Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Not reinventing the wheel

Rabbi Aryeh Leib HaKohen Heller (author of the Ketzos HaChoshen, one of the most important commentaries on the Choshen Mishpat section of the  Shulchan Aruch) was not a chasid. While he may not have been considered a vehement opponent like many of the mitnagdim, he saw no merit in the path of the Ba'al Shem Tov.

Once, he met Reb Tzvi Hersh of Zidichov. Although at that point Reb Tzvi Hersh was still a young man, his reputation as a true genius had already begun to become widespread. The Ketzos (as Reb Aryeh Leib was referred to) decided that who would be a more suitable person to ask about the merits of chassidus than Reb Tzvi Hersh? And so, he posed the following questions to Reb Tzvi Hersh:

"What exactly was the contribution of the Ba'al Shem Tov? After all, there hardly seemed to be any major innovation when viewed in the context of what Rabban Shimon Bar Yochai introduced with the Zohar, and the later additions of the ARI haKadosh. How did the Ba'al Shem Tov - and by extention, chassidus - distinguish itself?"

Reb Tzvi Hersh answered with a parable:

There was a small village where no one ever ventured out into the world beyond the village limits. Once, a villager decided to explore and he left to travel the world. At one point, he found himself in an exotic locale, where he encountered a strange, bird-like creature. This creature bore an uncanny resemblance to humans in many ways! When this fellow returned to his little provincial village, and tried to describe this amazing animal, the townsfolk just looked at him quizzically, uncomprehending.

A short while after, a second villager set off to travel the world beyond, inspired by his predecessor. He too encountered this strange animal in his exploration, and took many notes about the animal's physiology, characteristics, and other important details. When he tried to show these notes to his neighbors back home, they were now able to grasp a little bit of what the first fellow had been describing, but the mysterious creature still remained beyond their ability to fathom it.

A third fellow set off, years later.

This time, he brought the bird creature home to his village.

Reb Tzvi Hersh turned to the Ketzos and explained: Reb Shimon Bar Yochai went up to the farthest reaches of heavens and tried to explain what he saw. That is the Zohar, and it is extremely difficult for finite beings to understand without a frame of reference. The ARI came along, and brought us more detailed descriptions of what went on in the spiritual realm, making it a little more relatable for us.

But the Ba'al Shem Tov went up to the heavens, and "brought God" down to us, so that we can understand what we are seeing.

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