Monday, July 27, 2009

Reb Pinchas of Koretz

Reb Pinchas of Koretz was known for his great humility, among other things. Even as an older man he continued to daven by the stove in the shul, the most undesirable spot. He once said, "everything I learned, I learned sitting quietly in the back row, in the last seat. Now that I'm in a position of prestige I don't understand." When the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of chassidus, was asked on his deathbed who in his generation could contend, he said, "there is the bear in the forest (Reb Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezertich), and there is Pinchas, the saint."

When Reb Pinchas was asked why we sway while davening (praying) he replied, "Hashem fills the entire world with His bright light. But there is a screen that covers the luster of that brightness so that it is not that evident. It is like clouds that block the sunlight. When we daven, we disperse the cover, the clouds, and we penetrate the light. We sway in davening to symbolize the moving of the clouds."

The Maggid in Lubavitch

OK, this one isn't about the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself, but rather one of his astute chassidim.

A magid once came to the town of Lubavitch. Now there were two types of maggidim in those days: those that spoke down to the people, and those that preached with love. Let's just say that the maggid in this story was no Maggid of Kohznitz. In other words, even if the trait of love did exist hidden inside of him, it was not at all evident when he "took the stage." Some became maggidim due to financial hardship, and were able to scrape together a small sum by going from town to town and giving hard mussar to the masses. This type of mussar was never popular amongst chassidim, who took a more loving approach.

The maggid in our story arrived in the town of Lubavitch, gathered together a crowd, and made his pitch in the central shul. He was rough, he was cruel. He delivered a fire and brimstone message, and spoke of the fiery flames of gehinnom. "Not one of you could look yourself in the face, honestly, without conjuring up an array of sins." Nobody was innocent. All had succumbed, time and time again, to their yetzer hara. By the time he was finished some chassidim walked out with their heads to the floor. But many were not shaken. One chasid, named Reb Shmuel Munkes, a well-known chasid of the Rebbe, went up to the maggid, and said, "you must need a place to stay for the night. Would you do me the honor of staying at my house?" He agreed.

Later that night the maggid arrived at the house. He was shown to his room, and he went to sleep. In the middle of the night he was awoken by a terrifying sound. It was a high-pitched screeching coming from the lower floor. He made his way downstairs to find Reb Shmuel Munkes holding a very long knife to a sharpner. The knife made a terrible, shrill sound when held against the wheel. The maggid, stuttering, asked, "what's, what's that?" "Oh, that's the knife," replied Reb Shmuel. "THE knife? What do you mean THE knife?" And the chosid answered, "you see, here in Lubavitch, we don't have any kivrei tzaddikim (graves of righteous people) to pray at. But when I heard you speak today!...." The maggid began to tremble and tiptoe backwards toward the door as Reb Shmuel stood up with the knife. "No, no, I'm not such a tzaddik!" cried the maggid. "I was only trying to make myself out as one," he continued. But Reb Shmuel came closer with the knife, and trapped the maggid in a corner. "Most of those things I said aren't true. I don't really believe that the people here are such reshoim (wicked sinners). I need the money, so I say these things." Reb Shmuel came even closer until the maggid exlaimed, "I'm really a rosho myself! Half the things I said about the people are really my own aveiros (sins). I'm not who you think I am! I needed the money. I'm a pathetic sinner!" And so, Reb Shmuel Munkes found out the truth about the maggid.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Rizhiner and the Tzemach Tzaddik

The Tzemach Tzaddik was the son-in-law of the holy Rizhiner Rebbe. The Rizhiner was known for his riches and malchus (royalty), but for all of his material wealth, he was on a very high, exalted level. When it came to physical matters such as eating he took after the tradition of his grandfather, Reb Avrohom the Maloch (the angel), given this title for his reluctance to partake in earthly delights such as food.

One day when the Tzemach Tzaddik and the Rizhiner were engaged in a meal, the Rizhiner put his fork down after he was only half way through with his meal. When the Tzemach Tzaddik questioned him the Rizhiner said that before he was born, he had made a deal with his neshomo (soul), only to eat enough to get by, and not a morsel more. The Tzemach Tzaddik then commented that he just realized something. "All my life there was something that bothered me, and I just figured out the answer," he said. "On Friday night we sing shalom aleichem, welcoming the the angels that accompany us home from shul into our homes. But then, just a short while later, we sing tzeischem lesholom, bidding them farewell. Why do we send them away so soon? Now I realize why. It's because angels can't partake in earthly pleasures. They can't taste food. We don't want to show them disrespect by eating in front of them, so way say goodbye before we begin our meal," at which point the Tzemach Tzaddik put down his fork, indicating that he was in the presence of a maloch at that moment, the Rizhiner himself.

