Loving-kindness and Truth

175 years ago this week, on Shabbat Parashat Toldot, 2nd Kislev 5600 the Kotzker Rebbe threw his hassidim, and ultimately the entire hassidic world, into turmoil.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism שבת שלום
שבת שלום

The Kabbalah teaches of ten sefirot, Divine attributes or manifestations. The first three are in the category of sechel (intellect): chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding), and da’at (knowledge). The final seven are middot (characteristics): chessed (loving-kindness), gevurah (might, severity), tiferet (beauty), netzach (eternity), hod (grandeur), yesod (foundation), and malchut (kingship).

G-d directs the world by these ten sefirot, manifesting His will in these guises.

And man, created in G-d’s image, has these same ten sefirot: In man, these are the characteristics which form each person’s individual personality. Everyone’s personality is a combination of each of these ten sefirot. Which of these is dominant, in what order they manifest themselves, how the individual expresses any and all of these, what proportion of each sefirah is present in any given person – this is unique to every individual.

Our fathers each epitomised one of the seven middot. Avraham (Abraham) was the epitome of chessed; Yitzchak (Isaac) was the epitome of gevurah; and Ya’akov (Jacob) was the epitome of tiferet.

Gevurah, also called din (strict justice), is the antithesis of chessed. Yet tiferet is the synthesis of chessed and gevurah, combining these two opposites.

As tiferet is the synthesis of chessed and gevurah, so Ya’akov was the synthesis of his father Yitzchak and his grandfather Avraham. Hence it is in Ya’akov that the Jewish nation is completed, which is why the Torah describes him as ish tam (Genesis 25:27); Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonatan understand this to mean “a complete man” or “a perfect man”.

“Complete” or “perfect” or “whole” because Ya’akov, alone among our fathers, combined all three attributes of chessed, gevurah, and tiferet.

Rashi sees the word tam as a cognate of tamim (innocent), hence: “He was not expert in these [things that his twin brother Esau was], rather his mouth was in accordance with his heart. One who is not skilled in deceit is called tam”. This seems to recall the dictum that G-d “hates the person who says one thing with his mouth and another thing in his heart” (Pesachim 113b and Yalkut Shimoni, Deuteronomy 922) – that is to say, a hypocrite.

By contrast, “Esau was a man who knows hunting, a man of the field” (Genesis 25:27), meaning “a hunter who hunted birds and animals, a man who would go into the field and kill people” (Targum Yonatan ad. loc.); “he would hunt and trap people with his mouth…deceiving at home and deceiving in the field” (Bereishit Rabbah 63:10).

“‘Esau was a man who knows hunting’ – he was a foreigner, who made himself a foreigner to circumcision and a foreigner to the mitzvot” (Ruth Rabbah, Introduction 3). He was “an evil man who would use violence to rob people” (Bava Batra 123a).

G-d tested each of our fathers by putting him into circumstances in which he would be forced to overcome his basic instincts in His service. Thus Avraham, the man of chessed, had to abandon his elderly father in Haran, a foreign city where he had no family or childhood friends, since he was native to Ur Kasdim (Genesis 11:31-32); he had to expel his concubine Hagar and his son Ishmael from his home (21:10-14); and he had to be willing to sacrifice his only beloved son, Yitzchak (22:1-12).

Yitzchak, the man of gevurah, had to passively submit to being bound and slaughtered.

Ya’akov, the man of tiferet, had to live for decades in squalor and poverty, as a fugitive and a slave. But he was also the man of emet (truth): “You have given truth to Ya’akov, chessed to Avraham” (Micah 7:20), and his test was to use deceit against his brother, the master of deceit, to obtain his blessing (Genesis 27:1-29), and later to use deceit against his uncle Laban, another master of deceit, to receive his fair wages (30:31-31:20).

But near the beginning of Parashat Toldot, Ya’akov bought Esau’s birthright honestly. When the twins were 15 years old, the day that their grandfather Avraham died (Bereishit Rabbah 63:14, Bava Batra 16b, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 35, Targum Yonatan to Genesis 25:29), Esau knowingly and willingly bartered away his birthright to his younger twin for a pot of lentils (25:29-34).

