Thursday, July 29, 2010


Tonight I was accused of being non-cosmopolitan. Before that, I was accused of not loving Russia enough. (I mean, how much more Russian can I get, some of you are wondering. I know! Anyway...)

So, to refute both claims I am posting an English translation of a German band singing a song about Russia, presented by a Polish channel. Potential kol isha.

(Also, yes, I am alive.)

Moscow, queen of the russian land,
Built like a rock to stand, proud and divine.
Moscow, your golden towers glow,
Even through ice and snow, sparkling they shine.

And every night, night, night, there is music,
Oh, every night, night, night, there is love.
And every night, night, night, there is laughter,
Here's to you brother, hey, brother, ho!
Hey, hey, hey, hey!

Moscow, Moscow, throw your glasses at the wall,
And good fortune to us all, ho-ho-ho-ho-ho, hey!
Moscow, Moscow, join us for a casatchok,
We'll go dancing round the clock, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, hey!
Moscow, Moscow, drinking Vodka all night long,
Keeps you happy, makes you strong, ho-ho-ho-ho-ho, hey!
Moscow, Moscow, come and have a drink and then,
You will never leave again, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Hey!

Moscow, la-la-la..., ho-ho-ho-ho-ho, hey!
Moscow, Moscow, la-la-la..., ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Moscow! Moscow!

Moscow, Moscow, [censored]
[censored] ho-ho-ho-ho-ho, hey!
Moscow, Moscow, she will make you understand,
Russia is a wondrous land, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Moscow! Moscow!

And every night, night, night, there is music,
Oh, every night, night, night, there is love.
And every night, night, night, there is laughter,
Here's to you brother, hey, brother, ho!
Hey, hey, hey, hey!

Moscow, Moscow, throw your glasses at the wall,
And good fortune to us all, ho-ho-ho-ho-ho, hey!
Moscow, Moscow, join us for a casatchok,
We'll go dancing round the clock, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, hey!
Moscow, Moscow, drinking Vodka all night long,
Keeps you happy, makes you strong, ho-ho-ho-ho-ho, hey!
Moscow, Moscow, come and have a drink and then,
You will never leave again, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Hey!

I dreamed of you for three years

A Jewish musician from Odessa. Good stuff. War and post-war (40’s and 50’s) songs.

About a sailor Kostya:

“I love you, life” (who knew Russians had such songs, huh?):

“Beloved city” (I always thought the song was about Leningrad, because it’s my favorite city, but I guess for Marc Bernes it would be about Odessa):

“Dark night”:

“I dreamed of you for three years”:

Compare the above (it helps if you know the lyrics, but if you don’t, it’s all very romantic and idealistic) with this.

My native shores

Following the last two posts... (I personally am not a fan of this guy, to be honest, but the music is awesome.)

Music of my grandparents’ times.


More cosmopolitanism. A Russian Jew and a Korean (both educated in Germany):

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tidbits of conversations

Y: “We have to defrost the freezer. So, please, everyone, move your stuff to freezer B, while I am defrosting the freezer A.”
J: “Haven’t we defrosted the freezer very recently?”
R: “Yeah, just a few months ago.”
Y: “It takes very little time for the ice to grow again. Also, when you’re getting out something from the freezer, please have in mind before you open the door which box you need on which rack on which shelf. Then, quickly take out the box and close the door. Then look for your sample in the box. Don’t stand there looking for your sample with the freezer door open.”
K: “Five-second rule.”
J: “Like when you drop food on the floor.”
The boss: “And if you have poured all the milk out of a carton, don’t put the empty carton back on the shelf.”

Another one, while walking in the hall:

— ...turned down [...] which is a perfectly respectable state school, because she wants to go to some college in Idaho where they teach you programming for computer games.
— [something inaudible]
— I have been working very hard to try to make her reconsider and go to a real college, but she is... [enter the elevator]

In the lab:

— I now have mice homozygous for [conditionally knocked-out gene].
— Oh, nice. Are they messed up?
— No. Unfortunately, they are not.
— That sucks. We are having really bad luck at producing freaks.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Faithfulness to a Rebbe

I heard a few more stories from Rabbi Paltiel’s shiur today.

