Our sages deem visiting a teacher equivalent to paying homage to the Almighty’s Holy Presence.
The Talmud states that students must travel to see their Torah teacher on festivals (B. Rosh Hashana 16b; B. Succa 27b). Indeed, our sages deem visiting a teacher equivalent to paying homage to the Almighty’s Holy Presence (Y. Eruvin 21a; Y. Sanhedrin). Nevertheless, this practice took on new proportions as the hassidic movement developed.
In fact, during the interwar period, the founder of women’s Torah education in Poland, Sarah Schenirer (1883-1935), bemoaned the festival norm when thousands of male disciples would travel by train to spend the holy days in the presence of their hassidic masters, leaving behind the womenfolk. Schenirer perceived the widening gulf between the male Jewish experience and the female Jewish experience, an observation that was a catalyst in her promoting Torah education for women and establishing the Beis Yaakov schools.
For a moment, though, let us set aside the social problems that were born of these pilgrimages and consider why the hassidim so loyally traveled to their masters. What were they searching for on these arduous journeys?
A hassid of Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk (1730-1788) once traveled to see his mentor. The distance from the hassid’s home to that of his master was not short, and the dedicated hassid was forced to find lodgings in one of the towns along the way. As night fell, he entered a certain village and, with nowhere else to go, he turned to the synagogue, where he immediately joined in the evening prayer.
The rabbi of the city was known for his kindness and open heart. He was a recognized Torah scholar in his own right and had regularly voiced his opposition to the new hassidic movement.
The rabbi noticed the stranger in the synagogue and he approached him after the service: “Can I invite you to my home this evening?” he said with a warm smile. The hassid was overjoyed and accepted the invitation without hesitation.
As they sat at the table a lively Torah discussion ensued, the host and his guest enjoying each other’s company, sharing talmudic insights and challenging one another. The conversation turned to the purpose of the hassid’s journey:
“I am traveling to see my mentor, the hassidic master of note, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk.”
The town rabbi was taken aback: “Could you not find a learned mentor, a paradigm of good conduct, closer to home? True, you rightly fulfill the rabbinic directive of ‘make for yourself a teacher’ [M. Avot 1:6; 1:16], but surely you need not travel so far to find such a teacher?!”
The hassid suspected that the town rabbi was wondering why he himself could not fulfill this role, so he answered: “I travel so far a distance to a Jew who never forgets the Almighty creator, not even for one moment.”
The town rabbi was skeptical: “How can you know that for sure? Do you have the ability to read people’s minds?” he challenged the hassid.
“Indeed I do!” replied the hassid with no hesitation.
With a derisive tone the rabbi responded: “Perhaps then you can tell me what I am thinking about?”
“I can certainly try,” responded the hassid.
“Go ahead then,” said the rabbi. “Tell me what I am thinking about now.”
“The rabbi is contemplating the biblical verse ‘I have set God always before me’ [Psalms 16:8],” declared the hassid.
“No!” cried the rabbi joyfully, “You are wrong! That is not what I was thinking at all!”
“No?” queried the hassid. “I am wrong? That is not what you were thinking? You were not meditating on the verse ‘I have set God always before me’?”
“Not at all!” confirmed the rabbi, “I was thinking about something entirely different!”
“Don’t you see, my dear rabbi,” explained the guest, “That is why I must travel so great a distance.”