Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Chiddushei HaRim on Purim

This isn't quite a story, but a short mashal (parable) about Purim and drinking from the Chuddushei Harim, Reb Yitchak Meir Alter, first Gerrer Rebbe. Just as a matter of interest, the name Alter was not the original family name, but had been changed when Reb Yitchak was Rebbe. Reb Yitzchak, believe it or not, was a Polish national, and supported the Polish nationalist movement, as did a number of other chassidic Rebbes at the time. When the Russians came in Reb Yitzchak was afraid that he would be hounded, and therefore changed the name from Friedman to Alter.

But before we get to the mashal, just a few words about Purim. We know about the great power of Purim in ruchnius (spirituality), when we gain access to the upper spheres, more so than at other sacred times. As we say, Yom Kippurim is only "ke Purim (like Purim)." There is a certain access to shamayim (heaven), and if we daven (pray) with intensity of feeling and fervor on this day, our innermost supplications will be heeded and perhaps fulfilled from on high. The key is to remember that the story of Purim did not only take place many years ago, but that the power of Purim comes forth every year on the 14 of Adar, and at this time we must keep in mind to re-live the events. As they say, "hakoreh es haMegillah l'mafreia lo yatza." (if one reads the Megillah - Scroll of Esther -retroactively then he does not fulfill the mitzvah). We can interpret this in the following way: If one reads the Megillah "retroactively," meaning that the story and power of the day is only something that took place many years ago, then one has not fulfilled the mitzvah. We must keep in mind the efficacy of our prayers, because after all, Purim is when we accepted the Torah without a mountain over our heads (kimu v'kiblu). And the Gerrer Rebbe gives a mashal in this vein in connection with drinking on Purim:

There was once a commoner looking on as the king was riding by on his chariot. Thousand of people gathered for the event. This commoner saw a man with a gun pointing toward the carriage. He snuck up, and wrestled the sniper to the ground. Word got to the king that his life was saved, and after meeting the commoner, he told him that as a reward he could take anything he wanted from the palace.

A few days later, guards of the palace went running up to the king to alert him that a caravan was headed toward the palace. The king went to the window, and saw empty cart, after empty cart, after empty cart, blocks long. He realized exactly what was going on (the man was going to clean out the palace). So he told his ministers to get out the wine. He said, "we'll give him a few drinks, and then he won't know what to ask for."

And so it is with Purim, says the Rebbe. We drink to get confused so that we don't know what to ask for, because on Purim we just might get things before their time.

A number of leaders have come out very strongly this year against drinking on Purim, including Rav Shmuel Kamentzky and Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky, noted expert on addiction and dependency. The issue is how to interpret the famous words of the gemara (Megillah 7), "meechayev inish livsumeh b'Purya ad d'lo yada bein arur Haman uvein baruch Mordechai," usually translated as, "a person is required to become intoxicated on Purim until he can't distinguish between 'cursed is Haman', and 'blessed is Mordechai.'" The key word is "livsumeh." Rav Kamentzky said that this word means "whiff," and he explains that in relation to drinking, a whiff means a "sip." So much for getting intoxicated this Purim. Then again, how many will really heed his interpretation and advice. Others rule that one should drink a bit more than he would normally drink. Others, that one should drink until one gets tired, because while sleeping one won't know the difference between "arur Haman" and "baruch Mordechai." Some say that one should drink enough so that one can't compute the gematria (numerology) of the two (each one equals 502. No coincidence!) Others say that it's a matter of how joyous one becomes, and that the joy should be to the point that one doesn't know the difference between the two. There is a number of rulings.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Gerrer Rebbe on the Ba'al Shem

The holy Ba'al Shem Tov (1698-1760) used to tell a story. The lion, the king of beasts, was angry with all of the animals of the jungle. The animals, fearing for their lives, got together, and appointed the sly fox to go and appease the angry lion. The fox was reluctant, but finally agreed, and he came up with three hundred parables to relate to the lion. He set out on his journey, but soon into his stroll, he forgot one hundred of the parables. He was in shock. Never had his mind failed him before. He continued his journey, but after another little while he forgot another one hundred of his parables. "This is unlike me!" he thought to himself. He became quite nervous, fearing the lion's impending rage. He mustered up the courage to go, reasoning that he still had another 100 solid parables to tell to the lion. But, yet again, he forgot 100 parables, leaving him with nothing to say to the lion. He feared the lion's wrath, and became paralyzed in his tracks. But all the animals of the jungle had appointed him, and nobody else, to appease the lion. And so he set out, once again, not having any idea of what he was going to say when he finally reached the lion. And the Ba'al Shem Tov relates that when the fox reached the lion an indescribable feeling came over him. He went right up to the lion, and began to pour out his heart. He talked, and wept and, with deep emotion, told the lion everything on his mind and on the minds of all the animals in the jungle. The lion was receptive, and the lion was subsequently appeased.

