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Meeting the Baal Shem Tov in 2018

Rachel Ginsberg

As post-modern 2018 rediscovers Mezhibuzh of 1750, are we seeing the fulfillment of a centuries-old promise?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

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Rabbi Judah Mischel: "Now everywhere you turn, people are learning chassidus, realizing the gift of being able to tap into the more esoteric layers of Torah, how Hashem runs the world, and where they fit in on a cosmic level"

From Israeli hesder yeshivos to New York’s Yeshiva University, from Modern Orthodox Young Israel congregations to litvish study halls in Bnei Brak and Kiryat Sefer, it seems like everyone today is looking for the light of chassidus.

The Netzach Yisrael beis medrash on Mesilat Yosef Street in Kiryat Sefer looks like any other shul dotting the city’s Torah landscape, but it contains one of the best-kept public secrets of this staunchly Litvish town: The 120 avreichim who comprise the kehillah are actually closet chassidim. They still maintain their Litvish dress and haven’t switched their children into chassidic schools, but these graduates of Ponevezh, Tifrach, and Brisk have become students of Kabbalah and Chabad and Breslov — piling into cars in the middle of the night for an hour-long hisbodedus in the nearby forest and spending Rosh Hashanah in Uman.

“Over the years, we discovered each other through our individual journeys, and eventually we decided to create this kehillah,” says Reb Shlomo, one of the shul’s founders. Reb Shlomo was an avreich in Tifrach when a spiritual search took him to Rav Shimshon Pincus and Rav Moshe Shapira, then to the study of Chabad chassidus and finally, about ten years ago, to Breslov.

The shul, under the guidance of Jerusalem-based spiritual leader Rav Itche Meir Morgenstern, has become a chassidic destination for the general public, where people off the street — both curious onlookers and those seeking an added dimension to their Yiddishkeit — can avail themselves of chassidic seforim and an assortment of shiurim. 

"Chassidus sees the world in the context of how good we are, in the context that Hashem has nachas from our efforts, however small"
—Rabbi Judah Mischel 

Reb Shlomo says that he’s turned down numerous requests to be interviewed by the Israeli media, partly because he doesn’t want to call attention to the wives of the avreichim, each of whom has had to navigate dealing with her husband’s newfound identity and passion.

“Some of the women have embraced it and others aren’t interested,” Reb Shlomo says. “It’s very hard for them to make the change, so we’ve made a pact to minimize the tension by not demanding changes from our wives and our children, although most of us have switched our davening to the chassidic nusach Sefard and taken on chassidic minhagim.”

But Reb Shlomo is optimistic that this double life won’t last much longer. “It’s the revelation of pnimiyus before the Final Redemption,” he says. “Until 30 years ago, Breslov was a small chassidus of a few hundred families, and now there are thousands. Rebbe Nachman himself said that when his seforim — which were actually banned by some chassidic groups — will finally become accepted, it means the world is on the verge of Mashiach.”

Maybe that’s one reason Netzach Yisrael has lots of company, as part of a mushrooming trend that’s hit every facet of the Orthodox Jewish world. Walk into any “modern” beis medrash and you’ll see the tables piled up with Tanyas and Sfas Emes, as post-modern 2018 rediscovers the Mezhibuzh of 1750. From Israeli Hesder yeshivos to New York’s Yeshiva University, from Modern Orthodox Young Israel congregations to Litvish study halls in Bnei Brak and Kiryat Sefer, it seems like everyone today is looking for the Baal Shem Tov. 


The Light They Crave

On the surface, the Orthodox world today seems to have it all — minyan factories where you can catch a 2 a.m. Maariv, morning kollels and evening kollels and overflowing mosdos and gemachs for every possible need, glatt-kosher cruises and Yom Tov getaways and hachnasas orchim websites and 100,000 Yidden packing a stadium at a Siyum HaShas. Technology is widely considered the scourge of frum society, but if that can just be gotten under control, the thinking goes, our lives will continue to flow in spiritual perfection.

