Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in the MKZC Zen Journal, Volume 12, Number 1 Winter 2007
Rabbi David Rosen lived and taught a century ago in Eastern Europe. Though the circumstances were humble then, his community was known for its strong, traditional spirit. The rabbi used the best means he could devise to serve his people. And over the years, he became known his for skill and ingenuity in guiding disciples and responding to the urgent matters of life.
As most rabbis, Rosen relied on his knowledge of the Word. He was always a strong student of it. Also at work among Jewish congregations in this time was inspiration from the legendary Baal-Shem Tov – Rabbi Israel, Master of the Holy Name. You may know that, early in the 18th century, the Baal-Shem came forth in Europe as a “saint in hiding.” His simple wisdom and compassion in daily life inspired devotion to the genuine way among ordinary people. The Baal-Shem’s great grandson, Rabbi Nachman of Breslau, was one of David Rosen’s teachers.
Rabbi Rosen often spoke of the divine spark in the soul and of turning to the “homeland kingdom that is in us all.” Spiritual turning proceeds person-by-person and Rosen never spoke of it in conceptual terms. If asked, he would make some oblique remark such as “good for everyone to come home” or “not so easy to find the way.” Once he stated “It takes 100 keys to open 100 locks.” On another occasion, Rosen said he knew of “a golden key that opens all the doors.”
The rabbi liked to let right action do his talking. So to know of his work with disciples, we look not to sermons or homilies but to actual experience in the congregation. Here is a tale of it that was first told in a warm hut to eager listeners decades ago. It is the Tale of Two Seekers. Listen well!
* * *
Isaac and Philip were going home for Passover Week. This was their custom and, as they left the city where they lived and worked, the friends looked forward to time in the shtetl (Jewish village) where they grew up. First by rail, then wagon, the travel took two days.
The friends had become interested in spiritual matters – in finding truth and more meaning to life – though they felt awkward using such terms. Both Isaac and Philip remembered hearing their home rabbi, David Rosen, speak of the spiritual life. There was a saying in the shtetl: “Want guidance? – see Rosen!” They went to Rosen.
At the blessing of Passover, Rabbi Rosen closed with:
“So we give thanks and praise this Passover to the Lord our God of All. We rejoice at His presence in Yesh (Being) as we rejoice at it in Ayin (Emptiness). The Lord is Yesh and Ayin altogether. This is Shlemut – the fullness of God – that we study.
Someone asked me a surprising question the other day. What is the most important of Shlemut? Yesh or Ayin? I asked him what he thought. And I want to ask you this Passover, what do you think? Is Yesh – creation – the differentiated world of reality in all its detail – the most important? Or is it Ayin, the absolute world of oneness and nothingness? Be careful with this question. The answer is vital to our awakening and joy in God. This you can contemplate as you enjoy your Passover. Blessings in every home!”
Departing the synagogue, Isaac and Philip greeted the rabbi and asked when they could visit him. He told them to come by the next night. Catching up with local news, the friends learned there would be no gefilte-fish this Passover because there had been no ice to preserve the fish.
As they approached the rabbi’s house next evening, Solomon the fish merchant was coming out. “Sorry for your troubles Sol,” Isaac said. “It’s a shameful situation that we don’t have cold storage here yet.” “From your mouth to God’s ears,” Solomon replied, wishing them Good Passover as he hurried away.
Rosen showed the friends into his small study. Philip remarked “There’s always some trouble around here. This year it’s no gefilte-fish!”
“Yes” said the rabbi who recounted the following:
“It’s been hard on Solomon. He paid for all the fish, then couldn’t get ice to keep them. He told me Mrs. Hershel came in to buy fish for the Passover gefilte. Checking the carps, she yelled ‘Ma zot?’ (What’s this?!) Solomon, these fish aren’t for eating – they’re only good for selling!
Other shtetls are having the same trouble with fish and meat. The ice merchant’s horse died. He hasn’t been able to get around. We’re helping him get another horse.
Some ask if we’ll ever have electrification for cold storage – like you have in the city. I tell them our good neighbors upriver are taking matters into their own hands. They’re electrifying themselves with drippings from the candles they burn at night!”
Grinning at his wry humor, Isaac and Philip were in awe of the rabbi. He knew about tsuris – trouble in the broad sense, trouble in terms of all we go through – what life has been! People said attention to the tsuris around him is what makes Rosen such a rabbi.
