KOTZK BLOG 8 – Chains of spirit
Musings on the teachings of Kotzk
Rabbi Gavin Michal
It is difficult to find anything more noble than one person caring for, or nurturing another. Not much can be greater than one individual stepping out of his selfish bounds and giving to another. It warms the heart to witness an act of kindness. Any organization that aims to further the advancement and development of those less fortunate, is to be encouraged and supported.
Our tradition is replete with accounts of great good people dedicating themselves to helping others. How many rabbis and rebbes have we read about who chopped wood to keep fires going in freezing winters for poor people. How many great sages have we read about who took the time to painstakingly teach Torah to people who had not yet been exposed to its light.
Long may such people continue their good, charitable and spiritual work.
While certainly believing in the concept of goodness, the Kotzker Rebbe took a slightly different approach. He warned about the danger of unwittingly creating a culture of dependence within the mindset of the recipient of the kindness.
The Kotzker described how his teacher, R Simcha Bunim of Pshischa; “…lovingly cared for and elevated all those who came to him for guidance.”
But the Kotzker himself expected all his students to rather be self reliant and to elevate themselves. (Emet ve Emunah p11, par 7.)
Absolute independence was necessary before any spiritual or for that matter, material growth could take place. As long as a student is encapsulated within an, albeit loving embrace of care, he remains bound. His growth is somewhat limited. He will probably always remain a student.
Perhaps this is why the Kotzker never wanted masses of people to flock to him. He didn’t want to perpetuate a culture of continual reliance. Many spiritual teachers, however, are tempted to keep their disciples just below them in order to retain an element of dominancy and even control. This was never the attitude in Kotzk.
Independence was elevated almost above all else.
I have always liked this teaching.
Over the years I have seen people get involved in Judaism, and while they may have become more observant, many of them have never progressed outside of their comfort zone. They remain totally dependant upon the exact same system they adopted all those years ago. They still have a need to attend talks, for example, geared at the same basic style of Torah living, and are one hundred percent reliant on such for their inspiration. They still seek constant attention and basic nurture that they should have outgrown a long time ago. They seem unable to sustain themselves spiritually, and certainly do not instill much spiritual confidence within their children either. They never tried to push the boundaries and learn, for example, to read a text for themselves. They seem to take comfort in always having everything Torah related, explained to them.
To such people the Kotzker pleads – become more spiritually independent!
The Kotzker Rebbe would often go into the forests, away from people, and take time to reflect upon his personal development – unhindered even by other Masters.
One of his colleagues once rebuked him for such displays of privacy and independence. He mockingly asked if the Kotzker wanted to be a “second Baal Shem Tov”. (The BaalShem Tov, seven generations earlier, was known to conduct himself in a similar manner.)
To which immediately came the reply; “Yes. And if I want I can be even greater than he. Even the Baal Shem Tov does not have the sole monopoly on spirituality.
I can be whoever I want to be.” (Sneh Bo’er be Kotzk p 30.)
And so can you.
Yes, even you can outgrow your teacher if necessary. You do not have to remain in a state of spiritual dependency. Everyone needs a teacher. But a good teacher will give his student tools to potentially outgrow him. And a good student will use them.
If, however, you choose not to become independent, you wont. As they say: If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.
Rabbi Kook wrote: “Do not keep me in chains of material or of spirit.” ( Orot HaKodesh 2.)
We must never allow our spirituality to chain or cage us.
Isn’t is strange how that, that can most set us free – is precisely that, that often tends to tether us to the ground (and to others)…