“Never confuse righteousness with self-righteousness. They sound similar, but they are opposites. The righteous see the good in people; the self-righteous see the bad. The righteous make you feel bigger; the self-righteous make you feel small. The righteous praise; the self-righteous criticize.”
– Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs, Letters to the Next Generation
“As for Rav Levi Yitzchak, he never said a bad word about His children. On the contrary, he extolled their virtues in his own heart and to God. His motto: man must criticize himself and praise his fellow man… The destitute, the ignorant, the misfits sought him out. His presence made them feel important; he gave them what they needed most: dignity.”
– Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire
This past Monday, the 25th of Tishrei, was the yartzeit of the renowned Chassidic master, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov zy”a. Fondly referred to as “the holy Berditchover”, this tzaddik is famous for having been the “Sanigoran shel Yisroel”, the advocate for the Jewish people. In each situation the Berditchover focused only upon the inherent goodness of each Jew. If a glimmer of merit shone through a crack in the crumbling wall of a Jew’s unfavorable action, Rav Levi Yitzchak put a magnifying glass to it. If there was none to be found, he went about seeking the extenuating circumstance that was surely the driving force behind the unfortunate mistake. Encountering a Jew attempting to save time by hurriedly saying the morning prayers while cleaning the wheels of his wagon, Rav Levi Yitzchak sees a Jew so in love with God that he cannot help but speak to Him in all places and at all times – even while cleaning his wagon. Chancing upon a Jew eating on Tisha B’Av who brazenly maintains that he eats despite his knowledge of the prohibition and his perfect health, the holy Berditchover sees a Jew so remarkably honest that, though he could have easily saved himself from embarrassment by claiming his ignorance of the law or poor health, he continued to tell the truth. He refused to see anything else but merit in his brethren and constantly confronted their Creator armed with the sparks of holiness he had collected from within their souls, demanding that He bring the redemption they so deserved. Indeed, in his work on the Torah, the Kedushas Levi, the Berditchover writes that the primary purpose of speech is so that one may advocate on behalf of his fellow Jew1.
The countless stories demonstrating Rav Levi Yitzchak’s wit and sharp insight in seeing even the most serious transgressions in a positive light never fails to bring a smile to our face. They play to emotion; they lend the heart wings to pursue its dreams of a perfect world and grant strength to the Jewish defiance we carry within. Intellectually, however, they may leave us confused. The tales told about Rav Levi Yitchak portray an almost childish naiveté on the part of the great master. One begins to wonder if Rav Levi Yitzchak truly believed his charming claims. If he did not, it is strange: why, then, did he make them? If he did, it is infinitely stranger: how could anyone with sound reason truly believe that the Jew was incapable of malicious or sinful intent? This second choice is made even more difficult when we consider Rav Levi Yitzchak’s position as the Av Beis Din in the city of Berditchov, home to a large community of Jews. There is no uncertainty as to his intellectual stature; as a child he was a famed prodigy, as an adult he was renowned as a gaon, a genius in Torah learning. How then could he have seen the world in a way that appears to be completely irrational?
In order to understand the advocacy of the holy Berditchover Rav, we must first explore the idea of perspective. Perspective is a remarkable concept. When considered in any exploration of the world around us, perspective renders almost anything possible. One truth becomes many; reality a matter of mindset. In a most basic sense, perspective refers to the view a person has of a scene from the particular vantage point granted by his physical position. Standing on opposite ends of the baseball stadium, the fans see each play from a different perspective. Thus, what to one might seem to be an outrageous call by the umpire may seem perfectly fair to the other. Each is convinced by the evidence granted by their particular perspective. Where, then, is reality? To some thinkers, it hardly exists at all. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, “There are no facts, only interpretations”2. However, to us religious Jews, the words of this German philosopher ring true only in highly specific situations, if at all. By the unearned grace of Hashem we are privy to the knowledge that there is, in fact, a very definite reality; that an overarching truth does indeed exist and that it is absolutely singular3. Thus, there must be another way of determining reality.
In most cases, reality can be determined by the one with the most favorable vantage point. His definition of a given reality must reign supreme; if challenged, it can be negated only by someone whose even more favorable vantage point grants him a superior perspective. This truth is taught by the Ramchal in his Mesillas Yesharim4. There he speaks of a maze with an elevated gazebo at its center and decries the foolishness of a person in the maze who would ignore the advice of the one standing in the gazebo as to the proper path to the exit. In this parable, the Ramchal is teaching us the importance of perspective and the notion that reality is best defined by the one with the most superior vantage point.
Thus far we have discussed the many takes on reality that different viewpoints provided by various physical perspectives provide. Now let us move into a different kind of perspective. Just as a different physical perspective can change one’s view of reality, so can a different level of intellect alter one’s perception of a given situation. Take, for example, a father teaching his toddler to walk. The father crouches a few paces away, arms outstretched, beckoning for his toddler to enter his embrace. Then, as the boy clumsily wobbles near, the father quickly shifts position and crouches further away. To a random observer, this seems like an act of cruelty. The man appears to be taunting his toddler! However, to the man’s wife, who understands that her loving husband is teaching their beloved child how to walk, the act is not cruel at all. The superior perspective granted by her deeper and broader knowledge of the situation allows for a truer definition of the reality.