After pleasantries, the rabbi asked “So what can I do for you this Passover?” Isaac and Philip spoke of their interest in spirituality. City living was busy and hectic. They longed for a deeper relationship with God, a relationship that would anchor them and guide their pathway in life. Could the rabbi suggest something? “Is there a way for us?”
“Very good, very good! Yes!” Rosen answered. “You speak the silent question that many want to ask. Can spiritual life help me? Is there a way? Yes, there is a genuine way. Rabbi Nachman – blessed be his memory – taught of it. ‘Though the way is new,’ he said, ‘it is very old.’ This means the way is forever open to seekers. God in His mercy keeps it open! What you must do is search your heart. Reflect on your experience. Study yourself through and through. Reject nothing – accept it all. And once you’ve accepted it, then use it in the right way.”
Isaac and Philip spoke further of their hopes – hopes of greater faith, inner certainty, a larger purpose in life. Could the rabbi give more specific indications? Are there prayers to help us?
“Yes, very good!” the rabbi exclaimed, again showing excitement with the friends’ inquiries. “There is an ancient prayer practice – the sages call it avodah be-bittul, the way of self-emptying.”
Rosen sat up in his chair and demonstrated the prayer practice of bittul. Placing his hands in his lap, he took a relaxed but alert posture, back straight, letting his gaze fall about three feet in front of him. He said “In this posture, we orient ourselves to the ruach (breath of God). Just breathe naturally, keeping your mind on the breath. When thoughts, feelings or other distractions arise, simply observe and let them go, and return to being one with breathing in and out.”
The rabbi then asked Isaac and Philip to practice with him for a few minutes. “God breathed life into Adam,” he said, “and He is breathing into each of us at this very moment. Follow the breath back to God. Attention to breath will carry you beyond the distractions of mind. It is a great help in self-emptying.”
The friends asked how bittul practice related to the heart-searching and self-study. “You will find the connection in your practice and experience of bittul,” answered the rabbi. “A sage once called it housekeeping – cleaning the hut that is our mind. You will see the trash that has built up. Seeing it creates an opening which, if you are sincere, reveals God’s way and will for you. When the time is ripe one comes home to this.”
The friends wondered if the practice of bittul was too passive. “Shouldn’t we give direction to the heart-searching and self-study?” they asked. Rosen answered “Do not expect this practice to be easy. To gain its blessings, you must be diligent. Try to do 20 minutes of bittul practice twice daily. If you stay with it, you will know its process and benefit. Let yourself be led to the union and inner certainty that you seek.”
Thus concluded the rabbi this day. Isaac and Philip were motivated by his counsel and agreed to write him of their experience in the coming year. After Passover, they returned to life and work in the city.
Isaac determined to practice bittul both in the morning and evening. His initial experience revealed how active his mind was. At times his thought process was discursive and wild, running from past to future back and forth. He concentrated on his breathing the best he could and practiced twice on most days. Sometimes he skipped the night sitting when there were errands to run, though more often because he was tired from the workday and the literacy classes he volunteered to teach two nights a week.
Within a few weeks, Isaac began appreciating the clarity that arose from this practice. He likened his breath to an invisible sword; its power to cut through thought was convincing to him. In a random reflection at work one day, he somehow understood that he couldn’t prevail against life’s messhuge (nonsensical or crazy) power. He saw how some past choices had worked against him. Sensing the wisdom of living simpler, he felt the bittul practice was helping. This and other insights into the little home truths of life were a strong encouragement to Isaac.
After Passover, Philip also tried bittul practice. He found it awkward and distracting from daily life. Thoughts of what else he could or should be doing came up, along with sensitive recollections of difficulties in work and life, some associated with being a Jew. This discouraged him such that he did not practice bittul every day but only when there seemed to be time for it. Yet, he remembered the rabbi’s counsel: reject nothing, accept everything, then use it in the right way. This seemed open and workable and it was comforting to him.
Over time, a sense had been stirring in Philip that it was right to help others more than he had thus far in life. His visit with the rabbi at Passover somehow called forth this stirring such that he now began helping Jewish and other migrants from the countryside. After work, he helped feed and find shelter for anxious, often desperate, newcomers looking for jobs and a better life in the city. He felt this was a “right way” to use his own experience of hardship when he and Isaac came to the city years ago. The progress and gratitude of newcomers settling in told Philip he was doing what he should.
