Here is a special piece I wrote on the Haggadah!!

Four Seder Meditations
by David Sacks

The Dzjikover Rebbe brings that the full gematria of matzah is 190 (when you add up each letter of each word. (mem, is spelled mem, mem so that is 90, tzadi, is tzdi, daled, yud, 104, hay is hay, aleph 6 = 190).  He points out that we ate the matzah Seder night while we were still in Egypt. We were supposed to be there 400 years, but we left after 210 years.  Amazingly, 210 plus matzah (190) is 400.  I think to add on this, or maybe the Rebbe meant it all along, a kavanah, holy thought for us to think about while eating the matzah is that if there is anything that still needs fixing, any personal work in our souls that is still unfinished, eating the matzah should make us yotzei, whole, so that there is no more pain, or obstacles, only freedom and Divine connection with nothing blocking the way.  

Who Teaches Whom?

One the most famous questions asked on seder night is, “Why isn’t Moses’ name mentioned in the haggadah? He’s the one who took us out of Egypt! Surely, if anyone is featured, it should be him!”

The truth is, Moses’ name is mentioned, but only once, and it’s easy to miss unless you are paying close attention.

The question is, why?

My rebbe, Shlomo Carlebach, explained that there are two kinds of teachers:

The first kind is exemplified by Moses.

The second by our parents.

Yes, Moses is the star of the historical event that we commemorate. But the seder is about our other holy teachers, our parents, who, on this night, are the ones who pass down our holy tradition to us, instilling us with emunah — belief — in the deepest, deepest way.

Yachatz: The Journey of Creation

One of the deepest moments of the seder is yachatz. That’s when we take the middle of the three pieces of matzah on the seder plate and break it in two. The larger piece is hidden away and becomes the afikomen, which symbolizes the korbon Pesach, the Passover offering. At the end of the seder, our children find it and bring it back to us for a reward.

This is so deep! With these actions, amazingly, we are acting out the entire history of the world, from before creation until the final redemption.

Let’s try to understand how this works.

Before HaShem created the universe, all that existed was Him alone in His Oneness.

After HaShem created the world, there is still only HaShem, but now, after creation, there began the illusion of duality: Heaven and Earth, good and evil, body and soul, male and female, the material and the spiritual, the written Torah and the oral Torah, and perhaps most important, free choice — the ability to choose between one thing or another.

Fascinatingly, we see this dynamic at work in the very first letter of the Torah — the letter bet — which in gematria corresponds to the number 2.

This of course makes perfect sense, as we know that the Torah is the blueprint of creation. And thus, the first letter of the Torah announces and describes for us the world that has been created.

Now, back to yachatz.

When we do yachatz at the seder, we begin with an unbroken matzah, which stands for the Oneness of HaShem before the world was created. Then we break it in two, which stands for the duality that now exists — or, put another way, the illusion that there is any power other than God.

But why do we hide the larger piece?

Because HaShem is infinite. The world, on the other hand, is finite. We hide the larger piece because the larger piece of reality is hidden from us.

But this will not always be the case. The world is destined to bask in the revealed Oneness of HaShem, and this will happen when Mashiach comes.

The Koshnitzer Rebbe explains when our children bring the larger piece of matzah, the afikomen, back to us, we have them to thank for restoring our sense of wholeness and destiny.

Thus, the seder night is not just about parents giving to their children, it’s also about children giving back to their parents.

As to the custom of rewarding the children for finding the afikomen, on the deepest level, this act symbolizes the reward all of us will receive for our mitzvot when Mashiach comes.

Loving the In-Between

During the seder, we drink four cups of wine. I want to share with you one of my favorite teachings about wine.

Carlebach once said that everybody loves you when you are a finished product. Everybody loves you when you are a grape or when you are wine.

But do you know what a grape has to go through before it becomes wine? How much it has to be crushed, and stepped on?

Then he asked a searing question. “Who loves you when you’re in-between — when you’re not a grape or wine? The people who do — those are your real friends.”

I’d like to add to this teaching. Right now, the world is in between. Mashiach isn’t here yet, and there is still evil. The people who love HaShem now — those are His real friends.

May I conclude on a personal note? On seder night, I go up to each of my children and whisper to them, telling them that just like HaShem promised He would take us out of Egypt, and He kept His promise and took us out, so, too, He promised us that He will bring Mashiach, and He’s going to keep that promise too, and redeem the world. Tonight, we are filled with so much love and confidence, we are celebrating it happening already.

Let it be soon, let it be soon, let it be right now.

1) What’s the best piece of life advice you have ever received? Who told it to you?
When I was eight years old, I started reading Chassidic stories. From them I learned that 1) There is a G-d, and He is Good 2) Hashem is intimately involved in every aspect of your life, and 3) Everything that happens is for the best, even if we can’t understand it in the moment. The more I experience, the more I see that these foundations are not only true, but essential keys to living a beautiful life.

2) When you’re going through a challenging period, let’s say a writing project of yours isn’t getting the attention you want, how do you keep yourself motivated?

One of the most valuable teachings that I ever learned is that the effort we put into something is our hands, but the results are in G-d’s hands. Appreciating our limitations actually empowers us to focus on where we can make a difference, and to let go of the rest.

