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Even the best suffer from it. At some point, whether composing a story, a poem, an essay, whether the work is short or long, the writer feels blocked. Ideas stop flowing, characters seem flat, expressions stale, and the whole enterprise more trouble than it's worth. Besides, thinks the writer, I'm not that good, no one reads me, and what's the point?
It's not a pleasant feeling. It can be described in many ways, but talk to writers and a clear image emerges: one's mind, one's creativity, one's very being is trapped, boxed in and banging itself against a wall trying to get out and express itself.
Find a cure for writer's block, patent it, market it and make a fortune. And what applies to writers probably applies to other creative individuals - artists, musicians, even athletes. (Ever hear of a slump?)
What causes writer's block, anyway? Laziness, maybe. Over-confidence, perhaps, which may be a form of laziness, as is rut-writing - following a formula over and over and over and... External factors can cause writer's block - getting distracted with little (if important) things, illness, G-d forbid, personal worries, bills, deadlines and other pressures.
But writer's block can also come from inside, from the psychology of the soul, so to speak. Every writer knows that writing works only when the conscious and sub-conscious minds work together. The internal dialogue comes from somewhere, and that's the subconscious.
Writers will tell you that they unblock themselves when they "go with the flow," let the subconscious, the characters, the plot, the idea take over and guide them where it will. They have to step away from the conscious, give it a rest, rethink and reconnect - back to the source and trust the source.
Sometimes (often) the only way out of writer's block is to write - sit down, put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, and uncritically, unquestioningly, write whatever words come forth. And sometimes (often) "just doing it" is also the only way to get into doing a mitzva (commandment) when we don't "feel like it."
And while most of us aren't writers, all of us have Jewish souls and our Jewish souls, being an actual part of the Creator above, want to create. Our Jewish souls want to "write" the story of our lives - with the Jewish soul as hero and protagonist.
But we, the "conscious mind," the "animal soul," have to cooperate. We have to open the trap door, let the Jewish soul express itself. If not, both parts of our being become frustrated, irritated, lost and impatient.
That spiritual yearning, that search for meaning, that sense of isolation - the meandering mind and "restless spirit" - tell us we have spiritual "writer's block."
And that joyous leap when we put on tefilin again, or light the Chanuka menora, or go to synagogue, or kiss the mezuza, or light Shabbat candles, or put a coin in the pushka (charity box), that sense of connectedness or feeling of wholeness when a mitzva is done - tells us we've broken through, that the stream of the soul's creativity, mirroring the Creator's continuous creation, has begun to flow again.
This week's Torah portion, Vayeitze, begins with the words: "And Jacob went out from Beer Sheba and went towards Haran."
The Torah offers two reasons for the name Beer Sheba: one is because of the oath Abraham made in his covenant with Abimelech; the second is because of the seventh well dug after Isaac's peace-treaty with Abimelech. Both of these explanations indicate a condition of tranquility for Israel. But the name Haran is the reverse, as our sages interpreted it to indicate "the fierce anger - charan af - of the world.
There are those who wonder: G-d has given us the Torah and mitzvot (commandments) with "a full and ample hand." Wherever we turn there is either a positive precept for us to observe or a prohibition against which we must guard ourselves. At the very least, shouldn't G-d have removed all our worries in order to make it easier for us to observe the mitzvot? In fact, we should be altogether freed of worldly concerns so that we might spend more time in the tents of Torah, if this is what G-d truly wants of us.
The Torah shows us Jacob's behavior, through which we can understand how to conduct ourselves. Before Jacob was to marry, that is, to build the House of Israel, he was told to leave Beer Sheba and the study halls of Shem and Eber where he had learned for the past fourteen years. He was to come to Haran, a place where G-dliness and holiness were concealed.
In Haran, it was very easy to sin and very difficult to be virtuous. Yet, it was precisely because he was steadfast when exposed to temptation that Jacob was able to build the House of Israel so that "his offspring were perfect"; not one of his children straying from the Torah path.
This offers a lesson for every one of us. Part of our Divine mission involves being exposed to temptations. To be tempted and prevail raises man to higher levels. It is understood, though, that we are speaking of tests and temptations which G-d places before us: it is a fundamental belief that man has the capacity to remain steadfast in the face of all difficulties and tests imposed upon him by Divine Providence. Man, however, is not to subject himself to temptations as a test.
