Monday, March 31, 2008

What's the Take-Away Point of This Story? - Chernobyler Ma'aseh

My friend Rabbi Reuven Boshnack shared with me the following story told over to him by the Rav of his Shul, Rav Mordechai Twersky. We were discussing the story and we were trying to put our finger on exactly what the take-away point of the story is. Any thoughts would be appreciated. The story goes like this:

Rav Mordechai Twersky heard this story from his father, who heard it from his father, going back to the courtyard of Rav Mordechai of Chernobyl, the Chernobyler Magid, the son of Reb Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, the Meor Einayim.

There was a blind man who was always seen standing beside the Chernobyler Magid during Havdalah. People thought this was a strange sight so someone asked the man what his story was.

He told over that when he was younger, he was a Chossid of the Chozeh of Lublin. Every Shabbos the Chozeh went into his room for a period of time after Shabbos mincha, but before going down to join the rest of the Chassidim for Shalosh Sheudos. This man was very curious to know what the Chozeh was doing during this time. So one Shabbos, he hid in the closet in the Chozeh's room before mincha was over to see what the Chozeh was doing.

When the Chozeh entered the room, it was completely dark already and the man couldn't see anything. So he left the closet and walked up to where the Chozeh was sitting. The Chozeh had a sefer open and seemed to be learning it, although there was virtually no light in the room. The man approached closer and looked at the open sefer that the Chozeh was holding. He saw that there was light coming out of the sefer.

In disbelief, he ran out of the room, but it was still dark outside the room also. He felt his way down to Shalosh Sheudos, but there was no light there either. Even after Shabbos, no one seemed to have any candles lit. He eventually realized that he couldn't see any light because he was blind! The next morning, he went to the Chozeh to ask him for help. He explained what he had done and asked the Rebbe to forgive him. But the Rebbe told him that if someone looks at another person's "Ohr Pnim," there is nothing he can do to help. He begged that he do something, so the Chozeh told him that perhaps if he went to the Chernobyler Magid, he could help him.

So he traveled to the Chernobyler Magid and told him the story. The Magid told him that one cannot look at the Ohr Pnim of a Tzadik like the Chozeh without consequences. But he said, "It is said that if one gazes at the light of the havdalah candle, that it restores 1/500th of his eyesight."

Therefore, the man would stand with the Magid every Motzoi Shabbos as he made havdalah, and would look at the candle. It is said that by the end of his life, the man could see enough to make out shapes.

This is a very interesting ma'aseh, but if anyone has an insight into the take-away point, I'd like to hear your thoughts!

-Dixie Yid

(Picture of Rav Mordechai Twersky of Flatbush courtesy of Wikipedia)

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Anonymous said...

My insight, and I say this for all these kinds of maasahs-the Satmar Rav said don't be naive and believe all chassidishe massos-esp, those that say the Chozeh was a terribly cruel person. Aye, you'll tell me it was just nature and not the Chozeh's fault? Come on-He could have at least davened for him. And by the weay, haven't you and I looked at tzaddikim before? Yes, even their 'pnim.' And don't tell me the Chozeh was just the biggest of them all. Plus, we never heard of such bizarre stories with Rishonim ansd pple for sure looked at them.

Bottom line: The maaseh is not true.

Anonymous said...

I think it is a gevaldik story.
It shows you the great and awesome nature of the mystical hidden light.
Hashem presence on har sinai or in the mishkan was also dangerous and scary. It shows that the hidden light is still available today. We admire the Hozeh even more by seeing his great level of being bale to deal with a light on that level And finally we learn that even us mortals can attain some of the hidden light by looking at the havadah candle. I do not see your problem.

hidden light

Anonymous said...

When a person jumps too high too quickly - in every area of life but especially in inyonei kedushah - very often the new vistas they experience are unsustainable and not only will the person perforce experience a massive thud back to earth, in some cases extreme danger and undesirable consequences will ensue.

A Yid's primary avodah is to keep growing, keep building and developing oneself - but in a sustainable, consistent, constant, measured and doable manner. Too much too quickly is unfortunately very often counterproductive.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


Thanks for your thoughts. Perhaps I originally choose a bad and overly harsh sounding wording for the Chozeh. I changed the wording a bit since I think that reasons why the Chozeh could not help the person were not such a focus of the story.


