When Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk took his congregation to task.
In early hassidic works we find harsh criticism against the darshanim, the preachers, often itinerant, who in their fiery sermons would denigrate and vilify their audience. The method was designed to prod those hearing the sermon to feel deep remorse and be goaded into repenting and being better Jews. The success of this method must have varied from preacher to preacher, from community to community and from epoch to epoch.
While the preachers may or may not have been sincere, early hassidic masters felt that belittling other Jews was not an effective method. For one, it hardly could be construed as encouragement. Criticism does not also stimulate change; often condemnation can lead to the exact opposite result: staking out a defensive position, justifying previous conduct and giving no quarter to the thought of change. Moreover, the result in supernal worlds could be most damaging: Maligning other Jews might have the effect of strengthening the claims of the prosecuting Satan in the heavenly court. Thus the earlier hassidic masters sought a different method of positive encouragement and stressing the value of people rather than their shortcomings.
With this in mind Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib of Sassov (1745-1807) was surprised to hear how the leader of the hassidim in Galicia, Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1786), addressed his disciples. On Friday night, Rabbi Elimelech addressed his followers telling them in no uncertain terms that their conduct was unbecoming. Like the preachers of old, he appeared to be denigrating his audience.
After the address, Rabbi Moshe Leib, who was known for his unbridled love of every Jew, approached his older colleague: “Would it not be more appropriate to speak positively about your congregation? Is it not your role to serve as character reference on behalf of your followers in the heavenly court?
Rabbi Elimelech responded with a parable: “Imagine a king who calls on his tailor to prepare new royal garments. The tailor arrives in the king’s chambers to take measurements for the new clothes. Perhaps with some hesitation, the tailor tells the king to stand up, stand straight, turn around, lift up his arms and so on. The tailor hesitates for he knows that were anyone else to talk to the king in such a manner, the monarch would order his immediate execution.
Indeed this is no way to talk to a member of the royal family. Alas, if the tailor was to make clothes that fit and befit the king, he needed exact measurements; approximations would just not do. So reluctantly and perhaps avoiding the king’s eyes, the tailor continues: Stand straight, turn around, lift up your arms…”
Rabbi Elimelech unpacked the parable: “The Children of Israel are the royal family. Indeed no one has the right to order them about, tell them how to stand and what to do. It is only the poor tailor who comes to make new clothes, to dress them in garments befitting the royal House of Israel, who may – with his eyes downcast and with a level of discomfort – tell the royal Children of Israel how to stand.”
Rabbi Elimelech looked deep into the eyes of Rabbi Moshe Leib and concluded the exchange: “These new garments that I aspire to make for the royal family are the garments of Torah and of tradition. At times, I must tell them – albeit with unease – how to stand, how to act and give other instructions that can only be given by a poor tailor as he tries to make garments befitting his honorable customer. I seek not to disparage the Children of Israel, I just aspire to make clothes that befit children of kings, nay, the children of the king of kings.”