Yaakov Klein
Author, Musician, and Lecturer

‘A Letter from Berel the Chassid’ – R’ Hillel Zeitlin

The following is a translation from an essay written by R’ Hillel Zeitlin Hy”d (1871–1942), a unique figure in the Yiddish literary community of pre-war Poland. Raised in a Chabad family, R’ Hillel was recognized as a child genius and an elevated soul at a very young age. After a years-long foray into the secular world of the “Haskalah”, R’ Hillel forsook that lifestyle and returned to religious observance and Torah study, which he wrote about extensively and intensely engaged with until his murder in the Warsaw ghetto by the hands of the accursed Nazis, wrapped in his tallis and tefillin and holding a copy of the Zohar HaKadosh. Hashem yinkom damo. 

In this highly autobiographical piece, R’ Hillel captures the struggle, joy, loneliness, and inner drama of “an elevated soul”. This essay will be”H appear as an appendix to my upcoming book on Rebbe Nachman’s The Lost Princess, “The Story of Our Lives”. 

(This essay appears in Hebrew as the fourth chapter of the book, “B’Pardes HaChassidus”)

R’ Hillel Zeitlin. The background is a picture of his younger years as a secular philosopher. The inset is a portrait of R’ Hillel in his later years, a pious chassid and Torah scholar once more.

You know who I am? I am Berel the Chassid. Sometimes dark like the blackness of night, sometimes shining like the light of day. Sometimes descending and buried in the ground, and sometimes lifted beyond; soul hovering in the upper realms, heart becomes light, eyes shining, feet carrying themselves. I sing the Rebbe’s niggun then, I burst into a little dance, entirely filled with happiness and rejoicing.

I am often lost among barren paths and desolate deserts, searching for a way nearby that will lead to the Moshiach. It always appears to me as if it is here, here, I can see it! Here, I have found it!

I can perceive from afar something which appears to be a small flame. It is likely that this is the light of Moshiach. I quicken my pace and draw close, only to find a piece of rotten wood, the trick of a scoffer.

I walk and I walk, I search and I seek, but I do not find a path or a way. I have grown old upon my footsteps, tired and sick, broken and shattered.

In this moment a desire arises within me to forsake this journey entirely. What is this eternal search?

The One who sits in heaven laughs. God is mocking us. Relishing it all, in His hidden places.

He is hidden, but we desire to find Him. We are obligated to reveal Him.

And so I continue to roam, wandering wherever my eyes lead me.

In my searching and wandering I am oftentimes trapped by mountains of darkness. I become acquainted with all forces of impurity, defiled by all kinds of impure desires and sins.

All kinds of Kelipos (impure forces) call to me: “Come to us! Come with us! All the treasures of heaven and earth are found in our hands! We will give you everything, and the crown of the Satan shall nod to you.”

But in that very moment, I suddenly hear the Bas Kol cry out, “Return, my wayward children!”

It is the Bas Kol which emerges day after day, calling for teshuvah. Has anybody ever heard it? Not a single person. If nobody hears it, why then does it emerge?

This Bas Kol manifests in the thoughts of teshuvah which give no rest even to the greatest sinner.

It is only that man pretends as if he doesn’t hear, as if he doesn’t know. He magnifies his sin and sinks further into the forty-nine gates of impurity solely to banish the thoughts of teshuvah, to quiet the voice.

But my ears hear this Bas Kol very well. My heart feels these thoughts of teshuvah in all of their intensity. No attempt at banishing them will help, no attempt at quieting them will work.

I am hereby notifying all scoffers: Leave me. Leave! You have not yet found the address you seek. I have no connection with you.

And so I once more take up the walking stick in my hand, sling my sack over my shoulder, and proceed to seek out different ways.

In this moment it is clear to me that I am obligated to search. This is the reason the Creator fashioned His world, so that man would constantly search but never find.

