“If I am not for me, who will be for me?” אם אין אני לי מי לי1
My take on this verse from Pirkei Avot is that we, as these epic beings endowed with intellect, heart, talent and creativity, need to find ways to bring our unique gifts into this world, for ourselves and share with others. Just as no two fingerprints are alike, none of our true expressions come out in the same way as any other person.
I stay inspired by so many people around me and those who have come before me, and I thought it important to highlight some of the Rebbes who have been my biggest influence, especially in my writing of these five books. So, I want to give some background on these special individuals, so that you, dear reader, can get a sense of the influence these souls have had on the following chapters.
In chronological order:
Rashbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (135-170 CE / 80 – 160)
There’s probably no other book, besides the Torah itself, that has inspired my writing as much as the teachings of the holy Zohar (“Brilliance”). I can still feel what it was like to be in Meron on Lag BaOmer, on the anniversary of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s passing. Every year, tens of thousands of Jews visit Meron to celebrate, singing around bonfires and praying by R’ Shimon’s gravesite. The town is tiny, on top of a mountain, a few miles north of Tzfat and west of the Sea of Galilee. It barely has a main street, but the energy of the renowned Holy Sage breathes life into its surroundings.
R’ Shimon was a 2nd century Tannaitic sage in ancient Judea. He was born in Galilee and became one of the most eminent disciples of Rabbi Akiva, whom he studied with for 13 years in Bnei Brak. They became so close that Rabbi Akiva would call him son. This was during the persecution by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, a time when the Talmudic Academies were shut down, and the study of the Talmud was forbidden on penalty of death. Nevertheless, Rabbi Akiva continued to publicly teach the Talmud, and R’ Shimon was present throughout, until the time of R’ Akiva’s arrest. Even this couldn’t keep R’ Shimon away from his teacher, so he continued to study by his side, even in prison, as R’ Akiva was condemned to die a martyr’s death as a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G‑d’s name).
R’ Shimon went on to become one of the greatest teachers of Jewish Law and ethics. His presence in the Talmud reflects his holy character and devotion to the Torah. Talmud Berachot2 relates that R’ Shimon had previously studied at Yavne, under Gamaliel II and Yehoshua ben Hananiah. R’ Shimon is most famous as the author of the sacred Zohar, a book containing mystical interpretations of the Torah, which serves as the main source of the Kabbalah (“Receiving”), the mystical branch of Judaism.
Rambam, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204)
Just the title to his Sefer— The Guide to the Perplexed— had me enthralled, and I’ve been obsessed with Rambam’s writings and teachings ever since. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides or Rambam, was born on the fourteenth day of Nissan – the day before Passover – in the year 1135, in Cordova, Spain. The most renowned of the Jewish medieval scholars, Rambam was a Talmudist, halachist, physician, and philosopher, and is one of the most important figures in the history of Torah scholarship.
Rambam was a descendent of a distinguished and scholarly family tracing its ancestry to Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi, the compiler of the Mishnah, and even further back to the royal house of King David.3
Rambam was one of the most prolific Rabbi’s in history, writing a commentary on the Torah and the Mishnah – the compilation of the Oral Tradition of the Torah – and a book known to most by the title, A Guide to the Perplexed.
Rambam’s father was a massive influence on him and his work, as his father served as Dayan – a judge in the Jewish court of law – of the Jewish community of Cordova and was famous for both his vast Torah knowledge, as well as his scholarship in mathematics and astronomy. He learned Scripture, Talmud, and every aspect of the Jewish religion and tradition from his father, Rabbi Maimon.
It was his father who pushed him to study philosophy and medicine, fields in which he later became world renowned. Rambam was barely Bar Mitzvah when the Almohades conquered Cordova in 1148.
As had been the case in many surrounding countries at the time, the tolerance towards Judaism was not very great and so the Muslims where Rambam lived offered the Jewish population the choice of conversion to Islam, death, or expulsion from their native land.
With the choice of either surrendering their eternal faith or their very life, or abandoning their homeland where they had lived for many centuries, leaving everything behind to seek refuge in a hostile unwelcomed world; Rambam’s family, as well as a vast majority of Jews, chose exile and left Cordova. Most who did not leave either met a martyr’s death, or became insincere converts to Islam, merely outwardly, all the while, secretly, in their hearts and in the privacy of their homes, observing and practicing all the elements of a life of Torah.
As the conquering Almohadian hordes swept all across Southern Spain, Rambam’s family wandered about from city to city without being able to stay in any one place for a long period. After a decade of a nomadic life, they joined a group of fugitives who headed toward North Africa and eventually settled, in 1159, in Fez, then the capital of Morocco.
But they were still not destined to enjoy peace and security. After a five year stay in Fez they had to leave due to continuous religious intolerance and persecution. They made their way to Egypt, by way of Jerusalem and Chevron. Unlike other Muslim countries, the Jews in Egypt, under the tolerant rule of the Fatimide caliphs, were granted complete religious and civil freedom – while developing their religious, cultural and communal life without any restrictions. Rambam settled in 12th-century-Egypt, and his writings (in Arabic and Hebrew) spread across the Jewish world and beyond, enriching philosophy, and medicine, and becoming an indispensable part of the study of Judaism.
The Arizal, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (1534 – 1572)
I still remember ascending the steps towards the Ari’s mikveh in Tzfat, Israel. I knew it would be cold, but was not prepared for how cold it really was. It was a shock to my system, both body and soul, but one I needed and won’t soon forget, as I dipped into ritual immersion in the mystical 800 year old pool.
Rabbi Yitzhak Luria is a great Sage from the 16th century, who lived in Egypt and Tzfat, Israel. He is known as the Arizal – an acronym meaning the “lion of blessed memory”– or simply as The Ari. Lurianic Kabbalah is a system which The Ari developed out of the teachings from the Zohar. He decoded elements of the Zohar, leaving certain parts beyond comprehension for the average Torah scholar, and retaining that which only a scholar deeply versed in the “revealed Torah” could possibly understand. In essence, he revealed the depths of the “hidden Torah,” also known as the Sod or secret.
