What is a Chassid? Tthe Talmud, askign this question over a thousand years before the Chassidic movement originated in Europe, defines a "Chossid" (Literally meaning pious person) as one who reviews his studies one hundred and one times. The implication being, that he/she is used to reviewing a teaching a certain number of times, and does one extra, going outside of their comfort zone. The Tanya, written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, which cites this teachng, brings in another chapter of the book a set of prescriptions for one who is suffering from spiritual insensitivity. That is, the person has experienced a sudden period of dullness and lack of feeling towards Judaism. The Rabbi prescribes a series of meditations which are not at all typical to Chassidic thought, which is ordinarily consumed with the importance of ALWAYS STRIVING TO BE HAPPY. 

However, the person who is spiritually dull needs a form of shock therapy to break their inner complacency. That is, he/she should think about how everyone is better than themselves in some way. These thoughts, though not good to think about often, have the effect of humbling oneself and causing us to reevaluate our inner self-image, to the point that the person is ready to begin anew. Where once they had been stuck in a certain view of themselves, which is connected with a stagnation and apathy, true spirituality means constantly trying to improve. So Rabbi Shneur Zalman tells us to look at the most lowly of individuals and question our assumption that we are at all better than they are. Whereas we don't have to work so hard to generally follow the unwritten moral rules of society, such a person constantly experiences an inner turmoil. While we are "coasting," they are trying their hardest not to steal or cheat someone. 

All of this points to the centrality of judging others favorably. Instead of looking at someone's most external characteristics- the actions that that we see them perform, etc., we need to remember that we dont know the whole picture. In fact, we know next to nothing of that person's inner life-world, what biological factor and early experiences set them on a trajectory for adulthood. Who says that someone who volunteers constantly, and is always smiling, is trying harder than a seemingly more average person? 

Learning to become less judgemental is key to the lifeview portrated by the Torah's interpersonal commandments, which are designed to create a peaceful society. We need to learn to cut off negative perceptions of others at their source- an initial bad judgement of their character based upon some incident or other. Which, upon furter reflection, can usually be perceived in a number of positive ways if we only give them the benefit of the doubt. In turn, we will be much more open to letting others into our life, and be much less likely to speak negatively about others.

This is a simple cause and effect-from a person's speech and actions, we can tell something about the character of their thoughts; this is the order in which G-d created the world, with thought preceding speech. In Genesis, we learn how G-d created the world with ten utternaces, "Let there be light," and so forth. When a person speaks, they emanate a force that is external to themselves; after it's out there, there is no way to get it back. And it has a chain reaction to the world around them. Similarly, Chassidic teachings show us how the reason that we perceive ourselves as seperate entities from G-d (thereby disguising His presence contantly animating creation), is because the world came about through speech, as opposed to thought, which is still contained within the intellect of the speaker. 

On this Shabbat, may we take a golden opportunity to perceive the truth, that the world is not separate from G-d- that there is nothing other than Him. Indeed, Kabbalistic sources tell us that on Shabbat, the world, brought into existence by G-d's "speech," ascends to its source in G-d's "thought," at a level where they cannot be thought of as separate. May we all take a small, realistic resolution to enhance our observance of the laws of Shabbat, so that we can tap into this reality and view the world as it truly is. This will give us rest from the tribulations of the  work week, when all of the stress and struggles of existence make the world seem to exist on its own, with our prosperity dependant upon our own prowess and a series of natural laws. These laws are not separate from G-d; he created them when he said "Let there be a firmament," and "created the..luminaries" (sun and moon), to shine and orbit. Let us return the world to a state of oneness, with the coming of the Messiah speedily in our days. 

Much Love and let me know what you think!


In the book of Exodus, while Moses is living in the desert as a shephard, one of his sheep escapes. Moses chases it, and then a famus Midrash tells us that he finds it drinking at a watering hole. "I didn't know that you were thirsty," said Moses to the sheep. Then, he takes the tired sheep on his shoulders to carry it back to the rest of the flock. It is at that point that he sees the burning bush, and is told by G-d to take off his shoes. 

During the encounter of the burning bush, the first thing that G-d says to Moses is to take off his shoes. There is a famous teaching on this- Moses had been brought up in luxury, as a prince in the palace of pharoah, And now, we find him living in comfort in Midian working as a shephard for his father-in-law. 

What G-d was telling him was in effect, that He had chosen Moses because of his concern for even the shmallest sheep under his charge, and in the same vein, he asks him to expose his feet to the hot desert sand. This is because a true leader in the Jewish tradition isnt in their position because of flashy speeches, an Ivy league law degree, or even their perfect white smile. They are worthy of their position because they feel the pain of their people. 

 When one has true empathy and concern for another, then they have truly moved past their sense of self. We literally feel their pain within us. Contrast this with the relatively shallow, even trite expressions used to comfort mourners such as "She lived a good life," or "at least she wasn't in pain." 