Tzemach Tzedek and a number of other Jewish “authorities” (I am using quotation marks, because among them were not just frum Jews and gedolim, but also major appikorsim of the time), were brought by the government to Petersburg to vote on a number of “Jewish questions”, most of which, as was usual for such conferences, had to do with “modernization” and assimilation of Jews.

There was a garden which was off-limits to most of the people, but could be used by the government officials and the guests of the government. Tzemach Tzedek never entered that garden. Even though to walk from the hotel where he was staying to the place of the conference, he had to go around the garden, which was quite a walk, he still did that every day.

On one day, they were supposed to discuss and then vote on the proposal to ban all books containing Kabbalah and Chassidus. Rabbi Paltiel says: appikorsim knew the power of Chassidus and Kabbalah. He also tells a story of one girl who was interested in Judaism and was going to a Reform temple. At the same time she encountered a local shliach and went to a few classes by him. One day she came to the Reform “rabbi” of the temple and asked: “I was looking in the library, and I couldn’t find one book. Do we have a copy of Tanya here?” The rabbi became pale and answered: “No, we don’t have that book. Look, I have to talk to you”. And he proceeded to explain to her all the dangers of learning Tanya and Chassidus. The girl later said: “Nothing made me more interested and motivated in learning Chassidus than that rabbi explaining its ‘dangers’.”

Anyway, so that day, Tzemach Tzedek went through the garden. On a bench was sitting one of the most prominent appikorsim of the time. He was one of the most dangerous appikorsim, because he was very learned in Torah. At the same time, he was not a bully, but a refined person. With tears streaming down his cheeks, Tzemach Tzedek approached him and said: “The Rebbe [Rabbeinu HaKadosh] said: ‘In one hour, a man can acquire for himself the World-to-Come.’ Vote with us today.” And on that day, the man supported Tzemach Tzedek and Reb Itzhe Volozhiner.

When Tzemach Tzedek came from that conference together with his son Maharil, the latter, having seen the mesirus nefesh that Tzemach Tzedek showed for chinuch (he had been arrested twenty two times total), went to his mother and said: “I have a new Rebbe” (meaning, he recognized Tzemach Tzedek as his Rebbe).

Somebody in the audience asked a question, which I couldn’t hear well, but I can guess its contents. What do you mean, he only now recognized Tzemach Tzedek as a Rebbe? Even assuming that he had been a chossid of Mitteler Rebbe, so what? Mitteler Rebbe was nistalek, there is a new Rebbe (and not just anybody, but Tzemach Tzedek!), who, furthermore, is his father — what’s the question?

Rabbi Paltiel answered: Rebbeship is not about politics. It’s not about family. It’s an inyan in avoidas Hashem. People who don’t take the chossid–Rebbe relationship seriously can switch Rebbeim easily too. But Maharil took the fact that he was a chossid of Mitteler Rebbe very seriously. Furthermore, Tzemach Tzedek and Mitteler Rebbe were very different Rebbeim. So, it was very difficult for the Maharil to “switch”.

To me it is also interesting that the Maharil switched not because he recognized Tzemach Tzedek’s awesome greatness in nigleh and nistar, but because of Tzemach Tzedek’s mesirus nefesh for chinuch.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Washing off klipah

We are used to thinking about mitzvos as bringing something “into” this world from the upper worlds (we, meaning, the people who learn Chassidus and Kabbalah). This is the so-called male way of looking at mitzvos: bringing something from the outside, correcting, changing, influencing, conquering. If you look at the stereotypical male mitzva, tefillin, this point of view is evident in it: tefillin binds heart to the mind. On the other hand, if you look at the stereotypical female mitzva, lighting Shabbos candles, it doesn’t really bind or change anything; it merely adds more light, to reveal what’s already there.

So, what is this alternative female point of view of looking at the mitzvos?

In one ma’amor, Rebbe Maharash states that the Essence of G-d is not present in the Upper Worlds. Because the Upper Worlds are the worlds of truth, the worlds of revelation (oilamim ho’emes v’gilui), had the Essence been present there, it would be b’gilui, in a state of revelation, and thereby would nullify the worlds’ existence. That is why only Hashem’s Light is present in the Upper Worlds.

