Rabban Yochanan ben (son of) Zakkai had five [primary] students. They were: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yossi the Priest, Rabbi Shimon ben Nesanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.
He used to enumerate their praises: R. Eliezer ben Hurkenos is a cemented pit which never loses a drop; R. Yehoshua ben Chananya – fortunate is she who bore him; R. Yossi the Priest is pious; R. Shimon ben Nesanel fears sin; and R. Elazar ben Arach is as an increasing river.
In the previous class we discussed the trait of R. Yehoshua and the role his mother played in his development. This week we turn to R. Yossi, whom his teacher described as pious.
What does it mean to be “pious” (“chassid” in Hebrew)? (The term is used today to refer to a member of any of the many branches of Chassidus, but the term itself is nondenominational, referring to the trait of piety itself.) I’m actually not sure if a clear picture comes to mind. Certainly piety implies more than just one who observes the mitzvos (commandments) well. Somehow it implies one who goes beyond the basic requirements — someone in a class of his own, almost untouched by the ordinary and mundane. But a precise definition still does not really emerge. What must one actually do to be branded a chassid? Does the chassid do more mitzvos, extra mitzvos, harder mitzvos?
Before we move on, it is important to establish what chassidus (piety) is not. R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto lived in the early 18th Century, shortly before the advent of the Chassidic movement. In his classic ethical work The Path of the Just (Ch 18), he bemoans that many in his day had a very skewed image of chassidus. There were many who took it to mean self- mortification — fasting, immersing oneself in snow and ice, wailing out loud, and reciting lengthy confessions. Such people, complained R. Luzzatto, not only entirely missed the point themselves, but sullied the image of piety in the eyes of the masses — causing them to believe piety consists of — in his words, “empty acts or acts which run contrary to common sense.”
Although, continues R. Luzzatto, there is some room within Judaism for a certain degree of mortification — for the penitent or those who are attempting to gain control of their passions — that is at best a small aspect of Judaism and chassidus, and should in no way be confused with the true thing. As we’ve pointed out many times in the past, Judaism does not see suffering and affliction as ideals. Being that G-d’s Torah provides us with the ideal way of life, it brings fulfillment to the soul and body alike. (What followed from this misconception was the advent of Chassidus and later the Mussar (ethics) Movement in the Lithuanian world to reintroduce Israel to true piety and character development.)
There is an important lesson for us even from this warped view of chassidus. As my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig observed, people love doing hard and painful acts. We love sacrificing ourselves and making ourselves suffer for our beliefs; it makes us feel so “pious”. You know that great feeling you get after doing painful karate or aerobics stretches? It feels good hurting yourself for good reason (even if only marginally good — but we become convinced we’re doing good if it hurts enough…).
And for better or worse, our souls work in exactly the same manner. We love sacrificing ourselves for our religion. We’d far prefer not having to think — making intelligent choices how to best serve our G-d. We’d rather just give ourselves over to G-d, turn our brains off, and become mindless devotees, doing acts we are told are holy no matter how ludicrous and counterintuitive they actually are. Hurting ourselves makes us feel we’re doing something great — it makes no difference if that act makes the slightest bit of sense or not. But a part of us wants to roll in the snow just as the ignoramuses of R. Luzzatto’s time. Brainless, content-free piety. I don’t want to do the truly hard stuff — become a thinking, caring human being, who serves his Creator in the most meaningful way possible (this of course requiring a lot of careful planning and responsible decision-making on my part). I just want the easy way out — empty, slavish self-affliction for my G-d. And if it hurts, it must be pious.
(At the risk of belaboring the above point, the suicide bombers of today are only a more extreme version of this same tendency. I want to kill myself for G-d. I don’t want the much greater challenge of living for my G-d — of being responsible for and making the most of my own life, and of making my own decisions in service of my Creator. I want the fast track, the easy way out: destroying myself — and somehow in the process ending up with a great big harem in the sky.)
Now let us take a few moments to describe piety as the commentators do. It is really the flip-side of the above. Maimonides (elaborated) describes the chassid as one who does not only do good acts, but one who has refined his character to the extent that he does not want to act differently. R. Yonah and many others describe the chassid as one who goes beyond the letter of the law — in both his dealings with others and with G-d. R. Luzzatto likewise describes the chassid as one whose love for G-d is so great that he does not only do what G-d specifically commands, but anticipates what G-d would want him to do and what would please his G-d — as well as his fellow man. R. Luzzatto compares it to a devoted spouse or child, who does not only do what his spouse or parent asks, but does any job in the house he knows the other would want done. Maybe my spouse could use some help with the household chores or would appreciate a small gift. Maybe I’ll take the extra turn changing the baby’s diaper. His love for the other is so strong he looks for ways to serve the other rather than having to be asked — even once.
Our theme thus far is that the chassid is not only one who serves his Creator, but one who wants to serve Him. He has developed himself to the degree that G-d’s wants become his own, his life-driving force is making G-d happy. And he will go well beyond the letter of the law and look for any means to make that happen.
Thus far we have provided only the bare-bones definition of Chassidus. I would like to next begin to discuss the entire world that opens up to the person on this level. As we will see G-d willing next week, chassidus is not simply a matter of doing more or better, but introduces an entirely new plane in our service of G-d.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.