Still, there is yet a third kind of perspective, and here we come to the point. In the Ramchal’s parable, the man in the gazebo had a more accurate grasp on reality because of his elevated position. The same is true of an elevated spiritual position. The faith that is a result of spiritual experience (or the other way around, no matter) grants the believer access to an elevated plane from which he looks down upon the convoluted maze of existence in its totality with a sense of absolute clarity. Where the rationalist, from his limited perspective trapped within the walls of the maze, sees confusion and disarray, the man of faith, from the vantage point granted by his belief in a Creator Whose existence, as manifest in the Torah, sheds the light of meaning on all that is meaningless, sees patterns of brilliant beauty. Indeed, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov takes the verse “Einei Hashem el Tzaddim5”, “God’s Eyes are upon the righteous”, to mean that the righteous are granted “Godly eyes”6. Their unique perspective of the world, granted by both intellectual and spiritual elevation, allows them to perceive a hidden spiritual dimension at the source of all physicality7.
All of Torah seeks to impart the message of God’s immanence which stands at the basis for moral responsibility and lends significance to the most trivial human acts. The performance of mitzvos and their study serve to keep us constantly focused on our relationship with Hashem and perpetually remind us of the spiritual realm that underlies the physical smokescreen by which we are surrounded. However, no portion of Torah breeds this awareness more than the study of Kabbalah. It is in Kabbalah (which begins, as both Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and the Vilna Gaon teach, where the studies of nature end) that we discover the spiritual blueprint for all of existence. It is in Kabbalah that we learn about the sparks of holiness that abound in our corporeal world, yearning for redemption.
Saturated with a knowledge that elevated their perspective to the loftiest levels, the Kabbalists understood all of history as a magnificient process of growth. They were able to perceived the joy within pain, the spring within winter, the laughter within tears. They knew that descent must always precede ascent8, that failure, both nationally and individually, was a prerequisite to success9, that everything would be fixed in the end10. With tremendous certainty, they knew that everything contained a spark of the Divine, and that the Divine was perfectly good. Thus, they taught, if one knows how to look, he can find a spark of perfect goodness hidden within all people11, places12, and throughout the entirety of creation around us13.
None of this was demonstrative of an irrational, wishful, or “ignorance is bliss” manner of thinking. On the contrary. It is unequivocally rational to propose that access to an entire philosophy, especially one as profound as Kabbalah, would provide the tzaddikim with a perspective that rationalists couldn’t possibly attain, much less comprehend. Just as he who stands in the elevated gazebo has an insight into the maze that a person trapped within its walls could never achieve, so did the tzaddikim see the world from an entirely transcendent perspective. Thus, what to our limited mind’s eye might appear irrational, was to them, from their superior perspective, the absolute and entirely rational truth.
Perhaps even more so than the classical kabbalists, the Chassidic masters focused on revealing the spiritual realm which underlies our physical world. It is said that while Kabbalah sought to bring earth into heaven, Chassidus sought to bring heaven down to earth. In other words: where the kabbalists entered a realm of transcendent and heavenly thought only to remain in the rapture it inspired, the Chassidic masters ascended and experienced that rapture, to then descend and reveal to their followers how this world appeared from that perspective; the pinnacle of all perspectives; the zenith of all truths. “Ein od milvado14” was the watchword of the new movement: there is nothing but God. “Meloh chol ha’aretz kevodo”15, was a verse the masters would often repeat: every particle of physicality is infused with divine holiness. It is thus that we find, in the works of the great Chassidic masters and the tales related about them, a perspective on all facets of life in this world that transcends any other rational or religious ideology. It is life as seen from the highest attainable perspective, a revelation from the man in the gazebo, shedding brilliant light on the twisted passages of the labyrinth below16.
Let us now return to the holy advocacy of the Berditchover Rav. As we have learned, from his perspective, the tzaddik sees only God, and thus, only good. Within mistake, he sees a life lesson17. Within challenge, he finds the opportunity for growth18. To the true tzaddik, every wall is a door, every obstacle a stepping stone, every fence a ladder. His lofty perspective prevents him from seeing the negative drive and malicious intent of his brethren because he understands it as being external, secondary, and transient when held up to the light of a Jew’s inherent holiness and the silent yearning of his soul. He knows that any wickedness exhibited isn’t real; in the end, it shall all disappear, “I have wiped away your sins like a cloud”19. Confronted with a sinful act of the body, the tzaddik intuits the source of life – the hidden spark of G-dliness – that allowed for the act20. This awareness provides the reassurance that there must be something positive inherent in this error, waiting to be revealed.
This is the avodah of a true tzaddik, of a Jew who has attained the loftiest and thus truest perspective on this world and all that fills it. He is able to focus on the point of untouched goodness, the “nekudah tovah21” or the “letters of holiness22” present within each and every Jew regardless of his actions. He is able to encourage the wicked to fulfill the reality they see from their lofty perspective of emes l’amito, to turn their sins into the life lessons, and thus mitzvos, that they truly are and to use their spiritual failings as catalysts for growth23.
In conclusion, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov was neither childish nor naive; chas v’shalom. Very much on the contrary, this Chassidic giant viewed the world from the most rational and truthful perspective granted by his faith, his intellectual explorations, and his spiritual experiences. Thus he was able to see things as they truly are; “olam hafuch ra’isi.24” His elevated perspective compelled him to seek out the spark of holiness in even the most sinful action and use it to encourage and inspire.
Though it is difficult (indeed, many attribute the lack of a “Berdichover” dynasty to the loftiness of his path), let us all attempt to peek behind the curtain into the dimension of light this exalted tzaddik tried so hard to reveal and work to see the divine spark within the people and circumstances we encounter. May we use the baseless love this perspective breeds to bring mashiach tzidkeinu, speedily and in our days. Amen!