In America, we often talk of “making an impression” or “leaving an impression,” as a necessary element in striving for success. But speaking of it, we mean something rather superficial; “looking good.” The truth is, we’re making a deeper impression than we might actually know.

“I heard from Rabbi Zussya of Annopol [1718-1800] that when he left his brother Elimelekh [of Lizhensk; 1717-1786] and travelled through Zholkva, ‘In the beis ha-medrash, I prayed in someone’s [accustomed] place and the prayer was pure and clear like the prayer of the Besht. I did not know the reason until they told me that this was the very place where the author of the book Tol’dot Yakov Yosef [Rabbi Yakov Yosef of Pollonoye; 1710-1784] used to stand’.” [1]

If we understand from this story only that Rabbi Yakov Yosef was himself unusually holy, we’re missing a far deeper meaning: Whoever we are, our very words and thoughts leave an impression wherever we are, that lingers long after we’ve left that place.

Have you ever walked into the room or home of a very unhappy person? You can feel the sadness before even a single word is spoken. The weight of the sadness hovers around you and lays on you like a burden. The saddest place I’ve ever been, for example, was Dealey Plaza in Dallas, TX — the place where JFK died. There had been such sadness there at the time of the original event itself. But for years afterwards, the thoughts people had about the place — thereby unintentionally directing them to or at the place — cumulatively created an aura of intense sadness. My visit there was in 1985 — 22 years after the events of Nov. 22, 1963. My own mood was otherwise “up,” and I didn’t feel anything as I approached the location by foot. But when I got there, it was undeniable and overwhelming. I didn’t feel anything like the same thing when I visited the Kennedy grave-site at Arlington National Cemetery, or when I stood in the room in the White House where Kennedy — and Lincoln before him — had lain in state after dying. It surprised me deeply, and demonstrated to me clearly the effect that thoughts themselves can have.

I’m sure you’ve felt the opposite, too. The crackling energy when entering a hall before a much-anticipated performance is caused by more than the buzz of the voices. It’s palpable. If you could totally stop up your hearing, you’d still feel it; be uplifted and carried along by it, before the concert or performance even starts.

I think the “(Human) Be-In’s” of the ’60’s were attempting something like this: Get a large number of people in a common space; say, do and think only positive things — then feel the “vibe.”

I think I’ve written elsewhere about an experience I had at what was then called “B’nai Or House” in Philadelphia. It was the early home of what later has come to be called “The Jewish Renewal Movement.” In this house were both living and administrative areas (if I remember correctly). But one room was used only for silent prayer and meditation. No words were ever spoken in it. I’m sure there was a tacit understanding that it was also not a place to think disturbing thoughts, either. Entering that room, I became absorbed in the peace and silence of it. The effects of the peace were cumulative.

I’ve had a similar experience in Christian Science Reading Rooms. Reading Mary Baker Eddy’s writings — especially “Science and Health” — is meant to purify thoughts. In many such locations, the front desk is separated from the reading area by a glass partition. Sometimes, there’s even an additional sitting area in between, further separating and isolating the reading area. There’s only silence in the Reading Room, and the only things that are read there are spiritual statements and topics. No one reads a newspaper (not even the Christian Science Monitor) or a novel, etc. I had a reaction there similar to the one I had at “B’nai Or House.” Incidentally, I felt that it also gave me insight into why the Mishkan and Temples contained two rooms. The inner room, the one most isolated from ongoing human interaction, contained the aron with the actual tablets Mosheh brought down from Mt. Sinai. Only the High Priest entered there, only once per year, and then only after undergoing a prolonged spiritual preparation. It must have maintained an intense physical and spiritual silence in the room, that purified the High Priest when he entered. His purified thought then purified (or was meant to purify) the mental environment of the entire Israelite community, much as Rabbi Yakov Yosef’s purified the place where he had prayed.

I’ve had other experiences, too. When I first became a congregational cantor, over 20 years ago, I got to see the inner, “backstage” workings of synagogues. Suddenly, I saw the politics, the long-standing animosities, exclusions and cliques, etc. I realized, then, what I’d been feeling in other synagogues I’d attended, but couldn’t quite identify. I was feeling the impressions that members’ thoughts of political maneuvering or social exclusiveness left behind. I remember how it made me feel; I even envisioned writing something titled “The Captive Synagogue.” It would be wonderful if people could begin to monitor their thoughts and feelings as they approach and enter a synagogue, as closely as they monitor the words of the prayers themselves. Then, the spiritual atmosphere might be pervaded by the same holy quietness that I’ve experienced in other places.

As an interesting, related experience: I once saw a film about a concert from 1964 called “The TAMI Show.” [2] It featured “older” Rock & Roll acts — Chuck Berry, Smoky Robinson, etc. — followed by the then-current, mostly White acts that were carrying on the R&R tradition — Gerry and the Pacemakers, Lesley Gore, for example. The first time I saw this film, in 1971, was in a movie theater. The audience was mostly, if not all, White. They reacted very positively to the White music, and with more or less nostalgic affection for the Black performers.  Around 1985, I saw the same film in Harlem, with an almost exclusively Black audience. What a difference! Suddenly, the White performers looked wooden to me. The Black performers, on the other hand, were highly animated. I saw clearly how their physical, dance-like moves were integrated into their performance of a song in a holistic way. The way they moved was part of how they told the story of the song. Their movements fit together with the rhythm and the lyrics. I was experiencing the film as the audience around me saw it, without anyone saying a word about it.

So, if we think that our thoughts are hidden as long as they remain unexpressed outwardly, we’re missing the point of Rabbi Zussya’s experience of the place where Rabbi Yakov Yosef prayed.

The purity of Rabbi Yakov Yosef’s thoughts left a degree of purity in his place that Rabbi Zussya himself could feel there long afterwards.

Examing our own thoughts, choosing the most positive and loving, let us aspire to do the same, wherever we are.


[1] Ben-Amos, Dan and Jerome R. Mintz, trans. and ed.; In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (Shivhei ha-Besht); Schocken Books, © 1970; p. 136 (story 113)