Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Kotzker Rebbe in Omaha

This past Shabbat we had the privilege of hosting my cousin from Chicago Mitch Morgenstern.

His day job is banking, but Mitch's real passion is the history and philosophy of Polish Chasidism.  

Mitch is a direct descendant of the Kotzker Rebbe, the kotzker was his father's father's father's father's father's father.  Unfortunately, most of the family, including Mitch's grandfather, were murdered by the Nazis.  Mitch's father was one of the few survivors.  
Admor Tzvi Hersh Morgenstern of Lukav - the great grandson of the Kotzker.  The Kotzker Reba was his Sandek.
In recent years Mitch has sought out every book every written on the topic of Polish Chasidism, including personal memoirs, philosophical works, and Torah commentaries and he has become quite an expert on the subject.  


Mitch spoke at Beth Israel and gave us some of the basics of the Polish Chasidic dynasties, who the major players were, and what made their brands of chasidism unique.  

He mostly focused on the Kotzker Rebbe, his teacher - the Rebbe Rav Bunim, the Yid Hakadosh and the chidushei HaRim.  We traveled back in time over 200 years and learned a greet deal about Polish and Russian history.  The Rebbe's of the early 19th century carefully watched the current events of their day and took stances and positions that sometimes would get them in trouble with the reigning government.

There was also a great deal of internal politics.  That time in history was a time of great transition for the Jewish community in Poland and there was fear that the consequences of certain philosophies could jeopardize the future of Judaism.  The followers of the Rebbe Rav Bunim were considered controversial in the Chasidic world and in a biography of the Chidushei HaRim we learned about some of the politics in the Jewish community and how these Jewish leaders handled them.

We also learned some of the Torah of the Kotzker.  Although he left us no writings there are many books written on his teachings and his sayings are very famous.  

One that sums up the Kotzker is as follows:

There is a well known custom on Rosh Hashannah that we do not eat nuts at the meals.  The reason given in the SHulchan Aruch is that the Hebrew word for nuts, egoz, has the same numerical value as the word for sin, cheit.  The Kotzker said about this, "more importantly, people need to remember that the numerical value of cheit is also cheit!"  

In other words, people often get caught up in all of the symbols and customs and they tend to forget the actual meaning behind them.  So they will be careful to avoid having nuts on Rosh Hashannah, but will be lax in making sure that sin is also absent from their lives.

It was a really great Shabbat.  I hope to bring Mitch back for another Shabbat in the future so we can learn more about this area of Judaism that many Jews are not familiar with.

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