Simchat Torah: Bizarre Journeys


Inspiration from Simchat Torah Over a Century Ago

Do you ever wonder about the bizarre twists and turns of your life’s journey? Why you had to endure various challenges, some of them seemingly quite unfair and overwhelming? Why do some of us have to suffer through impossible odds?

Simchat Torah in Russia over 110 years ago (corresponding to October 12, 1906) the Rebbe Sholom Dovber, known as the Rebbe Rashab, delivered a historic talk about the mysterious passages of life.

The Rebbe was addressing those Jews who were then being called up to the “priziv” – the compulsory draft into long term military service in the Russian Tsar’s army. This conscription was a dreaded prospect for Russian Jews who could anticipate particularly cruel treatment and not know whether they would ever return home.

The draft would begin in the winter. Those due to be called up came to the Rebbe Rashab on Simchat Torah that year (1906) to receive his blessing.

One of the draftees that year was Reb Shilem Kuratin (who was then a student in the Yeshiva, and would later become one of the head mashpiim, spiritual mentors). The Rebbe Rashab told him (translated from Yiddish):

“Regardless, you will be released [from the draft]. But the “spark” of Tohu that needs to be refined by you has to travel through the district [of the government office where you are being drafted], in order that these “sparks” should also “agree” [to be refined].”

A brief explanation of these terms: Tohu in Kabbalistic thought explains a fundamental cosmic dilemma: The root of all dissonance.

Since Divine energy is the essence of all matter, how do we explain the fact that our material existence can be so detached, so far removed from its source? What process allowed for such a radical leap – from unity to fragmentation, from an integral seamlessness to a disjointed existence? Tohu – which means chaos – is a state of being in which the energy is too powerful for its containers, resulting in what is called the “breakage of the containers” (shevirat ha’keilim), giving birth to every form of dissonance.

The purpose of this “explosion” however is not to create chaos, but to allow for an existence such as ours, in which we initially don’t feel our connection to our source and to our higher purpose, with the objective of bringing the Divine even into the darkest crevices, that deny the very existence of the Divine or even worse: replace it with a false god, so that they too should acknowledge the true nature of the Divine unity within all of existence.

Translated into practical terms this means: We live in a world of contradictions. Every one of us experiences dissonance in our lives. This may manifest in the form alienation, confusion or anxiety. It may be rooted in your childhood experiences – growing up in a home full with contradictions: One moment you were loved, the other you were abandoned. Abuse of various sorts help feed the confusion. Or it may be rooted in the nature of existence, regardless of the people around us. One moment you may feel inspired, powerful; the next moment you feel weak, resigned.

You may sometimes feel that you don’t belong. Not comfortable in your own skin. You want to be someone else. You may sense dichotomy in your life – a schism between your personal life at home and your professional life at work, a battle between your material need to survive and your spiritual need to transcend; between your higher ideals and the sad compromise of your standards.

Who of us has no struggle? No inconsistencies?

All this can either depress you, or… if you listen closely to the powerful words of the Rebbe Rashab stated a century ago, come to realize that all our schisms were meant to be: In order to allow the inner light to enter our fragmented existence, so that every aspect of our lives – even the disjointed and the chaotic – should also “agree” and accept the higher truth and purpose of our destinies.

And this is what the Rebbe Rashab told his students 112 years ago: Don’t be afraid of the draft. Remember that its entire purpose is to bring you to a place where there are “sparks” for you to elevate that can be found only in that particular location.

