Photo: Levi Robin. Facebook: LeviRobinMusic
By Yonatan Gordon
One of the factors that attracted me to the Hasidic movement was the feeling that my ideas and thoughts had merit no matter how many books and texts I mastered. The Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement, extolled the unadulterated service of the simple ones whose heartfelt pleas reached the loftiest heights. And so I was encouraged by this because while my breadth of knowledge was not like some, at least my contributions would be valued.
But as my time in yeshivah and then Hasidic Crown Heights passed by, I struggled to find my place. These difficulties persisted until I met a beggar outside a pizza restaurant after the fast of the 9th of Av 12 years ago.
Standing on the Outside
I had traveled to the upper west side of Manhattan in search of solace. During my pre-Hasidic years the upper west side was an area that I frequented regularly to watch a movie at the local AMC theaters or partake of a slice at Pizza Cave. But now times were different. I was living in Crown Heights and rarely visited Manhattan anymore.
My first stop that night was the familiar AMC theaters. I tried to convince myself that what I needed was a good movie to wash away the worries. But after perusing title after title, I left.
My next stop was the Barnes & Noble nearby. But after buying a few sci-fi books that I never read and threw out shortly thereafter, I left there as well.
By now the rain was pouring down as I entered my final destination, Pizza Cave, a kosher pizza restaurant that existed at the time. Soaked through-and-through I ordered a slice, ate, and left.
As was leaving, I ran into an elderly beggar. But instead of asking for his needs, likely noticing that I was a Chabad hasid, he began to recount the following…
He said that his tzedakeh collecting days were not always this trying. Over a numbers of years, he would wait outside 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters of Chabad, on Sundays to collect tzedakeh. From 1986-1992, thousands of people converged on 770 to receive a dollar and a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In turn, as was the custom, these “dollar recipients” would then give another dollar in place of the original to tzedakeh. As the original dollar from the Rebbe was intended for tzedakeh, these “exchange dollars” allowed the recipients to keep the ones that were physically handed to them by the Rebbe. It was in order to collect these “exchanged” dollars that this man stood outside 770 every Sunday.
Feeling deeply at ease from his story, I thanked the man for sharing his experience, handed him a $5 bill, and headed to the subway back home.
I later realized why his story brought me such great relief, and why his story so deeply calmed me. Prior to meeting this man I felt that I was missing something. I felt bereft because I hadn’t met the Rebbe face-to-face, and this troubled me greatly. I began to question my place within Chabad and doubted whether my contributions–creative or otherwise–were really worthwhile.
I don’t know if this man ever waited in line to receive an “original” dollar, or if he even saw the Rebbe (since he was standing outside 770 and the Rebbe was inside), but what I do know is that it provided him food to eat and perhaps even new clothing to wear. So too I began to acknowledge that even though I may be standing on the outside, this does not mean that my contributions are worthless. Indeed, as confirmation to this importance of this night, I later found out that on that very same night, my future wife had been writing a long soul-searching letter listing all the things she was looking for in a match.
Creativity from the Outside
Creativity is a tricky thing. Take music lyrics for instance. How could a Jewish musician today “compete” against the lyrics of King David, the “sweet singer of Israel”? And so there are many Jewish musicians who only or mostly compose songs from verses in the Five Books of Moses, King David’s Psalms, etc… I compare this mindset to the person who wants to receive the dollar directly from the Rebbe’s hand… to receive their lyrics directly from the source. This is a good and just motivation, but it doesn’t work for everyone.
What I realized that day in the drenching rain was that there was another path. Instead of thinking that creativity only existed from direct means (e.g., having the dollar directly handed to you) I realized for the first time the value of standing outside (e.g., of receiving an exchanged dollar bill). For this charity collector, receiving those exchanged dollars still meant having a hot meal to eat that day. And for me, it meant feeling that my round-about and “exchanged” creative contributions were still worthwhile. I realized that there was a place for Jewish lyricists beyond King David and authors beyond Moses.
