Love of G-d and Love of Israel

Nov 26, 2014

Love of G-d and Love of Israel — the last of three articles learning about chesed from the life of Rav Moshe Leib of Sassov zt”l.

When there is talk of bettering the Jewish people these days, two issues seem to always come up — Jewish unity and Jewish spirituality. These translate (roughly) into love of Israel and love of G-d. Perhaps the following observations about the life of Rav Moshe Leib can make a helpful contribution to the discussion.

In Rav Moshe Leib’s life, the three loves the Baal Shem Tov spoke of – G-d, Israel, and Torah – were intertwined. His approach was a holistic one; he excelled in all three not as separate compartments of his life, but because they worked together. Torah and Israel: When the elders of Brod were amazed by his extraordinary abilities as a Torah scholar, he passed on the teaching of the Maggid of Mezeritch – Torah scholarship is a connection with the Divine, and that is made possible by a powerful love of Israel. His life and teachings show us that the other two loves – G-d and Israel – are also interconnected. It might be summed up by the following two principles:

  1. True love of Israel goes beyond ethnicity and brotherhood; it is rooted in the belief that the souls of Israel are a spiritual unity.
  2. True love of G-d goes along with an intense love of G-d’s creatures; the path to love of G-d is love of Israel.

In Rav Moshe Leib’s own words (his instructions and advice for spiritual and moral life are printed in Hanhagot Hatzaddikim) from “An Introduction to Good Middot and How to Acquire Them:”

1. “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ This is a great principle of the Torah.”

2. If you are not a trustworthy lover of Israel (“oheiv neeman l’Yisrael”) you have not tasted Fear of G-d (“yirat Hashem”).

3. If you believe that your soul is a Divine portion from above, then all of Israel is one. The opposite [belief], G-d forbid, is heresy.

4. Surely see fit to arouse Divine mercy for Israel at all times and at every moment.

It is not surprising that many of the anecdotes about Rav Moshe Leib (who became a Chassidic folk hero) bring out the spiritual element of his acts of kindness, uniting love of man with love of G-d, “bein adam lachaveiro” with “bein adam laMakom.” Here are a few:

  1. When it came to dancing at weddings, he had no airs about him, no sense of self-importance. Like King David wildly dancing in front of the aron (see Shmuel II 6:14-22), Rav Moshe Leib would joyously lead the dancing, sometimes even donning a bear suit (!) to bring joy to the chasan and kalla. Chassidic leaders comment that his dancing was also guided by mystical intentions.
  2. Helping people get closer to the Almighty was part of his love of Israel and love of G-d. This kind of chesed helps people in the deepest way and increases the Divine presence in this world – it is an expression of both love of G-d and love of Israel. When he was young, he had a unique way of helping out the assimilated Jewish youth of his community. He would learn until late at night, then change into modern clothes, go down to the pub, and hang out with them. Naturally gifted with charisma, quick wit and a nice voice, he would entertain the group until the wee hours of the night with songs and stories. The captive audience would avoid the morally problematic conduct that a wild group of youth might drift into during those hours. A couple of years later Rav Moshe Leib was teaching at his own yeshiva. One of those wild youths returned to town and saw Rav Moshe Leib teaching gemara, dressed in the clothes of a Chassidish talmid chakham. He was astounded to hear the familiar voice and see the familiar face and said to himself, “Wow, amazing how he manages to fool all those naive, Chassidic kids.” Then he thought a second and realized how Rav Moshe Leib had led them on during those all night sessions in the pubs. He realized how time after time “the Rebbe of the pub” had thrown in a word here and a word there, protecting them from getting into trouble, leaving a positive influence on them. He went up to Rav Moshe Leib, and said, “Thank you, Rebbe.” Subsequent rebbes caution that, of course, these kinds of educational techniques are only legitimate for the highest level tzaddikim, on the level of Rav Moshe Leib of Sassov.
  3. Rav Moshe Leib’s disciple, the Ziditchover Rebbe, heard that Rav Moshe Leib had a unique way of saying the Tikun Chatzot, the pre-morning prayers mourning the destruction of the Temple. One winter morning he secretly followed the rebbe, who had put on a heavy coat, grabbed an ax, and walked through the snow until the edge of town. He went to the forest, chopped some wood, and went to the home of a poor widow and, in Russian, called inside, “Do you need some wood?” The woman answered, “I have no money to pay for it.” “Don’t worry,” answered Rav Moshe Leib, “You can pay later.” “But I cannot chop up the wood for the fireplace.” “Don’t worry. I’ll chop it for you.” “But I cannot light the fire.” “Don’t worry. I’ll light it for you.” And Rav Moshe Leib brought in the wood, proceeded to chop it up and light the fire. As he chopped the wood tears flowed from his eyes as he said the Tikun Rachel, and as he lit the fire tears flowed from his eyes as he said the Tikkun Leah.
  4. [This story became the model for the Yiddish Haskala writer Yehuda Leib Peretz’s “Even Higher.” In Peretz’s short story it is the Rebbe of Nemirov instead of Rav Moshe Leib, Slichot instead of Tikkun Chatzot, and a skeptic Litvak tailing Rav Moshe Leib instead of a devoted talmid. (You can hear the story read aloud on Program 10 of the Jewish Short Stories site at The story opens with the chassidim sitting around discussing the Rebbe’s mysteriously disappearance every year during Slichot. They all say that he rises to the heavens to intercede on behalf of the community and the people of Israel. The Litvak counters that the gemara says that no human ever went up to heaven, so how could the rebbe? Though skeptical, he is terribly curious and follows the rebbe. The body of the story follows the Litvak through the night. The story’s closing: The Litvak became a disciple of the rebbe and whenever one of the chassidim speaks about how their rebbe ascends to Heaven during Slichot the Litvak quietly adds, “If not higher.”]

The interconnectedness of the three loves – that of G-d, Torah, and Israel – might be related to the Zohar’s statement (Part 3 p. 73a), “These three are tied together, the Holy One, Blessed be He, the Torah, and Israel.”

Source – Draws from Rav Yisrael Tabak’s article on Rav Moshe Leib of Sassov in Hadarom

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