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Chapter Three: Reb Mordechai’s Foolish Fantasies

Chapter Three: Reb Mordechai’s Foolish Fantasies

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Once again Reb Mordechai’s whole life story passed through his mind: how he established himself in a trade and worked, but still allowed himself ample time for study. He studied Gemara, Poskim, Zohar, and Kabbalah. He believed his spiritual attributes to be on the highest level, and imagined himself to be the foremost Torah scholar and tzaddik of that generation. He was also gratified that no one else was aware of this, thus enabling him to fulfill the mitzvah of being humble.

Reb Mordechai used to think to himself that if people only knew who this construction worker really was, and the immensity of his knowledge in both the revealed and the mystical aspects of Torah, they would never be able to fulfill their obligation and give him the honor due such a Torah scholar. He thanked G‑d for bestowing upon him the privilege of observing the mitzvah of being humble; for to be so great a personage, and yet not to let anyone become aware of it, is the height of humility.

He recalled his happiness and joy on one particular occasion — it was a summer Shabbos, the week of Behaalos’cha. At that time, he was already conducting himself in accordance with Kabbalah. On Fridays he would go to the mikveh, where he would reflect on the mystical meaning of the immersion. In fact, everything he did — eating, drinking, and other mundane activities — was accompanied by cognitive declarations of the Oneness of G‑d’s supernal name, as revealed in the writings of the holy Ari.

On Shabbos mornings he did not go to the mikveh; despite the fact that he really ought to have done so [according to Kabbalah], his understanding of the revealed aspects of Torah led him to conclude that this extra precaution against a possible transgression of the Torah’s Shabbos laws should override this purification ritual.

Other than this solitary factor, however, his conduct conformed in its entirety to the Kabbalah; even while working he would think about his Torah studies and would recite Mishnah and Gemara by heart. In his village he was known as “Reb Mordechai the House Painter.” People were aware, of course, that he was a scholar; but no one knew that he was a Torah giant, a tzaddik, and a kabbalist. He even concealed this fact from his own wife as much as possible.

He was quite pleased with himself. Deep in his heart he even snickered at the elderly gaon — the “Tzaddik of the Generation” as the townspeople called him — Reb Beinish Meir. For the past forty years Reb Beinish Meir had avoided eating peas even in wintertime, for fear that they might contain maggots. He ate cooked foods, bread, and challah only if they were prepared by women past their menopause, to avoid any kind of impurity.

But he — Reb Mordechai — was a greater gaon than the Rav, as demonstrated by the fact that the Rav had appeared visibly impressed when Reb Mordechai delivered two pilpulim before him. Actually, out of great humility, Reb Mordechai told the Rav that he had heard these two pilpulim from someone else, in the name of one of the Torah giants of the previous generation. By so doing, he aimed to conceal his own greatness from others, and to fulfill to perfection the mitzvah of being humble. The truth was, however, that he himself was a far greater gaon and tzaddik than the old Rav.

On that particular Shabbos, the Shabbos of Parshah Behaalos’cha, he awoke at dawn (as he did every Shabbos), and went to the beis hamedrash to pray with the minyan that davened at sunrise. On that Shabbos they called him up to the Torah reading. At first he debated whether it was proper for him to accept the aliyah without having previously immersed himself in the mikveh. Ordinarily they would honor him with an aliyah only on a Monday or Thursday, for the villagers were unaware of his true qualities. They knew that he was a Torah scholar, but they also knew him as a workman and a house painter, and so they deemed it sufficient to give him an aliyah on Monday or Thursday. He was almost never called up to the Torah on Shabbos.

He had no idea why he had been called up on this particular Shabbos. It was quite possible, he thought, that while hurrying to the beis hamedrash the idea of receiving an aliyah had passed through his mind. After all, it is G‑d’s habit that “He fulfills the desires of those who fear Him,”1 and so the Holy One put it into the head of the gabbai who distributed the aliyos that he should be called up to the Torah. Now, he debated whether it was right for him to accept the aliyah or not.

Even according to the letter of the law, it is not entirely proper to go up to the Torah without prior immersion; but it is especially inappropriate according to Kabbalah. Still, since they did in fact call him up, the Holy One must have decreed that it should be so.

Now the Holy One certainly knew [Reb Mordechai’s] qualities; therefore, by declining the aliyah, he would cause the Holy One to suffer anguish. On the other hand, if he did go up to the Torah, the Holy One would derive much pleasure from having His way!

