Hard-Hitting Farbrengen Addresses Hot Topics

Photos: Dovid Katash

Farbrengen Highlights: Speaking to a packed crowd, Harav Yosef Heller farbrenged and answered questions about what it means to live like a chossid, Lubavitch without Reb Yoel and Reb Pinyeh, and finding joy in everyday Yiddishkeit.

By Anash.org staff

A packed crowd gathered in the Crown Heights Kolel on Yud Tes Kislev to hear Crown Heights Rov and Rosh Kolel Harav Yosef Heller farbreng. Attendees included Kolel yungeleit, Kolel alumni, and guests from other communities.

As in other years, the farbrengen included direct discussion on what it means to learn Chassidus and live with it every day. He spoke at length about Mesiras Nefesh, going beyond the bare minimum, and not looking for “heterim.” He mourned the recent loss of great chassidim of our time – Reb Yoel Kahn and Reb Pinyeh Korf – but he insisted that Chassidus is alive today.

Taking questions from the crowd, he answered pointed questions about raising children to be chassidim, chassidim who aren’t refined, yeridas hadoros, and what attracted him to Chassidus and the Rebbe.

We are pleased to bring you selected highlights from the farbrengen which have been reorganized for readability. Our thanks to the transcribers and the editor who shared it with us.

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Mesiras Nefesh

Yiddishkeit can only survive with supra-logical commitment, mesiras nefesh.

My neighbor Mrs. Malachowski told me how her father died from hunger at a time when there was non-kosher food available. His frum friends told him that according to halacha he is allowed to eat, but he refused, and he died. Yet, all his children remained frum, but none of their kids did.

When I was 14 years old, I saw a certain Yid on Simchas Torah dancing energetically with the Torah. I wondered to myself, “What connection does he have with the Torah? I learn Torah studiously and deserve to dance with the Torah, but he hasn’t learned anything all year!”

I decided to share my thoughts with a chossid who was in the shul. He told me, “Do you know how that Yid earns a living? He’s a salesman who makes rounds through the towns selling his wares all week long. He barely has what to eat, but he won’t drink non cholov Yisroel milk even if he’s about to collapse (even though many people in that area relied on a heter). He has more right to dance with the Torah than you do…”

Living in a nice Jewish place with a good rabbi is the right thing to do and it’s what Yidden always did. But that’s not what the Baal Shem Tov came for.

Today, people come to a rov and ask, “Is there a heter to do this?” Just because there’s a heter for something, doesn’t mean it’s really mutar. If there were a heter to shmad R”L, he might even consider that too…

Q: How can we have mesiras nefesh today in New York?

A: Mesiras nefesh means giving up your will. Don’t fight over a maftir, an omud, don’t go to din Torah.

Q: What does it mean not to go to din Torah? Who is Choshen Mishpat written for? Not chassidim?

A: Choshen Mishpat is for people who don’t want to live like chossid. Every person has such a tendency, and he needs to work on getting rid of it.

Chassidus

R. Yosef Kahanman, who was known as the Ponovizher rov, was once visiting Switzerland and he went on a walk with a great chassidisher rov, with a few of us were listening in on their conversation. He asked the rov what the chidush of Chassidus is.

The chassidisher rov explained that the Vilna Gaon only had contact with a handful of talmidim and that the rest of the population never even saw him. Whereas the Meor Enayim and Kedushas Levi were accessible to everyone.

“That’s a big chidush!” exclaimed the Ponovizher rov. “That great people were able to lower themselves to the level of the simple folk and connect with them? I thought it was just about nusach and minhagim…”

Q: Personal question: What drew you to Chassidus?

A: A chossid shouldn’t have to ask such a question. You know what Chassidus is, and you wonder why someone wants to come to this light and warmth?! Someone who doesn’t appreciate what Chassidus is won’t understand even if I try and explain it.

Q: Why do mashpiim sometimes speak disparagingly about “misnagdim”?

A: When chassidim talk about misnagdim, they aren’t referring to members of a community. They are talking against an attitude. It’s an attitude to ignore the G-dly aspect within all things and to learn Torah for pleasure or achievement and not lsheim Shomayim. We all have that nature within us. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

Q: If I know by myself that I’m not true through and through, how can I be an example to others?

A: Being a chitzon (superficial) isn’t the same as being tzovua (impostor). Not being fully permeated with what you do doesn’t make you into a faker.

Q: How should Krias Shma She’al Hamita look today?

A: Today is reform! Today is just the same as yesterday and years ago.

Chassidim

I know a Rabbi who lives not far from NY and he came to visit me in Crown Heights several times. I didn’t succeed in making him into a chossid, but I did manage to make him no longer an opponent to Chassidus. I exposed him to various chassidim, including Reb Nissan standing outside the Rebbe’s room preparing himself for yechidus.

That was over 40 years ago. Recently, he commented to someone that “there’s a place in this world where I saw genuine Yidden.” Lately, he began learning Chassidus and got really into it, and he regrets that he didn’t start earlier.

Q: With all the yeridas hadoros, what’s going to be?

A: People like saying it used to be better. Reb Nissan was once talking in Brunoy about how the chassidim in the previous generation were better. The cook in yeshiva was a simple man but older than Reb Nissan. When he heard him say that, he interrupted him and said, “I’m older than you and I disagree! People always say, ‘It used to be better,’ but it isn’t true. There are just different issues.”