By overcoming these temptations, it is possible to build a Jewish home which is both radiant and warm.
Adapted from the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
The Mystical Dimensions of Fire
by Bassie Gurary
Living in Simi Valley during the Southern California wildfires, we were all engulfed in the news of its latest developments as our neighborhood was under siege with fires raging out of control, smoke intoxicating the air and dark clouds casting an eerie glow over the sky. It was an experience that was surreal to say the least. When the freeways were finally opened and we felt comfortable breathing the air outside, we noticed the destruction left in the fire's wake. It was a scene that reminded one of the Biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: blackened mountains, trees and shrubs reduced to rubble, melted guard-rails, blackened signs; complete decimation of the life and vegetation that was once blooming in the area.
In Simi Valley itself all lives were spared and almost all of the homes in our area were not damaged, leaving people to continue their lives as before. However, it is difficult to go back to life just as before. It is difficult to ignore the pain of the many lives that were lost. It is difficult to ignore the anguish and disappointment of the thousands who have lost all of their worldly possessions to a pile of ashes in the merciless fires.
The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, taught that one can learn from all experiences how to live a better life as a Jew. What insight can we gain from the negative experiences of this horrific wildfire? Surely, there must be a positive lesson here.
Fire can be a very useful tool. It may be used as a source of light, for warmth, and for cooking. Yet, it can also be so destructive when it goes beyond its limit and is not rooted to anything concrete. Our job is to channel this great resource towards something constructive.
G-d is compared to a fire. In fact, at the core of every Jew lies a spark of G-d: the Jewish soul. For a candle to operate it needs a flame, a wick and fuel to burn. Similarly, the flame - the Jewish soul - needs something concrete to keep it alive. Abstract, spiritual meditations are not the key to keeping the Jewish soul ablaze. For the soul to be truly alive it must be bound to the material world we live in - to the physical body. Yet the fuel that lights it up to its fullest potential, are the Torah and mitzvot, the Divine instructions in how to lead our daily lives.
When people were told to evacuate their homes, they had to pack up their most important possessions immediately. It was during those crucial moments when one came to realize his true priorities in life. Suddenly, worldly goods lost their significance as the value of life came into clear focus. After a fire's destruction, one realizes that we are not defined by what we have, but by what we are.
One evening in July 1969, at about 3:00 a.m., there was a terrible car accident, at which time the entire vehicle blew up in flames, trapping nine young yeshiva students inside. They were traveling home to Brooklyn after visiting Boston for their friend's wedding. Miraculously, every single one managed to get out of the burning car! Although most of them sustained major burn injuries, with some scars lasting to this very day, the fact that they came out of the inferno altogether was a total miracle, amazing the state troopers and all the emergency personnel who arrived on the scene.
These yeshiva students, one of whom is my uncle, soon learned that the miracle which they had experienced in surviving a fire of such magnitude, was in the merit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
A few hours before they were miraculously spared, something unusual was taking place in Brooklyn, at Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters. At around midnight, the Rebbe had suddenly instructed that a particular Chasidic teaching be inserted into a Rabbinic journal that was nearly ready to print. So, while the yeshiva boys were escaping the fire on the highway, this particular Chasidic teaching was being studied, reviewed and written up for publication, as per the Rebbe's instructions. After news of the accident reached the Rebbe's office the next morning, the Rebbe remarked to one of his secretaries that the sudden instruction in preparing that Chasidic teaching for print was specifically because of those yeshiva boys!
What was the Chasidic teaching about? It was an explanation of a Yiddish saying, rooted in holy sources, that "after a fire one becomes rich"! The Kabala explains that after giving the world its share of strict judgment - such as in a fire - G-d treats the world to the attribute of compassion, which is boundless by nature, a limitless flow of kindness and positive energy.
That Shabbat, the Rebbe spoke publicly about the Torah portion and its connection to the week's fiery events. The portion ("Chukat") tells of the saraf, the fiery snake. During one of the times when the Jews in the desert complained about not having adequate provisions, G-d punished them with a plague of poisonous snakes. Many died from the snakes' venom, until Moses pleaded to G-d on their behalf. He was instructed to place a saraf on a staff; all who looked up and gazed at it would be healed.