Following the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492, a number traveled to Israel and settled in Tzfat. Other Jews went West to discover the Americas, while a good number went East to Turkey. The Ari was clearly destined for the holy, mystical city of Tzfat.
Rabbi Joseph Karo, author of the Bet Yosef, which traces the source and origin of contemporary Jewish Law, and the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, was the Rabbi of the city when the Ari arrived. The city was a haven for mystics, one of whom was The Ramak (Rabbi Moses Cordevero). But it was The Arizal that was by far the most renowned Kabbalist of the day.
Though the Arizal, like Rebbe Nachman, only lived for 38 years, he revealed many of the hidden layers of the Torah, as all of its secrets were open to him.
His teachings were recorded in Kitvei Ari, the “writings of the Arizal,” by his foremost disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, who he had met in the last two years of his life.
It’s said that without the Kitvei Ari, the Zohar does not make much sense at all. It is the Ari that revealed the means to understand and digest all of the myriad layers hidden in the Zohar. Without it, the Zohar is seemingly just a collection of poetic texts.
The main work of the Kitvei Ari is the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life). For the person who has mastered its content, what was once hidden becomes revealed. His other work, the Pri Etz Chaim (Fruit of the Tree of Life) and Shaar HaKavanot (Gate of Meditations) show how to apply the various teachings of the Etz Chaim to Judiac rituals and meditation such as putting on tzitzit or tefillin, the power of prayer, and the elevation of food from the phyrical to the spiritual.4
His other work is referred to as the Shemonah Shearim (Eight Gates). The first gate, Shaar HaHakdamot (Gate of Introductions), covers the same theoretical ground as the Etz Chaim. Then comes Shaar Maamarei Rashbi, the “Gate of Zoharic Teachings;” Shaar Maamarei Chazal, the “Gate of Talmudic Teachings;” Shaar HaPesukim, the “Gate of Biblical Verses;” Shaar HaMitzvot, the “Gate of the Commandments;” Shaar HaKavanot, the “Gate of Meditations;” Shaar Ruach HaKodesh, the “Gate of Divine Inspiration;” and the eighth and final is the Shaar HaGilgulim, the “Gate of Reincarnations.” It is his seventh sefer, Shaar Ruach Hakodesh, which describes how to use the Lurianic system and is the key to the entire Kitvei Ari because it actually shows how to put the teachings into practice, whereas all the previous gates deal with theory.5
As stated previously, the Arizal formulated the Kabbalah into a system that is called Lurianic Kabbalah, and as Chaim Vital in the name of The Ari teaches, “It is a Mitzvah to reveal this wisdom.” This is important because prior to the Arizal, the Kabbalah was held only within a close circle, the word Kabbalah means ‘that which is received, or the root, Kabal, to receive.’ Kabbalah was received by a very select few. But the Arizal knew the time had come for the secrets of the Kabbalah to be spread more widely, outside the inner circles to affect the spirits of the souls of the people. It is through the Arizal that the Kabbalah became popular and revolutionized the modern Judaic landscape.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760)
The holy and revolutionary perspectives of the Baal Shem Tov, hvea colored my life in more ways than possibly any other Rabbi. I consider myself equal parts Chabad and Breslov, both of which would not exist without the life of this righteous figure.
The Baal Shem Tov (which literally translates as “master of the good name”) and/or the acronym “Besht,” is the Eastern-European 18th century mystic and founder of the chassidic movement, changed the landscape of Judaism forever.
The Baal Shem Tov breathed new life into a nation that was in need of the revitalizing spirit and light that shined forth from his stories, teachings and philosophy, which permeate almost all places and spaces in Judaism to this day. Indeed, all of Chassidut stems from the Besht.
The Baal Shem Tov’s influence came forth exactly when it was needed, during the late 17th century in Europe when the Jews were still reeling from the devastation at the hands of the Khmelnitsky pogroms of 5408 and 5409 (1648-1649 CE). The massacres had left tens of thousands of Jews dead, while the devastated survivors struggled to rebuild their broken lives and communities.
In the wake of the pogroms, brief (albeit false) hope came by way of the infamous Shabtai Zvi (may his memory be erased). Shabtai Zvi was a false Messiah who led thousands of desperate Jews believing him to be the true Messiah who would redeem them and their suffering from exile. After he turned out to be a fraud, Shabtai Zvi converted to Islam under pressure from the Ottoman Turks and the Jews at the time felt the heavy weight of life under persecution. Many families were left without a livelihood, and the tradition of Torah study at a young age was soon abandoned. Only the wealthy that were few in number could afford a proper Torah education for their children. This left a generation that was ignorant, yet still devoted. This also left a rift between the scholarly and intellectually secular to the point that the two groups prayed at separate synagogues.
Meanwhile, in a small Polish town of Tloste, The Baal Shem Tov’s parents, Eliezer and Sarah, lived in simple piety, serving Hashem with pure hearts. While many took Eliezer as a simpleton, he was actually a member of the group of “hidden tzaddikim,” who were devoted Jews with unusual gifts who dedicated their lives to improving the plight of the Jewish people in both spiritual and material matters.
On the 18th of Elul, 5458, Eliezer and Sarah gave birth to their only child—Yisrael – the name of the Jewish People. His life and legacy was the wake-up call for those Jews that were in a deep spiritual slumber.
Fast forward to age 18, Yisrael got married and his wife died shortly after.Yisrael put his focus into teaching in the Tloste cheder. His deep insights into human nature began to spread throughout the community and he was asked to assist in civil disputes. He later moved to the town of Brody, remarried and then settled in a small village deep in the Carpathian Mountains where he spent most of his time secluded in study and meditation, a period of his life he looked back at fondly.