Yet 48 years later, Esau bitterly regretted his impetuosity in selling his birthright, and was murderously bitter at Ya’akov’s cheating him out of his blessing: “He screamed out a very great bitter scream, and said, Bless me, me too, my father! And he said: Your brother came deceitfully and he took your blessing. And he said: Is it because his name is Ya’akov [he-will-supplant] that he has supplanted me these two times?! He took my birthright, and see, now he has taken my blessing!” (27:34-36).

The Midrash tells us that “the evil Esau shed three tears: one from his right eye, one from his left eye, and the third remained bound up in his eye and did not descend. When was this? – When Yitzchak blessed Ya’akov, as it says ‘and Esau raised his voice and wept’ (Genesis 27:38)” (Tanhuma, Kedoshim 15).

And in greater detail: “There were three people who cried and G-d heard their crying – Hagar, Esau, and Hezekiah… Esau cried – ‘and Esau raised his voice and wept’ (Genesis 27:38) – and because of these three tears that he shed Israel was conquered by a foreign hostile army, as it says ‘You fed them bread of tears, and made them drink abundant tears’ (Psalms 80:6)” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 47).

In Psalm 80, a prayer that G-d have mercy upon the nation which He redeemed from Egypt, King David used the unusual expression d’ma’ot shalish for “abundant tears”, and the Midrash understands the word shalish (abundant) to be a cognate of shalosh (three) – hence the reference to the “three tears” that Esau shed.

Now there are some sources which suggest that though Esau was evil, at some stage he repented and that he had a certain measure of good. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel could declare that “I served my father all the days of my life, yet I did not serve him even one-hundredth as much as Esau served his father” (Bereishit Rabbah 65:16).

And Parashat Toldot concludes with the words, “Esau saw that the Canaanite girls were bad in his father Yitzchak’s eyes, so Esau went to Ishmael and he took Mahalat, the daughter of Ishmael, the son of Avraham, the daughter of Nebaioth, as his wife in addition to his wives” (Genesis 28:8-9). Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi sees this as praising Esau: “He was serious about converting [i.e. repenting]; [she was called] ‘Mahalat’ because G-d forgave [mahal] him all his sins. And [she is also called] ‘Basemath’ because his mind was perfumed [nitbasemah]” (Bereishit Rabbah 67:13).

(Esau had two wives called Basemath: the one mentioned here was the daughter of Ishmael, the other was the daughter of Eilon the Hittite.)

Nevertheless, Esau and his descendants continued with their grudge against Israel for the remainder of history. Esau became Edom, who evolved into Rome – the prototype of modern European Christian (or post-Christian) civilisation.

But is this not strange? If Esau really did repent, then would we not expect his future descendants to be righteous?

Unfortunately, no. Esau was inherently evil, and his repentance was superficial and temporary and self-serving.

Esau also married Adah, the daughter of Eilon the Hittite (Genesis 36:2) – and out of that union was born Eliphaz, who took Timna as his concubine (v.12), and out of that union was born Amalek. The combination of Esau and the Hittite, meaning descended from Heth, who claimed to be indigenous to the Land of Israel, produced the most evil progeny the world has ever seen.

Esau’s descendants – Amalek and Rome – never gave us and never will give us respite.

According to several sources, Ishmael too, evil though he was during most of his life, ultimately repented (see for example Targum Yonatan to Genesis 25:8 and 25:17, Bava Batra 16b, Bereishit Rabbah 30:4, Ruth Rabbah 8:1, Tosefta Kiddushin 5:19). But Ishmael’s repentance was just as superficial and temporary and self-serving as was Esau’s.

And the Zohar (Ra’ayah Meheimana, Volume 2 [Exodus], Parashat Mishpatim 120b) suggests that the combination of Esau and Ishmael also produces Amalek.