Thank you. You are right that simply an experience of awe at Tzadikim and their level is a take away point in and of its self.


I really hear what you're saying. There were two problems then with what the man did. One is that he should have entered more slowly into the spiritual light of a huge Tzadik like the Chozeh. Which for us, means that we should be careful about learning and trying to experience lofty aspects of avodah too quickly. Also, another problem with what he did, now that you mention it, is that his looking was more out of "curiosity." And when something is mere curiosity, then it's usually not good news. If one wants to see something about a Tzadik for the purpose of learning from it, that's good. But if one wants to see more intimate things about a Tzadik's avodah as some kind of spiritual vouyerism, then that's not such a good thing.

Yasher koach.

-Dixie Yid

Anonymous said...

The light that comes from a level which is beyond the one on which the individual is currently "holding", is perceived as darkness because it cannot be perceived on the individual's level. This is called "butsina d'kurdenisa" in Zohar - the candle of darkness. Sometimes it is called "nothing (Ayin)" in relation to a level below it. However, it is not simply that it is not perceived and passess by without an effect. It is perceived by the deeper hidden unrecognized level of the Neshomo of the individual even if his more external faculties see it merely as darkness. The result for the lower level is revelation of this inner level, or "ohr penimi" and breaching of boundaries and the resulting inability to function in the lower world. The derangement in the ability to draw borders can manifest itself as "blindness", which havdala, the religiously sanctioned separation between holy and profane in this lower world, can gradually restore.

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


Have you heard this ma'aseh before?

That sounds so spot-on. It's like you wrote the ma'aseh yourself to go with your explanation!

Yasher koach and thank you. You really tied in every part of the story. Yasher koach!

Anonymous said...

It is a gevaldike ma'asah, which one can peel as an onion and pretty much teach many essential points of Chassidus from. Sure to be added to my personal collection (so, thanks...). :) I'd have to think about it, but my first reaction is thus:

There are two levels within Keser of Atzilus: pnimi and makif (also known as Atik and Arich Anpin, or Oineg and Ratzon), inside and outside. But within makif, there is hitzoineus of makif and pnimius of makif. Pnimi is higher than makif in general, but pnimius of makif is even higher. So, the inside of the outside is a higher level than the pure inside.

In general, obviously, spiritual is higher than the physical. When, however, one uncovers the spiritual depth of the physical, one reaches an even higher level than one sees only the spiritual. (When light is shines into darkness that's good, but the moment you close a window, darkness is still there. The highest level is when you transform the darkness into light.)

This is why our souls descend into this world to meet Hashem -- he is to be met through mitzvos; in the higher worlds, only His Light is felt, but His Essence is hidden. In this world, through doing a mitzvah that reveals Hashem's Will in a physical object (the most distant reality from Hashem), one reaches the Essence of Hashem. (Incidentally, this is why we tuck in tzitzis at a cemetery... not to mock the dead.)

When the guy saw the light of a tzaddik, he saw the spiritual greatness which was incompatible with the physical world. This is called 'ratzo' and can lead to ripping out of a soul (kelos hanefesh... what happened to yidden at Har Sinai who had to be then revived and to Aharon's sons). It says that Jews at Har Sinai "saw the thunder and heard the lighting": what is normally "seen", i.e., known subjectively (the physical world), was now "heard" (known as a distant abstract reality), and what was "heard" before (the spiritual worlds) was now "seen". So, after seeing the G-dly light, the poor fellow in the story could not see the light of the physical world anymore.

As I said, however, spiritual revealed in the physical (hiding) is even greater than pure spiritual (hence, Purim is greater than Yom "KePurim"). So, after experiencing ratzo, one needs to go back to shov (return back to the physical world and reveal in it the G-dliness felt above). Having elevated his sight to pnimius, the fellow could now only go even higher, to the pnimius of hitzionius -- to do that, he had to be revealed to the light that translates the pure kedushah of Shabbos into the physical world of the six days of the week (hopefully to be infused in the physicality of the world... "six days you should work" -- the work of the Beis HaMikdosh). Incidentally, what follows Havdalah is mel. mal., which acc. to some sources is higher than seudos of Shabbos (even the holiest seudah of Sh"Sh), because it is like eating before Yom Kipur in order to fast on Yom Kipur, which is holier than the whole Yom Kipur. (By the way, the fellow did not have to have any actual spiritual awareness of what was going on -- what was effected only his neshama's koach of sight, not koach hamaskil.)

