Hopeful Hassidim from the 18th century for today

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 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”. In this light I offer a sample of Hassidic wisdom and insight.

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.

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!”

Rabbi Nakhman of Bratzlav said: “The whole world is one long narrow bridge, so it is essential not to make yourself afraid.”

Rabbi Mordecai of Lekhovitz taught, “We must not worry. Only one worry is permitted. We can worry about being worried.”

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 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.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (the great grandson of the Baal Shen Tov) taught, “Go out and defeat God. Yes, God actually wants us to conquer, to keep praying and praying until we force the Holy One to forgive us for what we have done.”

Rabbi Nachman also taught, ‘”Seek the sacred within the ordinary. Seek the remarkable within the commonplace.” and: “The whole world is one long narrow bridge, so it is essential not to be afraid.”

Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pzhysha taught, “Humans are always transitioning through two doors: out of this world and into the next world, and out and in again.”

We live in two worlds; past and future, spiritual and material, rational and emotional, public and private. We are always passing from one realm to the next and then back again. Life is continual change between sickness and health, joys and sorrows, victories and defeats. We cannot live either entirely or permanently in just one of them. During a wedding we break a glass, during a time of trouble we say- this too shall pass.

Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn taught, “When people suffer they should not say – That’s bad, that’s bad! Nothing that Mother Nature 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 seven billion. We need both messages equally, but since most of us are right handed we need the former more frequently than the latter.

Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn taught, “We paid no attention to the miracles our teacher worked, and when sometimes a miracle didn’t come to pass, he only gained in our eyes.”

The transformative power of miracles is the real miracle. Faith creates miracles, miracles do not create faith. Love creates beauty, beauty does not create love. But once the connection is made it becomes mutually interactive. One who loses faith when a miracle doesn’t occur believes in magic, not in God. And one who disregards safety and caution because he has determined that God will always protect him transgresses by testing God. As Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk said, “Do not make an idol even of the command of God.”

Finally, Jewish tradition stresses the Mitsvah (religious duty) to marry. It is almost impossible to make it throughout life all alone. As Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), the founder of the Hassidic movement, said after his wife died, “I thought I could rise to heaven in a whirlwind like Elijah, but now that I am only half a body this is no longer possible.”

When Rabbi Hirsh returned from his wife’s funeral he was overheard saying to himself, “Up to now I was able to experience God’s presence here on earth through marriage. Now I shall have to experience God’s presence directly.” Two weeks later he died.

How did Rabbi Hirsh experience God’s presence through marriage? The Jewish mystics taught that the Shekeenah- the feminine presence of God rests upon a husband who makes love to his wife on Shabbat. Actually the Shekeenah can rest on a man whenever he makes love to his wife with a sense of reverence, tenderness, adoration and love.

The Shabbat adds holiness and chosenness to these feelings. The key attitude is a sense of wonder and gratefulness that his wife is God’s gift, the chosen source of his blessings, and the most wonderful manifestation of God’s presence.

As scripture says, “Who can find a capable wife? Her value is far above jewels. Her husband can trust her completely.” (Proverbs 31:10 Each of us is like a one winged angel who can walk and even run all alone. But with a partner you can trust, you can also FLY.

But even a loving couple needs to live and love through a larger community. Introspection and personal prayer are important but community consciousness is essential. Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz said: “A prayer, which is not spoken in the name of the whole community, is no prayer at all.”

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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