Thursday, January 10, 2019

God's Burning Truth

Rabbi Menahem Mendl (1787-1859) was a controversial Hasidic teacher who led a community in Kotzk (Kock, Poland) for twelve years. He is often called the Kotzker rebbe.

Reb Menahem Mendl was, however, never fully comfortable in this leadership role. When followers came to visit, hoping to hear some of their master’s teachings, he would only occasionally come out of his study. And when he did, he would then chase these students away. His dream was to develop fifty worthy disciples who would attain the spiritual level of the prophets. He of course never achieved this goal and instead spent his remaining twenty years in seclusion.

He was a master without a congregation.

He was so intoxicated with God that he found little time for people. He was uncompromising. His goal was absolute perfection. Menahem Mendl disdained half measures. He believed in a radical approach, stating that it was better to be completely wicked than to be partially good and partially wicked. His singular goal was absolute truth and complete authenticity. Falsehood and complacency were antithetical to a worthy religious life. Conformity and social conventions were obstacles that needed to be trampled. He was known to say, “Give me just ten disciples who will follow me to the desert, eat manna and forsake this decadent world.”

His obsessions led him to perform an unusual custom. Every year, prior to Passover, he burned his writings along with the bread. And yet there are a number of sayings and teachings ascribed to him. He taught: “People are accustomed to look at the heavens and wonder what happens there. It would be better if they would look within themselves to see what happens there.”

Look within for truth.

To the Kotzker rebbe, there is no escaping God’s demands or God’s presence. He saw God everywhere and anywhere.

Even this week’s portion points to more than the plagues it describes. Why does the portion open with such a curious word? God commands Moses to “Come to Pharaoh” rather than “Go to Pharaoh.” Menahem Mendl comments:
The Torah does not say, lekh—go—to Pharaoh, but bo—come. The reason for this usage is because one cannot go from God; one cannot move away from God for God is everywhere. Therefore, God told Moses, “come,” or in other words, “Come with Me, for I will be with you wherever you are.”
We cannot escape God’s presence. We cannot escape God’s demands.

It is enough to drive a person mad. Perhaps this is why Menahem Mendl shooed disciples away and sought to destroy his legacy by burning his writings. He was tormented by God’s truth.

God’s demands are overwhelming. Truth burns at the soul.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explores Menahem Mendl of Kotzk’s teachings in his extraordinary book, A Passion for Truth. Heschel observes:
We recall him still, Reb Mendl of Kotzk. He has not fled from us by dying. Somehow his lightning persists. His words throw flames whenever they come into our orbit. They burn. Who can bear them? Yet many of us shall thereby shed our masks, our pretensions and jealousies, our distorted notions, and then messianic redemption may approach its beginning. 
What did the Kotzker leave behind? He published no books, left no records; what he wrote he burned. Yet he taught us never to say farewell to Truth; for God laughs at those who think that falseness is inevitable. He also enabled us to face wretchedness and survive. For Truth is alive, dwelling somewhere, never weary. And all of mankind is needed to liberate it.
Where is the Kotzker rebbe when he is most needed?

He has secluded himself—once again.

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