The Making of a Rebbe

Several Hasidim of Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk were visiting the town of Tomashov, singing the praises of their teacher. One of the townspeople was stunned by the news that Menachem Mendel was a rebbe.

“Why, he and I were classmates! We went to cheder together as young children! A rebbe! How marvelous!”

Learning that they had a boyhood friend of their rebbe’s in their midst, the Hasidim pestered him for information about Menachem Mendel as a young man. The man insisted there was nothing to tell, nothing special about his friend. He was a boy like all others, the man insisted.

Just as the Hasidim were about to take leave of the man, he said: “No, wait! I do remember something. Once our melamed took us all out to celebrate Lag b’Omer with a picnic held high in the mountains beyond Tomashov. After the picnic, we all returned home together. All, that is, but Menachem Mendel. He was no longer among us.

“We raced back up the mountain and found him lying face down on the mountainside, his arms and legs outstretched as far as they could go. He was hugging the mountain with all his might and speaking directly to the earth.

“Our teacher went over to him and listened to what he was saying. He heard Menachem Mendel repeating the phrase ‘My heart and my flesh sing praises to the living God’ over and over and over again.”


Menachem Mendel’s love of God revealed to him even as a boy that creation was God manifest. Heaven and earth, the sacred and the mundane, the One and the many are all God. God is not an abstraction, an idea. God is the Source and substance of all reality. God is embraced not in some ethereal realm, but here and now in the birthing and dying of the natural world. Menachem Mendel was a rebbe because he saw God everywhere as everything, and he did not refrain from embracing the One as the many.


Cheder: Elementary school.

Melamed: Tutor.

Lag b’Omer: The thirty-third day (lag in Hebrew) of the Counting of the Omer. The omer (sheaf) is an offering of new barley brought to the Temple on the second day of Passover. Rabbinic custom is to count fifty days beginning with the second day of Passover to the holy day of Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. This period is marked as a time of serious introspection as we move from Egypt to Sinai, from slavery to freedom. The thirty-third day of Omer, however, is set aside as a day of rejoicing and is often celebrated with picnics and bonfires.

Published in: on February 26, 2011 at 1:08 am  Leave a Comment  

The Rebbe’s Love

Sarah, the daughter of Reb Menachem Mendel of Vizhnitz, lived with her husband in his father’s home in Belz. It happened that she fell ill, and to keep her father informed the son-in-law sent daily telegrams to Reb Menachem Mendel to update him on her status.

One day no telegram arrived, and the rebbe became very distressed. His son, Reb Baruch, tried to comfort him. “It is still not too late for a telegram to arrive,” he said. “There is probably some holdup with the deliveries.” Several hours later, a telegram did arrive, informing the rebbe that his daughter had made a full recovery.

Reb Baruch heard this and went to rejoice with his father. Expecting to find the rebbe relieved, he was shocked to find his father weeping.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “Sarah is fine, thank God, and you are not consoled?”

The rebbe said, “Trait by trait I have purified my character in order to make myself a pure klee Elohim. But there was one trait that I found almost impossible to master: loving my neighbor as myself. I had finally arrived at a state where I could love all people as I love your sister, you, and myself. All week long I receive letters and telegrams telling me of the pain and suffering of my neighbors, and yet this one telegram is late and I react not as a rebbe but as a father. I still love you more than them. And for this I am quite sad.”


Can you ever love your neighbor as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18)? Or, more importantly, would you want to? Reb Menachem Mendel thought it could be done and must be done. He wanted his heart opened so wide as to embrace even strangers as his own kin. And yet, he couldn’t do so. He saw this as a failure, but would we?

On the contrary, we love in concentric circles. We begin with ourselves. If we can truly love, honor, and respect ourselves, then we can do the same for others. The first “other” is our family; then our spouse, partner, and children; then our community; then our ethnic group; then all people; then all beings; then the world as a whole. But these loves are not equal in passion. I will never love a stranger’s son as I love my own, but I can nevertheless know how to treat him with honor and respect because I have learned from doing so with my own.

Menachem Mendel thought that you must love everyone the same. He is wrong. To love someone is to love what is unique about that person. Love is not a one-size-fits-all emotion. It is truest when it is unique to the person being loved. Indeed, a one-size-fits-all love threatens to erase the very things that make each person valuable.


Klee Elohim: (literally, “a godly vessel”): One who is required to free the self from all personal likes and dislikes, following only the will of God and erasing all traces of self and selfishness.

Published in: on February 19, 2011 at 1:12 am  Leave a Comment  

Salvation through Joy

A wedding party once passed by the home of Reb Zusya of Hanipoli. The rebbe raced outdoors and danced before the bride and groom with joyous abandon. When he returned indoors, his family was waiting for him, scowling. “It is unseemly for the rebbe of Hanipoli to dance at some strangers’ wedding,” they said.

