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Rebbe Mordechai Yosef of Izhbitze: As Much as You can Take

Rebbe Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica is well known for his book “Mei HaShilo’ach.” He was born in 1800 to his father, Rabbi Yaakov who was a disciple of the Seer of Lublin. Rebbe Mordechai Yosef himself was one of the illustrious disciples of Rebbe Simchah Bunim of Parshischa. After Rebbe Simchah Bunim’s passing, he followed the leadership of his colleague, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk until he understood with his holy vision that he should lead his own congregation. His son and successor was Rabbi Yaakov, author of the Beit Yaakov, who greatly expanded upon his father’s teachings. His grandson was Rabbi Gershon Chanoch Henech, known as “Ba’al HaTechelet,” referring to his book on the identification of the Biblical blue-violet dye used in a tzitzit. The Mei HaShilo'ach’s famous disciples were Rebbe Leibele Eiger (known eponymously as the Torat Emet) and Rabbi Tzaddok HaCohen of Lublin. He passed away on the 7th of Tevet, 5614 (1854).

An elderly Izhbitzer chasid related that once, one of his children became very ill. He brought doctors to the child, but nothing helped. He then heard that the Maggid of Trisk (Rebbe Avraham Twersky) was coming to his town, and he decided that he would go to the Maggid to ask for his blessing. The Maggid told him to give him 18 golden rubles to his charity to save the child. The chasid did not have anywhere near that sum of money and left the Maggid with a broken heart.

“Why didn’t you sell everything we have to raise the sum of money?” the chasid’s wife lamented. The child’s condition worsened and the chasid went to Rebbe Mordechai Yosef of Izbica to relate what the Maggid of Trisk had told him and to ask his advice. Rebbe Mordechai Yosef told him to give 18 silver coins to his charity, and with God’s help, the child would recover.

Rebbe Mordechai Yosef added that we can learn this principle from our holy Torah: All the vessels of the Tabernacle were made of gold – except for the two trumpets, which were made of silver (Numbers 10:2). The reason for this is that the trumpets were to be blown in times of trouble. And in times of trouble, God shows us that he is also participating in our sorrow. He sets the gold aside and silver suffices, to make it easier for His people, who are suffering. In the same manner, the tzaddik has to be part of the sorrow of those who turn to him and ask only for what is within the person’s means.

The Maggid of Mezritch explained that the word for “trumpets” (חֲצֹצְרוֹת)—from which Rebbe Mordechai Yosef deduced the obligation to participate in the sorrow of others—is a sort of abbreviation of the words “halves of a form” (חֲצָאֵי צוּרוֹת), indicating that when we blow the trumpets in our time of suffering, the other half of the form is completed by God from Above. In our story, the half-forms can be read as “halves of troubles” (חֲצָאֵי צָרוֹת). One half of the burden of carrying the trouble the rebbe gives to his chasid, the other half he carries himself. A Rebbe who embodies this special quality of the trumpets has the character of our patriarch Isaac, about whom the Midrash relates the following:

In the future, God will say to Isaac, “Your children have sinned against Me.” Isaac replies: “Master of the Universe, are they my children and not Your children? When they said at the giving of the Torah ‘We will perform [the commandments, and then] we will hear [understand them],’ You called them, ‘My son, My firstborn.’ Now they are my sons and not Your sons? And furthermore, how much could they have possibly sinned? A person’s lifetime is seventy years. Deduct twenty years before he is liable [Heaven administers punishment only to those older than 20] and we are left with fifty. Deduct half of that time for sleep, and we are left with twenty-five years. Half of that time is spent on prayer, eating and mundane needs and we are left with twelve and a half years of sin. If You can take those years upon Yourself, fine. And if not, half on me and half on You.”

Like Isaac, who divides a person’s life span with all his weaknesses and sins again and again, and takes half of them upon himself, so Rebbe Mordechai Yosef divided the trouble between himself and the chasid. There is tremendous depth in associating this concept with the Tabernacle’s trumpets. Rabbi Isaac Luria explains that the trumpets correspond to the sefirot of victory (netzach) and acknowledgment (hod), which are described as “two halves of a single body.” Rebbe Mordechai Yosef feels and instills in his chasid that they are in fact, like a man and a woman, two halves of one body. Because that is his experience, the Rebbe, Mordechai Yosef, can divide the trouble and pain of his disciple and participate in it in a manner that tilts the scales of judgment in Heaven in the right direction. The tilting of the scales to the right—the side of loving-kindness—is reflected in how the rebbe was able to replace the gold with silver. The replacement not only brings the amount of charity needed to within the chasid’s means, but gold—representing the attribute of might and harsh judgment (situated on the left)—is transformed into silver—representing the attribute of loving-kindness and love (situated on the right axis).

Analyzing the story using more challenging Kabbalistic language: Normally, the rebbe represents the sefirah of victory, which is an extended branch of loving-kindness, while the chasid represents the sefirah of acknowledgment, which is an extended branch of might. The two manifest the Zohar’s statement, “he is in victory, and she is in acknowledgment.” But in his yearning to alleviate the chasid’s suffering, the tzaddik “crossed his hands” as Jacob did when blessing Joseph’s sons. Now his right hand (corresponding with loving-kindness) influences the left side (i.e., the sefirah of acknowledgment and his left hand (corresponding with might) empowers the right side (i.e., the sefirah of victory, where the rebbe himself is situated). This prevents a situation in which acknowledgment descends and falls (a calamity described by the sages with the words, “My hod has turned upon me as a destroyer”[1] and the chasid can be redeemed from his difficult situation.

We can learn from this about all relationships in which we, like a rebbe, take the role of the influencer or giver (whether it is parents and children, teacher and students, or husband and wife). We can demand a fair distribution of effort between us and the others by expecting the other side to live up to the standards to which we have become accustomed. As such, we would have to demand the equivalent of gold from them. Often, this is fine, and indeed, most of the vessels in the Tabernacle and the Temple were made of gold. Sometimes, however, true partnership means taking the troubles of the partner into account, the equivalent of switching to silver, and the ability to take upon oneself all that is necessary to alleviate the partner’s pain. For if we are both only half of a greater whole, then responsibility for the sins and weaknesses of my other half also rests upon me. How then can I bring myself to demand that the other pull his entire weight?

Image: wiki/User:IsraelXKV8R

[1]. Daniel 10:8.

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