For the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples, the preparation for the performance of a mitzvah is the primary form of service of God. What comes afterward, be it vitality or dryness, is strictly a gift from Heaven. So how do we prepare for the service of the heart?
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, known as the “saraf” (fiery angel) of Kotzk, was born in 5547 (1787) to his father, Rabbi Yehudah Leibush, who was an opponent of Chasidut. In his youth, he was sent to the yeshiva in Zmoshtz. In 5567 (1807) Rabbi Menachem Mendel married Glickel, the daughter of one of the important people of Tomshov. Following his marriage, Rabbi Menachem Mendel went to study under the tutelage of the Seer of Lublin, and then connected to his disciple, the Holy Jew of Pshischa. After the passing of the Holy Jew, he became the preeminent disciple of the Holy Jew’s successor, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa.
When Rebbe Simcha Bunim passed away in 5587 (1827), most of the chasidim chose Rebbe Menachem Mendel as their new leader. They initially settled in Tomshov, but due to disagreements over opinions and customs with the townspeople, they moved to Kotzk. Following Sukkot 5600 (1840), the Kotzker Rebbe’s disciple, Rebbe Mordechai Yosef of Izhbitza, left him, along with many chasidim. As a result, the Kotzker Rebbe stopped almost all of his connection with his chasidim and remained closed in his room for twenty years, until his passing. During these years, he hardly left his home and very few people were allowed to enter his room. Nonetheless, many chasidim continued to go to Kotzk. Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk passed away on 22 Shevat, 5619 (1859) and was buried in Kotzk. Before his death he said, “Whoever will place his head in the Torah (study), I guarantee him that something will come of him in this world and the next.”
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Eiger of Lublin was born in 5675 to Rabbi Shlomo Eiger, a rabbi in Kalish and Pozna, who was the son of the illustrious Rabbi Akiva Eiger. Rabbi Yehudah Leib married the daughter of Rabbi Azriel Gertstein of Lublin and was supported by his father-in-law for several years. Originally, Reb Liebeleh, as he was fondly known, was opposed to Chasidut. Later chasidim in Lublin influenced him to become a chasid of the Kotzker Rebbe. When Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Izhbitza left the Kotzker Rebbe, Rebbe Leibeleh followed him and became his senior disciple. When the Rebbe of Izhbitza died, the chasidim made Rebbe Leibeleh their Rebbe, the Rebbe of Lublin, where he served until his passing on 22 Shevat 5648 (1888).
The first time that Reb Leibeleh Eiger journeyed home after he had become connected to the Kotzker Rebbe, he entered his Rebbe’s room to receive his blessing, and asked: “What should I say when they ask me why do you transgress what is written in the Code of Jewish Law, and pray after the prescribed time? My father is a great rabbi and my grandfather is an even greater rabbi. What will I say to them?”
The Kotzker Rebbe, who was also a great Torah scholar, replied as follows: There is a law regarding a hired worker, which says that if he has to prepare tools, to sharpen his knife or axe, the preparation of the tools is at the expense of the time of the person who ordered his work. To pray, we have to sharpen our knives, for as the sages say, “The time of prayer is the time of battle.” And that takes time. That time is at the expense of the Holy One, Blessed Be He. So there is justification according to the revealed dimension of the Torah, to postpone the prayers until the tools are all prepared.”
The service of preparation for the fulfillment of mitzvot is the primary focus of the service of God for the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples. Whatever comes afterward – be it vitality in the service of God or dryness – is strictly a gift from Heaven. How do we prepare for the service of the heart?
While other tzaddikim saw the heart as a musical instrument in need of tuning, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk saw it as a sharp axe. For the Kotzker, prayer is war, a battle against all those parts of the personality that refuse to stand honestly before God. He and his disciples engaged in constant sharpening of their tools. All the comments and aphorisms that came out of the Kotzker study hall were smooth and sharp, piercing entire mountains with one word.
The Kotzker Rebbe did not approve of the middle-of-the-road approach, which does not contemplate what it is that God wants of a person in a particular situation. In one of his famous aphorisms, the Kotzker said: “People walk at the side of the road. The middle of the road is for the horses…” A path in the service of God that seems extreme is actually the result of true cleaving to God. The path that is comfortable for everyone is likely to be nothing more than foolish following of the crowd. A person who wants to be true to himself must be willing to go to the extreme and pray to God that he is going to the correct extreme.
In this saying, as in many others, the Kotzker Rebbe splits reality into two and suggests a choice: Do you want to be ‘a person,’ true to yourself? Get up and start working. Find your path and go to the extreme. Do you prefer to be a horse? Stay in the middle of the road with everyone else.
Together with his demand for independent truth and thinking, the Kotzker Rebbe led his chasidim like an army general. He demanded absolute obedience and full partnership between them. His severe demands were focused on erasing any hint of honor and eliminating any self-deception. Whoever did not meet these high standards was rejected from the Kotzker’s circle of disciples. The Rebbe also demanded that his chasidim give up any personal acquisitions. Initially, when the chasidim came to live in Kotzk, they lived in a type of chasidic commune of a few hundred people. With love and very little means, with intentional rejection of the temptations of the world, the community lived well for a long time.
Rebbe Leibeleh Eiger, the grandson of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, was one of the more prominent chasidim of the Kotzker Rebbe. In his desire to be ‘a person,’ true to himself as defined by the Rebbe, Rebbe Leibeleh refused to walk the path beaten by his father and grandfather, and suffered for it. His family was astounded and dismayed by the fact that he had joined the chasidim, and he was almost forced to divorce his wife. He adopted the Kotzk-style truth and cleaving to God throughout his life, even after he left Kotzk and set out on his own path.
When Rebbe Leibeleh Eiger became a Rebbe, he would say the morning prayers very late – sometimes close to dusk. If a circumcision was being held in his study hall, he would make lengthy spiritual preparations. This would often mean that the circumcision itself wasn’t performed until close to the end of the day. The great rabbis opposed to Chasidut strongly criticized Rebbe Leibeleh for this. After all, the sages say regarding a circumcision that “those who act with alacrity are first for the performance of mitzvot.” Why would Rebbe Leibeleh specifically delay the mitzvah of circumcision? The dispute was very heated, and Rebbe Yitzchak of Worki, the Chidushei Harim of Gur and other tzaddikim came to his defense. Clearly, there is no parable more fitting to the mitzvah of circumcision than the parable of the sharpened knife.
Rebbe Leibeleh was one of the heads of those who joined the Rebbe of Izhbitzeh when he left Kotzk. When the Izhbitzer passed away in 5614 (1854) the Kotzker Rebbe was still alive and Rebbe Leibeleh considered returning to him. The senior chasidim in Kotzk, who managed the chasidic court during the years that the Kotzker was closed in his room, agreed to accept Rebbe Leibeleh on the condition that he would erase the fourteen years that he had been a chasid of the Izhbitzer. Rebbe Leibeleh did not agree and he became the Rebbe of Lublin. Nonetheless, Rebbe Leibeleh passed away on the day of passing of the Kotzker Rebbe, his first Rebbe. Ultimately, without leaving his own path, Rebbe Leibeleh returned to Kotzk.