The snake itself did not have the power to give life. It was just the tool that G-d used to dispense the precious gift of life to all those in need of its blessing. When the Jew gazed upwards at the snake, his eyes were focused towards the heavens, symbolizing his renewed devotion to G-d and His commandments.
G-d, the source of all life, constantly gives life to every part of creation. Yet, as explained before, "after a fire one becomes rich"; G-d grants us to live our lives on a much better level, through the Divine flow of compassion - boundless positive energy.
Today, the wildfires have subsided. We should gaze towards the heavens and gratefully acknowledge G-d's infinite goodness. May we all merit to receive His infinite blessings in a way we can truly appreciate, and may these blessings lead us to be better people and better Jews, who will do what it takes to make this world a much better place, the way it was always meant to be!
Bassi Gurary, and her husband Rabbi Noson Gurary, are the founders of Chabad of Simi Valley, California.
The Land of Israel: Why Does It Really Matter?
How can such a tiny place take up so much space in the news, in conversations and debates all over the globe? What mysterious force is at work that at once sets the Land of Israel apart from the rest of the world and binds every Jew inextricably to its destiny? Chabad Discovery Weekends invites you to a special Shabbaton as renowned Chasidic scholar and philosopher Rabbi Manis Friedman explores these issues through the lens of revealed and mystical Torah teachings. The weekend, which takes place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Dec. 26-28, also features Mrs. Shimonah Tzukernik. Join Jewish couples, singles and families for an unforgettable weekend. For reservations call Faygie at 718-774-6187 or visit www.shabbaton.org
Adapted from a letter of the Rebbe from 1964/5724
Greeting and Blessing:
I am in receipt of your letter, and of the preceding one. For certain reasons, I am replying in English, though your letters were written in Hebrew.
With your indulgence, I must begin with some prefatory remarks which may partly be repetitious, as I believe I touched on the subject during our meeting. However, there are words which must be said even at the risk of repetition, rather than be left unsaid altogether.
I am referring to the concluding lines of your letter, where you mention various schools of thought in Judaism, and speak of philosophy, psychology and various attitudes in general.
Parenthetically speaking, many aspects of your points of interest have been dealt with in books, not only in Hebrew but also in English. About these books you probably know or can find out. There are also similar sources which deal with Chasidism in general and Chabad Chasidism in particular. However, this is mentioned only by the way.
The essential purpose of my writing is an attempt to clear up what is to me a puzzling thing: It is many months since we had our personal encounter, yet it seems that the discussion we had at that time, and my subsequent effort to help you find yourself, so to speak, have been fruitless so far. However, inasmuch as the reasons which impelled me to take up our discussion in the first place are still there, and perhaps have even grown stronger than before, I must restate my views even at the risk of some repetition:
continued in next week's issue
- There may be valid differences of opinion among people as to what activity or interest in the daily life should have a priority over others. But this may be justified only in normal circumstances. When an emergency arises, however, all theoretical differences must be put aside in order to deal with the emergency. To illustrate my point: It is one thing to debate what type of house - if it caught fire - is worth saving, or by what method, and by whom. It is quite another thing when one is actually facing a burning house with people trapped therein, old ones, younger ones and children. At such a time there can be no difference of opinion as to the imperative need to fight the blaze and save the trapped ones. This is the duty of everyone who is nearby, even if he is not a trained firefighter, and even if those trapped inside the burning house are strangers.
The obligation is immeasurably greater, of course, if those inside are one's own relatives, and especially if one has had experience and has been successful in fire-extinguishing activity.
- Where a doubt exists as to what is good for an individual, or a group, or a nation, it is sometimes quite illuminating to consider what the enemy desires; especially if the enemy has shown persistent effort to attain his end. For then it would be clear that the opposite of what the enemy desires is good for that individual, group or nation.
In our generation, we have seen with our very eyes what the arch-enemy of our people - Hitler and his followers - desired, plotted and unfortunately succeeded to a considerable degree, in regard to our people. He made no secret of his fiendish plan. His avowed intention was to exterminate the Jewish people and, above all, to eradicate the Jewish spirit. Therefore, his first victims were the Jewish books and synagogues, spiritual leaders and Rabbis.
There are several methods whereby our enemies hope to attain our annihilation, G-d forbid. To Hitler's twisted mind the obvious method was to simply send Jewish men, women and children to the gas chambers and crematoria. But the method of spiritual cremation, involving not the Jewish body, but the Jewish soul - through assimilation, intermarriage, etc. - is just as devastating.
