Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Book Review: The Blind Angel: New Old Chassidic Tales

I've got a lot of books in the hopper, and I feel terrible that I haven't been more speedy in reading and reviewing them, but for some reason, my Shabbat reading schedule has been replaced by toddler placating and napping. 
But this Shabbat, I managed to nap, dig into The Blind Angel: New Old Chassidic Tales, and even read a bit of Nightingale after putting Asher to bed. The Blind Angel is a great Shabbat read because it's a series of stories, which means you can easily put it down and pick it up without fear of losing the story line. 

The blurb:
"For twenty-five years, Rabbi Tovia Halberstam, a scion of leading Chassidic dynasties, told riveting Chassidic tales to an audience of thousands on the Yiddish radio in New York. These legends, as precious and rich as family heirlooms, were known to millions of Jews before the Holocaust. Preserved today in their original Yiddish by the Chassidic community, the tales capture a vibrant culture with animated characters, humor, wisdom, human struggle, and moral lessons. In The Blind Angel, Rabbi Halberstam's son, Joshua, renders these tales for a contemporary audience while maintaining the full charm, rhythm, and authenticity of the original tales."
Beyond the fact that I'm a sucker for Chassidic stories, Joshua Halberstam does an excellent job with his translations and providing notes at the back of the book that provide insight into why the story is unique, how it related to the larger Chassidic way of life, and more. Likewise, the introduction provides great insight to Rabbi Tovia Halmberstam and how he managed to become a scion of Chassidic storytelling. 

I had to read the book's namesake, "The Blind Angel," of course, and I found it to quite poignant. The gist of the story, which will hopefully prompt you to pick up a copy of the book yourself, is that when you perform a mitzvah, an angel is created. But that angel is directly affected by the intention of that mitzvah. In the classic tale, a wealthy man helps fund a poor man's daughter's wedding, but only with the agreement that the poor man give him his most prized possession -- a chanukiyah that was made out of the coins that he had collected from his rebbe over the years. As a result, the angel that the rich man created with his mitzvah was blind, because the act was not pure in intention. Thus, when the rich man died, his blind angel led him ... blindly ... unable to find the door to the heavens. The great rebbe who retells the story in this Chassidic tale rectifies the situation by returning the chanukiyah to its rightful place, allowing the rich man's blind angel to see and find the door. 

There's a lot more to the story (a sick woman as the prompt for the retelling), but the message is very powerful. Intention, in Judaism, is so incredibly important. You can do the nicest, most amazing things in the world, but if you're only doing it to serve your own interests, you're going to have a crowd of blind angels unable to lead you into shamayim when you die. The thought of that is horrifying, isn't it?

I read another story, called ... well, honestly I don't have the book in front of me, so I can't tell you, but it was about the role of dancing in Chassidic life. Now, my husband is a Chasid, through and through. I wouldn't categorize myself as such, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the belief, the thought, the joy that comes with Chassidic living. A way of life that is filled with a focus on joy and happiness, I find it a bit of a struggle to live every day with utter joy. My husband is pretty amazing at this, and, of course, it's something I strive for, but I don't get down with the dancing aspect of it all like Mr. T does. I'm not the singing/dancing type when it comes to my Judaism.

That being said, this story really hit home for me (especially in relation to yesterday's post). The story is about a Chasid who becomes incredibly successful and at the gatherings that his rebbe hosts he ceases to dance. Everyone dances around him, but his feet are glued to the floor. The rebbe calls to him and asks him what's up and he says that he has a lot on his mind, a lot to focus his energies on. Then the rebbe tells him a story: Once upon a time there was a great king, with many riches. He had to go away and needed someone to watch his riches of him, but he was hesitant because he didn't want anyone to steal from him. At the end of the guard duty, the individual would be rewarded handsomely, but he didn't want the individual to steal from him while working. So his advisor suggested a plan. They'd call upon all the men of the town to come and walk through a dark corridor filled with gold and silver coins. After all the men had gone through the corridor, the king asked them to get up and dance. Only one man was brave enough to do so. Why? The rest of the men feared the coins jingling in their pockets. 

The rebbe told the Chasid that life is like one long corridor filled with shiny appealing objects. But if you fill your pockets with it all, you forget to dance and experience the joy life has to offer. 

Both of these stories have so much value to offer, small messages that manifest themselves in huge, meaningful ways. That's one of the reasons I love Chassidic stories. You're not always sure where they're going, but once they get there, the lightbulb clicks on and you feel enlightened and uplifted. 

What do you think? Will you try and pick up this book for your own collection?