So these were the initial directions taken by Isaac and Philip. Each wrote of his experience to the rabbi. In turn, Rosen sent word through the surest channel he knew – their mothers – that he looked forward to seeing them again during Passover.
At the next Passover blessing, Isaac and Philip listened to the rabbi’s offerings made with wise and smiling mouth:
“Today we give thanks to the Master of the Universe for the wisdom and compassion He manifested in our ancestral sages. By their teaching and example, they show us the way. The standards they set still stand – no one can go beyond the truth.
A sage once called bittul the spiritual pouring of Yesh into Ayin. The world of Yesh, you see, depends on Ayin for renewal. In Rabbi Nachman’s words: ‘Just as the hand held before the eye conceals the greatest mountain, so this little earthly life hides from view the enormous light and mystery of which the world is full. And he who can draw it away from before his eyes, as one draws away a hand, beholds the great shining of the inner world.’
Bittul practice helps ‘draw away the hand’ to reveal the Divine Presence and Force that is in us. The Baal-Shem taught that sensitivity to this Presence is how one ‘turns’ – straightens oneself out and unifies the soul – the body, mind and spirit altogether. The unified soul shows one how to take part and persevere in tikkun ha-olam (mending the world with justice and love).
Bittul (self-emptying) and tikkun (world repair) are two sides of the same coin. Realizing the way of bittul and tikkun together, we move from strength to strength and goal to goal. This is the effort that brings our offering before the Lord here and now. It is what satisfies our inmost longing.
From Torah we know God asked Adam ‘Where art thou?’ God knows , but He wants to hear from Adam, you see. It is a good question for us to contemplate this Passover. Where am I along the way? Who am I and what is my life that I want to offer You my blood and fire? Good Passover to all!”
After the blessing, Isaac and Philip exchanged greetings with Rosen. He asked to see them separately during the week.
Philip called on the rabbi next evening. Showing him into the study, Rosen asked “how is it with your practice and self-study?” Philip started telling of his work with migrants. Interrupting, the rabbi said “Let’s do some bittul practice.” So they sat up, lowered their gaze and practiced breath-centered prayer. Rosen said “In bittul we do not seek to achieve gains or to avoid losses. Our goal is only to be the breathing – this ruach – breath of God. Each breath is here and now.” Philip sensed the rabbi’s gentle but intense gathering-in and it was potent encouragement to him.
Rosen then asked about his work with migrants. Philip told him in detail and the rabbi gave enthusiastic encouragements. “Such work is a wonderful way of tikkun (world repair). So needed! People leaving the countryside for the city usually have no choice; they are seeking a new chance,” said Rosen.
Next evening Isaac called on the rabbi who immediately asked “how goes everything?” Isaac started speaking fondly of his bittul practice; Rosen interrupted to ask how he found the time for it. Isaac had cut back on his commitment to teach literacy classes after work, reducing from two weeknights to one. Rosen asked “Who is teaching them now?” Isaac told him he thought they were looking for another instructor. “I hope they find one soon,” said the rabbi, “what’s more important than learning to read and write?”
They practiced bittul together and Isaac found that 20 minutes passed quickly – a sign of maturing practice the rabbi said. Isaac related how bittul practice was helping him; sometimes he reached a peaceful state. Rosen smiled and said the Baal-Shem once described the peaceful state as when all grows still and there is no space or time, only the way of becoming without place and lapse of time. “This is wonderful work along the way. When you make peace for yourself, you can make peace for others,” he said.
Rosen asked Isaac and Philip to visit him again the day before their return travel.
(Aside: Fifty years ago, the first teller of this tale recounted these visits to Rabbi Rosen. “When Phillip started speaking of service, Rosen interrupted and changed the topic to bittul practice. But when Isaac began speaking of bittul, it was vice-versa: the rabbi changed the talk to service. Was the rabbi being inconsistent? Contrary?” The teller answered his own question: “Sometimes Rosen came from the East, sometimes the West. What made him such a great guide is that, one by one, he always knew what his disciples needed!” End of aside.)
Two nights later, Rosen welcomed the friends into his study. With an impish grin, he asked “Where art thou Isaac and Philip?” The friends laughed. “Let’s start with silent prayer (bittul),” said the rabbi. “In bittul practice, we look at how we are now, for it is the only way to begin. Ten years from now it will still be the only way to begin. Center on your breathing – just this ruach. You can always trust it to bring you home to the present moment. Only in the here and now can we open to God.”
