Question & Answer With Shoshana (Bershad) - Two Tzaddiks Light My Path
A Simple Jew asks:
Which teaching from your ancestor Rebbe Raphael of Bershad, or his teacher Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz, resonates the deepest with you?
Shoshana (Bershad) answers:
It is difficult to answer this question, because I could say that, in a sense, ALL of the teachings of Rebbe Pinchas and his disciple, Rebbe Raphael, resonate deeply within me. Reading about them has engendered in me a desire to grow in Judaism and serve Hashem. I share their devotion to honesty and humility, their striving for peace, and their love for their fellow Jews. And yet, when I observe the vast spiritual distance between these early Chassidic leaders and myself, I realize that I cannot truly model myself after them with regard to piety and level of observance; after all, I was raised in a very different environment—a Conservative home set in the secular culture of 20th century America—and I was taught a more liberal and individualistic approach to Judaism, one in which the spirit of the law, rather than the letter of the law, was paramount.
When I was a small child, my mother taught me a bedtime prayer:
“G-d is great, and G-d is good. G-d, teach me right from wrong, and help me always to do the right thing.” (This was, of course, followed by the litany of “G-d bless Mommy and Daddy and Sister and Grandma....”)
Although I knew that the Ten Commandments were handed down at Sinai, I believed that a person of conscience would be able to distinguish right from wrong by listening to his own “inner voice” and acting accordingly. I was not then familiar with R’ Pinchas’s saying: “A man’s soul will teach him,” but I think I came to the same conclusion. Until I became an adult, I had not even heard of the 613 mitzvot, yet I saw morality and ethics in the context of personal integrity and social justice. I generally had no trouble defining good and bad behavior, but the definitions were in human terms, not divine ones. It never occurred to me that being “good” was a matter of being “obedient to G-d” and “serving Hashem.”
Now that I have extensively read translations of the teachings of R’ Pinchas and R’ Raphael, I have gained a new perspective on serving Hashem in every aspect of one’s daily life. I understand that one does not sacrifice one’s own conscience and principles in obedience to the mitzvot; they are one and the same. R’ Pinchas taught that spiritual union with G-d arises from true humility—annihilation of the ego. One should serve G-d in simplicity, and if one is worthy of attaining the holy spirit, it will come of itself. R’ Pinchas believed that the way to the service of G-d is through purification of one’s character, and he taught that everyone must find his own individual approach to the service of G-d.
Both R’ Pinchas and R’ Raphael struggled to overcome their faults and their doubts; even for these two tzaddiks, it was a long process. R’ Pinchas taught: “A man cannot be consciously good unless he knows evil. No one can appreciate pleasure unless he has tasted bitterness. ... Without the evil impulse, man could do no evil; but neither could he do good.” R’ Raphael said: “If a man sins and is contrite, the Lord will aid him to full repentance. It is well to remember this axiom: ‘Man has only the power of free choice; everything else is in G-d’s hands.’ Therefore, if a man chooses to repent, G-d will perform all else required for the accomplishment of his choice.” These teachings give me hope that I still have time to change the path of my life.
I cannot undo the decisions and mistakes of my earlier life, but I can become closer to Hashem by infusing my remaining years with Jewish thoughts and ideals and trying to become a better person. For the present, most of the changes are internal, in my heart and mind. Gradually, I am also changing some of my practices and taking on new observances. Although I cannot say that I have adopted the Chassidic life-style, I have grown to love and appreciate my Chassidic heritage, and I hope that the teachings of R’ Pinchas and R’ Raphael will guide me toward serving Hashem.