On The Way



The question was put to Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov:

"The Torah says the Lord hath filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom and understanding and knowledge and all learning. But how am I to approach my education?"


Rabbi Mendel replied, "Consider, too, this scripture: They go from strength to strength."


Then Rabbi Mendel told this story:


Following the Day of Atonement, Rabbi Yisrael Hopsztajn, the Maggid of Koznitz – named for our founder, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov – was climbing Barania Góra in the Silesian Beskids with his son Moshe of Koznitz. They were situated in the boulder field on the western slope of Barania, overlooking the fount of the Vistula River which meanders north through their Polish hometown of Opatów. While pausing for rest at one of several guiding cairns in the boulder field, Moshe of Koznitz remarked to his father the Maggid, "This cairn was difficult to see while we were climbing. We should build it up to help those who come after us. How big and how high should we make it, father?" Rabbi Yisrael replied, "In navigating this boulder field, we must keep in mind our objective: we struggle toward the keyhole through which we must pass in order to cross over the ridge and continue our climb around the backside of Barania Góra. If we stray from the keyhole, our way becomes extremely difficult; other routes to the summit entail dangers for which, on today's journey, we are unprepared. Unable yet to discern the keyhole, we depend on these trail markers set by those who have gone before. But the markers only guide our footsteps generally; they do not determine our every particular step."


While listening to his father the Maggid, Moshe started adding rocks to the top of the cairn. At one point as he kept building the cairn higher and higher, the top became unstable and several rocks cascaded to the bottom. His unsuccessful effort discouraged Moshe, and so his father began speaking once more: "In our struggles, and even in failure, we see that the top of the cairn can become its larger and sturdier foundation. We now have the ability to raise it higher, making it more visible for subsequent peregrinators traversing this boulder field. But lest we spend too much time in this singular spot, ever increasing one cairn's foundation by continually toppling its belfry, we should be attuned to our other, perhaps larger considerations in reaching the summit. Will we find the keyhole? How well might our path be marked on the backside of the mountain after we pass through the keyhole? These lovely, puffy white clouds dotting the sky this morning may gather together around the top of Barania Góra and become ominous this afternoon, forcing us to take shelter or even to retrace our steps today and begin again another day. And though no shame lies with beginning again, for we do not seek to conquer the mountain but only to marvel at its beauty, we should not tarry too long at any one point. Life may be a sojourn, but the pursuit of life's end is a continuous journey."


Moshe this time carefully balanced a shiny rock atop the cairn. It caught the light of the sun, reflecting and well illuminating this particular spot on this particular path for those seekers journeying from below. Then he recalled a scripture to his father: Meditating on Wisdom is understanding in its perfect form, and anyone keeping awake for her will soon be free from care. For she herself searches everywhere for those who are worthy of her, benevolently appearing to them on their ways, anticipating their every thought.


Rabbi Yisrael of Koznitz replied: "Yes, Wisdom does not look for you at stopping points. She meets you along your path, on your way, as you toil and strive."


At this, Rabbi Mendel asked his disciple, "Do you now consider how long to remain in one place? Will one two-hour seminar suffice? Or a semester's worth of seminars? Will one degree be sufficient? Is it even necessary? While pondering such immediate questions, be open to life's larger story. In the turning from one brief sojourn to the next, consider the whole of life, the whole of one's being, and balance the generals with the particulars. You can perhaps illuminate many possible ways while finding your own particular path. You can know God without knowing all that God knows. We should delight that Wisdom is acquainted with this knowledge."

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