It was the custom of Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, to pray alone each morning. When he came to the Ayn Keloheinu prayer at the end of his devotions, however, he would ask one of his Hasidim to gather a minyan (Hebrew for “number”) so he could conclude his prayer in community.
One morning, the gathering minyan included a young man named Reb Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, who, years later, would become the Chozeb of Lublin. When the Maggid saw that Reb Yaakov Yitzchak was one of the ten called to pray with him, he complained: “Can we not find someone other than this batlan? He will only cause us trouble!”
The Maggid’s students were stunned at the abrasive tone and insulting words of their rebbe, but no one spoke up. On the other hand, no one raced off to find a substitute for Reb Yaakov Yitzchak.
“So be it,” the Maggid sighed. Returning to his prayer, he called aloud: “Ayn Keloheinu, there is none like our God'” He had barely completed this opening line of the prayer when Reb Yaakov Yitzchak fainted and fell to the floor.
As the Maggid and his students rushed to help their fallen colleague, Reb Dov Ber said: “I told you he was a batlan and would disturb our prayers. All I said was ‘There is nothing like God,’ and immediately he realized the inner meaning of the words: ‘There is nothing but God.’ Realizing this, his sense of separateness left him, and he fainted. If you had found someone else, he wouldn’t have grasped the meaning, and we would be done with our prayers by now.”
Ayn Keloheinu (literally, “There is nothing like our God”): According to the ritual of the Hasidim, this prayer is recited daily as part of the concluding section of the Morning Prayer service.
Minyan (Hebrew for “number,” plural minyanim): The quorum of ten adults needed for public worship. In Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish communities, only men qualify for a minyan; outside of these communities, women have achieved full equality in the service.
Batlan: Yiddish for “a good-for-nothing.”
“Compare and contrast” is not only a classic high school essay assignment but the very essence of what you are all about. Your sense of self depends on comparing and contrasting. But what happens when you are dealing with something that has no other with which to be compared?
This is the problem you face when you try to imagine God. God cannot be separated from the rest of reality, so no comparing and contrasting is possible. Trying to know God in this way is like trying to bite your own teeth or smell your own nose. It just can’t be done.
Knowing God becomes the ultimate koan: the ultimate mind-game that leads to awakening. If you persist with the puzzle, your ego-self dissolves, and there is a knowing that has nothing to do with you as the knower. This is what Reb Yaakov Yitzchak discovered every time he tried to imagine what God is like. His mind collapsed, and he fainted. That is, his sense of separate self dissolved into the nonduality of God as the Source and substance of all reality. He was, as the Maggid said, a batlan, good for nothing: good for the No-thing that is God.