Artist’s Statement: The chassidic Jews of Eastern Europe loved to tell stories. Many anecdotes about their rebbes (rabbis, or spiritual leaders) contained profound spiritual, allegorical and philosophical truths, hidden in layers of simple folk tales. A good example is the story of Rabbi Baruch of Mezhibuzh (1757–1811), the grandson of the founder of the chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. Battling melancholy and depression his whole life, Rabbi Baruch was known to be meticulous in helping his students with their problems, being conscious of his own.
In the story of the “Fifty Gates” Rabbi Baruch had a student, who frequently visited his rabbi and teacher to discuss his life, his studies, his doubts and his questions. Even after the student had moved to a different town, he returned to Mezhibuzh at regular intervals.
At one point, the rabbi realized that he had not seen his student for an unusual length of time. Possessing insight, divine inspiration and a keen sense of psychology, Rabbi Baruch sensed something was really wrong. He ordered his servant to harness his wagon, and traveled without delay to his student’s town. Upon arrival, Rabbi Baruch made his way into the house of his student, without so much as even taking the trouble of having his servant announce his presence. The student was home, seated at his desk, surrounded by books and papers, and the sudden appearance of the rabbi startled him!
The rabbi greeted with the words: “I know what is hidden in your heart! You have passed through all the forty-nine gates of reason. You became horribly entangled in your thoughts. You tried logic, reason, all kind of other sciences and philosophies! Every time you came up with a question, you tried to find an answer as best as you could (this made you pass a ‘gate’). After you passed through the first gate, each additional problem brought you to a second gate, which in turn brought you to a third gate, and so on. Soon you noticed that all of your reasoning and analytical skills invoked still other questions, which led you to discover still other answers, which led you to pass through higher and higher levels of gates. And so you continued on this path, till you arrived at the fiftieth gate. This is the gate that leads one straight down into the abyss.
“You have now posed and wrestled with questions for which no living man in this world has ever discovered any satisfactory or truthful understanding. If you proceed and continue trying to do so anyway, you will stumble, fail, and fall ever more deeply. There is no return from this abyss!”
The student was stunned that Rabbi Baruch not only knew what was troubling him, but that he had taken the time, trouble and effort to come in person in order to share his wisdom and show support to his wayward former pupil. The student felt great remorse.
“So, what can I do?” he asked, “Please! Don’t just tell me that in order to repent I have to go back all the way to the first gate!”
“No,” answered the rebbe, “you can’t undo knowledge or experience once you have acquired it, but you can handle it in a different way. When you turn yourself around, you will not be going backwards. You will be standing way beyond the last and fiftieth gate. You will stand in faith!”