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Monday, 30 June 2014

022) Intangible, But Life Changing

Torah education is flourishing. So many young people, today, have the privilege of experiencing some form of Jewish education. The numbers of children passing through Torah institutions is quite staggering.

Yet, huge numbers of these same people are being turned off Judaism by these same institutions.
“The fact is, we are witness to literally thousands of yeshiva-educated children (boys and girls) who have left the path of the Torah.”
(Chinuch in Turbulent Times by R. Brezak p 18)

This book was published about ten years ago, and people estimate the numbers to be far greater today.

What are we doing wrong?

One of the Kotzker Rebbe's most influential teachers was the Yid HaKadosh (1766-1814). He studied under the tutelage of the Chozeh of Lublin (1766-1827). The strange thing was that the student was more learned than the teacher. (Interestingly enough, both were born in the same year, 1766, and both bore the same name Yaakov Yitzchak.) The Yid came from a non-chassidic family who traced their ancestry line back to the brother of the famous Taz. The Yid was an outstanding Talmudic scholar and was highly praised by R Akiva Eiger.

What then was he doing at the Chozeh?

The answer lies in the simple fact that real learning has nothing to do with the technical transfer of information. True learning has to do with the transfer of something more subtle and less tangible. Sometimes the deepest learning takes place without the recipient even being able to articulate exactly what it was he learned. But he knows he learned something because his life changed.

The Yid studied under the Chozeh because he received from his teacher something no one else gave him.

There is a supposition that every third generation is the hardest generation to teach. This is loosely based on the verse; “When you give birth to children and grandchildren and have been long in the land, you will grow corrupt…” (Devarim 4:25) While this verse literally refers to the Land of Israel, it can also allude to a well established Torah family becoming somewhat ‘corrupt’ as a consequence of over familiarity with Torah values.

The first person in the family to become observant is usually fired up about everything Jewish. He can’t wait to raise his own family in the ways of Torah true Judaism. At least they will lose the ‘stigma’ of being ‘new recruits’. He learned to daven at twenty, now his child will daven at three. Only thing, though, he forgets that his child may not be as enthusiastic about all this as he is. The child never underwent the same process of choice and discovery that the father did. Sometimes it doesn't matter, and the child turns out just fine. But sometimes it does. And when it does, it matters. The situation compounds itself even more during the third generation.

Assuming that each generation in this scenario was given a proper Torah education, still, many children fall out.

Why?

Because too much emphasis is placed on the technical transfer of knowledge. To put it bluntly: If we only teach our children because we think they are more stupid than us, we will never transmit to them that most important intangible aspect of life-changing education we spoke about earlier. Perhaps we need to start with the hypothetical assumption that our children know more than us. Yet we are still tasked with the responsibility of teaching them.

What would we teach them in such a case? Would we have anything to teach them?

Perhaps even the word ‘education’ is the root cause of the problem of uninspired youngsters. Perhaps we need to stop trying to educate them so much, and develop within them more of a philosophy about life. An attitude. An approach. Something they can use instead of just know.  

This is why the Yid HaKadosh went to study under the Chozeh of Lublin. He needed to learn how to use what he already knew.


Friday, 27 June 2014

021) Robbed by "Religion"

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk waged a huge philosophical battle against the “I”, the self absorbed ego. He believed that most people have the inability to see beyond themselves, and they are not even aware of this incapacity.

He quotes the opening words of the Shema; 
And you shall love Hashem your G-d”. Isn’t this obvious? Who else, in your religion, are you going to love?
  • Perhaps you will confuse love of yourself for love of G-d. 
  • Perhaps your religion is more self serving than you realize.
  • Perhaps it suits you to be religious because you can hide your egotistical self behind it, and no one will ever know. They will think you are simply acting in the name of G-d. 
Then the Kotzker introduces a further dimension;
And if you think that this deception only applies to this world, know it is just as easily applicable to the next world as well.
(Kochav HaShachar p 45, par 2)

Thus, according to the Kotzker, the insidious nature of this dominant sense of self is ever present, even (perhaps especially) in the realms of spirit. 
Rabbi Wolf of Strikov, together with some older Kotzker Chassidim, were all present at the deathbed of their friend and colleague, R Yisrael. He asked his friend; “Does the evil inclination have an effect on you even now, as you are about to depart this world?” The weak and frail R Yisrael responded; “Absolutely yes! That ‘ganef’ (thief) is standing right here next to me, even at this time. He wants me to say the Shema out loud, and draw out the word ‘echad’ (G-d is one). He wants me to pass away while saying ‘echad’, so that you all can think that I am such a holy sage. Then afterwards I will always be remembered as the holy man who died with the words of the Shema on his lips, just like Rabbi Akiva of old.
(HaShavah LeTova 130)

There are two interesting points about this story:
  1. The evil inclination/ego still stalks an old dying man.
  2. The old man refers to the evil inclination as a ‘ganef’ (thief).
Let’s explore this unusual usage of the word ‘thief’. [The Kotzker Rebbe himself also uses that same expression when referring to the evil inclination/ego. He refers to it as a ‘ganef nistar’, a menacing and ‘sneaky thief’. (See Kochav HaShachar p 43, par 2)]

In our story, the evil inclination is called a ‘thief’ because it was trying to ‘steal’ the death away from R Yisrael. 
“…every death is a private affair. If …(he) had given in …and said the Shema in a loud voice with his last life’s strength, no one would have been present at the death of this man – neither the man going to meet his maker nor the friends gathered about his deathbed – for they would all be acting out a script already written… rather than standing in the mystery of the passing of a dear friend…To have died while acting out a role or an image…is not to have died, but to have been already dead.”
(The Quest for Authenticity, by Michael Rosen p 19)

Sometimes, acting out the ‘script’ that religion presents, robs us of the authenticity of the moment. Far from being noble, it could be the work of the ‘thief’.

It is here that we, as religious people, walk a very fine line. So much of what we do is dictated by higher authorities. We have to do them. But we also have to be who we are. We are not expected to be clones of each other.

I once observed someone responding selectively to two people, in the space of about five minutes: To the first person who asked how he was, he said; “Fine thanks.” To the second, he said; “Fine, thank G-d". The first response was to someone who was not religious, while the second response was to another religious person. Some might say that he was simply being respectful to both persons. Others (Kotzkers?) might say he didn’t want to be caught out by the second person for failing to ‘read from the script’.