Sitting silently, the friends sensed the rabbi’s strong and caring support. “Many find group sitting to be helpful,” Rosen said after the practice. “When you return to the city, maybe you can practice together during the week.”
The rabbi then brought the friends tea and sweet bread which they shared midst further exchange on life and practice. The friends thanked him for everything. Parting this time was more emotional than before; they were closer now.
The friends resumed life and work in the city. Both took the rabbi’s teaching to heart. Philip now did bittul most days and met Isaac for practice during the week. There was no-one else to teach literacy on weeknights. As a commitment to tikkun, Isaac resumed teaching two classes.
Soon, living conditions turned for the worse. Prices rose and shortages occurred, especially in the countryside. Rosen remarked “We’re told there is no shortage in the cities; there is only a price!” People were losing jobs. Migration to the cities increased. And Jewry living in the European Pale grew uneasy. They had seen just such a pattern before the last pogrom (persecution of the Jews).
The hard times kept Isaac and Philip from going home to their shtetl next Passover. Shortly after Passover, Philip’s mother Sarah ran up to Rabbi Rosen and told him that Philip’s friend Samuel was brutally beaten walking home from their food hut last week. “Yesterday he died. Philip told me ‘There is no renewal for Samuel!’ Rabbi, my son has stopped praying. He’s in a terrible state! What can I do?”
Hearing this, Rosen’s face filled with emotion. He put his hands beside his temples and closed his eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he told Sarah.
That night the rabbi prayed for guidance. He prayed that a sign be sent, so Philip would not lose faith in the way.
Rosen would go to the city. Why would he travel so far from home? One account is that it came to the rabbi that night in a dream. Another is that there was a forerunner: on opening the closet his travel bag fell out! Yet another answer is that he just went to say Kaddish – prayer for loved ones who have died. With the Jewish people, you see, the same question may have many answers!
In the morning Rosen asked Sarah to send word he would arrive next day on the evening train. “No one should be alone in such a time,” he told her.
Isaac and Philip met the rabbi at the train station and took him to supper. Rosen learned that Samuel had been walking home from the food hut when he was clubbed down and left for dead by three men who cursed as they beat him. He was buried yesterday.
“There was no renewal for Sam, Rabbi, though he was one of the kindest you could meet,” Philip related bitterly. “He insisted our food huts and shelters be open to Jew and non-Jew alike – whoever needs a helping hand. Conditions are very bleak, many can’t find work and are hungry. People fear another pogrom. How can there be renewal in this sheol (shadowy hell) that we have?”
Putting his arms around the shoulders of Philip and Isaac at their small table, the rabbi spoke in deep tones: “This is a sad and crushing thing. It brings us low. Nothing is harder than unmerited suffering. Why does a good man come onto death so early? There is no answer. Any reason would be beyond reason.” He closed his eyes and put his hands beside his temples.
Later, over tea, the rabbi asked if Samuel had a family. Yes, a wife and child. Had services been arranged? Philip didn’t know. He gave Rosen the family’s address. The rabbi asked them to meet with him for prayer next night. Leaving Rosen at Rabbi Shapiro’s house where he would stay, Philip asked “What will you do?” “ I do what I can,” answered the rabbi.
Next evening Rosen met the friends for prayer at Isaac’s. They started by chanting the traditional Shema – Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Then they sat three periods of bittul, each separated by a short stretch, then ended repeating the Shema.
Rosen told them “In time of crisis the best way to work on ourselves is bittul. It trains us to limit our activity to what can be done in this moment. A sage once said when you know the world of Ayin, you can work through any problem with patience.”
The rabbi then informed them that Samuel’s wife was “sitting shiva” at home in this first week of mourning. “Rabbi Shapiro and I – we were ordained together years ago – will hold services and say Kaddish these next three nights. The first two nights will be at Shapiro’s synagogue, last service at the home.”
The synagogue service began with chanting prayers. Those attending were invited to speak of Samuel. Several did. Rabbi Shapiro gave the closing blessing and said Kaddish: “Yit-ga-dal v’yit-ka-dash sh’mei ra-ba.”
Philip asked the rabbis if the second service could be held in the food hut where Samuel had worked after his daytime job. The rabbis agreed. The service was packed with folks who had been helped by Samuel. Many spoke fondly of him. He was like this, always helpful, kind, told us of that, informative, goodhearted. Through tears, Philip said “We are grateful for the life and chesed (lovingkindness) of Sam. By example, he showed us the way to God passes through our fellow human beings. May his memory be blessed.”
