Truth, equanimity and concentration

"Rabbi Rafael is mostly remembered in hassidic lore, where we find tales of his commitment to truth and his aversion to anger."

Hassidim praying 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hassidim praying 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Rafael of Bershad (d. 1827) was a hassidic master best known for the supreme value he placed on uncompromising truth. He was a disciple of Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz (1726- 1791), one of the masters during the formative stage of the hassidic movement.
Rabbi Rafael did not serve in a rabbinical post; rather, he was an itinerant preacher who was based in Bershad – today a small city in western Ukraine. Nor did he bequeath any writings, though some of his conclusions are recorded in the works of his teacher. Rabbi Rafael is mostly remembered in hassidic lore, where we find tales of his commitment to truth and his aversion to anger. One tradition states that he never told a lie, and in some accounts it was his unwillingness to bend the truth that led to his untimely death. (See Professor Shnayer Z. Leiman’s article in Tradition 2007.) The story is told that for a long time, Rabbi Rafael wanted tzitzit (ritual fringes) that came from the Holy Land. Finally he managed to procure a piece of cloth that had been prepared in the Land of Israel. He took the cloth to the local tailor, so that the tailor would make the cloth into a garment with tzitzit that could be worn. The tailor faithfully set about cutting and sewing the cloth to order.
Alas, when it came to cutting a hole in the middle of the cloth for Rabbi Rafael’s head, the tailor accidentally cut two holes! What was the tailor to do now? He had destroyed the precious cloth! For a long time, the tailor avoided Rabbi Rafael. What would he say to him? How could he explain his mistake? Eventually, the tailor had no choice but to confess his error. With tears streaming down his cheeks, the tailor told Rabbi Rafael what had happened.
Rabbi Rafael responded in a soothing voice: “Don’t you know why I need two holes?” He asked. “One hole is for my head; the second hole is to challenge me not to get angry.”
In general when he lost money, Rabbi Rafael would say: “It is enough that I lost this much money; do I need to also sully my soul with anger?” Rabbi Rafael once pondered a strange reality: Torah, as we know, is the best thing in the world. It benefits a person in this world and in the next. Jewish sources are persistent regarding its supreme value and its efficacy. Given that Torah is so beneficial, how is it possible that there are instances when a person is not drawn to Torah? In theory, a person should long with all his heart and soul to study Torah at every moment. Alas, the reality, as we know, is far from this.
Rabbi Rafael explained: The truth is that deep down, we do desire to learn Torah constantly. But we have sunk into the material dross of this world. The Torah looks at us in this state and says, “I don’t want such a person studying me!” When the person then sits down to learn, the Torah itself finds ways to distract the potential havruta (study partner). “Get a cup of coffee before you study me,” suggests the Torah; “Why don't you just check your email first”; “Clean up and then we will learn.” It is the Torah proffering these excuses in a bid to avoid studying with the person who is not pure of heart.
Rabbi Rafael did not leave it there; he added a remedy for the dire situation when a person wants to study but the Torah is not interested: If a person meditates on repentance before sitting down to learn Torah, then the person comes to the study session as a penitent rather than as an unrepentant sinner. The Torah welcomes such a havruta.
Rabbi Rafael concluded by explaining that this is indicated in the verse, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God” (Psalms 111:10); before the wisdom of Torah, a person should meditate on the awe of God, repenting for previous wrongs before sitting down with Torah as a havruta.
The writer is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. His book, Relics for the Present, was recently published by Maggid Books and Pardes.