Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Question & Answer With Shoshana (Bershad) - Two Tzaddiks Light My Path

(Painting by Yoram Ra'anan)

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.


At February 5, 2008 at 7:28:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wrote, "one does not sacrifice one’s own conscience and principles in obedience to the mitzvot."

What happens in the case if a person does not understand, agree, or has a difficulty performing a certain mitzva, is he or she allowed to turn aside from it?

At February 5, 2008 at 10:14:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Zippy, I can't answer as to what is "allowed"; maybe others will comment on that. But you have gone to the heart of my own inner conflict; in many ways, I am that person you describe. My journey began only recently, and I am not "there" yet. I can only suggest that the process begins in the heart and mind, so that you open yourself to the possibility of change. Then take small steps, starting with what you CAN do.


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