The most dangerous, destructive, and evil combination possible in this world is the union of Esau (European Christian or post-Christian civilisation), Ishmael (the Islamic world), and the Hittites (those who claim to be indigenous in the Land of Israel). This is the collaboration which perforce has to strive for the complete extermination of Jews and Judaism, physically and spiritually, in Israel and abroad.

Ishmael, Esau, and Amalek are all descended directly from our fathers: Ishmael from Avraham, Esau and Amalek from Avraham and Yitzchak. These enemies of Israel inherited the greatness of the founders of the nation of Israel, it is from them that they draw their power.

They have distorted and perverted the attributes of chessed and of gevurah; and this is the reason that, though they have the potential for greatness, and though they use this potential to inflict horrendous damage in Israel, they are guaranteed ultimately to fall before Israel.

Ishmael, Esau, and Amalek all left the Hebrew family before Ya’akov completed the triad, infusing our nation with tiferet and with emet in addition to chessed and gevurah.

As Avraham, the man of chessed, burst onto the world’s stage some 38 centuries ago and changed humanity forever, so too some three centuries ago the Baal Shem Tov (Rebbe Yisrael ben Eliezer), the man of chessed, burst onto the Jewish stage, founded the hassidic movement, and revolutionised the Jewish world for the rest of time.

His antithesis, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, was the epitome of gevurah – more, of din, of strict justice. As much as the Baal Shem Tov was kind to everyone, the Kotzker Rebbe was universally harsh and uncompromising. As the hassidim put it: in Medzibozh there was light – in Kotzk there was fire. The Kotzker Rebbe’s one watchword was emet – Truth.

175 years ago this week, on Shabbat Parashat Toldot, 2nd Kislev 5600 (9th November 1839), the Kotzker Rebbe threw his hassidim, and ultimately the entire hassidic world, into turmoil. It was Friday night, a bitterly cold winter in Kotzk (some 50 km/30 miles north of Lublin, 120 kilometres/75 miles south-east of Warsaw), and Rebbe Menachem Mendel and his hassidim were sitting at their Shabbat table.

The Rebbe was agitated, his breathing ragged, staring intensely in incomprehensible anguish at the candles burning on the table. For an unknown length of time the Beit ha-Midrash (the House of Study) remained silent, tense, barely daring to breathe, as the Rebbe seemed to be in a trance.

And then he suddenly roared, in a barely human voice: “The Gemara tells us that after Esau sold his birthright, he regretted the bargain so bitterly that he shed three tears! And we continue to pay with our blood for these three tears throughout our long exile. Nu – until when will we continue to pay?! Will this never end?!”

And he continued raving: “Should we then say, as Cain said to Abel, ‘leit din ve-leit Dayyan’, there is no justice and there is no Judge?!”

Pounding the table his fists, he screamed to the very Heavens: “I demand that justice be done, I demand that the Judge of all the world obey His own laws!”.

Rebbe Menachem Mendel lost consciousness (fainted? rose spiritually to heights beyond which no human consciousness could ascend? was stricken by the Judge whom he challenged? decided to leave this world?), and was carried to his bed-chamber.

For the next 20 years, until his death on 22nd Shevat 5619 (27th January 1859), he remained secluded in his room in the Beit ha-Midrash, emerging only when he was called up to the Torah, eating only what was passed to him through a window.

175 years on, what happened that Erev Shabbat Toldot in Poland remains a mystery.

Could the Kotzker Rebbe have seen that 99 years later to the day, in the solar calendar that Esau’s descendants use, 9th November 1938, Kristallnacht would plunge the Jewish world into the greatest horror it had ever known? Or that 100 years to the day after his vision, 2nd Kislev 5700 (14th November 1939), the Nazis, having conquered Poland, would begin the mass-murder of the Jews of Warsaw, Kotzk, Lublin, and other towns in the region?

Esau, Ishmael, Amalek – all have risen, attempted to exterminate us, and fallen. None of them have inherited the attribute of truth – and without that, they are inevitably destined to fall.