In these blogs, I have tried to present as accurately as I can, many of the teachings of the Rebbe of Kotzk that have absolutely captivated me personally. These teachings appear in bold font, and many of them (to the best of my knowledge) have never before been translated into English. I have attempted to be as true to the original text as possible.
The Torah says: “...and
make an idol or image...as G-d has commanded you.”
Lest one takes this verse
out of context and think that G-d commanded us to worship idols, Rashi is
quick to add; ‘as G-d has commanded you not to do.’
But the Kotzker Rebbe
seems quite happy to leave the verse in its original form and have it read: Sometimes you can turn G-d’s commandments into
a form of idolatry.
He says; “...the Torah warns us to guard ourselves
against making ‘idols’ out of what G-d commanded us to do – so that we do not
turn G-d’s laws into lifeless objects like wood and stone - as that would be
the same as idolatry. ”
Unless we are able to
captivate the spirit, warmth and vibrancy of Judaism, the mere routine following
of the law is of absolutely no spiritual value whatsoever.
On the contrary,
without meaning, even G-d’s law would be just another form of idolatry.
Pinchas was destined to
take over from Moshe and become the next leader of the Jewish People.
with zealous incentive when he took a spear and killed Zimri and Cozbi, who both
exemplified the mass sin which brought about a plague which destroyed 24 000
As a result of his zealotry the plague was halted and Pinchas was
hailed the hero.
But the Kotzker Rebbe
“Moshe did not agree to this (the
populist sentiment hailing Pinchas as a future leader), because...although he did a great (and necessary) deed...and averted a plague from the
Jewish People - nonetheless Moshe said; ‘A fanatic should never be a leader of Israel.’...It
was for this reason that Moshe then asked G-d to appoint a new (and more tempered) leader for them.”
A fanatic, even if he or
she is right, should never be allowed to lead!
Just before Moshe passed
away, he asked G-d; “...to appoint a man
over the assembly”
who would take over from him.
The Kotzker Rebbe pointed
out that the expression ‘a man’ is crucial
to the concept of leadership.
He wrote: “(The
expression) ‘man’ is used instead of ‘angel’
(or scholar or sage) to emphasize (normative)
humanity, which would enable people to
relate to him. This is similar to (the Torah recording that) ‘Moshe went down from the mountain (i.e. from his lofty position) towards the people’.”
All too often we look to
create an artificial form of exalted leadership. This is true in political and
especially religious leadership roles. We tend to demand and fashion an aura of
near deification surrounding our spiritual leadership.
Kotzk taught that the aim
was to seek out leaders who were as human and approachable as possible.
The Torah considers
Pinchas to be a ‘fanatic’, because he; “...zealously avenged Me among them.”
On this the Kotzker Rebbe
commented: “Because Pinchas was consumed
with G-d’s zealousness, there was implanted into all Israel (from that
moment on, a degree of) fanaticism,
which will not tolerate any deviant behaviour, and this is (now) intrinsic within them.”
Not confusing fanaticism for
extremism, is fanaticism a Jewish trait?
And is the Kotzker endorsing
this trait or objecting to it?
The Kotzker Rebbe said; “While
Korach (who tried to oust Moshe from his position) was
standing on the duchan(the platform
used by the levi’im to play their
musical instruments), he underwent a process of spiritual transformation.
became inspired and more spiritually aware than ever before. So he thought that
if he would progress further into the heichal(the inner sanctuary), he would become even more elevated.
What he didn’t realize, though, was the fact
that the only reason he felt so uplifted by his experience on the duchan, was because Moshe was standing
in the heichal.”
The Kotzker reminds us that sometimes, while basking in our
sense of achievements, we forget our interconnectedness and our interdependences.
We think we got to where we are by our own hard work and dedicated
determination – and we pretend that the catalystic components - of luck, fate,
G-d, timing, and help from others - played no part in our rise to success.
Some of our leaders are
very dedicated to spreading Judaism. They really want to fill their
institutions with eager students thirsty for Torah knowledge.
The Kotzker recognizes the
nobility of such a pursuit. But he also cautions that there may an ulterior
motive that spoils the apparent altruism. The outreach world may not always be
as spiritually philanthropic as it appears.
Often the unspoken sentiment of spiritual
emissaries is that Torah institutions should be well attended as long as they
are their institutions.
He said; “You are claiming spirituality? But (like
Korach who ‘also wanted the priesthood’) you really want to be the Leaders!”