Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
Reb Mendel was a new type of
chasid. If the Baal
Shem Tov embodied chesed (kindness), Reb Mendel represented din
(justice). While the Baal Shem
sought to reach all the people, Reb Mendel knew that what he sought could
only be attained by the elite. The
Baal Shem lifted the people up, Reb Mendel rebuked them for their
inadequacies and always demanded more.
Reb Mendel attracted a young,
brilliant, aspiring youth. He
demanded withering self-analysis and disdained mitzvos
performed with a whiff of self-interest.
He recognized the centrality of the ego, but refused to accept it.
He demanded uncompromising truth without self-interest.
He cried out, Give me ten chasidim who will follow me to the
desert, eat manna and forsake the decadent world.
Reb Leibel Eger was entranced
by Kotzk, to the despair of his father, Rabbi Shlomo.
Upon returning home his father asked what he had learned in Kotzk.
Reb Leibel replied: I
learned three things, that a man is a man and an angel is an angel; that if
a man wants it enough he can be higher than an angel; and that G-d created
the Beginning (Bereishis), just the Beginning, thereafter man must create
Reb Mendel and Reb Mordechai
Yosef of Ishbitz had been close friends and disciples of Reb Simcha Bunem of
Pshischa. After Reb Bunems
passing Reb Mendel became Rebbe. However,
because of Reb Mendels extreme aloofness the two friends were traveling
on a collision course. Finally,
on the Simchas Torah of 1840 there was an irrevocable split between the two
and Reb Mordechai Yosef left with his chassidim to form a new chassidus.
The paradox of Reb Mendel was
his awareness of mans weakness but his non-acquiescence. He once said that if one tried to break the yetzer (evil
impulse) he would end up with two yetzers thus conceding the impossibility
of overcoming it. Yet, he refused to compromise his aspiration for ultimate
truth and pure action.
One of Reb Mendels chasidim,
Reb Shemaya, lay on his deathbed and was asked by a fellow Kotzker whether
the yetzer still bothered him at that moment.
Of course, he replied, dont you see him standing at the foot
of my bed whispering into my ear, Reb Shemaya say Shma Yisrael in a loud
voice and draw out the echad. Reb
Shemaya continued, I recognize the thief- he is trying to seduce me to
say Shma Yisrael in order that you will say that Reb Shemaya left this world
in pure state.
Reb Mendels path did not
attract a large following. It
demanded from human beings the unattainable.
Yet, his search and his critique have become part of the spiritual
treasurehouse of Klal Yisrael.
The above graphic includes photographs that were provided by VERAfilm archives.