In our, physical world, this worry does not exist. Because it’s Oilam HoSheker v’Hester (the World of Lies and Concealment), there is no danger that the truth of the existence of Essence will be revealed. As a result, Hashem’s Essence can safely be present in this world. This is similar to how the angel concealed himself from Bilam, but not from the donkey, because the latter didn’t really understand what it was seeing, and therefore, it was safe for it to gaze at the angel, while had Bilam seen the angel, he would flip out.

Furthermore, it is explained in Chassidus that this world is “the last in creation, but first in thought”, and that “the end is bound in the beginning” (there is another application of this adage vis-a-vis the connection of Malchus and Kesser). Despite creating the Upper Worlds first, Hashem really desires the dwelling in this Lower World. There is an intrinsic connection between Hashem’s Essence and the physical nature of this world, because both the Essence and the physical share an important characteristic: metziusoi m’atzmusoi — “its existence is from itself”. While we call the Light of Hashem Ein Soif, “Without End”, Hashem’s Essence is called Ein Tchillo, “Without Beginning”. Although, of course, the appearance of this world being a source of itself is an illusion, the fact that such an illusion can even exist comes from the fact that Hashem’s Essence is directly invested and linked with the physical of this world.

So, what exactly do the mitzvos accomplish? The traditional image of the mitzvos in Kabbala is that of channels between the Upper Worlds, in particular, the world of Atzilus, and our world. Whenever someone does a mitzva, he opens up a channel between himself and the Body of the King in Atzilus, and through this channel, some of Hashem’s Light enters this world. For now it is in a form of concealment, but when Moshiach comes, it is this Light which will revealed.

But what’s the point, if the Essence of Hashem is here anyway?

I think maybe the answer is that every time we open up a channel, we are bringing in a shtikel gilui into this world. It’s not like we are adding anything new; we are revealing something about this world: the fact that Hashem’s Essence is already here. Since this world is a world of lies, we need a little ray of light to wash off the klipah that conceals the truth.

I think the nafka minah of this “female” way of thinking is that we do not see the world as inherently evil unless proven good; we do not see other Jews (including those who do not keep mitzvos) as inherently devoid of G-dliness, unless already engaged in Torah and mitzvos. In reality, it’s the opposite: we see the world as already inherently good; the only thing required from us is to reveal that.

I heard one time an explanation from my rabbi about the concept of tefillin campaign. What’s the point of putting on tefillin on someone who is not religious?

In Chumash we find a well known argument between Moshe Rabbeinu and Betzalel. Moshe Rabbeinu said that first the vessels and Menoira for the Mishkan need to be constructed and then the walls of the Mishkan, while Betzalel answered: “First one builds the walls of a building and then builds the furniture to bring inside”. Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem what to do, and Hashem agreed with Betzalel.

The explanation is: Moshe Rabbeinu wanted that his people be Jews internally first, and then the external should follow. Being ish ho’emes, a man of truth, Moshe Rabbeinu saw the reality in idealistic, maximalistic light. Betzalel, on the other hand, saw the reality in pragmatic light: it may be too difficult for most people to demand an internal change before the external one. Fake it until you make it.

So, this might be one explanation of putting on tefillin on non-religious people: yes, they are not religious, but if you force the external appearance a few times, it will result in some kind of internal change eventually.

But what about meeting someone on a street and putting on tefillin on him, considering you don’t know if you will ever meet him again? What about putting on tefillin on a dying person, chv"sh? (Something a local shliach has had an opportunity to do.) Imagine a situation when you have to bring a beggar from the street into court to be a witness. He is washed up and dressed in a suit. He looks like a respectable gentleman. But in reality, he is still a beggar; he is just dressed as a gentleman. You need years of living in the external environment of a gentleman for your internal environment to change accordingly.

This is where the above “female” approach should be applied. A Jew who does not keep mitzvos is not a beggar. He is a gentleman who is pretending to be a beggar. Every Jew has Essence of G-d inside him, and he can never be separated from the Essence. So, when you put tefillin on him, you’re not putting on gentleman’s clothes on a beggar, you’re putting on gentleman’s clothes on a gentleman who was pretending to be a beggar. Puttin on tefillin even once does not force a new reality on a Jew; it reveals an already existing, inviolable, unchangeable reality of who he is.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


A couple stories from Rabbi Yossi Paltiel’s shiur on Mem Gimmel, Reb Brachya.