Speaking of food, the mother of the Rebbe Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg and his brother Reb Pinchus once complained that one of her sons doesn't say bircas hamazon (grace after meals), and the other doesn't say kriyas shema al hamitah (prayer before going to bed). (one didn't eat and one didn't sleep).

Reb Mordechai of Kuzmir and Animals

One motzei shabbos, after a fiery afternoon of zemiros and Torah, Reb Mordechai of Kuzmir, son of the Maggid of Trisk, decided to go for a sleigh ride through the forest with some of his chassidim. As they were pulled, swiftly but gently, across a wintery landscape, Reb Mordechai closed his eyes, and became engrossed in his holy and otherworldly thoughts. Oblivious to the night scenes, but attentive to the crisp air hitting his face, the Rebbe was in an exalted state. His chassidim surrounding him looked on.

At one point the horses slowed down their trot, and came to a complete stop adjacent to some dense forestry. As the Rebbe was deep in his trance, the chassidim looked around to see what was holding up the horses. But just then, in between the bare trees, they saw something lit up in the dark. Eyes. It was wolves. When horses sense wolves in their immediate vicinity they freeze out of fear. The chassidim began to tremble, and all looked toward the Rebbe. But the Rebbe was still in his rapture. They feared for their lives, and they shook the Rebbe until he reached a conscious state. They pointed toward the eyes. The Rebbe looked on, and made his way out of the sleigh. He walked to the front, and took off his coat. He took off his long jacket, and lifted up his shirt. With his bare chest exposed to the wintery air, he stood for two minutes, three minutes, and a few minutes more, while all remained silent, and stared in his direction. The silence was broken when one of the wolves was heard rustling between the branches. It was the head wolf. It walked up to the Rebbe slowly, and put it's nose to the Rebbe's chest. It kept its nose glued to the chest for a few seconds, until it licked the Rebbe's boots, and preceded back into the woods. Then came the rest of the wolves, one by one. Each went up to the Rebbe, licked his boots, and went back into the forest.

The chassidim were amazed, and when the Rebbe got back into the sleigh, they inquired about this wonder. "Animals can sense fear," explained Reb Mordechai. "If you show not an ounce of fear then they will not attack. And in the case of some animals they will even come to submit. And how does one come to a lack of fear? One has to be on a lofty spiritual level. The higher one's level of ruchnius (spirituality) the less fear he will have of an animal, and the animal, in turn, will not fear, and thus not attack. My mind has been on only the loftiest of subjects from the beginning of this ride, and therefore when faced with the wolves I was already in an exalted state."

Perhaps there is more insight into Reb Mordechai's otherworldliness. In Chernobyl, it was the custom, as it was and is in other places, to say "harachaman (part of the grace after meals)," betzibur, as a group. After every "harachaman" there is a pause until the person leading the bentching concludes the "harachaman." It was reported that when Reb Mordechai led the bentching in the court of Chernobyl it took approximately two hours to go through the "harachamans." (This would normally take about two minutes). And such was the case with the shaking of the lulav (which is waved in six directions symbolizing G-d's sovereignty over the entire world) on the holiday of succos. This would last from one to two hours, as well. It is no wonder that he earned the zechus (merit) to perform wonders and associate with animals of nature, as he was widely known as an "ish peleh," a man of miracles and wonders.

There is a story that about Rav Eliezer Gordon, Telshe Rosh Yeshiva, who grew up in the small Lithuanian village of Chernian. There was no mohel in Chernian, and when it came time for the young Eliezer's bris (circumcision), his parents had to take him to a larger town. The family set out by sleigh the night before, but when they arrived, they realized that the baby was missing, and must have fallen out on to the snow somewhere along the way. They back-tracked, and found young Eliezer in the snow, being gaurded by a wolf. Perhaps the illustrious Rosh Yeshiva possessed a hint of spiritual nobility from the time of his birth.

Similarly, we learn in the gemara Pesachim, that referring to the pit in which Yosef, son of Yaakov, was thrown, the Torah states, "v'habor reik, ain bo mayim (and the pit was empty, there was no water)" The gemara asks why the Torah had to mention "there was no water" if it just said that the pit was empty. And the gemara learns out that the pit contained nechashim v'akravim, snakes and scorpians in the walls. We know that Yosef wasn't harmed, but was sold to a caravan of Yishma'alim a little while later. Coming out of the pit unharmed could only have been possible of a tzaddik on the loftiest and most exalted spiritual level.