Yet that view might be short-sighted, says Rav Moshe Weinberger, rav of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY and one of the generation’s leading teachers of chassidus. While it’s easy to blame the Internet for our societal ills, it’s much more difficult and painful to consider that as far as this generation has come in creating vibrant Jewish societies, we haven’t been providing the true inner joy and light of Yiddishkeit that people’s neshamos crave.

“We’re seeing it before our eyes,” Rav Weinberger says. “Jews today are demanding to have a real relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.”

Rav Weinberger’s enthusiastic encouragement of a deeper engagement with the inner dimensions of Torah has branded him as the conductor of a growing movement across the Jewish world to reconnect with the spiritual vision of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples. Some call it “neo-chassidism” — a burgeoning trend among non-chassidim, especially more “modern” Jews, who have begun gravitating toward chassidic practices such as the study of chassidic texts, daily mikveh immersion, wearing a gartel for davening, growing a beard and peyos, and other spiritually-energizing motifs.

But ask the rabbanim and mashpiim directing these people toward a higher spiritual sensitivity and they’ll cringe at the term.

“I don’t know about any ‘neo-chassidim movement,’ ” says Rav Weinberger. “I’m just another Jew trying to come closer to Hashem. It’s the same movement that started on Har Sinai with Anochi Hashem Elokecha, it’s the message of the Baal Shem Tov, and it’s being revived in the most remarkable way in 2018.”

One of the great innovations of the Baal Shem Tov was the rendering of kabbalistic concepts and truths in very human and accessible terms. Much of chassidic teaching revolves around a mental, emotional, and spiritual reorientation of our relationship with our material needs, drives, and preoccupations, a shift especially potent for those who don’t spend their entire day learning Torah but who are engaged in the working world.

When a person realizes that his seemingly inconsequential thoughts, words, and actions are linked up with the Infinite Creator, it imbues all of life with great weight and significance. It means that everyone has a way in. 


The Missing Spice

Rav Weinberger’s own kehillah was created in 1992, when a few people in Woodmere were looking for a more uplifting, personal, and connected tefillah experience. At the time, Rav Weinberger, a graduate of Yeshiva University, was teaching in several kiruv programs and at Ezra Academy, but the sincerity of the petitioners convinced him to leave his beloved teaching positions. When the shul first started, only a handful of women covered their hair, and most families sent their children to co-ed schools. Today Aish Kodesh is a magnet for people all over the tristate area seeking depth and inspiration, even for “mainstream” chassidim from Williamsburg and Boro Park who want more from chassidus than a Friday night tish in the bleachers after their soup, chicken, and kugel. Rav Weinberger’s first words to the fledgling congregation still resonate 26 years  and more than a thousand members later: “It’s the natural tendency of a Jewish soul to yearn to cling to Hashem. Life, however, places many obstacles in our paths, but with Hashem’s help, our task will be to remove these obstacles one by one, so that our souls can grow closer to Him.”

“I was once at a conference where it was discussed what kind of Judaism we will have in America 100 years from now,” Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote in his book, Faces and Facets, published ten years after his sudden passing in 1983. “Some people said the trend would be toward Reform. Others said it would be toward the middle, Conservative movements. The pessimists said that there would be no problem, given the current rise in intermarriage, for in 100 years, there would be no Judaism at all in America. But one person suggested that 100 years from now, chassidic Judaism would dominate the American Jewish scene.

“I would agree. The chassidic spirit, the chassidic philosophy, is certainly the up-and-coming thing. Perhaps this is our answer, the missing ingredient which will provide our coming generation with a new kind of Judaism, a turned-on Judaism... Maybe we have to get involved in this love affair of the chassidim, this love affair with G-d.”

Five years ago, Yeshiva University recognized that many of its students were looking for something deeper and turning “right” — especially those who’d come back from studying in Israel and wanted to hold onto the inner dimensions of Torah and the personal relationship with Hashem expressed in chassidus that they’d been exposed to. So YU appointed Rav Weinberger as the institution’s mashpia, someone who spoke and lived this language.

“Maggidei shiur from different yeshivos have approached me,” says Rav Weinberger, “because they’re stumped. They don’t understand why the boys are no longer getting inspired from straight Gemara learning. ‘Reb Moshe, can you help me? What worked for me back then isn’t working for the boys in the beis medrash anymore.’”

