I don't recall too much as to main theme of the farbrengen, but a number of stories that Rabbi Offen recounted, which I was hearing for the very first time, had a profound impact on me. One of those stories was about the great Chassid of the Alter Rebbe, Reb Pinchos Roiza's, whose father Reb Henoch Shick was a leading light of the Misnagdic world of that time, serving as the rabbi of the city of Shklov, known for its disproportionately large contingent of Torah scholars and its intense opposition to the fledgling Chassidic movement. When it was first discovered that Reb Pinchos had defected to the Chassidic camp, his illustrious father, as was the custom of the time, completely disowned his son and observed the customary week of mourning over his “spiritually deceased” progeny.
Over the years, his ardent antagonism abated somewhat, as he saw that many of the disciples of the Liozna Maggid (as the Alter Rebbe was known) were G-d fearing Jews and even great Torah scholars. In that spirit, he opened a correspondence with the Alter Rebbe in which he requested that his son return home for an extended visit, after having been cut off from his mother and father for so many years. The Alter Rebbe agreed, albeit with a number of provisions, amongst which were that he guarantee his son's safety, that he set aside a portion of his home for Reb Pinchos to be able to pursue his brand of divine service undisturbed, and that he promise not to engage his son in any debate. Reb Henoch agreed to the terms and conditions, and Reb Pinchos set off to his hometown of Shklov.
Despite his great scholarship and stature at a time when Lithuanian scholarship was at its peak, there is almost nothing in writing from Reb Henoch Shick. The reason given for this is his phenomenal diligence in Torah study, with every minute of his day accounted for within his set times for reviewing the vast range of his Torah knowledge, which left him no time to devote to writing. As part of his tentative reconciliation with his son, he made some time in his busy schedule to meet with him on occasion. At one of those meetings, he told his son that since he had agreed to not engage him in debate he would honor that commitment, but he was inquiring as to whether he would mind if he asked a question.
Reb Pinchos readily agreed, and his father went on to say that from the few times he glanced at the writings of the discourses of the Liozna Maggid he could see that “bittul” was a constantly recurring theme. Similarly, the few times that he overheard Chassidim talking amongst themselves, this topic seemed to come up repeatedly. His question was, why is it necessary to study Chassidus in order to sublimate the ego and root out the trait of arrogance, why isn't the study of the section on anava (humility) in the Reishis Chochma, which is also based on Kabbalistic ideas, sufficient? Reb Pinchos, instead of answering directly, suggested that his father rearrange his tightly packed learning schedule, in order to set aside some time to study that very section in Reishis Chochma, every day for the next thirty days, and then he would give him a response.
Reb Henoch agreed to do so, and over the following days during the agreed upon period, he set aside some time to study the trait of humility as presented in Reishis Chochma. As the thirty days drew to an end it was a Friday morning, and Reb Pinchos approached his father's personal assistant with a proposition. He explained to the simple Jew that his father, due to his great prestige and the esteem in which he was held, felt that he did not have sufficient opportunities to do simple kindnesses to his fellow Jews, and as such was being denied this very great mitzva. Therefore, that afternoon when he would accompany the great rabbi to the bathhouse as part of his preparations for Shabbos, and it came time during his steam bath to beat and scratch his back, he should say very loudly in public that it has been many decades that every week he beats and scratches the Rov, it is about time that the Rov beat and scratch him.
The assistant, having been raised in the Lithuanian tradition of great respect and honor for Torah scholars, was mortified by the suggestion, but Reb Pinchos reassured him that not only would Reb Henoch not hold it against him, this is what he wanted. The poor simple Jew felt that he had no choice, and as difficult as it was for him to do so, he carried out Reb Pinchos' instructions to the letter. In the bathhouse, when he said what he was instructed to say, the entire room fell silent as everyone waited with bated breath to see how the great rabbi would react. Reb Henoch quietly took the proffered branch and began to beat and scratch the back of his lowly assistant, and the entire city was in an uproar. There were some who were amazed at his tremendous humility, whereas there were others who argued that it was not his place to overlook the honor of the Torah that he represented and he should have taken the assistant to task in the harshest terms.