Whatever the psychology was, one thing is for sure. Real religion is there to enhance our moments. If we find ourselves acting out roles or following scripts, so, that our performances are met with appropriate approval, we may instead be victims of that ‘thief’ who is trying to rob us of our authentic life moments.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

020) Give Me What I Know I Need

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk was born in the town of Gurai, and later settled in Tomashov where his father-in-law resided.
An old chassid [whose name, for some reason is not recorded] once passed through the town of Tomashov. The Kotzker [who at the time of this story was still very young], befriended the old man. One night, after everyone else had left the study house, the two of them remained behind to talk. The old man started telling his young friend all about the ways of the Baal Shem Tov and about the new light that was brought into the world by the Chassidic movement in general.  The young man was deeply inspired by the stranger and became determined explore Chassidism for himself. He later said of the old man; “He knew how to talk and I knew how to listen.” He subsequently journeyed to R Yaakov Yitzchak, the ‘Seer’ or Chozeh of Lublin.
To give you some idea of the esteem in which the Chozeh of Lublin was held, this is how R Asher of Ropshitz described him: 
Lublin was as holy as the Land of Israel. The courtyard of the Chozeh was like Jerusalem. His Beit HaMedrash was like the Temple Mount. The Chozeh himself was like the Holy of Holies. And when he spoke it was as if the Divine Presence was speaking.” 
At that time people from all over Poland were streaming in their thousands to see the Chozeh. Historically, the Chozeh had created the biggest mass movement (to that date), since the founding of the Chassidic movement itself. It was very difficult to get a private audience with him because of the great demand to speak with him. 
To many people’s surprise, the Chozeh invited the young man into his private and exclusive inner circle. He showed great honor to his young visitor and spent much time talking to him - Yet, notwithstanding all the attention and honor, the Kotzker remained unmoved in the slightest. He said he didn’t find what he was looking for in LublinHe knew exactly what he wanted. But the Chozeh, great as he may have been, was not to be the one to teach it to him.
(Sneh Bo’er BeKotzk p27)

How very different is the act of finding a teacher today: Although a popular pastime, the prevalent contemporary process is a lot more passive. Today, we don't seek out or journey to teachers. We wait for them to pass through. We listen to one speaker after another, and after a process of elimination we make our choice. Often it’s the one who entertains us the best. Sometimes it’s the one who impresses us the most with his display of great wisdom. Other times it’s the one who, through carefully constructed arguments, win us over to his way of thinking, and convinces us to change our minds or to shift our paradigms.

Most of the processes enumerated above, involve sitting and listening. And the best teacher wins.

However, in Kotzk, as we have seen, the process of finding a teacher is far more complicated and dynamic.
More demand is placed on the student, than on the teacher. More than the teacher teaches, the student is expected to learn.

For me, two points stand out:
1)      “He knew how to talk and I knew how to listen.” It’s not enough to just have a teacher who knows how to talk. We need to know how to carefully analyze and interpret what is said. We need to be able to discern for ourselves whether there is any real value for us in what we hear. It has to be more that just interesting, convincing and entertaining. We need to know what to listen out for, so that we can identify whether we have been touched to the core, or simply moved superficially.


2)      “He knew exactly what he wanted.” It’s not enough for a teacher to ply you with knowledge. It’s not his job to tell you what you need to know. You need to know what it is you need to know. This needs to be very clear from the outset. You know you have found the teacher you are looking for, when at the end of the whole process, you find you have not been blown off course. Instead, you are right where you want to be. You did not have your mind manipulated or changed. You knew what you wanted to know and now you know it. (When I first came across the teachings of Kotzk, my immediate reaction was: “Wow, I have always thought like this. I just didn't know anyone else wrote like this.”)

After all this has occurred, you may have just found yourself a teacher, instead of having the teacher find you.

Friday, 20 June 2014

019) Inventing Spirituality

Some people are enticed into religion by the promise of miracles and wonders. After all is that not what we read about in the scriptures? The problem though, is that in Biblical times ‘cause and effect’ played a more direct role than they do today. A ‘spiritual effect’ was often experienced soon after a ‘physical cause’. Not so today, as we venture further and further away from that period in history. Today we rarely, if ever, see a spiritual effect following closely on the heels of our mundane activities.

(The ancient Biblical disease of ‘leprosy’ – not to be confused with the modern disease – is one such case in point. Although the Torah speaks about it being immediately afflicted upon one who had spoken badly about another, it no longer exists today.)

The challenge of being religious in our times is to live in the great mystery of ‘cause’ not necessarily followed by ‘effect’. To seek too closely for the ‘effect’ is futile. To those who claim to find it, one wonders whether what they find is real or imagined. Again, the great challenge of being religious today, is grappling with ‘effects’ that seem to have absolutely no bearing on, or relationship to, our ‘causes’.

Understand this and you will save yourself much spiritual and emotional agony.

Here is an example of the realistic and pragmatic style of theology as practiced by the Rebbe of Kotzk:
Once, a chassid asked the Kotzker Rebbe for advice about a certain potential marriage partner. The rebbe didn’t give a clear answer. This just made the chassid even more distraught and clueless as to what to do. He further pressed the rebbe for a decision, but none was forthcoming. Eventually the Kotzker said; “Do you think that we rebbes go up to heaven every time people like you ask us questions? Do you think that we have access to special ledgers in which all answers are written? All we can do is follow the dictates of the Law and rely on common sense.
(Emet ve Emunah p 24, par 2)

This illustrates how the Kotzker Rebbe became so frustrated with people always seeking the supernatural.
Spirituality can be a bright light but it can also be a blinding light.

It would have been easy for the Kotzker to just placate people like this who came to him time and time again with similar questions  - but that would not have been truthful.

I came across another source where he warns about the temptation of people in search of religion, to ‘over-spiritualize’:
“In a place where there is too much ‘sod’ [or ‘secrets’, a term used to describe mysticism and spirituality], know that there will also be deceit.
(Kochav HaShachar p 33, par 2)

Pursuant to this, he says:
“If you need to hide and sustain something behind a veil of ‘sod’, know that you are doing something incorrectly.”
(Kochav HaShachar p 33, par 3)

These are fascinating teachings because how many times do we come across people who disparagingly tell others off, in the name of some or other holy thing-a-ma-bob, and neither they nor their new disciple have even the faintest idea about what’s going on. They wisely tell you; “Don't do this because it’s bad for the soul!” Or they tell you; “Don't place your hands like that because…” and they cannot furnish a reason.
Then they tell you; “Don't do certain activities (especially after sunset) because it attracts evil spirits.” And everybody nods sagely as if they understand.

Oh yes. Religion is about spirituality. But it’s about discovering spirituality, not inventing it. And until such discovery is made, it’s also about living in the mystery and angst of unanswered questions.


Thursday, 19 June 2014

018) Less Than One Afternoon

A close relative of mine has long passed retirement age. He should have retired from surgery about 15 years ago, but still practices to this day. Thanks to me. I did think it quite strange when he asked my advice about whether or not to retire, because I suspect he always regarded me as somewhat of a young up-start. Possibly, because we are both a little older now, he may have felt more comfortable confiding in me. I told him to never ever entertain the notion of retirement even for an instant. As long as he has something to give he must keep at it. I told him that he would lose his prestige and dignity if he stops working. He asked me how long it would take for his dignity to dissipate. I told him, ‘less than one afternoon.’

We know that older people spiral very quickly into a state of feeling worthless, which rapidly deteriorates into actual worthlessness, as long as they feel they have nothing left to contribute. Even past presidents look different on TV the day after they were actual presidents. It really does not take long for the fire to subside when it is no longer being stoked.