At YU today, there’s a veritable revolution going on. Dozens of Rav Weinberger’s talmidim go to the mikveh every morning, and hundreds come to his farbrengens and have made real changes in their lives. Many of them are struggling after a year in Israel — they want to hang onto their increased piety, to find a way to cling to their newly-refined levels of Yiddishkeit, but find themselves up against their old lifestyle. The study of chassidus equips them with the perspective to engage in all aspects of life with a renewed G-d-consciousness, affecting their davening, their interpersonal middos, and even whom they choose to marry.

But there are also the “noshers,” the people who hop from one kumzitz or chassidic experience to another, tasting from a smorgasbord of feel-good spirituality without maintaining a real inner commitment; the bloggers who casually throw around deep, holy cosmic terms (“working on the whole ratzo v’shov thing today”) like they’re talking about the weather. Is this what the Baal Shem Tov envisioned when he was told that Geulah would come to the world when the wellsprings of chassidus would spread to the masses?

Rav Weinberger tells the story of Rebbe Pinchas of Koritz, a talmid of the Maggid of Mezritch and a contemporary of the Baal HaTanya, who felt the holy teachings of chassidus should be safeguarded from the clutches of the masses. One day he found some notes of his rebbe’s teachings trampled in the gutter, which caused him great anguish and only intensified his position. The Baal HaTanya, realizing his pain, told him the following parable:

There was once a king whose only son was dying, and there seemed to be no cure. Someone told the king of a tzaddik who might be able to heal the dying prince, and indeed, the tzaddik said there was one remedy. He described a certain stone, which, when ground up to a fine powder and mixed with a certain wine, would cure the prince. The gem was rare, however, and only existed in one place — on the king’s own crown, the ultimate symbol of his sovereignty. The king’s servants were horrified at the idea of destroying his crown, but the king himself was overjoyed at the prospect of saving his son. But just as he was about to remove the crown, the king was given devastating news: The prince’s condition had so deteriorated that he couldn’t even drink a sip of the potion — his lips were sealed. Yet the king didn’t desist, and commanded the stone to be pulverized. “Grind, pour, squander the entire gemstone,” he said. “Perhaps a single drop will enter his mouth, and he will be cured. If it works, there will be continuity. If not, there’s no point to my kingdom.”

“Sure, there are always spiritual adventure-seekers and it’s no question that it’s become in vogue to speak the language of chassidus, to have a ‘chassidish’ look,” admits Rav Weinberger. “But it’s easy to sort them out from the ones looking for a real meaningful connection to Hashem in a healthy, normal way, and it doesn’t matter if they have peyos and a beketshe or whether that connection is in Yiddish, English, or Hebrew.”


Making an Empty Space

Rav Weinberger, the acknowledged leader of chassidic renewal, hasn’t limited his influence to the East Coast. He stretched his long arm of influence all the way to Seattle, Washington, helping to establish a kehillah built on the warmth of chassidus in a city with over a century of solid Jewish roots. He encouraged Rabbi Shmuel Brody, a talmid chacham and chassid who came to Seattle with his wife, Sarah, to teach in the local schools, to light the fire of chassidus in this easygoing town rated the nation’s “second most livable big city”.

About ten years ago Rabbi Brody became involved in a small minyan headed by Seattle residents Chanan and Sarah Simon. Chanan had become close to Rav Weinberger and other teachers of chassidus and wanted to somehow maintain the bren of his tefillos and avodah. That small minyan was propelled into a kehillah by Mr. Joe Reback and Rabbi Binyamin Edelstone when they spent a Shabbos in Woodmere and asked, “Why can’t we have something like this in Seattle?”

Rabbi Brody, who grew up in Silver Spring, learned in Yeshivas Ner Israel in Baltimore and in The Jerusalem Kollel under Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, and considers Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg to be his chassidic ignition.