Singing in Circles
The reason I decided to write about creativity now is the reason I set out for Manhattan that day. Hasidism teaches that when dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah, since we dance with it covered, the dancing reminds us of the essential relationship that all Jews have with the Torah. Just as the scholar down to the simple Jew has an equal opportunity to dance with and celebrate the Torah, in preparation for Simchat Torah this year, I thought it a good opportunity to discuss the ubiquitous potential of creativity.
When thinking about how to write this article, the name of musician Levi Robin kept coming to mind. Like myself, he became observant through Chabad, and the Chabad Hasidic inspiration is clearly evident in his music. For instance, his song “Mighty Waters” is probably inspired to some extent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Mayim Rabim (Mighty Waters) discourse. Also “Peasants in the Field” is likely inspired by the well-known parable brought by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first leader of Chabad, in Likkutei Torah–a connection that Levi alluded to directly on his Facebook page.
Now we could ask the question: Instead of listening to Levi Robin’s song “Peasants in the Field,” a song that ostensibly was inspired by Likkutei Torah, wouldn’t it be better to close the computer (or iTunes), pick up the original and learn? For many, especially those who consider themselves followers of Chabad, this is the answer of choice.
But while Levi is not presuming to write lyrics on the level of Hasidic discourses from Rabbi Schneur Zalman or the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he is introducing these discourses (albeit in a roundabout away) to audiences who may not have otherwise known about them. And when he posts on his Facebook page or explains during breaks between songs at a concert some of the background thoughts behind these lyrics, how could this not bring joy to the original conveyors of these teachings?
It is praiseworthy to learn and even memorize the original teachings. But it is also praiseworthy to become creatively inspired by the original, so much so that you seek to express that inspiration in the form of a song, article, painting, etc…
Dancing in Circles
One Simchat Torah night, a few years after the story above, I was dancing hafakot (lit. circles) while keeping in mind the Kabbalah teaching that circular dancing corresponds to the “lights of chaos.” Afterward a teenage boy sat down next to me to ask what I had been thinking about while dancing. I didn’t answer because I didn’t want to seem so holy… to tell him that I had been pondering such lofty thoughts from Kabbalah. But I have come to realize that while I still don’t know all that much about the lights of chaos, what I had been thinking about was not the term itself so much as the creative expression of the term. I had been imagining the people dancing around the hakafot circle as a circle of bright light ascending on High with the dancing Torahs as our anchor keeping us firmly in this world. And similar to Levi’s lyrics, although the original teachings are of a much higher level, what first excites many is the round-about creative expression of these lofty teachings.
I don’t think this teenage boy came to me because he wanted to hear how the Arizal explains the lights of chaos. And I don’t think Levi fills a concert hall because people came to hear a teaching from Likkutei Torah. But nevertheless, this is the potential. To introduce thousands to some holy concept that you yourself were inspired by.
My favorite song from Levi’s EP last year is not Mighty Waters or Peasants in the Field, but a song called Headlights. In it he alludes to what are likely elements of his own personal journey… his own “circle of light” experience.
To quote from the first part:
Life is a double,
The mirror stares at him
With eyes that tell him,
A new life
Search and you’ll come to find.
Just a heart and a hand to write
His soul’s thirst for water
In an endless desert sky.
The sun will rise,
Gotta make it through the night,
The sun will rise
The reason I was drawn in particular to this song is the reason I decided to write down this article (Just a heart and a hand to write Down…). While there are acts of creative expression that come from being inspired by holy teachings, there are others that result from overcoming trials and tests.
It is taught in Hasidism that the soul-aspect of yechidah–the highest of five soul levels–emerges through the service of being tested. Thus at this level it is actually truer to say that the person who writes down his test in the form of a story or the lyrics of a song is actually writing from the inside. Since he is writing from his or her yechidah, there is no more inner place than this.
This then is the message for readers of articles such as these or attendees to concerts such as Levi’s. That through overcoming challenges and obstacles in your own lives, through persevering in the service of God, you reach the highest of the high… or as another Hasidic musician would often say to the holy brothers and holy sisters in the audience, “the sweetest of the sweet…”