The wagon with the chassidim took off. Reb Pinye and Reb Yoel left us. But we can’t cry over the past. There were once Tanna’im and Amora’im and they’re gone, but Torah is alive today. Chassidus is alive too.

The Rebbe taught to do things without show. There are people today who I speak to who you won’t even know how special they are. The best part is that they themselves aren’t aware they’re special!

Learning Chassidus

A person shared with me that he was in yechidus by the Rebbe and the Rebbe asked him if he learns Chassidus. The man answered that on Shabbos he glances in the sefer Sfas Emes. To which the Rebbe responded, “Just Shabbos? Just a glance? Every day you should learn from the Sfas Emes.”

A chossid without Chassidus is like a misnaged. It’s written that the yetzer hara sometimes comes in the form of a misnaged, while sometimes he comes dressed as a Chossid without Chassidus.

Q: Which sefer of Chassidus should one learn?

A: Chabad says there are no specific directions; there is only Elokus. Whatever you do, that should be your focus. The small details don’t matter.

Two bochurim sat down the first day of the new zman and started arguing which derech halimud to follow. They kept arguing for months till the zman was over. All these questions about what to learn and maybe to learn something else are just distractions.

I met an old man in Williamsburg who had met the Frierdiker Rebbe and asked him what to learn. When he was told to learn Tanya, he protested that he can’t understand a word. “In that case,” responded the Frierdiker Rebbe, “learn Kedushas Levi.” The man has been doing that ever since.

The truth is that Kedushas Levi is more difficult to understand, though you think you get it. It’s like a child who thinks that Mishna is easier than Gemara and Chumash is easier than Rashi. In truth, the Gemara just explains what the Mishna is saying and without it you didn’t really understand the Mishna. In a similar way, without Chassidus Chabad you don’t really understand what the Kedushas Levi is saying.

Q: How is learning Chassidus relevant to darkei haChassidus?

A: Darkei hachassidus means that you live with hashgacha pratis. When you guard your eyes, you are able to see everything how everything is a lesson in avodas Hashem, the way it really is. Just hearing about the concept isn’t enough. You need to learn more and more to internalize it.

Q: How do you teach children darkei haChassidus?

A: Children don’t do what you tell them to. They do what they see. If you will live with Chassidus, they will too.

Q: Chassidus is meant to make people more refined. How is it possible that some chassidim aren’t refined?

A: Just because someone davens in a chassidishe shul or has a father or brother who is chossid, that doesn’t mean that he is a chossid himself. If he’s not refined, then he isn’t a chossid.

If a person learns Chassidus so that he should have a geshmake davening, that’s selfish and unholy. The same is true of a person who learns because he wants to know about Elokus. We must learn Chassidus to fulfill the will of Hashem.

Elokus

People are asking how they can feel Elokus because they don’t learn Chassidus. They might read the books and study Chassidic philosophy, but don’t learn Chassidus. Learning Chassidus means that you connect with Elokus.

I knew someone who consistently learned Shaar Hayichud V’ho’Emuna just so that he should leave the world a believer. Not a maskil or an oved, just a simple maimin.

You can’t be a chossid without a Rebbe. By the Rebbe there was Elokus. Whoever wasn’t there doesn’t know what that means. There are speakers that after three hours they are burned out and look like an empty sack. The Rebbe after seven hours had pity on the crowd and finished, but he looked as fresh as ever. Elokus was just flowing through him.

That the poritz shouldn’t bother us is not the real reason why we need Moshiach. It’s all about gilui Elokus. If a person knocks off a Mincha or Mairiv, then he’s not connected to Moshiach.

When it comes to velt, the less you see and know, the better. Most things disturb a person from avodas Hashem (of course, we’re talking about kosher things). The rule is that if you’re warm towards velt, you will be cold to Elokus. If you want to have a connection to Elokus, cut out some of your connection to velt.

Q: You went to many gedolei Yisroel, what did you see in the Rebbe?

A: You can’t ask why metal is attracted to a magnet. The revelation of Elokus by the Rebbe was incomparable to anything seen anywhere else. Same for the nothingness, bittul. The Rebbe considered himself merely a ‘manager’ for “der Rebbe der shver.”

Simcha

There are unhappy people out there. They travel about to all kinds of mekomos hakdoshim. It’s an excuse for an adventure. If they would connect to one specific place, that would be fine. But traveling all over means they aren’t happy anywhere.

You can have excitement from a Mincha or saying Tehillim. No need for a Siyum Sefer Torah to make Yiddishkeit exciting.

Getting excited about a chidush isn’t learning Torah. Get excited just about the fact that you’re connecting with the holiness of the Torah. It’s easier when you’re just reading the words.

The Rebbe Rashab was maivir sedra with tears. What is there to cry about Vayomer Lavan? They were tears of excitement! Today it’s considered boring. Just like Tehillim is boring or for simple people.

The contradiction we must live with is that whatever we do is barely considered a start and whatever we do is worth a lot.

The neshama doesn’t want to come down to this dark place. But we have to remember Who created the darkness. The only One who can create something that can conceal Elokus is Hashem himself. And He put it there for a reason.

The way to be joyful is to forget about ourselves. What stands in the way of happiness is ego since you are upset that you don’t have enough money or honor. Or you can’t express your joy openly because it’s below your dignity.

Q: Who says you have to be bsimcha when you’re not davening or learning?

A: Serving Hashem is at all hours of the day. Even when you’re doing business – b’chol drochecha do’eihu.

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