Who are we if not the product of our past? And sometimes we realize that the essence of our identity may have its roots a long time ago.
The following incident appears in the pages of the Memorial Book, of the Jewish community of Brzeziny, a town in central Poland not far from the city of Łódź: One day sometime in the first quarter of the 19th century in the neighboring town of Stryków, the Hasidic court of the revered Reb Ephraim Fiszele Szapiro (or Szpiro), known as Reb Fiszele Strykower, was thrown into turmoil. The Rebbe had gone into seclusion. A renowned kabbalist, Reb Fiszele had been a disciple of Dov Ber, the Maggid -- or Preacher -- of Mezeritch who had been the successor of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name. Suddenly, without warning, Reb Fiszele had withdrawn into his room and would not see or receive anyone. His Hasidim, his disciples, were dismayed, confused. Their anchor had suddenly disappeared. No longer could they seek his advice, go to the tzadik, the Righteous One, for guidance or consolation.
The news reached Reb Bunim of Pshyskhe, the Yiddish name of the town of Prszysucha, some 100 kilometers south-west of Warsaw. A former disciple of Reb Fiszele, Reb Bunim had become one of the most prominent Hasidic masters in Poland. Reb Bunim rushed to Stryków and insisted on seeing Reb Fiszele, who allowed him into his room. Reb Bunim wanted to know what had happened, what had caused this crisis. Reb Fiszele explained that a Jew, burdened with a large family but with no way to support them, had come to him for help. Reb Fiszele had advised him to play the lottery, and had promised the man that he would win. The man tried to do so, but when he did not have enough money to redeem the ticket at the final stage, it was sold to another man who won a large amount of money. And so, Reb Fiszele explained to Reb Bunim, if God did not implement what he as a tzadik had decreed, there was nothing more he could do.
Reb Bunim explained to Reb Fiszele that a tzadik must not dictate to the Master of the Universe how He is to help a person. "Because what right do you have to say what is to be done?" asked Reb Bunim. A tzadik can express his wish, and God will then determine whether or not to implement it, and if so, how.
Reb Fiszele immediately opened his doors, and his Hasidim were once again able to come to him and be comforted by him.
I have long been fascinated by this story for two reasons. First, because it casts a warm light on the personalities of two Hasidic masters. And second, because Reb Fiszele Strykower was my great-great-great-great grandfather.
Reb Fiszele's father, Reb Yosef Leyb, was a disciple of another of the Baal Shem Tov's inner circle, Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye. Reb Yosef Leyb was originally from Podolia, the same region in Ukraine where the Baal Shem Tov was born, and was the Rov, the Rabbi, in the Ukrainian town of Belotserkovka when Reb Fiszele was born in 1743. Reb Yosef Leyb took his family to Balta, some 200 kilometers from Odessa, where he was a Maggid, an itinerant preacher, and from there to Brzeziny. Perhaps it is because of Reb Yosef Leyb and Reb Fiszele, who studied with and learned from the early Hasidic masters, that I have always had an instinctive, intuitive love for the Hasidic world and its teachings.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro tells another story about Reb Fiszele in his book, Hasidic Tales:
Every night before he went to sleep, Reb Fiszele would pour himself a glass of vodka, say the blessing over the drink, take a sip from the glass, and say aloud, "L'Chaim, Reboyno shel Oylem, L'Chaim, Master of the Universe, a very good night to You." When his Hasidim came to him for an explanation, Reb Fiszele asked, "Is God afflicted by human suffering?"
"Yes," his students answered, "We are taught that God suffers when humans suffer."
"So," Reb Fiszele said, "if God is pained by our pain, it stands to reason that God rejoices in our joy. Now if this is true, then if the suffering of the world were to have a night of peace, this would bring God a good night as well, yes?"
"Yes," said the Hasidim.
"So, when I wish God a good night, there is only one way He can bring this about. He must give a night's rest to all the afflicted of the world!"
At the core of Reb Fiszele's philosophy was a pure, abiding love for both God and not just the Jewish people but humankind as a whole. In Souls on Fire, my teacher and mentor Professor Elie Wiesel quotes the Kotzker Rebbe as saying that, "We are going farther and farther away from the light at Sinai, yet we do not come any closer to the light of the Messiah!" As we observe the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, and enter yet another Jewish New Year, it may be that remembering where we came from -- in my case, remembering how Reb Fiszele Strykower viewed and understood the universe -- is more important and ultimately more helpful on our journey through life than knowing where we are headed.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, and Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law. He is the immediate past President of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City.