In the mountains, Yisrael had learned from local villagers the healing properties of various plants and herbs. He would heal a variety of bodily ailments for those who he came into contact with. His name came to be known as a Baal Shem, a healer and people from all over would come to see him. And increasingly he would begin to heal their spirit as much if not more than their physical illnesses. He taught and stressed the importance that the Torah places on optimism and joy and would encourage each person in their own service of God. It was this affectionate disposition that brought the addition of “tov” (good) to his name, becoming the Baal Shem Tov.
It’s said that in 5484 (1724), on Yisrael’s 26th birthday, the ancient prophet Achiya Hashiloni (who had taught Torah to Elijah the Prophet some 2,500 years earlier) appeared to him revealing the secrets of the entire Torah. The teaching began with the word “Bereishit” (the first word of the Torah) and ending with the last words of the Torah, ten years later.
It was on his 36th birthday, after six years of pressure from his long-time mentors Rabbi Adam and Achiya Hashiloni to publicly reveal his greatness, the Baal Shem Tov began to share his Torah and healing teachings in a revealed way.
His outlook on theology and life differed from that of his peers, with a focus on purity of intent and joy and humility over scholarly achievements – something that opened the door to speak for even the simplest peasants, where they felt the power and pleasure of serving God through passionate prayer.
It was in 5500 (1740), when he felt that his following was strong enough, that he moved to what was at the time the center of Chassidism around him, to the small town of Mezhibush, where he lived out his days.
Mezhibush became home to some of the greatest Jewish minds of the time including Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Pulnaa, Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz, and Rabbi Dovber (who would later succeed the Baal Shem Tov as the leader of the Chasidim). These students, after the Baal Shem Tov’s passing, became the foremost transmitters of Chassidic thought to European Jewry as a whole.
Of course, the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings weren’t embraced by all, fear of the revolutionary outlook was met by staunch opposition from a good deal of traditional Talmudists who had suspicions that much like Shabti Zvi, the false messiah a century earlier, the Baal Shem Tov with his Kabbalistic undertones was hiding his true intentions to do much the same. They thought his belief that the ignorant merited glory and that the Light of Infinite permeated even the most mundane of matter, was far too unconventional to become mainstream. In time and through the generations an eventual mutual respect was fostered and an appreciation for the truth and holiness of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings came to the fore.
Through the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, and the Rabbi’s that came after, Chassidism, especially Chabad has become one of the most vibrant Jewish ways of life around the world. The Baal Shem Tov is the great-grandfather of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, one of the other fastest growing sects of Chassidism today.
The “Alter Rebbe,” Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812)
When I lived in Crown Heights, my soul connected to the joyous movement of Chabad and I spent many Shabbatot davening at 770 on Eastern Parkway. What I didn’t get a chance to do when I lived there was dig deep into the teachings of the Tanya; something that I try and do every day now. The teachings of the Alter Rebbe keep me inspired and connected to life and light, and the following chapters would be remiss without the unique insights of the Baal HaTanya.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, also knows by the moniker, the “Alter Rebbe,” (the older Rabbi) was a brilliant master of mysticism, philosophy, and psychology. One of the most important minds in the Chassidic movement whose slogan “G‑d wants your heart” (Rachmonoh liboh boey) has filled Jewish life to this day with happiness and joy just as much for the not-yet-educated as much as the master Talmudist. The Alter Rebbe is known as the founder of Chabad Chassidism, easily one of the strongest and most dynamic branches of Chassidism.
This movement, founded in Lithuania in 5533 (1773), grew far beyond the boundaries of this once mighty center of Jewish life, and gained enthusiastic adherents throughout the world.
The Alter Rebbe is a direct descendant of the Maharal of Prague. His grandparents moved throughout Galicia and Poland, settling in Vitebsk, then a center of Torah scholarship. His father, Rabbi Baruch, moved to Liozna, near the town of Lubavitch, where Shneur Zalman was born. Lubavitch is the other name of Chabad and where the movement stems.
Shneur Zalman proved to be a brilliant mind even as a child and in order to further his development as a scholar, his father took him to a great teacher who lived in Lubavitch, by the name of Rabbi Issachar Ber of Kobilnik. In his time with Rabbi Ber, Shneur Zalman mastered the “sea of the Talmud” in all directions and began to learn Kabbalah, while in his spare time learning science and mathematics. His Rabbi soon sent word to his father that, “There is nothing more that I can teach your son; he has grown beyond me.”
At 12 -years old, his father took him to Vitebsk, where he was recognized as the genius that he was and seen as equal to the great scholars in the area. At 20 years of age, with his wife’s consent, Shneur Zalman set out to fulfill the yearnings of his neshama at the hands of a master of such pursuits. He had two prominent centers of scholarship wanting him to join them. The first was Vilna, which is the main seat of Talmudic scholarship and was the center of the opposition to the new and rapidly growing Chassidic movement and the second, very much the opposite option – Mezeritch, the home of Rabbi Dovber, the famed Maggid of Mezeritch, whose ideology stemmed from the Baal Shem Tov and the growing Chassidic movement.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman, already a renown Torah and Talmudic scholar, realized that Vilna wouldn’t quench his search and it was guidance in the service of God (“avodah”) and prayer that he was needing. So Shneur Zalman headed to Mezeritch and upon meeting Rabbi Dovber and prior to being able to ask him the questions he had prepared to insure him a worthy master, Rabbi Dovber was silent and then proceeded to tell Shneur Zalman all that had been in his mind at the time and went on to answer all of the questions that he had not yet disclosed. He was of course beside himself and pleaded that he be brought into the inner circle as a student of the Maggid of Mezeritch.
As Shneur Zalman’s spiritual and intellectual appetite grew, he found the Maggid’s lessons on the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov to be beyond his expectations, uniting God, Israel, the Torah and the entire universe into a holy system that transcends comprehension.