The crematoria where Jewish bodies were incinerated, are a thing of the unforgettable horrible past. Thanks to the grace of the Alm-ghty, these butchers were stopped before their work of destruction reached its goal. But the spiritual crematoria, where Jewish souls are being consumed, are to our great distress still ablaze, and more fiercely than ever. The House of Israel is on fire (may G-d have mercy), and the young generation, as things now stand, is largely trapped. You are surely not unaware of the "dry" statistics of intermarriage and assimilation in this country, and the situation is similar in other countries. The subject is too painful to contemplate, and much more so to write about at length.
In a sense, the danger of "spiritual crematoria" is graver than that of physical genocide; for the heinousness of the latter can be understood without too much philosophical inquiry, while for the spiritual extermination there are certain groups which do not recognize this as a calamity, and some groups even champion it in the name of "freedom," "equality," "integration," and other misconceived "ideals".
14 Kislev, 5764 - December 9, 2003
Positive Mitzva 155: Making Shabbat holy
This commandment is based on the verse (Ex. 20:8) "Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy"
Upon completing the creation, G-d declared the seventh day to be special. He proclaimed it holy, separating it from the rest of the week by not creating anything on that seventh day - the Shabbat. Just as G-d proclaimed it to be special, we are commanded to recite a special prayer when the Shabbat arrives - the Kiddush (usually over wine), and when it departs - the Havdala. These prayers remind us of the holiness and uniqueness of Shabbat.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Thursday and Friday are two significant dates in the life of the second Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Dov Ber, known as the Mitteler Rebbe. The ninth of Kislev (Thursday, Dec. 4 this year) marks both his birth and passing. The tenth of Kislev (Friday, Dec. 5 this year) is the anniversary of his liberation from prison.
A story is told of Reb Dov Ber just before his passing. In the summer of 1827, at the age of 54, he set out on the long journey to the city of Haditch to visit the gravesite of his father, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad Chasidut. Throughout the journey he remained stern and uncommunicative. Whenever he attempted to commit some of his Chasidic teachings to writing, some mishap would occur and he was unsuccessful. He saw this as an indication of stern Heavenly judgement, and hinted to his Chasidim of his imminent demise.
"My father was 54 years old when he was imprisoned in Petersburg for the second time," he said. "At the time two alternatives were offered to him from heaven: suffering or death. He chose suffering. It seems that the other he left for me."
Reb Dov Ber arrived in Haditch in time for the High Holy Days, and visited his father's gravesite. During the return trip he fell ill in the city of Niezhin, where the physicians prescribed complete rest to the extent of refraining from reciting Chasidic discourses, which caused his health to deteriorate further. A number of weeks later, he seemed utterly weakened, but, as one of his doctors noted, when he was allowed to say a Chasidic discourse, he immediately sat up with his face aflame and asked to be moved to a chair. The Chasidim gathered to the house to hear him speak.
From this we see proof of the statement about Reb Dov Ber: "If his finger would have been cut, it would have bled Chasidut instead of blood."
Chasidut was the life force of Reb Dov Ber. May his teachings continue to sustain us as well.
Behold, a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reaching to heaven. (Gen. 28:12)
One who considers himself as if he is in Heaven, in truth is very far from there. Only when a person sees himself "set up on the earth," not yet standing on such a high level, only then does his head (top) reach the heavens.
(Toldot Yaakov Yosef)
The Tzemach Tzedek, third Chabad Rebbe, explained that "earth" hints to that part of the soul which is enclothed in the body. "Heavens" is symbolic of the essence and basis of the soul, which is too high to be related to the body. The "ladder" is prayer, which joins and connects these two aspects of the soul.
And Esau said to Jacob: "Let me swallow now some of this very red stuff" (Gen. 25:30).
Jacob cooked a stew of red lentils to provide the first, traditional meal for his mourning father, Isaac. On that very day, Abraham had died so that he wouldn't witness the wickedness of his grandson, Esau. Why lentils? They resemble a wheel whose every part touches the ground. Mourning is like a wheel, sooner or later it touches everyone.
December 1700. It was a cold winter in Poland, and a blanket of snow covered the entire country. The city streets were filled with people bundled up in fur coats, and the countryside peasants were busy warming their homes with wood, and themselves with vodka.