When you can’t wait to wake up in the morning and start living your dream…when you feel sad at the end of the day that the day is over…when time seems to pass by so quickly – you probably have passion for what it is you do. On the other hand, when you have to ‘kill time’ and can’t wait for the long day to end and wish tomorrow wasn't going to happen – you probably don’t have the passion we are talking about.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov explains that sometimes even a neutral type of activity performed with a degree of passion, has a similar effect on the soul as Torah Study. As long as the activity is not prohibited, even a non-Torah activity, can be considered like Torah itself, provided it is done with passion and joy. By making positive use of time, one does not succumb to the evils of sin, hence he naturally and automatically achieves what Torah achieves, without even realizing it.
  
In a similar vein, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk writes; 
“I want you not to sin. Not because it is forbidden, but rather because you simply do not have the time to do so.”
(Emet ve Emunah p 53. par 3)

Imagine that. The Kotzker turns our entire perception of sin on its head. We think we don’t sin because it is forbidden and wrong (which of course it is). But that’s a lesser level of understanding the theology of sin. The deeper reason we don’t sin is because we have so filled all our physical and emotional voids and vacuums that there is no longer any room for anything else. Sin therefore can take no hold.

Psychologists tell us that for a human being to live a healthy emotional life, he needs three things;
1)      Something to do.
2)      Someone to love, and
3)      Something to look forward to.

I have always liked this deceptively simple three-part philosophy. The first and most important thing in life, no matter who you are is to have something (hopefully meaningful and worthwhile) to do. If you are in the zone and on a mission of sorts, there is not much that can get to you. If you are so fired up that you don’t even want to talk on the phone, there is little chance of the Yetzer (evil inclination) getting through either. And then you need to be able to share your love with others. Meaning becomes enhanced when shared with someone you love. Finally, you also need to project towards the future. Being too locked into the here-and-now can give you emotional cabin-fever. Looking forward to tomorrow with a plan lends both previous points a little more buoyancy as well.


It’s interesting, though that the first point is still the first point. The preliminary focus must always be on having something meaningful to do now. This usually acts as a conduit for the next two points anyway, and (at least according to Rebbe Nachman) is Torah-like in and of itself.   

Friday, 13 June 2014

017) Whose Legs Are Your Thoughts Standing On?

Of course my thoughts are my thoughts. I’m thinking them aren't I? Could it be that perhaps, even though I am the one doing the thinking, some of my thoughts have been ‘pre-programmed’ in one way or another? Could I have ‘inherited’ a pattern of thought that I am not even conscious of? Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk firmly believed that our thoughts are indeed more contaminated than we realize:
The Rebbe of Sochatchov [who was later to become the Kotzker’s son-in-law] was a master at constructing intricate Torah concepts in his mind. Once, while in the middle of such an exercise, he had to stop and go to shul. Afterwards he continued from where he had left off. Later, after fully developing and completing the Torah concept in his mind, he said it over to the Kotzker Rebbe. The rebbe listened attentively only to the section that was formulated before the Sochatchover went to shul, but refused to listen any further. He said he didn’t want to hear the Torah that was affected and influenced by the shul. 
(Emet ve Emunah p 115, par 5)

According to the Kotzker, even a shul (or more likely a particular community), can and does yield tremendous subliminal influence on the way a person thinks.When I was a yeshiva student, one of my friends suddenly developed a distinctly audible lisp. No one knew where it had materialised from, as he was usually quite well spoken. Then it dawned on us, the Rosh Yeshiva had a lisp. With or without realising it my fellow student was not only influenced by what the Rosh Yeshiva said, but also by how he spoke. If we could have looked into his mind, we probably would have also found an intellectual ‘lisp’. 

Much to our amusement, many of our contemporaries would leave for study in America and come back sometimes just months later with terribly fake American accents. If such external and superficial changes occurred in relatively short periods of time, can you imagine what was going on in their minds? 

Some observers welcomed these instant metamorphoses and even compared this to the oil of Torah which soaks deeply into the pores of the soul and affects even such external and mundane things like speech. Others viewed these simply as external superficialities. 

The Kotzker demanded unconditional and uncontaminated originality of thought. His mind could pick up an influenced superficiality even quicker than our ears could detect a false accent.

I know a person who recently went for a job interview at a well known educational institution. They were asked such ‘penetrating’ questions like which shul they went to, what nusach (rite) the davened and what if any Chassidic philosophy they studied. The interviewee responded that they had once studied Kedushat Levi (a book by the famed R Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev). To which the interviewer responded; “You mean Kedushas Levi”. The poor young interviewee was made to feel desperately inadequate because, besides going to the wrong shul, davening the wrong nusach, she had answered in Sefardit instead of the more ‘authentic’ Ashkenazis.

Superficiality seems to be the name of the game. Now, not only do they want us to think funny, but we also have to talk funny. 

In another teaching about the importance of integrity of thought, the Kotzker quotes a well known Gemara:
Forty days before the foetus is formed, a Heavenly voice declares; ‘The daughter of so-and-so will marry so-and-so.’ (Sota 2a) Why, asks the Kotzker, is the Heavenly voice not consistent in its declaration? Either it should say; ‘so-and-so will marry so-and-so.’ Or it should say; ‘the daughter of so-and-so will marry the son of so-and-so.’The reason for this inconsistency is to teach the bride that she should never marry someone just because they are the son of so-and-so. The essence of a person is what he is, not where he comes from.
(Kochav HaShachar p 22, par 4)

Besides his wonderful advice to brides, the Kotzker is also defining for us the ‘ideal man’ as someone who thinks for himself irrespective of his influences (good or bad). As soon as one begins to detect too much of where the person comes from, know that his thoughts may also come with an agenda. If a thought comes with an agenda, it ceases to be a ‘thought’ but becomes an 'indoctrination’.  In such a case the salient question that needs to be asked is: ARE OUR THOUGHTS OUR THOUGHTS? 

I can tell, and so can many, after listening to a stranger talk for just a minute or so (in a religious context); where they were schooled, what their philosophy is and what it is they want us to know or do. It is rare to find a thinker not burdened with influences he is not even aware of. In Kotzk, though, they bred such men. In Kotzk, Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, might mean…the only time I truly am I, is when I think for myself and when my thoughts stand on their own legs. 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

016) And I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

When I started out on my journey through Judaism, it didn't take me long to realize that goalposts were constantly shifting. It worried me at first, but now I am thankful for every shift that was made. I'll explain what I mean: When I first became frum I thought the ‘reverend’ at our local shul was indeed G-d’s representative here on earth. Then it became a rabbi. Later another ‘bigger’ rabbi became that representative. Soon there were no rabbis big enough for me, and I had to leave the country in pursuit of G-d’s real representatives. My quest took me to three different countries, to bigger and better yeshivas and rebbes. Where was this elusive representative? 

The Kotzker Rebbe, I think, may have had an answer for me. He explains that as soon as you believe you've put your finger on something in Judaism, you actually haven't. It’s a system that is, by its very nature, elusive. A person must remain, says the Kotzker, in a constant state of tension between looking and finding.
If you think you've found truth, you haven’t. If you think you've found love, you haven’t. If you think you've found anything worthy, you haven't. You are closest to these things only when you make it your heartfelt desire to constantly try to find them.

In Hallel we ask; “Open the gates for me...”. Then in the next sentence we say; “This is the gateway…”. In other words the essence or ‘gateway’ to anything meaningful is to remain in a state of trying to open the ‘gate’. If you think you've opened it and passed through, you haven't, because you can’t. Spirituality is not something one finds, but rather something one searches for.

