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The Jugglers

Are You an AM or a FM?

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

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  • September 24, 2015
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  • 11 Tishrei 5776
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Class Summary:

One aspect of the Simchas Beis Hashoavah celebration in the Holy Temple during each night of Sukkos remains perplexing: the torch-juggling sages. The Mishnah states: The pious ones and men of great deeds would dance while juggling flaming torches. The Talmud states, that the leader of the Jewish people, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, would juggle eight blazing torches!

We can understand that during a grand celebration, someone gets up and does a juggling act to enhance the fun. But the fact that the Mishnah makes special mention of this act as a feature of the Simchas Beis Hashoavah, and the fact that it was performed by the greatest of the great, indicates that this was a necessary and central feature of the celebration. But why? It is a charming fun spectacle, but does not seem essential to a spiritual celebration?

The question becomes more perplexing when we consider, as the Talmud goes on to describe, that in subsequent generations, some of the greatest sages of Israel were somehow in love with juggling. We know at least four such stories recorded in the Talmud. Levi juggled knives, Shmuel juggles wine, Abaye juggled eggs, and Reb Shmuel juggled myrtle branches.

One would think these tricks were below their dignity. Yet, one generation after the other, literally the greatest of the great were juggling. It seems like their knowledge of Torah is what turned them into such efficient jugglers!

It was at a public address on the fifth night of Sukkos of the year 1957 (5718), that the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented a most exquisite and profound explanation. Juggling, he suggested, captures in a very physical, tangible way the meaning of life—and the path toward genuine joy. The celebration of Sukkos was essentially all about mastering the art of juggling.

There are people who live in “AM” radio, and there are those who operate in “FM” radio. There are those lives revolve around “headline news,” “talk show” pessimism, traffic reports and political scandals and crisis. They live in the universe of Rush, Savage and Mark Levine. Between the Pope, Obama, Iran, and Global Warming, the world is about to come to an end. And then there are souls who hang it in “FM radio”—in 106.7 or 89.7. They march to the beat of soft music, unencumbered and undisturbed by the realities and pressures of “the news.” They could not care less if the GW Bridge or the Holland Tunnel is backed up 45 minutes. They just hang out in the sweet, delightful, forever relaxing world of FM music channels. What is the Jewish approach? To live in AM or in FM? 

How did Reb Shmuel Barisever know who the next Rebbe was after the Tzemach Tzedek? From a cup of tea! What was the question the Rebbe asked after he ascended a long flight of stairs on Kingston Avenue?

Shuttle Diplomacy

Henry Kissinger, the longtime Jewish US Secretary of State and one of the most famous diplomats of the 20th century, was once asked what it means to be a diplomat. What is the art of diplomacy? Particularly his own unique invention of “shuttle diplomacy.”

“Oh, it’s very simple,” says Kissinger. “Let’s say you want to use shuttle diplomacy to marry Rockefeller’s daughter to a simple peasant from a Siberian village.”

“That’s impossible!” cries the journalist. “How would you do that?”

“Very simple. I’m going to a Siberian village, I find a simple peasant and ask: Do you want to marry an American lady?

He says: ‘Why? We have great girls here!’

And I say: ‘Yes, but she is Rockefeller’s daughter! Rockefeller is a billionaire.’

He goes: ‘Oh! This changes everything.’

Then I go to Switzerland to a bank board meeting. I ask them: ‘Do you want a Siberian peasant to be your bank President?’

And the bank people say: ‘Of course not! We need a sophisticated, cultural man.’

‘But what if he is Rockefeller’s son-in-law?’

‘Oh! That changes everything!’

After this I go to Rockefeller and ask: ‘Would you like your daughter to marry a Russian peasant?’

‘What? says Rockefeller. ‘Are you out of your mind?’

So I go: ‘But what if he is a president of a Swiss bank?’

’Oh! This changes everything!

Susie! Come here, Mr. Kissinger has found a good fiancé for you. He’s a president of a Swiss bank!’

‘Pooh!’ says Susie dismissively. ‘Why would I want to marry a banker? They’re arrogant, cold, out of touch with reality, and care only about money. I’m sick of bankers!’

