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Simchat Torah: Bizarre Journeys

Inspiration from Simchat Torah 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 102 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 brining 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 100 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 20th 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, 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 – 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.



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