The craft of searching is a unique endeavor. Man never finds; he searches eternally. And the more he searches, the more he is able to stand with courage against all kinds of difficult trials, the more he succeeds in these tests, the more he rises and is strengthened, the more he becomes transformed into a better and more refined person.

Without question, one will fall quite frequently. Yes, at times one will even break one’s bones. No amount of effort or wisdom can change this, because this is the way it needs to be. If you want to rise higher and higher, on and on, you are going to need to also fall from time to time.

The opponents to the Chassidic way, those who follow the path of Mussar, say that I am not balanced. Even our own men call me “the failure”. Of course, both groups are fools.

It’s one thing to hear from the opponents, about whom much has already been said. Yes, it has already been known for some time that these men cry only when whipped and laugh only when tickled… How could they possibly understand a person who laughs and cries, experiences ecstasy and depression, searches for something but doesn’t find, constantly rolls around, never finding peace?  These people understand only one thing: sit next to the fireplace, bind yourself to the Gemara day and night, gather mitzvos upon mitzvos, more and more mitzvos, gather a tremendously large bundle and you will be able to trade it all in for a choice cut of the Levi’asan in the World to Come.

For all intents and purposes, they are what they call in your language “Capitalists.” The only difference is that the capitalists gather this-worldy capital while these gather the capital of the World to Come.

But even our own men, those who are expected to know and understand – even they have failed to comprehend this.

Sure, they have learned that “descent is for the purpose of ascent”. They even know what is written in the seforim hakedoshim that the tzaddik himself must frequently descend from his elevated level. But they don’t truly understand the definition of “descent”.

They think that “descent” means to fall from the chair to the floor, that “ascent” means to climb up to the roof. However, the truth of the matter is that “descent” means to fall from the highest mountaintop to the very bottom of the deepest pit and yet, if there is still some life force left in you, to try to dig and proceed, to rise even higher.

But they are not able to understand things like this. Indeed, our men are yarei-Shomayim, but with limited vision.

How does the song go?

Mother sent us to gather walnuts

To gather walnuts.

Oh, how high are the walnuts!

Oh, how short are the children!

They do not reach.

They do not reach.

Yes, elevated visions are not fit for their immature minds. They understand everything in a constricted way: a small aveirah, a small mitzvah; a small act of mischief and then immediately “Hashiveinu!”, the return. One, two, three and they are finished!

They will not be able to attain Mochin D’Gadlus, expanded consciousness. They are able to understand neither big aveiros nor big mitzvos, they do not understand how it possible to be within the Kelipos and yet to remain alive.

All of this is beyond their understanding. You can argue with them day and night in the hope that they will attain broad visions, but you will accomplish nothing. It appears that for this, one needs to have been born with an elevated soul.

But very few elevated souls descend to our world. Generally, immature souls descend; impoverished, scared, mediocre. Go try speaking to them about lofty worlds!

It is possible that they will, at times, understand that hidden worlds exist, but they will never understand their makeup, their inner nature.

They can even be great Kabbalists, but they will only be experts in the names of the worlds alone. Even if they recognize all of those places, they will never truly decode the composition of those worlds. This is comparable to a person who sits in Warsaw and knows that there exists a city called Paris. Even if he will learn the names of all the Parisian streets and attractions from books, this does nothing to change the reality that he has never been there. They speak about elevated worlds, hidden worlds, but they were never there. What, then, is the big wonder when they don’t understand what “descent” means, what “ascent” means, what is the nature of this eternal search after the nekudas ha’emes, the kernel of truth.

And so I have left them all behind, both the warm Chassidim as well as their cold detractors, and I have embarked to wander across the expanse of the globe.

About the Author
Yaakov Klein is an author, lecturer, and musician sharing the inner light of the Torah, His books "Sparks from Berditchov" and "Sunlight of Redemption" (Feldheim), as well as his numerous articles on various topics, have reached and inspired many thousands of Jews all over the world. His next book, "The Story of Our Lives", an in-depth elucidation of Rebbe Nachman's famous story, The Lost Princess, will be in stores soon. Stay tuned!
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