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Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

(1787 - 1859)

Reb Mendel was a new type of chasid. If the Baal Shem Tov embodied chesed (kindness), Reb Mendel represented din (justice). While the Baal Shem sought to reach all the people, Reb Mendel knew that what he sought could only be attained by the elite. The Baal Shem lifted the people up, Reb Mendel rebuked them for their inadequacies and always demanded more.

Reb Mendel attracted a young, brilliant, aspiring youth. He demanded withering self-analysis and disdained mitzvos performed with a whiff of self-interest. He recognized the centrality of the ego, but refused to accept it. He demanded uncompromising truth without self-interest. He cried out, “Give me ten chasidim who will follow me to the desert, eat manna and forsake the decadent world.”

Reb Leibel Eger was entranced by Kotzk, to the despair of his father, Rabbi Shlomo. Upon returning home his father asked what he had learned in Kotzk. Reb Leibel replied: I learned three things, that a man is a man and an angel is an angel; that if a man wants it enough he can be higher than an angel; and that G-d created the Beginning (Bereishis), just the Beginning, thereafter man must create his world.

Reb Mendel and Reb Mordechai Yosef of Ishbitz had been close friends and disciples of Reb Simcha Bunem of Pshischa. After Reb Bunem’s passing Reb Mendel became Rebbe. However, because of Reb Mendel’s extreme aloofness the two friends were traveling on a collision course. Finally, on the Simchas Torah of 1840 there was an irrevocable split between the two and Reb Mordechai Yosef left with his chassidim to form a new chassidus.

The paradox of Reb Mendel was his awareness of man’s weakness but his non-acquiescence. He once said that if one tried to break the yetzer (evil impulse) he would end up with two yetzers thus conceding the impossibility of overcoming it. Yet, he refused to compromise his aspiration for ultimate truth and pure action.

One of Reb Mendel’s chasidim, Reb Shemaya, lay on his deathbed and was asked by a fellow Kotzker whether the yetzer still bothered him at that moment. “Of course, he replied,” don’t you see him standing at the foot of my bed whispering into my ear, ‘Reb Shemaya say Shma Yisrael in a loud voice and draw out the echad’”. Reb Shemaya continued, “I recognize the thief — he is trying to seduce me to say Shma Yisrael in order that you will say that Reb Shemaya left this world in pure state.

Reb Mendel’s path did not attract a large following. It demanded from human beings the unattainable. Yet, his search and his critique have become part of the spiritual treasurehouse of Klal Yisrael.

Sources: Orthodox Union