A Hasid burst into the study of Reb Yerachmiel ben Yisrael. “Rebbe,” he said breathlessly, “What is the way to God?” The Rebbe looked up from his studies and answered: “There is no way to God, for God is not other than here and now.” “Then, Rebbe, tell me the essence of God.” “There is no essence of God, for God is all and nothing.” “Then, Rebbe, tell me the secret that I might know that God is all.” “My friend,” Reb Yerachmiel sighed, “There is no way, there is no essence, there is no secret. The truth you seek is not hidden from you; you are hiding from it.”
Who is Reb Yerachmiel ben Yisrael? Reb Yerachmiel is me in moments of spiritual clarity. Reb Yerachmiel comes alive when I meditate and pray; when I sing Hasidic melodies and chant berachot/blessings; when I open myself to the depths of Torah and midrash. Reb Yerachmiel is the rabbi I want to be, and all too rarely am.
When I was asked to participate in a website (hasidicstories.com), I knew that Rami did not belong on these pages; Reb Yerachmiel did. So let me share some of the stories and teachings of this virtual sage.
Reb Yerachmiel once traveled to a distant shul (synagogue) to teach meditation. The room was packed with students. The Rebbe put his finger to his lips and asked the people to be still. “Too noisy,” he said after a minute or two. “Please be quiet.” The room fell silent. You could hear the anxious breathing of the students. The Rebbe waited. “Shh,” he said. “Please, it is still too noisy.” The students looked at each other. No one spoke. “Too noisy,” Reb Yerachmiel said again. “You cannot meditate until you stop the noise inside. Too much chatter of the mind. Thoughts, feelings, opinions, judgments. Too much noise. You cannot meditate until you stop the noise. And then you won’t have to.”
“Tell me, Rebbe,” a man demanded during Shabbat evening prayers, “Just what is God?” “Tell me,” Reb Yerachmiel replied, “Just what is not?”
“Rebbe,” a student asked during a Shabbaton (an entire weekend with the main focus on the Shabbat), “it is so hard to be holy in this world. I envy those who withdraw and take up the monastic life. Wouldn’t we be better off as monks?” “To withdraw from the world is to withdraw from God,” Reb Yerachmiel replied. “For the world is God manifest in time and space.”
Give the Mind a Bone
“Rebbe, how can I quiet my mind for meditation?” “I have a beagle,” the Rebbe replied, “that never sits still. He is forever scrounging for something to chew on. If I want him to be still, I give him a bone. Then he lays down and chews quietly for hours. The mind is like my beagle. It needs something to chew on.”
The Crystal Candlestick
Once when speaking to a group in a very fancy synagogue Reb Yerachmiel was asked: “Rebbe, tell me how meditation works.” Without hesitation the Rebbe scooped up a crystal candle stick from off the bima (altar) and tossed it to the questioner. There was an audible sucking in of frightened breath as everyone focused on the falling crystal. The questioner caught it with a sigh of relief. “That is how meditation works,” Reb Yerachmiel said. “The mind becomes focused. There is no thought of this or that, only the task at hand. No separation or opinion, just pure and simple doing.”
A scholar once approached Reb Yerachmiel at a reception. “Tell me,” he said. “If everything is good, where does evil come from?” Reb Yerachmiel replied: “I do not say that all is good. I say that all is God.”
A man grabbed Reb Yerachmiel’s arm one Shabbos evening after services. “Rebbe, I fear for my soul!” “No need,” Reb Yerachmiel said softly: “It is your soul that needs to fear for you.”
“Rebbe,” a woman asked during an ecumenical panel discussion, “Aren’t all religions equally true?” “No,” said Reb Yerachmiel, “all religions are equally false.”
A professor once asked: Are you not simply dressing Zen in the tallit (prayer shawl) of a Jew? Reb Yerachmiel replied: “Truth is Truth. There is no Zen truth or Jewish truth. If something is True it is true for all. I seek out Truth and share it in my own way. Where do I seek it? In the ordinary experience of my everyday life. Where do I find the words to convey it? In Torah and her commentators. In the Jewish mystics and Hasidic rebbes. I do not borrow from Zen. I cannot help if Zen is true. I only worry that I am true.”
Prayer or Meditation?
A woman came to Reb Yerachmiel and said: “I have been studying with a Buddhist teacher who has given me clear instructions as to how to meditate. I find it very helpful. I told this to my rabbi and he got angry with me, claiming I am abandoning my faith. He said I should cease my meditation and learn to pray. Rebbe, what do you think I should do?” Reb Yerachmiel replied: “Your rabbi is half right. You should learn to pray. And what should you pray? Just this: Dear God, grant me the courage to stick with my meditation.”
During a retreat on spirituality a woman rose and said: “I have no need of these practices. I feel spiritual all the time without doing anything.” Reb Yerachmiel looked at her for a moment and said: “The next time you have an urge to be spiritual, take a cold shower. Then dry off and do something kind for someone else.”
Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro is widely recognized as one of the most creative figures in contemporary American Judaism. His books include: Wisdom of the Jewish Sages, Minyan, The Way of Solomon, Hasidic Tales and Open Secrets. www.RabbiRami.com