Of Rebbes and Lotteries

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Reb Fishele Strykover, Reb Bunim of Pshyskhe, and The Lottery

Reb Fishele learned under the Maggid Reb Ber (Mezritch) and then with Reb Meilich of Lizensk. Later, he went to the Chozeh (seer) of Lublin, where he met the Yid Ha’kodesh and the Kotzker.

One day, sometime in the first quarter of the 19th century in the town of Strykov in central Poland, the Chasidisha court of the revered Rabbi Ephraim Fishele Shapiro, known as Reb Fishele Strykover, was thrown into turmoil. Without warning, Reb Fishele had withdrawn into his room and would not see or receive anyone (similar to what the Kotzker did for the last 20 years of his life). His Chasidim were dismayed. No longer could they go to their Rebbe the righteous one, for guidance or consolation. After much pleading and begging, still the Rebbe Reb Fishele did not want to leave his room nor speak to any of his Chasidim. For him it was over and done with, he is no longer a Rebbe!

The news spread quickly and finally reached Reb Bunim of Pshyskhe, (some 100 kilometers southwest of Warsaw). A former talmud of Reb Fishele, Reb Bunim in his own right had become one of the most prominent Rebbes in all of Poland. Reb Bunim dropped everything, rushed to Strykov and insisted on seeing his Rebbe. It was known that Reb Fishele would not give “sholom” (shake their hand) to anyone with his bare hand, he always wrapped it in a kerchief first. However, to Reb Bunim he would give sholom with his bare hand.  When Reb Bunim got to Strokov, Reb Fishele allowed him into his room.

Reb Fishele explained the source of his crisis. Recently, a poor desperate Yid, burdened with a large family, with no way to support it, had come crying to him for help. Reb Fishele advised him to play the lottery and PROMISED him that he would win. The man did so, ordered a lottery ticket, however because at the final stage he could not afford to pay for the ticket, the large “Mega Win” that that ticket won was taken by another man. And so, the Rebbe Reb Fishele explained to Reb Bunim, it says “Tzadik Goyzer v’hashem Mikayim,” now if the Rebono Shel Olam did not implement what a “tzadik” had decreed, there was nothing more he could do – the Rebbe is over and done with.

Reb Bunim responded by explaining – that a tzadik must not dictate to the Master of the Universe how he is to help, because what right does a Rebbe or anyone have to say to Hashem what is to be done? A tzadik, he continued, can express his wish or daven for a certain request, but only Hashem will decide whether to implement it or not. Reb Fishele immediately realized his mistake, opened his doors again and his Chasidim were once again able to come to him and be comforted by him.

There are two very distinct types of religious leaders: those who believe themselves to be chosen by Hashem and thus endowed with the certainty of absolute wisdom and power, and those who, like Reb Bunim of Pshyskhe, are imbued with a divine spark of greatness, yet it does not delude them into a feeling of infallibility. Leaders of this type know that their task is to help others in the practical sense, comfort them in their distress, and offer them their blessings.

Many other Chasidisha courts centered on the tzadik, and created cults of personality in which allegiance to the Rebbe was most important. At the same time, the Rebbes often came to believe their own propaganda.  Steeped in mysticism, they developed a “miracle-centered” approach, stressing the Tzadik’s obligation to magically provide for his follower’s material needs. This resulted in superstitious Chasidim who looked upon their Rebbes as iconic figures, capable of interceding with Hashem on their behalf and thus a path through which they, the masses, could be redeemed.

The Yid Ha’Kodesh, his successor Reb Bunim, and then the Kotzker Rebbe, were among the Seer’s most brilliant students, however they rebelled against what prevailed in their Rebbe’s court. They rejected kabalistic belief in miracles at the expense of Torah and Talmudic studies. They then left Lublin for Pshyskhe to create a religious and spiritual environment according to their principles. They did not see themselves nor wish to be seen as infallible miracle workers.  This is the context of the Yid‘s famous saying “The purpose of knowledge is to know that we don’t know.” In sharp contrast to the other tzadikim of their time. Then, what was the role of the Rebbes in Pshyskhe?  They were the guides, the teachers, the moral compass, the motivators, the comforters and the practical advisors.

The essence of Pshyskhe was an absolute, uncompromising commitment to truth.

One of the Kotzker Rebbe’s most famous sayings is that: “If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you.”

“The seal of Hashem is truth,” said the Yid Ha’kodesh, “and it is a seal that cannot be forged, for if one were to forge it, it could not be true.”

Reb Bunim remarked, that among the liars, he included those who lied to themselves. “‘Thou shalt not steal,’” he said, “always meant that you should not steal from yourself, just as you must not steal from anyone else.”

May we all learn from these three great Leaders and Rebbes!

SourceThe Yizkor (memory) book of Strykov
Credit: THE DEMOCRATIC GENIUS OF PSHYSKHE’S HASIDIC MASTERS by Menachem Rosensaft

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