Share your Stories of Reb Zalman

Shalom: Please share your favorite Reb Zalman stories by contributing a comment to this post. Over the years, Reb Zalman has given us a myriad of gifts, individually and collectively. We’ve both heard and experienced some of these gifts first hand. What did he tell you that was tailor-made for your neshama / soul? What amazing things do you recall? What pearls can you share that will teach us something about Reb Zalman’s legacy?

See below for some of my recollections. Looking forward to reading yours.

Gabbai Seth Fishman (BLOG Editor)

3 Responses to “Share your Stories of Reb Zalman”

  1. Gabbai Seth Fishman (BLOG Editor) Says:

    My first meeting with Reb Zalman was at the 1989 Kallah / gathering in Bryn Mawr, PA. There was an open Q&A in which anyone could ask Reb Zalman any question s/he wanted.

    My question had been burning inside of me: Had the innovations that I had witnessed at the Kallah been taught to Reb Zalman by his teachers/mentors/guides, or were they something outside of the Jewish tradition coming from somewhere else?

    While I had loved what I had experienced up to that point at the gathering, I was unsure if the teachings and practices I had witnessed were kosher. It felt good, it felt right, but I hadn’t seen this before. I had been taught that the process by which Judaism changes started with the Rabbis. They were empowered to change the laws through their training and through their special understanding and interpretation of God’s will. I was concerned that other approaches might lead to a deviation from a Jewish path. How could we integrate autonomy and Judaism? I was skeptical.

    Yet, I had witnessed so many wonderful things that felt right. So I wanted to know whether Reb Zalman’s teachers would say this was kosher.

    His answer was that what I was witnessing was in line with what he had learned from his teachers.

    I was relieved by his response. It was the answer my heart wanted to hear. The brain, on the other hand, needed some catching up.

    After this kallah, I began attending services at P’nai Or in Mount Airy, Philadelphia on a regular basis. I loved the community and the services, but I still had some reservations about whether this was kosher.

    Eventually, over time, my understanding of Reb Zalman’s teachings grew. I learned more about Psycho-halachah, theology and Paradigm shift and eventually I was able to make peace between my previous teachers of Judaism, and my new ones.

    V’hair lev v’sum sechel” / “Awaken the heart and then put your mind to it,” a famous quote by Reb Avraham Yehoshuah Heschel, the Apter Rebbe is a good way to summarize what I experienced here. My heart led my mind into a belief and a practice.

    Gabbai Seth Fishman (BLOG Editor)

  2. Gabbai Seth Fishman (BLOG Editor) Says:

    A Yehidut / one-on-one with Reb Zalman

    I once had a private meeting with Reb Zalman, known as a Yehidut / union. I was inspired with the idea of having such a meeting after having read his book called Spiritual Intimacy. I thought of the idea during a gathering at Elat Chayyim. During the opening session, it was anounced that if any of us wanted to meet with Reb Zalman, we could send a note through his Gabbai, Jonathan. I wanted to meet with Reb Zalman, and after I sent my note, I had the idea of doing it in the same way Reb Zalman described in his book.

    Spritual Intimacy provides a lot of detail regarding the role of the hasidic rebbe as a spiritual guide and healer. In the book, Reb Zalman covers various aspects of the Yehidut institution within hasidism. He deals with the hasid’s role, the hasid’s preparation and the kinds of requests typically made.

    I wrote on my kvittel / petition that I wanted to increase my d’vekut / cleaving [to God], my sense of shiviti hashem l’negdi tamid / I place God before me continually, of being in God’s presence. I was unhappy to feel cut off from God so much of the time. I had had this feeling for much of my life and I felt it would be a good thing to learn to reduce or eliminate my feeling of being cut off, of being alone in the universe, of having to do it all myself without support and help of God or others.

    The day of the meeting, my preparation included praying the morning service d’arichut / at length, fasting and preparing the kvittel / petition after having discussed it with my spiritual partner and spouse, Anna.

    I walked in and sat with Reb Zalman, handing him the piece of paper.

    He read the kvittel and smiled. He spoke to me about being in dvekut and the ways the Rabbis talked about it. The building blocks of prayer are our yearnings, the gaguim. That’s what God wants from us. We sat together for maybe fifteen minutes. We talked about personal things in my life. He recited brochas for me and for my needs.

    I’ve had other meetings with him since. When I was sick and needed surgery, Reb Zalman gave me brochas over the phone. They calmed my spirit and left me with a sense I would be okay. He blessed my surgeon and doctors to be in good mental states and do the best possible job.

    It is wonderful to have someone who can take care of you in this way.

    My d’vekut continues to grow. Baruch Hashem.

    Gabbai Seth Fishman (BLOG Editor)

  3. Gabbai Seth Fishman (BLOG Editor) Says:

    In 2003, I was demoted at work and I wanted to quit. I spoke to Reb Zalman and he told me to see it as a tikkun / fixing, an adjustment that was happening in my life. When we have some bad Karma, we need to realize this too comes from God. I should try to see it in a positive light.

    I didn’t see it like this. For me, it was a clear case of character assasination. His advice was tough for me to swallow.

    I thought about it and I decided that I had nothing to lose. I could always quit anyway. But I realized that he had given me a strategy and a way to make peace with those whom I saw as doing me wrong.

    There’s a prayer from keriat shema al hamitah / the recitation of the shema in bed [when going to sleep], also recited on Yom Kippur in which we forgive those who have wronged us: hareni mochel l’chol mi shehichnit osi, ben b’gufi, ben b’mamoni,, etc. / I hereby forgive whoever has hurt me, whether physically, financially,etc. To go through pain and see your enemy in a positive light is a difficult process; but it is a process that can contribute to your connection with the Source of All. Yotzer Or u’vore choshech, oseh shalom u’voreh et hakol / Source of light and creator of darkness, maker of peace and creator of all. God is the creator of everything, including our bad Karma. How do we reconcile this with our love of God? It’s a big question.

    Looking back, I am grateful for this advice. After a few years, I was eventually promoted back to my old title. And in retrospect, I am glad I had Reb Zalman’s ear when it happened so I could handle it the way i did. I am better off for it.

    When I tell this story it is a bit controversial. Some people think I’m being non-assertive because I didn’t do anything about the demotion. I didn’t appeal it, and I didn’t trust the appeal process. I didn’t try to expose people’s incompetencies. But I don’t think that would have improved my situation. It might have made me feel good in the short term. But learning how to take responsibility for things, to do teshuvah / realignment, to examine conscience and to say “Maybe I had some share of the blame,” is also important. In Spiritual Eldering, Reb Zalman teaches that the bad Karma times of life have pay dirt for us in our spiritual development. I don’t think Zalman was doing something “Renewalish” here, it seemed more traditional, but in retrospect, I’m glad I went down this path with this situation.

    Gabbai Seth Fishman (BLOG Editor)

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