When Reb Levi Yitzchak was asked to be the rabbi of Berditchev, he agreed on one condition: that the local leadership not draw him into their communal disputations unless they were about to make a new law.
Several months later, the leaders asked the rebbe to attend a town council. When he arrived, the council leader welcomed him. “We are honored by your presence, Rebbe, and in need of your advice. We are deliberating a new law making it illegal for the poor to knock on the doors of householders to request alms. Instead, they will be aided monthly from a newly formed community chest.”
The elder stopped and waited for the rebbe to speak. He expected to wait some time, as the council itself had taken months to come to this decision, but instead Reb Levi Yitzchak spoke up immediately.
“It was my understanding,” the rebbe said, “that you are to invite me to these meetings only if you are considering creating new laws –— laws without precedent. This case certainly doesn’t meet that requirement.”
Startled, the elder said: “Rebbe, this is indeed just such a law. There is no precedent for this procedure.”
Reb Levi Yitzchak shook his head sadly. “My friends, you are mistaken. This law can be traced all the way back to Sodom and Amora, for they too had a law that let people escape their responsibility to the poor.”
The council voted down the proposal then and there.
Being kind, generous, just, and holy is not convenient. It requires attention, self-restraint, and great discipline. Why? Because our instinct is not for holiness but for self-preservation. Our reptilian brain comes with a single set of encoded instructions: eat or be eaten; kill or be killed. This is not a moral judgment; there is no morality at the level of the reptilian brain. It is simply an observation. Morality comes with the neocortex, the higher brain, and to impose morality on the lower brain is as difficult and as dangerous as wrestling an alligator. Just as an alligator squirms to slip out of our arms, so the reptilian brain twists and turns to convince us that feeding its endless hungers is just and good.
And sometimes it works. We pass selfish laws draped in the trappings of compassion. We do this as a people, and we do this as individuals. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak knew this, and he made it clear to the legislators of Berditchev. To their credit, they saw the truth of his insight and did not pass their law. But what about you? You are also law abiding. You also make rules that govern your behavior and to which you can point to attest to your piety and righteousness. But is it true? Are these good laws, or just clever excuses for selfishness?
Whenever you are about to make another law for yourself, ask Levi Yitzchak to join the conversation. Ask him to judge whether this new law is for the welfare of others or simply to serve the needs of the self.
Levi Yitzchak (1740-1810): The most beloved Hasidic rebbe after the Baal Shem Tov, Levi Yitzchak was persecuted by the enemies of Hasidism and was forced to resign from several rabbinic posts before becoming the rebbe of Berditchev in Russia. His main teaching focused on humility. No matter what our achievements, we are as nothing before the majesty of God. Humility comes when we reflect on God’s infinite Presence in, with, and as all things.
Sodom and Amora: Sodom and Gomorra, legendary cities that were destroyed by God because of the violence, selfishness, and greed of their citizens.