3) How do you stay grounded when you are experiencing great success?
After experiencing so many highs and lows, the highs become more valuable because you know that they are fleeting, and the lows become more tolerable because you know that if you can just stay in the game, better times lay ahead.

4) What advice do you have for someone who is trying to reach a very selective position?
Be careful how you define yourself. If you think of yourself as a “writer” or a “lawyer” or a “businessman” then your self-esteem will be unduly defined by your success in that field. Don’t fall into that trap. Each of us are creations of G-d. Our job is to be the best, sweetest, more compassionate, hard working version of ourselves, and if we can pull that off, no matter what our circumstances, we are by definition a success.

5) What do you tell yourself to keep going when you are pushed to your limit?
That Shabbos is coming.

6) If you had only an elevator ride to say something meaningful to a young adult, what would you say?
Take your soul seriously. There is nothing deeper and more satisfying than Torah and if you invest in those things, you not only connect with eternity but you bring heaven down to earth.

Note: This was conducted by Jared Sichel for the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

It is said that science describes the process through which something comes into being, but Torah describes why that thing exists. Put another way, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says that science describes the outside of a phenomenon whereas Torah describes the inside. What then does the Torah say about Laughter?

The Talmud (Shabbos 30b) records that the great Sage, Rabbah, always began his lectures with a humorous statement. This uplifted the students. According to the Baal Shem Tov, humor is that thing that ushers a person’s mind from a place of constricted consciousness to a place of expanded consciousness. A person in a place of expanded consciousness sees the totality of creation before him. He sees G-d’s presence and goodness acting upon everything. And he realizes that anything and everything that happens is an expression of Hashem’s love for us whether we can understand it in the moment or not. Constricted consciousness is, of course, the opposite.-the understandable impulse to take things too literally, believing that they are not a part of something greater. And so the greatness of humor is in its awesome ability to lift one out of depression into a place where the unseen – G-d’s constant love and goodness-becomes palpable and real.

Humor and Laughter, while great in themselves, are actually subsets of a larger topic – Joy! One of the surprising things I learned when I started studying Torah was the central focus our religion puts on happiness. As Rebbe Nachman once put it, people are sad because nothing is going right for them – but what they don’t realize is nothing is going right for them because they’re sad! On the verse, “For you shall go out with joy” (Isaiah 55:12), the Kotzker Rebbe explains, “the beauty of joy is that it has the power to extricate man from all troubles.” Joy means being in touch with the bigger picture, or as we said earlier, being in a state of expanded consciousness. The Hassidic Revolution that took place in Jewish thought properly restored Joy to the forefront of Jewish values. This is actually very important to understand. So many of us think that Torah is essentially an intellectual discipline, but there is a vital emotional component as well.

From a comedy perspective, the surest way to get a laugh is by juxtaposing the expected with the unexpected. Thus, when we’re convinced that the world is one way and the opposite happens – something that puts us in touch with how great and marvelous the world really is — the result is laughter! If humor is the vehicle that transports us from a place of constricted consciousness to a place of expanded consciousness, then laughter is our reaction to that dizzying process.

From a comedy perspective, the surest way to get a laugh is by juxtaposing the expected with the unexpected. Thus, when we’re convinced that the world is one way and the opposite happens – something that puts us in touch with how great and marvelous the world really is — the result is laughter.

With this in mind, one of the perplexing things in the Torah is the fact that our holy father Yitzhak, who represents the spiritual attribute of gevurah or strength, is Hebrew for the word “laughter” you might ask what does gevurah/strength has to do with laughter since they seem like total opposites. The reconciliation of these polar opposites is very deep. Sarah was a motherless woman of ninety. What is the last thing such a woman would expect to have? A baby! And what is it that our holy mother Sarah has? A baby! Laughter itself! Thus, Yitzhak becomes the embodiment of the unexpected. That’s the explanation from the comedy standpoint. On a deeper level, Yitzhak comes to represent the ultimate strength it takes to not let go of your dreams. As such, he becomes the spiritual repository of Avraham and Sarah’s most intractable desires. And this is gevurah or strength itself.

Psalm 126 says that in the Messianic era, “our mouths will be filled with laughter.” Why? Because laughter in its highest and holiest expression is our reaction to the realization that the world is so much bigger, deeper and more beautiful than we ever gave it credit for. When we realize this, our only response will be to laugh.

The laughter Yitzhak represents is the happy ending that awaits us all — the Messianic Era which Hashem in His goodness has promised us. The Kabbalists say that when this day comes, let it be soon, G-d will grant us the eyes to see that we never left the Garden of Eden at all.

Until then, the question is, how much do we believe in G-d’s goodness? If we know He’s good, then we can never give up hoping that a change for the better is just around the corner no matter how grim the circumstances. In Psalm 121 it says, “I raise my eyes to the mountains. From where (m’ayin) will my help come?” Fascinatingly, the Vilna Gaon understands the word m’ayin to mean “from nothing.” The line now reads, “I raise my eyes to the mountains – from nothing will my help come!” In other words, G-d’ssalvation can arrive from anywhere in an instant.

Once we understand this secret, we’re in on the ultimate joke. That it’s all good and it always was.

"What do we know, what do we know?"

What do we know, what do we know?

Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to say these words all the time, and whenever he did, whoever heard them was instantly put in touch with how deep and mysterious life really is. What do we know? Ask yourself a question: Do you know what’s going to happen when you walk down the street today? Do you know what’s really going to happen tomorrow? Do you know whom you’re going to marry? Or what your kids will be like when they’re adults? Do you know the day you are going to die? Can you possibly? So many questions and so much uncertainty about life’s biggest issues! The question is, why? Why did Hashem design this world in such a way that we would have to live in a state of “not knowing”?

I think Hashem created the world with all its unpredictability in order to sensitize us to the miraculousness of every moment. To cause us to understand that just because we receive something every day, it doesn’t make it any less a gift, or mean that it has to be there tomorrow. To see that He is the source of all blessing. In sum, in order to breed nearness to Him.

Not only is it permissible not to know, but grasping the unknowableness of life is the foundation of humility and inner peace. If this is the case, then the first question we must ask is, what’s so bad about knowing?

Once we “know” something, it feels old, even dead. The fact that we can look at the stars at night or the astonishing variety of fruits, animals and personalities and not be constantly amazed is death. In fact, the Torah teaches that the very thing that brought death into the world was when we ate from the Tree of Knowledge.

Time and again, Reb Shlomo spoke about how it’s possible to go through the Talmud five times and still not be close to G-d. At first this seems hard to understand. But his point was that there’s a big difference between “knowing” G-d and intimacy with the Divine. When I got married, Reb Shlomo blessed my wife and me that we should never stop surprising each other. Because when you really think you know all there is to know about someone, the life of the relationship is drained. It follows then that the worst thing would be to reach a state where we feel like we “know” G-d.

“Not knowing” is very different from ignorance. Torah study is one of the greatest mitzvahs possible. This raises a conundrum: How do we go about increasing in learning while still maintaining our freshness and sense of wonder? I once asked Reb Shlomo this question. He said a person has to treat each new thing learned as a piece in a larger puzzle that still has pieces missing. For most people, every new piece of information becomes another thing that they “know” – an attainment in and of itself. But with Reb Shlomo’s teaching, each new thing learned can be a gentle reminder of how little we know – a hand reaching out, beckoning us to a previously unexplored realm.

I remember a friend once asked me, at a critical moment in my Jewish growth, whether an ant can out-think a man. I said of course not. And he said, “Then how can man out-think G-d? We make the mistake of making G-d too small, of trying to make G-d fit into our limited consciousness instead of glorying in the fact that He is so beyond what we can ever know. Ultimately the mind is just one of our faculties. There’s a deeper, more intuitive place within us. One of the beautiful aspects of Torah is that there is an entire category of laws, called chukim, designed specifically to nurture this place within us. These are laws which cannot be understood through rational thought alone – like shatnez, the prohibition against mixing wool and linen together in garments. Through these commandments we’re able to cleave to G-d with the entirety of our selves. Just because we live in a state of not knowing, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t being led.

I was listening to NPR a few years ago and heard an unusual piece about the migratory patterns of the Monarch butterfly. Every year the butterfly colony starts in Mexico and travels up to Canada. The unusual thing is that the life span of a Monarch is very short, and researchers found that the ones who actually make it to Canada are four generations removed from the ones who began the journey.

This is amazing! It means that every butterfly heading toward Canada has never been to Canada before, doesn’t know how to get there, and yet gives birth to another generation which also doesn’t know where it’s going, and yet sure enough, the last generation makes it there every time!

In our own lives, and as a people, we too are heading toward a place, and deep down, every one of us has a homing device. The Midrash teaches that while we’re still in our mother’s womb, an angel comes and teaches us the entire Torah.

In fact, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says that every step a Jew takes is a step toward Israel. Even if it seems like he’s going in the opposite direction, even if he doesn’t know where he’s going, nonetheless, he’s heading toward Israel.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, gives the beautiful example of a mother and baby traveling together to distant places. No matter how far-flung their travels, from the baby’s point of view it never moves – it’s always right there in its mother’s arms. So it is with us. Though we live in a state where we don’t know what’s coming next, we do know this: That wherever we go, we’re always right there in Hashem’s arms, being loved and embraced.

David Sacks speaks frequently on topics of Jewish spirituality, and is a co-founder of the Happy Minyan of Los Angeles. He is also an Emmy Award-winning writer-producer, on shows like The Simpsonsand Third Rock from the Sun. His last article in OLAM was “The Place.”

In My Father's Footsteps

My father’s fateful decision opened up gates in Heaven for his future descendants.

It’s one of those one-in-a-zillion stories. The type my father likes to say would give a computer a nervous breakdown. It begins in 1946. My father had just finished his military service and was living in Los Angeles, an exotic choice for a Newark, New Jersey boy, and was just beginning a stint at UCLA.

It was summer time, the new term was about to begin, and my father was looking for a place to stay. He went to the fraternity closest to campus, gave them a deposit and began to unpack.

A short while later there was a knock at the door. It was one of the senior members of the fraternity. He quickly assessed the situation, and began hinting that my father “might be more comfortable elsewhere.”

This seemed strange. My father just landed a spot as close as you could get to the campus — what could be “more comfortable” than that? My father assured him that he was happy there, but the man persisted, saying that it might be nicer to be around people “more like yourself.” By way of example, he mentioned the name of the Jewish fraternity nearby.

Naively, my father explained that having just served in the United States Army, he had been exposed to all kinds of people, and enjoyed — even thrived — on diversity.