— I recall an interesting episode that took place back in 1990. My father was hospitalized for the High Holidays. On Erev Yom Kippur I went to see the Rebbe to receive a piece of “lekach” (sweet honey cake) and a blessing for my father. The Rebbe gave me a piece of cake, and said, smiling:

“Gib dos dem taten un zog im, az er zol shoin farendiken zein shlichus in shpitol, vet men em fun dort ba’frayen [or: aroislozen?].” “Give this to your father and tell him that he should finish fulfilling his mission in the hospital, so he will be released from there…”

G-d leads the footsteps of man. Wherever we travel, every journey we take, every experience we have – whether planned or not, whether pleasant or not – happens because we were led there by a higher force. You may think that you arrived somewhere due to your plans (business, vacation, personal), or by accident, or even against your will. In truth, you were led there to redeem “sparks” that are uniquely yours. Every place (physical or psychological) you have been too in your life offers you spiritual opportunities, that can help you grow and allow you to help others grow. Look for these opportunities, be open to the unexpected – and you’ll discover unimaginable results.

A Rebbe’s words, especially on the momentous eventful night of Simchat Torah, carry layers of meanings, eternal messages that often can be appreciated many years later.

The Rebbe Rashab’s words at the turn of last century were indeed prophetic. As difficult as the “priziv” may have been, the horrible places we would be forced to visit would only get worse as the century wore on. No one could ever have imagined what hellish abysses we would be thrown into first by Stalin and then by Hitler.

Today in the 21st century, we are blessed to have survived the destruction. Indeed, we live in unprecedented freedom. But we have our own new set of bizarre journeys. Many of us have grown up in homes that were far from healthy. The dichotomies of our lives have hardly subsided. Some may even argue that material prosperity has brought upon us more inner misery. We have fancier houses but broken homes. We have amazing communication tools, but less intimate communication. More network connections, but weaker inner connections.

Tells us the Rebbe Rashab – over one hundred years ago today – that wherever you go, as difficult as the journey may be, as strange your place may be, it is all for a higher purpose, for a deeper reason: For you to redeem the Divine sparks that can only be found in that dark place.

Indeed, we now are ready to finish elevating the final “sparks” in existence, as the Rebbe Rashab continues in his Simchat Torah talk.

Almost nothing is similar to life one hundred years ago. Yet, in some important ways not much has changed.

The greatest peace of all is knowing that where you are at this precise moment and place is exactly where you belong.

Let go of all and dance with that thought on Simchat Torah… and carry into the entire year.

* * *

Question for the week: How can one achieve joy even when things are difficult? Please share your ideas or personal experiences.


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Lawrence Bronstein
17 years ago

My wife and I recall all the blessings in our lives and express our thanks during difficult times and this helps to put things in perspective.

Marv Hershenson
17 years ago

This past week Ive confronted some real lost that Ive experienced over the last few years i.e., death of my father, losing my job, redefining my relationship with my adult children, and reigniting my relationship with my dear wife of 34 years. Now, as I embrace my senior years, I recognize that Ive been blessed with many good things. Each experience in my life has brought me to this place: to be present to my own present and know that Ive complete control on how I live in my present. I know that my past is just my past. I cannot change what happen yesterday. I can understand it and appreciate what Ive learned. I cannot control my future since it is not here. The only responsible activity that I can enjoy is to appreciate what I have and be a difference for others. Thank you.

dana wallen
17 years ago

it is hard but with help from friends and God people who have struggles will get through things in life that may be hard to deal with

Bridgette Spies
17 years ago

Why are things difficult?
What percentage of the difficulties are your doing?
joy is attainable when faith is realised and practised,because through it all we must learn to rely upon our unmoveable faith. Joy unspeakable And full of glory is achieved through pain.NO PAIN NO GAIN.The harder the difficulties; the sweeter the joy.

17 years ago

I heard a nice vort on the 2nd night of Sukkos explaining simcha. According to Reb Marty, simcha is not synonymous with ecstatic joy, as I would commonly think of the definition of joy (think: the Mets winning the Pennant on a 3 run home run in the bottom of the 9th). This is not simcha. Simcha is the felling that everything at this moment is exactly right. It is the opposite of chisaron , or lack, feeling that something is missing. In other words, simcha is feeling that you are exactly in the right place and it is exactly the right time.

Bonnie Cohen
17 years ago

When I feel low I remember Reb Nachmans words, Mitzvah gedolah leot bsimcha tamid. I begin to sing, often through my own tears, and in a very short time my joy returns.

