Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, called by the Hasidim the “Berditchever” or the “Berditchever Rov” (he was one of the few Hasidic masters to serve as a town rabbi), is one of the most lovable figures among the Hasidic masters. He has become part of the folklore of the Jewish people, not only among the Hasidim, for his mighty pleading with Cod in behalf of his people. Levi Yitzhak became a disciple of the Maggid of Meseritch in 7766 and remained one of the foremost exponents of the Hasidic way in his writings and by his life. A distinguished talmudic scholar, Levi Yitzhak was appointed Rabbi of Zelechov, where he met with strong opposition on the part of the Mitnaggedim for his Hasidic views. Eventually he had to leave his post, and the story was repeated during his rabbinate in Pinsk. He finally settled in Berditchev in 1785. There are Hasidic tales, which seem to have a basis in fact, which tell of Levi Yitzhak, suffering for a period, as a result of his bitter experiences and the strains he had to live under, from “smallness of soul,” i.e., he had a nervous breakdown, but he recovered and continued to teach and to pray with the burning hitlahavut, as this is called by the Hasidim, from lahav, “a flame”) that was typical of him. Levi Yitzhak’s special company of followers who traveled around with him from town to town in order to win souls for God is also celebrated in Hasidic tales and seems, too, to have basis in fact.
Levi Yitzhak’s book of Hasidic doctrine on the sidrot of the week, the festivals, and the talmudic Aggadah is entitled Kedushat Levi (The Holiness of Levi). The first part of the book was published in Slavita in 1798 and the second part in Berditchev in 1816. Later editions contain both parts plus later additions in a single volume. (The edition used here is that of Jerusalem, 1964.)
I HOW TO SERVE GOD WITHOUT THOUGHT OF SELF
Kedushat Levi, Va-yishlah, p. 60
“I have seen God face to face, and I am spared” (Genesis 32:31). A man can serve God, blessed be He, in order to receive all good things from Him as a reward for his worshipping Him. But there is a higher category than this, when a man serves the Creator, blessed be He, because He is the mighty Ruler, and such a man has no thought of serving God for the good he will receive from Him. The second category is called “face to face.” When man serves the Creator, blessed be He, because He is the mighty Ruler, then the Creator, blessed be He, turns toward him, as it were, face to face. But the other category is called “face to back.” The Creator, blessed be He, turns to face him, as it were, but man serves only for the sake of the good he receives from God. Hence our verse states: “I have seen God face to face,” referring to the second category of worship. This is hinted at in the words “and I am spared.” “Spared” here means “separation.” The meaning is that it never entered his head to serve God for the sake of anything that concerned himself, namely, in order to receive good from God, blessed be He. Hence it says: “and I am spared,” that is to say, he was spared from having his thoughts on his “I.” This category is that of lishmah (“for its own sake”) while the other category is she-lo lishmah (“not for its own sake”).
When two people are in accord they can be said to face one another. But if a man is friendly with another only because of what he can get out of him, he does not really face his friend but, figuratively speaking, turns his back on him. His motive is what is behind the friendly activity, namely, how it will benefit him. So is it, says Levi Yitzhak, in connection with man’s relationship to Cod. The worshipper who believes that God will reward him and worships solely for this reason is not really a worshipper at all. Rather, he is a self-worshipper. God turns His face toward him while he turns his back on God. The true worshipper is in awe of his Creator and forgets himself entirely. The “I” of such a man is “spared,” it has been allowed to escape; his thoughts being only on Cod. Again we have here the particular Hasidic emphasis on lishmah, worshipping God with no ulterior motive whatsoever, not even that of winning Cod’s blessings.
II WHAT IS TRUE HUMILITY?
