Thursday, November 29, 2007

Dear Basya: It's Big

Some time ago, a girl named Basya commented on my blog, reacting to my notions about Chabad being “the truth.” Her questions inquired into my reasoning for promoting the Chabad way of life, and the learning of Chassidus.

While I can only say I try to live a Chabad life, and I wish I learned more of the Chassidus I so passionately preach, Basya pointed out that I may have had some experiences that can serve to answer her questions, which she says no one has ever properly addressed.

I have had brief interaction with her via e-mail, and have decided – especially by the demand of other Hilltop enthusiasts – to respond to Basya on my blog. This way, a larger audience can benefit from our interaction.

Basya’s question was personal. Therefore, so is my response.

The following is my second letter to Basya. Read the first one here.


Dear Basya,

I am going to ignore my instinct to apologize profusely for the lapse of time since our last dialogue (but hopefully this counts!).

Let’s just jump right back in.

So you’re demanding to know what Chassidus brings to Judaism.

You want to know how it’s different.

You ask, “What does Chassidus have that should lead me to its study?”

Today we celebrate the Alter Rebbe release from prison, 209 years ago. Known simply by its date Yud-Tes-Kislev, the day marks a renewed strength in the spreading of Chassidus. Considered the New Year of Chassidus, Yud-Tes-Kislev revives our personal obligation to live and spread its truth, light, and warmth.

So I’ll tell you, Basya.

I’ll tell you why my insides burn with regret when a day passes that I don’t learn Chassidus.

I’ll tell you why I consider all my talents to be null when not used for the spreading of its wellsprings.

I’ll tell you why I left a world of black-and-white Judaism to pursue the four-worlds.

I’ll tell you why I am here, writing to you.

Before my encounters with Chabad Chassidus, I was seeped in environments that either espoused a limited and cold Judaism devoid of an involved father or schools with teachers that believed in a “fully cooked” Jewess who earns the right to be stagnant (judging and preaching the less fortunate on the side).

After years in non-Chabad schools, my desire to take time to learn Chassidus came from a combination of family, distaste for zealous, black-and-white Judaism and a strong dose of inspiration coming from “nowhere.”

It only took one class in Chassidus to evaporate my years of uninformed Judaism.

It took a tiny dose of the Rebbe’s light to return me to dust.

While my previous learning had made me feel huge and satiated, all I had to do was learn one chapter of Tanya to shrink to the size of an ant. A starving little ant.

Unlike learning devoid of attention to Torah’s inner dimension, Chassidus didn’t teach me to get from point A to point B. It just proved to me that being a Jew means never staying at one point altogether, but to constantly move and search and find and search and move.

Chassidus forced me to view Torah as more than a guidebook or inspiring dictate. After learning Chassidus, the only appropriate relationship to Torah was a deep acknowledgment of its vastness, a struggle to approach its magnitude, and a fresh daily journey to begin integrating its purpose everyday.

With Chassidus, Torah isn’t just a lot to know, but a lot to live.

Basya, take a look around. There are people who are soaked in Torah learning but have yet to approach Judaism through the prism of this generation’s greatest treasure. Compare them to the Lubavitchers you say you have learned from. Tell me what you see. My own experiences have revealed a clear distinction.

Indeed, Chassidus plucked me from stagnation into a revolutionary journey that makes me feel like an ant. But being an ant with a meaningful – albeit eternal - journey is much better than sitting on a muddy watered plateau thinking I’m a goddess.

Chassidus saved me from the danger of being a “settled” Jew. Learning Torah’s inner dimension has shown me that Judaism is not something I can ever hold in my hand. It threw me into the recognition that G-d and His world are too great a treasure to merely hold, but enlivening forces that I must incessantly run after at every moment.

That is why I am here. I am here because truth is big. I am here because feeling my own smallness has given me the key to a personal relationship with G-d and a never-ending voyage with my soul.

This is why my insides burn with regret when a day passes that I don’t learn Chassidus.

This is why I consider all my talents to be null when not used for the spreading of its wellsprings.

This is why I left a world of black-and-white Judaism to pursue the four-worlds.

This is why I am here, writing to you.

While every level of Torah learning is profound and necessary, there is no excuse for avoiding Torah’s inner calling. Imagine a world where every Jew recognized that Yiddishkeit is immeasurable. Chassidus is today’s demand that enables this awareness, and dismissing its insights means robbing yourself of something so essential.

Basya, I write to you but am speaking to myself. If only I always felt like an ant. I can only hope to actively live the lessons of Chassidus I all-too-often admire from afar.

Thank you for providing me with the opportunity for renewed consciousness, while hopefully inspiring you and others along the way.

I suspect we will be in touch.

All my very best,


Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Cosmic Flame

My Reflections on Lighting Shabbos Candles

The Sun Sets and I Awake

There is no other focus like the one I experience every seven days when lighting the candle that ushers in Shabbos. For me, it is both a moment of deep reflection of the past week, and sincere prayers for the one fast approaching. It is a thank-you note to G-d, and a supplication for a new era. It is the whole world wrapped in a flame.