The Kotzker, rather poignantly, makes this point when he quotes the famous words of Genesis; 
“And G-d’s spirit hovered over the face of the waters.” - If you're looking for the spirit even in the waters of Torah [Torah is compared to water, because it flows from a high place to a low one], you will not find it. Instead, you need to look just above.
This was the answer I had been seeking for so long. You can't find G-d in the eyes of a great scholar or in an academy or in a place of worship. But you may find a little something hovering just above them all.

R Hirsh of Tomashov asked the Kotzker Rebbe; “How can it be that the entire Oral Tradition of the Torah is studied in contravention of the Law?
[The Tomashover is asking a very interesting question. According to tradition, when Moses came down the mountain, he didn't just bring with him the Ten Commandments. Additionally, he presented the Jewish People with two Torahs. One was the written Torah, as we know it today. The other was an Oral Torah which was never supposed to be written down, ever. It was only to be studied verbally. However with the passage of time and scholastic proficiency declining, the sages began to write these teaching down, fearing that otherwise they might become forgotten. This later became collated into the teachings of what is today known as the Talmud. The question of the Tomashover, therefore, is a good question. Essentially, are we not transgressing a fundamental imperative that the Oral Law never be written down – and do we not transgress thus, every time we read from the Talmud, or study Gemara?]
The Kotzker Rebbe answers: “Yes, you would be transgressing, unless you understand that the entire Oral Tradition nothing but a ‘Remez’ [A ‘hint’, alluding to something much greater than what literally meets the eye].”   
(Emet ve Emunah p 120, par 5)

In other words, if one studies all the great works of Oral Jewish Law, and thinks he has understood and mastered them in a literal sense alone, he is in fact transgressing on a most fundamental level. If when he reads how one ox gores another ox, or how long he has to say the Shema, or how to wash his hands before a meal – he thinks that all he is learning about is an ox, a time limit and a water pouring process, then better shouldn't have studied at all.  But if he understands that although the ox, the time limit and the water pouring process are real, they nevertheless also allude to something more ethereal – then he no longer transgresses.

If the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch are only taken on a simple literal level without some form of ‘hint’ to something deeper and higher, one has missed the point. The irony is that it could take an extremely erudite scholar an entire lifetime of study to successfully miss the point.

And yes, when one looks around at some of the people acting in the name of Torah, one might just be grateful that what we see is not always the essence of our Judaism. We sometimes need that reassurance that it’s got to be much deeper than that.
   
As the Kotzker says:
My whole life, I never wanted to serve the same G-d that these people seem comfortable serving.”
(Kochav HaShachar p 24, par 1)


Wednesday, 11 June 2014

015) Counsel for the Over-Counselled

When I was a child, there were either good children or naughty children. Today naughty children do not exist. Children are either extremely gifted, or they have severe behavioral disorders. It seems as if our poor children, like the rest of modern society, are over-diagnosed and over-counseled. Adults, too suffer from a plethora of unpronounceable emotional maladies. And if you’re lucky, you will find yourself just ‘on the spectrum’ of something or other.

Normally, when you make a wrong decision, you are responsible for your choice. Of course, no one likes to be reminded of that. But if it can be shown that you suffer from some form of pathology, you immediately become exonerated. It’s much more comfortable to irreproachably walk away from a mistake, than to bear guilt for it. This is why we welcome those in the know who skillfully discover and reveal to us our emotional inadequacies.

Religiously, we are also becoming over-counseled. Decisions are often made for us in areas where perhaps we should and must exercise our own discretion.

The problem with continuous consultation with willing professionals is that we miss out on opportunities to grow. That’s not to say that we should never consult with experts, but we often do ourselves a disservice by not taking ownership of our problems. We frequently abuse those in the caring professions by trying to make our problems and issues, theirs. Good professionals, though, should never allow that to happen. But clients, congregants, followers and students - by definition and nature - can be very manipulative. Sometimes even battle-weary professionals fall prey to these calculating help seekers.

The Kotzker cautions against becoming reliant upon constant input from those who make it their business to dispense with advice:
“I can tell you” he says, “what not to do [i.e. what is prohibited under Jewish Law]. But I cannot tell you what to do [i.e. what personal life decisions to make]. That is something that has to be left up to the individual himself.”
(Kochav HaShachar p.16, par 5)

This is typical of the Kotzker’s teachings. Life has to be lived by the individual himself. Nothing great in terms of self-growth, he believes, is ever achieved through the vicarious participation of another.

Questions of a Halachic and allied nature are referred to the rabbi. Life questions are directed within.

He ups the ante a little in his next statement:
“People come to a rebbe to ask about how they can find G-d. But their efforts are in vain because G-d is to be found everywhere. Better they should simply ask themselves the same questions they usually ask their teachers.”
(Kochav HaShachar p18, par 1)

Here the Kotzker Rebbe surprisingly tells us that even the rabbi’s rabbi, is incapable (in his view) of dispensing all manner spiritual advice.

Again he teaches:
“People are accustomed to look to the void of Heaven for emotional support.Better they should look to the void within themselves.If one looks toward Heaven before looking within, one is liable to fall.”
(Kochav HaShachar p16, par 3,4)

He distinctly warns the individual not to make his problem, (never mind someone else’s problem, but even) G-d’s problem. Problems, even of a religious and spiritual nature, need to be owned before they can be dealt with.

Then, in fiery interpretation of a well known verse in Genesis, he explains:
“When Yosef was sent to look for his brothers, he became lost. A ‘man’ [an angel according to commentary] found him walking in the field, in a dazed state. ‘What are you looking for?’ the ‘man’ asked. [The narrative continues, but the Kotzker stops right there and instead of following commentary, substitutes the literal ‘man’, for the ‘angel’.] - When a person finds himself lost and bewildered emotionally or spiritually, the first thing the ‘man’ must do is ask of himself: ‘what are you looking for?’
(Kochav HaShachar p 21, par 1)

So we see that the Kotzker was outspoken when it came to a person seeking counsel. To him it didn’t matter whether one sought guidance from a professional, a rabbi, a rebbe, an angel or even G-d Himself.

The key, he steadfastly maintained, to much of life’s perplexities, lies…not only…but also solely…within.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

014) Hiding Behind Religion

The Kotzker Rebbe certainly wasn't your typical ‘Baruch HaSheming’ Jew. Not everything Jewish or even religious had automatic and unconditional appeal to him. In Kotzk, if you weren't real on the inside, your outside was disqualified no matter who you were, what you looked like, who your father was or how much Torah you had studied. If they did had labels in the early 1800’s he didn't believe in them.

Remember, the original Chassidic movement started out as a rebellion against the conformist lethargy of the then mainstream Jewish establishment. Chassidism was supposed to be about giving the individual room, within the framework of Halacha, to express himself as a unique constituent of the whole. Seven generations later, however, the Kotzker realized that the movement that had made the individual almost sacrosanct seemed to have forgotten about individuality and had become even more conformist than non-Chassidic Jewry. 

