Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was a great Chassidic leader of 18th century Europe. It is well-documented that his love of God was so great that he lived in constant state of ecstasy. At his Shabbos table, as he recited prayers to God, no one ever knew what would happen. He might throw his Kiddush cup up in the air, start dancing on top of the table, or break into an hour-long bevy of song.
The story goes that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak longed to share a Shabbat meal with Reb Baruch of Medzhibozh, another Chassidic master. There was, however, one difficulty: At Reb Baruch’s table, everything was done in a dignified, royal manner – and any wildness on the part of the Rabbi Levi Yitzhak would not be welcome.
A deal was struck between the two. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak felt he could control himself if he would but remain silent and not say anything more than “amen” during the meal.
When the appointed time arrived, much to everyone’s surprise, everything went smoothly. That is, until Reb Baruch’s servant asked Rabbi Levi Yitzhak whether he preferred his fish sweet or sour. “Fish?! Do I like fish?! I love God!!” he shouted and, overcome with ecstasy, he tossed the fish plate high into the air. To everyone’s horror, the plate landed squarely on Reb Baruch’s Tallis, staining it all over. Tension filled the air, as everyone awaited Reb Baruch’s response.
Reb Baruch calmly announced: “These stains are holy – they were caused by a Jew who really loves God.” Afterwards, Reb Baruch refused to have the stains washed out -because of the great enthusiasm they represented. And that treasured, stained Tallis was passed down through the generations!
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s behavior, as exceptional as it appears to be, actually has a deep source in Jewish tradition. Throughout Jewish literature, the Sages emphasize the need to lead one’s life – especially one’s spiritual life – with passion. In Rabbi Kalman Shapira’s powerful spiritual guidebook, “To Heal the Soul,” he declares that every human being is filled with passion; the only question is in which direction we focus those passions.
A tremendous lesson is found in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. A lengthy passage stretching over 53 verses describes all the horrific things that may befall the Jewish People if they act improperly. Such punishments as confusion, anxiety, depression, ignorance, starvation – and worse – may befall them. Remarkably though, the Torah emphasizes that this would come about only because “You did not serve the Lord your God with joy and goodness of heart” (Deut. 28:47).
Proper service of God does not simply consist of observing the mitzvot. It involves doing them with joy! The Sfas Emes (quoting the Arizal) provides us with a guideline for what constitutes sufficient joy in serving the Almighty. He states that one’s joy for spiritual matters should be equal (if not greater) than one’s joy in partaking of the physical and material realm. The way you run for pizza or a candy bar, is the same way you should run to the synagogue or to Torah study. Ultimately, it is the direction toward which we focus our passions that tells us who we really are.