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Rebbe Pinchas of Koritz: Taking God to Court

Rebbe Pinchas Shapira, who was known as Rebbe Pinchas of Koritz, was born in Shklov to his father Rabbi Avraham Abba, grandson of the Kabbalist, Rabbi Natan Nata Shapira, author of the Megaleh Amukot. As a son of a Lithuanian, non-Chassidic, and scholarly family, Rebbe Pinchas studied and delved into the Talmud and Jewish law. From a young age he would write his deep Torah novellae in the revealed dimension of the Torah. When the family moved to the Chassidic town of Wohlin, his father, who was initially opposed to Chassidut, became familiar with the Ba’al Shem Tov and his teachings, and became his disciple. Rebbe Pinchas followed in his father’s footsteps and became one of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s most important disciples.

Rebbe Pinchas was famous for his attribute of truth. He once told the Alter Rebbe (who even counted Rebbe Pinchas as one of his mentors, from whom he learned service of God) that he worked on the attribute of truth for 21 years. For seven years he worked on recognizing the essence of falsehood, for another seven years he worked to distance any hint of falsehood from himself, and for an additional seven years, he toiled to acquire the attribute of truth.

Rebbe Pinchas first lived in Koritz and then in Ostraha, serving as a Rebbe in both towns. His famous disciples were Rebbe Baruch of Mezhibuzh (the grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, who grew up in his home), Rebbe Refael of Bershid, and Rebbe Yaakov Shimshon of Shipitovkah. All his life, Rebbe Pinchas desired to make aliyah to the Land of Israel. At the end of his days, he left Ostraha on his way to Israel. When he reached Shipitovkah, he became ill and passed away on the tenth of Elul, 5551 (1791). He was buried in Shipitovkah. Although Rebbe Pinchas wrote a large book in his own handwriting, his descendants had a tradition not to print it. Over the years, several anthologies of his teachings were printed. In the past few years, those teachings were compiled in two books titled, Imrei Pinchas Hashalem.

Once Rebbe Pinchas visited a critically ill man. The doctors had given up hope that he would survive. At the end of his visit, Rebbe Pinchas rose to take his leave. He turned to the sick man and said, “It is not proper for you not to escort me. After all, I am the Rebbe here!” The sick man had been bedridden and had not been able to move. How could Rebbe Pinchas tell him that he was not behaving properly by not escorting him? However, at that very moment, the bedridden man got out of bed, completely healthy, and escorted Rebbe Pinchas.

Rebbe Pinchas’ primary attribute was truth. At its foundation, truth tends to be strict and demanding; it negates anything that hints of falsehood. This temperament was very strong in Rebbe Pinchas. So strong was his connection to truth that, “it was difficult for him to visit the ill, because of the falsehood hidden in their sighs and groans.” When an ill person sighs in pain, it is as if he is complaining that God is unjust and is causing him undue grievance. This feeling, however, serves as an illustration of the nature of our reality, which because of its feeling of separation from the true good—from God, is described as all falsehood and deception. What then, caused Rebbe Pinchas to overcome his aversion, to visit the sick person and even heal him?

The sages relate that before man was created, truth lobbied against him and said: “He should not be created, he is all lies.”[1] Conversely, the attribute of loving-kindness arose and said, “Let him be created, for he performs acts of loving kindness!”[2] Truth is one of the attributes that lies along the central axis of the sefirot, but when it leans slightly to the direction of might, it is liable to burn the entire world. When the tzaddik identifies this type of truth inside him, he must work hard to direct it in the opposite direction, to the attribute of loving-kindness that views Creation favorably.

Visiting the ill is a central part of the mitzvah of loving kindness. When Rebbe Pinchas overcomes his attribute of might and performs an act of loving-kindness, he heals the ill person. Interestingly in this story, the tzaddik performs the salvation specifically by means of the ill person escorting him, which is also an act of loving-kindness.[3] With his act of loving kindness, Rebbe Pinchas gives the ill person the strength to perform an act of loving kindness in return. This is specifically how the falsehood concealed within the illness is nullified.

Once Rebbe Yechiel Michel of Zlotshov sent a very important disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Leib the Maggid of Polna’ah, to a town near Koritz.  Rabbi Leib was a gifted preacher who reprimanded his listeners for their iniquities. During that era, many such preachers, known as Maggidim, would go from town to town, gathering the townsmen, teaching Torah, and reprimanding them for their misdeeds. Although the Ba’al Shem Tov did not approve of this style of harsh reproof and even strongly opposed it, some of his disciples were maggidim. Of course, their reproof was not harsh and when they did mention sins, it was from a place of love within them and hence it affected their listeners lovingly.