I say: ‘No, no! That may be, but this particular one is an earthy, rugged, Siberian peasant!’

‘Oh!’ says Susie. ‘That changes everything!’

And they get engaged, “mazal tov!”

The Celebration

It was a glorious sight to behold: The greatest sages of Israel performing juggling acts, and it happened each year during this holiday of Sukkos.

Each night, during the festival of Sukkos, the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the many many thousands more that made the pilgrimage to the capital city from other parts of the land and abroad to celebrate the festival, held the "Simchat Beit HaShoeva," or "Celebration of the water-drawing." Throughout the year, the daily offerings were accompanied by the pouring of wine on the altar; on Sukkos, water was poured in addition to the wine. The drawing of water was preceded by all-night celebrations in the Temple courtyard, with instrument-playing Levites, and huge oil-burning lamps that illuminated the entire city.

The singing, music and dancing went on until daybreak, when a procession would make its way to the valley below the Temple to “draw water with joy” from the Shiloach Spring. (When you visit Jerusalem today, you can go into this spring—and it is an incredible experience to dip into the spring where where Jews dipped constantly right before entering the Temple, and from where they draw the water to pour on the Altar on each morning of Sukkos).

“For all the days of the water drawing,” recalled Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania, “our eyes saw no sleep.” And the Talmud declares: “One who did not see the joy of the water-drawing celebrations, has not seen joy in his life.”

It was a scene to behold. For seven nights, Jews, men and women, were up all night—singing, dancing, celebrating, and rejoicing with each other and with G-d, in the courtyard of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The Juggling Acts

But there was one more aspect of the celebration, the Mishnah and the Talmud make special mention of: the torch-juggling sages.

סוכה נא, א-ב: חסידים ואנשי מעשה היו מרקדין בפניהם באבוקות של אור שבידיהן.

רש"י: באבוקות של אור - זורקין אותם כלפי מעלה ומקבלין אותם. ויש שבקיאין לעשות כן בארבע אבוקות או בשמונה וזורק זו ומקבל זו וזורק זו ומקבל זו.

סוכה נג, א: אמרו עליו על רבן שמעון בן גמליאל כשהיה שמח שמחת בית השואבה היה נוטל שמנה אבוקות של אור וזורק אחת ונוטל אחת ואין נוגעות זו בזו... לוי הוה מטייל קמיה דרבי בתמני סכיני. שמואל קמיה שבור מלכא בתמניא מזגי חמרא. אביי קמיה (דרבא) בתמניא ביעי ואמרי לה בארבעה ביעי.

The Mishnah states: The pious ones and men of great deeds would dance while juggling flaming torches.

The Talmud then relates the story of one particular juggler during these Sukkos celebrations. This was no ordinary Jew. This was Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel (circa 10 BCE-70 CE), who held the title of head of the Sanhedrin (High Court), known as the “Nassi” (the prince of the Jewish people). A direct descendant of King David, and was the spiritual leader of the nation. During these all-night celebrating on Sukkos, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel juggled. He kindled eight portable bonfires and juggled them, without dropping even one and without them touching each other.

It must have been some scene: The greatest scholar and leader at the time, juggling eight blazing torches!

This joyous experience continued uninterrupted for many generations. Unfortunately, it ended when the Roman conquerors destroyed Jerusalem, razed the Temple and slaughtered the population. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel was cruelly imprisoned and beheaded.[1] Most survivors of this devastation were eventually driven into exile. The Roman attempt to destroy the Jewish nation failed, however, and the nation survived. And to this very day, even without the Temple, we celebrate each night of Sukkos with great festivity, dancing, singing, and of course juggling.

Yet it seems strange. Why was the juggling of blazed torches such a highlight of the celebration, as to warrant a special description in the Mishnah and the Talmud? We can appreciate the music, the singing and the dancing, which are all natural forms to express joy—but why did the juggling play such a central role? And to the extent that it was performed by the greatest spiritual giant of the time?

