Tonight is the "yartzeit" of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, most often remembered as the author of the holy work called, "Tanya". True to his nature, he refused to publish his "Tanya" until he received approval from two holy sages and colleagues, Rabbi Zusya of Anipoli and Rabbi Yehuda Lieb HaCohen, both of whom are memorialized in the collective memory of the Jewish people for outstanding saintliness and spirituality. Their approvals came in written form and are printed on the early pages of any standard edition of the "Tanya".
Last night, Rabbi David N. Krasnjansky told me that there was a third approval which was not published, because it was entirely oral and came from a mysterious source. As with much of what’s Jewish, this too comes with an interesting story.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi had a follower who eked out a pittance of a livelihood teaching children Torah. In a private audience, Rabbi Shneur Zalman guided him to enter into business. In time, his business was very successful. When he visited for his next private audience, he was guided to expand his business. Again, he heeded the advice and his business grew in size and success. With each subsequent visit, Rabbi Shneur Zalman advised him to expand his business yet further and yet further, until he became a fabulously wealthy man - fully beyond his expectations.
Then one day, during an audience, Rabbi Shneur Zalman advised, "I think it would be good for you to do business at the large annual fair in Leipzig, Germany. While you are there, I want you to purchase a theater ticket to watch a show."
This was a strange request, as going to the theater was generally considered a sheer self indulgence - something normally outside the whole framework of a very devout Jewish lifestyle. However, since the request came as part of spiritual advice, he accepted.
Indeed, he traveled to Leipzig and when the opportunity arrived, he attended the theater. Once settled into a plush seat, he relaxed and his eyes closed in exhaustion. By the time they opened, the audience was making their exit. A theater usher casually shuffled by and pleasantly inquired, "Where are you from?"
"From Liozna", came the groggy reply.
"Who's your spiritual master?", inquired the usher.
"Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi", the follower responded.
"Ah yes, I know him. When you see him next, please tell him that Carl sends regards.", smiled the usher.
Back in Liozna, by his spiritual master, the follower sent regards from Carl the theater usher. To the his utter surprise, Rabbi Shneur Zalman's face lit up with a huge smile of celebration. The follower wondered what the joy was all about. It seemed too disproportionate. After all, Carl appeared to him as an ordinary human being, going about his ordinary routine. The joy didn’t seem to fit a simple “hello” from an ordinary acquaintance.
He was even more puzzled when on his next journey to Leipzig, Rabbi Shneur Zalman handed him a bag containing a large loosely bound handwritten manuscript. "Please buy a theater ticket again. When you see Carl, lend him this manuscript and ask him to please return it in the morning.", came the instructions.
In the Leipzig theater, Carl inquired, "How's your holy master?"
"He's doing fine. He asked me to hand you this bag.", offered the follower.
Carl briefly looked over the manuscript. "Can I keep it?, he inquired.
"Sorry, my instructions were to retrieve it in the morning.", came the reply.
They arranged to meet the next morning. In the morning, Carl handed back the bag and smilingly requested, "Please tell your holy master that Carl said that it is very good."
Then they parted ways and the follower made his way back to Lioza.
Once in Liozna, he relayed Carl’s message that the manuscript is “very good”. Again, Rabbi Shneur Zalman's face lit up in celebration. "You've accomplished your mission. Now, you can go back to teaching children.", he smiled.
Soon after Carl's approval, Rabbi Shneur Zalman published his "Tanya". Till today, nobody knows who Carl was. Jewish mystical tradition teaches that each generation has 36 revealed saintly people and 36 hidden ones, who conceal their saintliness. Apparently, Carl was among the hidden ones.
Rabbi Avraham Y. Shemtov advised that this story somehow incomplete without it providing a practical lesson about the “Tanya”. Under the circumstances the best I can provide is what the story meant to me - which may or may not be it’s real lesson.
In previous stories I have heard about the hidden saintly, they always came across as “off personalities” - perceived as somewhere on the spectrum between weird and cruel. I chalk this up to what the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach related when he retold “Shvartze Volf”, that the hidden saintly are absolutely our mirrors. Whatever one projects at them, is mirrored back. So on the encounter, one sees his/her own personality flaws mirrored and mistakenly thinks that they belong to the other. It’s like making ugly faces into a mirror and then accusing the mirror of being ugly.
Interestingly, I noticed that “Regards from Carl” is the very first story I have heard about the hidden saintly where the character is not depicted as an “off personality”, but merely as an “ordinary one” - as a simple theater usher.
Though the “Tanya” was not yet published, the unnamed follower had access to it’s teachings even more fully than someone who has studied the published work. After all, he was under the personal guidance of the author of the work himself. It is my understanding that having been spiritually molded in the style of the Tanya, he was able to view the hidden saintly without anything untoward being projected back at him. Far from seeing an “off personality”, he merely saw an “ordinary one”.
In a sense, he is the true hero of this story. He served as a walking advertisement of his master’s spiritual path. Just by relating to Carl as an “ordinary person”, the unnamed follower might have unwittingly provided Carl with a most satisfying introduction to the value of the “Tanya” - a kind of proof in the flesh. In the follower’s reaction to him, Carl saw how far “Tanya” can go to help a standard person attain purity.