A teaching of Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, from Meor Einayim, Yismach Lev.
Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa went to study Torah from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, and Rabbi Yochanan’s son fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan said to Chanina ben Dosa, “Chanina, my son! Seek mercy for him that he might live.” So Rabbi Chanina lay his head between his knees and sought mercy for his master’s son and he lived. Then Rabbi Yochanan said, “Had I myself stuck my head between my knees all day long, Heaven would not have paid any attention to me.” His wife said to him, “Is Chanina greater than you?” He said to her, “No, but he is like a servant before the King, while I am like an officer before the King.” Talmud Bavli, Masechet Berachot 34b (1)
We must understand what Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai meant, and why this story is told in the gemara (2). Elsewhere in the gemara we are told that for prayer to be effective, it must be said in the mindset of Jacob, who is called “little Jacob” (3), and who is known for his humility. Now the purpose of prayer is to bring G!d’s bounty down from it source in the divine will, from the highest worlds down to the lowest… As it passes from world to world, G!d’s infinite bounty is reduced and restricted so that the lower worlds can withstand it and receive it. Now all of us are truly a part of G!d, as it says, “for G!d’s people are a part of G!d” (4), and every aspect of G!d is found within us (5). So we find that if a person wishes to cleave to his root in the Creator through prayer and divine service, then he must imitate G!d and lower himself, reducing his sense of self, for if he does the opposite and grows proud, then he brings about the same effect above, and then G!d’s bounty cannot descend. Then the purpose of prayer, which is to bring down G!d’s bounty, is foiled; so it is written, “Everyone with a conceited heart is disgusting to G!d” (6). This is what my master and rabbi, Dov Ber the Maggid of Mezeritch (7), meant when he said that a person is like a mirror: as he appears to himself, so he causes to appear above. Understand this.
1) Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was possibly the greatest sage of his time, and is credited with writing (or at least inspiring) the Zohar, called “the Bible of Jewish mysticism.” Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was famous for his powers of prayer, but was considered only a student to Rabbi Yochanan. Note how Chanina ben Dosa prays — in the way of Jewish mystics, with his head between his knees as in the fetal position. 2) The Talmud is made up of essentially two parts: Mishna, which is rabbinic teaching from 200 BCE – 200 CE, and the Gemara, which is a sort of flow-of-consciousness commentary on and tangents off of the Mishna, written and edited over the following centuries. 3) in Genesis 27:15 he is called “her little son,” and in Amos 7:2 it is written “Jacob is so small.” 4) Deuteronomy 32:9, usually translated “G!d’s people are His portion,” but the Meor Einayim’s reading is also possible. 5) One of the understandings of people being made “in G!d’s image,” though according to Jewish mysticism everything in creation reflects and contains G!d’s “spiritual DNA.” 6) Proverbs 16:5 7) The successor of the Baal Shem Tov and the original “philosopher” of Hasidism, and also the teacher of Rabbi Menahem Nahum.
There are plenty of teachings in Hasidism about the critical importance of humility. What made this teaching stand out for me was the Meor Einayim’s use of the ascent/descent motif. Hasidism often uses the image of ascending to G!d in prayer, but here the focus is on the descent of G!d (or at least G!d’s bounty) to earth. It’s perfectly logical, then, that humility should be key, because if our goal is spiritual growth in the egocentric sense of becoming “a spiritual person” then we are actually stopping that divine flow. Instead of seeking to be “an officer before the King” we should seek to be the King’s servant, doing the real work of the palace. After all, it is told of Chanina ben Dosa, “the servant before the King,” that through his prayers he sustained all the world.