Baal Shem Tov once received a letter from the previous Baal Shem, which is amongst the letters found in Genizas Cherson. He wrote to him that recently, his teacher, Achiya HaShiloini (who was also the teacher of Baal Shem Tov and Eliyahu HaNovi), told him to get into a carriage. They got in, and the carriage started driving. AHS told him that “If you knew who was driving this carriage, you would sit with a greater derech eretz”.

They arrived in some town and walked into an empty building. Baal Shem sat down, and his teacher was pacing the room. Pacing, pacing, pacing. Rabbi Paltiel says, it must have been an unbelievable sight: a neshama from 3000 years ago, pacing back and forth in the room. Suddenly, another carriage pulled in, and there was a knock on the door. AHS opened the door, and a tall man with large forhead and great hadras ponim walked in. AHS said with great respect: “Sholom Aleichem, please come sit down”. The man answered: “Where I come from, there is no concept of sitting. I will stand. What is this that my Yisroelik tells me that you will not teach him anymore if he doesn’t reveal himself?” AHS answered: “That’s right.”

They argued for a while, and then the man walked out and left.

“Pasach Reb Brachya,” says Rebbe Rashab in the ma’amor, “and taught: In the upper world, angels only stand, and malach Michoel offers neshamos at the misbeach. And yet, Hashem prefers the beams of the Sanctuary standing upright to the angels and animals offered in the physical Beis HaMikdosh to the neshamos offered in the Upper Worlds.” Why? Because His Essence is linked to this world.

When the Rebbe was a young man, he was quite studious. His brother, Reb Leibel, was equally brilliant, but more outgoing. Oftentimes, he would offer the Rebbe a chance to go somewhere and participate in a mitzva, and the Rebbe refused, saying he had to learn. Only two times did he leave his studies: once, when during the World War I, Jewish refugees came to Yekatirinoslav, and the rav’s family offered them food, clothes and shelter, and again, when there was an epidemic of typhus in the city. When people got typhus, they would be brought to quarantine, where they would be left to either die or recover. Those taking care of them would come and wipe off the film that formed on the patients’ tongues overnight.

This is what the Rebbe did (he was about 19 years old at the time). And it happened so that he contacted typhus (this was when he started losing hair). He was lying in his family’s house and was at times delirious. He was lying in fever and whispering something. And the Rebbetzin Chana, when she came to New York, said one time that if someone leaned over and listened, he could hear that the Rebbe was whispering how bright the Upper Worlds were, and how their brightness was not comparable to a Jew doing a single mitzva in this world.

Following threads

In the last post about Chassidus, I promised to post the reason that Tzemach Tzedek gave for the increasing number of chumros with passage of itme. A chossid of his once told him that he was troubled by later generations instituting stringencies regarding consuming certain things that earlier generations seemed to be ok with. An example of this today would be the stringency not to eat strawberries, which a number of rabbonim instituted (and with which major Lubavitch poskim of today agreed), while, as some say, “strawberries were served at Dovid HaMelech’s table”.

So, the chossid was troubled. What does this mean? Did the earlier generations commit aveiros, chv"sh?

Tzemach Tzedek explained that we are sent into this world to make it a dwelling for G-d it by uniting it with G-dliness through the mitzvos given to us which we use to manipulate the material matter (e.g., eat kosher meat; make parchment for mezuza, tefillin or Seifer Torah out of cow skin; light wax or parafine candles for Shabbos, use wool to make tzitzis, etc., etc.). When we do the mitzvos, they activate the “sparks” of holiness present in all matter.

Those things in which the sparks are accessible are kosher. Those in which sparks are not accessible and thus cannot be elevated are treif. To identify which things are kosher and which are treif, we are given signs (e.g., the simanim of kosher animals). The problem is, however, that in earlier generations Jews were able to elevate sparks more freely than in the later generations. That is why, finished Tzemach Tzedek, the number of chumros increased to safeguard the Jews from consuming such products and in such circumstances in which Jews would be unable to elevate the sparks in these products (making consuming them, from spiritual perspective, not too different from consuming the opposite of kosher, chv"sh).