He fearlessly came out with a number of hard hitting attacks, some against his very own followers whom he felt were perhaps becoming cult-like conformists.

In one instance, he quoted a verse referring to the giving of the Torah at Sinai:
 “And the people saw and trembled and stood from afar.” (Shemot 20,15) - Sometimes a person can see holiness and even ‘shokkel’ [‘tremble’ i.e. sway back and forth as Jews do in prayer], yet still remain afar.
(Emet ve Emunah p 123, par 4)

On the surface it may seem as though one is conforming to, and well integrated within, the system, because his actions match superficially with what is ostensibly required. On a deeper level, however, he may be spiritually and emotionally bankrupt.

Another time, he took a swipe at some ‘shtreimel’ (fur hat) wearing Chassidim:
The Chidushei HaRim said in the name of the Kotzker Rebbe: “I don't know what you people want from me. During the week you all do as you please, but come Shabbos you put on black clothes, black ‘gartels’ (belts) and don ‘shtrimlach’ (fur hats) and suddenly you become ‘mechutanim’ (in-laws) to the Shabbos bride. I wish you would just be consistent - as you are during the week, so you should be on Shabbos.”
(Emet ve Emunah p 125, par 3)

Again the Kotzker appeals for people to stop being pretentious and to be real. If the outer apparel is insincere, instead of covering up over the insincerity it just draws more attention to it. The Kotzker also makes an interesting reference to the ‘mechutanim’ (in-laws) of Shabbos. The Sabbath is compared to a ‘bride’ who becomes allegorically betrothed to the ‘groom’, the Jewish People. But, as we all know, with brides and husbands come in-laws. In-laws are close but not always that close. The rebbe bemoans the number of not-so-close ‘religious in-laws’ he has to deal with. They are there but not really there.

On another occasion he let fly at an unsuspecting group of Talmud students:
You harbor evil in your hearts and think you can cover over them with a few pages of Gemora.
(Emet ve Emunah p 107, par 2)

These poor students probably thought they were immune from any form of criticism. After all they were doing the right thing. They were doing what Jewish students are supposed to do, and were doing it well.
Yet the Kotzker was not fooled by outward appearances. His eyes only saw the inside. And what a poignant comment he made! Pages of Gemora are holy of holies. But they are nevertheless pages. Just like you can't paper over cracks in a wall, you can’t fix a soul from the outside in.

These are three examples of how outspoken the Kotzker Rebbe was when it came to people who were in fact ‘doing the right thing’. Most of us wouldn't have given any of these people a second glance. They would all have trustingly been accepted on face value.


In Kotzk, though, face value has no value.

Monday, 9 June 2014

013) The Rabbi Who Got Fired

The town of Parisov was presided over by a rabbi who was the son of the Yid HaKadosh.* Some of the people in the town, however, believed he was unfit to be their rabbi as they claimed he had insufficient knowledge. They convened a tribunal of three respected rabbis led by R Aryeh Leib Morgenstern the head of the Beit Din of Linshitz, and author of a Talmudic commentary. The esteemed tribunal evaluated the rabbi and declared him unfit to practice. 

After his dismissal, a resident of Parisov happened to spend the festival of Shavuot in the town of Kotzk. When the Kotzker Rebbe saw him, he inquired about the well being of his rabbi, and was told that the rabbi had been removed from office by the tribunal. This infuriated the Kotzker, who wanted to know exactly who took part in that tribunal. As it transpired, all three rabbis were spending the Yom Tov in Kotzk as well. The Kotzker demanded that they immediately appear before him. Timidly they stood before the Kotzker who started firing questions at them:  “Do you know how to learn?” he asked. They did not respond. “Do you know all a rabbi is supposed to know?” he continued. Again, no response. Then the Kotzker started to rattle off the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, including interpretations from the early and latter-day commentators. When he finally finished (Shavuot is a two day festival), he once again asked; “Do you know all this?” Since no answers were forthcoming, the Kotzker went on to explain: 
“In every community there is a different energy. When someone asks the rabbi a question, he brings with him a certain ‘chemistry’. When the rabbi responds, he too brings a particular ‘chemistry’. If both energies combine favorably, they evoke an appropriate heavenly response, and the rabbi’s answer is somehow authenticated. On the other hand, if the ‘chemistries’ do not match, then there is no such heavenly response and the rabbi has to rely solely on his knowledge. In such a case, for the answer to be authenticated, the rabbi must have an unimaginable amount of knowledge to draw from.”
(Emet ve Emunah p124, par 4.)

I have often wondered how it is that the various satellite Jewish communities all over the world, in all cultures and on all levels, manage to function and survive. Some of these communities appear to have leadership that leaves much to be desired. We may wonder as to the capability and authenticity of that leadership. Sometimes a rabbi may be young and inexperienced. Sometimes he may be old and disinterested. Other times the leader may simply appear to make mistakes. How can intelligent people look up to and confer with such heads of communities?

I think the Kotzker hit the nail on the head: Not every rabbi or leader needs to be a Rambam or an Einstein. Not every rabbi needs to know Shas or Talmud by heart. But if the rabbi forges an indisputable connection to, and creates a bond and ‘chemistry’ with the community he serves, somehow that seems to override whatever may be lacking. That bond, if real, seems to validate and authenticate that community as a genuine part of the Jewish People.

If that bond exists it should never be tampered with.

If that bond does not exist, the leader better have something absolutely outstanding and unique to bring to the party. Could this have been the message the Kotzker was trying to convey to the tribunal?

I was once asked to officiate at a funeral outside a small country town where there had never been a rabbi. A charming old stalwart representing that community insisted that the service be conducted in a certain manner. I politely suggested that I believed it was an incorrect procedure. He became annoyed at my arrogance and told me he had been doing it that way for the last sixty years. I then, not so politely, suggested that he had been doing it wrong for sixty years. A crowd was beginning to gather and only because I had numbers (and the grieving family) on my side, did I get my way. I knew I was right anyway.

Later though, I started feeling bad. Yes, I had won the argument…but I had also interfered in the way a community had acted for more years than I had been on this planet. I did not have the same ‘chemistry’ that the dear old man had had with his community. And I don’t know Talmud by heart. Maybe he acted on some ancient custom I was unfamiliar with and have yet to discover. Perhaps I should have just kept quiet.
    
*Note:
The Yid HaKadosh [1766 – 1814] was a student of the Chozeh of Lublin [1740 -1815] and both coincidentally bore exactly the same name, Yakov Yitzchak. It has been suggested that in order to differentiate between the teacher and his student, the student assumed the title of Yid HaKadosh, or ‘holy Jew’. Both the Chozeh and the Yid were early teachers of the Kotzker Rebbe. The Chozeh and his teacher, The Rebbe R Meilech of Lezansk [d 1787] were responsible for bringing the Chassidic movement from the Ukraine (where it originated), to Poland, which was to become the dominant center Chassidism in the early part of the nineteenth century.            

Sunday, 8 June 2014

012) Corporate Judaism

The other day I saw a Meshulach standing at the gate of a friend’s house. He wanted a donation. He was holding a large leather bag. I later asked my friend what was in the bag. It was a laptop. He must have been a corporate Meshulach. Yes we have truly arrived at the dawning of a new age.

