By: Mordechai Burg
You may wonder why I am choosing to respond to you in a public letter. It is because your story is a common one. The two most powerful words in the English language are “me too”. Knowing that we are not alone in our challenges is comforting. These two simple words normalize what we are going through. Empathy is the antidote to shame. I am hopeful that my public response to you will have a dual impact; you will discover a community of those struggling along with you and provide chizzuk to those who may benefit from our conversation.
Allow me to begin this letter by recognizing the courage it took to come over to me. I don’t know that I would have had the same courage you displayed at your age. I’m not sure I have that courage now. Sharing our failures, our struggles, and our imperfections are never easy. In choosing vulnerability, you have already made more progress than you could possibly realize. It is a character trait that will serve you well in the future. Hang on to that middah with all of your might.
Let’s not mince words. You had a bad Succos. No two ways about it. You did things you are not proud of. You did things your parents would not be proud of. You did things that the people you admire would not be proud of. Coming back to Yeshiva for Simchas Torah was difficult for you. I saw the look on your face as you tried to “get into it” but to no avail. I’m not going to lie to you. It was painful to watch you in pain. When you told me that you went to the Beis Medrash to try to chazar Baba Kamma but closed your Gemara almost immediately because you just weren’t in that headspace, I was not surprised. It is so difficult to transition from a place of tumah to a place of kedusha. I watched as you wrote your kabalos for the coming year until literally moments before Rosh Hashanah. I saw the aspirations you have for yourself. You are indeed a very growth-oriented young man. Though I know you don’t feel this way, that doesn’t change because of your mistakes over Succos. You are still the same growth-oriented person you have always been.
The Torah begins with the word Bereishis, in the beginning. Curiously, the word Bereishis can also be read Beis Reishis, two beginnings. But there was only one beginning. Hashem did not create the world twice. What then is the message of Beis Reishis?
Sefer Bereishis is a sefer replete with failures. Chava falls for the trap that the nachash sets for her. Adam eats from the Eitz HaDaas. Adam fails to take responsibility for his actions, instead blaming Chava. Kayin fails to bring a korban that finds favor in the eyes of Hashem. Kayin commits the first murder. The generation of Noach is so sinful that Hashem regrets man’s very creation. Yes, even Hashem has “failed” so to speak. Noach fails to save the world from the flood. Upon leaving the Teiva, Noach becomes inebriated. Cham abuses Noach. In a rebellion against God, the Dor Haflaga constructed the tower of Bavel and were dispersed throughout the entire world. And we have only gotten through Parshas Noach. It seems that man is destined to fail. Repeatedly.
But there is another way to narrate Sefer Bereishis. It should be read not as a story of failures but as a story of redemption. Adam ultimately does Teshuva. Expelled from Gan Eden, he now has the opportunity to bring Godliness to the entire world. Prior to the sin, the first created woman was the nondescript isha. Post sin, she becomes Chava, the mother of all life. Adam moves from blaming Chava to naming her. The fracture in their relationship brings them closer together. Kayin does Teshuva. Hashem protects Kayin from those that would do him harm. Hashem destroyed the world, but He also promises never to destroy the world again. Noach is abused by one son but is shown grace by another. The dispersal of the Dor Haflaga throughout the world teaches us that there is great dignity in difference.
In other words, Sefer Bereishis a series of stories not with one beginning but two. Life is not about beginning as much as it is about beginning again. Jews have always held the radical belief that we have free choice. On an essential level, we are not at the mercy of economic, psychological, social or genetic forces. Regardless of how badly we have fallen, despite our many missteps, we can always choose to begin again. We are a people of Beis Reishis, two beginnings.
In Likutei Moharan (II 110), Rebbe Nachman writes, “Someone once asked the Rebbe how free will works. He answered him straightforwardly: a person has in his ability to simply choose. If he wants to, he does something; if he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t do it. I have recorded this because it is very necessary for many people to know. Many people are perplexed because they have gotten very used to their actions and habits for many years, and it seems to them as if they don’t have the freedom to choose anymore and aren’t able to change their ways. But the truth is not so. Every person certainly always has the freedom to choose in everything. A person acts the way he wants to. Understand this very well.”
Yitzchak, you will always have the ability to choose to begin again. You can choose to define yourself by your failures or by the redemption of those failures. A great Chasidic masters was once asked by one of his unlettered chasidim how he could possibly dance on Simchas Torah when he had barely learned any Torah the previous year. The Rebbe replied that on Simchas Torah we have both Chasan Torah and Chasan Bereishis. Chasan Torah is for those Jews that are celebrating all of the Torah they have learned over the course of the past year. We lain from Bereishis on Simchas Torah because a new cycle is beginning. Chasan Bereishis is for those Yidden who cannot celebrate this past year’s learning but they can dance for the Torah that they will learn this coming year. Yitzchak, next year, if you choose, we can dance together during Chasan Torah but first let us dance together during Chasan Bereishis.
