No. 4 & 5


Hasidic Sayings  

a selection  by Daniel Weissbort  


“No Special Treatment”

Here are 13 not-unlucky, it is hoped, items from 100, drawn from The Hasidic Anthology by Louis I. Newman (New York, 1944), itself containing around 2000 pieces.  Newman’s anthology was among my father’s books, along with a few other collections of Jewish lore.  Only very recently, however, did I read it, simultaneously noting those pieces which particularly held my attention.  The selection is thus an index to my own understanding or evolving state of mind, but hardly more than that.  However, as I typed out this material, again leafing through Rabbi Newman’s book and paying more attention to his careful identification of 200 topics, it became evident how rich the original offering had been and how reductive my own selection inevitably was! 
Still, my purpose was served, this being in the first place to familiarize myself somewhat with the material.  I did not, as I had been advised to do, “dip into” the Newman collection, but read it through from beginning to end.  In making my own selection, I was guided, pleasurably and even flatteringly, by my own inclinations.  The original compiler’s evident aim was to survey the Hebrew and Yiddish sources, with some reference as well to important German compilations, his immediate purpose being to provide a homiletical handbook for Christian as well as Jewish preachers and teachers,. 
It at once occurred to me that the procedure adopted by me somewhat resembled another with which I was more familiar, to do with the compilation of anthologies of poetry. I even considered indulging myself and extemporizing various “poetic” comments and notes, or maybe even poems. I was pleased to find some support for what at first seems like a “self-denying” approach in, for instance, Martin Buber’s Preface to The Legend of the Baal-Shem: “The existing material was so formless that I was tempted to deal with it as with some kind of subject-matter for poetry.  That I did not succumb to this temptation I owe to the power of the Hasidic point of view that I encountered in all these stories.  There was something decisive here that had to be kept in mind throughout.”  This clearly applies to any commentary as well, and so mine will be taken with a  pinch of salt!
What, among much else, impressed me about these excerpts was their realism, wit, understanding of human nature (also of the human capacity for self-deception),  The Hasidic rabbis evidently not only lived among, but were very much of their people; though exacting, they were also tolerant or indulgent to the point, it sometimes seems, almost of blasphemy, judged by more conventional religious attitudes.  Truthfulness is valued above all else, even if, as is so often the case, it be at the expense of image or reputation.  Deceiving others is one thing; self-deception is quite another. Thus, warning against eloquence, too, are quite explicit and relevant, it has to be said, also to my own project, in that if things seemed to be going swimmingly, there was often good reason for concern! 
I deleted numerous bibliographical references, but left a few which allude to the Bible itself.   More problematically perhaps. I excluded most of the names of rabbis, making an exception for the Besht himself (The Baal-Shem Tov, or Master of the Good Name, the eighteenth-century founder of Hasidism), With other named rabbis and/or their disciples, I usually substituted more general terms.  Since these excerpts, in my selection, now appear for the most part as authorless wise-sayings, it is perhaps fitting that I should point out again that all are attributable to the rabbinical authorities and none to myself, 
In making the selection, I was influenced by a fondness for paradox and irony.  In many cases the rabbis seem almost to be toying with The Almighty, attempting to take Him on or even in!  There are a number of excerpts which emphasize the importance, the moral worth or at least the usefulness of joy, and the corresponding dangers of sadness or grief.  One knows that Hasidism emphasized joy as the highest form of worship.  At first I could not accept what appears at first seemed a rather mechanistic demand – for happiness – implicit in Hasidic thought.  Surely, we should not be blamed for feeling sad!  And yet I am also more than half persuaded by the notion that if you do good, for instance, you may eventually become good. 
 A word about Sin!  Hasidic wisdom, as noted, acknowledges human weakness, along with human aspiration.  But, in any case, the responsibility for sin cannot rest wholly with the individual since the All-knowing must have made his creature vulnerable. Without Evil, there is no apprehension of Good. 

Daniel Weissbort

1. He who is able to write a book and does not write it, is as one who has lost a child.

2. More likable is the wicked man who is aware of his wickedness, than the good man who is aware of his goodness.

Complacency is detestable!

