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The Dark Passover

adapted by Doug Lipman

According to one story, Rabbi Israel of Rhizhin was the third-generation successor to the Baal Shem Tov (the fabled founder of the Hasidic movement) in a matter of great spiritual importance: the task of preserving the increased hopefulness in the world that the Baal Shem Tov had initiated.

Yet, over the three generations since the death of the Baal Shem Tov, the Adversary - the angel who had been chosen by G-d to create choices for humans - had succeeded in causing three of the four Great Holy Sparks discovered by the Baal Shem Tov to be lost to us. These four sparks had been used by the Baal Shem Tov to merit a divine decree that had created an upwelling of hope in our world - on the condition that it be renewed in each generation.

And the Adversary had caused Rabbi Israel of Rhizhin to believe that, while the rabbi had been confined, the word had spread everywhere of the location of the previously secret, fourth holy spark, the Gates of the Forest.

Please see below for additional comments on sources.

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On his deathbed, one story tells us, Rabbi Israel of Rhizhin sent everyone from him - except the man he had chosen to succeed him in preserving the one remaining Great Holy Spark, the last of the great mystical secrets uncovered by the Baal Shem Tov.

The man he chose was Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, known as the Kotsker Rebbe. Rabbi Menachem Mendel was a brilliant, forceful man. Yet he felt greatly honored to have been chosen for this task - in part because, deep inside him, there was a place where he doubted that he was worthy of being chosen.

Receiving the rebbe's last words was, indeed, a great honor. The final statement of a rebbe is thought to have mystical significance. The story of this rebbe's last words would be repeated for generations to come.

Too weak even to raise his head, Rabbi Israel of Rhizhin began to speak to the Kotsker Rebbe, who moved closer to hear. "You must do what I did, Menachem Mendel."

"Yes, holy rebbe?"

Rabbi Israel spoke slowly, with many interruptions as he tried to catch his breath. "After I die... you must go to... the Gates of the Forest.... And pray that... in your generation... as it was in mine... prayer in that holy place... will be enough.... to continue the decree... and preserve the hope."

"Where must I go, holy rebbe?"

With surprising force, Rabbi Israel said, "Go to the holy Gates of the Forest!"

Suddenly, a voice sounded in Rabbi Menachem Mendel's mind. Clearly, it was the scornful voice of some future Hasid describing the object of ridicule that the Kotsker rebbe would become. "HE'S the one," the voice was saying. "HE'S the one who made Rabbi Israel of Rhizhin repeat his final words three times - and so die with anger in his heart!"

Just as Rabbi Menachem Mendel felt himself being crushed under the weight of that imagined voice, another voice floated into his mind. It spoke calmly, "If he needs you to know something, he'll tell you!"

Rabbi Menachem Mendel grabbed onto this second voice like a drowning man grasping for a floating log. "If he needs me to know something, he'll tell me," he repeated to himself again and again.

So he waited for the clarification. He watched the great rebbe's breast rise and fall fitfully with his labored breaths. Then Rabbi Israel's chest was still.

With horror, Rabbi Menachem Mendel realized what had happened. Through his own inaction, he had allowed the loss of the last of the four Great Holy Sparks gathered in a lifetime by the Baal Shem Tov. The knowledge of the location of the Gates of the Forest had passed utterly from our world.

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The Kotsker rebbe withdrew into himself. He retreated to a room off the house of study of his Hasidim. He had a hole cut in the door so that he could hear them praying. And the only one he allowed to enter was his childhood friend, Tsvi Hirsh, who three times a day brought him food.

Now, the Adversary had succeeded. All four sparks were lost. But the Adversary was not taking any chances.

Tsvi Hirsh, the only person with access to the Kotsker Rebbe, had recently been married. The Adversary went to Tsvi Hirsh's new father-in-law - and did something he had not done in all these generations.

All this time, you see, the Adversary had worked only through natural means or through illusion. But now, for the first time, he used his supernatural powers to make a change in the world.

The Adversary went to the father of Tsvi Hirsh's bride, and changed one line in the man's forehead.

These are not the lines we can see in the mirror. They are the lines in our forehead, placed there before our birth, that control our fate - by determining how people react to us.

The single effect of the change in this man's forehead was that his own daughter began to look upon him with a new kind of openness. But this man was not pleased. His daughter's openness disturbed him. "You have changed," he said to her. "This marriage is a mistake! It must be annulled!"