We can understand that during a grand celebration, someone gets up and does a juggling act to enhance the fun. But the fact that the Mishnah makes special mention of this act as a feature of the Simchas Beis Hashoavah, and the fact that it was performed by the greatest of the great, indicates that this was a necessary and central feature of the celebration. But why? It is a charming fun spectacle, but does not seem essential to a spiritual celebration?

Indeed, the Mishnah explicitly states that the juggling of the lit up torches was not done by the “chassidim v’anshei maaseh,” by the most pious of Israel, men of great deeds. Why were they chosen to be the jugglers?

A Nation of Jugglers

The question becomes more perplexing when we consider, as the Talmud goes on to describe, that in subsequent generations, some of the greatest sages of Israel were somehow in love with juggling. We know at least four such stories recorded in the Talmud.[2]

The sage Levi (circa 150-220 CE), who was a highly creative thinker, and who assisted in the compilation of the Mishnah, juggled eight knives before Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi (c. 135-219 CE), the national leader and Nassi of the Jewish people (Rabbi Yehuda was a great grandson of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel mentioned earlier.) Somehow, Levi was trying to bring some joy to this great leader by tossing up and juggling these eight knives.

Next, the author and teacher Shmuel (180-275 CE) was considered one of the greatest Talmudic scholars in Babylonia and was also known for his outstanding expertise in medicine and astronomy. He was eventually promoted to dean of the academy at Nehardea. He managed to perfect an act wherein he juggled eight cups of wine without spilling a drop! Shmuel did this in front of the Persian monarch, King Shapur, with whom he had a close relationship.[3]

Another distinguished scholar, one of the greatest sages in Jewish history, Abaye (280-339 CE), would juggle eight eggs before his great teacher, Rabah. Abaye was head of the Academy at Pumbedita and is one of the most quoted sages in the Talmud. He too was a great juggler.

Then we have another story about the great sage Rabbi Shmuel bar Yitzhak (circa 300-370 CE) who would attend weddings, dance before the bride, juggling three hadasim, myrtle branches. When one of his contemporaries, Rabbi Zeira, saw this, he said: "The old man is embarrassing us!” (Through this crude behavior.) Yet at his funeral, Rabbi Zeira observed a pillar of fire, separating him from the people, and he said: “It was this insane behavior which put him on such a high spiritual level.”[4]

The tradition of juggling at joyous occasions has continued throughout Jewish history. Some of you remember the wedding scene in "Fiddler on the Roof,” where a group of four wedding guests perform a well-choreographed dance step while balancing bottles of wine on their heads without spilling a drop. These tricks are still practiced regularly at many a traditional Jewish wedding.

But here is the question: What was the significance of this practice during the Sukkos celebrations? Why was it performed by the greatest sage of Israel? And why did some of greatest spiritual giants of the Talmud engage in juggling? One would think these tricks were below their dignity. Yet, one generation after the other, literally the greatest of the great were juggling. It seems like their knowledge of Torah is what turned them into such efficient jugglers!

The Story of Life

It was at a public address on the fifth night of Sukkos of the year 1957 (5718), that the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented a most exquisite and profound explanation.[5]

Juggling, he suggested, captures in a very physical, tangible way the meaning of life—and the path toward genuine joy. The celebration of Sukkos was essentially all about mastering the art of juggling.

You know the anecdote:

A Texas State trooper pulled a car over on I-35 about 2 miles south of Waco, Texas.

When the trooper asked the driver why he was speeding, the driver said he was a Magician and Juggler and was on his way to Austin, Texas to do a show for the Shrine Circus. He didn’t want to be late.

The trooper told the driver he was fascinated by juggling and said if the driver would do a little juggling for him then he wouldn’t give him a ticket. He told the trooper he had sent his equipment ahead and didn’t have anything to juggle. The trooper said he had some torches in the trunk and asked if he could juggle them. The juggler said he could, so the trooper got 5 torches, lit them and handed them to him.

While the man was standing on the side of the highway and juggling, a car pulled in behind the State Troopers car. A drunken good old boy from central Texas got out, watched the performance, then went over to the Trooper’s car, opened the rear door and got in.