My hand brings the match to the candle and an image of a million other hands burns in my mind. The faces of my ancestors praying for future generations. The faces of the women who lit candles during persecution. The faces of many of today’s women who look forward to it as their only spiritual and connecting ritual.

Sometimes I see the flame as a soul imprint of the past week. It knows the routine and often perplexing patterns of daily existence that have brought me here, searching for tranquility.

Gazing into the purples and blues of the flames center, I am summoned to face my mission in the world. By lighting the candle, I say two things: I am a Jewish woman. And more than that, I am G-d’s. The light-filled ceremony concretizes the fusion of these realizations, and I’m a new person…once again.

I am a Flame

The setting sun has commanded me into existence. I stand erect, dancing slightly. With my birth, all chaos has been consumed, and my warmth transforms to harmony within the people, air, and walls that make this home. I hear whispers of reflection, and prayers for the coming week. I am the ultimate witness to the pain and joy, the hopes and dreams, the transformation, and the fresh renewal within Jewish women worldwide. I am a flame. I am more than a flame. I am the fireworks inside every Jewish home. I may be small, but I set the world aglow.

Something to Count on

The Jerusalem sun is threatening to set with its darkening orange display. Shabbos is arriving in ten minutes, and I’m in a lost taxi on nowhere street. With each minute passing, a drum bangs in my stomach. My whole body cringes as I sit in disappointment. Shabbos, which holds the gift of spiritually recharging, was not meant to be greeted this way - in a mad rush, hair undone, and racing against time.

When I finally arrive at my hosts, I have one remaining minute that gets quickly used up with dropping my bags and greeting the family. Time is taking its command, and I am suddenly standing still before the unlit candle which was prepared for me.

I strike the match, and I feel the world around me spin into a new creation. All chaos freezes. A flame is born, and a warm harmony suddenly seeps from within and sinks into the air, and the very walls around me. The world is both standing still and dancing in the life’s most poetic movement. Shabbos is here.

In the madness, I had forgotten - when you light Shabbos candles, you’re under its rule. There’s no escaping the clarity and deep peace it naturally brings. The candle would not let my rushed mood be a barrier to its holy mission. Standing in its warmth, I recite the blessing with a refreshed appreciation for this unique commandment. While cab drivers in Israel may be completely unreliable, the blessing that is lighting Shabbos candles will always be something to count on.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Not Love Alone

Rabbi Friedman reading Live From the Hilltop from my laptop

(The following is based on a class given by Rabbi Manis Friedman)

Society, with all its music and images, has persuaded us that love makes a happy marriage. Judaism says, “Yea, we know that. But there must be more to the picture.”

Love is an expression of kindness.Sounds good, right?

Yes, but not on its own.

By nature, love is indiscriminate. Indiscriminate kindness is very messy. You give away everything to everyone. It’s total chaos.

What we need in our marriages is a little bit of the fear factor.

Fear is an expression of judgment – it means measure, consideration, restraint.

What does love and fear mean in a marriage?

Love is the feeling of fullness and closeness.
Fear is a feeling of distance, smallness, being insignificant.

Because of love, we say nice things.
Because of fear, we’re careful not to say the wrong things.

For love to truly flourish, it needs to be discriminate. Discriminate love means finding the right bounds in which to express your kindness. Is this the right time and place to give a compliment? Is this even the appropriate compliment? Adding fear to the love makes us examine whether the love is appropriate in context. Someone who doesn’t fear their spouse is probably abusing them. They have love, maybe – but its expression is not personal. It’s out of hand. Only fear can keep the expression of love appropriate. Love alone can never be so undoubtedly sensitive. It’s on a role, and doesn’t want to stop to truly reflect on its tact - the what, where, when, or how.

A man can abuse the same wife he loves so immensely. What he lacks is fear, not love. In fear, there is the humility, respect, and restraint that wouldn’t allow one spouse to emotionally or physically abuse the other.

A marriage where both spouses fear each other has the ultimate capacity for romance. Romance means knowing exactly when and how to express your love. It means picking exactly the right night to surprise your husband with a fancy dinner, and choosing the food he likes.

The husband who has lots of love but lacks fear cannot be romantic. He tells his wife he loves her when she is coming through the front door holding bags of groceries. There is no insight into his wife’s situation, her needs. All he knows is that he loves her, wants to show it, and it must be now. Real romance means delicately choosing the context of your words and actions. That’s when love is really alive and at its best.

It’s for this very reason that G-d had a “change of plans” when he created the world. Originally breathing the world into existence through kindness, he then added judgment. That’s the only way the world would spin. G-d wanted his interest and love to be personal and unique, not just splattered.

So let’s not splatter our love, our kindness. When it comes to true harmony in a marriage, “what’s love got to do with it?” A lot. But not everything.