By Yochanan Gordon
Last Shabbos, Parashas Vayigash, was billed as Shabbos Izhbitz in Kahal Mevakshei Hashem. You may have seen the advertisement here a couple of weeks ago, or received the flier in your WhatsApp feed, that Shabbos Vayigash is the yahrzeit of the Mei HaShiloach, the founding Rebbe of the Izhbitz/Radzyner dynasty and would be observed in unique fashion over a Shabbos dedicated to his Torah and embracing his redemptive philosophy for 25 hours.
But how did this idea take root? What was the impetus that set it in motion? Sometime before Chanukah, Rabbi Zakutinsky mentioned that the Shabbos after Chanukah is the yahrzeit of the Mei HaShiloach. Later that day a sign was made and a plan devised, ultimately bringing together not just a Shabbos Izhbitz, as it was billed, but a Shabbos in Izhbitz as it was experienced by everyone who participated.
The more I reflected on the spontaneity with which this weekend came together I couldn’t help but think about the song written by Abie Rotenberg titled “Rebbe of Lublin.” In it, the Rebbe’s shamash laments having to serve the Rebbe his food the moment the Rebbe sits down and implores G-d for a bite to eat after a long day in service of his Creator. After a while the shamash decided that he would show the Rebbe that not G-d, but he, the dutiful shamash, was the one providing food for the Rebbe day in and day out without fail. The next day, as the Rebbe sat down in his place and exclaimed, “Master of the World, provide your servant with a bite to eat,” the shamash placed an empty tray before his master, the Rebbe of Lublin. At that very moment, however, the doorbell rang, and a chassid who was helped out of dire straits due to the Rebbe’s blessing delivered a tray of food out of gratitude. At that point the shamash realized that he was merely a messenger, and that G-d was the One providing.
Initially, this idea planted itself in my mind in reflection of the manner in which these events unfolded. It was remarkable to me that the rav could just make a benign statement and an entire Shabbos was planned within minutes of it being said, which is itself a testament to the reverence and respect for every word and gesture that he makes.
However, having emerged from that Shabbos, disembarking emotionally from what felt like not merely Shabbos Izhbitz but more accurately a Shabbos in the town of Izhbitz, circa 1880, it seems that this idea was brought out by the Mei HaShiloach himself on this parashah—a Torah that the Rebbe gave over during his Shabbos derashah.
On the allegation that Binyamin was a thief when the goblet was found in his sack after it was surreptitiously placed there, the Mei HaShiloach writes that while there is a prohibition against theft and a need for someone who did steal to return the item and beg forgiveness over the transgression, the urge to steal is not something over which we have control. The Izhbitzer explains that because G-d ushered the world into existence by initially creating a vacuum in the center of what was previously His infinite light, each of us, who was created as a result of that vacant space, enters into this world with a trauma that is a result of that vacuum which facilitated the possibility of our creation. He writes that Binyamin’s own birth was responsible for the demise of his mother, Rachel. Now, of course, her death was through no fault of Binyamin, who was merely a moments-old infant; however, narratively that is precisely what occurred.
So while practically speaking, we need to work on ourselves to refrain from doing things that we aren’t allowed to do, in a sense we can heap part of the culpability for the infraction, in the instance that it is committed, on the fact that G-d himself placed us vulnerably in that situation. As Yehuda said to Yosef, had Binyamin remained with Yaakov, where he was meant to be, he would have never gotten entangled in this act of theft. Therefore, the Mei HaShiloach writes, citing the Mishnah in Avos: “The work is not on us to complete but we don’t have the liberty to lift our hands from fulfilling it.” In that sense we are all shamashim here to accomplish a job with the recognition that ultimately it is G-d alone Who is capable of carrying it to completion.
I’ve written previously, in my article “Lawrence, Liadi, and Lizensk,” that my feeling is that the emergence of Kahal Mevakshei Hashem in the center of the Lawrence community, under the tutelage of its dedicated rebbe and rebbetzin, meshes seamlessly with the towns in the Ukraine and Poland where the Ba’al Shem Tov and his students founded what today is known as the Chassidic movement.
Despite the thousands of miles that separate us from them, what is transpiring experientially in this town—the lively davening, the discovery of G-d literally within the words of Torah and in the frequent farbrengens—is a reemergence of that light squarely within our environs. It’s like the Maggid of Mezeritch once quipped regarding the world of atzilus, saying that the world of atzilus is also here. Just like one doesn’t have to travel in a rocket ship to visit the spiritual worlds spoken of in the Kabbalistic sefarim, similarly, we can daven, learn, and farbreng right here in Lawrence, NY, and feel like we’re in the Ukraine or in Poland where it all began.
