Zen koans and Hassidic sayings come from two very different religious traditions; but both can stimulate good discussions with students in Catholic religion classes. This is a sample of Hassidic sayings.
For many people, Hassidic Jews are noticeable because of their Amish-like dress and ultra orthodox Jewish behavior. But it is their unique stress on trusting in God and elevating one’s soul through joyful religious activities that makes them truly distinctive. The following wisdom sayings give a taste of the inner spiritual life of Hasidic (very pious) Jews.
On the holiday of Simhat Torah, which celebrates the weekly reading and ongoing study of the Torah, the disciples of Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), the founder of Hassidism, were at his home dancing and drinking wine. After several hours the Baal Shem Tov’s wife said she was worried they would drink up all the wine in the cellar and none would be left for Shabbat.
Rabbi Israel told her she was correct. Go tell them to stop. She went to the room where they were dancing and saw a ring of blue light around the dancing men. Then she herself went to the cellar and returned with a jug of wine in each hand.
One of the most important teachings of Hassidic Rabbis was not to worry about the future or sacrifice present joy because you fear it will not last very long. After all, most things people worry about never occur. As Rabbi Mordecai of Lekhovitz taught, “We must not worry. Only one worry is O.K. We can worry about (always) being worried.”
Rabbi Shelomo of Karlin taught, “What is the worst thing that Satan can accomplish? To make a person forget that he or she is a child of God.”
Rabbi Barukh of Mezbizh said: “What a good and bright world this is if we do not lose our hearts, but what a dark world, if we do!”
Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn taught, “When people suffer they should not say – That’s bad, that’s bad! Nothing that Mother Nature imposes on us is bad. But it is all right to say- That’s bitter! For there are some medicines that are made with bitter herbs.”
Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz said: Torah is acquired through song; the Shekinah is experienced through song; and Israel will emerge from exile through song. (Tikkunei Zohar)
Rabbi Nakhman of Bratzlav said: “The whole world is one long narrow bridge, so it is essential not to make oneself afraid.”
Rabbi Nachman also taught, ‘”Seek the sacred within the ordinary. Seek the remarkable within the commonplace.” and “Jerusalem will be rebuilt only through peace.”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught: Strife exists only because each faction claims that (religious) TRUTH is on its side. When the ego’s “Truth is cast to the ground” (Daniel 8:12) the result is peace.
He once asked, “Where can you find God? The other sages say that God is everywhere. I say God is wherever a person lets God in.”
He also replied to someone who reported that a man who had recently come to town was a miracle worker, by saying that producing miracles was not that difficult. The real challenge is to produce people who will believe in miracles.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel also told his disciples, “It is possible to bring the dead back to life. Even better is to bring the living back to life.”
Rabbi Yisachar Dov Ber of Radoshitz, a disciple of the seer of Lublin, once asked for the best way (path) to serve God.” His teacher replied, “it is impossible to tell (Jewish) people what way (all) Jews should take. One way to serve God is through study, another through prayer, another through fasting, and still another through eating. Everyone (Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims) should carefully observe what way (path) his heart draws him, and then choose this way with all his strength.”
Soon after Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin died someone asked one of his disciples ‘what was the most important thing to his teacher’. The disciple thought and then replied, “Whatever he happened to be doing at the moment.”
Rabbi Mendel told his disciples: Souls descend from the higher world to our own by means of a ladder. Then the ladder is removed. Heaven calls the souls to return home. Some do not budge thinking it is impossible to rise to heaven without a ladder. Others jump up and fall back, jumping again and again until they despair of ever rising to heaven. Some souls, however, are aware falling is inevitable, yet they try again and again until the Holy One seizes them and pulls them home.
Rabbi Ya’akov Leiner said: “As long as Adam remained awake, the feminine aspect of humanity was indiscernible. Only after God cast Adam into a deep sleep could the feminine emerge.”
The Maggid of Mezritz taught, Psalm 72:19 states “let the whole earth be full of God’s glory”. Thus even in idol worship there are sparks of holiness.
A Hassid once asked Rabbi Yitzhok Alter of Ger if he should become a scribe or a teacher. The Rebbe replied, “Become a teacher; for a teacher who truly teaches, also learns from his students.”
When Rabbi Hirsh returned from his wife’s funeral he was overheard saying to himself, “Up to now I was able to experience God’s presence here on earth through marriage. Now I shall have to experience God’s presence directly.” Two weeks later he died.
Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol said, “My mother Mirl did not pray from a book because she could not read. All she knew was how to say the various blessings. But wherever she was when she said the morning blessings, that place radiated God’s presence the whole day.”
Before his death Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol said, “In the coming world they will not ask me why I wasn’t a Moses or a Rabbi Akiba? They will ask me why I wasn’t Zusya?”
Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pzhysha taught, “The many sins most people commit are not great crimes. The great crime is that we are all capable of repentance/change/reform every day and we do not do it.”
A Hassidic Sage who was near death got up and danced. When they tried to stop him he said, “This is exactly the time to dance.” He then told them a story and concluded, “When you face a very difficult demand, that is exactly the time to dance.”
Rabbi Michal of Zlotchov always said to his children, “My life was always blessed in that I never needed anything until I had it.”
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught: No matter how low you have fallen, it is forbidden to give up hope. Repentance is higher even than Torah [study].
Rabbi Simcha Bunam taught, “Everyone should have two pockets, so you can reach into one or the other according to your needs. In the right pocket should be the words- For my sake was the world created. And in the left pocket the words- I am dust and ashes.
Of course, even saints have their shortcomings. Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin died in a most tragic manner. A Cossack shot him in the leg while he was saying the Shabbat morning prayers. His disciple Rabbi Asher wanted the bullet removed right away but Rabbi Shlomo refused and said he would wait until after Shabbat was over, arguing: “should we forget God the creator of the universe for such a small thing?”
After Shabbat was over they went to a doctor but by then the leg was infected. The infection spread and five days later Rabbi Shlomo died. He was 56. Perhaps with this in mind Rabbi Mikhal of Zlotchov said: “When the Evil Urge tries to tempt people to sin, it tempts them to become super righteous.”
And Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn taught, “We paid no attention to the miracles our teacher worked, and when sometimes a miracle didn’t come to pass, he only gained in our eyes.”
And Rabbi Menachem Mendle of Lubavitch said: “Intolerance lies at the core of evil. Not the intolerance that results from threat or danger. Not the intolerance that arises from negative experience. Just intolerance of another being who dares to exist, who dares to diminish the space in the universe left for you.
Intolerance without cause is deep within us because every human being secretly desires everything for himself. Our only way out is to learn compassion without cause. To care for each other simply because that “other” person exists.
I have offered this sample of Hassidic wisdom sayings because I believe it can be used as a departure point by Christian teachers as well as Rabbis. As Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher and scholar of Hasidism asserted more than a half century ago, one purpose “…of all great religions and religious movements is to engender a life of elation and fervor which no (later) experience can dampen and stifle.