The trooper observed him and went over to the State car, opened the door asking the drunk what he thought he was doing.

The drunk replied, “You might as well take me straight to jail, because there isn’t no way I can pass that test.”

Yet in truth, juggling is an art each of us must cultivate.

Often, we hear people lament: "I've got too many balls in the air!" Life in our time-strapped, stressful, busy and often chaotic world has become a juggling act, both at work and at home. We're all jugglers now.

Yet in Judaism we take this one step deeper. We are not just juggling. We are juggling torches of fire, “avukos shel or.”

Let Your Soul Soar

"The soul of man is a flame of G-d,” says Proverbs.[6] We each carry a blazing torch within ourselves; our soul is full of fire: intense passion, warmth, light and incredible possibility to cast light and warmth. Each of us has a large fire burning within our hearts, with the ability to light up ourselves and our world around us.

And in life you have to be able to juggle: to toss up your “torch,” as high as you can. You need to allow your neshamah, your flaming soul, to lift itself up once-in-a while and detach itself from all the pressures, stresses, burdens and anxiety of your earthy existence. At least a few minutes of day, you need to allow your soul to “melt away” in the sublime, to cleave to its pristine source. You need a few moments of intimacy with yourself, with your G-d, with your truth.

In modern slang they call it “down time.” Everyone needs down time, when you can just “let go” of all your duties and pressures, and chill out. Moments when you allow yourself just “to be,” to breathe, to be present in the moment, to be burden-free. In Judaism we all it “up time”—it is the time you toss up your soul and let it soar, freed from its chains and shackles. Like a child running into his or her father’s arms just to be lifted up, embraced and hugged, without any motives or considerations, the soul too needs its moments when it can be elevated in an embrace by its father in heaven, liberated from any concern or incentive, but the opportunity to dwell in the bosom of its transcendent source.

We Jews achieve this through authentic prayer, meditation, and the study of Torah. A Jew opens up a page of the Talmud, a chapter of Mishnah, or any other book of Torah—and gets lost there, like a child in the arms of his loving father.

AM or FM?

And yet, our torch must not stay up there forever. Down it must come, to re-enter our moment-to-moment concerns, duties, and responsibilities. Descend it must, back to reality, back to the daily grind. We cannot live in heaven; we must live on earth.

The juggler is the person who has that unique ability to continuously operate on two levels, in two states of reality.

You see, there are people who live in “AM” radio, and there are those who operate in “FM” radio. There are those lives revolve around “headline news,” “talk show” pessimism, traffic reports and political scandals and crisis. They live in the universe of Rush, Savage and Mark Levine. Between the Pope, Obama, Iran, and Global Warming, the world is about to come to an end. “You give us 22 minutes and we will give you the news.” Oy, and in those 22 minutes you hear enough to make you meshugah, nervous, anxious, worried, stressed and overwhelmed.

And then there are souls who hang it in “FM radio”—in 106.7 or 89.7. They march to the beat of soft music, unencumbered and undisturbed by the realities and pressures of “the news.” They could not care less if the GW Bridge or the Holland Tunnel (name your bridges or tunnels) is backed up 45 minutes. They are not eager to learn of “breaking news,” and of the endless reports of traffic jams. They just hang out in the sweet, delightful, forever relaxing world of FM music channels.

What is the Jewish approach? To live in AM or in FM?

The answer is: to juggle. To always have “part” of your soul way up there; and part of your soul way down here! One torch goes up, while the other comes down. One part of your flaming soul goes up, and the other comes down. Then conversely, the other one goes up, and the one that was tossed up to the air, comes back down.

To be a Jew means that you have that ability to operate simultaneously on AM and FM. To be deeply aware, on one hand, that this entire universe is just “one drop of the sea” of the infinite, and one should not take all that seriously; and yet on the other hand to appreciate the truth that we were sent down to this world to transform earth into heaven, darkness into light, to take the endless details of our day and infuse them with Divine meaning and holiness. We live in FM and AM simultaneously. We juggle. We remain above, while we are present right here and now.