The man repeated that my father would feel more comfortable elsewhere, but this time it wasn’t a suggestion. They were his parting words. He gave my father back his deposit and left the room.

Suddenly, my father understood. No Jews Allowed.

My father vividly recalls how as he walked down the stairs, the ping-pong game in the rec room abruptly stopped, and everyone became uncomfortably silent. It stayed that way until he left the building.

But the real story begins with what happened next.

There were any number of places my father could have gone. While anti-Semitism was still a potent force in American society, the flood gates of assimilation were open, and tens of thousands of Jews were rushing through leaving their Jewishness behind. It would have been a perfect moment for my father to do the same. After all, if this is what comes with being Jewish, then who needs it?

But my father made the exact opposite choice. He went to the Jewish frat house on 741 Gayley Avenue and took up residence there.

Cut to Yom Kippur, 40 years later. After a very unlikely series of events, I, too, ended up in Los Angeles. In a nutshell, while attending Harvard, I started writing for the Lampoon, and improbably decided on a career in comedy writing. Even more improbably, after graduating with no job prospects, and taking my old job back as an elevator operator in my parent’s building on 79th and Broadway, the phone rang. “Not Necessarily the News,” a show on HBO, called, offering me a three-week trial period on their writing staff. (That led to a second three-week trial period, which led to a four-week contract. My introduction to job security, Hollywood style.)

I didn’t grow up observant, but my parents’ instilled within me a strong sense of Jewish identity. As a child, I remember my mother saying “Shema” with me before I went to bed. As an eight-year-old, I remember reading Hasidic stories from “Talks and Tales,” the Lubavich children magazine an observant neighbor sent my older brother as a bar mitzvah present. As an 11-year-old I began attending Camp Ramah, the conservative sleepover camp, and at 14 I remember dancing with a Torah scroll at Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s shul on Simchat Torah, feeling absolutely whole, and knowing that I had connected with the essence of my life.

In the years that followed, I always wanted to do more Jewishly, but somehow I had given myself permission to stagnate.

Then came Yom Kippur.

Even though I wasn’t “religious,” I wanted to go to an Orthodox shul that I could walk to. The closest one at that time was the Chabad of Westwood. At the end of a long day of services, Rabbi Baruch Cunin concluded with a declaration that every Jewish male over 13 must put on teffilin every day except Shabbos, and that every Jewish woman must light Shabbos candles before sundown Friday nights. All I could think was — he’s right. I owned teffilin. I had put them on during summer camp, but that was basically it. Nonetheless, the

y were incredibly precious to me. Wherever I went, even if it was for only a weekend, I would take them with me. “Who knows?” I thought, “Maybe I’ll want to put them on, and if they’re not there, what will I do?”

After that Yom Kippur, I started putting on teffilin and never stopped.

That mitzvah transformed my life. Before long, I was keeping Shabbos, marrying a wonderful Jewish woman, and sending my children to yeshiva.

And now for the part that continues to amaze me. That fateful encounter at the Chabad House on Yom Kippur, happened at 741 Gayley Avenue, the exact location of the Jewish frat house my father reaffirmed his Jewish ties at 40 years earlier.

It is astounding how precisely God governs the world. Beyond the synchronicity though, I think there is an even deeper lesson. When we do something holy, not only do we elevate ourselves and our past, but we open up gates in Heaven for our future, and not just our own — but our children’s and children’s children until the end of time.

I heard from Rabbi Simcha Weinberg that when we experience moments of transcendence, we should use them to pray for our future descendants.

I don’t know if consciously or unconsciously, my father had me in mind when he reaffirmed his commitment to being Jewish, but I am living proof that he opened doors for me that I continue to walk through to this day.

Becoming You

On Rosh Hashana, we pledge not to remain a cheap imitation of our ‘old self.

There is a fascinating dialectic contained within Rosh Hashana. On one hand, it’s the beginning of the new year. And yet Rosh Hashana actually occurs in the seventh month, (Nissan, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, is the first month — see Exodus 12:2.) This means that Rosh Hashana actually falls out in the middle of the year!

There is a deep secret contained in this. People reach the middle of their lives and think that meaningful change is impossible. Therefore, the Almighty put Rosh Hashana in the middle of the year to teach us that it’s never too late to begin again.

In the most obvious sense, Rosh Hashana is all about making God our king, for whom we have awesome respect and commit to following His instructions.

But there’s an even more primary step. The Kotzker Rebbe once observed that some people come to him in search of assistance to reach God. But their efforts are for naught, for “[God’s] glory fills all the earth” (Isaiah 6:3). Rather, the Kotzker taught, for whom must people search? For themselves.

The Midrash (Kohelet Rabba 1:3) comments that “one who grows old is like an ape.” The Kotzker Rebbe explains that the nature of an ape is to imitate. “Just as it is the way of an ape to imitate humans, so too, a person, when he has become old, imitates himself, and does what was his manner previously.” In other words, most of us, at some point in life, either consciously or not, become satisfied with who we are and what we’ve become. As such, we cease to strive toward attaining greater spiritual heights. We are content to live out our remaining days as a mere imitation of ourselves!

From this we see that the Torah perspective on “growing old” is not a function of age, but rather on whether we remain committed to spiritual growth.

