Hassidic Sayings for Teachers
Article first published online: 9 MAY 2014
© 2014 Association for Religion and Intellectual Life
Volume 64, Issue 1, pages 131–134, March 2014
How to Cite
Maller, R. A. S. (2014), Hassidic Sayings for Teachers. CrossCurrents, 64: 131–134. doi: 10.1111/cros.12059
- Issue published online: 9 MAY 2014
- Article first published online: 9 MAY 2014
What can liberal Jews and Protestants learn from the sayings of a pious, ultra-orthodox. Mystical sect of East European Jews? More than we might expect. I first learned about Hassidism when in the early 60's I read “Tales of the Hassidism” by Martin Buber, a German Jewish philosopher who taught at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Buber was popular among Jewish and Protestant thinkers in the 1950–1970's for his emphases on directly encountering God by personally experiencing a spiritual relationship with God, and all of God's creation.
Buber asserted more than a half century ago that, “the purpose of all great religions and religious movements is to engender a life of elation and fervor which no (later) experience can dampen and stifle.” God's love can be experienced in many ways; but its outcome is always a form of redemption. In this light, I offer a sample of Hassidic insights that I believe can be used by both Christians and Jews to find the trust in God that leads to redemption.
For many people, Hassidic Jews are noticeable because of their Amish-like dress and ultra orthodox behavior. But it is their unique stress on trusting in God and elevating one's soul through joyful religious activities that makes them distinctive.
There are many ups and downs in the life of every person and every nation. How an individual or a community meets the challenges of life is strongly influenced by the mind-set one has prior to the challenge. Reacting with despair, discouragement, and helplessness reduces the chances of overcoming obstacles. Reacting with hope, faith, and confidence increases the chances of a successful response.
One of the strengths of religion is that it prepares its adherents to deal with adversity from a larger perspective than ‘just my bad luck’ self-pity and resentment. By avoiding despair, we avoid defeat. The following stories and sayings give a taste of the inner life of pious Hassidim.
Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn taught, “When people suffer they should not say—That's bad, that's bad! Nothing that God imposes on us is bad. But it is all right to say—That's bitter! For there are some medicines that are made with bitter herbs.” Some people are embittered by adversity, while others are strengthened by it. How we react depends in large measure on our attitude. Making oneself a victim leads to self-pity, hopelessness, and despair. But you do not have to entirely ignore or deny your pain. It is O.K. to say it's bitter as long as you also think—I can make something positive from this.
Rabbi Simcha Bunam taught, “Everyone should have two pockets, so you can reach into one or the other according to your needs. In the right pocket should be the words—For my sake was the world created. And in the left pocket the words—I am dust and ashes.”.
When we are defeated, depressed, discouraged, or down on ourselves, we need to remind ourselves that we are created in the image of God. When we are self-centered, insensitive, self-righteous, or conceited, we need to remind ourselves that we are only one of six billion. We need both messages equally, but since most of us are right handed we need the former more frequently than the latter.
Rabbi Nakhman of Bratzlav said: “The whole world is one long narrow bridge, so it is essential not to be afraid.” Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh said: “What a good and bright world this is if we do not lose our hearts, but what a dark world, if we do!” And a Hassidic Sage who was near death got up and danced. When they tried to stop him he said, “This is exactly the time to dance.” He then told them a story and concluded, “When they come to you with a very difficult demand, that is exactly the time to dance.”
Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov (1700–1760), the founder of Hassidism stated, “Although sadness and dejection may not be listed as sins by the Torah, yet, they can lead one to the lowest levels. Being joyous and happy may not be listed as Mitsvot by the Torah, yet, they can lead a person to the greatest spiritual heights!”
Once on the holiday of Simhat Torah, the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov were at his home dancing and drinking. After several hours, the Baal Shem Tov's wife said she was worried they would drink up all the wine in the cellar, and there would be none left for the Shabbat blessing. Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov, told her she was correct. Go tell them to stop.
She went to the room where they were dancing and saw a ring of blue light around the dancing men.
Then she herself went to the cellar and returned with a jug of wine in each hand.
Rabbi Mordecai of Lekhovitz taught, “We must not worry. Only one worry is permitted. We can worry about being worried.”
Rabbi Ya'akov Leiner of Izbica-Radzyn said: “As long as Adam remained awake, the feminine aspect of humanity was indiscernible. Only after God cast Adam into a deep sleep could the feminine emerge.” and “God, ultimately, will make it clear that, in truth, Adam ate only from the good part [of the knowledge of good and evil tree] thus, there was no sin. It only seemed so to Adam.”
Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak of Apt told this tale about himself. Once when I was walking along a road by myself, I came upon a huge hay wagon which had overturned. A Christian peasant standing beside the wagon called out to me, begging me to help him lift up the wagon. I knew that the Torah says (Deuteronomy 22:4) that it is a Mitsvah to help someone in a situation like this, but I was sure I was inadequate to do it; so I replied,” I cannot do it”.
He replied that I could, but I was not willing. That struck me to the heart. So we took some boards and inserting them under the wagon as levers, and using all our strength, we lifted the wagon upright. Then together we lifted the bales of hay and placed them on the cart. I asked the peasant if I could walk with him along the road and he said, “come right along brother”.
We trod along together. Then I asked him why he had said I was unwilling to help him. He replied, “Because you said you could not do it. No one knows if he can do something until he has tried it.” “But why did you think I could do it?’ I asked.
He answered that he needed help; and he thought maybe I had come along this way, at this time, to help him. I smiled and said,” Soon you will tell me that your wagon overturned in order that I might help you.” and he said, “Of course brother, what else.”
This tale is taken from Rabbi Rami Shapiro's Hasidic Tales, and makes reference to kashrut, the Jewish kosher dietary laws. “Reb Yaakov Yitzchak of Pshishchah, the Yid Ha'Kodesh, once ordered his senior disciple, Reb Simcha Bunem, to make a journey to a distant Jewish hamlet. When he inquired as to the purpose of the journey, the Yid HaKodesh remained silent.
Reb Simcha Bunem took several hasidim with him and left on the journey. The sky had already turned to dusk by the time they arrived at their destination. Because the town had no inn, Reb Simcha Bunem ordered his coachman to stop at the first cottage. He knocked at the door, and was invited in, along with his students. When they asked whether they could join their host for dinner, the man replied that he had no dairy food and could offer them only a meat meal.
Instantly, the hasidim began to bombard him with pointed questions about his level of kosher observance. Who was the ritual shohet butcher? Was the meat salted sufficiently to draw out all traces of blood? The interrogation would have continued further, had not a commanding voice called out to them from the back of the cottage. They turned their attention from the owner of the home to the source of the voice, a man in beggar's clothing.
My dear Hasidim,” the beggar said. “With respect to what goes into your mouths, you are very scrupulous. Yet with respect to what comes out of your mouths, you make no inquiries at all!”
When Reb Simcha Bunem heard these words, he knew at last the reason for this journey. He nodded respectfully to the beggar, thanked the housekeeper for his concern and hospitality, and returned to the wagon, saying to his students, “Come, we are now ready to not only eat kosher, but to be kosher.”