There have been—Hasidim, which literally means “individuals of exceptional piety,” throughout the history of Judaism. The modern Hasidic movement, based on Jewish mysticism, originated in Poland in the eighteenth century. The movement was founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer of Mazbigh, known as the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760). The Baal Shem was a wise and a charismatic man; legends and tales about him have been handed down through the generations. By the second decade of this century, the Hasidim included about half the population of the Eastern European Jewish Community. Martin Buber, who compiled the Tales of the Hasidim wrote, “Nowhere in the last centuries has the soul-force of Judaism so manifested itself as in Hasidism . . . Without an iota being altered in the law, in the ritual, in the traditional life-norms, the long-accustomed arose in a fresh light and meaning. It is not the man who knows the Torah (scripture) but the man who lives in it . . . that stands in the highest place.” One of the most vital aspects of this tradition lives in its remarkable stories.
One day a Rabbi, in a frenzy of religious passion, rushed in before the ark, fell to his knees, and started beating his breast, crying, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!”
The cantor of the synagogue, impressed by this example of spiritual humility, joined the Rabbi on his knees. “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!”
The “shamus” (custodian), watching the cantor, couldn’t restrain himself, either. He joined the other two on his knees, calling out, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!”
At which point the Rabbi, nudging the cantor with his elbow, pointed at the custodian and said, “Look who thinks he’s nobody!”
A Rabbi was always teaching his followers to seek the answers in themselves. But the followers always came back expecting more answers from him.
Finally he set up a booth with a sign: “Any Two Questions Answered for $100.”
After some deliberation, one of his richest followers decided to ask and brought two important questions. He paid the money and said as he did, “isn’t $100 rather costly for just two questions?” “Yes,” said the Rabbi, “and what is your second question?”
A great Rabbi spent years in solitude meditating on the mystery of the divine in all things. When he finally returned to live among men and women, his eyes shone with the beauty of what he had discovered. Many seekers came to him to ask for his truth, yet he was always reluctant to answer them, to put it into words. Pressed for years, he finally relented and with eloquent words gave a feeble approximation of what he had discovered.
The seekers took these words with them everywhere. They spoke them, wrote them, created sacred texts about them, and religious societies were formed of those who repeated them, until no one remembered that the words were really about an experience. As his words spread, the Rabbi became disheartened. “I had hoped to help but perhaps I should not have spoken at all.”
Two disciples of an old Rabbi were arguing about the true path to God. One said that the path was built on effort and energy. “You must give yourself totally and fully with all your effort to follow the way of the Law. To pray, to pay attention, to live rightly.” The second disciple disagreed. “It is not effort at all. That is only based on ego. It is pure surrender. To follow the way to God, to awaken, is to let go of all things and live the teaching. ‘Not my will but thine.”’
As they could not agree on who was right they went to see the master. He listened as the first disciple praised the path of wholehearted effort and when asked by this disciple, “Is this the true path?” the master said, “You’re right.” The second disciple was quite upset and responded eloquently concerning the path of surrender and letting go. When he had finished he said, “Is this not the true path?” and the master replied, “You’re right.” A third student who was sitting there said, “But master, they can’t both be right,” and the master smiled and said, “You’re right, too!”
In the last century, a tourist from the States visited the famous Polish Rabbi Hafez Hayyim.
He was astonished to see that the Rabbi’s home was only a simple room filled with books. The only furniture was a table and a bench.
“Rabbi, where is your furniture?” asked the tourist.
“Where is yours?” replied Hafez.
“Mine? But I’m only a visitor here.”
“So am I,” said the Rabbi.
This story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the Abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery, there was a little hut that a Rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the Rabbi was in his hermitage. “The Rabbi is in the woods, the Rabbi is in the woods again,” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the Abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the Rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The Rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the Abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the Rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old Abbot and the old Rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the Abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the Abbot said, “is there no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”
“No, I am sorry,” the Rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the Abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the Rabbi say?”
“He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving–it was something cryptic–was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the Rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the Abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the Rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O, God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the Rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.
Originally from Tales of Hasidim ©1991 Chaim Potok. Reprinted by arrangement with Schocken Books, New York. These stories are from the edited version in Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart, edited by Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield, © 1991.