Therefore, the question we all must ask is: Have I become an imitation of myself? And if so, when did it happen and what factors are to blame? Is it malaise, a crisis in belief, anger at God, or simply laziness? Unless we find the root of the problem, how can we hope to uproot it?

But there’s another, perhaps bigger, question: Who do I want to be? As Hillel says, “If not for me, then who?” (Avot 1:14) In other words, if I recognize the need to go beyond the “me,” because I am no longer content with who I am now, then “who” exactly would I like to become?

Rosh Hashana is the most ideal time to contemplate this. Because on Rosh Hashana the DNA for the year is being formed, and God looks to us as partners in its creation.

Rabbi Akiva Tatz gives the following example: Imagine you’re an architect sitting in front of a blueprint. Think about how much easier it is to change the position of the windows before you construct the building than it is after the house has been built!

Rosh Hashana is the time when we make the blueprint for our new selves. The power to envision what we want to become is exponentially greater now, than it is once the year has already been built.

Using this as a framework, let’s go deeper. Every situation, or “scene” we find ourselves in life — whether as seemingly trivial as standing on line in the supermarket, or deciding whether or not to lose our temper — is a uniquely designed opportunity for us to grow spiritually, to become more “God-like.” On some level, we are like actors and God is the Ultimate Playwright.

Now imagine the author is about write the next act, but before he does so he gives you the opportunity to discuss who you’d like to be, and what role you’d like to play in the new production. This is what the prayers of Rosh Hashanah are all about. The Almighty is about to create the new year, but before He does, in the ultimate sign of love and respect, He looks to us for input.

Take the time to dream the greatest dream of yourself, and then chart the course to realizing it. Ask yourself: Am I constantly striving to be a better parent/spouse? Am I making an effort to learn Hebrew and observe Shabbos? Do I empathize with the plight of Jews around the world, and the devastating terror in Israel? Do I have a fixed time for Torah study every day?

Now structure a timetable for achieving your goals. For some reason, we never think in terms of deadlines when it comes to spirituality. But why not? As Hillel concludes, “If not now, when?” “Now” that I have envisioned the new me, “when” will I bring it into being?

Great days are coming. Let’s use them to make a big breakthrough, for ourselves and our world.

My Name is David Sacks and I am a sitcom writer.

Shortly after I first started keeping Shabbos, I got my first job as a staff writer on a sit-com. It was the ninety-ninth rated show out of ninety-nine in prime time. Not that this has anything to do with the story, I’ve just always thought that was cool.

There wasn’t much to do the first week, and it was August when the sun sets relatively late, so we finished work before there was any conflict. The second week was different. Friday rolled around and we were finishing just in time for me to be able to make it home for candle lighting. I lived close to the studio, so as long as we wrapped it up quickly, I’d make it home by the skin of my teeth.
It was one of those meetings that wanted desperately to end. However, each time it was about to, someone invariably raised another point. And then another. I was sitting in front of a large picture window watching the sun get lower and lower in the sky. It finally came to the point that if I didn’t leave right away I wasn’t going to make it.
I didn’t know what to say or do. Having had no previous experience keeping Shabbos in the work place, I hadn’t thought of raising it with my Executive Producers earlier. This much I knew, several minutes before sundown was not the time to launch into a discourse about my religious beliefs. In other words, I was stuck. So, I did the only thing I could think of. I got up, and without any ceremony, I left. They must have thought I was going to the bathroom. But I never came back. Running to the car, I remember thinking that for a day of rest, this was causing a lot of anxiety. I had to talk to my Executive Producers, explain my situation, and hope they’d be supportive.
After the weekend, I went in with my partner, and asked if I could leave a few hours early Friday night so that I could keep the Sabbath. They said, “No”. Then they asked if I still wanted to do this, because if I did, they were going to replace me. In other words, work on Shabbos, or you’re fired.
When I got home, I called my agent. He asked me what I wanted to do. I told him that I wasn’t going to work on Shabbos. He told me that if that was the case then I wasn’t going to work in television again.
This was an amazing moment. Hollywood moguls are famous for saying, “You’ll never work in this town again!” – but I thought that only happened in old movies. Now, here I was, and not only was someone actually saying it — they were saying it to me!
The next day I told my partner I wasn’t going to work. He understood, but he told me that he was going to try and stay on the show without me. I didn’t blame him. After all, he wasn’t even Jewish. Not only that, but people try for years to break into sitcom. This was a big break for him too, and he had every right to see what it might lead to.
In many respects this was the most critical moment of my life. I had been extraordinarily blessed. I had achieved my goal of going to Harvard College, writing for the Lampoon, and breaking intoHollywood. But despite all this, something was missing.
Relating to this, I heard a teaching that for years I thought came from a great nineteenth century Hassidic Master. Later I learned it was from a tattooed biker in recovery. Not only doesn’t that take anything away from the insight, I think it makes it even more relatable.
He said, “all of us are created with a G-d shaped hole inside of us”. We try to fill it with career achievements, drugs, relationships, money, but none of these things fill it except G-d, precisely because it’s a G-d shaped hole.
Modern society cynically views religion as a crutch, but nothing could be further from the truth. The quest for spirituality is an expression of a longing built into us by G-d Himself. For some us that inner voice becomes loudest during tragic times. For others, me included, it becomes clearest during times of plenty. It says, all these opportunities are great – but there has to be something more to life!
I no longer had confidence that blindly climbing the ladder of success was going to lead me to better and better places. I needed to know where “success” was taking me, and perhaps even more importantly, where it was stopping me from going. I realized then that if I couldn’t take my soul along on the journey, then no matter how far I got, it was ultimately a dead end.
The pressure was definitely building. I was about to lose my job, my partner, and I was told that I wouldn’t work in television again. But somehow, despite this I remained calm. Maybe I wouldn’t work in my chosen field, but in my heart, I knew that nothing bad was going to come from keeping Shabbos.
My agents marched in, and met with the studio head, and the Executive Producers. To my amazement, behind closed doors, all of the parties actually turned out to be respectful and supportive.
Now before I accept a job I always discuss Shabbos. Despite the stereotypes people have of the entertainment industry, I’ve been consistently touched by how positively both Jews and non-Jews alike respond.
Judaism teaches that when you’re in the middle of a hardship you’d give anything to have it go away. But if you get through it successfully, you wouldn’t exchange the experience for anything. G-d gave me a great gift. He could have made the entire process easy for me. But instead, He gave me the opportunity to take a stand for what I believe in. Perhaps for this reason, this remains for me the proudest moment of my life.
Since then, life has never been the same. Come sundown Friday, no matter what’s going on, no matter how busy I am, everything disappears and the only thing that remains is Shabbos. Holy Shabbos.

