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The Rabbi as a Sacred Goat

Selichot, 2003

by Harold M. Schulweis

The Kotzker Rebbe, a most enigmatic and troubled tzaddik, spent the last twenty years of his life depressed and in seclusion. Once, when visited by his friend and greeted with, "Peace be with you, Rabbi," the Kotzker Rebbe responded by saying, "Don't you recognize me?" I am the "sacred goat."

Why a sacred goat? The Kotzker told the tale: "Once an old Jew lost his snuff box made of the horn of a goat. 'I've lost my snuff box made of horn,' he wailed. And then the old Jew came upon a sacred goat that was pacing the earth and the tips of his black horns touched the stars. When the goat heard the old Jew lamenting, he leaned down to him and said, 'Cut a piece from my horns - whatever you need to make a new snuff box.' The old Jew did this, made a new snuffbox and filled it with tobacco. When he returned to the House of Study, he offered everyone a pinch of tobacco. Everyone was awed by the scent: 'What a wonderful tobacco! It must be because of the box. Where did you get it?' And the old man told them about the sacred goat. Then one after the other, they went out onto the street and looked for the sacred goat. The sacred goat was pacing the earth and the tips of his black horns touched the stars. One after the other they went up to him and begged permission to cut off a bit of his horns. And time after time the sacred goat leaned down to grant the request. Box after box was made, and the fame of the boxes spread far and wide. Now the sacred goat still paces the earth - but he has no horns."

I am moved by the story - but what does it mean? What does it tell us about the Hasidic leaders, and equally, what does it tell us about ourselves?

In Hasidic tradition the tzaddik is a man who heals, who gives counsel, who is the divine helper. But often, at the end of the day of giving, he is exhausted, as in our story. He is "burned out."

Does it mean that we ordinary people must not become overly dependant on the tzaddik, the charismatic guru, the holy man? Can we adopt the genius of the tzaddik and to become healers ourselves? But how can a layman become a healer? What can an ordinary person learn from the tales of the tzaddik?

Consider an insight from the Hasidism: "If you want to raise a man from mud and filth, do not think it is enough for you to stand on top and reach down to offer him a helping hand. You must go all the way down yourself, down into mud and filth. Then take hold of him with strong hands and pull him and yourself out into the light." You cannot help someone from a distance above. The person who has fallen into the mud must be extricated from the pit. To help him, you must enter the pit and get yourself dirty. You cannot stand looking down upon the individual who is trapped below. You must stand in his place, not above the pit.

I think of the rabbinic tradition that tells us the correct posture when visiting the sick. The visitor must not sit on the bed of the patient. The Talmud (Shabbat 12B) teaches, "One who enters a house to visit the sick may sit neither upon the bed nor on a seat, but must wrap himself about and sit in from of him, (or in Nedarim 40A) sit upon the ground, because the Divine presence is above the individual's pillow as it is written, 'The Lord supports him upon the Couch of Languishing' (Psalm 41:4)." Sitting on the bed looks down upon a patient in condescension. Visiting the sick is meant to elevate, not alienate the sufferer.

One passage leads to another Talmudic sage. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zacchai was celebrated for his power to heal. When he heard of someone who was sick, he would visit and speak with him about his suffering, then hold out his hand that the other might rise. Once Yochanan ben Zacchai himself fell ill and was visited by Rabbi Hanina who, after speaking with him, held out his hand and Rabbi Yochanan stood up. The Talmud (Berachos 5B) asks, "But why, if Rabbi Yochanan was such a great healer, couldn't he raise himself?" The Talmud answers, "Because the prisoner cannot free himself from prison."

I need another to lean upon, to lift me out of my prison and the other cannot stand above the fray, but must penetrate the fetters.

In moments of sickness, depression, and incarceration, I know that I am not self-sufficient. For all of the vaunted talk of my autonomy, my cherished privacy and individualism, in crisis I need the "other."

