Reb Yaakov Shimshon of Kosov loved to share with his students the stories of the great rebbes and their Hasidim. It once happened after morning prayer that the rebbe began to tell one story after another without stopping. He and his Hasidim were lifted to such a state of divine rapture that they stepped out of time. The day passed, and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that the rebbe told his final tale.
Slowly, Reb Yaakov and his disciples returned to the needs of the everyday world and realized that they had eaten neither breakfast nor lunch. One of the students stood up and honored his rebbe, saying: “Until this moment, Rebbe, I did not really understand Moshe Rabbeinu when he said that while on Mount Sinai he ate no bread and drank no water. Now I know what it is like to be filled with the very Presence of God and to feel no further need to eat or drink.”
Reb Yaakov nodded his appreciation to his student and said, “Your interpretation is a worthy one, my son, but perhaps Moshe was not celebrating his transcendence of food and drink, but regretting it? We know that everything in this world contains a spark of the Divine and that only when a thing is used properly is this spark uplifted and repaired to God, from Whom it came. This is no less true of food and drink than it is of books and tools. Moshe realized that in those forty days on Mount Sinai he neither ate nor drank and thus failed to uplift the divine sparks in his bread and water. In the World to Come, these sparks will complain to the Holy One that Moshe did them a grave disservice by putting his own love of God before their liberation.”
The way of Hasidism is never at the expense of this world. Your task is not to escape from this world but to hallow it. How? By engaging everything with the utmost respect and concern, and by not ignoring the physical even in the midst of the spiritual.
Reb Yaakov Shimshon’s teaching here is quite radical. Moses is the fully realized spiritual leader of the Israelite people. Can it be that even he was misdirected in his union with God? Can it be that mere bread and water can take precedent over communing with the source and substance of all reality? Yes! Even Moses –— or perhaps especially Moses –— needed to focus on the ordinary. The more spiritual you are, the more careful you must be not to separate yourself from the material.
God first appears to Moses in a burning bush (Exodus 3:1-10). Commentators have made much of the lowly character of the bush. It is nothing special. God manifests through the ordinary. When you see God in the ordinary, it may for the moment appear extraordinary, but it is the ordinariness of things that really matters.
For this reason, the Rabbis took great care in their dealings with everyday things. Honoring matter was a way of honoring God. Some believe that the material is opposed to the spiritual, but this is not true. Material is the way in which the spirit manifests in the world of the five senses. When you honor the material, you honor the spiritual.
Moshe Rabbeinu: Literally, “Moses our Teacher.” The Bible does not refer to Moses in this way. This is the title given to Moses by the Rabbis as a means of identifying him and his role with that of the Rabbis.
Sparks of God: The kabbalist Isaac Luria (1534-1572) taught that all things contain a spark of the Divine, and that the deepest spiritual work is to release those sparks and return them to God by using the things of this world in a righteous and honorable manner.