So, the practical lesson is: after the great elevation of ratzo, one needs to internalize it and reveal it in the physical world, practical mitzvos, gmilut hasadim, revealing the light in the physical world, which is the whole purpose of creation and the whole purpose of coming of Mashiach... One cannot lock himself up in Torah, one needs to see Hashem in Torah...

(Whether the story takah happened is irrelevant, btw. Not that it makes sense to say that it "could not" happen.)

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


Wow. That's just about all I can say. Wow.

I'm so impressed, first of all, with your and others' ability to think deeply into this ma'aseh and your genrosity in sharing your thoughts with me and other readers.

I appreciate your take away point regarding taking something from high spiritual experiences away with you into the mundane world in order to give it lasting power in this world and to connect it with the physical since that is the purpose of our creation.

Yasher koach!

-Dixie Yid

Anonymous said...

Avakesh: beat me to it. Also, much less wordy. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks to all who understood the 'maaseh' as a midrash. That is the point of chassidishe maasos like this. You are not supposed to take them literally.

yitz said...


I didn't understand what you said when you said this:

And by the weay, haven't you and I looked at tzaddikim before? Yes, even their 'pnim.' And don't tell me the Chozeh was just the biggest of them all.

ohr pnim in this case doesn't mean, panim, face. It means something else.

also regarding what you say here:
Plus, we never heard of such bizarre stories with Rishonim ansd pple for sure looked at them.

There are similar stories about achronim like the Ohr HaHayyim. In the Talmud there is the story of the four who entered the Pardes, Ben Zoma, who went mad is refered to as 'he peaked and was injurred' which sounds strikingly similar to the story here, and these were Tannaim, right? Also Lot's wife in the Humash. Even perhaps Yitzhak Avinu's blindness is related to the spiritual revelation during the Akeidah.

@Af and @Avakesh,
both beautiful explanations, and i recognize that dixieyid asked for explanations of what can be learned from the story, but don't you think if the problem was as you described, that the Chozeh himself could have prescribed the cure? the only thing you both left out is why did he send the chossid to the Maggid of Chernobyl?

i'm curious about your explanation of the pnimi of makif being higher than the pnimi itself.. is this only in the case of the level of Keter or is this something found at every level and in every world? because either way I want to ask my Rav for more details..

Anonymous said...

What makes you think that Chozeh did not pray -- or if this was something he could not have prayed for? In my explanation, blindness was not a loss of function but elevation of function, but in a way that was useless for the person. Also, what makes you think that this story could not happen (again, whether or not it actually did is irrelevant to the point of the story)?

There are many stories like this in all generations, from pre-Talmudic to ours. (There is a story of a guy who did not want to interrupt his learning to help a guy whose horse was stuck and dying and as a result lost ability to walk -- upon warning "One day you'll wish to get up and help and won't be able to." He came to Brooklyn, and the Rebbe told him to learn Chitas, which eventually helped.)


I think this is a property of sphira of Keser in general to have pnimi, makif, and pnimius of makif.

There are many manifestations of this on every level, however. For example, forces of klipah derive their livelihood from makif, which gives off more abundant energy but is "generalized" and as a result does not penetrate and does not stay.

This is the source of any "rush" or quick, superficial reward from anything -- from sorcery, to business, to learning Gemara, to davening. Then there is pnimius, which requires a lot of work, honesty, a lot of purification, and the energy given off suits only the person's particular madreigah -- but once it's given, it is internalized and does not dissipate, like the energy of makif.

Then there is the pnimius of makif, which is being able to go beyond limitations of pnimius (which is lishmoh but limited), ufaratzta -- beyond prescribed, confined, specific to a situation. So, it is in essence makif, but makif used for the same purpose as the pnimius... Anyway, it is a long story, and the importance is not to play with kabbalistic anatomical facts but to find relevance and meaning to everyday avoidah. One question someone can ask himself, for example, is when he feels emotion during davening or feels excitement during learning Gemara, is it emotion from addressing the Source of the Worlds and excitement from uniting with His Ratzon, or is it a rush from superficial self-induced psychological state (or, in case of Gemara, feeling of importance of having cracked a puzzle)?