Later, when father and son had some alone time, Reb Pinchos admitted to the obvious fact that learning and meditating upon the trait of humility as illuminated in Reishis Chochma had made a tremendous impact on his father, and he said that he had merely one question. What he wanted to know was, what was his father feeling inside even as he kept his external composure in the face of public humiliation. The father responded that he immediately realized that his son had put the man up to it as a test, and that is how he was able to rise to the challenge, but internally he felt that his innards were turning over, and “would that I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you this instant” (citing the verse of Bilaam speaking to his donkey). Reb Pinchos began to laugh and said that for a Chassid it would not even rise to the level of a test, and not only wouldn't he consider it a big deal, he would be glad for the opportunity to help another Jew.
The story hit me hard at the time and I remember thinking then that either this was the biggest load of baloney I had ever heard, or else Chassidus really was as amazing as advertised. The problem was that even if the story and its premise were true, maybe I would just end up being strung along with excuses, such as the spiritual decline of the generations, which would lead to the same result as if it were phony. In the end, there is no difference to the customer if the advertisement is fraudulent or if he comes into the store and they say that they no longer have the sale item in stock. It didn't make sense to commit myself to immersing more fully into Chassidic study and life, only to find out that the Misnagdim were wrong and there really was this amazing boat once upon a time, but I had missed it due to being born too late.
LOSING FACE OR SAVING FACE?
In the end, I did make the commitment, and over the years this story (and another story he told that night about “Luzha the lame”) became one of my favorites. About five years later, I was visiting with my father one Shabbos, and somewhat mischievously decided to share this story, knowing it would not be very appreciated. Although my father was clearly annoyed by the story (in which the Chassid comes out looking better than the great Torah scholar), he was a good sport about it, and instead of walking away feeling virtuous and vindicated I felt a wee (and only a wee) bit guilty.
A little over a week later, I was walking on 16th Avenue in Boro Park, heading towards my car, when I was stopped by a fellow who I had seen collecting in and around the shuls of Boro Park since I was young child. This man walked with a cane as he had one wooden leg, and I remember from when I was a little kid that he would tell people that he lost it in the Korean War. Additionally, he suffered from mental health problems, which manifested also in the form of less than optimal hygiene as evidenced by the attendant pungently odoriferous miasma that wafted from his person. When I instinctively began reaching for my pocket for some spare change, he explained that he wasn't asking for money, but rather he needed my help. The lace on the shoe of his good foot had opened and this presented a serious danger of falling, and since he couldn't bend down or raise his foot, due to his wooden leg, he needed me to tie his shoe for him.
In one brief instant, my mind processed every detail of the scene, the smell and dishevelment of my petitioner, the crowds of other Jews that were exiting the shul I had just walked out of, along with plenty of other foot traffic on the busy avenue, including people I knew – it felt like my brain was in hyper-drive. I also noted that in order to tie a shoe that is on the floor I was not in good enough condition to do it from a squatting position but would have to actually get down on the filthy sidewalk. As a million or more objections rose to my mind and I began to consider whether to voice them or accede to his request, the fellow began chiding me loudly over my dallying while he was stuck and helpless. So, realizing that I had no choice but to help a fellow Jew in need, I got down on the floor and began to tie his shoe.
One of the little known facts that I discovered from the experience is that tying a shoe on another person's foot from an almost prone position, with the blood rushing to your brain and your peripheral vision picking up the wide-eyed stares of openly gawking passersby, causes all manual dexterity to flee and turns all of one's fingers into thumbs, thus prolonging the delightful experience.
Even as I began to bend down, and the thought passed through my mind as to how humiliating and publicly degrading this was going to be, I immediately flashed on telling my father the story of Reb Pinchos Roiza's, and the less than noble intentions I had when telling that story with such verve and gusto, and I couldn't help but marvel at the divine workings in a way of “measure for measure.”
And as I practically lay on the floor fumbling and flailing in my attempts to execute what should be a relatively simple exercise for anyone in the advanced post-toddler stage of life, I was filled with tremendous joy and feelings of love for this Jew who was giving me this amazing opportunity to realize what it means to be a Chassid. I thought of how the Rebbe himself said when someone apologized for slipping an emergency note under his door, causing the Rebbe to have to bend to the floor, “My inyan is to bend down in order to help other Jews.” As the crowd passed, most of them dressed in Polish Chassidic garb (did I mention gawking), I couldn't help but feel sorry for them that they never had the good fortune to learn Chabad Chassidus.
