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KOTZK BLOG 9 – Must it always matter?

The world tells us to worry about prayers and transgressions, but not the Kotzker so much

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Rabbi Gavin Micha

Musings on the teachings of Kotzk

By: Rabbi Gavin Michal

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MUST IT ALWAYS MATTER?

 The Kotzker Rebbe was asked by one of his foremost students: “I often feel uninspired during prayer. Is there something that I can focus on to uplift myself when I pray?”

Before we continue, imagine yourself a great rebbe and having someone pose such a question put to you. If you were worth your salt you would probably advise your student to study more about the prayers, or to try contemplate with greater intensity upon the meaning behind them (or something to that effect).

Not so the Kotzker.

His response was; Do not worry about it at all. The power of prayer is so great that if, at some later stage, you happen to pray that prayer with even just a little fervor – it will draw all the previous imperfect prayers towards it and elevate them all together.” (Emet ve Emunah p5, par 1.)

The question was a serious question. The question is interesting. But how can one trivialize prayers by saying; “Do not worry about it at all”?

There was another rebbe who made a similar, but possibly even more astounding statement: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that; “…even if someone committed a transgression, he should not be concerned.” (Hishtapchut HaNefesh)

This, he explains is because the purpose of the evil inclination is not, as is commonly assumed, to physically get us to sin. It has no real interest in the act of the sin itself. Rather its purpose is to make us miserable and depressed after we have sinned. That sense of worthlessness and spiritual despair leads us right to where the evil inclination wants us to be – in a state of depression.

Depression, say the mystics, is the antithesis of holiness. No one can be miserable and holy at the same time. If you feel depressed after committing a sin, you have fallen into a snare.

Isn’t that interesting? The whole world tells us to worry about prayers and transgressions, while the Kotzker and Breslover Rebbes tell us not to worry about them so much (for the reasons they gave).

Some people by nature are rather idealistic. They seem to have the most difficulty with this concept of ‘moving on’. How can you move on when you know something to be wrong?

I recall some sagely advice I once received from a senior rabbi who had been in the business of guiding people for over fifty years: “You don’t always have to be the one to fix everything that’s broken.” 

Sometimes (maybe most times) one needs to allow life to happen.

Not everybody needs to be reprimanded every time they deserve to be.

Not every mistake you make needs to leave you devastated even if that’s the way you feel.

There was the story of R Yeshaya of Mokov. His father was a simple man who was the only ‘official’ musician in the town of Mokov. He was the only person allowed to play at weddings. After he passed away, his son R Yeshaya, who knew how to play the fiddle, was asked to take his fathers place.

R Yeshaya, was more learned than his father, and decided to journey to Kotzk to ask the rebbe if he should take that position. He was concerned that the frivolous nature of weddings on a continuous basis might impinge on his Yiddiskeit.

The Kotzker responded; “There is more Torah literature concerning the importance of making a living, than about the importance of fearing heaven. Let your mind be occupied with ideas of the spirit, but your hands with earthly matters.” (Emet ve Emunah p115, par 7.)

R Yeshaya promptly became the new ‘official’ musician of Mokov.

He was later to play at the very wedding of the Kotzker Rebbe himself.

More often than not, the most meaningful and pragmatic response to the seeker of guidance, is simply: “Your baggage is trying to trap you. Move on.”

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KOTZ BLOG 10 The rebbe who didn’t like mysticism

The Kotzker Rebbe has shattered almost every notion we have of a Chassidic leader

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Musings on the teachings of Kotzk

By: Rabbi Gavin Michal

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THE REBBE WHO DIDN’T LIKE MYSTICISM

Chassidic Rebbes are generally portrayed as great mystics, steeped in ancient knowledge, and masters of practical mysticism.

In our studies so far, we have seen how the Kotzker Rebbe has shattered almost every preconceived notion we may have had of a Chassidic leader.

He doesn’t disappoint us when it comes to his attitude towards mysticism either.

 

Beginning with his teachers, we see a new trend emerging  –  an attempt to divest Chassidism of its Lurianic, kabbalistic and mystic foundations.

 

Take the act of eating for example. Much has been written about the mystical aspect of incorporating lower levels of existence (mineral, animal and vegetable), into the human being who consumes them. When the human then performs a holy act, all levels are simultaneously elevated to the realm of the Divine.

 

Juxtapose this on a statement by one of the Kotzker’s teachers, the Yid Ha Kadosh, who said that the only ‘mystical intention’ one should have while eating, is not to overeat.

