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Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk: Holy Chutzpah

Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, author of the “Noam Elimelech,” was the brother of Rebbe Zusha of Anipoli. Rebbe Elimelech was born to his father, Eliezer Lipa, and his mother Mirel in 5477 (1717). Following in his older brother, Rebbe Zusha’s footsteps, Rebbe Elimelech became one of the greatest disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch. His book was known as “The Book of the Righteous” and Rebbe Elimelech himself was called “the little Ba’al Shem Tov.” In many ways, Rebbe Elimelech fashioned the Chasidic ways of Poland in its entirety, delineating the persona of the tzaddik and the way to connect to him. His disciples were the chassidic masters of the next generation. Rebbe Elimelech passed away on the 21st of Adar, 5547 (1787) in Lizhensk. His son, Rabbi Eliezer, served as a rabbi after his father’s passing, but did not assume the mantle of Rebbe.

One of the most important Kabbalists in Germany was Rabbi Nathan Adler. He was the rabbi of the Chatam Sofer, the last adjudicator of Jewish law whose decisions were accepted by the entire Jewish Nation.

Once, the Chatam Sofer related a story about his mentor, Rabbi Nathan Adler, who though he never met the Ba’al Shem Tov or his disciples, had a spiritual connection with them (similar to the connection between the Ba’al Shem Tov and the holy Or Hachaim):

Rabbi Nosson once said that there is a reason why it is said that the Polish chasidim don’t have derech eretz (proper manners). And the proof is: Every day, when I ascend to the Garden of Eden, I see the two dear brothers, Rebbe Elimelech and Rebbe Zusha. Once I came a bit early to the Garden of Eden and the gates were still locked. I was the first in line to enter. I waited until they opened the gates and entered immediately when the gates were opened. And who did I see there? The two brothers, Rebbe Elimelech and Rebbe Zusha! I have no idea how they got there before the gates were opened. All I know is that they have no derech eretz

The sages explained the verse “And He called to Moses” that “A Torah scholar who does not have derech eretz – a carcass is better than him.”[1] Just as Moses waited until he was called, so every Torah scholar is required to have restraint and derech eretz. The two holy brothers, however, seem to be an exception to this rule. What was their power to defy a true convention such as “Derech eretz precedes Torah?”[2] If the Torah is in the sefirah of wisdom, and derech eretz is in the sefirah of crown, which is loftier than wisdom, then holy boldness, which is even loftier, is rooted in the inner dimension of the crown, Radla (the Unknowable Head). Radla is the source of simple faith and Jewish self-sacrifice. When it shines, there is no place for considerations like good manners.

The sages say that in the generation of the footsteps of the Mashiach, there will be great chutzpah and “the face of the generation is like the face of a dog.”[3] This seems like a negative description. Amalek is also likened to a bold dog that attacks the Jewish people just after the Exodus from Egypt. In Chasidut, of course, we also explain these expressions in a positive light: When chutzpah is activated at the right time and place, it can be helpful and even holy. It is no coincidence that it characterizes the generation of the footsteps of Mashiach – it is the chutzpah that will ultimately bring him!

Rabbi Nathan's story about the righteous waiting (or not…) at the gates of the Garden of Eden is reminiscent of the Talmudic stories about the sages who ascended "to the throne," meaning to the leadership of the academy. Some sages waited patiently for their turn and even declined it, and some ascended to the position immediately when it was offered to them. Why are there tzaddikim who wish to rule?

Every person, no matter how wealthy, is very limited in his ability to positively influence the world. But in the king's treasury, nothing is lacking. The tzaddikim, wishing to continue to bring endless good and blessing to the Jewish Nation and the world, burst into the Garden of Eden to access its treasures and bring them to those in need. This is similar to the Chasidic parable about the king’s attribute of victory that prompts him to squander his treasures in war. So too, the tzaddikim fight against all those preventing them from bringing only good to the Jewish Nation and the world.

The chutzpah that brings the rectified monarchy in its wake is the rectification of the bold, audacious dog, which Rabbi Elimelech dealt with; and not only he. One of the grandsons of Rebbe Elimelech, Rebbe Naftali of Lizhensk, also engaged in this rectification:

When Rabbi Naftali would make Kiddush (the blessing over the wine on Shabbat eve and morning) and Havdalah (the ceremony at the end of Shabbat that separates Shabbat from the weekdays), a small black dog would enter his home, stand on its hind legs, and listen attentively. Once, Rebbe Naftali’s son took the Havdalah candle and singed the dog’s eyebrows. The dog did not react. It accepted it with love and remained standing upright on two until the end of the Havdalah. The following week, the dog did not come to the house again. Its rectification, apparently, was already completed.

Image by Vegard Henriksen from Pixabay

[1] Vayikra Rabbah 1:1.

[2] Breishit Rabbah 3:24.

[3] Sanhedrin 96a.

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