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Naturally, Tsvi Hirsh went immediately to his childhood friend, the Kotsker rebbe. "I know that something terrible must have happened, Menachem Mendel, that you will not leave this room. But I beg you! If you were to go to my father-in-law and tell him that I am an upstanding man, he would believe you. Please! I am asking you to leave this room just once - to save my marriage!"

"Oh, Tsvi Hirsh! If you knew the depth of the harm that I have already done to the entire world, you would understand. I cannot leave this room, not even for you."

Tsvi Hirsh turned and left, vowing never to return.

The Kotsker rebbe had a second hole cut in the door, so that food could be passed in and out.

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Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk stayed in that room every day of the year - except for one day. On that day, just before Passover, the Torah commands every householder to inspect every room of the house, looking for crumbs of leavened food.

That one day of the year, the Kotsker rebbe would come out of that room and go through the entire house of study. Then he would sit at a large table, surrounded by his Hasidim. After sundown, they would conduct a Passover seder. And when it was done, they would sit in silence. When the candles at last burned out, they would sit in silence and in darkness.

On the twentieth such Passover seder, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk sat at the head of a table of his Hasidim, many of whom had never heard their rebbe speak a single word. As they sat in silence and darkness, there was a knock on the door. They did not answer.

But the door was flung open, and they saw against the moonlight the outline of a man. "It is me, my old friend. It is Tsvi Hirsh. May I come in?"

There was no word of answer. Yet Tsvi Hirsh entered, anyway.

He stood across the table from his childhood friend. "Menachem Mendel," he said, "after my marriage was annulled, in time I married again. We had children. In a few days, my oldest child is to be married. I went to him and asked, 'Whose blessing would you like me to obtain for your wedding?'

"Do you know what he said? He asked, 'Father, whose blessing would you like me to have?'" Now Tzvi Hirsh's voice broke. "Old friend, I knew it had to be you. I deserted you for twenty years! But will you forgive me enough to bless my son?"

Rabbi Menachem Mendel heard Tzvi Hirsh - the man he knew he had wronged - weep as he asked for his forgiveness. As he did, Rabbi Menachem Mendel felt the hardened sorrow in his chest melt and flow from his eyes as tears.

Then, as he wept, he told them all what had happened: how the Baal Shem Tov had gathered four Great Holy Sparks, how he had failed to cause the soul of the Mashiach to be born, how instead he had gotten the soul of the Mashiach to stand at the gates of the world. He told how that holy presence had created a great upwelling of hope in the world. Then he told how, in each generation since, another holy spark had passed from our world - until finally, due to his own inaction, the fourth and final holy spark had been lost.

Hearing his words, they wept. They wept.

But then, into the darkness, came a Bat Kol - literally, the "Daughter of a Voice." A Bat Kol is a universal voice that speaks everywhere, through everything. This Bat Kol resounded with the meaning: "It is enough!"

At that, they marveled. And they understood: just telling the story was enough.

Telling the story was enough to keep the soul of the Mashiach at the Gates of the World. It was enough to keep the Baal Shem Tov's hope alive in the world.

After that night, each one who was present in that room went out into the world. For the rest of their lives - wherever they could, whenever they could - they told the story.

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But what about us? We, too, have now heard the story. The story has not been lost to us. But will it still be told? Will the hope remain?

I do not know what YOUR story is, to tell into the darkness.

I do not know what YOUR story is, that has been alone in a room for twenty years.

But if you knew that it would keep a particular form of hope alive in the world, would you tell it?

If you knew that to tell it was enough, would you tell it?

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This is the final section of my two-act Jewish mystical epic, "The Soul of Hope." http://soulofhope.net

My source for the events of this story is a telling by Harold Rabinowitz, who heard it from an elderly Hasid in a Miami Beach barber shop in the late 1970's.

The relationship pictured here between Rabbi Israel of Rhizhin and Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk is historically unlikely. First, the Kotsker died less than twenty years after the Rhizhiner. Second, they lived in very distant parts of Europe. Other versions of this frame story (the story that starts with the Baal Shem Tov) mention different successions of rabbis.

Nonetheless, this version is aesthetically pleasing to me, since the Kotsker DID have a mysterious crisis followed by years of (at least relative) isolation. In that way, this version explains the mystery. Further, the vision of the dark, silent Passover seder is a compelling ending point for five generations of mystical loss, always ending in hope - the sort of hope for both individuals and communities that Passover, a feast of liberation, memory, thankfulness and renewal - engenders.



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This page was last updated on Thursday, July 24, 2003
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