“By watching him daven, I learned what genuine tefillah is,” says Rabbi Brody. In fact, it was Rav Tzvi Meir who unwittingly confirmed the name of the kehillah. “When I went to him for a brachah, I had the name of our newly-founded kehillah, Ashreicheim Yisrael, formulated in my mind. Then he took my hand in his and said, ‘Ashreichem’ — so the name of the shul carries his blessing,” Rabbi Brody says.

He’s the only shtreimel-wearer in Seattle, but somehow his chassidish dress has become a magnet for all types of Jews, even those unaffiliated Jews who’ve never learned alef-beis.

While the shul is a place for serious davening and learning, it is simultaneously an entry point for those who’ve discovered a desire for spiritual connection in a Jewish context. Rabbi Brody’s most famous talmid is Nissim Black, the Seattle-born rapper who converted to Judaism, and who now lives in Jerusalem with his family where he continues to perform. Nissim and his family converted under the authority of the city’s Sephardic rabbi, but he was drawn to Ashreichem Yisrael’s chassidic warmth, and is today a full-fledged Breslover chassid.

“The common thread of our kehillah is that the people are serious about tefillah and a relationship with Hashem, so whether the person on my left can’t read Hebrew and the person on my right can learn Tosafos, they still have common ground — they’re both looking for a dynamic relationship with Hashem,” Rabbi Brody says, but qualifies that “while that thread comes from chassidus, the wrapping is very contextual for what’s going on in this city.”

Rabbi Brody teaches shiurim in Mishnah, Gemara, and halachah but has found the intimacy of the one-on-one chavrusa as an effective means of transmitting the teachings and spirit of chassidus. The shul’s mission to reach beyond itself and engage Jews of all backgrounds has propelled Rabbi Brody to create gateways for Jews who are curious and desirous of something substantial, but who are missing the knowledge of what that is and how to access it. He found in the Piaseczno Rebbe — Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapira Hy”d — an example of such a gateway, who as a rebbe is as relevant to the modern millennial as he was to his chassidim back in Poland.

“The Piaseczno Rebbe has one page in the back of his sefer Derech Hamelech, written by a talmid on certain meditative techniques the Rebbe taught him,” Rabbi Brody explains. “The first step is what’s called hashkatah — quieting down. Because the ego is what creates all the clutter in the mind, all the self-centered associative thoughts, the first thing to do is quiet the ego to allow the neshamah to be exposed. That’s why sleeping is a little bit of nevuah — the ego consciousness is put to sleep and the neshamah can rise. So now we’ve created an empty space, which can actually be scary because people don’t like empty spaces — it feels insecure, like you want to fill it with something. But that space is necessary for the next stage, when you fill it with a pasuk or a tefillah. When practiced consistently, this can be transformative.”

Most of the people who participate in these sessions aren’t frum and don’t yet have a language of prayer. Still, says Rabbi Brody, these teachings give them the beginning of a language of connection and they begin to feel there’s a neshamah somewhere under all the busy stuff that tends to hijack our lives.


In the Circle

And really, say teachers of chassidus today, it doesn’t much matter if you have an impeccable chassidic pedigree going back to the Alter Rebbe, or if you just learned alef-beis. “In the chassidic world you’re either a geborener or a gevorener [born into it or a newcomer],” says Rebbetzin Yehudis Golshevsky, herself a product of a Modern Orthodox home who has been teaching chassidus to women in Jerusalem for over two decades, and today a Breslover. “But in the time of the Baal Shem Tov and his students, no one was a geborener. So in that sense we’ve just come full circle.”

Rebbetzin Golshevsky’s classes draw women from all backgrounds — baalos teshuvah, FFBs, women who grew up chassidish, women who left Yiddishkeit and are on the way back, Beis Yaakov graduates, geirei tzedek, women in tichels, and women in pants. “There is great harmony in our circle because we’re all interested in growing and changing and learning, and I place myself in that circle, as much a seeker as anyone else,” she says.

She’s been taking women to kivrei tzaddikim in Eretz Yisrael and in Ukraine for the past 15 years, but emphasizes that she’s not in the business of selling yeshuos or segulos. “The journey is its own reward, and the yeshuah comes from unlocking your blocked-up places in your relationship with Hashem, with others, and with yourself. I don’t know whether you’ll get what you’re davening for, but you’re going to get more from your davening. You’ll discover that you have much more inside yourself, many more channels of connection with Hashem, than you knew about. And that can change your life if you let it.”

