My “Berdichever Moments” – The Legacy of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev

By Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz

Two hundred years after his passing in 1809, the influence of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev on chassidim and non-chassidim alike shines stronger than ever. His magnum opus “Kedushat Levi” is now available in English translation and continues to grip the hearts and imaginations of those who drink from it. Study groups to plumb the depths of this accessible yet enigmatic chassidic classic have proliferated worldwide. Wherein lies the secret to his ever increasing popularity?

It took a high school English literature course to provide an important clue. Several years ago my daughter took a survey course in English literature. At first she was enthralled with the literary tapestries woven by such greats as Hemingway, London, Faulkner and others. Yet when she discovered the sordid details which punctuated many of their lives – the abuse, the misogyny, alcoholism and even suicide – her ardor rapidly waned as she grappled unsuccessfully with the dissonance between their lives and their art.

It is not surprising that his legacy is perpetuated and transmitted via the many uplifting stories about his life She slowly came to the realization that the true hallmark of personal greatness is an ability to inspire as much by what one does as by what one says or teaches. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s life personifies such a seamless synthesis of thought, speech, action and appearance. Accordingly, it is not surprising that his legacy is perpetuated and transmitted via the many uplifting stories about his life and his tenacious advocacy on behalf of the Jewish people as well as through his Torah teachings.

He was known to take G‑d to task, a veritable enfant terrible, alternately begging, cajoling, pleading and demanding mercy and blessings for the Jewish people; knowing full well the extent of his relationship with his Father in Heaven yet asking nothing for himself, only for his beloved flock, much like Moses before him who famously declared: “If You don’t forgive the Jewish people, write me out of the script!”

Popular Themes

The founder of the chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), and his successor Rabbi Dov Ber (“The Great Maggid”) of Mezritch (d. 1773), did not leave much of a written legacy detailing their newly revealed path to the service of G‑d. Rather, it was several of the Maggid’s closest disciples who began to put to writing the spiritual infrastructure of the nascent movement. Rabbi Elimelech from Lyszansk authored a work entitled Noam Elimelech, “The Pleasantness of Elimelech,” and several decades later Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, affectionately known as “the Berditchever,” composed the essays which were to become the Kedushat Levi, “The Holiness of Levi.” Similarly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad chassidism, drafted a series of pamphlets that collectively became known as the Tanya (named after the words with which the book begins).

Whereas the Tanya is directed at the beinoni (“intermediate,” or average individual), the former two works are apparently veritable how-to manuals for the tzaddik (organically righteous soul). Still, one gets the feeling that the level of tzaddik described in the Kedushat Levi is eminently reachable – with much effort to be sure – but that the Berditchever characteristically set the bar ever-so-slightly higher so as to offer a built-in defense to the heavens on behalf of those whose aspirations exceed their actions.

A Higher Reality

Where others saw visions, analogies and similes, the Berditchever saw only realityRabbi Levi Yitzchak was a true spiritual visionary of the highest order. One of his seminal teachings involves Shabbat Chazon (literally “the Shabbat of Vision”)—the Shabbat preceding the Ninth of Av, the date upon which the destruction of the first and second Temples is commemorated. Ostensibly, the name is derived from the first words of the day’s haftorah portion, “Chazon Yishayahu”—”the vision of Isaiah.” The Berditchever, however, taught that on Shabbat Chazon, every Jew is vouchsafed a vision of the third Temple. To Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, this “vision” was not merely a paranormal projection, hallucination or hologram; it was a glimpse of the actual Temple in koach (a state of potential), waiting for us only to bring it to a state of “poal” (concrete actualization).

Similarly, in his Likkutim – a series of passionate vignettes homiletically analyzing various biblical verses – he explains a seeming redundancy in the book of Joel (2:26), which employs the words “and you shall eat” twice. He explains rather cryptically that the first use refers to the fabled “Feast of the Leviathan” which according to him the Jewish people have already eaten in the guise of Shabbat and Festival meals, while welcoming guests and partaking in other meals associated with the performance of a mitzvah. To him, the double phrase suggests that in messianic times, the Jews will again be rewarded with the feast of the Leviathan as they have already eaten it! Where others saw visions, analogies and similes, the Berditchever saw only reality.