I remember years ago, listening to visiting Torah speakers who had come to talk to us and inspire us. They taught because they loved to teach. Today, however, many of these speakers are so polished, sophisticated and professional, that they will not speak to anyone without first charging a fee. Their PowerPoint presentations are just as audited as are their finances.

There is a growing trend for youngsters to get paid to attend shiurim and dinners. (Yes I'm aware of all the arguments in support of such practices, but still something about it doesn't seem right.)

Unsuspecting congregants are often invited to Shabbat dinners at the private homes of communal leaders. The guests feel so honored and get so excited. Little do they realize that they sometimes merely fill mealtime quotas required by legal contracts between the community and its leader.

Torah schools are starting to ‘upgrade’ as well. Corporate principles and good governance practices are grafted onto old establishments. The results are often top heavy, tiresome and bureaucratic, but without the prestige or share options offered by the secular institutions they try emulate. And the children pay the price for an education that is too well oiled and clinical.

I know of instances where the religious leadership has to forward copies to the lay leadership of all proposed talks, for prior approval. So much independence of thought must surely be lost when a leader is ‘upgraded’ to the level of a professional employee.

I also know of a rabbi who was told not to bring his children to shul with him, because professional people do no take their children to work.

Yet, notwithstanding all the above, the amazing thing is - it works! This is how modern day religious Judaism operates. All these social constructs are in fact necessary for the day to day functioning of the communal machine.

The question, though, is what exactly are you looking for? Do you just want to be a member of a comforting whole, or are you looking for greater meaning and depth? Do you know the difference between ‘community’ and ‘spirituality’? Or as Rabbi Soloveitchik put it; the difference between religious culture and religious faith?

The Kotzker Rebbe says:
One should only seek the path of Torah from the person who is not subjugated to anyone or anything in this world. Only he who is free and not subservient, is a worthy teacher. Furthermore, this freedom must be so real that he knows it and feels it in his heart.
(Emet ve Emunah p 119, par 4.)

In this statement, the Kotzker makes the point that as long a spiritual leader is beholden to something that others may not even be aware of - while he might still be effective and professional, he is not a real Torah leader.

This sweeping view probably disqualifies much of our contemporary religious leadership worldwide, but the point is nevertheless well taken: The Torah is called ‘cheirut’ (freedom). It makes sense then that some of that freedom be more pervasive.

In a striking example of how subservience clouds the mind of the Torah teacher, I heard about one of the great modern rebbes who was known to be rather strict in his teachings and rulings. Apparently though, his nature was the exact opposite. He was more lenient and far less pedantic than his followers realized. His assistants, however, had to continually demand that he come across stricter than he really was. They said that he would lose credibility among his own followers were he perceived to be too open minded. He obliged. Only a handful of people knew about this, and the question begs as to how true his teachings were, even though they were widely accepted.

On the other hand, take someone like the Maharal of Prague (1525 – 1609). He proposed some rather radical teachings (some say he was the forerunner of modern Chassidut). He was not pressurized to simply supply what was demanded. He said that he did not have to worry about the influential few, as he had sufficient means of his own to comfortably ignore them. That’s exactly what he did, and now we have a collection of some of the deepest teachings ever.

How can we find such a teacher in this slick modern world of ours, where the practical survival of Torah Judaism would not have to depend so much on subservience of one kind or another?

Why did we create this covertly hierarchal system of Torah transmission where our leaders are becoming more like CEO’s than CEO’s?


Where can we learn Torah from the mind of a teacher who is strong enough to know and feel freedom in his heart?

011) The Non-Radical "Fanatic"

The Torah tells the story of a famous fanatic: His name is Pinchas. The Torah itself calls him a fanatic. He takes the law into his own hands and kills some people who were publicly showing disregard for the high moral standards required by Jewish Tradition. As a result of Pinchas’ actions he is hailed as a hero, has a section of the Torah named after him, averts a plague and is given eternal priesthood.

Great story. But the Kotzker Rebbe fills in some of the blanks:
Before this episode, Moshe had always held Pinchas in high regard. He believed that Pinchas (not Joshua) would succeed him and lead the nation into the Land of Israel. However when Moshe saw the fanaticism of his actions committed in the name of  G-d – even though he was praised and lauded by G-d Himself – he quickly changed his mind.
A FANATIC MUST NEVER BE ALLOWED TO LEAD. 
(Emet ve Emunah p122, para 2.)

This is a fascinating point. You can’t get a more prestigious approval and sanction than that emanating from G-d. Pinchas’ actions were endorsed by the greatest power in the universe. What he did was right and necessary and holy. Yet, because he was driven by fanaticism, albeit ‘good’ fanaticism, he no longer qualified for leadership. No people should gamble on their collective future under a fanatical leader.

So, instead of Pinchas, Joshua led the people into the land. Joshua was no lame duck either. He too was a fighter. He waged war for fourteen years and expelled seven nations from the land. The difference was that Joshua was committed, but not a fanatic.

It’s strange to see a teaching against fanaticism emanating from the Rebbe of Kotzk who was thought to be quite radical himself. I've never liked that description of him. I find him more realistic, reasonable and rational than radical.

The following incident may serve to illustrate just how open minded, non-dogmatic and non-fanatical he was:
Once when Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk took ill, he sent a messenger, with an unsigned note, to R Ber of Rodshitz. He wanted a blessing for good health, but he didn't want R Ber to know who it was for. At that time there was much conflict and animosity between the schools of Kotzk and Rodshitz. R Ber looked at the note and after a few moments exclaimed that this was from, and for, his opponent the Kotzker.
The messenger became alarmed and worried that perhaps now the Kotzker would not receive a blessing. Then R Ber explained that the difference between the school of Kotzk and essentially the rest of the Chassidic world was:
  • Most Chassidim believe that a rebbe has the ability to change reality where necessary. They believe that ‘G-d decrees and the rebbe nullifies the decree’.
  • In Kotzk, however, they believe that one has to be strong enough to deal with reality and not rely on the supernatural at all. 
The messenger then asked: “Does that mean that you will not bless my rebbe, now that you know who he is?” R Ber replied: “It’s too late. I already gave my blessing before I realized who it was for.”
(Emet ve Emunah p 119, para 1.)

This somewhat amusing anecdote underscores the open mindedness of the Kotzker. While he rigorously didn't subscribe to the principle of rebbes handing out blessings, he was nevertheless prepared to hedge his bets when he felt he had to. He allowed himself to remain open to another point of view. Even to another style of theology. He was committed to his philosophy but he was not prepared to risk all, all the time, for it. This is the difference between commitment and fanaticism. A fanatic would never warm to an opposing view.

Maintaining this constant tension between idealism and pragmatism is what makes for good leadership.
Without it we may as well get rid of all our leaders and revert back to just reading the manual ourselves.   

A leader must know the difference between doing something just because it’s right, and doing the right thing. 

Thursday, 5 June 2014

010) The Rebbe Who Didn't Like Mysticism

Chassidic Rebbes are generally portrayed as great mystics, steeped in ancient knowledge, and masters of practical mysticism. In our studies so far, we have seen how the Kotzker Rebbe has shattered almost every preconceived notion we may have had of a Chassidic leader. He doesn't disappoint us when it comes to his attitude towards mysticism either.