The fact that it would give the Holy One pleasure tipped the balance, and he decided to accept the aliyah, despite the fact that it was not entirely proper according to law, and contrary to the dictates of Kabbalah.

The aliyah for which Reb Mordechai was called up was the seventh portion. When the reader pronounced the verse, “And the man called Moshe was exceedingly humble,”2 the notion came into Reb Mordechai’s head that Moshe Rabbeinu’s humility was indeed awesomely great; but not so great as his own. He — Reb Mordechai — was even humbler.

Reb Mordechai now recalled what an idiot he had been in those days. After the davening, he was so delighted with the aliyah he had received! In this aliyah he had detected a Divine message, informing him that it was he who was the real master of humility.

Moshe Rabbeinu was indeed a great master of humility; but after all, wasn’t the entire Jewish nation aware of his greatness? Didn’t Moshe Rabbeinu himself publicly disclose his own greatness by proclaiming about himself, “And there was a king in Yeshurun”?3

In contrast, Reb Mordechai knew how great a Torah scholar, tzaddik and kabbalist he himself was; but not only didn’t he tell anyone, he actually took pains to conceal his greatness from others. Why, he kept it a secret even from his own wife! To her, he was certainly permitted to disclose it, for she would have much pleasure from learning of this, and it is a mitzvah to make one’s wife happy. But he was afraid to trust her with such important information, for she might reveal it to others through a slip of the tongue.

Reb Mordechai’s theory contained one small flaw. Why did G‑d say: “And the man called Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any other person upon the face of the earth”? After all, the Holy One must have known that many generations later there would be a Reb Mordechai the Painter, who would be a great scholar in both the revealed and the mystical aspects of Torah, but who would be so great a master of humility that he would keep secret his greatness in Torah, and the fact that he was such a big tzaddik, even from his own wife. By so doing he truly fulfilled the mitzvah of being humble. So how could the Holy One utter the phrase, “more than any other person upon the face of the earth”?

But after careful thought, he came upon a solution that might excuse the Holy One. The Holy One was indeed aware that many generations later there would live a great Torah scholar and tzaddik who would be a far greater master of humility. But the Holy One blessed be He grants a person free will, so that the person may choose for himself what path he will follow. It was true that Reb Mordechai had chosen for himself the right path (thank G‑d); but he could also have ended up just as great a scholar and tzaddik without being such a master of humility. He might have ended up like one of those individuals who think highly of themselves out of respect for the Torah, such as the old Rav, Reb Beinish Meir, who maintained that honoring the Torah and Torah scholars is the greatest mitzvah. Now he — Reb Mordechai — could have been just like that! And since it remained questionable which choice Reb Mordechai was going to make, the Holy One avoided putting Himself on the spot, by saying, “more than any other person upon the face of the earth.”

Still, the issue continued to disturb him, and he considered his solution inadequate to release the Holy One from this difficulty. The fact still remained that the Holy One knew full well that someday there was going to be such an impressively great master of humility, so how could He say in His Holy Torah, “more than any other person upon the face of the earth”?

After Reb Mordechai woke from his nap that Shabbos afternoon and drank some hot chicory coffee, he thought of a proposal that might exonerate the Holy One. The Holy One had said “more than any other person upon the face of the earth.” These words were chosen very carefully, for presumably, what G‑d meant to say was, “the man called Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any other person.” For what reason did He add the extra words, “upon the face of the earth”?

But on careful reflection, we see that the Holy One’s words were carefully chosen. It was not sufficient for The Holy one to say simply “the man called Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any other person,” for He knew full well that many generations later there would be a great Torah scholar and tzaddik whose humility would surpass Moshe’s. For that reason, He could not say merely “more than any other person,” but was forced to add the words, “upon the face of the earth.” Indeed, Moshe was a great master of humility, greater than all other humble people upon the face of the earth. But this holds true only if we limit our consideration to those humble people whose greatness and humility are universally known.

But there is another class of master of humility: those who deliberately conceal their greatness in Torah and piety, in order to fulfill the mitzvah of being humble.4 The Holy One was not referring to this sort of master of humility when He said, “more than any other person,” for this sort of master of humility is indeed a greater master of humility than Moshe Rabbeinu.