Avigayil, a recent student of the Rebbetzin who joined the group on a trip to Uman last year, would agree. From as far back as she can remember, Avigayil had “tzniyus issues” — dressing in a sub-halachic, provocative manner in order to call attention to herself, even if it was attention of degradation. “But then I began to learn how every Yid is a ben yachid of Hashem, how I am a bas melech and should treat myself with utmost dignity, and how little me in my skimpy getup causes pain to Hashem — how I matter to Him.”

 Rebbetzin Golshevsky, who is in the process of opening an educator’s course for women to broaden their range of learning skills in order to bring Torah and chassidus to whatever educational environment Hashem sends them, is also no fan of the “neo-chassidic” definition, even for people like Avigayil who dabble in the learning but haven’t made a full-fledged commitment to a “chassidish” way of life. Why, she says, does one have to become an anthropological study if he wants to absorb and be inspired by the chassidic message yet remain within his non-chassidic environment? “Is chassidus a style of dress, a type of hat, a denier of stocking, or predicated on pronouncing kugel or kigel? It’s probably the Breslover gevorener in me, but I really don’t think that this is the point of chassidus. Can you be a chassid and still daven in Young Israel? I should think so. Your kids just won’t get into the chassidishe schools, but maybe you don’t want them there — maybe as a community, it’s not suited to you for many reasons. Why should that disqualify you from delving in chassidus, though, and benefitting from its exquisite light?”


Who’s Watching?

That’s the same question popular chassidus teacher Rabbi Judah Mischel, executive director of Camp HASC and former rebbi at Yeshivat Reishit, has been asking for the last 20 years. In his colored shirt, the Ramat Beit Shemesh resident who identifies with Breslov and is a talmid muvhak of Rav Avraham Tzvi Kluger — rav of beis medrash Nezer Yisrael in RBS and one of today’s leading original chassidic thinkers and teachers, known for his fusion of Chabad and Breslov principles — says that with all their chein, he could never be a card-carrying member of an insular mainstream chassidic group.

“If I would decide to start wearing a long rekel, Rav Kluger would probably throw me out of the beis medrash,” he says.

Rabbi Mischel went through the Modern Orthodox system — ASHAR for elementary school and Frisch for high school — but it was during his year in Israel at Shaalvim that the floodgates of spirituality suddenly opened. Back in America at Yeshiva University, he felt a gaping void. He and his friends got together to learn Nesivos Shalom, and there were tapes of Rav Moshe Weinberger which were a lifesaver, but back then, there was little else to fill the huge hole in his heart.

“Now everywhere you turn,” he says, “people are learning chassidus, realizing the gift of being able to tap into the more esoteric layers of Torah, how Hashem runs the world, and where they fit in on a cosmic level.” Take singer/educator Rabbi Shlomo Katz’s kehillah in Efrat. No one would identify its knitted-kippah wearing members as chassidish, but 200 balabatim there learn chassidic seforim with their rabbi every morning. In Teaneck, NJ, YU alumnus Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Weinberger has hundreds of people coming to his chassidus shiur, and the same is true for Rabbi Zev Reichman in Bergenfield. In New York it’s Rav Moshe Wolfson and Rav Binyomin Eisenberger and Rebbe Mottel Zilber — these aren’t rebbes of official chassidic courts, but magnets for searching souls striving for the depths of Torah and real connection.

In the times of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples, though, people would really make sacrifices — they would leave home and travel for a month to sit by their rebbe; they’d make spiritual commitments that demanded uprooting everything they’d known. Does today’s study of chassidus do that? With an iPhone in one hand and Likutei Moharan in the other, does this feel-good version of chassidus obligate real change and growth?