At the time Rabbi Shneur Zalman wasn’t recognized as a brilliant mind amongst the followers of the Maggid. That all changed when the Maggid revealed Shneur Zalman’s extraordinary gifts as a “light in Israel.” It was then that Rabbi Dovber instructed Rabbi Shneur Zalman, to rewrite the Code of Jewish Law, to include the latest decisions, at most 25 years old.,
It had been about 200 years since Rabbi Joseph Caro had published the Shulchan Aruch, and throughout that period “Acharonim” (generations of Jewish codifiers and commentators) added to and elucidated the work of Jewish law. Once, Rabbi Shneur Zalman had completed what should have taken a lifetime, in such a short period, he was acclaimed as one of the great scholars of his time, both in the Chassidic circles and beyond.
After Rabbi Dovber passed away on Kislev 19, 5533 (1772) his disciples were tasked with spreading Chassidism, each in a different country that was assigned to them.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman was to be sent on a seemingly impossible mission, needing to spread Chassidim in Lithuania to the Misnagdim, the very opponents of Chassidism and their way of life. Shneur Zalman was perfectly suited for such a mission, since his Talmudic scholarship was on the level of the Misnagdim which many were the top Talmudic scholars in the world at the time.
During the years he spent trying to improve the spiritual and economic conditions of Jews all over the Russo-Polish border, Rabbi Shneur Zalman developed the philosophy of Chabad Chassidism. Where each Chassid was tasked with training themselves in a life of emunah and avodat Hashem, which brings a person to the highest level of Chabad, the three intellectual powers of Chochmah, Binah, and Daat, translated as wisdom, understanding and knowledge, which are an acronym for the word ChaBaD which form a bond between the upper and lower levels, heaven and earth. This being an all encompassing dveykut (clinging) to Hashem, one of mind, heart and deed in unison, the mind understands, the heart feels and the hand performs.
His teachings are studied around the globe by countless Chassidim, friends of Chabad and intellectual spiritualists the world over. His most famous work is Likutei Amarim, better known as the Tanya, which is a mind-blowing philosophical testament to his complete mastery of both the exoteric and esoteric teachings of Torah and the great scholars that preceded him. The Alter Rebbe’s understanding of the synthesis of intellect and emotion and how to bridge the two in a way to connect to the Light of Infinite, contributed to the formation of the Chabad movement, which can now be found as an elevated respite, and a home away from home for people in just about every corner of the entire world.
Reb Nachman of Breslov (1772 – 1810)
The Great-Grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Rebbe Nachman, has changed my life and the lives of so many people I love into something transcendent. I visited his kever in Uman, Ukraine when I was in Kiev for Shabbat after playing a show in Yalta, the Black Sea, when I was there reciting Tikkun HaKlali (the complete remedy) and felt on fire for Hashem like I never had before. This was prior to my knowing about Breslov, the movement that he started and my familiarity of the rich texts of his teaching, including Likutey Moharan. My soul knew what my intellect did not yet connect, I was Breslov and these teachings were my home.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was born on the first of Nissan, 1772, to Feiga, daughter of Odil, daughter of the Baal Shem Tov. His father’s side was also of a prominent lineage, as his father Rabbi Simcha, was the son of Rav Nachman of Horodenka, an early Chassidic leader.6
Rebbe Nachman was orphaned as a very young child, and spent his formative years between his uncle’s house and wandering from place to place, relying on Hashem for his needs. It was then that he formed a habit of hitbodedut, the practice of secluded meditation with God where one pours out their words and heart to the Creator.
“…to establish at least an hour to be alone in a room or in the field, and to express in conversation between himself and his Maker, [including] complaints and excuses, apologies and reconciliation, and to beg him to lead him to serve Him in truth. This conversation should be in the vernacular … in which he can best express himself and whatever lies on his heart, both regret for the past and wishes for the future … and he should take care to accustom himself to do this every day at a set time … and the rest of the time he should be happy.7
This act of speaking to the Infinite, just as one would with a friend or parent, became a hallmark of Breslov Chassidism.
At an early age, Rebbe Nachman mastered the Talmud and Jewish law at a very quick speed. But much like his great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, Rebbe Nachman associated himself with simple folk and hid his piety, this had many dismiss him and some find him to be a fool. His life was wrought with detractors and when his students would complain to him about it, he replied, “Trust me, I can make peace with the entire world and no one will disagree with me. But what can I do? There are certain spiritual chambers that can only be accessed through [overcoming] strife,” citing Moshe who also faced opposition and attempts of rebellion.
Despite the great and unparraleled achievements of Rebbe Nachman, his life was full of adversity, four of his eight children died in infancy, and he lost his wife to tuberculosis, which he too would pass away from at age of 38. It was this hardship that inspired his emphasis on joy being of the utmost importance, as he would teach to others, “Struggle with all your might to be only happy at all times, since it is natural to be drawn into depression and sadness…”8 His most famous dictum being, “Ein shum yeush ba’olam klal!”, which means, “There is no such thing as despair in the world, at all!’
Rebbe Nachman’s time on this earth overlapped with Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe), who passed away two years after Rebbe Nachman. At one point, Reb Nachman wanted to have Rabbi Schneur Zalman become his foremost student, but he had his own path.
Instead he met Reb Natan on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1822. Reb Natan made such a deep impression on him, that he brought him in to compile, edit, and publish his teachings in what would become Likutey Moharan and encouraged him to write his own scholarly work of Torah, the most famous of which became Likutey Halachot. Reb Natan eventually became the great leader of the Breslov movement, a testament to Rabbeinu’s great wisdom and foresight.
Rebbe Nachman often hid his teachings in stories, many of which rival classic literature in both their style and lyricism. He did so, motivated by the belief that in the story form, these lessons had the power to awaken slumbering souls. These stories, which include tales of princesses and paupers, kings and knaves, sinners and saints, contain practical lessons alongside the secrets of the Torah and Kabbalah. The most famous are the Sipurei Maasiyot, which were in Hebrew and Yiddish, titled Rebbe Nachman’s Stories in English, written for both the simpleton and the scholar.
