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.
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.