Rebbe Yechiel Michel asked Rabbi Leib to go to the town near Koritz, for apparently, something had taken place there that needed to be addressed. He asked Rabbi Leib to reprimand the townspeople and urge them to repent. When Rebbe Pinchas of Koritz heard that Rabbi Leib was on his way, he sent him a message: “In my area, we do not reprove anybody. That includes you, my beloved friend, Rabbi Leib. I veto your intention to come here to reprove the townspeople.” Here we don’t reprove chassidim or those opposed to Chassidut. If you wish to reprove somebody, reprove God for not bringing Mashiach. But do not reprimand the people!”

Rabbi Leib returned to Rebbe Michel of Zlotshov and relayed Rebbe Pinchas’ words. “I am very surprised,” responded Rebbe Yechiel Michel. “After all, all the prayers of the Jewish People come through me before they ascend to heaven. Why have I never received the prayers of Rebbe Pinchas?”

Rabbi Leib returned to Rebbe Pinchas and related Rebbe Yechiel Michel’s question. “You should know,” responded Rebbe Pinchas, “that the prayers of a person who prays for the Jewish People with true self-sacrifice ascend directly to God’s essence, with no intermediary on the way.”

Rabbi Leib returned and relayed this to Rebbe Yechiel Michel, who although he had known Rebbe Pinchas for a long time, had not seen him in this light. He wanted a sign from Heaven that what Rebbe Pinchas had said was true.

What does one do when he wants to ask something of Heaven? He randomly opens a holy book and sees what is written there (as some do today with the books of letters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe). Rebbe Yechiel Michel went over to his bookcase and randomly removed a book. It was the Yalkut Shimoni, a book of midrash, homiletic analysis of Biblical text. He opened the book and randomly put his finger on a random page. It was the commentary of the sages on the verse, “And Pinchas got up and prayed”[4] (וַיַּעֲמֹד פִּינְחָס וַיְפַלֵּל). The sages explain in the Yalkut Shimoni, “From here we learn that he did judgment with the Holy Blessed One.” Rebbe Michel stretched out his arm and removed another book from the shelf, a Talmud, and his finger fell on the exact same teaching from the sages.

Rebbe Pinchas turns the judgment that was initially focused on the falsehood of the world back toward Heaven and claims: If reprimanding is in order, it should be directed at God, not at the sinner. When Rebbe Michel hears this, he expresses his surprise: “All the prayers pass through me, except for your prayers?” Rebbe Pinchas’ answer addresses both the explicit and implicit aspects of Rebbe Michel’s challenge. The explicit question and its answer are clear. The implicit question was: How can one reprove the Creator to protect lowly created beings?

The Midrash that was opened before Rebbe Yechiel Michel reveals that prayer can become a form of litigation. The verse quoted, “And Pinchas got up and prayed” refers to the event in which Pinchas, the son of Elazar the High Priest (who filled the place of his father, Aharon the High Priest), the great Biblical zealot, brought an end to the plague that had been brought upon the Jewish people as result of the sins of the few.[5] Pinchas stood in prayer (תְּפִלָּה), but the verse quoted transforms the word for prayer into the word for “executed judgment” (פְּלִילוּת). The sages explain it this way, “Rabbi Elazar says: And he prayed is not stated; rather, ‘and he executed judgment’ is stated, which teaches that he entered in litigation with his Creator. He came and cast them [Zimri and Cozbi] before God and said to Him, ‘Master of the Universe, because of these twenty-four thousands of the Jewish people died in the plague?’”[6] Referring to this type of prayer that becomes litigation, Rebbe Nachman of Breslev tells us that it takes tremendous strength and requires a person to literally stand within the mouth of impurity.[7] But just as the Almighty said, in reference to another case that was argued with Him (as it were), “My sons have defeated Me,” so in his prayer, the tzaddik risks entering into litigation with the Creator—and wins.

Photo by Lukas Bornhauser on Unsplash

[1]. Bereishit Rabbah 8:5.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Hilchot Avel 14:1.

[4]. Psalms 106:30.

[5]. Numbers 25:7-9.

[6]. Sanhedrin 44a.

[7]. Likutei Moharan 2:8.

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