Beginning with his teachers, we see a new trend emerging  -  an attempt to divest Chassidism of its Lurianic, kabbalistic and mystic foundations.

Take the act of eating for example. Much has been written about the mystical aspect of incorporating lower levels of existence (mineral, animal and vegetable), into the human being who consumes them. When the human then performs a holy act, all levels are simultaneously elevated to the realm of the Divine.

Juxtapose this on a statement by one of the Kotzker's teachers, the Yid Ha Kadosh, who said that the only ‘mystical intention’ one should have while eating, is not to overeat. In a similar vein, his other teacher, R Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, said that the only ‘mystical intention’ one should have while eating is to properly chew one’s food.

Gone is much of the deep and sophisticated esoteric-based theology that so characterized the Baal Shem Tov’s Chassidism.

Another example of the growing trend away from mysticism can be found in the Kotzker’s attitude towards the classical concept of “Yichudim” (unifications). Lurianic Kabbalah teaches that with each mitzvah we perform, we cause a unification to take place between heaven and earth.  Each mitzvah cements that bond between the two diametrically opposed realms of spirit and matter. This bridging of realms can be accomplished by anyone who has appropriate kavanah (concentration) at the time they perform the mitzvah.
But in Kotzk they said that only two “Yichudim” are possible:
One already took place when Moshe merged heaven with earth at Sinai.
The other will only take place one day in the future when the Messiah arrives.
And nothing else will happen in between.   

The irony is that the Kotzker studied kabbalah every night with his teacher, R Simcha Bunim (Eser Niflaot 8). Yet in the writings of R Simcha (Kol Simcha), there is only one reference to the Lurianic Kabbalah, and just 19 vague references to the Zohar. The word ‘yichudim’ occurs only once. In the Kotzker’s book (Ohel Torah), the Ari is mentioned only once, and the Zohar only five times. This is most unusual for Chassidic works of that time, since most of the corresponding contemporary literature is absolutely satiated with such references. 

The story is told about a visitor who once arrived in Kotzk just before Shabbos. It was too late for him to go to the mikvah (as is customary for some to do every week at that time). Instead he relied on a well known mystical procedure that is said to have a similar effect to a mikva. Suddenly the Kotzker Rebbe burst into the room saying: “Stop. In Kotzk we do not make use of such mystical practices.”

He made such an interesting comment about Chabad Chassidism; “They start from the top and work down… we start at the bottom and work up.” (Emet ve Emuna) Here he is referring to the preoccupation of many Chassidic schools of thought, with the cryptic concept of Ten Sefirot. By distancing himself from such an approach, the Kotzker again highlighted how surprisingly grounded his theology was.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once asked R Yaakov of Radzmin: “For what purpose was man put on this earth?” The Radzminer responded; “To fix, work on and elevate his soul.” To which the Kotzker boldly retorted: “No. That’s not what we learned in Pshischa. Man was put on this earth for something far more useful – to elevate heaven!” 
 (Emet ve Emunah p 109, par 4.)

This needs to understood against the following backdrop: Popular Chasidism had effectively reinterpreted the traditional understanding of kabbalah which spoke about the mystical ‘mechanics’ of G-d, to one which now spoke about the mystical ‘mechanics’ of man. Chassidism had become like mystical psychology focusing more on man and his soul, than on the altruism of something outside of man, namely ‘heaven’. To work on one’s own soul is a mystical journey. A trip. It’s wonderful but it’s self absorbing. According to Kotzk however, a true spiritual encounter could not only involve the soul. It had to incorporate a higher, truer, greater and more altruistic good.

Thus, for the Kotzker, the secret of true religion lay, not in mystical delights. Not in out- of-body or out-of-mind…but rather in out-of-self experiences. As long as Truth is connected to the Self (as it is with a mystical experience), it can no longer be absolutely true. Truth must be connected to something out-of-self. Like “heaven”.

In Kotzk, Truth is not found in mysticism. Truth can only be found in altruism. Kotzk moved the widespread Chassidic emphasis on mysticism, to something far simpler, more elegant and transparent. When man behaved at his most noble, this was “heaven”.
  
The reason why the Kotzker was so against mysticism was because he was such a spiritual pragmatist. He believed there was so much confusion and falsehood in our mortal minds that needed sorting out, without confounding ourselves with mysteries of esoteric thought. Truth was more important than anything else.
And by Truth, he meant simple, honest, real and human truth. Not mystical truth. In Kotzk, you were most spiritual when you were most real.

009) Must it Always Matter?

The Kotzker Rebbe was asked by one of his foremost students: “I often feel uninspired during prayer. Is there something that I can focus on to uplift myself when I pray?”

Before we continue, imagine yourself a great rebbe and having someone pose such a question to you. If you were worth your salt you would probably advise your student to study more about the prayers, or to try contemplate with greater intensity upon the meaning behind them (or something to that effect).

Not so the Kotzker.

His response was;
Do not worry about it at all. The power of prayer is so great that if, at some later stage, you happen to pray that prayer with even just a little fervor – it will draw all the previous imperfect prayers towards it and elevate them all together.
(Emet ve Emunah p5, par 1.)

The question was a serious question. But how can one trivialize prayers by saying; Do not worry about it at all?

There was another rebbe who made a similar, but possibly even more astounding statement: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that;
“…even if someone committed a transgression, he should not be concerned.” 
(Hishtapchut HaNefesh)

This, he explains, is because the purpose of the evil inclination is not, as is commonly assumed, to physically get us to sin. It has no real interest in the act of the sin itself. Rather its purpose is to make us miserable and depressed after we have sinned. That sense of worthlessness and spiritual despair leads us right to where the evil inclination wants us to be – in a state of depression. Depression, say the mystics, is the antithesis of holiness. No one can be miserable and holy at the same time. If you feel depressed after committing a sin, you have fallen into a snare.

Isn’t that interesting? The whole world tells us to worry about prayers and transgressions, while the Kotzker and Breslover Rebbes tell us not to worry and to move on!

But how can you move on when you know something to be wrong? 

I recall some sagely advice I once received from a senior rabbi who had been in the business of guiding people for over fifty years: “You don't always have to be the one to fix everything that’s broken.”

Sometimes (maybe most times) one needs to allow life to happen. Not everybody needs to be reprimanded every time they deserve to be. Not every mistake you make needs to leave you devastated even if that’s the way you feel.

There was the story of R Yeshaya of Mokov. His father was a simple man who was the only ‘official’ musician in the town of Mokov. He was the only person allowed to play at weddings. After he passed away, his son R Yeshaya, who knew how to play the fiddle, was asked to take his fathers place. R Yeshaya, was more learned than his father, and decided to journey to Kotzk to ask the rebbe if he should take that position. He was concerned that the frivolous nature of weddings on a continuous basis might impinge on his Yiddishkeit. The Kotzker responded;
There is more Torah literature concerning the importance of making a living, than about the importance of fearing heaven. Let your mind be occupied with ideas of the spirit, but your hands with earthly matters.
(Emet ve Emunah p115, par 7.)