Even now, Reb Mordechai felt shame whenever he recalled all his idiotic and outrageous notions of long ago. He praised G‑d for the privilege of having seen the Rebbe the Baal Shem Tov, and having elevated himself to the true path of avodah.

With eyes full of pity, he now observed the porush davening Minchah and reciting Al Cheit with bitter tears. “Who knows what crazy things the porush is weeping about, or what foolish ideas are going through his mind,” thought Reb Mordechai as he went away into the beis hamedrash.

In the beis hamedrash he engaged several Jews in conversation, telling them that he had been in Vohlynia-Podolia, where there lived a great gaon, tzaddik, and miracle-worker whose fame had spread throughout the region. To this, one of the listeners responded, “What about our Reb Chayim Porush? Is he only a small tzaddik? For more than ten years now, he sits only in the grave diggers’ shul, where he fasts and studies day and night, speaking not a word to anyone. Whenever he goes outdoors, to the toilet5 or to the bathhouse, he walks blindfolded to avoid seeing anything around him. He even refuses to eat green peas, nor does a bit of cabbage ever enter his holy mouth.”

Hearing this, Reb Mordechai began to inquire further — where did [the porush] come from? Was he a native of Resasne, or was that merely his former home prior to his arrival here? None of those present could answer any of Reb Mordechai’s questions. Just then, one of the grave diggers hurried over, bringing a low, thick block of wood, with the heads of several thick nails protruding. In a loud voice the grave digger announced, “Here is the wooden block upon which the holy porush sits while reciting Tikkun Chatzos each night after midnight.”

Another one of the Jews from the beis hamedrash joined in, “From the Seventeenth of Tammuz until after the Ninth of Av, and from Rosh Chodesh Elul until after Yom Kippur, he never goes out of the beis hamedrash, except (G‑d forbid) for a funeral; he is exceedingly scrupulous about the mitzvah of participating in a funeral procession.”

Meanwhile, Reb Mordechai noticed someone walking out of the side-room leading another by the hand. “Who is that blind Jew?” he asked.

“Why that is the porush,” they replied. “He enters the public prayer room only while blindfolded; in the street, he walks with his eyes shut even at night, and in daytime he is always blindfolded.”

Reb Mordechai decided to remain there overnight in order to observe the porush’s behavior, and so he took a Gemara and sat down to study. The congregants had long gone home when the porush lay down to sleep on the floor with his clothes on, while Reb Mordechai continued studying all night.

Soon after midnight the porush awoke. He took the block with the nails, put it down near the doorpost between the side-room and the beis hamedrash proper, and began chanting Tikkun Chatzos in a doleful voice.

Reb Mordechai also recited Tikkun Chatzos along with several other Jews who had assembled for that purpose. When they finished reciting Tikkun Chatzos, it was already broad daylight, for it was at the beginning of Tammuz, [when the sun rises early]. Members of the chevrah Tehillim began to assemble; these were Jews who gathered in the beis hamedrash each day at three o’clock in the morning to recite Tehillim. Most of these Jews were tradesmen: tailors, cobblers, butchers, coachmen, and other village workmen.

When a few minyonim of Jews had assembled, one of the chevrah Tehillim members began reciting:6 “Fortunate is the man who does not follow the counsel of the wicked.” The others immediately began following along, with such delight and devotion that Reb Mordechai envied their staunch innocence and sincerity.

The facial expressions of the each of the Tehillim sayers reflected an innocent charm, and an inner devotion to what they were reciting. From time to time the tone of the sayers’ voices changed: now prayerful, now hopeful, now broken. One could tell by their faces that they were aware of, and understood, what they were saying.

Reb Mordechai was quite moved by these Tehillim sayers, and yet there was one thing he could not tolerate: the frigid and lifeless manner of these people. Their frigid and lifeless movements and sounds made a gloomy impression upon him.

“This is what misnagdim are like,” thought Reb Mordechai. “They are good Jews, pious and precious, but also frigid and lifeless. Buried within these Jews lies the untapped timeless treasure to which the Rebbe the Baal Shem Tov applied the verse, ‘For you will be “[G‑d’s] treasured land”; but they remain misnagdim all the same.”

But then Reb Mordechai thought to himself, “What about me, what am I? I myself am nothing but a dead herring!”7 He had once imagined himself to be the Holy One’s confederate, and expected that any day that the prophet Eliyahu would reveal himself to him.

