The entire role of the zaddik in Przysucha was understood in such a way as not to create dependency. For dependency meant that the very quality on which everything hung- namely personal authenticity- was emasculated. For Przysucha, imitation, especially imitation of the zaddik, was the greatest sin. All a zaddik could do was to be a guide, a role model. By his very presence, by his own spiritual integrity, the student could find his own integrity as well. The function of the rebbe was to help people become themselves and to serve God in their truth. Vicarious redemption runs counter to the most basic values of Przysucha.
The following is a classic example of how. R. Bunim saw his role as a leader.
- After the death of R. Uri of Strelisk (known as the Saraf), one of his disciples came to R. Bunim in order to join him. R. Bunim asked, "What was his (R. Uri's) main approach in his holy work to teach you the service of God and the paths of Hasidism?" His main approach (answered the hasid) was to implant in our hearts a sense of humility and lowliness. And his holy custom was that whoever came to him, whether he was an important rabbi or a wealthy person, he first had to take two big buckets and to fill them with water from the well in the marketplace, or do some demeaning work in public.
R. Bunim...replied: "Let me tell you a story. It once happened that the king declared that three people- two wise men and an idiot- were to be placed in a dark dungeon. Every day, food and utensils were lowered down to them. The thick darkness confused the mind of the idiot so that he couldn't understand what they were giving him. For example, he thought that the spoon was a plate and so on, and thus he didn't know how to hold the cup to his mouth to eat and drink. Thus, each time, one of the wise men taught him, with signs, how to know what the utensils were, but it was necessary to teach him each time, because each time they were given different utensils. But the second wise man sat silently and didn't teach him anything. On one occasion the first wise man asked the second wise man, 'Why do you sit silently and not teach the idiot anything, so that I have to toil each time to learn with him? Why don't you teach him for once?' The second wise man replied: 'You are continually making an effort to learn with him, but there is no limit. For what will you do if tomorrow, they give him another utensil? Yet again you will have to teach him. And what will be if he knows how to use this, and does not know how to use that? I'm thinking and figuring out how to make a hole in the roof to let in light, so that then he will see everything."
(The story is from G. Rosenthal, Hitgalut ha-Zaddikim, ed. Nigal, 114-115; Ma'amarei Simhah, 43; Or ha-Ganuz, 409-410.)
What is the meaning of this parable? Isn't the wise man who feeds the idiot every day more compassionate than the wise man who sits pondering? R. Bunim explains that, as kind as the first teacher is, the idiot is totally dependent upon him, so that the first wise man's efforts are misplaced and possibly misguided. For R. Bunim, education is not some sort of roadmap in which you can cover all the situations of a man's life: "For each time they would give him different utensils." The nature of education is to develop in the student the ability to be able to deal with situations that neither he nor the teacher has ever encountered.
The second wise man, who is totally engaged in thinking how to pierce the ceiling of the dungeon so that everybody can receive light, is not callous. On the contrary, he represents the rebbe/ teacher whose focus is on how to make the pupil autonomous. Such a teacher is truly kind, unlike the one who makes the other dependent. This parable is therefore a critique of the type of charismatic leadership in which the disciple never achieves religious maturity. The prison is the world in which we live; the idiot doesn't know how to function; to pierce the ceiling is to bring "enlightenment" to the disciple. Everything, therefore, has to be concentrated on this goal.
The ending, "so that then he will see everything," suggests that light (i.e. insight) is not controlled by the person of the rebbe/ teacher. Thus, this is not an image of a hasid soaring on the wings of his rebbe so much as being inspired by the teacher to soar. The wise man facilitates light, but it is ultimately not refracted through the teacher. In in the final analysis, the enlightenment one receives depends on who one is and on the ability to build oneself from within.
Moreover, because the light does not come down to the student through the person of the Rebbe (although it does come because of him), this suggests that there is no one path; for everyone receives the light depending on who they are. This is in contrast to R. Uri, who insisted that everyone "carry two buckets of water"- an approach without any individuation, in contrast to that of the light, which is received personally.
R. Bunim's parable is a critique of R. Uri's entire approach to character building. It is possible for a teacher to demand a certain behavior (in this case, that even an important person must be prepared to engage in simple, humble tasks), but there is little guarantee or assurance that when he returns home he will have internalized the quality of humility so that it becomes part of him- for education, by definition, must be personal; it cannot be limited to a single approach.
~The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim by Michael Rosen, pages 116-118