By Yochanan Gordon
I hope I don’t sound too preachy in my articles. The word “preachy” often has a negative connotation. The truth is I hope the ideas I share in my weekly column do not come off sounding preachy. Most of the time I am thinking out loud and sharing these thoughts with you in the spirit of inspiring you, and I hope that’s how you receive it.
Inevitably, any time you talk about esoteric concepts and how they can elevate us in our mundane lives, you risk sounding preachy. Please accept my apologies. The only way to circumvent that is for the speaker to actually listen to his own words and live by them. Which reminds me of a story about Reb Shmuel Munkes, who was present when the Alter Rebbe was being pursued by the Czarist regime, which led to his being imprisoned for 53 days. It seems that the Alter Rebbe was anxious about the imminent arrest and his close Chassid, Reb Shmuel, said to him: “If you are a Rebbe then you have nothing to fear; if you are not a Rebbe, then what right do you have to deprive your followers of the pleasures of this world.”
This is a perfect continuation into last week’s remarks in preparation for the 10th of Shevat in which the Rebbe, whose leadership began on the 10th of Shevat 1951, set off a time period wherein the lines between Chassid and Rebbe would become blurred and an era when the stature of Rebbe would begin to rise to the fore in every single Jew.
So, I admit that the ideas I wrote about last week and those I seek to share on a weekly basis are ideologically aspirational and difficult to internalize if they aren’t constantly put into practice. The article was published on Thursday morning. The next day, Friday, began like any other day with me attending the 8:00 a.m. minyan in shul followed by a chavrusa session on Likkutei Sichos of the Lubavitcher Rebbe which has been my Friday schedule for a number of years. About three quarters of the way through the sichah, I get a call from my wife that water gushed from our washing machine and flooded our basement. The good news is that the basement is a cellar, the bad news is that I had a bunch of Costco items on the floor that were wrecked in the flood.
I called our plumber and ran home to bail out the basement. We got another washing machine and enlisted the assistance of my brother, who helped to bring it down the narrow, winding staircase and into proper position. All this on a Friday with licht bentschen at 4:26.
Somehow our boiler went kaput right after we finished installing the washing machine. We found out when one of our kids tried to take a shower at 2 p.m. and the water ran cold. We immediately called the boiler company and expressed the urgency of a timely visit. Deciding not to wait around for the boiler people to show up before the onset of Shabbos, we sent our kids to my brother-in-law, who lives around the corner, which was a sound decision given the repairman came in the eighteen minutes with just enough time to fix the problem.
At some point between all this turmoil of a basement flood, calling the plumber, and my brother helping to shlep the washing machine down rickety stairs, I had the chance to print out a pamphlet of Rabbi Yitzchok Ginsburgh of the GalEinai organization. One of the ideas that he spoke about pertains to one of the Friediker Rebbe’s Kabbalistic teachings from the Maamar from 10 Shevat 1950, which talks about the infinite light of G-d that extends upward to infinity and irrationally downward. What that means is that nothing can exist without being animated by G-d’s infinite light. It is a very scary thought, but that means that Hashem is actively pumping life into people, even those who wantonly transgress His will.
Additionally, there is a verse in Psalms that states: “If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I descend to she’ol, the abyss, here You are.” This verse is worded interestingly in that the word “there” connotes distance. In fact, Chassidus explains that the word sham in Hebrew describes a reality that is distant and obscured from the G-dly reality. By contrast, however, Kind David writes that when he descends into the abyss, G-d is here [Hineka]. Rav Ginsburgh explains that the defining characteristic of divinity is that it isn’t limited to dark or light, large or small, righteous or not. If there was a word that could describe the G-dly reality, at least on the level that we can understand, it would be paradox. G-d transcends time and space and is present simultaneously in all manifestations, regardless of whether or not they bolster belief in Him or the reverse.
We often think that our good days are when things are going well. The kids are behaving, you have time to learn, the bills are paid, your mind is clear, etc. And the bad days are the opposite, when you are shrouded in doubt and uncertainty. During these tough times, the only recourse for believing Jews is to look heavenward and exclaim, “G-d, I know you’re up there somewhere, but I have no idea what you want from me.”
The truth is, the peace of mind and clarity we feel on a day when the sun is shining and the birds are chirping is a reflection of G-d’s light shining on us. It is one of G-d’s clues about the heavenly experience we are living in our mundane world. Paradoxically, it is in the abyss when we truly come to know G-d in his essence, rather than in the rays of light. That is why King David writes: “If I descend into the abyss, here You are.” G-d is only present in a place where a Jew can pass through without being able to empirically sense His presence. He knows with certainty that He is there though it may be dark and cloudy.
There were moments during the ordeal when I was compelled to ask Him what He wanted from me. But for the most part I kept calm and tried to remain focused on addressing the most pressing issues without getting caught up in the hysteria of a flooded basement and a broken boiler.
It goes without saying that these are minor nuisances compared to what the people in Israel are facing. When that perspective came to me in the midst of bailing out the basement, I realized how useful this mindset is when dealing with any challenging situation.
In the days leading to the 10th of Shevat, many people used this time to connect with the Rebbe and the Friediker Rebbe by learning the respective maamarim, which I also did. But just reading about these concepts cannot compare to the challenge of finding yourself in a difficult situation where you have to put those ideas into practice.
This brings to mind a story I remember about a certain rosh yeshiva who used to give classes on Chovos Halevavos Shaar Habitachon and he would present the material to his students as if he was someone who had already mastered the material. The middah of trust in Hashem, the belief that everything that Hashem manifests in a person’s life, all the situations, are perfectly tailored to that person’s purpose in this world.
As luck would have it, all the rosh yeshiva’s assets were lost when the ship that was carrying his goods sank. It was still early, and he hadn’t received the news yet, so he was approached by his students who asked their teacher a theoretical question about a person who lost his entire life’s savings in a shipwreck. How should such a person react to such news?
The rosh yeshiva answered in a way that a master of bitachon would answer based on all his years of study and the level of righteousness he had acquired in his life. When they broke the news to him that it wasn’t a theoretical question and he had lost his entire life’s savings in a shipwreck, he fainted. When they revived him, they asked why he hadn’t reacted in the same manner that he had answered them a few minutes prior. He replied that there is a great distance between what a person knows and what he feels.
Let us pray to never be tested like the rosh yeshiva of the story, but strengthen ourselves with the knowledge that Hashem’s light follows us even during the darkest days, whether sitting in a tank in Gaza or bailing out a flooded basement in the Five Towns. This is one lesson I will be internalizing for many years to come.