Wednesday, March 06, 2019

On chassidic stories

Sometimes in shul, my glance to fall across a parsha sheet that's lying around. In my current Anglo-friendly shul, there is usually just one such sheet. It is focused on inspirational and chassidic stories, including this one, which I read recently, and (from what I've seen) seems to be representative of other chassidic stories.

After reading this story, it crossed my mind how similar it was to the stories of the Avot in Breishit. It concerned individuals, not the nation. The individuals go about their lives, year after year, struggling to make a living while upholding their religious principles. They are alternatively successful and failing, and this is a reflection of God's reward and punishment, as well as God's plans for each of them. There are virtually no open miracles, but occasionally a religious command is conveyed to them in a dream.

These similarities brings into focus the main difference between the Avot and the story's characters. The Avot (particularly Avraham) were unique individuals, chosen by God to father the chosen people due to their exceptional spiritual level. But what of the characters in the chassidic story? They are normal people - some of them rebbes (though often not uniquely special rebbes in their generation, much less all of history), and some of them completely unremarkable people like innkeepers.

Why does the chassidic story grant the same attributes to the ordinary Joe that the Torah only grants to some of its greatest heroes? This seems to be a case of the chassidic belief that normal people, not only rabbinic elites, are capable of obtaining holiness, and should be reassured that their lives are just as full of spiritual meaning as anyone else's.

Of course, I'm not the first to describe chassidut that way. The more interesting thing is probably what I was wondering about before starting the article, namely: how often do miracles occur? Are the "rationalists" correct and miracles are virtually nonexistent, or are the mystics correct that miracles are nearly constant? If normal people's lives seem to follow laws of nature, should we nevertheless expect that extremely holy people, or people at crucial moments in history, will witness miracles? The Avot, whom we'd presumably put in the "extremely holy" category, are a very interesting data point. While God clearly oversees their lives, essentially never does an open miracle help them out of one of their many crises. And they do receive Divine revelation and guidance - but generally through dreams rather than outright miracles. One might conclude that this is the highest level of miraculous intervention that a person can achieve through their merits (though higher levels can occur at defining historical moments like the Exodus). And this is exactly the level - no higher and no lower - which the chassidic stories assign to their characters.