* * *

Then there is a similar story of the Maggid not eating in the house of Baal Shem Tov. How could this be: a chossid not eating in his Rebbe's house? The answer is that Baal Shem Tov followed a more meikel shitta on shechita of meat (or some aspect of its preparation), since he was able to elevate the sparks in a meat prepared according to this shitta, while the Maggid was not on such a level of holiness.

Letter to a Roman friend

Elaine blath, Feainnewedd
Dearme aen a’caelme tedd
Eigean evelienn deireadh
Que’n esse, va en esseath
Feainnewedd, elaine blath!
(Elven nursery rhyme, from Blood of Elves by Sapkowski)

Censored by yours truly. Translated from Russian.

I’m sending to you, Postum-friend, some reading.
How’s the capital? Soft bed and rude awakening?
How’s Caesar? What’s he doing? Still intriguing?
Still intriguing, I imagine, and engorging.

In my garden, I am sitting with a night-light
No maid nor mate, not even a companion,
But instead of weak and mighty of this planet,
Buzzing pests in their unanimous dominion.

Here was laid away an Asian merchant. Clever
Merchant was he — very diligent yet decent.
He died suddenly — malaria. To barter
Business did he come, and surely not for this one.

Next to him — a legionnaire under a quartz grave.
In the battles he brought fame to the Empire.
Many times could been killed! Yet died an old brave.
Even here, there is no ordinance, my dear.

Maybe, chickens really aren’t birds, my Postum,
Yet a chicken brain should rather take precautions.
An empire, if you happened to be born to,
Better live in distant province, by the ocean.

Far away from Caesar and from tempests.
No need to cringe, to rush or to be fearful.
You are saying all procurators are looters,
But I’d rather choose a looter than a slayer.


Here, we’ve covered more than half of our life span
As an old slave, by the tavern, has just said it:
«Turning back, we look, but only see old ruins».
Surely, his view is barbaric, but yet candid.

Been to hills and now busy with some flowers.
Have to find a pitcher and to pour them water.
How’s in Libya, my Postum, or wherever?
Is it possible that we are still at war there?


Do come here, we’ll have a drink with bread and olives —
Or with plums. You’ll tell me news about the nation.
In the garden you will sleep under clear heavens,
And I’ll tell you how they name the constellations.

Postum, friend of yours once tendered to addition,
Soon shall reimburse deduction, his old duty…
Take the savings, which you’ll find under my cushion.
Haven’t got much, but for funeral — it’s plenty.


Laurel’s leaves so green — it makes your body shudder.
Wide ajar the door — a tiny window’s dusty —
Long deserted bed — an armchair is abandoned —
Noontime sun has been absorbed by the upholstery.

With the wind, by sea point cape, a boat is wrestling.
Roars the gulf behind the black fence of the pine trees.
On the old and wind-cracked bench — Pliny the Elder.
And a thrush is chirping in the mane of cypress.

(Joseph Brodsky)

Intolerance at its height

(Three Weeks–friendly.)

Kobayashi vs. the bear vs. NYPD

“Look how skinny Kobayashi is, and look at the size of the bear!”

I think our glorious police did not take well to the member of their own species (although it’s not clear how much the sapiens part applies to policemen) losing to a member of Ursidae family and decided to arrest the “Japanese eating machine”.

“I can eat fifty hotdogs in twelve minutes. It is like running one hundred meters in nine seconds.” I would be interested to take a look at his conversion formula.

“It has been called degrading, disgusting, and a sign of societal decay, but Kobayashi calls it a sport.” Well, and what do you call organized sport?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Maharal vs. Chabad?

OK, the content is not as provocative as the title.

I heard yesterday that according to Maharal, the most important mitzvos are the positive commandments, because they are the ones that actually transform the world into G-dliness. They actually accomplish something positive. The negative commandments are also important, of course, but their purpose is to keep us pure; they don’t actually positively improve the world (I am possibly butchering what I was told and what Maharal said himself, but that is the basic idea).

Upon hearing that, I thought that this contradicted what Chabad Chassidus seems to say. As a result, I am reposting the following (with the nasty parts taken out after being called a hater for including them l’hatchillo).