3. Two hasids were travelling by wagon to visit the Besht.  On a narrow road, they had to to slow down, because a nobleman’s carriage ahead of them had something wrong with a wheel. “At this rate,” one hasid complained, “we’ll never reach Medziboz by the sabbath.” The other replied: “What God brings to pass, is for the good.”  They soon came to an even narrower pass, and found it blocked by a milk-wagon which had broken down.  The nobleman ordered the milk cans transferred to another wagon, and the broken wagon pushed aside.  Later the nobleman took a branch road, and the hasids were able to drive on at speed.  “Now you see that I was right,” said the non-complainer.  “Had the nobleman not been ahead of us, we would have had to wait until the milk wagon was repaired.  The owner would never have transferred the milk cans on our account. ”

But was the Holocaust also something God brought to pass?  Do stories such as this, then refer to a pre-Holocausrt reality? 

4. When you perceive Satan diligently trying to persuade you to commit some evil deed, you must realize that he is only doing his duty.  Learn from this that your duty is, as diligently, to resist him.

Satan as a kind of model!

5. An ailing man came to a pious Jew and asked him to pray for his health.  The pious man told him to make the request of one named Shalom, in a nearby town.  The only Shalom there was an alcoholic who lived in a hovel, on the outskirts.  The sick man waited until Shalom sobered up, and then made his request.  Shalom demanded a flagon of brandy and advised the man to bathe in the river, telling him he would be cured.  And so it was. 
Later, the man asked why he had been sent to a drunkard.  The pious man’s answer was:  “My friend Shalom has an exceedingly kind and helpful nature.  His only weakness is an over-fondness for strong drink.  But this craving saves him from all other sins.”

Characteristically, the pious man is open-minded.  That one major fault can make one immune to all others is an appealing notion.

6. A man commented: “The Talmud tells us that when a man runs away from honours, honours run after him.   I have run away from honours, but honours are not pursuing me.”  “The reason,” explained the rabbi, “is that you keep looking back,”

i.e. do not hanker after honours!

7. A rabbi’s wife accused her maid of having stolen something.  The girl denied it.  The woman decided to appeal to the rabbinical court.  The rabbi put on his sabbath best too, although his wife said he need not accompany her, that she was quite familiar with the procedure.
 “I know that,” said the rabbi, “but the poor orphan, your maid, is not familiar with it.  And who but I can ensure that she is justly treated?”

To serve justice takes precedence over loyalty owed one’s wife.

8. A rabbi was late for the Kol Nidre service.  Some of his congregation went looking for him.  Nearby they heard him crooning. It was the home of a widow, and they found him there, lulling a child to sleep.  The rabbi explained that the mother had left the infant to attend the service.  The baby had woken and its cries summoned the rabbi as he passed in the street. 

A question of priorities.

Kol Nidre, the opening words of the formula of release from vows which have not been and cannot be fulfilled, spoken on the eve of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kipur, he most solemn day of the Jewish year.

9. A confirmed sinner visited the rabbi, saying he had been sent by an erring friend who was too shy to come himself.  His friend had committed certain offences and wanted to repent.  The rabbi at once guessed that the visitor was talking about himself:  “What a foolish person your friend is!  Why did he not come himself to me, and pretended the sinner was a friend?”

An implicit compliment and so more likely to be effective.  

10. Satan came to a rabbi and warned him that unless he stopped trying to persuade people to repent, he, Satan, would concentrate on tempting him.  The rabbi replied: “I am sure you are already doing your best to lead me into temptation.  You do your job, and I’ll get on with mine.”

11. The Besht was about to enter a synagogue but stopped at the entrance and exclaimed: “This place is overfilled with prayer and learning!”
 “Why do you hesitate to enter so holy a place?” asked his disciples.
“Were it really a holy place,” commented the Besht, “the prayers and learning would have mounted to hea9ven and the synagogue would now be empty.”

12. A learned man who shared a Sabbath meal with a rabbi said to his host: “Let us now hear you discourse on doctrine; you speak so beautifully!”
 “May I be truck dumb!” responded the rabbi and fell silent.

Suspicion of eloquence, in writing or speech.  Important is the message, not the medium, which should not draw attention to itself. 

13.  When the rabbi gets up in the morning, he prays that all who are in trouble be relieved.  He does not want them to come to him afterwards and say that he helped them by praying for them in particular.

No special treatment!



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