Reb Zusya smiled and said, “I will tell you a story: Once, when I was a young student, my rebbe scolded me severely. He later asked my forgiveness, which, of course, I was eager to give. But that night the ghost of his father awakened me, saying, ‘I have but one son left on this earth, and you would destroy him because he criticized you?’

“I explained that I had indeed forgiven him, but the ghost said, ‘You do not know the meaning of forgiveness.’ In an instant he transported me to the mikveh.  ‘Immerse yourself three times,’ the ghost said, and each time affirm that you have forgiven my son.’ I did as I was told, and when I came out of the mikveh, the ghost shone with the light of the noonday sun.

“Seeing my amazement, the rebbe said, ‘This light is my true face. It comes in fulfillment of three rules: honoring others, forgiving others, and being generous toward others. You honor and are generous, but you could not see it until you had experienced the joy of complete forgiveness.”‘

Reb Zusya paused for a moment, and his wife said, “And what does all of this have to do with my husband dancing like a madman at those strangers’ wedding?”

“Ah, yes!” Reb Zusya continued. “What my rebbe’s father had attained through his three laws, I attain through pure joy. It is joy that reveals our true nature! So when I saw the wedding party, I remembered this teaching and raced outside to participate fully in the principle of joy!”


Here are two paths to enlightenment. The way of Dov Ber’s father takes us on an arduous journey of self-discipline, slowly stripping away the stains that sully the window through which the pure light of God is streaming. The second is way of Reb Zusya: opening the window without cleaning it, allowing the light to flood in and bathe you in pure divine ecstasy. There are value and danger in both paths.

If you clean the window, the value is the purifying of your character that prepares you to receive the Divine Light and use it for the good. The danger is that you will obsess over every stain and never experience the Light. If you open the window, the value is the immediate experience of bliss. The danger is that you have not prepared your character to receive it and cannot use it for anything but self-aggrandizement.

Perhaps for most of us, the best way is a blending of these two paths. Cleanse the window while it is open; experience the Presence of God and use that experience to cleanse the self of selfishness.

There is, however, a third path: throw a brick through the window, and shatter the glass once and for all. Just remember to clean up the mess afterward.


Mikveh (literally, “a gathering place of water”): Ritual bath. Along with the synagogue and beis midrash (religion school), the mikveh has been a central institution of Jewish communal life since ancient times. First mentioned in Leviticus 11:36 as a means for purifying people and utensils, the mikveh was used by the Hasidim as a means of cleansing themselves of impure and selfish thoughts before Shabbat.

Published in: on February 12, 2011 at 1:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Alien Thoughts

A Hasid once visited the Chozeh of Lublin, Reb Yaakov Yitzchak, to complain of alien thoughts that would invade his mind and make prayer impossible for him.

“And what thoughts trouble you?” the Seer asked.

The man then went on to catalog a great list of thoughts: His business was not as good as it could be, his customers owed him too much, his competitors were undermining his profits, his wife was not satisfied with their livelihood, his daughters needed dowries, his son was not the talmid chacham he had prayed for, and on and on.

When he had finished, the Chozeh said, “Alien thoughts? My dear friend, these are not alien thoughts at all. Why, they are clearly thoughts that are quite at home in your mind!”


What are the thoughts that haunt you? Most likely they are legion. Yet, they probably all have one thing in common: They are thoughts of dissatisfaction. Things are simply not the way you wish them to be. Are these alien thoughts? Not at all. They are your everyday musings.

What our Hasid desires is to clear his mind of these thoughts. Can you do this? Or is the thought of a clear mind yet another variation of the same thought that always haunts you: “I am dissatisfied”?

There is only one way to deal with these thoughts: Let them be. If you try to rid yourself of “alien thoughts,” you are only adding more dissatisfaction to your life. If you try to change your mind during prayer, you will only add to the conflict that muddies the mind and makes prayer difficult.

So what can you do? “Commune with your heart and be still” (Psalm 4:5). To commune with your heart is to be present to the thoughts and feelings that arise. Notice them, but don’t engage them. That is what it is to “be still.” Don’t move; don’t run after the thought to investigate it or change it. Simply note it, and let it be.

And do not think that in this way you will be rid of such thoughts. The goal isn’t to be rid of anything but to be present to everything. What you will discover in stillness is not the end of such thoughts but your capacity to hold them without having them take hold of you. You are like the sky making room for clouds and yet not being attached to cloudiness. This is true prayer: communing with our hearts in stillness.


Chozeh: Seer, from hazah “see”.
Talmid chacham (literally, “wise student”): Scholar.

Published in: on February 5, 2011 at 1:13 am  Leave a Comment