The only difference was that G‑d, blessed be He, had taken pity upon him, and caused events to evolve in such a way that he had ended up in a far-away land where he was privileged to meet the Baal Shem Tov. Within two years’ time he had rid himself of the coarse impurities in his character.

These frigid, lifeless, stiff Jews, along with their emaciated porush could also be saved by the Baal Shem Tov. The Rebbe, with his path of Divine service actually resurrected the dead; he turned cold into warm, and brought the dead to life. Compare, for example, [these Jews] with those simple Jews whom Reb Mordechai had seen in the village of Zaslov, where he had first heard the Baal Shem Tov’s name.

He remembered the faces of those Jews — those Tehillim sayers were also cobblers, tailors, coachmen, and butchers. But those Jews were alive, happy, reciting Tehillim with joy, davening with gladness, doing favors for one another with relish. Their ahavas Yisrael made them into one big family. True, their respect for the Torah was somewhat lacking — they were quite capable of addressing a Torah scholar by name, without adding the title Moreinu, and they might even address him using the familiar pronoun “du,”8 but nonetheless, they were truly cherished Jews.

When the Jews in the grave-digger’s beis hamedrash finished their Tehillim, they prepared to daven. Reb Mordechai also put on his tefillin, following the Rebbe’s routine of preparation for davening. After getting up from sleep and reciting Tikkun Chatzos, one cannot proceed directly to daven. First, it is necessary to immerse oneself in the mikveh, and attend to other preliminaries. Before beginning these preparations for davening, Reb Mordechai put on tefillin and recited the Shema. He then waited until after the sunrise minyan had completed their prayers, listening to Borchu, the repetition of Shemoneh Esreh, and Kaddish with that minyan. Only then did he go to the nearby stream for the pre-davening immersion, after which he himself began to pray.

When Reb Mordechai davened, he would become so deeply engrossed in the words of the prayer, that he neither saw nor heard what was happening around him. He davened silently, without shouting, but from time to time he would recite whole verses and passages in a melodious, lively, and joyful voice. Even an ordinary weekday davening of Reb Mordechai’s could last as long as five or six hours; a Shabbos davening might last even longer. It all depended upon the quality of Reb Mordechai’s preparations before davening.

The preparation for Reb Mordechai’s davening took a rather long time. In the old days, when he was still a misnaged, Reb Mordechai would attempt to arouse within himself fear of the Holy One’s majesty, and the awareness that it was Holy One Himself before whom he was about to pray. For this purpose, he would approach the chazan’s lectern and read to himself the words written there in large ornate lettering, “Know before Whom you are standing.” He would then shut his eyes and picture in his mind the image of an immense beast such as a buffalo, a gigantic and ferocious species of wild ox.

He had mused that if he were to meet such a beast in the street, he would be possessed by such extreme terror and fright that no extraneous thoughts could possibly enter his mind. His one and only thought would be to escape the buffalo. But after all, this buffalo was no more than one of the beings created by the Holy One, and He had created thousands and millions of buffaloes and other fearfully large beasts. So just imagine what fear one must have of the Holy One Himself and how while davening, one should be unable to think of anything else, and should stand in fear and dread. After thoroughly pondering this image in his mind, he would go away from the lectern and return to his regular place to daven.

All this had occurred very long ago, while he was still a young man, and before he began studying Kabbalah. Once he became familiar with Kabbalah, his preparations for davening took on a different form. After he had studied Kabbalah for several years, he felt that he was on a high spiritual level. He would review the names of the angels in his mind before davening. He himself composed several poems and hymns containing names of angels; the central theme of these poems and hymns was that the angels should disregard their own dignity, and kindly take the trouble to go and inform the Holy One that Reb Mordechai was about to pray to Him.

Footnotes
1.
Ibid., 145:19.
2.
Bamidbar 12:3.
3.
Devarim 33:5.
4.
Such a master of humility is not “on the face of the earth,” for his greatness and his humility are hidden.
5.
The literal meaning of the Previous Rebbe’s words is “goes to the excuse-me-please”.
6.
Tehillim 1:1.
7.
After all, how much better was he than they?
8.
In Yiddish, the familiar form of the singular pronoun “you.” When addressing a Torah scholar, the formal pronoun ihr should normally be used as a sign of respect.
From the writings of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn; translation/adaptation by Yanki Tauber.
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