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A Man I Met in Shul

A Man I Met in Shul

Detail from a painting by chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman
Detail from a painting by chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman

One sunny Shabbat morning 20 years ago, I awoke to find myself standing in shul, enwrapped in a tallit with prayer book in hand. I hadn't actually arisen from sleep, but rather from an absorbing daydream in which I was speculating about the possible results of an experiment that I had planned for the following week. Although the experience was hardly novel, it crystallized and defined for me a religious crisis that had been lurking in my subconscious for some time.

How was it possible, on Shabbat, a day of transcendent holiness and limitless spiritual possibilities, to stand before one's Creator and to address Him in prayer without so much as a thought to what one is doing. If I were standing before--l'havdil--the Dean of Medicine, my mouth would be dry, my heart rate would be elevated and the rest of the world would disappear from my consciousness as if it didn't exist. How could I be so blasé about an encounter with the Almighty? Where was the awe and love? Where was the excitement? How was it possible to put on a tallit with no more deliberation than that required for putting on one's shirt? What was wrong with me?

Although advice was abundant, the problem remained. I was told that I was expecting too much and that I should be happy with what I had accomplished. I was advised to concentrate more deeply on talmudic learning, to not focus so much on talmudic learning, to take regular exercise and get more sleep, and to visit a cemetery so that I would learn to appreciate the great gift of life. I was told that the fervor for which I yearned no longer existed and one rabbinic friend even suggested that I was better off without intense feeling since emotion interferes with technical performance of the mitzvot. Apparently our relationship with G‑d is expected to settle into a comfortable, if prosaic, routine defined as normative orthodox observance.

One Shabbat I walked into Shul and saw a chassid standing at the back. He had his tallit over his shoulder and was obviously preparing for prayer. I gave him little thought until three and a half hours later when I got ready to leave for home. The chassid was standing in the same place with his tallit still over his shoulder. He hadn't yet begun his prayers. His eyes were closed and his face burned with a spiritual intensity that I had never before seen. I was thrilled. I could not imagine what sort of contemplation brought him to such a state of spiritual awakening, but it clearly had nothing to do with cholent or kugel, which were my main preoccupations at noontime on Shabbat.

In this chassid, I had found half the answer to my problem. I now knew that fiery devotion in the service of G‑d was, in fact, achievable, although I couldn't fathom how. Here was a man who knew before Whom he was standing. I took great comfort in surreptitiously watching my chassid, and for a while I was content with the simple knowledge that such a person existed. After observing him for a few weeks, I got up the nerve to go over and introduce myself.

I had no idea of what his response would be and I was more than a little uneasy. Before I could open my mouth, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "I know what you want. You want to see the koach hapoel b'hanifal (roughly, 'the power of the Creator in Creation')." Before I could answer, he told me that he would come to my house on the following Thursday night and begin studying Chassidus with me. Thus began my 20 year love affair with Chassidic teaching.

By Professor Yaakov Brawer; from the introduction to his book, Something From Nothing (Tav, 1990)
Painting by Chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman.
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Zenaide London, Canada June 11, 2011

how wonderful when we find what is missing in our spiritual life and strive to find it. How glorious that God prepares a way for us. How sad that so many people now believe that God is so far away we can't have that closeness with Him any longer. Thank you so much, I am going to use your story at my Shul to teach the children the meaning of God's love for us and ours for Him. Reply

Rodolfo Rabonza Sherman Oaks, CA/USA June 1, 2011

Light Appears Just when the vessel is ready, the light appears! Though, technically, the light is never gone. Reply

George 1700, Switzerland January 2, 2008

A man I met in shul Beautiful!

The Creator provides us with what we really need.... Reply

Anonymous Tel Aviv, Israel August 18, 2006

Very nice. Once in a while we need to be reminded of how small we are and how great we can be. Thanks to the Rebbe and his Chassidim (and and articles like this one) this messages sometimes even reaches our computer screens. Reply

Anonymous brooklyn, ny August 17, 2006

It was a fascinating and inspiring article. I am just interested in knowing who the Chossid was. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous August 30, 2004

nice story Reply

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