In a similar vein, his other teacher, R Simcha Bunim of Pshischa, said that the only ‘mystical intention’ one should have while eating is to properly chew one’s food.

 

Gone is much of the deep and sophisticated esoteric-based theology that so characterized the Baal Shem Tov’s Chassidism.

 

Another example of the growing trend away from mysticism can be found in the Kotzker’s attitude towards the classical concept of “Yichudim” (unifications).

Lurianic Kabbalah teaches that with each mitzvah we perform, we cause a unification to take place between heaven and earth.  Each mitzvah cements that bond between the two diametrically opposed realms of spirit and matter. This bridging of realms can be accomplished by anyone who has appropriate kavanah (concentration) at the time they perform the mitzvah.

But in Kotzk they said that only two “Yichudim” are possible:

One already took place when Moshe merged heaven with earth at Sinai.

They other will only take place one day in the future when the Messiah arrives.

And nothing else will happen in between.   

 

The irony is that the Kotzker studied kabbalah every night with his teacher, R Simcha Bunim. (Eser Niflaot 8)

Yet in the writings of R Simcha (Kol Simcha), there is only one reference to the Lurianic Kabbalah, and just 19 vague references to the Zohar. The word ‘yichudim’ occurs only once. In the Kotzker’s book (Ohel Torah), the Ari is mentioned only once, and the Zohar only five times. This is most unusual for Chassidic works of that time, since most of the corresponding contemporary literature is absolutely satiated with such references.

 

 

The story is told about a visitor who once arrived in Kotzk just before Shabbos. It was too late for him to go to the mikva (as is customary for some to do every week at that time).

Instead he relied on a well known mystical procedure that is said to have a similar effect to a mikva. Suddenly the Kotzker Rebbe burst into the room saying: “Stop. In Kotzk we do not make use of such mystical practices.”

 

He made such an interesting comment about Chabad Chassidism; “They start from the top and work down… we start at the bottom and work up.” (Emet ve Emuna)

Here he is referring to the preoccupation of many Chassidic schools of thought, with the cryptic concept of Ten Sefirot. By distancing himself from such an approach, the Kotzker again highlighted how surprisingly grounded his theology was.

 

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once asked R Yaakov of Radzmin: “For what purpose was man put on this earth?”

The Radzminer responded; “To fix, work on and elevate his soul.

To which the Kotzker boldly retorted: “No. That’s not what we learned in Pshischa.

Man was put on this earth for something far more useful – to elevate heaven!”

(Emet ve Emunah p 109, par 4.)

 

This needs to understood against the following backdrop:

Popular Chasidism had effectively reinterpreted the traditional understanding of kabbalah which spoke about the mystical ‘mechanics’ of G-d, to one which now spoke about the mystical ‘mechanics’ of man. Chassidism had become like mystical psychology focusing more on man and his soul, than on the altruism of something outside of man, namely ‘heaven’.  

To work on one’s own soul is a mystical journey. A trip. It’s wonderful but it’s self absorbing.

According to Kotzk however, a true spiritual encounter could not only involve the soul. It had to incorporate a higher, truer, greater and more altruistic good.

 

Thus, for the Kotzker, the secret of true religion lay, not in mystical delights. Not in out- of-body or out-of-mind…but rather in out-of-self experiences. As long as Truth is connected to the Self (as it is with a mystical experience), it can no longer be absolutely true. Truth must be connected to something out-of-self. Like “heaven”.

 

In Kotzk, Truth is not found in mysticism. Truth can only be found in altruism.

Kotzk moved the widespread Chassidic emphasis on mysticism, to something far simpler, more elegant and transparent. When man behaved at his most noble, this was “heaven”.

 

The reason why the Kotzker was so against mysticism was because he was such a spiritual pragmatist. He believed there was so much confusion and falsehood in our mortal minds that needed sorting out, without confounding ourselves with mysteries of esoteric thought. Truth was more important than anything else.

And by Truth, he meant simple, honest, real and human truth. Not mystical truth.

In Kotzk, you were most spiritual when you were most real.



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KOTZK BLOG 8 – Chains of spirit

The Kotzker Rebbe warned about the danger of unwittingly creating a culture of dependence within the mindset of the recipient of kindness….Above all else he valued independence…

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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)…

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Rabbi Gavin Micha

KOTZK BLOG 7 – Kick the heck out of the ball

Pushing the boundaries from within

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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.

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…

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