“Even just ‘feeling spiritual’ is better for you than feeling bad about yourself, because then we see ourselves for who we really are — a part of Divinity, a ben melech,” Rabbi Mischel explains. “Part of chassidus in our generation is appreciating our retzonos as opposed to bashing ourselves. That doesn’t mean our cheap taavos, but our deep, internal desires. What’s the point of a strong Minchah if I know I’m not going to daven Maariv? But in the world of the spiritual, even one moment of inspiration is infinite. When you contemplate this, it can change your life — make you whole when you feel broken and worthless.”

He quotes a favorite teaching from his rebbe, Rav Kluger, to sharpen the point:

“Probably the most anxiety-provoking Mishnah in Pirkei Avos is ‘Da ma lemaalah mimcha…— Know that Someone is above you, watching your every move, hearing your every krechtz, reading your thoughts.’ It makes you feel like someone is bugging your phone, that you can’t even hide your thoughts of jealousy or inappropriate desires, like you’re a trapped animal, like Hashem is writing you a ticket every minute. But really, this is the false narrative we’re telling ourselves. What the Mishnah is really teaching is that Hashem is watching all the good things we’re doing. Hashem doesn’t miss it when you open the door for someone, when you put your shopping cart back so someone else can take it. Hashem hears all those voices that say, ‘I want to be good,’ ‘I want to be nice to my spouse,’ ‘I want to help my neighbor.’ All our holy retzonos are written down — so even if we think we missed it, Hashem didn’t miss it! Chassidus sees the world in the context of how good we are, in the context that Hashem has nachas from our efforts, however small. And that definitely obligates us.”

Rabbi Mischel has found that without a real, conscious, loving, and dynamic relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu — the backdrop to all chassidic teachings — Judaism for many young people feels irrelevant. But in his experience, kids “off the derech” or “on the fringe” aren’t running away from Yiddishkeit. They just never met it.

That’s why Rabbi Yonatan Hirschhorn, a campus kiruv rabbi at the University of Maryland, is tapping chassidic teachings for his outreach work. “Rabbi Y.,” as he’s known on campus, grew up dati-leumi in the Gush Etzion town of Neve Daniel (his father is Rabbi Kenny Hirschhorn of Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh in the Old City) — but he says that as a teen, religious life “didn’t work for me.” That’s because he has ADD: He couldn’t read from a siddur properly and he couldn’t sit still.

“Everyone was learning, davening, concentrating, and I just couldn’t do it. So when I was in high school, I ‘left’ — not because I was a rebel, but because Yiddishkeit seemed to be for other people,” Rabbi Y. remembers. “Then, when I was in 11th grade, I met a rabbi who turned it around for me. He introduced me to chassidic seforim — Rabi Tzadok, Meor V’Shemesh, Tanya — and I learned that my disability isn’t some stumbling block to make me fail at life, but it’s exactly how Hashem made me and wants me to grow from that place. It meant that I could turn it around and turn it into an asset. I remember years later when I was bombing away, giving one shiur after another — remember, I have a lot of energy and can’t sit still — another staff member came up to me and said, ‘Yonatan, how do you do it?’ and I answered, ‘Hashem blessed me with ADD!’ ”

But Rabbi Y. admits that it was a gradual process. “Once I understood that my struggle was my gift, that Hashem gives everyone his particular qualities for his personal avodas Hashem, I found someone who taught me a different method of learning Gemara — how to think ahead and conceptualize — and once I changed my perception, I began rebuilding a relationship with Hashem from the ground up.”

Rabbi Y. might have been blessed with ADD, but he was also blessed with a keen memory and sharp wit, and made a siyum on all of Shas, learning large tracts by heart, before he turned 25. He received semichah from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, taught in some American yeshivos, and founded a beis medrash in Neve Daniel for disenfranchised youth, to do for them what the rabbi did for him years back.

“For me it was ADD,” Rabbi Y. says, “but for someone else it might be divorced parents or some other challenge. Rebbe Nachman taught us how to talk to Hashem, to have a one-on-one conversation, just you and Him. Tell Him how miserable you’re feeling, how you find it hard to cope, how ultimately you’re powerless and only He can either extricate you or guide you through.”

