It was the custom of the Hasidim of Reb Shnuer Zalman of Liadi for newer students to postpone their first private visit with the rebbe until after they had studied the basic philosophy and practices of HaBaD Hasidism with the rebbe’s senior students. In this way, they hoped to use the time they would have with the rebbe to deal with deeper things.
In following this custom, Reb Yitzchak Aizik of Homil spent two and a half years preparing for this first yechidus. On his way to visit his rebbe, he passed through the town of Kazan, near Polotzk. Seeing as this was the home of one of his rebbe’s senior students, Reb Shaul, he thought it both wise and correct to drop in on the rabbi and pay his respects.
Learning that Reb Yitzchak Aizik was on his way to visit the rebbe, Reb Shaul said, “I once heard this from the very first Hasidim. It seems that when our rebbe created the HaBaD way of divine practice, he announced, ‘Six months shall one spend with oils of myrrh, and six months with perfumes, before coming to me for yechidus.'”
Seeing that the meaning of this was lost on Reb Yitzchak Aizik, he said, “The oils of myrrh refer to meditations that give rise to m’rirut, the bitterness caused by seeing deeply into all one’s flaws and selfishness. The perfume is what is left after the oil has gone. What is left? A deep sensitivity to God manifest in the world around you. All this should be done before one goes to the rebbe for yechidus.”
Hearing this, Reb Yitzchak thanked Reb Shaul and returned home for another twelve months of preparation.
Reb Yitzchak Aizik studied the externals, but the rebbe wants to encounter the heart. What good is knowing lots of ideas, or mastering complex and esoteric practices, when you are still ignorant of yourself? At the heart of spiritual awakening is the discovery that the self that is struggling to awaken is in fact that which is blocking the awakening. All this so-called spiritual mastery allows the ego to grow into megalomania, mistaking itself for God. The real work is to observe the slippery oil of ego and experience the bitterness at its root: the fear, anxiety, greed, ignorance, and anger that define it. The more you see the ego for what it is, the weaker the ego becomes. At last, all that remains is the perfume: just enough of a sense of self to function well in the world, but not enough to hamper your seeing God in, as, and through the world. Now you are ready to see the rebbe.
HaBaD: The school of Hasidism founded by Reb Shneur Zalman. HaBaD is an acronym for Hokhmah, Binah, Da’at, three aspects of the Divine Mind experienced by humans as intuition, reason, and awareness.
Yechidus (from the Hebrew yachad, unity): A private interview between Hasid and rebbe wherein the latter explores the former’s soul to help direct the Hasid toward enlightenment.
M’rirut (bitterness): A contrite and humble state of mind that arises when one takes stock of one’s thoughts, words, and deeds and realizes how far they are from the ideal. This feeling is a catalyst for improving the quality of one’s life as expressed through thoughts, words, and deeds.