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Chassidut: Spontaneity in Izhbitz

Izhbitz and Chabad

This year, Shabbat Vayigash is the 7th of Tevet, which is the yahrzeit (day of passing) of the Izhbitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz. Initially, he was a disciple of Rebbe Simchah Bunim of Parshischa and after his passing became a disciple of the Kotzker Rebbe (who had also been a disciple of Rebbe Bunim). Eventually, he started his own Chasidic court, which has a tremendous impression on the Chasidic world even today. His son and grandson moved to Radzin and therefore the court is known to this day as Izhbitz-Radzin. His grandson, Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner was known as the Baʹal Hatcheilet, since he re-instituted the donning of the blue-colored thread in the tzitzit.

In the Izhbitz-Radzin lineage, the order was that the Rebbes would alternate in their character: one was strong and sharp-witted and the next was gentle and mild-mannered. Indeed, the fifth rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Shlomo Leiner (1909-1942) called for a rebellion against the Nazis. He encouraged Jews to break out of the Ghettos. It is said that in his last moments, the Rebbe was wrapped in his father’s prayer shawl as a German soldier took him into a cemetery at gunpoint. At one point, the Nazi pushed him. The Rebbe turned around, slapped him across the face, and kicked him. This degraded the German greatly and stunned him by showing the rebbe’s inner resolve and the fiercesness of the Jewish people.

There was a warm connection between the rebbes of Izhbitz-Radzin and the Lubavitcher rebbes. Of the many rebbes that came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn’s wedding in 1928, the only rebbe that was honored under the chuppah (the wedding canopy) was the fourth Izhbitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, who was asked to read the ketubah (the marriage contract). Clearly, the two dynasties in the time of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak were quite close.

Jacob’s Sons Speak Spontaneously

The Izhbitzer has a number of motifs that appear repeatedly in his teachings. One of them is the importance of spontaneity. The sages[1] tell us that when Jacob’s sons came to see their father just before his passing, Jacob felt that the Divine Presence, the Shechinah had left him. He thought perhaps it was on account of one of his children being blemished; perhaps one of them was no longer completely adhering to God. But then they all said together “Hear O’ Israel [addressing Jacob, whose name was also Israel after having defeated the angel], Havayah is our God, Havayah is One.” Jacob replied with the words, “Blessed is the Name of His kingdom forever and ever” (בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד). Whenever we say the first verse of the Shema, we recite this second phrase, even though it does not appear in the Bible. Of course, the words “Hear O’ Israel  Havayah is our God, Havayah is One” would only later be written into the Torah by Moses who taught these words to the generation that was about to enter the Land of Israel. The Tanya explains that it was specifically this generation that needed this verse because it empowers self-sacrifice, which they would be required to demonstrate in their conquest of the Land. But it was Jacob’s 12 children who initially said these words.

Now, the Izhbitzer writes that when Jacob heard their response, that all 12 of them said in unison, “Hear O’ Israel, Havayah is our God, Havayah is one,” he was very pleased. Why? Because when he gathered his children, they didn’t agree ahead of time on what to say to their father, rather they all said the same words, spontaneously. The idea, that spontaneity is an indicator of credibility and truthfulness is very typical in the Izhbitzer’s thought. There are examples of this principle that can be found from the time of the sages. There is a well-known translation of the Torah into Greek, which was carried out by 70 Jewish elders; this translation is known as the Septuagint.  Although the translation of the Torah into Greek was considered a catastrophe and in earlier generations there was a fast day on the Ninth of Tevet, the translation is considered accurate. According to tradition, the 70 elders were not allowed to be in contact with one another and yet they all translated the Torah in the exact same way. Not only that, but they spontaneously made the same exact changes to the text to prevent the Greeks from misunderstanding the Torah.

The reason for Jacob’s joy is explained by the Izhbitzer in the following way: when a child does something spontaneously, his actions represent the spiritual genes that he has inherited from his father. It reflects the results of the education the child received. So for Jacob, his sons’ recital of these identical seminal words represented what Jacob saw would remain of his soul after he would pass on. In the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe refers to this spiritual legacy left by the tzaddik as the “life that he leaves to all who are alive” (שְׁבִיק חַיִּים לְכָל חַי). In fact, he explains, had Jacob himself taught them this verse, it would not have been as meaningful. But when his children utter it spontaneously it is a clear indication that this will be Jacob’s spiritual legacy for all generations.

Since every group of people contains individuals with different spiritual levels, how did these same words come out from all 12 sons? Within the collective of the Jewish people there exists a certain code that is instilled by the leader of the generation. For example, the Lubavitcher Rebbe encoded within us the anticipation of the imminent arrival of Mashiach. On a regular day this code might not influence us, nor might Jacob’s code influence his sons, but in a moment of extreme tension, as when their father is passing away, the code causes the words associated with it to emerge spontaneously. Certainly, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s code was such that it causes us to say, “We want Mashiach now!” Jacob’s code made his children utter the Shema, the belief in one God.


(based on a class given on the 7th of Tevet, 5772)

[1]. Bereishit Rabbah 98:3.

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