Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A penny for your thoughts (take 2)


I heard recently a story on the Living Torah (whoever has seen this Living Torah or knows this story can correct or supply the details in the comments).

When one of the Rebbeim was arrested (I think it was Tzemach Tzedek), a chossid of his came to Petersburg from Lubavitch (I clearly remember it was Lubavitch, which makes me think it was not Alter Rebbe who was arrested, but I may be wrong) to support the Rebbe, or carry out some mission, etc. He was met by another chossid, who was a permanent resident of the capital, and they were walking on Nevsky Prospect, one of the main streets of Petersburg.

The first chossid got dressed that morning the way he normally got dressed in Lubavitch, i.e., not paying too much attention to his looks, and as a result, he missed a button on his pants (19th century's equivalent of "his fly was partially unzipped"). The second chossid noticed that and pointed it out to the first chossid, saying: "We are on Nevsky Prospekt; it's not proper to be dressed this way."

The first chossid looked at him, astonished, and asked: "Is this what's on your mind?"

I think the point is not that the first chossid disagreed that chassidim need to be dressed in a presentable way, l'hatchillo. He was just surprised that the second chossid's state of mind permitted him to notice such a chitzoiniusdik thing.

(My initial interpretation of what the first chossid meant was that the second chossid should've been thinking about Chassidus, even while walking on Nevsky Prospekt — or, perhaps, especially when walking there. But now I am thinking he could have also meant to ask: "How can you think about this when the Rebbe is in jail?")

This story reminded me of a well known saying by Anton Chekhov: "A refined person is not someone who pretends not to notice ketchup spilled on white table cloth, but someone who does not notice it."

(The real word he used was "intelligent", with hard "g", i.e., a member of intelligentsia, which means in this context "a refined person", but not only in cultural way, but also in a personal way. In Yiddish, we would say, "a mentch" or "an eidel person". In British English, one could probably say: "a gentleman". But all these words' meanings are slightly different.)

I found it interesting that in the ideals of both cultures, Chassidus and Russian intelligentsia, despite the fact that in many aspects they would be antagonistic to each other, the emphasis nevertheless was on downplaying the physical. But not in a forced way, as a result of meditating at length on "how terrible the physical is". One simply becomes so focused on the spiritual that the importance of the physical fades away.

By "physical" I mean here "chitzoinius", not "parnosso" of either your family or a fellow Jew. Which brings me to another point. All of this is notwithstanding the fact that a Chossid cannot look like a shlepper when walking outside or spill ketchup on his hosts' Shabbos tablecloth. That is the flip-side of Chassidus Chabad — perhaps not completely grasped by some of Chabad's modern elements — that despite the fact that pnimiyus is the ikkar, chitzoinius cannot be ignored when our job is to influence it. To some degree, I suppose, that was the point of the second chossid in the above story.

So, the ultimate goal of a chossid is not to focus on the spiritual or the physical (although first is definitely better than the second), but on his job in this world: to unify the spiritual with the physical. We do not serve "gashmius" or "ruchnius". We serve G-d.


TheRealPianist said...

My Mother says that ketchup did not exist back then.

Chabad-Revisited said...

the story occurred with Reb Michoel der Alter (Biliner) who was a mashpia in Toimchei Temimim in Lubavitch, the Rebbe Rashab was not under arrest at the time he was in Peterburg for some other reason. The other Chossid was Reb Shmuel Michel Trainin, a philanthropist who lived in Peterburg and often represented the Rebbe Rashab in the halls of power.

Certified Ashkenazi said...

TRP: "ketchup" is American for "sauce" from the original. When Americans hear "sauce" they imagine something completely different from what Chekhov meant.

CR: thanks!