Chazal teach us that a King is obligated to write not one but two Sifrei Torah. One that stays in the palace and another small Sefer Torah that he carries on his arm when he travels on the road. Why does he need two Sifrei Torah? We can perhaps understand why the King needs a Sefer Torah to travel with but when he returns to the palace the travel Torah returns with him. Why does there need to be a special Sefer Torah for the palace? The Gemara in Gittin (43a) says, אין אדם עומד על דברי תורה אלא אם כן נכשל בה, (loosely translated) a person cannot understand words of Torah until he has failed in that area. We learn in our lives through trial and error. Failure is an amazing opportunity to learn invaluable lessons. Life is about bridging the gap between who we ideally want to be and who we really are. There is an ideal Torah. It is the pristine Torah that the King keeps in his palace. We must never let our missteps lower the bar of who we strive to be. But there is another Torah. A Torah that we must keep with us at all times. It is a Torah that we must take on the road. It is a Torah that speaks to where we really are right now. The road is fraught with dangers. The road may not be well paved or well lit. We are subject to the elements of life. Mistakes will inevitably occur. Sometimes small ones. Sometimes big ones. In these times we must carry with us a Torah that teaches us how to get up when we fall. It is the Torah that tells us that our mistakes can be transformed into merits for us if we will learn from them. It is a Torah that says we need to fall in order to learn. We are a nation of kings and you Yitzchak must see yourself as a King as well. The Torah you learn in Yeshiva is the Torah of the palace. It teaches us what the ideal life ought to be. But there is another Torah that you must now learn. It is the Torah that engages the road. A Torah for when we fall. With Hashem’s help this zman we will learn from both Sifrei Torah.
A word of advice from a Rebbe who only wants you to succeed- don’t give up on yourself. You are way too young to become jaded by life’s inevitabilities. The Amshinover Rebbe famously does not live within the world of time. He davens Shacharis when it is time for Maariv and Maariv when it is time for Shacharis. The Rebbe often keeps Shabbos until Tuesday. One year before Yom Kippur, the Rebbe was eating the seudas hamfsekes and it was getting closer and closer to Yom Tov. One of the elder chasidim finally approached the Rebbe and, pointing to his watch, said, “Rebbe, it is getting late.” The Amshinover smiled at the chasid and replied, “A person must always wear two watches. One that says it is getting late and another that says there is still time.”
In his memoirs (All the Rivers Run to the Sea), Elie Wiesel writes about his relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
He writes, “On my first visit to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s court, I had informed him at the outset that I was a Chasid of Vishnitz, not Lubavitch, and that I had no intention of switching allegiance.
“The important thing is to be a Chasid,” he replied. “It matters little whose.”
On Simchas Torah, Wiesel would visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
“Welcome,” he (the Rebbe) said (to Wiesel). “It’s nice of a Chasid of Vishnitz to come and greet us in Lubavitch. But is this how they celebrate Simchas Torah in Vishnitz?”
“Rebbe,” I said faintly, “we are not in Vishnitz, but in Lubavitch.”
“Then do as we do in Lubavitch,” he said.
“And what do you do in Lubavitch?”
“In Lubavitch we say L’chayim.”
“In Vishnitz, too.”
“Very well. Then say L’chayim.”
He handed me a glass filled to the brim with vodka.
“Rebbe,” I said, “in Vishnitz, a Chasid does not drink alone.”
“Nor in Lubavitch,” the Rebbe replied.
He emptied his glass in one gulp. I followed suit.
“Is one enough in Vishnitz?” the Rebbe asked.
“In Vishnitz,” I said bravely, “one is but a drop in the sea.”
“In Lubavitch as well.”
He handed me a second glass and refilled his own. He said L’chaim, I replied L’chaim, and we emptied our glasses.
“You deserve a bracha (blessing),” he said, his face beaming with happiness. “Name it.”
I wasn’t sure what to say.
“Let me bless you so you can begin again.”
“Yes, Rebbe,” I said. “Give me your bracha.”
I am far from the Lubavitcher Rebbe and thankfully you have not gone through the unfathomable gehenom that Elie Wiesel faced. Still, Chazal say that we should not take the bracha of a simple person lightly, which is a title I can certainly lay claim to. So let me bless you as the Rebbe blessed Wiesel. Yitzchok, you can begin again. Let’s do so together.