When I got up, I literally felt like breaking into song and dance, but I restrained myself until I got into my car, where I burst into excited laughter. I laughed and laughed until tears were rolling down my cheeks, my heart bursting with gratitude to Hashem for letting me experience in a most tangible way that despite my countless flaws and imperfections, Chassidus had indeed placed me (as advertised) on an entirely different plane, at least as far as feeling for another Jew and not being hung up on one's personal dignity.
Being that the mind likes to play its little tricks, over time the excitement began to fade, and I began to question as to whether I was reading too much into the order of events, and how could I be sure that Divine Providence sent this person in response to my telling that exact story. And so, only a few short weeks later, I was taking a shower in the mikva on a Friday afternoon, when a fellow in a neck brace approached me with his soap and asked me if I would soap and wash his back for him (the only time in my life that ever happened). I hope he didn't think I was too weird when I gave him a huge smile and said “Sure!”
FACE THE MUSIC
One of the lessons that the Rebbe often repeated that could be learned from the Mitteler Rebbe's life, in that he was born and ascended on high the same day, 9 Kislev, is the idea of perfect harmony and synthesis between body and soul, and between the teachings of Chassidus and the actualization of those teachings in everyday life. The way to achieve that harmony and synthesis is through complete immersion in the study of Chassidus and in spreading those teachings to others less fortunate than yourself. The life story of the Mitteler Rebbe personifies total immersion in the study of Chassidus and in the teaching of Chassidus, and as the Tzemach Tzedek framed it, “If you were to cut the finger of my father-in-law, blood would not run out, but Chassidus.”
Any person who has invested time and energy in these pursuits can readily identify and testify to areas of their spiritual lives in which Chassidus hot zei aveckgeshtelt oif gohr an ander ort (placed them on an entirely different plane), even as they may feel that there are other areas where they suffer from “he who is greater, his Evil Inclination is greater.” And yet, for some reason, when we hit a certain plateau, we delude ourselves into thinking that Chassidus has taken us so far and it can't take us any farther.
The fact of the matter is that we have no clue as to the power of Chassidus on our own, and we need the Rebbeim, particularly the Rebbe of that generation to tell us what is expected of us and what transformational energies Chassidus can provide. It is up to us to jump in, not as some would suggest “blindly,” but with “open eyes,” utilizing our faculty of Binah/comprehension to its fullest as exemplified in the Chassidus of the Mitteler Rebbe, with the desire to be transformed and transplanted to an entirely different spiritual dimension of oneness with the Torah, and ultimately oneness with G-d. This is all alluded to in the fact that the Mitteler Rebbe's day of redemption from his imprisonment is celebrated on 10 Kislev, the day immediately following his passing (see Padoh B'Shalom 5746 – Maamorim Melukat vol. 5, p. 83-90).
In the middle of the talks of 5752, after the Rebbe had spent weeks emphasizing the need for study and spiritual preparation for the coming of Moshiach, including in the week of Vayeitzei 5752 talking about the need to immerse oneself in the lengthy and complex teachings of the Mitteler Rebbe, as well as total devotion to the shlichus of preparing for Moshiach and bringing Moshiach, the Rebbe raised the issue of being held to account. “Additionally, the knowledge that immediately, the Rebbe, my father-in-law, the leader of our generation, will enter (since 'they will arise and sing, those who dwell in the earth') and gaze upon each and every one of the Chassidim and Mekusharim to assess his state and condition...this inspires and causes one to complete and perfect all of our deeds and service.”
The point is not to strike fear in the hearts of the Chassidim over a future day of reckoning, but to emphasize the Rebbe's concern over each person's “state and condition” and the degree to which that “state and condition” is in line with and ready for the imminent divine revelations associated with the arrival of Moshiach. Although there is a lot to do in the realm of action, Chassidus is and always has been ultimately about one's internal reality being completely aligned with one's external persona (not external humility accompanied by internal seething).
Similarly, when it comes to Moshiach and the preparations for Moshiach, it is not enough tzu vayzen ah panim (lit. to present a face) of being involved in Moshiach and Geula. It has to become our internal reality through the immersion in Chassidus and these topics in particular. In this case, not only is there no cause for concern that we missed the boat relative to previous generations, we need to know that the boat only just arrived in our time and is meant specifically for each and every one of us. The knowledge that we will soon be face to face with the Rebbe, “and he will gaze upon each and every one,” is the awareness that he will be looking to assess our internal “state and condition.” This in turn inspires us “to complete and perfect our deeds and service,” in anticipation of that face to face meeting, with the coming of Moshiach, immediately, NOW!