R Yeshaya promptly became the new ‘official’ musician of Mokov. He was later to play at the very wedding of the Kotzker Rebbe himself.

More often than not, the most meaningful and pragmatic response to the seeker of guidance, is simply: “Your baggage is trying to trap you. Your guilt is trying to hold you back and paralyze you. The most spiritual thing you could ever do is to put that all behind you, move on...and make it not matter”

Monday, 2 June 2014

008) Chains of Spirit

It is difficult to find anything more noble than one person caring for, or nurturing another. Not much can be greater than one individual stepping out of his selfish bounds and giving to another. It warms the heart to witness an act of kindness. Any organization that aims to further the advancement and development of those less fortunate, is to be encouraged and supported.

Our tradition is replete with accounts of great good people dedicating themselves to helping others. How many rabbis and rebbes have we read about who chopped wood to keep fires going in freezing winters for poor people. How many great sages have we read about who took the time to painstakingly teach Torah to people who had not yet been exposed to its light.

Long may such people continue their good, charitable and spiritual work.

While certainly believing in the concept of goodness, the Kotzker Rebbe took a slightly different approach. He warned about the danger of unwittingly creating a culture of dependence within the mindset of the recipient of the kindness.
The Kotzker described how his teacher, R Simcha Bunim of Pshischa; “…lovingly cared for and elevated all those who came to him for guidance.” But the Kotzker himself expected all his students to rather be self reliant and to elevate themselves. 
 (Emet ve Emunah p11, par 7.)

Absolute independence was necessary before any spiritual or for that matter, material growth could take place. As long as a student is encapsulated within an, albeit loving embrace of care, he remains bound. His growth is somewhat limited. He will probably always remain a student.

Perhaps this is why the Kotzker never wanted masses of people to flock to him. He didn't want to perpetuate a culture of continual reliance. Many spiritual teachers, however, are tempted to keep their disciples just below them in order to retain an element of dominance and even control. This was never the attitude in Kotzk. Independence was elevated almost above all else.

I have always liked this teaching. Over the years I have seen people get involved in Judaism, and while they may have become more observant, many of them have never progressed outside of their comfort zone. They remain totally dependant upon the exact same system they adopted all those years ago. They still go to talks, for example, geared at a more basic style of Torah living, and are one hundred percent reliant on such for their inspiration. They still seek constant attention and basic nurture that they should have outgrown a long time ago. They seem unable to sustain themselves spiritually, and certainly do not instill much spiritual confidence within their children either. They never tried to push the boundaries and learn, for example, to read a text for themselves. They seem to take comfort in always having everything Torah related, explained to them. To such people the Kotzker pleads – become more spiritually independent!
The Kotzker Rebbe would often go into the forests, away from people, and take time to reflect upon his personal development - unhindered even by other Masters. One of his colleagues once rebuked him for such displays of privacy and independence. He mockingly asked if the Kotzker wanted to be a “second Baal Shem Tov”. [The BaalShem Tov, seven generations earlier, was known to conduct himself in a similar manner.] To which immediately came the reply; “Yes. And if I want I can be even greater than he. Even the Baal Shem Tov does not have the sole monopoly on spirituality. I can be whoever I want to be.”  
(Sneh Bo’er be Kotzk p 30.)

And so can you. Yes, even you can outgrow your teacher if necessary. You do not have to remain in a state of spiritual dependency. Everyone needs a teacher. But a good teacher will give his student tools to potentially outgrow him. And a good student will use them. If, however, you choose not to become independent, you won't. As they say: If you always do what you've always done, you will always get what you've always got.

Rabbi Kook wrote: 
Do not keep me in chains of material or of spirit.
( Orot HaKodesh 2.)

We must never allow our spirituality to chain or cage us.

Isn't is strange how that, that can most set us free -  is precisely that, that often tends to tether us to the ground (and to others)…

007) Kick the Heck Out of the Ball

The Kotzker Rebbe questions the wisdom behind the well established practice of eating unleavened bread on Pesach. He says;
Wouldn't it be better to rather discourage people from eating of Matza, than to risk possibly eating Chametz [which quite conceivably could be contained within the very Matza itself]?”
This refers to the fact that if, during the kneading process, the water and flour remain mixed together for longer than eighteen minutes before being placed into the oven - the dough is considered to have fermented. If that is allowed to occur, the mixture itself will technically become Chametz. This means that if the baker is just a little tardy, what may appear to be absolutely pure Matza could instead be absolute Chametz, and forbidden on Pesach! And no one would ever know the difference because it would look, feel and taste just like the authentic product.

If Matza is such a critical component to the Passover experience, so much so that we even recite a special blessing over it, why is it inherently so risky in terms of its very permissibility? Surely we could have opted for safer symbolic options with other non risky ingredients?

The Kotzker answers his own question; 
If we did prohibit Matza, there would have been no challenge at all. It would have been too easy. Instead man’s purpose is to Engage and to Guard.
(Emet ve Emunah p112, par 7.)

In other words, there need be no question whatsoever as to the permissibility of eating Matza. One simply applies due caution during the process of preparing it.

What a fundamentally profound teaching we have here. Taken out of its parochial context, we may have stumbled upon a life altering teaching:

We could always choose the easy option of disengaging with the outside world, or even never to engage in the first instance. This way we ensure ourselves an existence free of ‘unholy contamination’. Understandably, many do choose this path.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, however, was never one for lukewarm options. He always taught that life is experienced best at its extremes. This is not to be confused with recklessness. There is a world of difference between taking something to its reasonable limit…and conversely, being irresponsible.

Obviously recklessness and irresponsibility have no place in any sophisticated system of thought. On the other hand, cocooning and insulation do very little for the creative spirit, and serve no purpose other than restrict legitimate and meaningful expression.

Perhaps this is why the Kotzker never really had an official mass following like all the other Chassidic Rebbes of his time. Groups and packs of adherents, by definition lack the spiritual creativity to be anything other than a group or a pack. Imagine a group of people independently taking all their emotional, spiritual and even material creativity to ‘just below the red line’ - there would be nothing left to identify the group as a group anymore.

The Kotzker’s brother in law, the Chidushei HaRim, once happened upon a group of the Kotzker’s students studying in the Beis Medrash. He remarked
Every one of these students has the potential to be just like the Baal Shem Tov. However the realities of life will probably get in the way of any of them ever reaching that level.
(Emet ve Emunah  p 114, par 6.)

Excellence can only be achieved when one is prepared to go (safely and Halachically) beyond perceived boundaries.  

Sure, one can achieve within the group. But can one excel?

I had a teacher who explained that Torah living has to be an "avodah", a challenge. Unlike watching TV, a challenge cannot take place in the comfort of one’s living room. He compared it to playing sport on a field. The field is broad and long, and provided the ball is within the lines, the game continues. One may play the game on any section of the field one chooses. Sometimes the ball is closer to one’s home posts and sometimes it’s at the furthest reaches of the field. If the ball is not out, it’s in.

So it is with Torah. As long as we ‘guard’ ourselves and play within the ‘lines’, we have the freedom to ‘play’ where-so-ever on the field we choose.

And, in doing so, the Kotzker would urge us to kick the heck out of that ball…