Some 30 years ago, Yitzhak Buxbaum recalls, “my spiritual master … Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach” placed his hands on his student’s head, giving Buxbaum semicha, ordination, or authorization, to be a maggid, a teller of sacred tales. Back in the day, the rabbi would only give a sermon in shul twice a year, usually regarding halacha or esoteric analysis, before Passover and after Rosh HaShanah, while the maggid, often wandering from town to town like a Johnny Appleseed, would inspire the folk people with his divrei aggada, non-halachic, inspirational talks.
A maggid doesn’t really need ordination, and with rabbis speaking all the time and on a folksier note, congregations don’t really need a maggid. Reb Shlomo, a folksy pre-war romantic, was trying to infuse the lost art with his life force. Said Reb Shlomo to Buxbaum, “Reb Yitzhak ben Meir… Be a maggid, a teller of tales, speak sacred words… live a life of the spirit…. Arise, shine for your light has come!”
Over the years, Reb Yitzhak, this maggid, wandering from town to town, has spoken his “sacred words” in shul, at Hillels, JCCs and retreat centers. He, himself, has since ordained 38 new maggids, including 22 women. In 1989, when Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi met with the Dalai Lama, Reb Zalman gave the Dalai Lama the gift of Reb Yitzhak’s book, “Jewish Spiritual Practices,” because, said Reb Zalman at the time, “it comes closer than any book I know to revealing the tantric practices in Judaism. This is transformational stuff … not just nice insights.”
Buxbaum’s other major work, “The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov,” published in 2006, is the pre-eminent book on the teachings and stories about the Baal Shem, the founder of chasidism. “An amazing work,” said Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.
But Reb Yitzhak, who recently reached the biblical landmark of 70 years, tells us, “I have Parkinson’s disease. It has effected me greatly in the last couple of years,” says the maggid, “to where I can’t keep up with the davening. I can’t move my lips adequately.” What becomes of a maggid if he can’t move his lips? “I asked myself, why did God take this away from me? Perhaps,” wonders the maggid, “I have accomplished the goal of what I’m supposed to do in this lifetime.” His goal was to be a tzaddik, a righteous man. “Of course, as a tzaddik I’m far from 100 percent,” he quickly adds. “Perhaps I can still be a small tzaddik.” Such is his prayer. “I’ve dedicated myself to God. I’ve done it. I could have been better but I’ve given my all.”
His lips may not move as he’d like, but “a couple of years ago I started to dance during davening. It’s very exciting to me, very gratifying. I use my arms more now, in terms of [my] energy. If you would see me dance, you wouldn’t believe it. With the Parkinson’s I sometimes dance like a wild man … and then stumble out.”
A New Yorker, he davens in several different Brooklyn or Manhattan shuls, and people “come over and tell me that it motivates them [in their davening] to watch me dance because they can see I was free.”
At first he was hesitant to let people know he had Parkinson’s. Then he realized, this may be yet another lesson that the maggid could teach: No one goes through life undefeated. Everyone has something to overcome. If we can see that each of us has something to overcome, we can inspire each other.
The maggid’s latest effort is “Real Davening,” a new edition (a downloadable PDF or 48-page booklet) of his ongoing teaching project, for beginners and experienced daveners alike, to better understand prayer as a spiritual practice and meditation.
“It was such an inspiration,” the maggid remembers, “to watch Shlomo daven. It was like there was a pillar of light going right up from his head into Heaven.”
The idea when davening is “to be real, not rote. ‘Real’ was a big word for Shlomo,” says Reb Yitzhak. “He’d say, ‘God only loves what’s real. You can be phony for people, they might even require it. But you can’t be phony with God. God knows your true self. If you’re real with God, God will become real for you.’”
The mystics, say Reb Yitzhak, taught “that one must have devekut, God-consciousness, 24/7, without one moment’s cessation. But they also say the opposite: If you’re an average person, like almost all of us are, to have God-consciousness for even one minute connects you to the Ultimate.”
Reb Shlomo, says the maggid, used to tell a story about a Kotzker chasid who one day didn’t get around to davening the morning Shachris until two in the afternoon, and then for only four minutes, at that. The chasid had spent the entire day building up his kavanah, his proper spiritual intention. “The Kotzker rebbe,” says the maggid, used to teach that the “time spent sharpening the axe is as important as the time spent chopping the tree.”
The maggid advises, “Go to shul with the idea that you’re going on a pilgrimage; to Jerusalem, let’s say. Leave behind anything in your heart that’s extraneous. You’re crossing a border; throw away [emotional] contraband.” He suggests pausing at the doorway to the shul, and whispering, ‘God, let me feel awe and love for You within the [shul]. Let me pray earnestly once inside and feel Your presence.’ Explicitly expressing your intention at the outset helps you fulfill it.”
Meditation is an intense focus; by focusing on God,” says the maggid, “you end up with a unique experience. As in all spiritual practices, continuity produces depth. When you undertake an unbroken, uninterrupted spiritual practice,” you elevate your consciousness until “you have a different perception of reality. Once you realize what davening is about, you don’t get annoyed, or disturbed. Once you understand that davening is about mediation, then you can know nothing and still get to the highest place.”
Sometimes people who don’t know Hebrew feel they can’t accomplish anything in shul, says the maggid. “But looking at the Hebrew letters alone can be a meditation, arousing kavanah. The Baal Shem Tov told about a man who could only recite the Aleph-Bet. The man would say, I don’t know Hebrew. I don’t know how to daven. All I know are the letters. You, [God], put the letters together to form my words and prayers.”
The maggid says, “Dancing is now the essence of my worship. Shuckling, the rhythmic swaying during davening, is a piece of it. Davening with Shlomo, first you’d be shuckling; then you’d stand up, swaying; soon you’re dancing! Shuckling is a Jewish thing; you’re supposed to shuckle, it puts you in the mood. You can’t be self-conscious and God-conscious at the same time. You can’t be embarrassed to shuckle, clap your hands, sing or dance. It’s important to have a little chutzpah and not care what anyone thinks.”
When you’re davening you’re not supposed to think about or look at other people anyway, he adds. “But once you’re spiritually locked in, then you can look at people, realizing that each one is created in the image of God. You’re full of love, at that point,” so you’re not looking at other people ego-to-ego but soul-to-soul.
“If you daven with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might,” promises the maggid, “you’ll get to a high place. You have to believe it. I know it’s true.”
For more information on “Real Davening” pre-publication orders, with different prices for downloads, books or synagogue orders, contact Reb Yitzhak Buxbaum at firstname.lastname@example.org. Earlier editions are available at Amazon.com.