I am in the habit of reading one letter from the book “Alim L’terufah” everyday. A short preamble about that:
My friend Rabbi Ariel Burger (who also generously provided these drawings and paintings) introduced me to the practice of ‘mini-sedarim’ - that is, reading some non-zero amount from a particular array of books every day. I wasn’t really paying attention to my friend Rabbi Ariel Burger’s mini-sedarim practice until he started finishing books. And I thought to myself, “I would like to have read some whole books!But I don’t think I have the sitzfleisch to hunker down and read large swaths of such books. Perhaps mini-sedarim is the way for me!!” So I am in the process of carefully choosing which books I’d like to read a bit of every day so that, down the line, I will have read those books.
I strongly recommend this practice. It could be anything - Tanankh, Psalms, classic texts like Kuzari and Maharal. Chassidic texts like Tanya and Likutei Moharan. Modern English texts like the works of David Hartman, or Heschel, or Mordecai Kaplan. Future texts.
I have, thus far, chosen three texts: the daily portion of the weekly parsha, Rav Kook’s letters, and Rebbe Natan of Breslov’s letters, as collected in the aforementioned book, “Alim L’terufah.”
Why letters? At the risk of harping on a point, I see letters as one of the most useful forms for articulating real Torah. Here is a moment in which someone is asked not only what the Torah says, but how it applies in this exact situation. The respondent is pressed to respond to a real person in real time. What emerges is a useful guide for how Jewish ideas are lived in the real world.
Why Rebbe Natan’s letters? Rebbe Natan stands as a bridge (not the only bridge, but an essential one) between us out here in the grind and the Torah of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. As my friend Rabbi Josh Bolton said, “I sometimes feel like Rebbe Nachman’s Torah is fire and too hot to approach.” It is therefore priceless that his primary student, Rebbe Natan, would convey how this fire-Torah applies to real life, particularly to the life of his son, Rebbe Yitzhak. That said:
Often, in Rebbe Natan’s letters, he claims that he really has nothing to say. For example, in letter 96:
My precious, beloved son. I have no words right now to write anything to you. Also, my mind is not clear. Just the same, I have done as you asked to write, at the very least, a letter of greeting. And I have already written to you, and what can I add, my son?
So, this is going to be a disappointing letter, right? He continues:
May Hashem illuminate your eyes to find true guidance, according to the day and the hour, through which to be encouraged. And the main thing is to make one’s self happy all the time about the greatness of Hashem’s salvation and His astounding wonders, such that we have merited to not be in opposition to such holy books (as Rebbe Nachman’s), which are beyond valuing… and let these matters not ever become old in your eyes. And the truth is, anyone with a Jewish heart and who is looking toward the truth will see that they are in fact new every time, because every day they are made completely new.
Rebbe Natan then goes on to explain the line from the liturgy, “And in His benevolence, He renews every day the works of creation (ma’asei bereishit),” by means of the approach in the Tikkunei Zohar of playing with the different combinations of the letters of bereishit, including “rosh bayit” - literally, head of the house, a reference to the zadik of the generation. Thus, says Rebbe Natan, the work of the rosh bayit is also renewed every day!
Less interesting to me than this fascinating idea of a work of literature being renewed or reinvigorated (though that is pretty damned interesting) is the reality that Rebbe Natan really thought he had nothing left to say, and then he comes out with this gem.
I wonder, were he to look back on this letter, if he would think that he hadn’t really said much, or if he would think that, at the end of the day, he did offer something new to the conversation. I’d like to assume the former - that he was actually disappointed that he couldn’t offer something worthwhile in this letter.
My interest is how what one person knows so deeply that it is no longer new, or even noticeable, to them, can be entirely mind-blowing and essential to other people. So much of what would be useful Torah is never articulated because the person who holds it isn’t even necessarily aware of it as Torah, so they never bother to say it. It has simply become a part of their “system”.
I can only speak for myself, but so many of the questions I have revolve around method, approach, system. I am far less interested in a vort - a sort of one-off homily about something or other - than I am in the articulation of a practice, alongside direct guidance for how that practice works in real time.
And as such, it becomes a lot more necessary to speak about how we do what we do. An essential example would be to talk about formal prayer - tefillah. I’ll leave that for another time. In the meantime, though, might I suggest that we all be more open to those conversations around how we do what we do, and open up the possibility of speaking about things that seem obvious to us but might be useful guidance for others?