Kotsker Rebbe Dvar Torah

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
Hillulah Day: Shevat-22

Born: Goray, near Lublin, Poland, 1787 Died: Kotzk, Poland, 1859

Menachem Mendel received a thorough Torah education from his father, Leibush Morgenstern, a zealous opponent of Chasidism. When he was 13 years old he had mastered the entire Talmud. After his marriage at 14, his father introduced him to the world of Chasidut, and before long he became an ardent follower of the Chozeh (Seer) of Lublin and Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pshis'cha, whom he eventually succeeded.

When he became the Rebbe of Kotzk, thousands of chasidim flocked to that city and a great number of outstanding young Torah scholars were attracted by his saintly personality and wide range knowledge. Most prominent among his students were the Chidushei Harym of Ger (who later became his brother-in-law) and Rabbi Chanoch of Alexander.

R' Menachem Mendel was a new type of chassid. If the Baal Shem Tov embodied chesed (kindness), Reb Mendel represented din (justice). While the Baal Shem sought to reach all the people, Reb Mendel knew that what he sought could only be attained by the elite. The Baal Shem lifted the people up, Reb Mendel rebuked them for their inadequacies and always demanded more.

Reb Mendel attracted a young, brilliant, aspiring youth. He demanded withering self-analysis and disdained mitzvot performed with a whiff of self-interest. He recognized the centrality of the ego, but refused to accept it. An uncompromising champion of the truth, he denounced falsehood and hypocrisy. With piercing aphorisms that have became classics he forces the Jew to face the truth, strip himself of all pretense and self-deception, and thus come closer to God. He cried out, "Give me ten chasidim who will follow me to the desert, eat manna and forsake the decadent world."

Continuing on the path of Rabbi Simcha Bunam he sought to infuse the movement with renewed spiritual vigor, making Kotzk a stronghold of Chassidut whose influence is felt to this day. A man of deep mystery, the Kotzker Rebbe secluded himself for 20 years, limiting his contact with the outside world. He was an awe-inspiring figure who left an indelible mark on chassidic thought.

May the merit of the tzaddik Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk protect us all, Amen.

Why did Hashem wait three months before giving the Bnei Yisroel the Torah, when the very purpose of Yitzias Mitzrayim was Matan Torah? Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the Holy Kotzker explains: When Bnei Yisrael came out of Egypt, their sickness was such that they did not understand how much harm their slavery had caused. Hashem waited for three months to give them the Torah so that they could realize their own disabilities. Realization of one's weaknesses is the first step towards rehabilitation.

Moshe Rabbeinu A"H, established an elaborate network of judges to assist in tending to the legal needs of Benei Yisrael. The system consisted of a judicial hierarchy, with lower-level judges responsible for as few as ten people each and, at the highest level, a thousand people. In today's society, this heirachial system would likely trigger resentment. Moshe himself hand-picked these judges and decided who will assume which position. In such situations, the lower-level judges would naturally feel slighted and harbor feelings of jealousy towards the higher-ranking officials and towards Moshe Rabbeinu. Did Moshe have no other, "fairer" method of selecting and appointing the nation's judicial leaders, so as to avoid resentment?

The Kotzker Rebbe answers that the Torah itself lists the various qualifications Moshe required when selecting the judiciary. One quality he looked for was "anshei emet" - "people of truth" (18:21). Such "people of truth" will not harbor feelings of jealousy towards others as they are interested foremost in "truth" rather than in personal prestige. Honor and prestige is not "true" but exists only subjectively, in others' perceptions. The gratification rooted in the esteem bestowed upon us by others is an artificial and fleeting sense of satisfaction. In essence, honor is the means by which one feels good about himself when he does not necessarily deserve to; people seek honor as a substitute for self-worth. Moshe established a judicial hierarchy by selecting indiviuals that he knew to be "people of truth," people who were committed to doing the right thing in the eyes of Hashem, and not to doing that which would make other people think highly of them.

Moshe Rabbeinu tells the nation, "Take heed for yourselves that you do not go up the mountain, nor touch the border of it." (Shemos 19:12)
This warning was necessary because Hashem's presence was to descend upon Har Sinai and K'lal Yisroel, in their zeal, might have proceeded too far. The Kotzker saw a very nuanced lesson in Moshe's warning. One should never be satisfied with merely "touching the border" of the mountain or with personal mediocrity. An individual should always strive to reach the top of the mountain, to achieve - as K'lal Yisroel sought to do - as close a connection as possible with Hashem. However, just as Moshe cautioned the Jews against reaching too high all at once, so too should an individual understand that lasting improvement often comes gradually, in degrees. If one reaches too high too quickly, even merely reaching for the border of the mountain, then one may ultimately fail to reach heights that can be achieved with steady, consistent effort.

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