The Place

The Place

Anyone who’s lost a parent, or any loved one, goes through the inevitable process of wondering whether they’ve been abandoned by G-d.

Part of an answer comes in the words of consolation we say to someone in mourning. “May G-d console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word used for G-d here, HaMakom, literally means “The Place.” May “The Place” reach out to console us. There are many different names for God in Jewish prayer and Torah, each of them opening our eyes to a different aspect of His light and reality. But the name HaMakom, “The Place”- or perhaps better, “The Omnipresent One” – is rarely used. Why this special name at this most sensitive time?

Before we can answer, let’s look at another expression of the concept of place in Jewish mourning. Ordinarily, we’re supposed to have a set place where we pray, either in our home or in shul – ourmakom kavuah. According to Jewish law, during the 12 months of mourning a person must move this place about eight feet from the usual place of prayer. The simple explanation is that in our lives we’ve experienced a sense of dislocation and this is reflected in our choice of a place of prayer. Maybe it reflects dislocation in our relationship with G-d, as well.

But there’s an interesting twist in this halacha, which is that on Shabbos, we return to our regular place. This has to do with the special blessing of the day. The Ishbitzer Rebbe asks what the difference is between simcha (joy) and oneg (bliss). “Simcha,” he says, “is when G-d gives you something you didn’t have before, but oneg is when G-d shows you what you’ve had all along.” Shabbos is a time ofoneg, when G-d lifts us out of the work-a-day week and gives us a heavenly perspective. On Shabbos we can experience oneness between the physical and the material, and the seamless flow that connects them. Thus un-dislocated, we can return to our usual seat in the synagogue. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav ties together these various strands with regard to the parting of the soul. Says RebbeNachman: “Most people think that when someone dies, he goes from one room to another. But I say when someone dies, he goes from one side of the room to the other side of the same room.”

In other words, people may think of this world and the next as two discrete entities, two worlds that are next to each other but otherwise have nothing in common. But the reality is that the universe is one room, not two. And that same Divine energy that enlivens the upper spheres exists below here, albeit in a different external form. Imagine a never-ending road. This is life. At a certain point, we may shed our bodies, but the journey along that same road continues; in fact, we don’t even miss a step.

Thus, as much as we think that there’s a separation between our departed parent and us, or (worse) between G-d and us, it’s really not the case. So G-d consoles us by saying, “I am the Place, so wherever you go and whatever you feel, I am with you.” The mourner sees this continuum most clearly on Shabbos, but it is always there.

I once heard Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach comfort someone who had lost her mother. “Now you’re closer to your mother than ever,” he said. “Because it used to be when you wanted to be with her, you’d have to call her, or she’d call you. But now, the truth is that wherever you go, she’s right there with you.” And how close is that? According to our Sages, “closer than two hairs on a person’s head.” This world and the next are completely intertwined.

In those same words of consolation, the word used for “you” – “May God console you among the other mourners of Zion…”- is etchem the plural form. Why? According to the Baal Shem Tov, it’s because the departed soul needs to be comforted along with the mourner. But the departed are with G-d in the Garden of Eden! Why do they need comforting? Because they’re sad that we’re sad.Unbelievable.

Thus the Omnipresent One is with each of us in every realm, and we are all a hair’s breadth from one another, across time and in every place. The more we understand this, the more we’ll be comforted with all the mourners, living and dead.

And now we see how G-d consoles us with the name HaMakom. Contained in that name is the realization that wherever we go, and whatever we’re experiencing, He is with us. And this is the ultimate comfort for all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

David Sacks speaks frequently on topics of Jewish spirituality, and is an Emmy Award-winning writer/producer.