The Tikkun Haklali (the complete remedy), is Rebbe Nachman’s selection and order of 10 Tehillim/Psalms (16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 150) which he described as the remedy for elevating the fallen sparks. The practice of reading Tikkun Haklali has become even more popular now then it was back then.
Most associate Rebbe Nachman with both Uman, Ukraine and the holiday of Rosh Hashanah because he would tell his followers it is important to be with him in Uman in his life and after his death during spiritually auspicious time. Rabbeinu stressed the importance to the extent that he would tell his followers, “Whether you eat or you don’t eat, whether you sleep or you don’t sleep, whether you daven [with proper concentration] or you don’t daven − just make sure that you are with me for Rosh Hashanah!”9 And Reb Natan was overheard saying, “Even if the road to Uman were paved with knives, I would crawl there − just to be with Rebbe Nachman for Rosh Hashanah.” and also shared, “Whoever comes to Rebbe Nachman’s burial place in Uman for Rosh Hashanah has a share in bringing the Redemption.”10 Uman on Rosh Hashanah is now more popular than it ever has been, attracting tens of thousands of followers of Breslov each year.11
The events of Rebbe Nachman, more than any other Chassidic master before him, have been carefully recorded and published in several books including Peulat Tzadik (“Action of the Righteous”). This glimpse into the life of the Tzadik who battled struggles both internal and external yet overcame them with an infectious joy that permeates much of Judaism today is invaluable.
In 1807, Rebbe Nachman passed through the city of Uman, stopping off at an old Jewish cemetery, telling his disciples, “This is a good place to be buried.” This referencing the cemetery where thousands of Jewish martyrs of the Haidamak Massacre of Uman of 1768 were buried. He later passed away in Uman and was laid to rest in that exact spot.
His revolutionary teachings and outlook on inward enlightenment lives on to this day and as he was quoted saying, “Until the Moshiach.”
Reb Natan of Breslov (1780 – 1844)
It was years of familiarity with Rebbe Nachman’s Likutey Moharan before I was properly introduced to Reb Natan’s Likutey Halachot; it was from these teachings that I started to notice a shift in me. One where all the previous things I had learned had taken on new meanings, as if a new cleaner lens was placed on the seeing part of my soul. It’s hard to describe the way Reb Natan articulates and expounds on the lessons of Rebbe Nachman, but the fresh perspective on always seeing the good within oneself and others, knowing that just like the moon waxes and wanes, so to do the hardships in all our lives and we have to lead with compassion and love if we hope to live a fulfilled life of happiness and connection.
Reb Natan Sternhartz was born in Nemirov, on 15 Shevat, 5540 (January 22, 1780). At thirteen, he married Esther Shaindel, the daughter of Rabbi Dovid Zvi Orbach, a prominent halachic authority in Poland and the Ukraine. At 22, Reb Natan became Rebbe Nachman’s loyal follower and developed into his the Rebbe’s scribe, writing down every teaching and conversation, so close was this relationship built on revealing the hidden Torah that Rebbe Nachman said: “Were it not for Reb Natan, not a page of my writings would have remained.”12
Reb Natan didn’t meet Rebbe Nachman until he was 22. Reb Natan was already a first-rate Torah prodigy and had a career as the rabbinical leader of many communities laid out for him; he was already a giant scholar at the time. Once he met his Rabbeinu, however, he understood that Reb Nachman was the true tzaddik and wanted nothing other than to learn from his Torah and disseminate it to the world. Even though his family didn’t understand or support it at the time, Reb Natan gave up all that was waiting for him and nullified himself completely to Reb Nachman. He became a perfect reflection of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, just as the moon reflects the light of the sun and Yehoshua the light of Moshe. This is apparent in Reb Natan’s illuminations in the final lesson taught by Reb Natan, which is found in hilchot Rosh Chodesh 7, which deals with the perfection of the blemish of the moon and its connection to the core teachings of Breslov, the Azamra.
After Rebbe Nachman passed away, Reb Natan moved to Breslov (1811), after Rebbe Nachman passed away and printed all of Rebbe Nachman’s writings, this included the beloved Likutey Moharan. Under the strong encouragement of Rebbe Nachman, Reb Natan wrote and published his own original discourses and teachings, including Likutey Halachot. During this period, he traveled throughout the Ukraine, visiting Rebbe Nachman’s followers and continuing to spread the Rebbe’s teachings.
In 1822, he made his pilgrimage to Israel, an adventure with many surprises. Around this time, Reb Natan fell into poverty. Eight years later, the number of followers going to Uman for Rosh Hashanah increased and Reb Natan oversaw the construction of a large Breslov synagogue.
In late 1834, there was a movement fueled by fierce opposition to Reb Natan and the Breslover Chassidim. The opposition led to Reb Natan’s temporary imprisonment by the authorities. After he was released, Reb Natan fled from city to city in the Ukraine, only returning to Breslov a year later. Shortly after he was banned from the town of Breslov, and was under court order to remain in the city of his birth. Though he was able with permission to travel to Uman for Rosh HaSsannah and for other select occasions. With those few exceptions, he was essentially restricted to the town of Nemirov. This only increased the opposition’s ability to try and ruin his name and movement. With the leader of the movements sudden death in 1838, the opposition died down and Reb Natan returned to Breslov.