He’s also a Breslover, although with peyos behind his ears and a T-shirt instead of a rekel, some might consider him a “neo-chassid” instead of the “real thing.” But he has no patience for those kinds of terms. “Chassidus is about renewal, about growing your relationship with Hashem, about everyone having a place at the table whether or not you conform to a certain dress code. If the Baal Shem Tov were alive today, he would say, ‘These are my chassidim.’”


Moments of Value

And he would surely strengthen the broken spirits of those who went through the mainstream yeshivah system, only to struggle for years in an untrusting relationship with Hashem. Moshe, the son of a prominent NY rabbi, admits that was his own sad profile until he reached his thirties and was exposed to a new way of looking at his own life through chassidic study with friends.

“Back in the day,” says Moshe, “we were basically told that here is where Hashem is, in this beis medrash, and when you leave this room, you’re out there in the wilderness and your tachlis is to get back here as fast as you can. So when guys leave yeshivah, either they drift away, feeling hopeless, or they continue to be yeshivah guys even if they’re in another profession — their day is framed by morning and night seder and the rest of the day for them, most of the hours of the day, are just a bedieved, with no value.

“This,” Moshe continues, remembering years of his own pain and confusion, “is a disaster. It means your day is a waste. Burned time. That you spent most of your waking hours without value. So if you feel like most of your life is meaningless, how can you possibly be happy and at peace with yourself?”

Learning the Torah of the Baal Shem Tov, he said, finally let him understand that every moment in life has purpose and value. “We generally explain the pasuk ‘Shivisi Hashem L’negdi tamid’ as something like, ‘I always put Hashem in front of me… and since I know He’s looking, I’ll behave.’ But the Baal Shem Tov says differently. ‘Shivisi’ means I’m shaveh — even, balanced, never worse or better, and also I’m shaveh — worthy wherever I am, because Hashem’s presence is always there opposite me. That means I have a constant relationship with Hashem in everything I’m doing. For me, this was life-altering.”

There’s a certain narrative that the Baal Shem Tov took the simple folk who couldn’t connect to Hashem through learning Torah and gave them an alternative, a legitimacy to their “simple” avodah —the ability to connect even if one was just a Tehillim-zogger.

“But this isn’t the real narrative,” says Rav Weinberger. “There’s a certain convenience in spreading the false narrative that chassidus is something just for the simple people, that it’s about schnapps and herring. In truth, the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples were geniuses and huge talmidei chachamim, expounding and revealing the secrets of Torah from Shimon Bar Yochai. Today people are learning all of this — the pnimiyus haTorah is accessible to everyone, fulfilling the Baal Shem Tov’s vision. It’s very convenient to say, oh, it’s just a bunch of kids growing their peyos and wearing tzitzis down to their knees; they’ll grow out of it. But it’s too deep, too widespread, and it’s the clearest sign that Mashiach is at the doorstep. It was predicted long ago, and it’s happening before our eyes.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 710)

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Top-Down Theory
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Strive for What Binds Us
Yonoson Rosenblum The chareidi community represents something of an oasis
Embracing Victimhood
Eytan Kobre Combating the allure of victimhood
The Kids Are Going to Camp, the Parents Are Going Broke
Miriam Klein Adelman Mindy has to feel good; it doesn’t matter that I feel ba...
Work/Life Solutions with Carlos Wigle
Moe Mernick “Rejection is Hashem’s protection” 
How to Create a Simple 900-Page Novel
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman All of us can reset the titles of our own lives
Stand There or Do Something
Baruch S. Fertel, MD, MPA, FACEP It’s called collaborative care, and it works miracles
I'm Here — Are You Ready?
Riki Goldstein Upbeat and catchy, but still makes listeners think
Back in Time
Riki Goldstein "I wish I could recapture that excitement"
Mixed Messages
Riki Goldstein The unsung craftsmen who give albums their special touch
Go in Peace
Faigy Peritzman Inner peace makes us vessels for blessing
All Work and No Play
Sarah Chana Radcliffe A life only about doing your duties loses all its color
Dying to Believe
With Rav Moshe Wolfson, written by Baila Vorhand Emunah peshutah is the force behind Jewish continuity