Why I Write for Farbrengen

Why I Write for Farbrengen

I write for Farbrengen because of the person who might read something inspiring and smile, or say hello to someone homeless, or start lighting candles before Shabbat, or put on Teffilin for the first time, or ask what is Teffilin? and then attend a class and realize that Jews actually do believe in Heaven and an afterlife, and reincarnation, and the fixing of the world and that every single recognition of G-d, especially a recognition that is joined by a Holy action like eating Matzah on Passover, or fasting on Yom Kippur, or dancing on Simchat Torah or on any day of the year with someone, or alone in a forest or alone in a crowded room, is a huge mitzvah, and that being happy is a huge mitzvah, and for the one who asks or hasn’t yet asked why was I born, and why was the world created, and for the one who refuses to accept that Jews have been living and dying for thousands of years for nothing, and for the one who knows or doesn’t yet know that the Torah is not a book, but is the blueprint of reality, and that all of time and space, and all the souls of the world both Jewish and non-Jewish are woven from its Holy letters, and for the one who knows or doesn’t yet know that if something can be broken it can also be fixed, and that G-d loves us to pieces, and that the whole reason He created the world was to give us a way to become even closer to Him, and for the one who knows or who doesn’t yet know that the world is still in the process of being created, and that if you see injustice or evil it’s because the world isn’t finished yet, and that the mitzvot are the ways in which we bring the world to perfection, and that a person is never rejected, and that the Holy ones of previous generations used to wake up every day and say, “Today is the day I’m going to get it right,” and for the one who knows or doesn’t yet know that it’s better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable, and for the one who knows or doesn’t yet know that G-d is creating and recreating the world every instant, and that science is still catching up with Torah, and that it doesn’t matter how G-d created us, but why G-d created us, and that it’s okay not to know everything and that even if we wanted to know everything we still couldn’t, and that we don’t want to worship a G-d we fully understand because that would make us just as smart as G-d which is kind of ridiculous and for the one who knows or who doesn’t yet know that there are 600, 000 root Jewish souls that correspond to the 600,000 letters in a Torah scroll and that if one is missing the entire scroll is unusable which means that if one of our brothers or sisters is missing that invalidates everything including ourselves, and that therefore we cannot rest until we’ve opened our eyes to who and where and what we are and that we can’t stop until we’ve cried out to G-d to let us be who He created us to be and do what He longs for us to do, and to never ever give up until we return to the Holy land and proclaim with all of our hearts, and minds, and souls and might that G-d is one.

Sometimes the wrong way gets you to the right destination.

Sometimes the wrong way gets you to the right destination.

This is the story about a silver plate. It was a trophy I won for finishing in first place at the Harvard National Invitational Speech Tournament when I was a junior in high school. But that wasn’t the most special thing about it. Strange as it sounds, that silver plate would come to encapsulate my Jewish spiritual journey. But that would take many more years to discover.

My earliest memories of being Jewish were of my mother tucking me into bed, and saying the Shema with me.

There’s no one here. Am I supposed to say, “Excuse me?”And then I remembered that God is here.

Another big one was when I was six. I learned that after you burp, you’re supposed to say, “Excuse me.” Later that night, I was sitting alone in our giant pink kitchen, and… I burped. I remember thinking, There’s no one here. Am I supposed to say, “Excuse me?”

And then I remembered that God is here. So I did.

When I was eight, a neighbor sent us a subscription to “Talks and Tales,” the Chabad Children’s Magazine. The issues were only a few pages long, printed in black and white on shiny pages, and each one contained a Chassidic Story.

The premise of each was there is a God, He loves us, and He is intimately involved in every aspect of our lives. I loved them. They changed my life and became the foundation of my Jewish education. (By the way, we are still getting to the silver plate!)

When I was 15, I wanted to start keeping Shabbos. Well, not exactly. What I really wanted to do was to go to shul Saturday mornings. The only problem was that I’d just started competing for my school’s Speech Team, and all of the tournaments were held on Shabbos.

I didn’t know what to do. I enjoyed competing and was beginning to do well. On the other hand, even though my family didn’t observe Shabbos, my soul was telling me that I should be in shul. And not just any shul — my shul.

It was small and warm and holy. On Simchat Torah my life changed there while dancing with the Torah. I was 14 and it was clear to me then that the Torah in my arms was the center of my life. Someone suggested I speak with the rabbi. His name was Reb Shlomo Carlebach. Reb Shlomo never pushed anyone into religious observance. He’d inspire people (thousands all over the world) and then left it up to them to take the next step in their Jewish journey.

He once said that the difference between a rabbi and a rebbe, is that a rabbi teaches you something you didn’t know before, but a rebbe connects you to the deepest part within yourself.

We spoke and afterwards, he told my parents that I had a gift for speaking and that I had a responsibility to develop that, too. In our innocence this was interpreted as a recommendation that I should go to the speech tournaments. When I shared this with Reb Shlomo years later, his eyes almost popped out of his head. In his extreme tactfulness and gentleness, he had been misinterpreted.

The truth is, I wasn’t ready at that point in my life to commit to that level of observance. Looking back, I think this turned out to be a blessing since it gave me the chance to continue to grow spiritually at my own pace.

And so I started competing in the Speech Tournaments. It was a painful choice. Time passed.

Inspiration if it’s not nourished fades. Our souls are subject to the forces of gravity too, and if we don’t nurture them our wings molt, and we can forget about the sensation of soaring.

I wanted to say thank you back to God. So I started keeping Shabbos.

