When Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810) returned home from his first visit to his rebbe, Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg, his father-in-law said, “And what did you learn there that you could not learn here?”
“I learned that there is a Creator of the universe,” Reb Levi Yitzchak replied.
“And for that you had to travel to Nikolsburg?” He then called to his maid and asked her, “What do you say? Is there a Creator of the universe?”
“Of course!” she said.
“Nu?” Reh Levi Yitzchak’s father-in-law said.
Reb Levi Yitzchak responded, “She says, I know.”
Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg (1726-1778): Hasid of Dov Ber of Mezritch, who focused on generosity as the center of his spiritual life.
Nu: Yiddish expression for “So?”
What do you know? What do you know the way you know you are hungry after a long fast? It is this kind of knowing that Reb Levi Yitzchak experienced at the rabbinic court of Shmelke of Nikolsburg. It is this kind of knowing — a firsthand kind of knowing — that is at the heart of true spiritual awakening.
Too often we make do with secondhand knowing. We mistake concepts for truth. We know that God is one, but we do not experience oneness. We know that God is love, but we do not experience compassion. We know that God is good, but we do not experience goodness. We know that God is just, but we do not experience justice.
We are filled with a secondhand knowing; we master the menu and never eat the meal; we worship the map and never walk the territory. It is not hard to be filled with such knowledge. Even the maid knows what we know, for she, no less than we, has been brought up on the same menu.
When the Israelites received the Torah at Mount Sinai they said, “Na’aseh v’nishmah: We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7). You would expect the order to be reversed: We hear first, and then do. But the deeper hearing, the deeper understanding, can come only from doing. Experience is the teacher; life is the rebbe.