But in the Jewish section of Krakow, gloom and fear filled the air; the children were dying of smallpox.
It was the beginning of an epidemic. The doctors were helpless to stop it, and the various home remedies did nothing. Everyday the town was visited with more heartbreaking tragedies. Whom could they rely on? No one but their Father in Heaven.
The Rabbi of the community had declared a fast day, then another, then three days of prayer and self-examination. But nothing seemed to work. A week of supplication was announced, but before it began, the elders of the community decided they had to make a "Shaalat Chalom" (a request for a dream in which they would be given an answer to their problem).
It was a drastic move, but they had no other choice. They purified themselves, fasted, recited Psalms continuously, immersed in a mikva, and then requested from G-d, according to ancient Kabalistic formulas, that He send them some sort of sign that night in their sleep.
That night, every single one of the community elders had the identical dream. An old man in a white robe appeared and said, "Shlomo the Butcher must lead the prayers for the congregation!!"
Early the next morning they met in the synagogue and compared notes. It was clear what they had to do.
The twenty of them solemnly walked to Shlomo's home and knocked on the door. When the butcher's wife opened the door, she almost fainted. "How can I help you?" she stammered.
"We want to speak to your husband. Is he home?"
Shlomo came to the door and invited them all in. When everyone was seated, one person began:
"Shlomo, we made a Shaalat Chalom yesterday. We asked G-d to tell us what to do about the epidemic, and last night we all had the same dream. We dreamed that you have to lead the prayers today."
Shlomo was dumb-founded. If it weren't such a serious matter he would have thought that it was a joke.
"I...should lead the prayers? Why I....I can't even read properly. I can't. I mean, what good will it possibly do?"
The elders looked at poor Shlomo and they took turns trying to convince him. "Listen Shlomo, just come and do what you can. You don't have to really lead, just pray in front of everyone. Maybe there will be a miracle, maybe you will begin to read. Just come and give it a try. Everyone is in the synagogue waiting for you to begin the prayers."
So Shlomo, with no other choice, left his house and accompanied them. But no sooner had they entered the crowded synagogue and closed the door behind them then Shlomo suddenly broke away, ran back outside and down the street, out of sight.
What could they do? He disappeared. They didn't even know where to look. They had no choice other than to wait.
About half an hour later the door opened and in came Shlomo pushing a wheelbarrow covered with a cloth. All eyes were on him as he went up to the podium, pulled off the cloth, and lifted an old set of scales out of the barrow. He had brought his butchers' scales into the synagogue!
They were pretty heavy but he lifted them over his head and although his face was contorted with the effort, it was obvious that he was crying too.
"Here" he yelled out. "Here, G-d! Take them! Take the scales! This must be why you want me to lead the prayers, right? So take the scales and heal the children! Just heal the children. Okay?!!"
He was crying pretty loudly by then and the whole place was dead silent. A few men rushed over, helped him put the scales on a table in the front of the room, and the congregation began the prayers.
The next day all the children got better.
You can imagine the joy and festivities that followed. A craftsman even created a nice case for the scales, which were left permanently in the front of the synagogue for all to see.
After a few days when the excitement died down, the community elders had to admit that they couldn't figure it out. After all, there were tens of shops that used scales in their town and all of them were owned by G-d fearing Jews. What could be so special about these scales?
The answer was soon in coming. When they went around checking all the other scales, they discovered that without exception each one was a bit off. It was a minute amount, never enough to constitute bad business, but inaccurate nevertheless. It seems that Shlomo used to check his scales twice every day, "That's what G-d wants" he explained. "I just check and don't ask questions," while others checked only occasionally.
Legend has it that these scales remained proudly displayed in that Shul for over two hundred years until the Germans destroyed everything in WWII.
In his dream, Jacob saw four angels going up and down a ladder. Each angel corresponded to one of the four exiles of the Jewish people. The first angel went up and down 70 steps. This was the angel of Babylonia that ruled over the Jewish people for 70 years. Next, the angel of Media went up and down 52 steps; then the angel of Greece went up and down 180 steps. Media ruled over the Jewish people for 52 years and Greece for 180 years. But the angel of Rome - our present exile - went up and Jacob did not see it come down. He asked G-d, "Will the Redemption never come?" G-d answered, "The last exile will be very long, but fear not. I, Myself, will bring him down!"