What can the "other" do for me? The "other" does not deal with my "refuat ha-guf,”  the healing of my body. The "other" deals with my "refuat ha- nephesh,”  the healing of my spirit, the healing of my soul. Maimonides says that to confuse the healing of body and the healing of the soul tends to superstition and magic. Do not place the phylacteries, the tefillin, or a mezuzah, or some other religious object on my fevered wounds. That gesture smacks of magic. Lift up my soul –  not my body. The recovery of the soul is not the recovery of the body. If the body aches, go to a physician who is an expert in dealing with that illness. With you, I need emotional support.

Emotional support includes different wisdoms. If, for example, you are bound to a pathological theology, one that places excessive guilt upon you, I can help to free you from a masochism that tears on the scabs of wounds. I can offer a God that would relieve you from an inappropriate guilt. I can converse with the sufferer and explain that the God of Judaism does not relish suffering, that the God of Israel is a God of compassion and love who wishes you to respect you own dignity and to recognize that you are created in God's image. "For my sake was the world created." God did not create you to put you through the cauldron of suffering.

The Tradition states that visiting the sick removes one sixtieth of his illness. That must not be reduced to vulgar literalism. Do not then ask that if sixty people visit the sick, it should eliminate the illness. The image means that the presence of another caring being is itself therapeutic, a confirmation of our deepest yearning that we are cared for, that someone is concerned with us.

"Cure" and "care" are etymologically and spiritually cognate. There is within each of us therapeutic power. Theologically, that curative power is predicated on an emulation of God's compassion. I can imitate Godliness. That is classically expressed in the Talmud Sotah 14a: Hama said in the name of Rav Hanina, "What does it mean 'You shall walk after the Lord your God?' Is it possible for a person to walk and follow God's presence? For does not the Torah say, 'For the Lord your God is a consuming fire'? No. When it says to walk after the Lord your God it means to emulate His attributes. Just as God clothed the naked, so you too must clothe the naked. As the Holy One visits the ill, you must visit the ill. As the Holy One comforts the bereaved, you comfort the bereaved. The Holy One buries the dead, so shall you bury the dead."

This is not the magic of incantation. The power of healing within us does not depend on the charisma of the tzaddik, nor on the horns of a sacred goat, nor on angels, but in the hands and feet and face of each and every one of us. We are more than angels. "I have made you but little lower than God."

Healing is not magical. Healing is ethical. The Talmud Shabbat (12b) reports that Rav Judah taught, "One should never petition for his needs in Aramaic." But, do we not on Passover invoke those who are in need to come to the Passover meal and recite it in Aramaic? It is to teach that when someone is in need of food we cannot rely upon angel to help - but only ourselves - and the prayer is to remind us, not the angels, to intervene. Angels do not understand Aramaic. When the Kaddish is recited, it is recited in Aramaic. But angels do not understand Aramaic. To teach us that when someone faces bereavement, we are not to expect a celestial force to comfort, no angel, but you and I, of flesh and blood, console.

Here we ordinary men and women are healers. The gift of healing flows from love. Love heals. Love heals the "other" and love heals the self. Love of self is indispensable to help the "other" who is downtrodden and despairing. You who come depressed, despairing, crushed, in anguish, forfeit your gifts of healing - for healing comes with joy, hope, laughter, song. "Love the other as theyself." Love thyself" in Hebrew, "camocha" –  which is numerically 86 and is numerically equivalent to "Elohim.”  To heal others, one must love oneself. Self-loathing is an obstacle to altruism.

Would you heal others? Love yourself, lift yourself out of the pit of despair, breathe joy into your being. Jewish sanctity is not in the Rebbe's goat.  The horns of the goat are finite. When cut, they do not grow back. But your love is not exhausted in giving. Giving, it grows. Blessing, it improves. "You have blessed us with an infinite love."

 For a year of love, write us in the Book of Life and Love. 


 * This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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