The Tisch: Making new clothes

When Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk took his congregation to taska.

In early hassidic works we find harsh criticism against the darshanim,the preachers, often itinerant, who in their fiery sermons woulddenigrate and vilify their audience. The method was designed to prodthose hearing the sermon to feel deep remorse and be goaded intorepenting and being better Jews. The success of this method must havevaried from preacher to preacher, from community to community and fromepoch to epoch.
While the preachers may or may not have beensincere, early hassidic masters felt that belittling other Jews was notan effective method. For one, it hardly could be construed asencouragement. Criticism does not also stimulate change; oftencondemnation can lead to the exact opposite result: staking out adefensive position, justifying previous conduct and giving no quarterto the thought of change. Moreover, the result in supernal worlds couldbe most damaging: Maligning other Jews might have the effect ofstrengthening the claims of the prosecuting Satan in the heavenlycourt. Thus the earlier hassidic masters sought a different method ofpositive encouragement and stressing the value of people rather thantheir shortcomings.
With this in mind Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib ofSassov (1745-1807) was surprised to hear how the leader of the hassidimin Galicia, Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1786), addressed hisdisciples. On Friday night, Rabbi Elimelech addressed his followerstelling them in no uncertain terms that their conduct was unbecoming.Like the preachers of old, he appeared to be denigrating his audience.
Afterthe address, Rabbi Moshe Leib, who was known for his unbridled love ofevery Jew, approached his older colleague: “Would it not be moreappropriate to speak positively about your congregation? Is it not yourrole to serve as character reference on behalf of your followers in theheavenly court?
Rabbi Elimelech responded with a parable:“Imagine a king who calls on his tailor to prepare new royal garments.The tailor arrives in the king’s chambers to take measurements for thenew clothes. Perhaps with some hesitation, the tailor tells the king tostand up, stand straight, turn around, lift up his arms and so on. Thetailor hesitates for he knows that were anyone else to talk to the kingin such a manner, the monarch would order his immediate execution.Indeed this is no way to talk to a member of the royal family. Alas, ifthe tailor was to make clothes that fit and befit the king, he neededexact measurements; approximations would just not do. So reluctantlyand perhaps avoiding the king’s eyes, the tailor continues: Standstraight, turn around, lift up your arms...”
Rabbi Elimelech unpacked the parable: “The Children of Israel are theroyal family. Indeed no one has the right to order them about, tellthem how to stand and what to do. It is only the poor tailor who comesto make new clothes, to dress them in garments befitting the royalHouse of Israel, who may – with his eyes downcast and with a level ofdiscomfort – tell the royal Children of Israel how to stand.”
Rabbi Elimelech looked deep into the eyes of Rabbi Moshe Leib andconcluded the exchange: “These new garments that I aspire to make forthe royal family are the garments of Torah and of tradition. At times,I must tell them – albeit with unease – how to stand, how to act andgive other instructions that can only be given by a poor tailor as hetries to make garments befitting his honorable customer. I seek not todisparage the Children of Israel, I just aspire to make clothes thatbefit children of kings, nay, the children of the king of kings.”
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.