A wealthy merchant once visited Reb Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch. He joined the rebbe and his Hasidim for a light meal.
“Tell me,” said the Maggid, “given your wealth and piety, what does a man such as yourself eat?”
The man was flattered that the Maggid referenced not only his wealth but also his devotion to this faith. After all, he worked hard at achieving both.
“Well, Rebbe,” the man said with great pride, “I could accustom myself to the finest foods, but I fear these would tempt me toward worldliness. So I make do with the diet of the poor: a slice of bread and a pinch of salt.”
“How dare you defame the Creator this way!” the Maggid cried. “You have been blessed with wealth and power, and yet you deny the legitimate pleasures that come with it. This is an insult to God, Who gave these things. From now on you are to eat meat and drink wine every day!”
The Maggid’s visitor was shocked; the Maggid’s Hasidim all the more so. When the man left, they begged their rebbe to explain his outburst. Obviously, this man was doing his best to free himself of the temptations of this world, and the Maggid had rebuked him for it.
“Perhaps,” the Maggid replied. “But I will tell you this: If this wealthy fellow grows accustomed to eating meat and drinking wine, he will certainly realize that the poor need to eat at least bread and salt. But if he, a rich man, can make do with bread and salt, then he will surmise that the poor can survive on water and stones.”
What is the one act at the heart of the deepest faith? Is it self-effacement? Humility? Scrupulous adherence to the rituals of one’s tradition? For Dov Ber, the one defining act of faith is generosity.
This rich and pious visitor saw his wealth as a test of his will. He could revel in his riches, but that would seem to suggest a lack of pious humility. So he did not live up to his means but instead took great pride in living well below them. In so doing, the merchant failed in several ways. First, he failed to enjoy the gifts life had bestowed upon him. In this he was ungrateful. Second, he failed to share his wealth with others. In this he was miserly. And third, he failed to realize the true nature of human service to God: being godly to others. In this he failed to love his neighbor as he loved himself. Or did he?
In fact, this wealthy merchant did love his neighbor as he loved himself. His problem was that he did not really love himself. Reb Dov Ber wanted this fellow to love himself so that he might love God and his neighbor. You are here to serve God by being godly toward your neighbor, the stranger, nature, and life itself. The gifts God gives you are to be shared.
The true lover of God is a lover of life and all the living. See what gifts you have been given, and honor them, rejoice in them, use them to the best of your ability. As you do, you will find a generosity of spirit that will open your heart and hand to share your gifts with others.
Reb Dov Ber of Mezritch (1704 [?]-1772): Successor to the Baal Shem Tov, Dov Ber provided Hasidism with a formal theology derived from kabbalistic teaching. Called the Maggid, or Preacher, Dov Ber spoke primarily to his inner circle of Hasidim, focusing on levels of teaching that the average person could not fathom. Essential to Dov Ber’s theology was the notion that God is the only reality, and all things are temporary manifestations of God.