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A few days after arriving in Yeshiva Tiferes Bochurim in Morristown, New Jersey, I got into bed, and before I turned on my left side, the position required by halacha for going to sleep, I lay on my back and let my arms fall limp to my side. I collected my thoughts about what I was doing here, and what this commitment meant to myself and my body. Never again would I masturbate before going to sleep, I realized, and holding this thought I felt the weight of my open hands resting on the bed. I turned on my left side, and feeling my itchy, sprouting beard scratching the pillow case, thought about not ever shaving again. Not doing. Sure, there was much to do as a frum Yid, but the acts of not doing were more subtle: not doing was a continuous spiritual expression, more encompassing than any specific action I could take. From my hands at my side and my face on the pillow, I sensed a tangible reality of not doing, and let this feeling permeate throughout my body. Reflecting back on the road that had led me to yeshiva, and out of my usual mixed emotions of thanksgiving and selfpity, I shed a tear, and fell asleep.
Twenty-seven years old, I came to the Lubavitch yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey, in the spring of 1989. Like all of the young Jewish men at yeshiva, I had come to the Yeshiva to become a baal-tshuvah. But, unlike some of the other bochurim, I didn't do tshuvah because I was a capable yuppie feeling a spiritual emptiness. My trajectory of exquisite pain was made of halfway houses, drug abuse programs, sexual degradation, dropping out of college and employment failures, the depression of a nerdy, obese adolescence and a childhood born of a sociopath father and pathetic mother. I came to Yeshiva with faith I would find redemption, and a life, in the safety and structure of Orthodox service to God. It was with these thoughts that I fell asleep that first night.
Three or four weeks later, I experienced my first nocturnal emission, or keri in the Hebrew of Jewish law.
The night it happened, I had prepared for bed in the way I'd learned since coming to yeshiva. Modesty before God, at least as it was practiced in Tiferes, forbade you from exposing any normally-covered skin even in the dorm room, so I changed into my pajamas in a bathroom stall. "You have clothes to be awake in, and clothes to sleep in," Rabbi Lipkin once said, stressing the importance of modesty at all times, as in our prior lives, many of us slept in our underwear or less. I took my qvart in my schissel, filled it with water, set it down by the wall outside my room, and began saying krias sh'ma al hamita. Unless you were the first in the room to go to sleep, you'd say the prayers in the hall. Robbing another Jew of his sleep was considered by halacha to be a particularly severe form of theft, one which never could be repaid. Of this I was often directly warned by one of my roommates, Moshe, a light sleeper and usually the first in bed. Despite the inconvenience, I liked these sort of precepts, being both logical and creative, and would often let my mind wander,joyfully inventing all sorts of clever and pious guidelines for myself. I said the prayers before retiring: Krias Sh'ma, the fundamental declaration of Jewish faith, Vidui and Kapital Tehilim 50, the cleansing of any aveirohs from the previous day. I tried to sort out the strong draw which had brought me here, driven by tearful scenes from my life, with the mundane and rote thrice daily confession of sins.
Late that night, I found myself in a barely lucid dream state, the sort of dream which starts as just a scene in the back of the mind, but which draws you in as the action progresses. I was in some place with a stale, humid smell. It was a mikva, not a modern mikva, but something from the old country, like a large wooden wine barrel with rusty iron bands holding it watertight. Vapor rises from the hot water. There's a naked man laid out in the water, and as the image becomes clear, the mikva becomes a modern, tiled mikva in a bath house, and the old man's head is now resting on the tiled floor at the edge of the mikva. What I can see above the water is a frail, withered body, with disheveled hair and beard, its face twisted in stroke-paralyzed pain. It's the Rebbe, and I'm shocked by the contrast between this dream vision and the ever-present photos of the Rebbe's regal youth shining through his gracefully-aged ninety yearold face, and framed by his full, handsome, sage beard. In the dream, there's hardly any of his beard left, and it's not a beard, just yellowed tangles and thin white strands. Confused, I suffer the horror of his bald, uncovered head flung back on the tile floor as a void within me where I should feel his honor.
