Of all Orthodox Jews, the ultra-Orthodox Hassidim who dress in black hats and clothing, are the most colorful. Their spirited melodies and wonder-filled stories still inspire many non-Orthodox Jews whose current lifestyles differ greatly from those of the ultra-Orthodox.
Although Hassidic Jews are noticeable because of their Amish like dress and ultra-Orthodox behavior; it is really their unique stress on overcoming anxieties by the power of hope and trust in God and by elevating one’s soul through joyful religious activities, that makes them distinctive.
Martin Buber, a German Jewish philosopher of Hassidism, who taught at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was popular among Jewish and Protestant thinkers in the 1950’s-1970’s for his emphases on directly encountering God by personally experiencing a spiritual relationship with God, and all of God’s creation, especially human beings.
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 (depressing or disappointing later) experience can dampen and stifle.”
God can be experienced in many ways; but the outcome of any true religious experience must always be a form of moral and spiritual redemption. In this light I offer three examples of Hassidic legend fables.
Rabbi Shmuel Arieh, who once lived in the village of Koshilovitz, where the Baal Shem Tov had worked as a shochet (butcher) before his great holiness was revealed, related this: “I met an 80 year old shohet in that village and I asked him if he had ever met a Jew who had actually met the founder of Hassidism, Rabbi Israel the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760).
The shohet answered that he had never met a Jew who had met the Baal Shem Tov, but he had met a Gentile who not only met Rabbi Israel but also recognized him. I questioned how a Gentile could possibly recognize a Jewish holy man who had not yet revealed himself even to Jews; and this was the shochet’s answer.”
“When I was a young man I used to lodge with a Gentile farmer. Whenever I would pour water on a stone before sharpening my slaughtering knife on it, the farmer’s grandmother, an old lady of 90 or 95, would shake her head.
I used to think this was due to her old age. One time I sensed she was doing it out of disapproval; so I asked her why do you shake your head while I work?”
She answered me, “You do not go about your task in a nice way. That nice young man Israel, before he sharpened his knife on a stone, would wet the stone with his tears.”
Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowicz of Apt, Poland (1766–1813) 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; so I replied, “I can not 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.”
The Hassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810) was born in the town of Mezhibuzh, Ukraine to Feiga the daughter of Odel, the daughter of the Baal Shem Tov, who was the founder of the mystical Hassidic movement within Judaism.
Rebbe Nachman was born in the very house where his legendary great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, had lived. Rebbe Nachman’s mother, Feiga, was known far and wide as “Feiga the prophetess,” for she could see her grandfather the Baal Shem Tov in visions that came to her while awake and asleep.
Rabbe Nachman’s wisdom and insights were greatly inspired and influenced by his mother, “Feiga the prophetess” who taught him the importance of consulting with a loving female (mother, sister or wife) to gain an understanding of the message of dreams.
Once Rabbi Nachman’s scribe and closest disciple Rabbi Nussan dreamt that he and Rabbi Nachman were walking down a seemingly endless path in the midst of a very dark night, when they saw a ladder rising all the way up to the heavens.
Rabbi Nussan asked Rabbi Nachman what they should do? Rabbi Nachman replied “we must climb it to the top” and started climbing.
Rabbi Nussan hesitated to begin the climb up and watched as Rabbi Nachman climbed higher and higher. When Rabbi Nussan could no longer see Rabbi Nachman he suddenly felt fearful and alone and he started to climb the ladder but no matter how hard he climbed he could not catch up with Rabbi Nachman. Then he suddenly awoke from his dream.
The next day he related the dream to Rabbi Nachman who listened attentively and then said, “Your dream is wonderful Nussan, because it shows how powerful is the spiritual longing within you. You have studied Torah with me for several years, and your moral qualities have become highly refined.
The only thing holding you back are your own fears. Remember, this: The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the essential thing is not to make yourself afraid.”
Even today two hundred years after this tale was first told, people still sing a song made up of these words: Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikkar lo l’faheid k’lal. “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.”
But Rav Nahman actually said something slightly different from the song, but very importantly different. In his great work, Likutei Moharan (II:48), he writes: k’she-adam tzarikh la-avor gesher tzar m·od, ha-k’lal v’ha-ikkar shelo yit-paheid k’lal. “When a person must cross an exceedingly narrow bridge, the principle and essential thing is; not to frighten yourself at all.”
Not to frighten yourself before crossing the narrow bridge is daunting, fraught with risk and danger. A little care is good, but you’ll never get across if you surrender to fears of your own making.
At such a moment, caution is wisdom, but fear is a bad choice for “The only thing we have to fear; is fear itself” Or as Rabbi Mordecai of Lekhovitz taught, “We must not worry. Only one worry is O.K. We should worry about always being worried.”
Rav Nahman concludes this passage, written to encourage his followers not to despair in their spiritual progress, “You should understand the power of encouraging yourself, and never yield to despair, God forbid, no matter what happens. The main thing is always to be happy, to gladden yourself in every permissible way that is possible.
And always remember that joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital.”
For Further Reading
Tales of the Hassidim Martin Buber
The Captive Soul of the Messiah Howard Schwartz