As has been noted in a previous column, Reb Elimelech – like the Baal Shem Tov before him – asserted that pessimism and depression cause sin and spiritual apathy. Repentance (yes, even repentance!) that causes depression and sadness distances the Holy Presence.
Joy is absolutely essential for Jewish life. And although Reb Elimelech was determined to infuse all Jews with a state of simcha, he was especially concerned over the plight of orphans, and devoted special energy to arrange marriages for them.
The Baal Shem Tov was thoroughly foreign to the concept of evil. Indeed, when a despairing father inquired, “What shall I do with my son? He is so wicked!” the Baal Shem Tov, who shunned reprimands, characteristically counseled, “Love him all the more!”
This was a lesson that Reb Elimelech incorporated and would find essential in dealing with the unschooled and non-observant masses. Like those that preceded him, Reb Elimelech viewed his mission to be the spiritual elevation of the people – whether or not they were affiliated with chassidus.
The chassidic masters (Reb Elimelech is the perfect example) never remained cloistered in their homes or in the synagogues. They went out to the people and implored them to repent. “One cannot arrive at the proper and complete service of the Lord,” instructed Reb Elimelech, “without a guide that will direct toward the path to faith.”
Reb Elimelech championed emunah temimah (pure belief) above everything in the service of God. Like his predecessors, he focused on the importance of emunas tzaddikim (trusting the righteous) and what the responsibilities of a rebbe are. Namely, to raise the spiritual level of the masses who are mired in the pits of poverty – both materially and spiritually. It is the job of the leader to never seclude himself from the world and to be located among his people, so that he can hear their troubles and ease their burdens.
Reb Elimelech explained that some people serve the Almighty and perform good deeds under the impression that they are doing the Lord a favor, and accordingly deserve a reward. A consequence of this perverted thinking is that people need not work on themselves because they are assumedly good, benevolent individuals.
To counteract this mindset Reb Elimelech encouraged that before performing a mitzvah one should recite: “ha’reini oseh zos l’shem yichud kudsha b’rich hu u’shechintei, la’asos nachas ruach l’borei olami – I am engaging in this deed for the sake of the Almighty, so that I may cause pleasure to my Maker.”
For the very same reason he felt that serving God must be anchored in deep, not superficial, Torah learning. This includes Gemara with Rashi, Tosafos and the meforshim, and Shulchan Aruch and the poskim. Learning in depth and with diligence frees one from egotistical thoughts and cleanses the soul.
He instructed, “One should arise and pray, ‘May it be Thy will that my learning will motivate me to act with proper character and Torah knowledge. Spare me from interruption – even the slightest little disruption.’ ”
Among Reb Elimelech’s rules were: A Jew should guard himself against hating any of his folk, except for the wicked for whom no excuse can be found. He should not engage in any conversation at all before prayer, as it is a hindrance to concentration during davening.
One should speak gently to all men and see to it that one’s clothes are always clean.
Reb Elimelech pointed out four customs of zehirus (caution) that have becomes pillars of chassidus:
I) From the moment people arise in the morning, they must quickly wash their hands and accept upon themselves the yoke of Heaven. Their very first steps must be with sanctity and purity, and this will set the tone for the rest of the day.
II) “Chassidus,” as mentioned in the Gemara, means not walking four cubits with an uncovered head, and to live with the awareness of what the yarmulke symbolizes – namely that there is a Ruler above.
III) “Purity of the Home” mandates a staunch religious education for boys and girls so that tradition is never in jeopardy of being abandoned.
IV) One must learn Torah in order to observe and fulfill the commandments. Even those who are not enrolled in a yeshiva are obligated to learn on a steady basis, each and every day.
In every aspect Reb Elimelech ascended. But no matter how high he soared, his humility caused him to view himself as one who has not properly fulfilled his obligations.
Reb Elimelech maintained that a person should view his deeds and actions as incomplete and insufficient, so as to serve as an incentive to strive higher. Furthermore, one is obligated to avoid flattery, dishonesty, laziness, slander, jealousy, hatred, aggressiveness, anger and hubris.
His aspirations were very much in line with the chassidic approach to observe far more than what is actually required by Jewish law.
All of Judaism’s laws, customs, restrictions and prohibitions do not encompass what chassidus expects – indeed demands – from its adherents. A chassid will go far beyond the letter of the law and flee from the slightest possibility of sin and will be willing to make painful sacrifices to uphold the law.
(To be continued)
Chodesh tov – have a pleasant month!
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