When someone is truly suffering, we are not in a position to judge what it is they need to hear at that moment. Instead, let's be there for them, and they will pick up on this. This will be infinitely more powerful than any words. Words are very limited, precise creations. No two words have precisely the same connotation- that is why there are two. In contrast, we learn in the Tanya and in Chassidic literature that emotions are above words- the source of words- and thus can never be fully contained by such a precise instrument. Words are only effective if there is a sincere sentiment behind them, the "soul" of the words. So let's cut right to the soul- other people intuitively sense when we truly love and care for them. 

This week let's all try to all move a little outside of our own internal monologues, and shatter our static, habituated sense of who we are. Let's lose ourselves doing things that we don't "Get anything" out of. This is the only way to be truly free-  moving outside of our desires and limitations by truly feeling the pain and joy of another. 

Have a Shabbat Shalom!! 

Shabbat Activity: Try to listen to someone describe how their day went without spacing out. On the contrary, be completely in the moment, giving them the feeling that someone is truly listening. Avoid talking about yourself for at least two minutes. 

Welcome to my Torah Thoughts blog!! I thought I would start by posting a few of my favorite divrei Torah, all of which I wrote recently. Here is one entitled "The Bread of Shame" 
Which of the following scenarios do you think is more likely to succeed? A) After seeing your friend hurt repeatedly by their spouse, you can't take it anymore. You arrnge for some of their best friends meet him or her, and sensitively explain why you cannot watch them suffer anymore. You make sure to do this from the heart- after all, you don't really "get" anything out of this, so you are doing it out of your love for them. 

B) You and your friend have been arguing back and forth for weeks over whether or not a certain baseball player is the best homerun hitter of all time. Using all of your considerable powers of reason, you show how they had a better average than anyone in the history of the game, in an era before steroids and when they used a heavier ball. Your argument is extremely solid, but your friend refuses to budge, so you keep hammering them with all that you've got- you can't wait to prove them wrong!! 

I would put my life savings on choice A. As the Jewish expression goes, words that come from the heart enter the heart. As for B, there is the saying "One convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still." 

The less we engage our egos in the conversation, the less that the other person's will come into play. Then we will stop talking AT each other, and starting having a conversation. In fact, I can't think of a greater waste of time than choice B. If your goal is truly to bring your friend over to your way of thinking, then the only way to do so is, paradoxically, if you stop caring if you win. Having an agenda makes it about you, not the other. But if we follow model 'A', then we are not arguing, and ironically will be more likely to pursuade the other. 

However, tragically, most people remain blissfully unaware of their egocentrism; for example, in a conversation, they expect people to care about they affairs, even if they do not do the same. Now tie this in to what I wrote about in the last note, which is that truly caring for others means LITERALLY going outside of ourselves. Why should I care about someone else's day? It really is an incredibly boring topic, even after we train ourselves to be disciplined enough to try. Empathy conflicts with our natural inclinations.

For example, up to a certain stage in their development, children are literally incapable of conducting a true, reciprocal exchange or conversation. If you watch very small children playing together, they really are playing AT, not WITH each other. And many people, sadly, dont grow up. 

One of the central questions in philosophy is whether or not people have free will. After all, you can make a pretty convincing argument that we are the combination of genetics and environment. What else is there? Is there really room for free agency? 

The truth is, unless we really meditate about our place in life, and develop impuilse control, we make a mockery of our free will. If we act on emotional impulses alone, then we can prettty much predict how we will act in a given situation- we will do what feels good all of the time. We would be like an animal, avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure. We would eat the most delicious food we could afford, for as long as we can until it hurts. That is a simplistic model, but you get the idea..we might be driven to stop by the prospect of future pain, like from exhausting our bank account by eating truffle and caviar sandwiches,etc.etc.

Interestingly, impulse control is one of the things that children  dont really start to get good at until sometime after they reach school-age. Until then, they are incredibly ego-centric, and will do about anything they can to get their hands on as much candy as possible. 

How are these ideas connected? The process of constantly striving to be a good Jew is known as avodah, meaning work or service. Our tradition considers unearned rewards a "bread of shame"- nothing worth having comes easy. Developing real, worthwhile relationships with people takes an excruciating effort to escape our own ego-prisons; truly reaching outside ourselves to feel another's pain, etc. In Chassidic thought, we learnt that we have two souls, known as the divine soul and the animal soul, striving for control over our thought, speech, and action. A child is like an animal with regard to the pain-pleasure principle; put a case of dog food in front of a dog, and it will eat until it kills it. That is why we reach Bar/Bat mitzva, which is when we are held responsible for the 613 Torah Commandments, at age 13 or 12(for girls). By then, we have developed an understanding of morality. 

This Shabbos, try to think of ways that you can improve yourself in some small, realistic way with regard to a single mitzvah, whether Kosher, Shabbos, Talking negatively about others, removing the suffering of animals, tefillin, mezuzah, honoring parents, or giving tzedaka, to name a few. Think of an area that you are not so naturally inclined towards, and take a tiny step towards something you never thought you would do otherwise. 

Have a great Shabbos!!!!!!


    Yaakov Grossman is a Jewish educator, author, private tutor/child care professional, and student in the Metro New York area. Professional inquiries should be addressed to jjgrossm@gmail.com

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