notion; however, I wanted to analyze for a moment what it means to be disenfranchised. Oftentimes people only begin to realize they are in need of help when they reach spiritual bankruptcy, at which point they begin to realize that the Torah they were taught was detached from its essence, its source, and therefore rooted in darkness as opposed to light.
Like every living thing, the Torah consists of a body and a soul. Notwithstanding the critical importance of traditional learning of Tanach, Shas, halachah, and so on, as long as that learning does not connect the learner with the G-dly soul breathed in through his or her nostrils on the day of conception, that well is at risk of drying up. The Mishnah discusses the difference between a true source of water, flowing from a live spring, and a well, which dries up once in seven years. Anyone paying attention to that water source over the seven-year period would testify to the true source of that water. However, once it dries, it reveals retroactively that it was, in fact, a farce.
If we have the courage to scrutinize our lives and make an honest accounting of the things we do and why we do them, we will begin to discover that like the well water, much of what we do is for the public perception. If there was one distinction between the previous generation and the one that we are currently in the midst of, it is that today’s children and young teens, and even adults, are seeking truth and authenticity, and it is this quest for truth that has continued to vivify the demand for Toras HaBa’al Shem Tov and for teachers who are capable of conveying the often ethereal theology of the Ba’al Shem Tov, his students, and the masters of Kabbalah in layman’s terms, in order that it be comprehensive and practical enough to make true and lasting change in the lives of the people connecting with it.
In light of the above, those who are learning Torah and performing mitzvos but are not in touch with the needs of their soul and developing their unique relationship to Hashem are disenfranchised. If we are distributing water from a source that will ultimately dry up, the Mishnah, which is Toras Chaim, categorizes us as a mayim machezvin.
This is very much connected to the yom tov of Shemini Atzeres. One of the things that change in our tefillah rite on the day of Shemini Atzeres is the addition of “Mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’geshem.” This is not a request for rain; rather, it is an acknowledgement of the power of rain. The rain which we acknowledge on Shemini Atzeres comes from an endless divine reservoir which we need to acknowledge and connect to upon seeing the rain fall. This will accustom us to be sensitive in searching for the divine source in people, the world, and ultimately through everything we take in.
The confluence of Simchas Torah and “mashiv ha’ruach” means that in some way these two traditions are connected. Similarly, have we ever wondered about the excitement of Simchas Torah and what it is we are celebrating? We are not celebrating the completion of Torah. The happiness that we generate on Simchas Torah is not our own at all. It is the happiness of the sefer Torah itself, with us acting as its feet, celebrating the fact that the Torah is being reconnected with its source and learned with its most pure and pristine intention to connect with the Nosein haTorah. It’s the reason we don’t conclude the Torah but proceed straight from V’Zos HaBerachah directly into Bereishis—to symbolize that we are living in a Divine world of circles in which there is no start, middle, and end, but one continuous circle wherein everything is equal.
It’s the disconnect from the word of the living G-d that for decades has been driving young children away from the otherwise seemingly observant homes and Shabbos tables of their parents and it is the search to reconnect with life in its purest essence that has continued to fuel the success of congregations like Aish Kodesh and Khal Mevakshei Hashem, which is the focus of this particular article.
I am reminded of a story my father told me of the time his father, a Yiddish journalist of repute for over 50 years, decided to take his wife and children to an organizational function that he would attend and cover annually. It was a blistering cold November evening when my grandmother and family were waiting at the door, coats zipped, for their husband and father to come up from the basement where he seemed to be working on something he needed to complete before heading out.
When he arrived at the door they inquired what it was he was so busy with that had delayed them from being able to leave for the event. He said that he was finishing up the article about the event they were setting out to attend that very evening. Struck by the irony of that statement, they asked how he could write about an event that hadn’t yet occurred. He said that he has been attending this function for years, and they say the same things year in and year out. He decided that he’d be better off writing the article before the event so that he could enjoy himself while at the event.
There are a plethora of organizations said to be addressing the many problems that Jews face in this world, on the full gamut of individual, familial, and societal issues, and so on. Many of the issues that people have to confront set in, fester, and metastasize due to a feeling of spiritual bankruptcy and emptiness that they look to fill in all sorts of G-d-forsaken places. People who had gone to regular yeshivos and attended shul with their parents as children and young teenagers were going through the motions without finding spiritual satisfaction because they weren’t being shown the path to the living G-d.
It is for all these reasons and more that the need for Khal Mevakshei Hashem exists, and it is the reason that, under the auspices of our esteemed rav, Rabbi Yussie Zakutinsky, it continues to grow and succeed in connecting people who have long been introduced to the body of Torah, to finally, after all these years, come meet their souls.
My family and I have been members at Khal Mevakshei Hashem for a number of months, and in contrast to the predictability of the function that my zaide and his family attended all those years ago, there is nothing stale, rote, or predictable about the shul or anything the rav says.
I was inspired to write this piece now, after having experienced my first full month of Tishrei being a part of this beautiful kehillah. But there’s more. On chol ha’moed Sukkos, although I could not be there physically, I tuned in live to watch the Simchas Beis HaSho’eivah, which was held in partnership with Aish Kodesh and hosted by Aish Kodesh. Despite the fact that I was at a physical distance from the festivities, I was able to sense every bit of the mystique, excitement, and solemnity that punctuated that event. I know that it was billed as a Simchas Beis HaSho’eivah, and the joy that reverberated gave off precisely that vibe; however, it seemed to me and many other people I spoke to, both who were there and who tuned in live, that there was so much more taking place that evening beneath the surface. In the words of a friend who sent me a voice note after the event, “I feel like we are witnessing the birth of a new sect within Judaism that isn’t chassidic or litvish, but a hybrid of the two.”
Just two days after that, my family participated in a hachnasas sefer Torah that was dedicated by Mr. and Mrs. Reuven Moscowitz and family in honor of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Aviva Zakutinsky, and shortly after that we got to experience Simchas Torah and again got to experience the true, unpredictable joy of the tefillos and the dancing and the overall spirit that is very much a part of a kehillah that seeks to connect body and soul with every religious rite.
“Lawrence, Liadi, and Lizhensk” is more than just a catchy alliteration. It is more than just the barometer of chassidic influences that are a part of the repertoire of its gifted leader. It is more accurately the addition of a town that has been revolutionized by the light and fire of the Ba’al Shem Tov, and it, too, has a Rebbe, no different than the Rebbes of old, who is leading the charge and will continue, G-d willing, to revolutionize the landscape of this community one child at a time, one teen at a time, one adult at a time, and one family at a time.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.