How Reb Shlomo Carlebach Got Me High on Torah (Even Though I Never Met Him)

For me growing up Jewish was bagels and lox, the Holocaust, and my Bar Mitvzah. I thought Judaism was an anachronistic, tribal psychology rule through fear religion. In 1998, I came to the Old City and discovered that Judaism was a lot more than that and more relevant to my life than I expected. That Judaism was actually a transformative spiritual path. One teacher whom I never met, but whose students, music and stories changed my life, was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.  When I first heard Reb Shlomo singing, what I heard was a call. It was a call one man was putting out to the whole world.  A call to do Teshuva, to come home, to return to your true self. I had never heard a call before. I had heard commercials, I had heard orders, I had heard demands,  but this was something different. this was like something out of the ancient myths and legends, this was a call. And it was a call to do goodness, to restore the world to the way it should be. As a jaded 21 year old growing up in an age of cynicism, where people did nothing about genocide and starvation, I had almost come to view goodness as a myth as well. Something inside of me responded to this call, this call to lift myself up, to do good, and I wanted to live up to it.

It was a call to the whole human race, it was a world sized call, and that was the another thing that I learned about Reb Shlomo. He wanted to save the world, mamash, so he was literally putting out a call to everyone in the world , personally, he wanted them to come home. That was why if he planned your wedding everyone was invited, and that was why if he was making Shabbos, he invited everyone for Shabbos, because the whole world needed Shabbos, and if the whole world needs Shabbos then everyone is invited for Shabbos. The issue of there not being enough chairs or not being enough food was a non-issue, because for Reb Shlomo this was about Shabbos not about chairs and food, it was about saving the world through Shabbos, and it was happening now. That was the other thing, that he was doing it now, he wasn’t waiting until all the ducks were lined up in just the right way.  Reb Shlomo was saving the world now, whether or not there were enough chairs, because the world was not  in its perfect state, the whole world needed to do teshuva, and the whole world needed tikkun olam, and it needed to happen now, and so if there were people with issues and problems coming to Shabbos that was OK too, because they needed healing and they needed healing now, and anyway there wasn’t one person who didn’t need healing, because the geulah was happening now, the redemption was happening now, because change was happening now.

It says in Tehillim that when the redemption will come rivers will run backwards and mountains will skip like lambs, but rivers never run backwards and mountians never skip like lambs.  There’s a way things work and it doesn’t change, but Reb Shlomo was bringing the change, and things that never happened were happening! People who hated each other for years were loving each other, people who had given up on life and were dead inside were getting resurrected, there were mamash miracles.

This idea of change was also reflected in the davening. Because what I learned from Reb Shlomo’s students like Reb David Hertzberg (davening next to Reb David was like davening next to an electric power plant, in a thunderstorm, while angels were singing) was that you davened will all your heart, all your soul, and all your resources, you maxed out when you were davening. Davening was not a symbolic gesture, davening was not a perfunctory ritual, davening was  transformative, davening itself changed you, and changed the world, and you had to give your whole being to it, why? Because you were praying to God, you were talking to God, you were singing to God and to be perfunctory when your standing in front of the King of Kings is not the way to go.  It was an ecstatic davening, it was a davening where all fear of being judged by others, of not being cool enough, of not being ‘in’ enough was gone. It was a davening where my heart could be open and free and I could sing at level 10 and everyone else was singing that way with me and we could all be that big and that happy. Life could be lived that big, and everyone felt like they had all the room in the world, there was so much love, we were all singing the same niggun and no one felt they had to sing it the same as anyone else, we were all singing our unique heart song, we were all singing the same niggun differently, and we were all One.

This raised my standards really high level for davneing, because my standard became – take a young teenager who has given up on living and is in a rush to get to his funeral because there is no God, and no one loves and no one cares, and put them in a room full of people davening and suddenly he knows with all his being that God loves him and God cares about him and that life is worth living. Davening was not a ritual experience, it was an ecstatic revelatory religious experience. It was another example of change happening now, and people used to crowd around the windows of Beit Simcha in Nachlaot to listen to us pray. Open celebration is the same thing as open revolution. When people are scared and fearful they are easily controlled, (Rebbe Nachman says thatls how the yetzer hara gets you) but when people are happy and joyful and remember who they arel and are in touch with their strengthl and are celebrating being alive in the name of the Lord, they are free. They are truly free, that’s why open celebration is the same thing as open revolution. I also learned that from Reb Shlomos students. 

And I also learned about refuge, because when I met the students of Reb Shlomo I learned that I was welcome. That I was in exile and I didn’t even know that I was in exile (and feeling unwelcome) until I they welcomed me. Being welcomed by the chevre of Reb Shlomo gave me back my dignity, because I came from a world where if you were not famous you were anonymous, and what you did didn’t count , and when I came into Jerusalem I was welcomed as a human being,  as a Jew, and the love in that welcoming restored to me my dignity, and restored to me my sense that I have something to give, that in fact the world needed what I had to give, and it was  of the utmost importance that I was here. And so Jerusalem became a place for an anonymous unimprotant Yid like me to remember that he was a child of the King. Jerusalem became a city of refuge for a weak, broken hearted human being.  To learn that it was out of his weakness and crippling wounds that the greatest light could come. And that welcome taught me how to welcome other people, so when I met others Jews in the street who didn’t know they were in exile, and didn’t know they could come into a world of geulah, a world of redemption, I was able to point them to the Shlomo chevre and the Yidden out there shining their light, and they remembered who they were.

Reb Shlomo’s students also taught me about selfless Torah, about Torah for the sake of giving not for the sake of getting. People were selflessly giving to me food, and teachings, and places to stay, and they mamash wanted nothing back, they didn’t want me to bring a dish, they didn’t want me to chip in, they just wanted to give to me and I had never been loved completely selflessly before, and that selflessness inspired me to want to give back as much as I could, and to get to know these people. I remember my first Shabbos in Nachlaot was in a tiny room the size of half a trailer and it was packed to the walls, with people who were constantly singing, and telling stories, and making L’Chaims and the door was open and people were coming and going and telling more stories and singing more songs and making more L’Chaims and I had never experienced anything like this in my life and it was all being done selflessly and joyfully. We even danced around the table in that tiny room. 

There’s a teaching that all forms of communication are either a cry for help or an expression of Love. The students of Reb Shlomo taught be how to be a man who could pick up a child who was crying and love them, sing to them, tell them a story, lift them up, and inspire them to be the best person they could be. Reb Shlomo was gone before I even met him but I met his students, and they watched him ties his shoes, and I watched his students tie their shoes, and now its up to us to remember the Love, the selfess Torah, the niggunim and stories. To keep the light going, and to reveal it in a new way.  May Hashem bless us to fulfill Reb Shlomos call “Lets go higher”.


Originally published in Kol Chevre

Painting: Sheva Chaya Gallery 

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