The renowned chossid and Mashpia, Reb Mendel Futerfas, of blessed memory, would begin his prayer differently from other chassidim. In the Alter Rebbe’s Siddur at the outset of the Morning Prayers it is written, “It is proper to say before prayer, ‘I hereby take upon myself to fulfill the Mitzvah, ‘Love your fellow [Jew] as yourself.’” Most people read this without giving it a second thought (or even a first one). Reb Mendel, however, felt that his undertaking to fulfill this Mitzvah was not fully sincere, so he found it uncomfortable to recite a phrase that somewhat implied that it was. He got around this by reciting the entire sentence in full. I.e., he would not start with “I hereby ... ” but with “It is proper ... ”
It should be noted that Reb Mendel was known as a very warm, loving, and refined chossid. Obviously, his self-assessment that he lacked love for his fellow Jew did not mean lack of love in the crude sense—that he literally harbored hostile feelings toward fellow Jews. Rather, as is typical of one who strives in Avoida (the unique Chabad discipline of personal self-refinement) he believed that although he had attained this trait to a significant degree (for one must be aware of one’s virtues as well), he still fell short of the ideal, and this bothered him. Er iz noch nisht gekumen tzu dem reinem emes—he hadn’t yet reached the pure truth. His love for his fellow Jew was not fully sincere.
In Chabad terminology this practice would be referred to as an example of a derher. A derher is a refined feeling, or a practice that stems from such a feeling. Being a genuine person—in Chabad terminology, a pnimi—Reb Mendel sought total, uncompromising truth in everything he did, and his approach to his fellow Jews was no exception. It was this intense inner striving that drove him to adopt this practice.
But Reb Mendel didn’t suffice with simply recognizing what he perceived as his shortcoming, and expressing this recognition by uttering this statement slightly differently. Again, being a pnimi, his awareness of his deficiency was real and tangible, and simply could not be shrugged off.
By way of analogy, a health-conscious person who learns that his physical health is lacking will not rest until his illness is cured. In contrast, one who fails to seek a remedy for his illness demonstrates that although he is intellectually aware of his deficiency, he does not truly grasp it. To employ the language of Kabbala and Chassidus, he lacks Da’as, roughly translated as “intellectual sensitivity.”
But Reb Mendel had reached Da’as, and this spurred him to actively work on this trait. In particular, every day before prayer he would review chapter thirty-two of the Alter Rebbe’s holy Tanya, the chapter devoted to expounding upon the Mitzvah to love one’s fellow Jew. (In Hebrew the number thirty-two is lev, heart, which is apparently the reason that the Alter Rebbe chose to discuss this Mitzvah in the chapter of this number.)
What lesson can we draw from this? Should we too read from “It is proper ... ” rather than from “I hereby ... ”? My understanding is that in general it is not desirable to engage in such voluntary external acts of piety unless m’halt derbai, unless one has actually attained that spiritual level internally. In other words, it is coming from within. So if one’s heart pulsates with the same burning inner yearning for truth, then such behavior would be appropriate. But for those yet to experience this yearning, or yet to experience it to this degree—and sadly I suspect that due to the lowliness of our generation such people are the majority—such a practice would be presumptuous.
However, knowing and reminding oneself and others of practices of great chassidim such as this one is uplifting in itself. Their practices set a model for chassidim to emulate, an ideal to aspire toward. They infuse light and warmth into our lives and homes. Indeed, this is one of the topics traditionally discussed at a farbrengen, a Chabad inspirational get-together.
And we can certainly make a point of emulating Reb Mendel by revising chapter thirty-two of Tanya more frequently (even if not daily) and other similar sources, especially Kuntres Ahavas Yisra’el, a special booklet that compiles sources from Chabad teachings on this matter.
May we all merit to serve Hashem with full sincerity.