Gems of Wisdom of the Kotzker Rebbe
Nine wise, pithy quotes attributed to the great rabbi.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, known as the Kotzker Rebbe, left a spiritual treasure house for the Jewish people. He was known as a giant scholar, a champion of unvarnished truth, and trailblazer who created Chassidic dynasties and forged unique paths in the service of God.
With piercing insight into the human psyche, the Kotzker Rebbe recognized the centrality of the ego and put emphasis on breaking it. He demanded rigorous self-analysis and continuous personal growth and disdained service of God that contained a hint of self-interest.
Reb Leibel Eger, a scholar in his own right, became a follower of Kotzk. After visiting the Rebbe for the first time, he described his learning experience there: “I learned three things; that a man is a man and an angel is an angel; that a man can rise higher than an angel; and that God created Bereishis – the beginning. Thereafter, man must create his world.”
We don't know a lot about the Kotzker Rebbe because he offered so little about himself. The last 20 years of his life were spent in seclusion. He wrote works in his lifetime but burned them all before his death. But his pithy quotes, which open a window into his sharp mind, are gems of wisdom that have become a cherished part of his legacy.
In honor of the Kotzker Rebbe’s yahrzeit (he died in the month of Shevat in 1859), here are some pearls of wisdom attributed to him:
1. “If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.”
Identity is built from within. If we are all defined only by how we measure up to others, then no true self-identity can exist.
2. “Where is God? God is only where you let Him in.”
Our relationship with God is reciprocal. He desires the relationship, yearning for us to reach out to Him. The extent we bring Him into our life determines the quality of our relationship.
3. “All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read.”
There is a time and place for thoughts and utterances. And we need to have the humility to realize that some have no place at all.
4. “People are accustomed to looking at the heavens and wondering what happens there. It would be better if they would look within themselves to see what happens there.”
Though some believe that holiness is attained merely through pondering the mystical, perfection is only achieved by putting in the hard work to improve one's character. Honest self-reflection will yield more spiritual growth than lofty speculation.
5. “Do not be satisfied with the speech of your lips and the thought of your heart, all the promises and good sayings in your mouth, and all the good thoughts in your heart. Rather you must arise and do!”
Good intentions alone are just a means towards an end. Action is the desired outcome of intent. Real change requires doing, not wishful thinking.
6. “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”
When the heart comes before God with the acknowledgment of its weaknesses, it is repaired.
7. “Peace without truth is a false peace.”
Truth is a prerequisite to peace. Nothing permanent can derive from falsehood.
8. “Everything must be done for the sake of Heaven, even actions done for the sake of Heaven.”
Even spiritual pursuits can become tarnished by the ego.
9. Before his death, he was said to have uttered: “Death is actually no big deal; it’s just like walking from one room to a better one.”
Death is not the end of our journey but the next step.
The Kotzker Rebbe continues to inspire the Jewish people with the unique spiritual perspective he offered. May his memory be a blessing.