Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Timeless Rebbe

Each day in 18th century Medzhybizh, Poland was an opportunity for you to be transformed. Every day held the potential to be spiritually rejuvenating, challenging, and nourishing. In a world without smart phones or social media, there was only one “attraction” that invited travelers from near and far. There was only one way to be uplifted by the most raw and pure form of enlightenment that was worth any distance. Each day in Poland was a chance to learn and realign life goals in the presence of Israel Baal Shem Tov, the rebbe of all rebbes.

Today, our image of a Chassidic “rebbe” is most likely limited to a bearded old man, hunched over a stack of dusty books. We instantly think of the picture of Rebbe Schneerson glued to Chabad Mitzvah trucks, parading up and down the streets of Manhattan. When we think of a rebbe, many of us cringe and assume that the face of an aging teacher implies orthodoxy and tradition that will remain forever stationary in time. While many of the rebbes today do in fact match the visual stereotype, the knowledge and spirit they carry are boundless. Today, Chassidism is no longer a denomination that remains in Borough Park; it’s a philosophy and path of faith that can be shared in communities of any size. The rebbes, then and now, are the leaders of the soulful Judaism that we yearn for at Romemu and beyond. Perhaps the concept of this Chassidic leader or the rebbe today can be explored and expanded to new faces.

The rebbes we hear and see all share some common ground. Firstly, they are all students and disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism. Men in the 18th century would travel through cities to learn from their leader, then would relay the information they gain back to their own communities, forming what is known today as different Chassidic dynasties, each varied by slight nuances in ideology. Despite the differences in learning or culture, however, every student, old and new alike, of the Baal Shem Tov would agree that a rebbe is viewed in an entirely different light than anyone else.

The rebbe, also known as “admor,” is not a function, but rather an integral role in the community. A Chassidic master must have sacred relationships with his students and be somehow affiliated to his first teacher, the Baal Shem Tov. Besides these standards, however, the rebbe is cherished for his unique ability to shape the lives of others. While a rabbi today teaches congregants blessings in order to educate them, the rebbe gives blessings and can change the course of people’s lives. A rabbi is conferred with his title from institutions, but a rebbe is given his title by other people. A rabbi teaches us about Judaism, while a rebbe teaches us about the soul and its journeys. A rabbi provides us with information, but a rebbe assists our encounters with transformation. Given the strong and personal impact a rebbe plays on a person’s life, it must seem sensible to some that there aren’t any new stereotypes of rebbes in other Jewish denominations, or even in other faiths. But not to me.

I believe that each of us, both inside and outside of the community, has the potential to provide people with transformation. There is nothing hindering us from blessing the people around us. There need not be anything restricting us from offering words from our hearts that may change the lives of our loved ones. While there are no self-proclaimed rabbinic figures, we each have the ability to constantly create and recreate our souls and grow together. We could all, in fact, be the rebbes of our generation.

In 18th century Poland, the image of the rebbe is limited. In today’s world, the opportunities to impact the souls of others are endless.We could shed a light to American Jewry and strengthen our relationships with those that follow our lead; we could display the very essence of a charismatic rebbe in our every action. We need not grow beards or reside in the Chassidic neighborhoods of Europe; we simply must be the rebbes that can see through the defensive exteriors of others and rejuvenate our souls.

Each day in New York City, or anywhere you may find yourself in life, is an opportunity for you to be transformed. 

The Angels in Our Midst

         B'shem Hashem, elohei Yisrael
        B'ymini Michael u-smoli Gavriel
        U-milfanai Uriel, me'acharai Raphael
        V'al roshi, v'al roshi, Shechinat-El

This song, also known as Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s “Angel Song,” unifies Jews from every corner of the world. The simple words are chanted into a beautiful chorus of harmonies and melodies that invite the immanent presence of God into any room. Usually sung either during Shabbat or before sleeping, this prayer seeks protection as we complete our phases of creation and stress and transcend to a world of stillness and tranquility. Most importantly, however, this “Angel Song” serves as our global Jewish compass, steered by the various angels in our midst.

With four angels leading us in each direction, we encounter four unique qualities that embody God. The first two angels, Michael and Gabriel, sit at our right and left respectively and are Biblical; the last two angels, Uriel and Raphael, sit before and behind us respectively and are derived from the early foundation of Rabbinic Judaism. All together, these four angels provide the blanket of security over our fears, the protective layer over our faith that allows us to store away our doubts.

On our right sits Michael, known in Biblical history as the “archangel” who defeated evil and acts of injustice. Today, we refer to Michael as the angel of mercy, the one who constantly improves our right hand and advocates on our behalf. According to a Midrash, Michael, meaning “Who is like God” was the angel that prevented Abraham from sacrificing his only son and stood beside Moshe after his death, unwilling to take his soul and accept the death of a leader. Powerful and determined, Michael is the right hand we need when we cannot fight injustice alone. Michael is the right arm of Moshe, Miriam, Dr. King, and Mother Theresa. Michael is perhaps our wake up call when our arms are not being used to make this world a safer and more just place.

Lingering on our left side is Gabriel, whose name means “God is my strength.” Gabriel is considered the defender of the Jewish people, the executer of all judgments. Perhaps it is through Gabriel that we learn the pivotal value of resistance that we need during the times we feel spiritually threatened. Represented by fire, this angel is the force of strength and judgment that destroyed a city tainted by its sins and corruption in order to defend the world. Gabriel is the inner fire that enables us to defend the defenseless, to uphold the weak. Gabriel is the fire that complements Michael, the angel of mercy, motivating us to resist injustice for the sake of others and for a better world. Without fire, there would be no change. Without resistance, we would live a life of indifference, which is and forever would be the greatest tragedy of all. Gabriel is the fire within us that serves as constant reminder that we, Jews and non-Jews alike, are responsible for creating a different world, not a world of indifference.

In front of us lies Uriel, the angel of light. While the Bible, Talmud, and all other Jewish sources could surely explain every meaning behind the purpose of light, I only see it as serving one purpose: the illuminate the darkness that envelopes us. Darkness and lightness, both Divinely created, are somehow the two most humanly controlled concepts that exist today. We are so quick to leave a room of darkness for the next person instead of lighting even the dimmest candle of hope. Not only are we obligated to be “Or LaGoyim,” or the light to the other nations, but we must also be the light for another. The phases of darkness that enter our lives will only amplify and overpower us if we allow them to do so; with the guidance of Uriel, we can look in front of us to see darkness defeated by the light we create together during the most challenging of times.

Behind us is Raphael, the angel of healing, the angel that absorbs our deepest pains, diseases, and despair. Raphael, like most medications today, is not the cure for our pain but rather the guarantee that we are not alone in the healing process. Moreover, perhaps as Raphael isolates our illnesses and weaknesses behind us, he allows our gradual healing to surround our every direction and eventually provide us with a new light before our eyes, or Uriel. It takes the deepest pain to recognize the unremitting power of healing, no matter how long it may take. It is the healing guidance of Raphael that will allow us to eventually leave the pain and sorrow of the tragedies in Newtown, Connecticut and Colorado behind us and slowly begin to heal until we see the light once again. The shock of death will remain behind us in the arms of an angel, but the warmth of healing is in the arms and legs of our community

Trough the words of one Shlomo Carlebach prayer, we can point our actions toward distinct directions. We can create a moral Jewish compass that inspires us to follow in the footsteps of our angels. And of course, in between those four pathways and above our heads, the presence of God [Shechinat-El] will dwell