This leads to an idea that Rav Zakutinsky said during shalosh seudos, which really cuts to the heart of the debate that has been raging in the pages of the Mishpachah magazine. There are varying levels within the world of Torah study. There are people who set fixed times daily to study Torah but whose time is more heavily spent taking care of their work and family life. Then there are people who spend the majority of their time learning and a minimum on the other areas of their life. Finally, there is Rashbi and his colleagues whom the Gemara categorized as “Toraso umnaso”—Torah is his occupation.
The Gemara rules in a number of places that someone who is fully occupied in the study of Torah doesn’t have to pause his learning in order to pray. However, the Jerusalem Talmud and Babylonian Talmud argue whether or not that dispensation extends to Krias Shema. The Babylonian Talmud rules that even someone such as Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai would have to stop his learning to read the Shema in its proper time. However, the Jerusalem Talmud disagrees with that position and rules that there is no need.
The Gemara describes what the Shema of Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi looked like. The Gemara records that in the midst of delivering a shiur he would run his hand over his eyes—that was his Shema. Obviously, what the Gemara is imparting is that the manner in which Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi learned was itself a fulfillment of his acceptance of the Heavenly yoke.
There is a statement in the Gemara in Berachos that seems to distinguish between the time of learning and davening, when it states: “Z’man tefillah l’chud u’z’man Torah l’chud.” However, there is an idea that was made famous in the writings of Breslov, which is to turn the words of Torah into a tefillah. Rebbi Nosson of Breslov, whose yahrzeit was observed this week, famously wrote a sefer called Likkutei Tefillos, which is a book of prayers based on the Torah insights of his rebbe, Rebbe Nachman.
In his book, The Birth of the Spoken Word, Reb Dovid’l Weinberg writes that Chazal state that Torah, like water, travels from the highest places to the lowest, and tefillah is our reciprocation of that gift from within our lowly lives back up to the highest heights of Divinity.
The story is told that when Reb Schneur Zalman of Liadi was deciding whether to go to Mezeritch to learn by the Maggid or to the Gra in Vilna, he surmised: “In Vilna they teach one how to learn, which I know a little bit about; let me go to Mezeritch where they will teach me how to daven.”
I haven’t seen this written anywhere, but my gut tells me that when the Ba’al HaTanya decided to go to learn how to daven he meant that in Mezeritch they teach one to daven his studies. To take the Torah, which is a gift from G-d, and to make it ours—to live and breathe the lessons that we learn through its pages.
Nobody ever contested the yeshiva bachur’s great dedication to Torah study. Any misgivings that were expressed by Rav Weinberger or Yaakov Klein throughout this important debate was never, G-d forbid, directed at the bachurim who, to the envy of others, spend a large part of their days and nights poring dutifully over the Gemara and works of halachah, trying to be the best version of themselves possible. The issues that have been expressed were pointed at the system that stubbornly refuses to recognize the need to incorporate a program of Torah study that gives its seeker unfettered access to the infinite light within the words of Torah.
Throughout last weekend there were upwards of 300 people at the Friday-night davening, then a packed crowd by the Friday-night tisch, and then again for Shacharis and shalosh seudos, which was held in the main shul in order to accommodate the overflow crowd. These are young men and women who went to our local institutions and other like-minded yeshivos, paying full tuition for their children who are currently studying within this community, and are seeking to uncover that opaque veil that obscures the light deep within the very words that they are learning.
There are young and vibrant Torah teachers within our generation who are teaching people long after they have left the walls of the beis midrash to seek G-d in prayer and in Torah. If you speak to these people they’ll all lament the fact that they had to wait until they were married with kids, bogged down in the thick of life’s vicissitudes, to be introduced to this light in Torah and Yiddishkeit.
The implicit question being asked by parents and their children attending these functions and participating in the constant shiurim, is “lamah ni’gara?” Why can’t our children learn in our local institutions and be afforded an opportunity to come into contact with the infinitude within their souls, breathed by G-d through their nostrils with their conception in their mother’s womb?
In his Kuntres Inyana Shel Toras HaChassidus, the Lubavitcher Rebbe emphasizes the fact that Chassidus is not a new realm in Torah; it is merely the difference between searching through a room with the lights off and the lights turned on. It’s the same davening, the same Chumash, the same halachah, but with a light upon it that allows those learning it to see each word and idea at its core.
It is a realm of understanding that will reconcile the disputes between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel, Rebbi Akiva and Rebbi Yishmael, and certainly whatever differences have presented themselves in the annals of this debate dating back to its genesis. It is a realm within Torah that will clear away the darkness that clouds every page of Torah She’ba’al Peh as it is enlightened with the glow of G-d’s unity and the light hidden by G-d on the first day of Creation.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.