Rabbi Menachem Mendl Morgenstern of Kotsk was born in the 1700s in Poland. He discovered Hasidism as a child, studied with great masters, formed his own court not far from Warsaw, and spent ten years teaching his controversial and extraordinary brand of existentialist Judaism.
He than fell into a state of incredibly severe depression and would not leave his room for 20 years. His granddaughter would bring him food and all other communication with him was done through a small hole in the door. He would be washed once yearly, before passover.
The Kotsker rebbe left no written records. A disciple of his burned all his writings at his demand. some of his sayings did survive, however. most notably: "A broken heart is whole, a slanted ladder is straight". He also said: "This world isn't worth even one small sigh."
I'm thinking of this man today after visiting the ultraorthodox city of Bnei Brak with my orthodox friend Michael. Bnei Brak is a somber city and a visit to its cemetery, to visit Michael's grandparents graves, was more somber still. There was no shade there, no mercy.
The cemetery is located among high walls of gray construction blocks. overlooking it is a school for girls that is equipped with only the narrowest windows. Posters commanding modest behaviour and dress are stuck everywhere, next to grafittied racist comments ("Kahane was right" etc.)
In order to be climbed, a ladder must be placed diagonally against a wall. If placed staight - it is useless. In order to develop, a heart must experience pain. This point of view sheds a softer light on a sunstruck afternoon in an austere environment. A difficult day is a good day. A glance at death is a glance at life.
The Kotsker Rebbe said: "Death is like moving from one room into another and then choosing to stay in the nicer room." Such words make sense today. That cemetery in Bnei Brak is best experienced from within one of the graves. It is there that our slanted ladders do lead.