I feel frightened, like a little boy, unable to understand this visage of the Rebbe, laid wasted in the mikva. Beads of sweat start to form on my forehead from the heat of the bath house, which then becomes a fever burn in my body. I'm on my back and something quickly wraps around my suddenly erect penis, freezing my muscles and pinning me to the bed. The hot humid air above the mikva and the Rebbe intensifies, with a blazing that is indistinguishable from the heat building in my groin. Whatever it is, this thing that's frozen my body, and terrified me with this vision of the Rebbe, focuses itself, and becomes a tight grip wrapping around my strained erection, and the heat, now deep inside me, begins rising sharp and fast through my body, drawn up spasmodically by this demonhold on me. Within the dream, my ego, barely aware, starts to surface, but I can do is look on, no control, as the searing mikva water surged up from within me again and again, and out through my urethra. Never has it been like this: like saltyacid, redhot, ejecting from my body, each spasm accompanied by a clapper striking loud in my skull, which itself feels as it if is being drained empty by the ejaculating semen.
As I arose out of the thickness of the dream, and realized what was happening, I started to cry from an immediate visceral knowledge of the impurity of wasting seed: shichvas zerah l'vatalah. My underwear and pajamas are soaked through, and I'm shocked -- didn't I give myself over to Torah, to mitzvos, and to the Rebbe as the living Torah? How did I merit this dark vision? I had watched in person from the raised bimah in 770 Eastern Parkway, just a few weeks before, as the Rebbe had read the haftorah. Then, he filled the room with a Godly light; it seemed everything was moving to His will, connected, mind, body, soul purified, circumcised, cleansed -- and now this? The degradation, from the heights of weeks of concentrated effort to do His will in all I do, to this depth, the clammy wetness of my underwear and pajamas sticking to my skin, filled me with shame. All the filthy places I'd been to and all the filthy things I'd done in my life, never bothered me like this fuzzy viscous impurity from brain to groin. In the past few weeks I had developed a strong physical transference, feeling the tumaah on my hands before washing neggel vasser. Now my whole body felt that way: impure, unclean. I felt what I had recently learned in Tanya, Chapter 7, "the enormity and abundance of the uncleanliness and of the kelipot which he begets and multiplies to an exceedingly great extent through wasteful emission of semen, even more than through forbidden coitions."
The physical relief, the afterglow fatigue of the pubococcygeus muscle, which would last well into the morning, and the release of tension that had backed up for weeks -- all of these now felt guilty. Spiritually, I didn't know where to turn. Everything was upside down. Was I fooling myself? Was my past sincerity just an act? Was it my own imagined holiness, really just selfish fantasies, which made my body do this to me?
I couldn't understand how this could happen. Flying high on the strength and novelty of religious experience and a daily life devoted to Torah and Mitzvos, I hadn't thought about sex, or had any sexual feelings, since coming to the yeshiva. The total isolation in Morristown, and the strict separation of baalei tshuva men and women as Shabbos guests in Crown Heights, limited any stimulation which might tempt me to fantasize. Even before coming to the yeshiva, with the growing influence of religious feeling and my reading of the Kitzur Shulchan Oruch, I had begun to avoid looking at women at twelvestep meetings. Looking back, I guess it was easy for me to be ascetically spiritual, as I had plenty of hangups relating to women already. So how could this have happened to me?
And above all -- why the Rebbe? Is this what happens to the Rebbe, spiritually, from this sin, or any sin? A bochur once asked Rabbi Lipkin why the Rebbe often coughed while speaking, and Rabbi Lipkin answered "Those are your aveirohs." We are all connected: the Tanya, chapter 2, says that "in every generation there are the leaders of the Jews, whose souls are in the category of "head" and "brain" in comparison with those of the masses and the ignorant... The root of every nefesh, ruach and neshamah, all derive from the Supreme Mind. The manner of this descent is analogous to that of a son who is derived from his father's brain, in that [even] the nails of his feet come into existence from the very same drop of semen, by being in the mother's womb for nine months, descending degree by degree, changing continually, until even the nails are formed from it. As is written in the Gemara, Niddah, 31a, "From the white of the father's drop of semen are formed the veins, the bones and the nails." The Rebbe was the highest soul, Supernal Wisdom, the seminal drop from which everything descends and receives its lifeforce, including lowly souls like myself.
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