Despite the great personal suffering he was dealt from both poverty and opposition, Reb Natan was single handedly responsible for shaping the Breslov movement into the vibrant force it is today. Reb Natan had five sons and one daughter.13
On the morning of his passing, 10 Tevet, 5605 (December 20, 1844), Reb Natan had the first two stories of Rabbi Nachman’s stories read to him. The second story ends, “…let us go home!” Hearing these words, Reb Natan nodded his head as if to say, “Yes, it is my time to go home.” He passed away later that day in his home in Breslov, just before Shabbat.14
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902 – 1994)
I can’t think of a more impactful and influential leader of the last hundred + years than The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. There is hardly a corner of the globe that you can find yourself in that doesn’t include a Chabad house where you will be greeted with a smile and some warm food by a Rabbi and his wife and family, who continue to be inspired by the teachings of The Rebbe. The Rebbe believed in shining light on the soul; spirituality and oneness over physicality and separation. That which divides us conceals Hashem, and The Rebbe was about revelation.
When I was married, I lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and our chuppah was at the world headquarters of Chabad, 770 Eastern Parkway or simply known around the world as 770. There are replicas of the building in different cities around the world. As I walked in circles, I felt the weight of what The Rebbe brought down to this life and when it came time for the tradition of going into the Yichud room, we were escorted into The Rebbe’s study and his kitel was placed upon my shoulders, little did I know at the time, The Rebbe would change my outlook and mission in life for the good and forever. There is never a week that goes by without my being inspired by a teaching of the Rebbe, generally in Likuttei Sichot, and I quote many of his insights from the Parashah in my writing.
The seventh leader in the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, The Rebbe who was named after his ancestor, the third Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of followers and millions of admirers around the world, he may very well be the one individual more than any other of the last thousand years responsible for stirring the conscience and spiritual awakening of world Jewry.
The Rebbe was born in 1902, on the 11th day of Nissan, in Nikolaev, Russia, to the Talmudic scholar, kabbalist, and leader Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson. Rebbetzin Chana (1880-1964) was known for her loving-kindness and courage which became apparent when her husband’s exile by the Soviets to a remote village in Asian Russia, and she began to labor to make inks from herbs she gathered in the fields so that her husband Rabbi Levi Yitzchak could continue writing his commentary on kabbalah and other Torah subjects.
When the Rebbe was nine years old, he dove into the Black Sea to save the life of a little boy who had rowed out to sea and lost control of his small boat. That innate feeling of being responsible for all those around him was a big part of his mission from an early age. This awareness and occupation with those “in danger” has dominated his teaching, writing and way of life throughout his days and the days of all his followers, whether it be Jews in isolated communities, in dire straits, and those under repressive regimes, The Rebbe viewed every person as an integral part of the whole that made up the body of the Jewish nation.
The Rebbe was already considered a Torah prodigy by the time he reached his Bar Mitzvah and spent his teen years immersed in the study of Torah.
In 1928, he married the sixth Rebbe’s daughter, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, in Warsaw. She was the Rebbe’s life partner for sixty years and passed away on 22 Sh’vat in 1988.
The Rebbe studied in the University of Berlin and at the Sorbonne in Paris where it was most likely that he mastered mathematics and the sciences. Having been rescued from the Holocaust, the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin arrived in the United States on Monday, Sivan 28, 5701 (June 23, 1941).
Without losing a beat in America, The Rebbe began disseminating Torah and Judaism and Chassidic teachings through the establishment of three Lubavitch organizations under the Rebbe’s leadership: Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch (“Central Organization For Jewish Education”), Kehot Publication Society, and Machne Israel, a social services agency. 15
With his father-in-law’s encouragement, the Rebbe began publishing his notations to various Chassidic, Kabbalistic, and a wide range of responses on Torah subjects. As soon as his work was published and disseminated, his brilliant mind was recognized around the world.
It was with reluctance that the Rebbe ascended to leadership of the Lubavitch movement, after the passing of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, in 1950. As so many have come into contact with, Lubavitch centers and Chabad Houses, with its outreach philosophy, soon started to spring up in dozens of cities and university campuses around the world.
The Rebbe understood that every good deed brings another in its wake and that with every effort of outreach, humanity comes that much closer to its ultimate goal, the time of universal awareness of G‑d, known as the time of Moshiach. The Rebbe spread the message that the time is imminent and that every one of us has the power to actualize the redemption by increasing in acts of loving-kindness.
It was on Monday afternoon (March 2, 1992), while praying at the gravesite of his father-in-law that the Rebbe suffered a physical blow, a stroke that paralyzed his right side and hindered his ability to speak. Two years and three months later, the Rebbe passed away on the 3rd of Tammuz, 5754 (June, 12 1994),
The Rebbe remains the most universally recognized and celebrated figure of the last hundred years from a Chassidic dynasty. His outreach, wisdom and mission lives on through all that came into contact with him, and all that continue to spread Torah in the loving and inclusive way in which he pioneered.
The Rebbe led by example, of abilities we all have and the urgency that we need to feel in order to actualize our potential and shine a light unto one another in order to usher in the final redemption, may it come speedily in our days!
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972)
When I was a teenager, my dad would lovingly talk to me about Abraham Joshua Heschel. He first went to hear Heschel’s public lectures when he was in undergraduate school at Northern Illinois University, starting in the middle to late 1960s. And then attended the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), often praying close by Heschel whenever possible. As a matter of fact, Heschel sat on my dad’s entrance interview committee, asking him ‘how do you know so much, if you did not go to yeshiva or day school?’ His life was immediately changed when he read the book, “The Sabbath”. When I began to read his books, “God in Search of Man,” “Man Is Not Alone,” and his most popular, “The Sabbath.” Just like my dad, I was hooked. It was as if I was reading a theological and philosophical work of dense beauty written by Dostoevsky, every line a poem onto itself, and each paragraph a manifesto to be contemplated, lived in, surrendered to.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was a spiritual radical – a rabbi, scholar, theologian, and philosopher who was very active in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Considered “one of the truly great men” of his day and a “great prophet” by Martin Luther King, Jr., Heschel made it a point when speaking to Jewish Americans and African Americans that they had a responsibility for each other’s liberation and for the plight of all suffering fellow humans around the world.16
Heschel was born in 1907 in Warsaw, Poland, to Rabbi Moshe Mordecai and Reizel Perlow Heschel and came from a long line of Chassidic rabbis, a Polish-born Jew descending on his father’s side from Dov Baer (the Maggid) of Mezeritch and Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta (Opatow), on his mother’s side from Levi Isaac of Berdichev.
