If you wait and look carefully you will eventually see it. Throughout the mundane hours and days, our soul pines for its source but feels lost in a sea of insignificance. It’s as if the whole of our reality is swimming in foolishness. How can I hope for spiritual heights when all I can think about revolves around the materialistic and shallow chaff that surrounds me? Yet then comes those special moments when all becomes clear, when questions find answers.
Gutte Yidden of old told us that these heights can be found through stories. They taught that through the vehicle of storytelling one can grasp onto truths that otherwise become lost. We are but small minute beings with limited patience; stories speak to our hearts, giving us the ability to cut through the noise.
One such story concerns two of the chassidic world’s greatest leaders. Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was renowned for his unbridled passion for all things holy. He could never stand still during davening; instead he would be seen dancing and swaying, from one side of the room to the next. His entire day was taken up with a constant discussion with Hashem, and one never knew what to expect from one moment to the next.
In direct contrast was the holy grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Reb Baruch of Medzibuz. His service to Hashem was perceived as being staid and extremely dignified. One never saw him shuckeling and shaking, and his every action was performed with total control.
It was the great wish of the Berditchever to visit the Rebbe Reb Baruch for a Shabbos. He wanted to experience the holiness that permeated the table of the Baal Shem Tov’s unique offspring. However, the Medzibuzher refused to invite the Berditchever. He didn’t want him to disturb the quiet avoda of his beis medrash, and he felt that the firedika Berditchever would never be able to control himself in such an austere atmosphere.
After some time the Medzibuzher relented, but only after obtaining a promise from the Berditchever that he would not in any way disturb the avoda of his community. Reb Levi Yitzchak readily gave his word but with one proviso: that no one ask him anything that could set his heart spiritually soaring.
Shabbos came and all was well. The guest watched as his staid host davened the Friday night tefilla. He did nothing but answer amen to the brachos, all the while watching, just watching. The tisch began, and then the fish was served.
Now let me explain something about the eating of fish on Shabbos. In the world of gutte Yidden, the eating of Shabbos fish is a very special act. In fact, there were different kinds of fish that bespoke different attitudes of one’s service to Hashem. There was sweet fish, and then there was what was called sour fish. Some felt you should eat the sweet fish first, demonstrating that one should experience life’s sweetness so that when the difficult times come one would be able to endure. Others felt that one should eat the sour fish first, so that when sweetness comes along it will be enjoyed all the more.
The Rebbe Reb Baruch did things with a high degree of manners, so a young waiter would go amongst the guests asking which he preferred first, the sweet or the sour fish. This hapless young fellow approached Reb Levi Yitzchak and asked which fish he liked. “Like! I only like Hashem!” burst out the holy soul. He jumped up and in so doing, overturned the entire tray of fish. “I love Hashem, I love Hashem!” He was now dancing, with all his pent-up energy finally let loose. The fish flew into the air, finally landing on the tallis of the Rebbe Reb Baruch. (Rebbes used to wear taleisim during the tisch.)
Afterward, the Rebbe Reb Boruch refused to allow his servants to wash that tallis, although it was stained. “I want to wear the tallis stained with a Yid’s love for Hashem,” he explained.
And so it was, with that tallis being handed down from one generation of chassidic leaders to the next. Never was it washed, for the stains were holy reminders of what a true Jew should feel.
Over the next hundred years that tallis was worn by great saints. The last to wear it was the Munkatcher Rebbe, who only donned it at Ne’ila every Yom Kippur. Realizing through his holy sensitivity that an epoch was coming to an end, he asked that upon his passing he be buried in that most heilige of taleisim. This took place just a few short years before the churban of Europe.
Yes, there were once Jews who really burned with love for Hashem. Their love consumed everything else and brought down to earth Hashem’s essence. They released the sparks of holiness found in a plate of fish, and did so without even stopping to philosophise.
We may not be able to reach such heights; in fact, we can hardly even imagine them. But we have the story, and with it we can feel connected to such sweeping thoughts. Such tales find resonance within us because our pintela Yid, that innermost core in every Jew, yearns to be close to our roots.
David Hamelech describes these feelings in this kapitel, feelings of yearning for what we know we want to be.
Mah yedidos mishkenosecha Hashem…, “How beloved are Your dwelling places, G-d of Hosts. My soul yearns and even pines for the courtyards of Hashem; my heart and my flesh will sing for joy to the living Alm-ghty.”
When I first heard the tale of Reb Baruch’s tallis I remember quite distinctly that my heart felt a rush of joy. This was many years ago; however, the story had such an effect that I still feel that leap of joy whenever it is retold. Stories do this. They allow that sometimes-hollow place within to become enriched. We walk around with an ache in our souls because we are so far from the Torah life we know we should live. Into that corner of pain flows the holy tales, giving strength and hope.
The kapitel speaks of yearning, and even more, of pining. There is a difference between the two. Yearning is missing something you perceive to be good for you. Pining is literally feeling physically ill because of the sense of loss. We don’t seek Hashem because “it would be nice to be frum.” We need Him because without such a connection we are nothing.
Gam tzipor matza’a bayis…, “Even a bird has found a house and the swallow a nest, her chicks resting on Your altars, Hashem of Hosts, my King and my G-d.”
Here we see how much we are missing. Even the birds have a clear mission in their creation. They know where their home is, where they are meant to be.
Ashrei adam oz lo bach…, “Fortunate is the man whose strength is in You; ways of uprightness are in his heart.” When we know that our focus should be on the spiritual reality instead of the mirage of the material, then our hearts are full and the stories become a pathway leading to righteousness.
And so we tell those stories, tales that touch our inner selves, giving life and creating an awareness of what we are really missing. It’s no bad thing, my friends, for stories can be a taste of heaven while we are here on earth. And yes, they go well with a bit of Tehillim. They are a spice for each other.