On the third night, friends and congregation members filled the home, bringing such food and funds for the family as they could. Many again spoke of Samuel’s life and friendship. Rosen guided the service and remarked:
“From your wonderful comments, I know Samuel well. Last night Philip said Samuel’s life shows that the great way for us passes through fellow human beings. This is the Holy Word that we study.
We all know the Torah command – ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). But the verse doesn’t end there. It ends with ‘I am the Lord.’ It is in our love for our neighbor that we find union with the Lord.
We all know the world is far from perfect. Because it is so, God needs our living sacrifice and offering. He needs us for tikkun ha-olam. Samuel’s life teaches us this.
May his memory be blessed.
May the One who comforts comfort you my friends. Blessed is the One who comforts mourners.”
Rabbi Rosen then led all in chanting Kaddish, closing the final service of shiva. Family and friends thanked the rabbis for their services and solace in a chaotic time. Rosen left for the shtetl the next morning.
The following year, hard times again prevented Isaac and Philip from going home at Passover. Rabbi Rosen heard some news from the families. Isaac’s sister relayed her brother’s Passover greetings.
Sarah told him “Philip is praying again. In the midst of crisis, he said you gave important teachings about dvekut (coming close to God). You helped him Rabbi. Thank you so much.”
Rosen also had a letter from Rabbi Shapiro:
My Dear David Rosen:
Can it be more than a year since your visit? Now that we are again reduced to speaking by letters, I wonder when we shall see each other again.
I am in touch with Isaac and Philip, as you asked. Isaac now offers a class in practice of bittul. Several students are sitting with he and Philip. Philip keeps reaching out to more through the food and shelter huts. God knows how many more migrants will come to this crowded city!
Your sense is right that, by inclination, Isaac orients from the bittul side, Philip from tikkun.. Each is practicing hard to embrace both sides. And each is maturing in the way.
How do I know this you may ask? In their experience the distinction between bittul and tikkun practice is narrowing. The gathered concentration Isaac finds from bittul practice is spreading into his daily life and teaching. Philip’s attentiveness in the huts helps him in bittul to limit his activity to what is here and now; this in turn helps him be free in his daily effort. Both talk of moving from ‘goal to goal’. Both are finding joy in the way. They are becoming ‘all of a piece,’ as you like to say.
You have guided them right David. We all look forward to seeing you again but are saddened to not know when that may be.
* * *
Four years had passed since Isaac and Philip first went to Rosen. Now they were going home again for Passover. They looked forward anew to time in the shtetl where they grew up.
At the Feast of Passover, the friends were greeted by home folks known but not seen for a long time. “Have you sampled the gefilte-fish?” asked Mrs Hershel, grinning from ear to ear. “People are telling me this gefilte sings in the mouth! Solomon’s carps were so beauteous they cooked themselves!” she laughed.
Rosen waved to them across the room. “It’s so nice to see our city friends at Passover,” he said. “Though we wouldn’t know it from recent years, it’s a fact that Isaac and Philip know the way home. It’s wonderful to see they have come home!”
Everyone present took the rabbi’s meaning. A hush fell as all faces turned to the friends. Then everyone laughed and joined in the rabbi’s spirited toast to them – “L-Chaim!” (to life!), “L’Chaim!”
* * *
A sage once likened Rosen’s action with disciples to an ancient promise from the Talmud. Take the way wholeheartedly. Even should you get lost – or be unable to see your way – listen, stay steadfast the best you can. By the power of Shekina (divine spirit), you will be met where you are, and the way home will be revealed to you.
Isaac and Philip could never forget Rosen. He was the teaching. Their love of him – shared by many disciples of the rabbi and his kind – embodied a gratitude well beyond the measure of what is customary among humankind. To this day, David Rosen is remembered as the rabbi who went “from strength to strength and holiness to holiness.”
Bruce Blackman is a Sensei and Storyteller with the Zen Community of Baltimore. A Tale of Two Seekers is second in his series of Tales From The Spiritus Mundi whose interfaith purpose is to spark interest in spiritual practice. Inspiration for the story comes from the early Hasidic tradition as evoked by Sholom Aleichem, Martin Buber, Meyer Levin, Rami Shapiro and others.