Kedushat Levi, Shir ha-shirim, p. 191
“I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, As the tents of Kedar . . .” (Song of Songs 1:5). It is well known that the main spiritual stage man has to reach is to be aware of his lowliness. When he stands in the presence of the high and exalted King, seeing His greatness and exaltedness, and how all the seraphim on high stand in dread and fear, trembling and terror seizing hold of them, his own unworthiness becomes immediately apparent. It is written: “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). This hints at the category we have just mentioned. Moses was the meekest of men, and the verse tells us how he reached a stage of humility that was greater than all men. It was because they were “men that were on the face of the earth,” while Moses’ holy and pure intellect soared in the upper worlds, seeing how all the seraphim on high stand in awe and dread, and it was as a result of this that he reached the degree of humility we have mentioned.
This stage is that of the true zaddik, the holy man who has reached the stage of humility as a result of his contemplation of the great majesty of the Creator, blessed be He. As the Rabbis (Pesahim 8a) say: “To what are the zaddikim like in the presence of the Shekhinahl To a lamp in front of a burning fire.” For a man may be humble as a result of his reflection on his own unworthiness. But with regard to the true zaddik it is because of his profound contemplation of the great majesty of the Creator, as we have said. It is because of this that there resides in him the quality of humility when he sees how bright is the greatness of the One above. That is why the Rabbis speak of a lamp in front of a burning fire. As Rashi explains it, the brightness of the burning fire is so great that there seems to be no brightness at all in the lamp. The scientists illustrate it in this way. When a man stands in front of the sun his face becomes dark and sunburned. Now the sun is, in reality, light, and yet it makes others dark. But the reason is that when any brightness is confronted by the sun, the source of all light, that brightness returns to its source in the sun so that the light is not discernable at all. So it is when a man gazes at the brightness of the Creator, blessed be He. Everything reverts to its Source and man forgets his ego and is no longer aware of his selfhood at all.
Levi Yitzhak’s illustration from the sun is a little curious. He says that the fierce brightness of the sun darkens the skin of any person exposed to it. So, too, any true zaddik is exposed to the fierce brightness of Cod’s spirit and realizes that though he had been proud of the brightness of his own soul, that it really is dark before God’s brightness. In the same way the true zaddik, when he contemplates the realization that Cod is all, transcends his ego and sees only God. This is the Hasidic doctrine of self-annihilation, bittul ha-yesh. Note the difference between the ideal of humility as taught by Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl (Chapter 11), and that of Levi Yitzhak. For Levi Yitzhak true humility does not mean that a man thinks little of himself, but that he does not think of himself at all. For Levi Yitzhak humility is, in fact, not so much an ethical ideal as a religious virtue. It involves the complete forgetfulness of self when confronted by the majesty of the Creator.
This is the quality of humility that is praiseworthy and beautiful. Happy the man who attains it. This is the meaning of our verse. “1 am black,” that is to say, my blackness is the result of my humility. But do not say that my blackness is due to the fact that I really am an inferior type of person so that, knowing my unworthiness, 1 am humble. It is not so, since 1 am ”comely” in good deeds. If then, you ask, whence comes my humility? The answer is: “as the tents of Kedar.” This means that just as the tents of Kedar are blackened through being in the sun, because they face the source of brightness, my blackness, too, is the result of my contemplation of the tremendous brightness and greatness of the Creator, blessed be He, so 1 automatically forget my self. This is the degree of my humility. This is also the meaning of the following verse: “Look not upon me, that 1 am swarthy, because the sun has tanned me” (Song of Songs 1:6). The meaning is: When you see that I am swarthy, do not see it as meaning that I am really swarthy in my disregard of the mitzvot. It is rather that the swarthiness you see is because the sun has tanned me, as above, that is to say, because I have contemplated for so long on the greatness of the Creator, blessed be He, and His brightness that my self has automatically been transcended.
It might seem odd for someone to praise himself and yet claim to be humble, but, as he has said, Levi Yitzhak does not think of humility as mere lack of pride but rather as forgetfulness of self in the presence of God so that it is possible at other times for a man to be aware that he had achieved this state.
