Reb Baruch, the Maggid of Rika, was the melamed (tutor) to the household of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. When his contract with the rebbe was to be renewed, the rebbe added a stipulation that Reb Baruch would eat with him from the same plate — a great honor. Reb Baruch asked for some time to consider the matter.
At just this time, Berditchev was host to two other famous sages, Reb Elimelech of Lyzhansk and his brother, Reb Zusya of Hanipoli. Reb Baruch decided to ask their advice regarding his eating with the rebbe.
As he approached the attic room where they were staying, he heard Reb Elimelech say to his brother, “Torah teaches: ‘Aharon and all the elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moshe in the Presence of God.’ The Talmudic sages ask why Torah says ‘in the Presence of God’ (Exodus 18:12) when it should have said ‘in the presence of Moshe.’ They answer their own question, saying that Torah is teaching us that whenever one eats with sages he eats in the Presence of God.
“Now, brother,” Reb Elimelech Continued, “I have a problem with their understanding. How could the Talmud doubt that they ate in God’s Presence, The whole universe is filled with God (Psalm 72:19); wherever one eats, one eats in the Divine Presence. To my mind, what the Talmud is really asking is whether Aharon and the elders knew they were eating in the Presence of God, or whether they were distracted from this by eating in the presence of Moshe.”
Hearing this, Reb Baruch suddenly knew the answer to his own question. He returned to the rebbe and respectfully declined his offer. “Sometimes,” he said, “it is not wise to eat in the presence of a tzaddik .”
NOTE: Tsaddik (from tzedek, justice): A saint. Hasidism considered their rebbes to be tzaddikim (plural of tzaddik).
The whole world is filled with Divine Presence — not that life contains God, but that God contains all life. God suffuses life the way wet suffuses water. God is the very essence of reality. Because of this suffusion, we often are unaware of God in, with, and as all things.
We may be unaware of God in the same way a bird may be unaware of the air or a fish unaware of the sea. That is why we are willing to go through such stringent spiritual disciplines: We have to do something strange in order to finally see that which is common. Yet, we sometimes become so infatuated with the discipline that we forget it is a means to something else. This is when spirituality and religion become idolatrous; the sign replaces the thing toward which it points.
In Hasidism, the rebbe is a gateway to God. Levi Yitzchak’s invitation to Reb Baruch was an invitation to move closer to God. Reb Baruch feared, and Reb Elimelech confirmed, that it is all too easy to get attached to the gateway and forget to walk through it.