What is a Jew? Someone asked the holy master Reb Yitzchak Vorker.

“To be a Jew,” he said, “is to dance while you are sitting in one place; to scream while you are silent, and to be alone even when you are among a thousand people.”

Solomon’s Wisdom

This explains an enigmatic statement in the Talmud:

שבת יד, ב: בשעה שתיקן שלמה עירובין ונטילת ידים יצתה בת קול ואמרה (משלי כג) בְּנִי! אִם חָכַם לִבֶּךָ, יִשְׂמַח לִבִּי גַם אָנִי.

When King Solomon instituted eiruvin and the washing of the hands, a Heavenly Echo came forth and declared, “My son, if your heart is wise, My heart shall be glad, even mine.”

King Solomon instituted two mitzvos in Jewish life: An eiruv created in a courtyard, an apartment building or another semi-public space used by many different families, so people can carry there. (Biblically, it is allowed to carry there because it is a confined area, nonetheless, since many families use it, it appears as a public domain and the sages prohibited carrying there on Shabbos, for many people may err in thinking that you can also carry in a real public domain. But King Solomon and his court instituted when all the residents participate by placing food in one home, this unites them into one family, who all have a meal waiting for them in one home, and they may all carry in the public courtyard or apartment building.)

Solomon also instituted that a Kohen must wash his hands before eating sacred bread, known as Terumah, in order to ensure his or her hands are clean.

Says the Talmud, that when King Solomon instituted these two practices in Jewish life, a heavenly voice praised his wisdom. “My son, if your heart is wise, My heart shall be glad, even mine.”

But why? Why do these two practiced reflect such profound wisdom?

אמת ואמונה להרה"ק מקוצק: בשעה שתקן שלמה עירובין ונט"י יצתה בת קול ואמרה, בני אם חכם לבך ישמח לבי גם אני. ומהו החכמה בזה הלא שלמה המלך ע"ה תיקן גם שאר ענינים? אך התורה רמזה עירובין ונט"י זה החכמה הגדולה להיות מעורב בדבר ולהיות נקי.

The answer presented by the Kotzker Rebbe is this:

“Eiruv” means mixing, uniting distinct individuals and families living in a courtyard into one family. It represents social integration. Washing the hands represents the work to keep your hands clean, sacred, not allowing them to get “filthy.”

Usually, these two skills belong to two different types of people. There are people who are “airuv” characters: socially acute, charming and great scmuzers. They love the social life; they come to life at parties and reception, at dinners, bar mitzvahs and weddings. They have a short one-liner for everybody and everything. They got the gift of gab. They love “small talk.” They know how to compliment, flatter, and discuss everything and nothing with everybody.

These there are people whose “hands are clean.” They are pure, extremely honest, they are more introspective, deep, authentic and very real. They despise “small talk,” because it is usually meaningless talk, about which iphone you are using and where you are planning your next vocation. They loathe pure social settings, and get awkward there. They are not schmezers. They do not know how to flatter, how to make small talk, how to compliment, how to come up with a sharp, cute comment for every person they meet. They keep their hands clean. They remain true to themselves and their words and behaviors are authentic and honest.

Each has of course its virtues and vices. But what’s the proper way? Are the two mutually exclusive? It would certainly seem so. This King Solomon’s wisdom. He taught the Jewish people how to juggle, without compromising one or the other.

The greatness of the truly great man or women is that he or she can truly become integrated with people. He or she are capable of true empathy, they can really connect with people, in a warm, loving, and deep way. And yet, they remain “clean,” unaffected by the politics and superficiality that fills so much of our social conversations. How do they do this? They juggle! A part of them always remains “aloof,” way up there, not allowing them to become entangled in the vanity and falsehoods of society and people’s individual problems and faults. And yet a part of them really stays “down here,” involved with people, connected to people, caring for people, concerned with others in a genuine and authentic way.

Or as one of the great Polish mystics Reb Shimshon Ostropoler put it:

טובה הפרישות עם הבריות והבדידות בתוך בני אדם.

It is good to be segregated but among people; to be lonely amidst many people. 

