During a visit with Reb Yaakov Yitzchak, the Chozeh of Lublin, a schoolmaster from Goray, was told, “There exists in your town a hidden spark of God that needs nurturing. Locate this spark and bring it to me.”
Understanding Reb Yaakov Yitzchak to mean that Goray was home to a fledgling saint, the schoolmaster returned home and spent the night hiding in the beis midrash. “If there is a hidden saint among us,” he thought to himself, “he will surely come to study when all others have gone home to sleep.”
That night Menachem Mendel, an odd fellow thought to be illiterate and perhaps insane, entered the beis midrash. Opening a volume of Talmud, he stood on one foot and entered into pure ecstasy as he read aloud from the text. The schoolmaster was stunned. To be certain this was not a fluke, he spent several nights in hiding; each night at midnight Menachem Mendel sneaked into the beis midrash and slipped into paradise.
On the fourth night, a bit of dust lodged in the schoolmaster’s throat, and he coughed aloud. Menachem Mendel slammed his book closed, leaped over to the stove, and began clapping his hands loudly and babbling insanely. The schoolmaster came out of hiding and spoke to him: “Please stop. I am not here to reveal your secret but to tell you that the Chozeh of Lublin wishes me to take you to him.” Menachem Mendel set out immediately for Lublin.
When Menachem Mendel’s father, a misnaged, heard of his son’s departure, he rode off after him hoping to bring him back home. Finding his son, he said, “Why are you forsaking the tradition of your fathers?”
Menachem Mendel replied softly and firmly, “I am following the teaching of Torah. First, Torah tells us ‘This is my God and I will praise Him. (Exodus 15:2)’ Only later do we read ‘This is my father’s God, and I will exalt Him.”(Exodus 15:2)’
The spiritual journey begins with a radical call to freedom: “God said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, from your kin, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you'” (Genesis 12:1). If Abram was to follow God, he must free himself from everything that made him who he was: the norms of his country, tribe, and family.
God is the unconditioned and unconditionable. God is whatever God will be (Exodus 3:14) and cannot be fixed into any system of thought. So, too, the divine spark is within you. You are the image and likeness of God; you, too, are essentially and radically free, and only when you realize that freedom do you realize your potential as God manifest. You honor your past by claiming your destiny, not by imitating the old but by embracing the new and uncharted.
Beis midrash: Communal house of study.
Talmud: The authoritative collection of Jewish law and lore compiled around the year 500 C.E. and containing teachings spanning the previous seven hundred years. The word Talmud comes from the Hebrew root I-m-d, meaning to study or to teach.
Misnaged (literally, “opponent;” plural misnagedim): A derogatory term applied by the Hasidim to their traditionalist adversaries in Eastern Europe. The misnagedim opposed the “cult” of the rebbe, the introduction of rites common to Oriental (Sephardi) Jews, and the lack of emphasis on scholarship.