My family had occasion this week to travel for the first time since COVID-19 set in. Actually, the last time that we were onboard an aircraft was the first week of March 2020, just a few days before we’d learn of the first COVID case in our relatively local Jewish community.
For those who are concerned about our trip, we responsibly contacted all of the school safety personnel prior to planning our extended weekend and have been following their protocol.
This past Shabbos marked another 19 Kislev, which is a significant day in that it commemorates the release of the Ba’al HaTanya from prison, which gave the Alter Rebbe authorization to disseminate the inner light of the Torah that he received from his Rebbe, the Maggid, who received it directly from the mouth of the Ba’al Shem Tov. In a letter that Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi disseminated after his historic liberation, he describes this day as a day upon which the light and vitality of our souls was given to us. Furthermore, he writes that it is a day that delivered us from darkness to a great light, from a place of existential constriction into an expansive environment. It was a day upon which we were given access to experience the Jewish soul at its core, and to open new vistas in our relationship with Hashem as history began evolving into what it has become today.
You might be wondering why I am addressing this now, a week later. The truth is, although the 19th day of Kislev marked the liberation of the Alter Rebbe from a 53-day incarceration, the custom has always been to observe it on the night leading into the 20th day of Kislev since there were a number of detours that the Rebbe took before reverting completely to his pre-incarcerated reality. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, at a 19 Kislev farbrengen in 1973, explained that when it comes to blessings of a pleasurable nature, known as birchos ha’nehenin, such as birchas ha’gomel, which is recited by a person who was freed from imprisonment, there is a requirement to wait until the subject returns to full health before reciting the berachah. Therefore, I surmised that the light that would ultimately illuminate the world because of the events of that day were so intense and its impact so far-reaching that it is apropos now, even a week later, to make note of it and learn from it.
I received a voice note from one of the many WhatsApp groups I belong to, a small clip containing a story retold by Rav Elimelech Zwiebel, z’l, who was a rosh yeshiva at the well-known Lubavitch Yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey. Rav Zwiebel relates an anecdote that illustrates how the 19th day of Kislev was so important to chassidim. A certain individual had fallen critically ill and was only given a short time to live. He was a friendly person who belonged to a tight-knit group of individuals in his community who would often learn together and celebrate these auspicious days by farbrenging together. When this Jew realized that his chances for recovery were slim and that his friends were scheduled to observe the 19th of Kislev together, he requested that he be wheeled into the farbrengen on his bed just to be there while they farbrengened. Sadly, not long thereafter, this Jew’s soul was returned on high, but his dying wish was fulfilled and he had the opportunity of observing this day as he had requested.
As I was listening to the story, I was hoping, as I’m sure you were, that he would have had a miraculous recovery, but unfortunately that did not happen. However, there was something within this short but poignant story that appealed to me, and that is this chassid’s ability to turn a blind eye, so to speak, to every seeming misfortune in his life, and despite his doctor’s grim prognosis and what would ultimately come to pass, to express such an intense will to observe this great day as if everything else in his life was just fine.
I was listening to this story on the morning of the 20th of Kislev from the 18th floor of the Beachwalk Hotel in Hallandale Beach, Florida, an altitude at which many of the tall skyscrapers situated on the water on the ground level don’t seem small, but are certainly much less imposing than they seem from the ground floor. The more I looked out from the balcony I began to realize that this distinction between my perception of these buildings from the ground floor versus the way they seem from the 18th floor, and certainly from the 30th floor, is a great way to think of the things going on in our lives that are holding us back from unlocking our fullest potential.
I write these reflections onboard American Airlines flight 243 from Miami International en route to John F. Kennedy airport. And although I haven’t flown at all in the past 10 months, as I sit here I am reminded of the awesome view that the world underneath me at 35,000 feet begins to take on as the aircraft climes to its highest altitude. The contrast between the imposing perception of the skyscrapers and the irritability of the hustle and bustle on the way to the airport and in the crush to get through security and to the gate is so jarring and even reawakening on a certain level. The message that could not escape me from the 18th floor of the Beachwalk Hotel and now, as we coast at an altitude of 35,000 feet, is that we are so much bigger than the problems that present themselves in our lives. It just all depends on the altitude from which we are encountering them.
Lately I have written more than usual about politics. The world is in the thick of a historic election, the results of which will have ramifications on a number of areas in our lives. But as I think about it in the context of everything I’ve written until this point, a part of me feels at ease regardless of who is sworn into office on January 20. At the end of the day, G-d breathed an actual part of his infinite essence within our nostrils for the purpose of creating a dwelling place for His holy glory, and everything else that takes place between that point and the fulfillment of that goal is just commentary to the ultimate story that we are writing.
In Pirkei Avos the mishnah says: “All who accept upon themselves the yoke of Torah will be absolved from enduring the yoke of government and of worldly concerns.” I was a yeshiva bachur, with my future very much in the air, punctuated by the uncertainty of what I would ultimately do to sustain myself and the family I was seeking to build. I was overcome by what seemed to be a simplistic thought, but one that for some reason people overlooked, almost preferring to have to endure the daily grind of life instead of placing all of that exertion in Torah. While thinking along these lines, my mind took me to the images of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, sitting serenely in his sukkah after being diagnosed with the coronavirus, keeping up his grueling daily schedule of limud haTorah, and how the news of his diagnosis didn’t cause him to ease up even a little.
It was another reminder of the power of Torah over this world and how a life genuinely dedicated to Torah negates, or at the very least makes much more manageable, the challenges of life.
The Ba’al HaTanya guaranteed that anyone who celebrates his day of liberation will be liberated in their own lives min haGehinnom, min ha’geshem el ha’ruach, and min ha’meitzar el ha’merchav. The Rebbe Rashab, the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, explained these three descriptions as referring to a liberation of the soul from Gehinnom, referring to the world of action known as asiyah; min ha’geshem el ha’ruach from the world of yetzirah, formation, into the world of beriyah, creation; and min ha’meitzar el ha’merchav, referring to the liberation of the soul from beriyah into the world of atzilus, where it attains inseparable oneness with G-d on high.
Although I write these reflections in the sky, thankfully the cabin pressure is at a normal level and I have not been hallucinating or losing my grasp of reality. And it happens to be that the four worlds enumerated in the previous paragraph don’t require a rocket ship to travel to. In fact the Maggid of Mezeritch once quipped: “Atzilus is oichet da,” meaning atzilus is also here. This is reminiscent of an answer of the Tzemach Tzedek to a chassid asking him if he should make Aliyah: “Mach da Eretz Yisrael” — meaning, create the experience of Eretz Yisrael in your life from wherever G-d has put you.
I believe that each of us in our own unique way struggles within the constrictions of this world and can use from time to time a view not from 35,000 feet up but perhaps 35,000 feet deep, where the soul can express itself unencumbered by the vicissitudes of life. So although the 19th and 20th days of Kislev have come and gone, like the Tzemach Tzedek told the chassid seeking to make aliyah, let’s make every day Yud-Tes Kislev.
The pilot announced our final descent over the loudspeaker, but while a trip to 35,000 feet can inspire these thoughts, let’s be thankful that their attainment can happen right here, with two feet on the ground.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.