Of course, the “tents of Kedar” are not black because they are in the sun. They are made of black sheep’s wool. But Levi Yitzhak allows himself a poetic liberty.
III CAN MAN HAVE AN INFLUENCE ON THE DIVINE?
Kedushat Levi, Naso, pp. 206-7
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and to his sons: Thus shall you bless the children of Israel. Say to them: . . .” (Numbers 6:22-23). This is the general principle. The Baal Shem Tov always used to rebuke people by quoting the verse, “The Lord is thy shadow” (Psalms 121:5). Just as a man’s shadow does whatever he does, so the Creator, blessed be He, does, as it were, whatever man does. Consequently, a man must perform good deeds, giving alms and showing compassion to the needy, so that the Creator, blessed be He, too, will bestow His goodness. This quality is called: “Thus.” For the meaning of the word Thus is “like this.” That is to say, just as a man does, so the Creator, blessed be He, does.
This is a typical Hasidic idea. The midrash to the verse in Psalms uses the illustration of the shadow, but the Baal Shem Tov interprets it in a more mystical way. God’s goodness to His creatures depends on the way they conduct themselves. All good deeds have a cosmic significance because God’s grace can only flow if man behaves graciously. Consequently, Cod Is like man’s shadow. When a man moves his hand his shadow’s hand moves too. When man is benevolent this brings about an increase, as it were, in the flow of divine grace. Levi Yitzhak says that this is the meaning of “Thus,” namely, as you do, so God does. He goes on to say that Cod needs, as it were, to benefit His creatures because it is the nature of the All-good to be good. But He cannot do this unless man first gives Him the power to do so by practicing benevolence. Hence man’s worship is an act of assisting Cod, as it were. The remark to follow about the cow and the calf is a rabbinic saying, applied to the teacher of the Torah, who wishes to teach more than the pupil wishes to learn from him (Pesahim 112a).
It is well known that the Creator, blessed be He, wants to bestow goodness upon His people Israel. For more than the calf desires to be fed the cow wishes to feed it. Whenever a man stands before the Creator, blessed be He, in prayer, reciting the eighteen benedictions or other supplications, his sole intention should be so that the Creator, blessed be He, will have delight. As the Mishnah (Avot 2:8) puts it: “If you have studied much Torah, do not ascribe any merit to yourself, because for this you were created.” The meaning is that the sole motive of man for doing good should be for the delight of the Creator.
The Mishnah really means that a man should not be proud of the good deeds he has done. He should not “ascribe any merit to himself.” But this phrase, literally translated, is: “keep not the goodness for yourself”—which Levi Yitzhak understands as meaning: “Do not think of your own goodness, but think only of the delight Cod has from your good deeds, not because He needs these good deeds, but because it enables Him to bestow His bounty on His creatures and this is His delight.”
Now, when a man prays for himself he is called a recipient. When a man wishes to receive something he holds out his hand with the palm upward and the back of the hand downward. But when a man prays only for the sake of the delight that the Creator, blessed be He, will have, that man is a giver—he gives to God, as it were. A giver holds his hand with the palm downward and the back of the hand upward. The priestly blessing has to be recited with the hands uplifted, that is to say, the priests hold the hands with the palm away from themselves, as does one who is a giver. This is the meaning of “Thus shall you bless the children of Israel.” It means, bless the children of Israel with the intention of giving delight to God and then you will be as givers to the Creator, blessed be He, as it were, and then the Creator, blessed be He, will bestow all His goodness and blessings upon Israel, as we have said. For this quality is called, “Thus.” Whatever Israel does, so,/as it were, God does and He bestows upon His people Israel goodness, blessings, life, and peace. Amen.
The priests when they recite this blessing (this is the priestly blessing) place their hands with the palms outward because their intention is to give to Cod. They are endowing Cod, as it were, with the capacity to be good to His creatures. In turn He will increase the flow of blessing. This is the Hasidic idea of man’s participation in Cod’s goodness.-