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Rebbe and Chassid

David Cowles

Dec 26, 2023

“The Torah mandates just acts; the Prophets demand right intentions, but the Wisdom writers honor just acts performed by righteous people.”

When the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber, was a small boy, he played a game with his older brother, Reb Zalman Aaron. The game was “Rebbe and Chassid.” Reb Zalman Aaron, who was a year older, played the Rebbe, and Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber played the Chassid.

Reb Sholom Dov Ber asked the “Rebbe” for advice on how to correct a shortcoming. “This past Shabbat,” he confessed, “I cracked and ate nuts, but then I learned that it’s best not to eat nuts on Shabbat because the shells are muktzah (forbidden to touch).”

The “Rebbe” thought for a second and then gave advice. “You should look into the siddur (prayer book) when you pray. Do not pray by heart.”

Reb Sholom Dov Ber responded, “You’re not a real Rebbe, and your advice won’t help!”

“Why not?” asked Reb Zalman Aaron, puzzled. “I gave you good advice, didn’t I?”

“When a Rebbe gives an answer, he lets out a sigh first. You didn’t sigh first, so you’re not a real Rebbe!”

To Reb Zalman Aaron, a Rebbe is a wise man who gives advice. If his advice is correct, his job is done.

But Reb Sholom Dov Ber, the future Rebbe, saw it differently. A Rebbe doesn’t just give advice. He bonds with the other person and deeply feels his plight. Whatever pains the other pains him too. Therefore, before giving advice, he sighs. (Like Bill Clinton, he feels your pain.)

Not every reader of TWS comes out of the Hassidic tradition, but we can all learn from this story. Who am I? Am I what I do? Or am I what I am? Most people, myself especially, build a firewall between these two versions of the self; we exploit the protection that the firewall confers to maintain a bloated assessment of our own virtue.

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One day: “I know I’ve done some bad things (objective), but I am fundamentally a good person (subjective).” As my grandmother’s teacher said to her one day, “Marguerite, I know you mean well; you just don’t do well!” Or my middle school football coach, “No offense, Sonny (subjective), but you stink (objective).”

Next day: “I regret that I am not a better person…but I’ve tried to ensure that my subjective deficits don’t corrupt my objective behavior.” AA has a slogan that applies here: “Fake it ‘til you make it.” A similar message comes from psychologist Wilhelm Reich: the best way to cure sexual inhibition/dysfunction (subjective) is to engage in as much sexual activity (with or without a partner) as possible (objective).

The Old Testament distinguishes two related but distinct concepts: Justice (what is done: objective) and Righteousness (who does it: subjective). To greatly oversimplify, the Torah mandates just acts, the Prophets demand right intentions, while the Wisdom writers honor just acts performed by righteous people. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

The goal of all religious practice is the same: to promote both justice and righteousness, and to make them coincident: Just acts performed by right actors. In the end, justice and righteousness are not substantially different; they are one substance pointed in opposite directions. Justice points away from the person toward the world; righteousness points away from the world toward the person.

When a righteous actor performs a just act, the universe grows one step closer to God, in whom just action and righteous being are one. 

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