A Hassidic Rabbi, Israel Spira of Bluzhov, who was in the concentration camp of Bergen Belsen was asked to lite the Hanukkah lights made of string and shoe polish. The Rabbi lit the first light and chanted the first two blessings. Then he paused and looked around as if searching for something. After several seconds the Rabbi chanted the third blessing in a firmer, stronger voice.
A leader of the Warsaw Jewish Socialist League, Zishe Zamietchkowski, pushed his way up to the Rabbi after the ceremony and said that he could understand the Rabbi saying the first blessing; that Hanukkah was a Mitsvah-a Jewish duty. He could even understand the Rabbi saying the second blessing; that a miracle had occurred “in those days”.
But he could not understand how the Rabbi could recite the third blessing: that God had “kept us alive and enabled us to reach this season”. How can you bless God for enabling us to reach this season; when just that morning the SS guards had beaten and shot to death several dozen people.
Rabbi Spira answered that he too had hesitated to say the third blessing. But then he suddenly thought, if I am blessed to see all these Jews standing by the Hanukkah lights, listening to the Hanukkah blessings, in-spite of all the terrible things that have occurred, then I am under a special obligation to recite the third blessing.
Years later that socialist still told people how the answer of the Rabbi of Bluzhov had helped him survive during many hard and troubled times.
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. Judaism engenders optimism based on its stress on faithfulness to the covenantal partnership between God and the Jewish people.
The One who has always enabled our ancestors to overcome the many challenges they faced over the last 35 centuries can also help many of us to do the same.
By avoiding despair we avoid defeat. Martin Buber states that “the purpose of all great religions and religious movements is to engender a life of elation and fervor which no (later negative) personal experience can dampen and stifle”. With this in mind I would like to share some of my favorite Hassidic wisdom sayings.
Rabbi Nakhman of Bratzlav said: “The whole world is one long narrow bridge, so it is essential not to make oneself afraid.”
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 Barukh of Mezbizh once said: “What a good and bright world this is if we do not lose our hearts, but what a dark world, if we do!”
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 Shabbat. Rabbi Israel 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 (too much and too often).”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk asked, “Where can you find God? Other sages say that God is everywhere. I say God is wherever a person lets God in.”
He also replied to someone who reported that a man who had recently come to town was a miracle worker, by saying that producing miracles was not that difficult. The real challenge to to produce people who will believe in miracles.
Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol said, “My mother Mirl did not pray from a book because she could not read. All she knew was how to say the various blessings. But wherever she was when she said the morning blessings, that place radiated God’s presence the whole day.”
Rabbi Michal of Zlotchov once said to his children, “My life was always blessed in that I never needed anything until I had it.”
Rabbi Shelomo of Karlin taught, “What is the worst thing that Satan can accomplish? To make a person forget that he or she is a child of God.”
Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pzhysha taught, “The many sins most people commit are not great crimes. The great crime is that we are all capable of repentance/change/reform every day and we do not do it.”
Before his death, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol said: “In the next world they will not ask me-Why were you not Moses? Why were you not Rabbi Akiba? They will ask me-Why were you not Zusya?”
Soon after the death of Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin someone asked one of his disciples what was the most important thing to his teacher. The disciple thought and then replied, “Whatever he happened do be doing at the moment.”
Rabbi Mendel told his disciples: Souls descend from the higher world to our own by means of a ladder. Then the ladder is removed. Heaven calls the souls to return home. Some do not budge thinking it is impossible to rise to heaven without a ladder. Others jump up and fall back, jumping again and again until they fully despair of ever rising to heaven.
Some souls, however, are aware that falling is inevitable yet they try again and again until the Holy One seizes them and pulls them home.