Sure, there are people who never get entangled in the politics of life, but they are also carless. They remain detached, aloof, and apart. They don’t really care. They remain in FM mode all the time, but they can never be there for someone in a real way. They are afraid of getting dirty with life. Their hands remain clean and pure, but their hands also don’t know how to embrace an aching heart and a pained soul. Our job is to go to the next level, to come down, to get involved, to really care and be connected to people, and yet to remain pure, wholesome, innocent, and idealistic.

The Chassidim

After Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as we recreate our lives, our priorities, and rebuild our inner world—we celebrate Sukkos through juggling, for this is the art of living life to the fullest and living a life of joy.

If I remain down here all the time, stuck in AM mode, I get too entangled in the pressures of life. I become burdened and depleted. If I stay up there all the time, in FM mode, I feel like I am abandoning my mission and cannot be content. Happiness comes by cultivating the spiritual juggling act.

Thus it was the greatest of sages who taught us how to juggle. It was the “chassidim” and “anshei maaseh,” who during Sukkot used to do the juggling. For this is a skill that requires true spiritual focus and dedication. There are people who enjoy running away to FM—they would love to toss themselves up, and never return. They abandon duty, service, and devotion. There are others who know not how to get out of the rat race, out of their entanglement with the stresses of life. But it is the Chassid who masters the art of juggling: fly high, but let part of you always remember your responsibility toward G-d and man. Stay above, but be within.

It was the great leader Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel who was the master juggler. For this is the sign if the true leader among our people. He never gets entangled in the pitfalls of human frailty and filth. But he never remains detached. He is always fully present, but never loses his connection to heaven, to purity, sacredness, wholesome innocence.[7]

A comedian once said:

I went into a store, and bought 8 oranges.  The clerk asked me if I wanted

a bag, and I said "No, I juggle! But I only juggle 8.  If you ever see me in here buying 9 oranges, bag'em up!"

Eitz Chaim and a Cup of Tea

A story:

One time, when the great Chabad Chassid Reb Shmuel Ber Barisover was in the Russian city of Lubavitch, he heard a Maamar, a Chassidic discourse, from the Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek.

After the Maamar he had a question about something the Rebbe had said. It seemed to him that the Rebbe’s insight contradicted an idea in one of the most authoritative works of Kabbalah, the EItz Chaim, by the Arizal.

He asked his question to several of the Chassidim, but no one had an answer. What did he do? He went to each one of the Tzemach Tzedek’s sons and asked him the question. Each son answered him according to the way he thought, in his own style, but Reb Shmuel Ber was still not satisfied with their answers.

There was one son whom Reb Shmuel Ber did not ask, and that was the youngest son, Rabbi Shmuel, who later became the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe, known as the Rebbe Maharash (1833-1882), whose yaretzeit was commemorated on the 13th of Tishrei. This was because the Rebbe Maharash always concealed his spiritual piety and greatness and made sure to be seen by the public as a very ordinary man.  Reb Shmuel Ber did not think he was a man who would know about these topics.

By this time, it was already quite late, so Reb Shmuel Ber decided to go back to the place where he was staying. On the way, he passed by the Rebbe Maharash’s house, and noticed that there was light inside. When he saw the light still burning at such a late hour, he decided to approach the home. He looked through the window, and what did he see? The Rebbe Maharash was sitting at a table with the above mentioned Kabbalah book Eitz Chaim open to the very page that his question was about!

“Well!” he thought to himself. “Now I’ve got to get inside to discuss this with him.”

Reb Shmuel Ber went to the door and knocked.

“I’ll be right there,” the Rebbe Maharash said from behind the closed door. A few minutes later the door was opened and Reb Shmuel Ber entered the house.

But what did he see? On the same table where just moments ago had laid the kabbalah work Eitz Chaim, was a pile of newspapers, in both Russian and German. Not a trace of the book was to be found. Reb Shmuel, it seemed, was deeply engrossed in reading the news.

Rabbi Shmuel invited him in to sit down. “What can I do for you at such a late hour, Reb Shmuel Ber?” he asked.