At the age of 20, he enrolled in the University of Berlin. He received his PhD from the University of Berlin (1933), as well as a rabbinic ordination from the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (1934) where he taught Talmud.17
In 1937, Martin Buber appointed him his successor as the director of the Central Organization for Jewish Adult Education in Frankfurt, Germany (Mittelstelle fuer juedische Erwachsenenbildung) and the Juedisches Lehrhaus at Frankfurt on the Main. Where he remained until his deportation to Poland by the Nazis in October of 1938 where he taught for eight months at the Warsaw Institute of Jewish Studies. He then immigrated to England where he established the Institute for Jewish Learning in London.
He immigrated to America in 1940 by invitation from Julian Morgenstern to teach at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he was associate professor of philosophy and rabbinics for five years. It was in this time that Heschel quickly became a leading public intellectual and civil rights crusader, best known for marching and championing for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama and beyond.
In 1945, he became professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), a post he held for the rest of his life. In 1946 he married Sylvia Strauss, who birthed their only child, Susannah Heschel.
Heschel’s books and studies focused on medieval Jewish philosophy – on Saadiah Gaon, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, and Don Isaac Abrabanel – as well as on Chasidism and Kabbalah. He was admired as one of the most influential modern philosophers of religion in the United States, where his work is widely recognized and celebrated in both Jewish and Christian circles.
Martin Luther King would say of Heschel that he, “is one of the persons who is relevant at all times, always standing with prophetic insights” to guide persons with a social consciousness.18 Both men were driven by the notion of a collective responsibility for the fate of all mankind and believed that the struggle to overcome injustice must be universal.19
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925 – 1994)
It’s difficult to think of a single person who hasn’t in some way come into contact with a beautiful niggun (devotional melody) of Shlomo Carlebach. More than any other Rabbi, Carlebach composed melodies to the tefillot (prayers) that are sung all over the world by Jews from all denominations. You could say that he created a new Chassidic musical genre. Many synagogues in Israel and the States have Shabbat melodies that are almost exclusively Carlebach. When I lived in Israel attending Yeshiva in Bait Vagan and Maalot Dafna, I would often go to Moshav Modi’in, also known as the Carlebach Moshav. The entire Shabbat would be sublime, something not of this world – the spiritual energy, the melodies and Havdalah with all the families gathering around the fire, wine, and incense singing the Shabbat out, sanctifying and distinguishing between the holy and the mundane. The music that grew out of the Moshav and Carelebach, including Ben Zion Solomon and sons and the Moshav band continue to inspire young generations in ways that transcend words.
Shlomo Carlebach was born in Berlin in 1925 and is a descendant of a rabbinical dynasty in pre-Holocaust Germany. Growing up in Baden near Vienna, his father, Rabbi Naphtali Carlebach, served as Chief Rabbi (1931-1938). The Carlebach family traveled to Lithuania in hopes of safety, with the rise of Nazism, eventually immigrating to New York where Shlomo’s father became the Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jacob on New York City’s Upper West Side.
Shlomo and his twin brother Eli Chaim studied at Mesivta Torah Vodaas, a Charedi Yeshiva high school in Williamsburg until April 1943. They teamed up with a dozen students to help Rabbi Aharon Kotler establish the first Charedi full time Torah learning Kollel in Lakewood, New Jersey.
In 1949, Shlomo left Lakewood to begin a long lasting and deeply impactful career traveling as an outreach emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, disseminating the message of Chassidic Judaism in America.
In 1954, Shlomo received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, the Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin Yeshiva in Brooklyn.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach is regarded as one of the most influential composers of Jewish religious music of the 20th century and a pioneer of the modern neo-Hasidic renaissance. He revolutionized zemirot (Jewish sacred songs), transforming synagogue services throughout the world.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Reb Shlomo revived the Jewish spirit, helping thousands of disenchanted youths re-embrace their rich and beautiful heritage.
His teachings, songs, and stories weaved a tapestry and new form of heartfelt, soulful Judaism – one that was filled with a love for all human beings. In the tradition of the Baal Shem Tov and Rebbe Nachman, Shlomo discovered and uncovered the good in every person, found holiness in the outcasts, treasures in the beggars, and righteousness in the rebels.
His first record in 1959 was titled, “Songs of My Soul,” and his third record, “At the Village Gate” was produced by Vanguard Records in 1963, and marked the first time that a religious Jewish artist produced an album with a major American record company.
He founded a commune-like synagogue called The House of Love and Prayer. “If I would have called it Temple Israel, nobody would have come,” he said. “I had the privilege of reaching thousands of kids. Hopefully, I put a little seed in their hearts.”
“Holy brothers and sisters, I have something really deep to tell you,” was his way of addressing a crowd. He would see the “pintele Yid” (i.e. that no matter how distant one may become, there is always a Jewish point deep within, some small spark waiting to be ignited with wholeness and holiness) in every one.