Shimon Darwick
17 years ago

Whistle until you forget you are whistleing

Tali Katz
17 years ago

My dear Chevre
This has been one of the most unique, beautiful and challenging Yom Tovim.
We flew from Florida to Vancouver then sailed five days to Honolulu. The first days at sea were so rough that I had difficulty remaining balanced so I was just praying that when RH arrived that we had calm weather.
My husband G-d bless him learned how to blow shofar and he was truly my right hand man.
I surprised him and made him the reader. There were less than barely a minyan identified Jews who chose to be present at services however each one had a special need and I found myself catering to them through my sermon talks mostly based on Chasidic teachings, and my greatest source was the text the 60 day Journey by R.Simon Jacobson. Concsious of time limits on the ship I wove the essential nusach yom tov melodies and familiar Shabbat ones as wellthroughout the three services held on board the first cruise ship. Sadly prayers needing a minyan had to be eliminated.
The first person who appeared at Erev RH service told me she loved Jewish people and then proceeded to tell me she was baptized in the Jordan River- I just smiled and said Hmmm that is very interesting. The next person with a thick British accent said he didnt believe in G-d but he was present because he is a devout Zionist and a Jew and believes in supporting the Jewish people, and he wanted to have a discourse on the validity of G-d- I offered to discuss the concept of G-d at a later time since my role at that moment was to the best of my ability to create with them a sacred place for these holy days. The first woman to enter was also from London so they sat together.
She was very moved by my singing Debbie Friedmans Mshebeirach since both her son and husband were quite ill.
A young couple asked me to close with the speedy Adon Olam which was their favorite at which my friend who didnt believe in G-d said oh you Americans , you like everything fast. On Sunday when Howard blew Shofar I closed with an Adon Olam that he knew from childhood in his tempo and he was beaming.
On Shabbat morning there were Russians now living in Vancouver however they were from the Ukraine. I did most of the service in Hebrew which they loved and my location was moved to the small restaurant so we had the clanking of dishes in the kitchens and when we had a moment of silent prayer the cruise directors announcement for 70s disco dancing was heard loud and clear and I remarked how here we are in spite of what goes around us together worshiping as one on this holy day- we continue to press forward, we continue to survive no matter what odds we face as a people.
I looked into the eyes of these Russian Jews and I found that I had to catch my breath because I welled up with tears thinking of their own stories of surviving and maintaining their Jewish identity. They were conscious of time since they like the rest of the ship were heading for the first tours at Maui.
I realized they didnt make a kiddush or a motzi and I went chasing after them to have them return for some wine, challah and honey and apples.
I found myself doing more than chanting HHday nusach, the Torah that I gave over each day resonated somehow more deeply because I felt that I was taking the text and making it intimately connected to each of us because of our numbers and how we were so far from our homes.
On second day RH we went to the synagogue at Maui since due to the cruise tour schedules, I had to have a later service I convinced the cruise director of the importance of the shofar and that I would create a service for that in the afternoon. It was good to be in a more normal environment well relatively speaking.
Now here was a perfect example of pluralism. The machzor is used by Hillel and the rabbi integrated Sim Shalom and Artscroll. I was thrilled that was the opportunity to be in a minyan for my husband since it was his fathers yorzeit and I could daven a complete amidah. The rabbi did a dance for all movements however there was no dance with him and the cantor. The chazzan who was knowledge in HH nusach was more of a performer and I never felt he was engaged in prayer. I saw the performer cantor. This rabbi chanted also, lained Torah, Haftorah and blew a mean gorgeous yemenite shofar, that took my breath away. He called me up for an aliyah which was quite a pleasant surprise. After services we went to the beach and did Tashlich and danced Mayim, mayim.
I even got to sing my mayim chayim during Tashlich.
Howard and I returned to do a special Shofar service chanting and then discussing all the kabbalistic interpretations and teachings of the shofar experience cited in 60 day journey and so we managed to hear my husbands wonderful blowing of the shofar, which he learned from a chabad rabbi right before the trip and he proudly performed this mitzvah before sunset so in essence we were probably the last to hear a shofar blown being one of the last time zones in the world. . We boarded the second ship Kol Nidre eve at 5:30 pm. Service is at 6:00/ At four I am running around before boarding to find a salad or fish diner at the Honolulu dock. I just have time for a quick meditation and here too unique experiences and individuals since the assistant cruise director was not only Jewish he was also one of my kindergarten students I taught over 25 years ago.
Having Andrew there I was given a wonderful room and here two there was an intimacy created as well.
What heightened the experience was being in Hawaii for I was nurtured by the poetry of nature and I felt the tehillim of David HaMelech come alive. So after I hiked a steep mountain scared out of my mind. Wherever Howard placed his foot I placed mine. I saw the shadow of footsteps and felt Hashems presence. I also found a rock which I held tight descending this hike and spoke to Hashem through this rock. Howard my engineer husband told me that my balance would be better if I would put down the rock. I said I couldnt since I was talking to G-d through the rock. As I also felt the psalms of David within my being I held that picture in my mind when I chanted esa enai.
Neilah was awesome. Its strange that it was my longest fast and my voice was stronger than ever this Neilah.
We broke fast in a quiet part of one of the four restaurants on deck/ However a group of people showed up nearby who had been pub hoping. One party completely drunk sat next to me and this guy points to the challah and says : Hey thats Jewish bread. The waiter quickly ran over to my table embarrassed and asked if I wanted to move and I was considering it until the man seated at the table next to me said I am Jewish. Next thing I am passing him challah and honey. He said he hadnt been in a synagogue since he was a child however he knew only one prayer and began reciting the Shema.
Just then he called his mom in LA to tell her he was sitting next to a cantor. As I wished him a sweet New Year his mom did at the same time and he said: I am hearing Sweet new year in stereo. We spoke for a while when he sobered up and the next afternoon he told me he rose at sunrise to see the Akaka Falls and talk to G-d.
On sukkot we returned to Maui and we travelled the road to Hana which is a canopy of beauty and I felt embraced by a sukkah from shamayim. I didnt have services but went back to the shul there and enjoyed the service and having lunch in the rabbis sukkah.
I walked with him to his home and the whole way he sang niggunim. Who would have dreamed I would be with such a rabbi and his wonderful wife who prepared a such a feast for us.
I learned more about humility on this trip, more about making a deeper soul connection to another human being and about being fully present and feeling the presence of Hashem.