“I wondered if you could help me with a question I had about the Rebbe’s Shabbos Maamar, because of a contradiction with the Eitz Chaim,” Reb Shmuel Ber said.

“Ah, Reb Shmuel Ber,” answered the Rebbe Maharash. “I have heard that you are a very intelligent man. Why would someone so smart come to ask me such a thing?” he asked.

“If you do not give me a serious answer to my question, I will tell everyone in Lubavitch what I saw tonight through your window,” he threatened. “Five minutes ago you yourself were sitting with the Eitz Chaim, just now you’ve put these newspapers in their place.”

The Rebbe Maharash realized the consequences, and agreed to discuss with him. He filled up two cups of tea and began explaining the answer to the contradiction raised.

The two men sat deep in discussion until it grew light outside, all the while refilling their cups of tea.

As day break came, Reb Shmuel Ber was in awe of the brilliance, wisdom, depth he has just heard. The entire question was beautifully answered and all was clear and logical. As he was about to leave, Reb Shmuel asked him how many cups of tea he drank? He said, he had no idea. “Who was counting? We were engrossed in such deep conversation. I was not counting my cups of tea.”

The future Rebbe, Reb Shmuel, said this to him: “Even when you are involved in the highest levels of esoteric wisdom, you need to know how many cups of tea you drank.” And he went on to tell him how many cups of tea he drank!

But the story is not over. A few years later, the Tzemach Tzedek passed away (in 1866), and was succeeded in Lubavitch by his youngest son, the Rebbe Maharash. Most Chassidim became disciples of the other children, for as we said Reb Shmuel was very discreet and people did not know his greatness. Yet there was great Chassid Reb Shmuel Ber who immediately became a follower of Reb Shmuel, the Rebbe Maharash. He said to one of the other Chassidim: "I’m not telling you what to do. But I have no doubt whatsoever…"

Why? How do you know he is the next Rebbe?

So Reb Shmuel Ber told the above story, and concluded that from that story he learned that this was the true Rebbe. I was not so impressed that he was so discreet, and covered his scholarship and holiness with newspapers; I was not so impressed that he know the question on his father’s discourse from the Eitz Chaim, and figured out the answer to the question; I was not so impressed that he was studying all night. What impressed me that amidst all of this lofty talk, he knew how many cups of tea I drank![8]

Now, that’s a Rebbe—a man whose “ladder may reach the heavens,” but still remains “etched on the ground.” A man who knows how to juggle, and can teach other how to juggle.

How Many Steps?

A similar incident occurred with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

On the first night of Passover, the Rebbe would pay a visit to the public seders that took place in the community. He would visit each seder, greet the guests and offer a blessing. One Passover he came to visit the Passover seder of the Yeshivah students, on the top floor of “farband,” a second-story hall on Kingston Avenue (today the Kolel is located there.)

As the Rebbe went up the long staircase to the second floor, he suddenly turned to the principal of the yeshiva, Reb David Raskin, and asked him: How many steps did we just ascend?

Reb David was clueless. He said he did not know.

The Rebbe said: There were 22 steps –corresponding to the 22 letters of the Torah (the 22 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, in which the Torah was written).[9]

What was the point the Rebbe was trying to make? I can only speculate. Perhaps he was teaching that even as you are climbing upward in life, do not forget and do not ignore the steps you are stepping on. Don’t fly away and forget the earth you are stepping on and the world you were sent to in order to elevate. Stay above, but be within.

We build an eiruv AND we wash our hands—that is the art of Jewish life. We juggle our fire torch—that is our path to joy and celebration. We can serve as “shuttle diplomats,” connecting to Swiss bankers and simple Siberian peasants, for we never allow the pressures of life to distract us from cherishing the simple truths of integrity, honesty, decency, humaneness, sensitivity, empathy and intimacy.      

 


[1] We recount the story in the section Aleh Ezkerah in the Musaf of Yom Kippur.

[2] Sukkah 53a.