In one of the Jewish papers there is weekly Q&A column. A few years back a question read: Who am I? I received the signal to do teshuvah (repentance) by a dog that bit me. Answer: I am a Jew according to the words of the Yalkut Me'am Loez, which states, "before a wild animal can attack a human being, he must appear like the animal. Only then do they dare attack. If he appears to them like a human being," that is, a spiritual being, "they would flee from him," meaning if all they see is a basar vadam (a physical body), then they see themselves, and animals attack each other out of fear and for food. But if one has an eminently G-dly connection, and can subordinate his body to the will of his soul, the animal will not sense the corporeal form to the same degree, and therefore will not attack. It will only attack something like itself, namely, a physical form. The Yalkut Meam Loez concludes, "if a person does good works, and has pity on the poor, no animal will be able to approach him to harm him."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Zutchka vs. Rabbi X

I wanted to begin by telling a story of an encounter a friend had with a semi-prominent Rabbi, and then juxtapose it with a story describing how the Zutchka Rebbe reacted in a similar situation.

My friend had been married a few years, but things were not going well. The couple had decided on divorce, and they were on their way to the Rav to finalize the arrangement. But before they went inside they began to talk. They mutually experienced a longing that they had not experienced in months, or even years. Just before they crossed that irrevocable threshold they had decided that it was not too late to reconcile. Their deep attachment, which had been latent for much time, began to manifest itself in feelings ever closer to the surface, and decided that they wanted to make the marriage work.

They walked into the Rav's quarters, and said with beaming faces, "we've changed our minds! We decided not to go through with the divorce!" The Rav opened his eyes wide, a vein about to burst from his forehead, and barked at them, "for this you waste my time? I've been sitting here FIFTEEN MINUTES waiting for the two of you. I could have been doing 100 other things. Don't you know that I'm a busy man?"

The previous Zutchka Rebbe, Harav Yitzchok Eisik Rosenbaum, zt"l, was known to never utter a mundane word. He learned, he taught Torah, and accepted petitioners. Torah was his entire life. He didn't even engage in wordly or mundane speech with his own family. When a granddaughter who lived close by and visited often came into his study one day, he asked "who is this??" So much was he involved in his learning. But when someone had a serious problem or a Torah matter to discuss he availed himself completely to them. Once, after his daily halacha shiur in the morning, a man came up to him, and said that he was having trouble following the Rebbe. The Rebbe established with him a one-on-one shiur on the spot, which lasted for several years. When the man came to the Rebbe, and said, "I feel as though I'm taking up the Rebbe's valuable time," the Rebbe answered, "if you only knew of the great satisfaction I get every day from learning with you."

On one occasion a couple had come to him in the evening. They wound up staying for four hours, past midnight. When his grandson later questioned him about the unusual amount of time spent with this couple he responded, "this couple was going to get a divorce. I was their last stop. I sat with them, and I delved deep into their hearts, and saw that there was much hope and yearning between the two of them. We talked out the matter, and now they are going to stay married. After all, doesn't it say that when a couple gets divorced the mizbeach (the altar) sheds tears? Well, tonight I am full of joy knowing that I spared the mizbeach any unnecessary sorrow. Four hours? Even a whole night would have been worth it for two precious neshamos (souls)."

One man, well, what could we say? And the other, a tzaddik, concerned with the depths of the human soul.


Just to introduce myself, I'm a ba'al teshuva who stumbled upon chassidus a few years ago while visiting Lakewood. Yes, a funny place, although many groups seem to have representation there these days. I had made a new friend, and he took out time to learn with me once a week. This had been my first time learning since yeshiva, which I attended up until eighth grade. He invited me to Lakewood for a shabbos, and guaranteed that it would be special. We walked to a local shtiebel, and from the first utterance of "lechu neranena," I was transported. We were amongst chassidim mostly, with a few yeshivisha guys thrown in. Previously, I had known conservative shuls, modern orthodox shuls, and even a couple of Litvish shuls, so never before had I even really heard people saying the words of the davening out loud. But here, not only were they saying the words out loud, they were exclaiming the words! Each person was singing the tefilah in his own way with all of his energy, from beginning to end. I had never heard such sweet sounds before. It caused me to look into my own siddur, and actually begin davening myself. When we got to lecha dodi I felt as if I had come home. This niggun, sung with great intensity, moved me to the heights of ecstasy. Even the young children sang. I asked my friend after the davening what type of "song" this was. He said, "this is a typical Jewish niggun amongst chassidim." To think that there were more like this, and that this was how people prayed.

But before I get carried away, the point I'd like to make is that the type of davening that I experienced amongst chassidim led me to go out and buy an Artscroll siddur, and start to examine the peirush hamilim, the meaning of the words. I had never cared enough before to do this, but I knew now that surely the tefillah was the highest level of truth, and would have to be closely examined and learned, word for word.

For the past three years or so I have been visiting chassidic communities, a little here and a little there. I go for shabbos and I go for tishen. I go to communities such as Satmar, Skver, Stolin, Bobov, Belz and Chabad. Lately, I have begun learning chassidishe seforim, as well, starting with Meor Einayim.

Hope that people enjoy the stories.