Reb Asher had recently married the daughter of Reb Naftali of Ropshitz and had moved into the rebbe’s house. One morning before Shacharit, Reb Asher was appalled when his father-in-law stormed into the kitchen, where he was sitting with the women of the house, and called brusquely, “For all my efforts, don’t I deserve a little milk?”
“This is no way to speak to people,” Reh Asher said to himself. “I will have to speak to my father-in-law.”
At that moment, a neighborhood woman came into the kitchen, crying. “Rebbe,” she said to Reb Naftali, “my breasts are dry and I cannot nurse my twins!”
Reb Naftali spoke to her softly and said, “Go home and nurse your children. God will help you.”
The plea of the neighbor caused Reb Asher to forget his vow to rebuke his father-in-law, but several weeks later he was again startled when the rebbe burst into the kitchen, bellowing: “So I get a little milk, but of such poor quality it does no good at all. Can it be that I do not deserve a bit of nourishing milk?”
Again Reb Asher was stunned at the harsh talk of his father-in-law. He recalled the prior event and was about to say something when the very same neighbor came into the kitchen. “Rebbe,” she said. “The milk flowed, but now it is watery, and my children are weak and skinny like sticks. Please, Rebbe, pray to God that I be blessed with healthy milk!”
Reb Naftali again spoke to her, saying, “Go home and nurse. God will help you.”
At this Reb Asher realized what his father-in-law had been doing, and he knew that he was a rebbe after all.
Shacharit: The morning prayer service, derived from the Hebrew word shachar, dawn. The morning service is the longest of the three daily services and consists of five parts: Morning Benedictions, Songs of Praise, Summons to Prayer, Affirmation of God’s Unity and the Centrality of Love, and the Eighteen Prayers of Petition.
How are you to judge the spiritual quality of a saint? How are you to know whether your rebbe or teacher is truly wise or simply but brilliantly insane? This is Reb Asher’s problem. He married into the household of Reb Naftali, a rebbe whose reputation as an affable guide and mentor was known throughout the Hasidic world. And yet, here is his father-in-law seemingly scolding the servants for something as minor as milk.
Reb Asher’s first inclination is to call his father-in-law to account for his behavior, but when he sees how kindly Reb Naftali treats the needy, he forgets the harshness of a moment ago. In time, Reb Asher comes to see that his father-in-law is not complaining to the servants at all, but to God. It is to God that he makes his demands for milk, that the babies might be nourished and grow strong.
This is the rebbe’s job: to call God to account. The rebbe and God are friends, and the role of a friend is to hold up a mirror to the other that she might see the mistakes she makes and correct them. The rebbe holds up a mirror to God: the dry breast, the watery milk. He says to his Friend in the strongest terms: This is not right; You can do better.
Sometimes the rebbe speaks to God as God; sometimes the rebbe speaks to God as you. When your teacher challenges you, see whether the challenge is to be a better you. If it is, then you are in the presence of a saint. If it isn’t, you may be in the presence of a madman.