In 1975, Reb Shlomo closed The House of Love and Prayer and took the remnants of his congregation to Israel, where he established the small settlement of Moshav Me’or Modi’in, near Ben Gurion Airport.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach died of a heart attack on a flight to Canada in 1994 (the 16th of Cheshvan 5755). He is buried in Israel at Har HaMenuchot. At the time of his death, Rabbi Carlebach had become a legend of sorts, having had a career that spanned 40 years in which he composed thousands of melodies and recorded 27 albums which continue to have widespread popularity and appeal. His influence continues to this day in “Carlebach minyanim“ and at Jewish religious gatherings in many cities and remote areas around the globe.20
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934 – 1983)
In high school, I began reading anything Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote, and he wrote a lot, just as many books as his years on this planet, 48 titles. I continued to read his writing throughout college, going to the same university as him, University of Maryland, where he earned his M.S. degree in Physics. His writing spanned Judiac thought, from Jewish meditation to the his mystical and academic translation of the esoteric “Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation” and “The Bahir” to revealing the hidden secrets of our ancient rituals in books written as a sort of introductory pamphlet on Jewish beliefs and philosophy, which were written at the request of NCSY, which include, “Tefillin,” “Waters of Eden: The Mystery of the Mikvah,” “Tzitzith: A Thread of Light,” and “Sabbath: Day of Eternity.” I remember reading the weekly Parashah from his translation, The Living Torah and if that weren’t enough, Rabbi Kaplan was the primary translator of the “Torah Anthology,” a 45-volume translation of Me’am Lo’ez from Ladino (Judæo-Spanish) into English.
Aryeh Kaplan was born in the Bronx, New York City to a Sefardi Recanati family from Salonika, Greece. His mother, Fannie Kaplan, died on December 31, 1947, when he was 13, and his two younger sisters, Sandra and Barbara, were sent to a foster home. Kaplan was expelled from public school after acting out, leading him to grow up as a “street kid” in the Bronx.
Kaplan did not grow up religious and his family had only a slight connection to Jewish practice, but he was encouraged to say Kaddish for his mother after her passing. On his first day at the minyan, Henoch Rosenberg, a 14-year Klausenburger Chassid, realized that young Aryeh was out of place, as he was not wearing tefillin or opening a siddur, and befriended him. Rosenberg and his siblings taught Kaplan Hebrew, and within a few days, Kaplan was learning Chumash.
When he was 15, Kaplan enrolled at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, and at age 18 was among “a small cadre of talmidim” selected to help Rabbi Simcha Wasserman open Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon, a new yeshiva in Los Angeles.
Kaplan then studied at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem in Israel, where he received rabbinic ordination from some of Israel’s foremost rabbinic authorities, including Yoreh Yoreh from Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog and Yadin Yadin from Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel in 1956.21
It is this drastic shift in this upbringing and revelatory epiphanies throughout his teenage years that contributed to Kaplan being highly regarded as a significant factor in the growth of the baal teshuva movement.
I didn’t realize how much of an influence Rebbe Nachman’s work was on Rabbi Kaplan until I read, “Until the Mashiach: The Life of Rabbi Nachman,” “Rabbi Nachman’s Stories” and the incredible, “Outpouring of the Soul Rabbi Nachman’s Path in Meditation,” this book was published by Chaim Kramer and his publishing company, Breslov Research Institute, Rav Kramer has been a major influence on me with his own books and translation of Likutey Moharan, largely responsible for disseminating Breslov teaching, I was honored to have him present at the Light of Infinite festival. When I discovered that he had worked with Rabbi Kaplan, my interest in him and his work grew even greater.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was born in 1934, and passed away 48 years later, on the 14th of Shevat.22
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948 – 2020)
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ writing always reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel, they both had a way of relating the esoteric and mystical in a universal fashion, poetic and poignant. His books inspired the promise of redemption and the love that religion could bring about. I think everyone should read “The Dignity of Difference” and the Biblically curious should keep up with this “Covenant and Conversations” series. I always found meaning in reading the intro sections to the holiday Machzors that he would publish with Koren publishing, the typography was slick and his introduction to both the Machzor itself and the rituals and import of the Chaggim were deep and profound, just the mindset needed to enter into the High Holidays.
An international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author, Rabbi Sacks was very unique, no other rabbi that I know of has been knighted by Her Majesty The Queen, as he was in 2005, being made a Life Peer, and taking his seat in the House of Lords in October 2009. Sacks was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”23 Described by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation” and by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “an intellectual giant.”24
Sacks was largely celebrated and recognized in his day, I heard him speak in Los Angeles and hearing his story, the son of a Polish-born Textile trader, growing up in London’s East End where he didn’t receive a Jewish education, instead attending a local state-funded grammar school and studying philosophy at Cambridge. Only after graduating, did he begin his rabbinical education and joined a Yeshiva.
Sacks went on to serve as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for 22 years, between 1991 and 2013. He then went on to a number of professorships at several academic institutions including Yeshiva University, New York University and King’s College London. Much like Heschel, Sacks was celebrated by Theologians and religions beyond Judaism, and was awarded 18 honorary doctorates including a Doctor of Divinity conferred to mark his first ten years in office as Chief Rabbi, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey.25
Rabbi Sacks authored over 35 books and his 2017 TED Conference talk, viewed millions of times, was listed by TED’s founder and curator Chris Anderson as one of the top ten talks of that year.26
Rabbi Sacks passed away at age 72, on November 7th 2020. His legacy is as one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century; one who bridged the religious and secular world through his writing, teaching and the exemplary way in which he spent his time with us on this planet.
Notes & Sources
- Pirkei Avot 1:14
- Talmud Berachot 28a
- “Maimonides: His Life and Works”, by Dovid Zaklikowski, chabad.org
- The Arizal By Nissan Dovid Dubov, chabad.org
- The Transmission of Kabbalah by Aryeh Kaplan
- 18 Facts About Rabbi Nachman of Breslov by Menachem Posner
- Likutei Moharan, Tinyana 25
- Ibid, Tinyana 24
- Chayei Moharan 404
- Kokhvei Ohr, Anshei Moharan, 4 [Jerusalem 1983 ed.] p. 69
- The Rebbe’s Rosh Hashanah by Rabbi Dovid Sears, breslev.com
- Tzaddik #367
- Reb Noson by breslov.org
- The Rebbe: A Brief Biography, chabad.org
- “Conversation with Martin Luther King,” 2
- “Conversation with Martin Luther King,” 2
- Wikipedia & happyminyan.org/rabbi-shlomo-carlebach
- Biography of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, rabbisacks.org
- Biography of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, rabbisacks.org