We returned home after a long flight and just put our bags down and Howard and a neighbor began putting up our sukkah as I ran off to Boca to buy a kosher take out meal at the Kosher market and picked up my lulav that was waiting for me at a friends house. My friend kindly cut down palm fronds which filled the entire back seat of my car. We managed to say the blessings for both the lulav and sitting in the sukkah just before sunset..

It has been an amazing few months starting with the conference, Israel oh my daughters surprising us and having a beautiful chasidus orthodox wedding officiated by a chabad rabbi in early Sept in Boston and yes cruising for the Yom Tovim.
Chag Sukkot Sameach

Robin Blumenthal
17 years ago

I have found the best way to achieve peace of mind, if not joy, when things are difficult is to seize the opportunity to help someone else. This gives me hope that my pain is not senseless.

15 years ago

I put everything in my God box. I dont worry. The Bible says not to fear. So, I dont.

5 years ago

Please pray, help us.

Lazer Gurkow
5 years ago

The end of the story with Rabbi Shilem is also worth nothing. It turned out that out of all the districts in Russia, only this one was run by a Jewish officer. The officer exempted Shilem from the draft. The sixth Rebbe, son of the Rebbe Rashab, would later comment that all the districts throughout Russia operated draft boards so that Reb Shilem would be able to uplift this particular spark.

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