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 cairns marking the boulder field trail, 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 was 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:


'Our struggles, even in failure, offer us opportunities for growth and knowledge. We see that the top of the cairn, even when it falls, can become its new larger, sturdier foundation. We now have the ability to raise it higher, making it more visible for subsequent peregrinators traversing this boulder field. But if we spend too much time on smaller struggles, like spending too much time in this singular spot while ever increasing one particular cairn's foundation by continually toppling its belfry, we may fail at other, perhaps larger struggles, like reaching the summit. Consider, will we find the critical keyhole to the mountain's back route? How well might that route be marked? 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, only to 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, yet limited, 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 us at stopping points. She meets us along our path, on our way, as we 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 education degree or one training certificate be sufficient? Is it even necessary? While pondering such singular, immediate questions, be open to the larger quandary. In the turning from one brief sojourn to the next, consider the whole of life, the whole of one's being. Balance the particulars with the general. You can illuminate many possible ways while treading your particular path. You can know God without knowing all that God knows. We should delight that this knowledge is contained within all-encompassing Wisdom."