The “Other” Good Eye

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s teachings reflect the idea that every human being has two eyes. First there is “the good eye.” And then there is “the other good eye” (reminiscent of the magician at the children’s party who asked a volunteer for his right hand. When the child proffered his left one, the magician quickly said, “No, your other right hand”). Concededly, it was the “other” eye, but Rabbi Levi Yitzchak – ever true to the teachings of the Maggid and the Baal Shem Tov – emphasized repeatedly that even in that state of “other,” good could be found.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s starting point was his ability to see life through “the good eye,” a default position if you will. If he saw a Jew wearing tefillin while ignominiously greasing the axles of his wagon, he would smile, look up to the heavens and proudly proclaim to G‑d the greatness of the Jewish people who even when engaged in mundane worldly pursuits such as greasing their axles, nevertheless called out to G‑d in prayer. Similarly, stories of the Berditchever find him wandering through the market place on the eve of Passover readily finding contraband but unable to find a Jew in possession of chametz (leavened products), allowing him again to extol the virtues of the Jewish people who are fearless of the armed policemen in the market but who would never think of harboring chametz.

Even in that state of “other,” good could be foundBut it was with the “other good eye” that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s love for his fellow Jew, resourcefulness and originality shine. In a classic example, he explains the biblical requirement of taking up the four species (palm, willow, myrtle and citron) on the “first day” – although in actuality the holiday of Sukkot when the mitzvah is performed falls on the 15th of the month – as referring to the first day after Yom Kippur when teshuvah (repentance) is no longer sought from fear of penalty, given the gravity and solemnity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but rather:

. . .And after Yom Kippur, when engaged in the mitzvot of sukkah, lulav, the four species, and charity as if from the very hand of the benevolent G‑d – graciously and with love – to engage in the service of G‑d with joy and full-hearted happiness, then this type of teshuvah is considered “teshuvah prompted by love.”

He then cites the Talmudic maxim stated in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (himself no stranger to the vicissitudes of return and repentance) that one who comes to teshuvah from fear of retribution has his deliberate sins converted to inadvertent ones, while one who comes to teshuvah out of love, merits having his sins transformed into merits! He concludes the thought as follows:

. . . And the Holy One, blessed be He, in His infinite mercy and kindness, who desires the rectification of those who return before him with truth and love, who desires not the death of the sinner but rather the return from his sins, during this holiday [Sukkot] within which we come to seek refuge in the shade of the Almighty by virtue of the mitzvot and other good deeds borne of love for G‑d, may He be praised, enumerates then the transgressions in order to know how many mitzvot will arise from these transformed transgressions. Unlike the period preceding Sukkot where teshuvah is motivated by fear and thus the transgressions are not counted at all as they are [effectively nullified and] considered inadvertent transgressions; however by Sukkot which is motivated by the love of G‑d, then G‑d Himself counts and enumerates the transgressions so that they be transformed into merits and that they should then serve as worthy intercessors on behalf of Israel.

This lesson is immortalized in the famous story in which the Berditchever was walking on the street when he encountered a banker who had strayed far from the path of his ancestors. The Berditchever stopped and exclaimed, “I envy you—you possess such vast potential spiritual riches. When you come to teshuvah, the stains on your soul will become brilliant sources of light with which you will illuminate the world.” Indeed it was in the realm of the “other good eye” with its potential for untold spiritual wealth that the Berditchever truly found his voice.

“Berditchever Moments”

The holy Baal Shem Tov urged us to consider the teachings of the Torah not as “once upon a time” stories from days gone by, but rather to internalize its lessons and stories as part of a living continuum predating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

I can almost feel the Berditchever cupping his hand over my “other good eye,” my “good eye” welling up with tears…I’ve had several memorable “Berditchever moments” over the years. In 1976 I traveled to Israel for the first time. Upon arriving in Tel Aviv, I somehow ended up in a local hotel for a breakfast buffet. When the waiter brought the milk for my coffee, I accidentally spilled the milk into the coffee cup, causing it to rise over the rim of the cup. The waiter, a non-observant Israeli, began to berate my carelessness. “Mah, ata oseh kiddush?”—”What are you doing, making kiddush?” I recall thinking at that moment just how wonderful it was that even while berating me, his point of reference was kiddush!

Similarly, for the past several years I have had the pleasure of serving as rabbi in a small Orthodox synagogue in rural Connecticut founded over 100 years ago by Jewish farmers. Several of the remaining congregants still farm as did their parents and grandparents before them. Candidly, there was a point in my life when I would have been extremely put off by their coming to synagogue on Yom Kippur in overalls and soiled t-shirts. Yet, as these simple Jews file in to the synagogue on Kol Nidre eve, coming directly from the fields in their work clothes, I can almost feel the Berditchever cupping his hand over my “other good eye,” my “good eye” welling up with tears and allowing me to see nothing but the pure hearts of these simple Jews who lovingly tread in the footsteps of their ancestors before them.

So as we enter a new year and especially the 200th anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, let’s try to focus on seeing life through the “good eye.” And if for any reason we have difficulties accessing the “good eye,” well then, there is always the “other good eye” to fall back on.

Posted in memory of Yitzchak Eliezer b’r Shmuel Chaim Shalom whose Yahrzeit was on 27 Tishrei.

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