Andy already wrote about the story of the tractor driver that Rabbi Kaplan told in shul yesterday.
It’s worth reading in full, but the essence of the story is that not all people are meant to fulfill the same role in life. We learned of a man who became irreligious, and then was inspired to become religious again. He wanted to take up the rabbinate, and studied hard to make up for lost time and prove himself.
In the end the Lubavitcher Rebbe (may he rest in peace) sent this man back to his secular world–not once, but twice. And he took heed of the Rebbe’s words. A tractor driver in Israel, he embodied the principles of Jewish observance and love of his fellow man, and influenced many thousands of people to revisit their faith.
I feel the tears flowing down my face yet again as I tell the story over. The rabbi connected it with the Biblical story of Leah, who–like many of us–hated herself for her shortcomings. She rued the fact that she was not perfect like Rachel, that she did not get a perfect match like Rachel, but instead was to marry the wayward Esau.
Leah wanted a shared in the Twelve Tribes, but she could have turned Esau from an evil man into a good one.
Someone told me once, on observing me cry like this: “Those tears are a sign of a very deep truth.”
And what is that truth?
Well, why am I sitting here on a Sunday writing about Judaism, when I am not Orthodox, not a rabbi, not a scholar, and definitely not perfect?
Because the computer is the tractor and God called me to drive it His way. He didn’t make us perfect people; it is when the ordinary person speaks of Godly things that the Word of the Torah and of truth is sanctified.
So I am supposed to be sitting here, giving over some messages that reflect on Chassidus, as a philosophical framework within which Judaism and its life lessons can be understood more broadly, by anyone.
I am supposed to be doing this even though I am not Orthodox. Though I keep many things, I can’t say that I am on that level of observance; I still use my own judgment, take shortcuts, and am lazy many times.
But as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has pointed out in the context of Judaism and homosexuality, there are 613 mitzvos, and not everyone keeps each one. He writes:
“The Bible consists of 613 commandments, one of which is for a man to marry and have children, and the other is for a man to avoid gay sex with another man. That leaves 611 commandments for gay men to observe. That should keep them pretty busy.”
In the context of discovering your mission, whatever it is, one very important habit to develop is a commitment to self-improvement. To that end, Rabbi Kaplan talked yesterday about conditioning.
He was commenting on the portion of the Torah reading where Jacob says that he will tithe 20% of his worldly belongings to God (Genesis 28:21-22).
We aren’t supposed to give that much, says the Rabbi; 20% is actually the maximum. He notes that the Hebrew text has Jacob tithing 10%, then multiplying it to twenty.
Pulling back from the technical aspects of charity observance, the rabbi brought up the question of whether it is better to give the same amount all at once, or in bits and pieces.
The answer (I believe he quoted the Rambam here) is that it’s better to give charity a little at a time, so as to teach ourselves to do good deeds. When you give a lot of money in one shot, “impulsively,” it does not build your character in the same way.
After the speech and before we left, I told the rabbi that I appreciated the talk and quipped that I met the Rebbe, but he never told me to drive a tractor, i.e. he didn’t tell me my mission in life.
We talked about what the Rebbe did in fact say to me, personally, “Besever Panim Yafos,” which means to greet life with a positive countenance.
Rabbi Kaplan (who has heard this from me before, as I tend to repeat my stories) reminded me that the message from the Rebbe had to do with influencing others. That you can have much more of an impact when you are positive and cheerful.
It was the first time I realized that the Rebbe’s message to me was not about my personal psychology, only. That he actually was telling me about my mission in life–specifically, how to approach it. That I am supposed to have a positive impact on this world, to influence others, and that the formula for success here has to do with being cheerful.
(And I can be pretty nasty, I have to admit. Upon hearing how wonderful it was that the shul had a domestic abuse number on the wall, my husband joked: “Good. Now I know who to call.”)
Rabbi Kaplan reminded us of the principle of cognitive psychology, upon which Torah observance is actually based, that you do things first and then you are transformed later (rather than feeling first and then acting). The act of smiling, he noted, has been scientifically shown to transform your mood in a good way.
Here is another example of conditioning: Sabbath observance.
As a child Sabbath observance was automatic for me, because my parents did it.
As an adult, not so much. Everything seemed like a hassle.
This time we went to the hotel and kept Sabbath, and kosher, more than usual.
I got candles at the local grocery store.
Brought up fruit and hardboiled eggs to the room (see photo), along with boxed cereal. And we got plastic forks and spoons, too.
This is not to say that we stopped eating pizza on the beach–but it’s something.
We increase our level slowly and then the task is to not walk it back.
Lots more to say here, but I think I will stop for now.
Author’s note: Thank you to Rebbetzin Devorah Kaplan of the Downtown Jewish Center Chabad, in Fort Lauderdale FL, who was kind enough to lend me several books from their library, including On the Essence of Chassidus and Mystical Concepts in Chasidism. If you are ever in town, stop by for a great Jewish experience on Shabbat or during the week; check out their Facebook page for more info.
Posted November 26, 2017 by Dr. Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal. All opinions are Dr. Blumenthal’s own. This blog is hereby released into the public domain. Photo by me.