KOTZK BLOG 7 – Kick the heck out of the ball
Musings on the teachings of Kotzk
Rabbi Gavin Michal
The Kotzker Rebbe questions the wisdom behind the well established practice of eating unleavened bread on Pesach. He says; “Wouldn’t it be better to rather discourage people from eating of Matza, than to risk possibly eating Chametz (which quite conceivably could be contained within the very Matza itself)?”
This refers to the fact that if, during the kneading process, the water and flour remain mixed together for longer than eighteen minutes before being placed into the oven – the dough is considered to have fermented. If that is allowed to occur, the mixture itself will technically become Chametz.
This means that if the baker is just a little tardy, what may appear to be absolutely pure Matza could instead be absolute Chametz, and forbidden on Pesach!
And no one would ever know the difference because it would look, feel and taste just like the authentic product.
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If Matza is such a critical component to the Passover experience, so much so that we even recite a special Blessing over it, why is it inherently so risky in terms of its very permissibility?
Surely we could have opted for safer symbolic options with other non risky ingredients?
The Kotzker answers his own question; “If we did prohibit Matza, there would have been no challenge at all. It would have been too easy. Instead man’s purpose is to Engage and to Guard.” (Emet ve Emunah p112, par 7.)
In other words, there need be no question whatsoever as to the permissibility of eating Matza. One simply applies due caution during the process of preparing it.
What a fundamentally profound teaching we have here.
Taken out of its parochial context, we may have stumbled upon a life altering teaching:
We could always choose the easy option of disengaging with the outside world, or even never to engage in the first instance. This way we ensure ourselves an existence free of ‘unholy contamination’. Understandably, many do choose this path.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, however, was never one for lukewarm options.
He always taught that life is experienced best at its extremes.
This is not to be confused with recklessness. There is a world of difference between taking something to its reasonable limit…and conversely, being irresponsible.
Obviously recklessness and irresponsibility have no place in any sophisticated system of thought. On the other hand, cocooning and insulation do very little for the creative spirit, and serve no purpose other than restrict legitimate and meaningful expression.
Perhaps this is why the Kotzker never really had an official mass following like all the other Chassidic Rebbes of his time.
Groups and packs of adherents, by definition lack the spiritual creativity to be anything other than a group or a pack.
Imagine a group of people independently taking all their emotional, spiritual and even material creativity to ‘just below the red line’ – there would be nothing left to identify the group as a group anymore.
The Kotzker’s brother in law, the Chidushei HaRim, once happened upon a group of the Kotzker’s students studying in the Beis Medrash. He remarked; “Every one of these students has the potential to be just like the Baal Shem Tov. However the realities of life will probably get in the way of any of them ever reaching that level.”
(Emet ve Emunah p 114, par 6.)
Excellence can only be achieved when one is prepared to go (safely and Halachicaly) beyond perceived boundaries.
Sure, one can achieve within the group.
But can one excel?
I had a teacher who explained that Torah living has to be an “avodah’, a challenge. Unlike watching TV, a challenge cannot take place in the comfort of one’s living room.
He compared it to playing sport on a field. The field is broad and long, and provided the ball is within the lines, the game continues. One may play the game on any section of the field one chooses. Sometimes the ball is closer to one’s home posts and sometimes it’s at the furthest reaches of the field.
If the ball is not out, it’s in.
So it is with Torah. ‘
As long as we ‘guard’ ourselves and play within the ‘lines’, we have the freedom to ‘play’ where-so-ever on the field we choose.
And, in doing so, the Kotzker would urge us to kick the heck out of that ball…