[3] Shapur I (reigned 241-272 CE), of Sassanian descent, who defeated the Roman Legions in the battle for Edessa. His portrait appears on a rock relief at Naksh-i-Rustam and on a gem in the Museum of Gotha.

[4] Kesuvos 17a. For a very detailed explanation into this story, and the three versions of what Reb Zeira said, see Maamar Basi Legani 5735 (1975). For an explanation why he juggled a myrtle, see Kisvei Reb Isaac (by Rabbi Isaac Scheu from Montreal) to Kesuvos ibid.

[5] Published in Sichos Kodeash 5718 and in Toras Menachem 5718 vol. 21 For other explanations into the significance of this behavior, see: Chasdei David to Tosefta Sukah ch. 4. Eyun Yaakov and Yefeh Enaf to Ein Yaakov Sukkah ibid. Aruch Lener Sukkah Sukkah ibid.

[6] 20:27

[7] Why eight torches? Perhaps, corresponding to the dour levels of the soul: Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah and Chaya, each of their “torches” operating both “above” and “below.” The fifth level, Yechidah, of course is always one with G-d, and is not subjected to the pendulum of Ratzo and Shuv. For other explanations for the number eight, see references in footnote 5.

[8] The story has been published in a several placed, including Reshimos Devarim by Rabbi Yehuda Chitrik. However, the last addition with the cups of tea I did not see printed. Yet I heard this ending of the story from Reb Tzi Yehuda Sacks z”l who told me he heard this version from Reb Sholom Ber Vishetzky z”l, the mashpia of Hadar HaTorah.

[9] I heard this story from Reb Saul Vishetzky, who I believe was present at the time.

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    Sukkos 5776

    Rabbi YY Jacobson
    • September 24, 2015
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    • 11 Tishrei 5776
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    Class Summary:

    One aspect of the Simchas Beis Hashoavah celebration in the Holy Temple during each night of Sukkos remains perplexing: the torch-juggling sages. The Mishnah states: The pious ones and men of great deeds would dance while juggling flaming torches. The Talmud states, that the leader of the Jewish people, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, would juggle eight blazing torches!

    We can understand that during a grand celebration, someone gets up and does a juggling act to enhance the fun. But the fact that the Mishnah makes special mention of this act as a feature of the Simchas Beis Hashoavah, and the fact that it was performed by the greatest of the great, indicates that this was a necessary and central feature of the celebration. But why? It is a charming fun spectacle, but does not seem essential to a spiritual celebration?

    The question becomes more perplexing when we consider, as the Talmud goes on to describe, that in subsequent generations, some of the greatest sages of Israel were somehow in love with juggling. We know at least four such stories recorded in the Talmud. Levi juggled knives, Shmuel juggles wine, Abaye juggled eggs, and Reb Shmuel juggled myrtle branches.

    One would think these tricks were below their dignity. Yet, one generation after the other, literally the greatest of the great were juggling. It seems like their knowledge of Torah is what turned them into such efficient jugglers!

    It was at a public address on the fifth night of Sukkos of the year 1957 (5718), that the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented a most exquisite and profound explanation. Juggling, he suggested, captures in a very physical, tangible way the meaning of life—and the path toward genuine joy. The celebration of Sukkos was essentially all about mastering the art of juggling.

    There are people who live in “AM” radio, and there are those who operate in “FM” radio. There are those lives revolve around “headline news,” “talk show” pessimism, traffic reports and political scandals and crisis. They live in the universe of Rush, Savage and Mark Levine. Between the Pope, Obama, Iran, and Global Warming, the world is about to come to an end. And then there are souls who hang it in “FM radio”—in 106.7 or 89.7. They march to the beat of soft music, unencumbered and undisturbed by the realities and pressures of “the news.” They could not care less if the GW Bridge or the Holland Tunnel is backed up 45 minutes. They just hang out in the sweet, delightful, forever relaxing world of FM music channels. What is the Jewish approach? To live in AM or in FM? 

    How did Reb Shmuel Barisever know who the next Rebbe was after the Tzemach Tzedek? From a cup of tea! What was the question the Rebbe asked after he ascended a long flight of stairs on Kingston Avenue?

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