Rabbi Zvi Homnick, Beis Moshiach
The community was buzzing about the veteran mesivta Rebbi recruited to teach first-year students at one of the local mesivtas. His reputation for academic excellence and shaping young adults into serious learners led to a run on the school as parents fought to get their sons into one of the coveted spots. Although the school usually capped the number of students at 30, they were forced to bend the rules and expand to 35.
On the long anticipated first day of class, 35 boys sat nervously awaiting the arrival of their new Rebbi, who stormed into the room and walked straight to the front of the classroom. Addressing the boys for the very first time, he announced, “I am well aware that every class has a few dummies, and I need to know up-front who the dumb boys are. All of the dumb kids need to stand up right now!” Everybody sat in their seats dumbstruck. Nobody even moved.
Again, the Rebbi announced that he could not begin until the dumb boys identified themselves, and again there was no response. After he said it a third time, Yankel finally got up out of his seat.
“Aha,” said the rebbi, “so how dumb are you?”
“Actually,” Yankel answered respectfully, “I was the valedictorian of my elementary school graduating class. I just felt bad seeing that Rebbi was the only person in the room standing.”
* * *
Whenever I hear the question – “what relevance does Chassidus have to my life?” – I feel like the only person in the room standing. That is because I just don’t get it. We are lectured about what an amazing development this is that people are finally asking The Question. Chassidus teachers have lost their jobs because they are deemed as not properly addressing The Question, and others know that they have to tread lightly because all they need is to be accused of this horrible crime and then it is all over even without a witch trial. Chassidus experts have been called in to address the schools, the teachers and individual classes, in order to, once and for all, answer The Question. However, it just seems to grow in power from year to year, and the inadequate responses are cited as the cause for all that ails the community and what is disenfranchising many young people.
The Question has led over time to a heated debate as to whether Chassidus can solve all of a person’s emotional and psychological problems. Even those who argue that “all the answers to all of the questions” can be found in Tanya, and that Chassidus provides the tools to confront all of one’s “demons, traumas, skeletons etc.” are quick to qualify that with the concession that in many cases, a professional needs to be consulted. We are told that of course, this can only be decided on a “case-by-case” basis. Meanwhile, more and more programs, to solve more and more problems, employing more and more “professionals” with secular ideas and credentials, are being launched and often being wholeheartedly embraced by the schools, who feel responsible for the problems in the community that all can be traced back to The Question.
Sorry, but I still don’t know what everybody is talking about. I have tried to sound out some old-timers about how all of this would have been regarded back in the day. Some give a little smile, others roll their eyes, but few are the courageous souls who would openly treat “The Question” with anything short of reverence even in private conversation, out of fear of being seen as too out of touch.
In fairness and in the interest of full disclosure, I am starting off at a disadvantage. Since I did not grow up with Chassidus, and I never had the privilege of learning it as an insider from an official mashpia, I am very likely missing some vital pieces of information that were handed down orally from generation to generation. All I had was the published writings that anybody who just walks in off the street can purchase and learn from, if he has the requisite Hebrew (Aramaic, Yiddish) reading skills.
Fortunately, I was blessed with a working knowledge of those languages and I proceeded to exercise those skills to some extent in my study of Chassidic texts. (Also, I did attend Reb Yoel’s public Thursday night shiurim in Boro Park for a few years in the early 90’s, and heard many tapes from a number of speakers that were available in English back then.) Yet, somehow, bizarrely, I have yet to find one single teaching of Chassidus (even the most esoteric and abstruse), from basic Tanya all the way through to the most recent sichos of the Rebbe that are focused primarily on the topics of Moshiach and Geula, about which it would be remotely appropriate to question its relevance to my life.
In fact, I have the opposite problem. There are times that I walk around feeling that my head is going to explode from all of the relevant ideas and teachings of Chassidus, and from seeing how they are all part of one intricately woven all-encompassing whole. What I find most difficult to do is to narrow my focus on one area to work on, whether it is the work of the mind or the work of the heart, and there are times when I struggle with that to the point that I feel like my kishkes are going to plotz.
Obviously, if I let myself become discouraged and slack off, this is the work of the yetzer ha’ra, and the solution that Chassidus provides for that is to have two or more G-dly souls gang up against my one profoundly lazy animal soul. In our generation, the Rebbe taught us that the solution also involves teaching and helping others, and that this unleashes even greater inner powers and strengths. However, it can be quite difficult to find such a like-minded support group when everybody else is busy trying to answer a question which sadly, leaves me completely out of the loop.
So why am I going public with this confession of my own inadequacies, my inability to relate to The Question? It is in the sincere hope that by making my case in the essays that will follow, with Hashem’s help, I can gain some clarity from people’s feedback and maybe even help others gain some clarity as well. If it turns out that I have it all wrong and The Question is the greatest thing that ever came along, even better than sliced bread, then you can say a few chapters of Tehillim for me. You might want to pray that I “open my eyes” so that instead of seeing how I fall short in aligning my life and making it “relevant to” Chassidus, I will finally see the awesomeness of The Question. Or not.