I recently realized the true meaning of this tale (how could I have missed it earlier?) It's clearly about chassidus vs. the Litvish world, the status quo at the time. Wisdom (being a talmid chocham, very learned, in Torah), is not necessarily the best or only conduit to reach the lion (the King, G-d). Genuine, heartfelt emotion, passion, and pouring out one's soul to the King is another, perhaps superior, way of getting close to the Creator. One need not know hundreds of parables, and one need not be learned and wise to reach the lion, G-d. And this is the essence of the Ba'al Shem Tov's Chassidus.

The Ba'al Shem would often take his disciples out to a nearby field to observe a certain ignorant shepherd. At one point while tending to the flock each day he would get caught in a burst of religious inspiration, drop his stick, close his eyes, look up to the heavens, and cry out, "G-d! I'm just a simple shepherd! I don't know how to learn. I don't know how to write, and I don't even know the aleph-beis (the Hebrew alphabet). But this, this I can offer to you!." And he would begin to do somersaults and flips, all throughout the field. The Ba'al Shem and his disciples would watch from behind a rock, and he would say to them, "observe closely, because this is a holy man."

The following story on the Imrei Emes, Reb Avraham Mordechai Alter (1866-1948), third Gerrer Rebbe, in which he used the above mashal, is simply meant as a matter of interest:

After the death of the Sfas Emes, second Gerrer Rebbe, many of the chassidim supported his son, the 39 year old Reb Avraham Mordechai. Others had gone to Alexander, but eventually there was a major push to make Reb Avraham Mordechai the next Rebbe. He refused, and he refused again. He was an anav (a humble man), and didn't feel worthy of the esteemed position. Finally, the chassidim insisted, and so he got up in front of the crowd, and told them a mashal. He said that the lion, king of the jungle had become very angry with the animals in the jungle, and the sly fox was appointed to appease him. He came up with three hundred parables to appease the king, and so on. But at the point in the story in which the fox forgets his last one hundred parables, the Rebbe said that the fox then decided to turn back. He was simply undeserving and unworthy of this great task. "And so," said Reb Avraham Mordechai, "I am the fox, and you are the animals of the jungle. I am unworthy of being the representative to the king. And so now you will all have to fend for yourselves."

The chassidim were so taken by his humility in the face of honor that they urged him even more now to become their Rebbe. After further cajoling he finally did agree to become Rebbe. But his first takanah (decree) as Rebbe came as a shock and blow to the Gerrer chassidim. Immediately after being crowned Rebbe he changed the time of shacharis (morning prayer), and set it for a significantly earlier time in the morning. Chassidim, in general, had developed the custom of davening (praying) later than the generally established times, and one major reason was for spiritual preparation. This was done in the times of the chassidim harishonim in another era, and the present chassidim had picked up the custom of meditating for an hour or two before prayer to enhance their davening. A large protest broke out in the Gerrer court until the Rebbe was forced to give an explanation. And he explained with a mashal. "There was once a man who loved his wife's cooking. In fact, he loved it so much, that before dinner time every evening he would sit by the table for a lengthy period just to prepare himself. One evening, after sitting at the table for half an hour, the food was placed before him. He looked up at his wife, and barked, "what is this?" She replied simply, "it's your dinner." The man was furious. "I sit and prepare myself for half an hour for your cooking only to be given burnt hash!" "And so it is with our davening," said the Rebbe. "In days of old we had reason for hachana and meditation. But the davening of our days has dropped to a level that no amount of preparation could salvage."

We see the extent of yeridos hadoros (the weakening of the generations) in Poland circa 1905 in the estimation of a gadol of the time. To think of how much further we have slipped since then.

Do you agree with my interpretation of the Ba'al Shem Tov's parable above?

How far do you think we've slipped in the past 100 years since the Gerrer Rebbe's first takanah?