In Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle against Melancholy, Jewish author, philosopher, and humanist Elie Wiesel presents the stories of four Hasidic masters, framing their biographies in the context of his own life, with direct attention to their premonitions of the tragedy of the Holocaust. These four leaders—Rebbe Pinhas of Koretz, Rebbe Barukh of Medzebozh, the Holy Seer of Lublin, and Rebbe Naphtali of Ropshitz—are each charismatic and important figures in Eastern European Hasidism. Through careful study and consideration, Wiesel shows how each of these men were human, fallible, and susceptible to anger, melancholy, and despair.
Among Rebbe Pinhas’ numerous aphorisms, all reflecting common sense and wisdom, many relate to the pitfall of vanity. How to unmask it, how to fight it and vanquish it.
“If someone finds it necessary to honor me,” he said, “that means he is more humble than I. Which means he is better and saintlier than I. Which means that I should honor him. But then, why is he honoring me?”
His disciple, Reb Raphael of Barshad, said: “When I shall appear before the heavenly tribunal, its members will question me on my various sins, and I, naturally, shall do my best to invent all kinds of excuses. Why didn’t I study enough? I had neither the talent nor the time. Why didn’t I pray with greater concentration? I was too busy making a living. And fasting, did I do some fasting? No, no, I was too weak. What about charity? No, no, I was too poor. But then they will ask me: ‘If this is how it was—if you didn’t study and didn’t pray, if you lacked both compassion and charity, if you were too busy with yourself, how did it come about that you exuded such vanity?’ And to this I shall have no answer, no excuse.”
Rebbe Pinhas said: “Every sin is linked to a reason, good or bad—with the sole exception of vanity, which needs no reason to grow and grow. One can easily lie in rags on the ground and be hungry, empty of virtues and empty of knowledge, and still think endlessly: I am great, I am learned, I am just.”
He also said: “Everything I know I learned before, sitting in the last row, out of sight. Now I am here, occupying a place of honor, and I don’t understand . . .”
Of course, all Masters were aware of the spiritual threat inherent in their position. One cannot claim to possess powers without falling into the trap of believing that one deserves them. From the Maggid on, most Hasidic leaders stressed the absolute and constant need to fight pride and complacency. Except that he, Rebbe Pinhas, refused even to be tempted.
What, then, attracted him to Hasidism? Only the Besht and his friendship? No. He stayed attached to the movement some thirty years after the death of its Founder. His motives were not only of a personal nature; they were linked to the conditions inside the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.
Hasidism was then the most revolutionary movement in Judaism. It excited the young, stimulated the dreamers, the poor, the desperate, the defeated. The most excellent came to join; this can be seen by the quality of the Besht’s early companions. They were all great scholars of renown. They, too, had felt that Hasidism was accomplishing something vital and necessary for Jewish continuity: it was offering hope to the hopeless and a sense of belonging to those who needed it. The uprooted, isolated, impoverished, and uneducated villagers who, due to conditions not of their making, lived on the edge of history, and even outside its boundaries, suddenly felt linked to the people and the destiny of Israel. The force of the movement lay not in ideology but in life: the Besht literally changed the climate and the quality of Jewish life in hundreds and hundreds of towns and villages; his victories meant survival for their dispersed communities.
For those were cruel times for Eastern European Jewry. While Washington and his generals fought for American independence and the French revolutionaries proclaimed the reign of reason and liberty, Jews in Russia and Poland were alone and miserable. Polish Jews were still accused—regularly—of ritual murder. A Polish author wrote: “Just as freedom cannot be conceived without the right to protest, Jewish matzoth for Passover cannot be made without Christian blood . . .”
In Britain, Parliament rejected proposals granting civil rights to Jews . . . In Rome, Pope Pius VI condemned seven thousand Jews, of his own city, to public disgrace . . . In Russia, Jews were persecuted and massacred . . . Voltaire and Rousseau, Kant and Goethe, Mozart and Goya, Danton and Robespierre—all were contemporaries of the Besht and the Maggid of Mezeritch and Rebbe Pinhas of Koretz, and it was as though they had nothing in common. Jewish history was removed from history. Jews were still relegated to subhuman status, not only by Christian fanatics but by enlightened secularists as well.
Thus the Jews had good reason to doubt society’s wisdom and justice. They had good reason to doubt the absolute power of rationalism. So they turned inward and became mystical. They turned to the Rebbe, for only he knew how to comfort them, how to impart to them a sense of sacredness. Suddenly, and for the first time in centuries, they realized that they were not useless creatures. Every one of their gestures, every one of their prayers, no matter how awkward, counted and made a difference. The shepherd who played his recorder on Yom Kippur performed an action that had its reverberations in the highest spheres. The beggar’s blessing compelled God to offer His own.
God is everywhere, said the Besht. In pain too? Yes, in pain too—especially in pain. God is, and that means that He dwells in every human being. In the unlearned too? Yes, in the unlearned too. In the sinner too. In the humble, in the humble most of all, He can be found. And He can be perceived by everyone. Sitting on His throne, said Rebbe Pinhas, He can be approached both through the tears of the penitent and the fervor of the worshiper. God is, God is one; and that means He is the same to people who tum to Him in different ways.
This offer of consolation was, at the same time, an appeal for unity. Within the Hasidic framework, Jews were told that they could fulfill themselves—as Jews—in more ways than one: the learned through their learning, the poor through their piety. God is not indifferent and man is not His enemy—this was the substance of the Hasidic message. It was a message against despair, against resignation; it sensitized the individual Jew to his own problems and made him aware of his ability to solve them. It taught him that hope must be derived from his own history, and joy from within his own condition.