Hasidut had been through four generations by around 1815. This first was that of the Baal Shem Tov and his sphere of influence. The second was the school of Dov Ber of Mezritch (the Maggid of Mezritch), the mentor of the group that spread Hasidut to wider regions than its birthplace in the Ukraine. The third generation was the students of the Maggid, among whom are the most famous names of early Hasidut, including Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk. Rav Elimelech developed a doctrine that would almost define the future course of Hasidut - the doctrine of the ‘Tzadik’ (Righteous Man). This doctrine realigned Hasidut from a popular movement in which God was equally accessible to all, to a movement based around a single master who had unique access to God. There is no question that this realignment was a major factor in the popularity of Hasidut among the masses of Eastern European Jewry. But there is also no question that it came at a price.
It essentially took the immediacy of God out of the hands of the common person by putting the Tzadik in as an intermediary. Rav Elimelech’s successor, the Seer of Lublin, furthered this doctrine until it became the central feature of most of Hasidut. The Seer died in 1815, completing the fourth generation, but not before his student, Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowicz, broke off from this trend to form his own brand of Hasidut in the town of Peshis’cha. Better known by his dramatic nickname, the Holy Yid (Jew), he set the Peshis’cha school off in a direction that eventually reached what almost became a historical dead end, but never quite died out altogether. The Yid’s idea was that Hasidut had gone off course with the ever-increasing reliance on the Tzadik. Each Jew had the perpetual task of struggling to become a ‘Jew’. This could only be done on one’s own. A Tzadik could be a guide, but not an intermediary. Hasidut had come full circle.
The Yid died at the early age of 48 after only a few years of leadership. His main student was Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshis’cha, an unlikely choice for a Hasidic leader. Upon the Yid’s death, he accepted the mantle of leadership in Peshis’cha and guided his Hasidim for 12 years. He stressed individuality and self-perfection, deep thought and intellectual purity. But most of all he stressed humility. His was not a path for the masses. Only certain individuals, all gifted scholars in their own right, were accepted to his inner circle. He expected them to develop themselves according to his lofty standards, and not simply rely on him, or any other Tzadik, to intercede on their behalf.
When he died in 1827, he left behind a large number of devoted followers, several of whom became Hasidic leaders on their own. Among them, and probably the greatest one, was a Menachem Mendel Morgenstern. He took over the leadership of the most gifted group of Peshis’cha Hasidim and set up shop in the nearby town of Kotzk. He was by far the most unusual of the many colorful Hasidic leaders. In fact, he was so unusual that he almost defies description. The ‘Kotzker’, as he is popularly known, expected nothing less than absolute dedication from any follower who called himself a Hasid of Kotzk. His critical outlook became famous, almost legendary.
He suffered a spiritual breakdown of sorts in 1839 on a Shabbat night. Exactly what happened has become part of Hasidic lore – meaning it is impossible to really know what it was. Versions range from ‘no big deal’ to blasphemy, but all agree that the Kotzker was a changed man from the experience. He went into seclusion, either self-imposed or enforced by his family, for the remainder of his life (until 1859). It was a tragic end to an incredibly gifted mind. Though he left many students, some who became major Hasidic leaders, none ever replaced him as a mover of a generation.
All of these men, the Holy Yid, Reb Simcha Bunim and the Kotzker, left no written works. The most famous expression of the Holy Yid was that God expected nothing else from him other than to be a Jew. From the other two, however, we do have plenty of sayings. Simcha Bunim is associated with a comment with which we are already familiar: A Hasid is a person who has notes in his two front pockets. On one it says, ‘The entire world was created for me’. On the other it says, ‘I am but dust and ashes’. Among the better known stories of the Kotzker is the following dialogue he had with a student: ‘Tell me, for what purpose was man created?’ The student replied, ‘To purify his soul’. ‘It is not so’, replied the Kotzker, ‘It is man’s duty to elevate the heavens’.
To be a Jew, notes in two pockets, elevating heaven – what is the common theme? Starting with the two pockets idea, this is the appointed path for those few who really want to go all the way. ‘The entire world was created for me’ is not an ego-driven selfish impulse. It is an expression of human greatness. I am worthy of this entire world. I possess within me the vast potential to be the purpose of all creation, the justification for reality. That is a heavy load to carry on one set of shoulders.