After graduating college, I was so filled with a sense of thanks for all the blessings in my life — my parents, my friends, my health, my career — that I wanted to say thank you back to God. I thought the best way to do that would be to start keeping Shabbos.

I once thought that every Friday night God says, “Good Shabbos” to the world by sending us Shabbos. I wondered, how can I say “Good Shabbos” back? And then I thought — by keeping Shabbos! I was writing comedy for television at the time and that made it a little tricky, but thank God it all worked out.

After much searching, I met my wife, who also loves Shabbos, and then one day I came home and noticed something special. There is a custom to put your Shabbos candle sticks on a silver tray. My wife kept that custom. What I hadn’t realized was that she’d chosen the silver plate I won at the speech tournament to rest the candles on.

My head spun.

That plate was the very representation of not keeping Shabbos. And yet here it was, serving as the foundation for the Shabbos candles themselves!

How could that be?

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that wherever a Jew walks, he’s heading toward Israel. Even if he’s heading in the opposite direction, he’s still heading toward Israel. Furthermore, our Sages teach in the Talmud that if one returns to God out of love, all of their mistakes turn into mitzvahs.

For many years now I have been using to the best of my ability the skills I learned competing in speech tournaments held on Shabbos to teach about the beauty of Shabbos. I even have a weekly podcast called Spiritual Tools for an Outrageous World.

It’s amazing how God runs the world. Sometimes He blesses us to see that our destiny is being played out right in front of our very eyes, even if in the moment it’s impossible to see.

Ten years passed between wanting to keep Shabbos and actually keeping it. All those years I was looking at the world and what it held, all the while secretly comparing it with the joys and holiness of Shabbos. After being fortunate enough to see much of the world, I finally knew. Nothing is better than Shabbos.

Reb ShlomoSometimes being a complete ignoramus has its advantages. I grew up across the street from Reb Shlomo Carlebach zt’l shul in New York City, but I didn’t know who he was. When I first walked into his shul when I was fourteen years old, I didn’t see the concert performer most of the world knew, but rather a fiery orator, and master of both the revealed and hidden parts of the Torah. As I grew older and had the privilege of spending more time with Reb Shlomo, I got to experience something others have talked and written about. Namely, I got to carry his suitcases. They were large and literally filled with books. When he traveled, and he traveled around the world constantly, he wouldn’t go anywhere without bringing what amounted to a entire library of holy books with him. I once heard him say regarding the Torah, that “you have to need it to live”. He needed it to live. The thought of going to Israel, or Paris, or London, or Mexico, or Brazil, or Los Angeles — and not take the Ishbitzer Rebbe, or Rebbe Nachman, or Reb Leibele Eiger, or the Bais Yaakov, or all of the Rebbes with him wherever he went was unthinkable, or perhaps even more compellingly, impossible. “How can I not?” was a favorite expression of Reb Shlomo’s.

One of my saddest moments in life was a time when I really let my Rebbe down, and I caused him pain. I regret it a million times over. He asked me to bring him back a particular safer (holy book) from Israel. I’m pretty sure it was the Bais Yaakov, the son of the Mei HaShaloach. I was hurrying to catch a plane back to the states and I timed things poorly and I figured, okay, it’s not the end of the world, someone else will bring it. To this day, I am heartbroken at how upset it made him not to have it. He needed it to live.

Reb Shlomo would often ask if you ever saw a college professor finish a class on Shakespeare and then kiss the book? No. But look at how much love, how many kisses we give the Torah. I remember being in the shul on 79th street on Simchas Torah. Ideally, everyone is dancing with the Torah. But how many Torah scrolls did the shul have? So Reb Shlomo stood on a chair surrounded by the chevra. On a chair next to him were stacks of holy books. Each one of us would dance holding one. But it wasn’t so simple. You think you can just dance with the neshamas of the holiest Tzadikim just like that? No. First, you had to promise our Rebbe how many pages you’d learn in the book, only then did you have the merit to dance with it.

Reb Shlomo unlocked the depths of the Torah for us. He was the bridge, the holy messenger, that took the deepest, deepest, deepest teachings of the Rebbes that not only didn’t we know, but had no concept even existed, and somehow managed to communicate them in the clearest, most beautiful ways imaginable. To learn Torah with Reb Shlomo was Paradise itself. A friend once told me that he asked Reb Shlomo to tell him something that was just for him. Reb Shlomo told him “The world thinks that I want less from them, but the truth is that I really want more from them.” Reb Shlomo wanted the Torah and the depths of it’s teachings to be something that we swam in constantly. One Rosh Hashana he told the congregation, that from now on wherever we go, we should always make sure that we’re carrying a sefer — that we should never be anywhere without one. Anyone who wants to be a chasid of Reb Shlomo’s, or to try to understand his path, must understand the profound centrality of regular Torah study.

The world was given a gift that it is only beginning to realize it has. That is Reb Shlomo’s own commentaries and explanations of the deepest Torah mysteries. What you can learn in one line from many of his teachings, you cannot learn, and I mean this very literally, in years and years of constant study. Such is the profundity and originality of his Torah understanding. Yeshivas Simchas Shlomo is the headquarters for learning Reb Shlomo’s teachings in the world today, in the heart of the world, Yerushalayem Ir HaKodesh. Everyone is invited to come, learn, live, develop wings, and fly.

By David Sacks
Los Angeles, Ca
Elul 5, 5773