Recently, I heard a question: “What do you think is the biggest problem with Judaism today?” One of the answers was: “That in recent times [last few centuries], Judaism has become much more chumra-oriented than before.”

I have no idea what my opinion is on the matter. Yes, maybe that this is the trend. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it just appropriate? I have no idea. Certainly, to me there seems to be a problem in approaching everything in Judaism and our lives from chumra perspective. Certainly, to me there seems to be a (possibly even bigger) problem in doing whatever you want in life, and then making sure, b’dieved, that you haven’t violated Halacha. If barely...

(Also, I have read somewhere of a question which was asked to Tzemach Tzedek by a chossid who was troubled by the chumros instituted by the achroinim — does the fact that rishoinim did not adhere to these chumros mean that they were violating Torah? Tzemach Tzedek explained why the later generations were given more chumros than the earlier ones. When I find the exact answer, I will post it.)

I was listening to something today, however, which made me think about this question. Rabbi Paltiel was discussing in a shiur (third one) on the ma’amor “V’yishlach” (from hemshech Samech Vov) the idea of getting to Atzmus Eloikus, the Essence of G-dliness. Why, he said, can we not get to it? Because we are trying too hard. Every time we are trying to get somewhere or get something, we are only able to grasp some level of gilui, revelation. Atzmus cannot be b’gilui. Essence cannot be revealed. So, the harder you try, the more elusive it becomes. You will get to some level of G-dliness through a positive effort, but not the Essence.

So, how can you get to it? Through mitzvos loi ta’aseh, negative commandements forbidding us to do certain things. Because by following them, one is not actively doing something, reaching somewhere, but in fact he is just staying away from something. But — for the purpose of Hashem. (This, says, Rabbi Paltiel, is the difference between a Jew not trying to get to G-d and a sinner, or a cow, not trying to get to G-d.)

As an illustration of the idea, Rabbi Paltiel tells a story. After the passing of the Rebbetzin Nechama Dina, the Rebbe’s brother-in-law, Rashag, wanted the Rebbe to have a seider together with him. The Rebbe answered: “On Peisach I sit by myself.” So, Rashag asked him again several times and then sent a shliach: a chossid of the Rebbe, Rabbi Simson, who was older both than the Rebbe and the Rashag, and was a deep person. Rabbi Simson could not say “no” to Rashag, but could not ask the Rebbe to do something that the Rebbe didn’t want to do. So, he walked in into the Rebbe’s office, stood there without saying anything, and walked out.

Later, at the end of Adar, Rashag asked the Rebbe again about his plans for the seider. The Rebbe answered: “As I said, on Peisach I sit alone.” Rashag asked him if he talked to Rabbi Simpson. The Rebbe answered: “Yeah. He was here and stood silently. And his silence spoke.”

The other story is about something that happened to a very holy and deep Jew during the War of Independence in Israel. There were snipers everywhere, and it was impossible to go out. There was no food, and the man said he would go out to get the bread for his little daughter. His wife said: “You can’t go. They will shoot you.” The Jew answered: “I will go. I will not see them; they will not see me.” He went, got the bread and came back. How? Was he invisible? No, if a camera took a picture of the street, it would capture the man’s image. It’s just that he didn’t care about the world, and he made the world not care about him.

Hashem is not hiding. He is just not seen. Because we keep looking. But when a Jew does a mitzva loi ta’seh, he does something for Eibeshter, but he is not looking for Him. And thereby he reaches Hashem’s Essence.

* * *

This all reminded me, lehavdil, of this master class, in which András Schiff says: “Silence is the most beautiful thing in music.” Which is reminiscent of, lehavdil, the message of the later chapters of Alter Rebbe’s Sha’ar HaYichud ve’ha’Emunoh (second book of Tanya), in which he explains that concealment of G-dly Light comes as much from G-d as the revelation of the Light. In fact, when the G-d reveals His Light, that’s not a big deal. That’s status quo. C’est normal, as the French say. When G-d conceals the Light — now, that’s a sign that takeh der Eibeshter is involved. Which is a very encouraging idea for us, when in our lives something negative happens, G-d forbid.

My pianist friend says: when some musicians play, silence is the most beautiful part of their music... :)