It took me years to put my finger on why I find the teachings of the Hasidic master Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitz (1800-1854) so compelling. In time, I came to realize that they were showing me exactly what I was seeking. That is, after you understand the text of the Torah, and have explored the rabbinic insights, and the Hasidic innovation, after you absorb the rich allusions, the novel ideas… all of that effort is just a pre-requisite for the real job.
They showed me how to read with my heart, how to read with my life.
Here is one such teaching.
On the threshold of freedom, the Israelites are commanded to take the Pascal lamb and slaughter it. “Draw out and take for yourselves a lamb …(and) slaughter the Passover offering” (Exodus 12:21). How is that action supposed to free them from their intertwined identity with Egypt? The talmudic sages, noticing the double language “draw out and take,” suggest an answer. They explain the verse to mean, “remove your hands from idol worship and take for yourselves the commanded lamb.” To separate yourself from Egyptian culture, take the very animal that your Egyptian taskmasters worship, and free yourself from it. Strip away your associations with that foreign culture by taking the same lamb — and for the opposite purpose: to be used as a way to mark your freedom.
The Ishbitzer is concerned with the possibility of change. How can people change their inner drives, their negative attachments and their very nature? How may one remove oneself from avodah zara, idol worship, which he reframes as influences that are foreign to your true essential self?
What grabbed me was seeing how the Ishbitzer applies his teaching to real life. He takes this pivotal moment in Jewish spiritual history as a model for us all. What is the successful path for change? How do we remove our hands, in his case, our inner thoughts from “foreign worship,” from destructive and undermining thoughts, and reattach ourselves to positive ones?
Well, he teaches, it depends on what is driving the change.
He examines two ways to forge change, one of which works and one that does not. The first he calls the “straight path” and the other way, “hedged with thorns,” he calls, the lazy person’s path (Proverbs 16:19).
The lazy person is someone who is always focused on refraining. This person expends a lot of energy abstaining from prohibited actions, negative thoughts, and destructive desires. But he does so, not because of the love for God, but because he thinks that if he behaved otherwise, it would not be profitable, or he fears his reputation will be tarnished if he engages in those activities. Such a person, says Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, will never be free, he will always be tormented and in a constant state of self-denial.
This path does not work, because the one who treads it will never be done emptying out those negative thoughts. “The heart is not free from thoughts and desires even for one moment,” says Rabbi Yosef, “and the moment you repress desire from your heart, your heart will fill up with thoughts of anger or something else… just as you remove one negative thought, it will fill up with another negative though and so on…”
So how does a person get out of this ineffective loop?
The “straight path,” teaches the Ishbitzer, is where “one removes these negative thoughts for a positive reason, because of your love for the Holy One Blessed Be He. This is the good path, for when you remove from your heart a negative thought, what will remain in your heart will be the love of God.”
To be free is to liberate our conscious mind from the tyranny of negative, reactive, and random thinking. The love of the Holy One Blessed Be He reframes our motivation. It is not easy and not obvious. The way assumes a potent hidden reality of Divine love, which, with meditative effort, you can direct your mind to experience as the sustaining root of your very existence.
When we remove negative thoughts we are not left with a barren emptied self; rather, we can access our essential self, whose wellspring is the Holy One Blessed Be He.