The Tisch: The disciple as master

Each individual has their own specific contribution to offer this world

hassidic hat 311 (photo credit: Illustrative photo)
hassidic hat 311
(photo credit: Illustrative photo)
While the hassidic master is the recognized leader of his charges, many hassidic courts nevertheless developed a tiered mentoring structure in which senior disciples played an important role in educating newcomers and inculcating hassidic values and mores.
Thus in the court of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Horowitz of Ropczyce (1760- 1827) the norm was that when a new disciple arrived seeking to study the paths of the Almighty, R. Naftali would select one of his senior disciples to instruct the novice. Much of what the veteran offered would be guidance and call the attention of the newcomer to significant phenomena – “Pay attention to this”; “this is unimportant”; “this is significant.”
Direct spiritual counseling was still the province of the hassidic master, in this case R. Naftali.
Such personal mentoring also provided for a hassid’s individual needs to be considered. In hassidic terms: Each individual has his own specific contribution to offer this world; no one else can do the job assigned by the Almighty to a specific individual. Personal mentoring was deemed necessary to ensure that individuals walk their intended paths and fulfill their purpose in this world. If guidance was to be dished out indiscriminately, individuals might not be encouraged on their own paths.
One later hassidic master, Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapiro of Munkács (1871-1937), a descendant of R. Naftali, understood that a biblical verse suggested this pyramid structure. In relation to protecting the kohanim from the physical dangers of dealing with holy Temple artifacts, God said: Let Aaron and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage (Numbers 4:19). Not Aaron alone, but Aaron and his sons were commanded to consign each kohen to his own personal task.
Elsewhere in his writings, the rabbi of Munkács offered a different source for this structure. Before entering the Land of Israel, God urged the Jewish people to heed the commandments, promising to assist in the conquest of the land if the people keep the commandments, love God, walk in all God’s ways and cleave to God (see: Deuteronomy 11:22).
OUR SAGES EXPLAIN that one cannot physically hold fast to a God that transcends all physical manifestation, except by cleaving to God’s wise people and their students. Again, seeking instruction, not just from the masters but also from students, appears to be validated and even encouraged.
The Munkatcher Rebbe retold a well-known tale that not only exemplified this very structure but spoke of it as a necessity: Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1786) once chanced upon a certain disciple, Rabbi David of Zolynia, making his way from Lezajsk towards nearby Lancut. It was the eve of Shabbat and it was clear that R. David was on his way to spend Shabbat in the company of Rabbi Ya’acov Yitzhak Horowitz (1745-1815). Rabbi Ya’acov Yitzhak – then known as R. Itzik’le and later to be known as the Hozeh (Seer) of Lublin – was himself a student of Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk and at that time he set out to lead his own flock, apparently to the chagrin of his master.
Meeting the venerable R. Elimelech, R. David was thus worried that he would take offense. R. David, therefore, decided to deal with the issue openly: “My master, I am on my way to spend Shabbat in Lancut, for R. Itzik’le and I are your students and we study together.
Alas for me, I cannot fathom your level of spirituality. Like a high table that requires a pedestal to reach it – the pedestal must be lower than the table and near enough to it so that the tabletop can be accessed. I too need a pedestal to reach your holy table, a pedestal that is lower than the table but situated within close proximity.
That is why I travel to Lancut for Shabbat.” Thus in many hassidic communities, the disciple is essentially also a master.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.