Skip to main content

Lightning and Truth

I opened the Torah to this week’s portion somewhat apprehensive that I would have to once again read about the final three plagues visited upon the Egyptians. (These days I don’t need any more plagues!) I would not have to justify the Egyptian’s pain as the price for our freedom and as a necessity to demonstrate God’s power to our people. That was not where my heart can be found.

My Hasidic commentaries rescued me. I scanned the words of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the movement and Menahem Mendl of Kotzk. Menahem Mendl, the Kotzker rebbe, offered me a path away from the plagues. He did not even make it past the first word. He never made it to locusts or the death of the first born.

He asks, “Why does the portion begin with the word bo? Why does the verse say the following: “And God said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh?’” This makes no sense. It should say instead, “Go to Pharaoh.” The Kotzker rebbe responds, “The Torah does not say, lekh—go—to Pharaoh, but bo—come. The reason for this wording is because one cannot go from God; one cannot move away from God because God is everywhere. Therefore, God told Moses, “Come,” or in other words, “Come with Me, for I will be with you wherever you are.”

His interpretation was revelatory. It hit me like lightning. And so, at first, I thought the Kotzker rebbe had redeemed the portion and its plagues. I would not have to talk about darkness again. I would not have to wrestle with the dilemma of why God made Pharaoh so stubborn. The first word tells us all we need to know. Bo. God is everywhere. I delved into the Kotzker rebbe’s life. I followed his teachings and asked where they might lead me.

Menahem Mendl was brilliant, but troubled. Darkness hovered over his life. He was exacting and controversial. Some report that one year he did not even show up for High Holiday services. Imagine that! And yet it makes sense when you think about the Kotzker’s life. He was so committed to truth and authenticity that if he did not feel he could lead the congregation or that his heart was not fully committed to the awesomeness of Yom Kippur then he should not be there.

Clearly Menahem Mendl was not a people-person. Instead, he was obsessed with truth. He was blinded by right and wrong. He raged against the world. He called out others for being inauthentic. He dreamed of raising up a few disciples. But in the end found none who he thought worthy. People always fall short. (I don’t mean that literally of course.) I mean that people are imperfect, that we never do everything we promise to do or all we are called to do. We always fall short of the demands placed upon us—the demands of others, the demands of God, the demands of ourselves.

If you are like the Kotzker you end up only seeing disappointment around you. Your world becomes darkened. Menahem Mendl chased away those who considered themselves disciples. He burned up almost everything he ever wrote. The Kotzker rebbe lived out the last twenty years of his life in seclusion. This is where fully embracing his life inevitably leads. It leads only to the solitude of the self.

Is such the plague of the religious life? Is this the darkness that accompanies people who are so God intoxicated? They can only see God’s demands. They are blinded by truth. People get driven away when forgiveness is exiled, when the commitment to the perfect inner life becomes so all consuming.

That’s why we need another Hasidic master to guide us. You can’t be all Kotzker. It will burn you up. You need the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism who embraced everyone and who saw joy in even the most ordinary of circumstances. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “The Baal Shem dwelled in my life like a lamp, while the Kotzker struck like lightning. To be sure, lightning is more authentic. Yet one can trust a lamp, put confidence in it; one can live in peace with a lamp.”

Lightning is natural, but dangerous. A lamp is made by human hands. And yet it is comforting. We need flashes of the Kotzker but the calming influence of the Baal Shem. A God who is everywhere, who strikes with the ferocity of lightning each and every minute, is overwhelming. A God who is everywhere but who is sometimes a dim light is consoling. The question is when do we need the lightning and when the lamp.

The Kotzker plagues us with fits of despair. There is disorder all around us. (Just read the news.). He causes us to grow silent. The Baal Shem teaches us to sing and dance. Who does not love to sing and dance? But you can’t do that all the time either. Sometimes the world requires that blazing truth of which the Kotzker dreams.

It begins with one simple word. And this is what this one word asks of each of us on this cold January day. God says to us, “Come with Me, for I will be with you wherever you are.” It is not always the comforting lamp. Sometimes it is so demanding that we are overwhelmed like a lighting a bolt. “Come with Me, for I will be with you wherever you are.”

Which light do you choose?