It is important to recognize that Reb Simcha Bunim stressed that this message should be carried as a note in one’s pocket. Who needs the note? A note is there as a reminder of something that needs reminding. This message needs reminding. We forget, in the hustle and bustle of life, in the maze of distractions that we wade through every day of our lives, this basic truth. Each one of us must carry this reminder around and look at it periodically to remember who we are and what our place is in the world. I am important, I am needed, I am a human being. I may be, on the one hand, a collection of chemicals mixed with some water and some other stuff; but on the other hand I am a soul with a will whose spiritual stature rivals that of the angels. This note is not merely a pep talk to get us out of a stupor of depression, though it may help in that situation. It is also the truth – each one of us is vital to God’s great plan.
The other note fends off the possibility of all this self importance intoxicating the ego into taking this the wrong way. We all have a need to feel proud of ourselves, and all too often this need boils over into self-infatuation. ‘Dust and ashes’ is not quite the same as ‘flesh and bones’. Our egos have no problem dealing with the latter. Everybody is flesh and bones, so why shouldn’t my flesh and bones be better than anybody else’s flesh and bones. Dust and ashes is an entirely different story. It means we are no different from the rocks and the mud that we walk on, the air we exhale, or the waste we excrete. This is not just an ego-stopper for those moments when we get too full of ourselves. It is a glimpse of the truth. We are dust and ashes. We are nothing in the big picture, despite all of our beliefs and desires otherwise. We must carry this note around also as a reminder of our place in the great scheme of things.
How does one carry around these two notes at once? What if a person somehow pulled them both out at the same time? Either one of these notes alone is difficult enough to fulfill, but the two of them together seems downright impossible, or superhuman. Has the Peshis’cha Hasid been given an impossible task? Perhaps this is where the Kotzker comes in. We were not meant to be mere human beings, purifying our souls and then going our merry way to the next world. That is all well and good, but it is not why we were created. The Kotzker held us to a higher standard – he demanded that we set our sights on elevating heaven.
God needs us to accomplish something that only we can do. This task is beyond the capabilities of the angels. Even God would find it daunting. We have to take those two notes and make them one. Only we, who are truly dust and ashes, can take that dust and ashes and make it worthy of creating a world. It is true that those two reminders are on separate notes and in separate pockets. But they are just reminders. We must remember them together, without the notes. This is a truly superhuman feat, one that God needs us to accomplish without any help from above. To transform that dust into spiritual gold is our eternal overriding task in life and in doing so we will be filling in a great gap in creation. If we cannot cause that transformation then nothing can, not even God. This is what it means to ‘elevate heaven’. God does the godly things and we do the human things, and we need each other. We need God to make and run a world. God needs us to transform that world.
This path is not recommended for everyone. Nobody really knows what happened to the Kotzker that night, and nobody has pieced together why he went into seclusion. His regiment of unyielding subservience to truth and superhuman standards may have been too much even for him. Maybe God does need us, but God may not want us to lose our minds to upgrade heaven. Everyone has to know his or her own limitations. Perhaps the Kotzker went too far in his mission. Perhaps one lesson that everyone must learn from his semi-tragic life is that God can only ask of us what we are capable of and no more. Hasidut went on after the Kotzker. His descendants became leaders and his students carried on his teachings. But more than anything else, he is remembered for his puzzling collapse. Beware of going too far in the spiritual journey.
In addition to this warning, there is another very practical lesson that survived the upheaval of Peshis’cha. There are many different roads to the same goal. The Kotzker challenged us to elevate heaven. Reb Simcha Bunim demanded of a Hasid that he carry the weight of those two notes. Both, in a sense, were offshoots of the simpler goal of their teacher, the Holy Yid. His goal, the task he set for himself, was to be a Jew. He could ask no more or no less of himself than this one thing. Perhaps Reb Simcha Bunim and even the Kotzker would have said that they were merely filling in a few details of what it means to be a Jew.
But maybe they would have said that they were following a Hasidic tradition that dates back one generation earlier to the legendary brother of Rav Elimelech, Rebbe Zusha of Anipoli. In a sense he was the alter ego of his illustrious brother, stressing his own humility over the lofty power of a Tzadik. His motto, as it has come down to us, was the following: ‘God will not ask of me why I wasn’t Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. They were who they were and it was not my task to be them. But God will ask me why I was not Zusha.’ This is a question that we will all be asked – to what degree have we succeeded in becoming who we can become. It is a question that demands of us both greatness and humility. It requires greatness to see and achieve our potential, and humility to desire nothing more than that.
Food for Thought
This meaning of life stuff is pretty hard. These guys ask an enormous amount from us. If it is so difficult, how can it be the purpose of life?
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