Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Modzitzer Rebbe's Inspiration Under the Surgeon's Knife

This is the very famous story of the "ezkarah gedolah" by the first Modzitzer Rebbe, Reb Yisroel Taub zt'l. The Modzitzer dynasty has its roots in Kuzmir and Zvolin. Reb Yechezkal of Kuzmir had at least one new niggun composed weekly for his shabbos table. His son, the Zvoliner Rebbe, Reb Shmuel Eliyahu, was known as a musical wonder. When he davened for the amud in his father's beis midrash people were known to have said that they now experienced the meaning of "ve'chol ha'am ro'im es hakolos" "and the entire nation SAW the voices (a verse from the giving of the Torah)." Reb Shmuel's attitude toward negina was that the singer was standing in the Beis Hamikdash (the Holy Temple), and the Leviim were accompanying him. His second son was Reb Yisroel, who began the dynasty of Modzitz.

The year was 1913. The Rebbe's leg had become severely infected, and it was recommended that he take a trip to Berlin to visit a specialist, Dr. Israel. Upon arrival and inspection of the leg Dr. Israel saw no recourse save for amputation. At this point it was a matter of saving the Rebbe's life. They had to amputate, lest the infection spread. He told this to the Rebbe, but it was not a simple matter. The matter of anesthesia was questionable in those days. Many believed that it caused one to lose one's mind, and so there were those who opted for simple surgeries without the use of anesthesia at all. But this was a completely different matter. This was an amputation, the sawing off of a leg. This was physical pain in its most extreme form. The Rebbe thought long and hard, and presented his decision to the doctor. He was going to brave it. Because despite the most severe physical pain conceivable he was a leader to chassidim. They relied on him, and he couldn't take a chance and forget his Torah, and his niggunim too for that matter. He had composed upwards of 300! Dr. Israel agreed that the amputation would be done without the use of anesthesia, and the surgery was to take place immediately.

While under the knife the Rebbe knew well that his only way to get by was through his deep and limitless spiritual connection. A little while into the amputation the Rebbe turned his head and peered out the window. He saw the architecture of the city of Berlin in all its splendor. Colors, edifices, that actually reminded him of Jerusalem! He thought of the contrast between the beautifully built city of Berlin and the destruction of Jerusalem. His mind quickly began to meditate on the words recited during the closing ne'ilah service of Yom Kippur, "ezkerah Elokim ve'ehemaya, bir'osi kol iyr al tiyah be'nuyah..." "I shall remember oh G-d, and I shall moan, when I see every city built on its hilltop, while the city of G-d is degraded to the utmost depth. But despite all this, we are G-d's and our eyes look to G-d...." The Rebbe, after some meditation, reached a high point of dveikus (attachment to the Divine), and began to compose a niggun on these words. He lost himself in negina (song). While the saw was penetrating the skin, and the veins and the arteries, and finally the bone, the Rebbe was experiencing the situation from a completely different realm, pouring his talent of song into the heavenly and otherworldly chambers l'sheim shamayim (for the sake of heaven). It was this faith in and connection to the heavens that he was able to link up with during the procedure that saved the Rebbe from what would have been for most a truly impossible situation to withstand. By the end of the amputation the Rebbe had composed a niggun in 36 parts on the four stanzas of "ezkerah." It was a story that all in the operating room and all those who knew the Rebbe would be telling for years, and are telling to this day. The Rebbe finalized the composition during his recuperation. The composition lasts approximately twenty-five minutes, and is sung on the Yahretzeit (day of passing) of Reb Yisroel in Modzitzer centers every year to this day.

In another medical related incident, Reb Moshe Goldman, the famous composer of Bobover niggunim, had to undergo surgery after some health-related complications. While lying on the table, he composed a niggun in his head. He was not able to use his voice, but said it was his heart that was singing. It took two months to properly fit the niggun to words, and the final result was "vayizaku el Hashem Batzar Lahem." It was released on his next album.

In another medical-related incident, Reb Dovid'l Skverer was once cutting a loaf of bread when he mistakenly cut into his finger. He was well known for his limited attachment to earthly things, but in this case he had hardly realized that his finger needed immediate medical attention. When someone in the house noticed the stream of blood dripping down onto the floor, a doctor was called. While the doctor stiched up the finger, Reb Dovid'l sat, and immersed himself in his learning, seemingly oblivious to the situation.

In yet another medical related incident, the previous Lelover Rebbe, Rav Shimon Nasan Nata Biderman, who passed away last year, was involved in a serious accident involving his fingers. He met with a Dr. Teppler of Brooklyn, and it was decided that a few fingernails would have to be removed in order to stitch the wounds properly. Dr. Teppler was about to administer the anesthesia when the Rebbe asked what was in the syringe. Upon hearing that it was a numbing agent he adamantly refused to have it injected into his body. Dr. Teppler explained the nature of the hyper-sensitive nerves under the fingernails, and explained that it was essential for the patient to keep his hand perfectly still for such a procedure. And that would not be possible without the hand being numbed. But the Rebbe still refused. The procedure was begun, and the Rebbe began humming a niggun and falling into deep thoughts. The Rebbe did not move his hand. When the procedure was complete, the doctor ran out of the room, and brought in a kvittel (a note) to the Rebbe with the names of his close and extended family. He wanted a bracha (blessing) from this Rebbe who exuded saintliness. Doctor Teppler told the Rebbe's gabbai outside that if he had told another doctor what had just transpired, he would not have believed him. He explained that what the Rebbe just experienced is not humanly possible.

Why did the Rebbe refuse to be anesthetized? It is unlikely that it was the same reason that the Modzitzer Rebbe refused. This was many years later. Was it a medical reason? A spiritual reason?

Clip of a recent simcha in Modzitz with the current Rebbe sitting in the middle. They are singing "libi u'vesori," recently composed by the Rebbe.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Kotzker, Ostrovtzer and Binyamin

In this week's parsha, parshas vayigash, Yehuda tries desperately to get Binyamin back from the viceroy of Egypt, Yosef, and tells how his father Yaakov will die of grief if he sees that Binyamin is not with the brothers upon their return to Eretz Cana'an. "Yaakov's soul is bound up with his soul," he tells Yosef. With all of his pleading on behalf of his father the mefarshim (commentators) ask: Binyamin had ten children at home. Why didn't Yehuda talk about them, and use their grief to play on Yosef's emotions?

The Pardes Yosef, Rav Yosef Patsanovsky, writes that a poor Jew once came to Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, and complained that his children neglected him. Rav Menachem Mendel cited how Yehuda portrayed Yaakov's grief rather then the grief of Binyamin's ten sons, and explained, "it is an ancient fact of life that parents have more compassion for their children than children have for their parents."

And the Ostrovtzer Rebbe explains: Our traits are inherited from the earliest generations. Since Adam had children but no human mother or father, he developed compassion for his children, but not for any parents. Therefore, to this day, we love our offspring more than we love our parents.

And one more vort from from the Ostrovtzer Rebbe on another matter. He explains that when the Jews were forced to translate the Torah into Greek - what later became known as the Septuagint - they were faced with a dilemma. The opening of the Torah, "bereishis barah Elokim, in the beginning G-d created..." is interpreted by Chazal (our Sages) as "for the sake of reishis," the word "reishis" referring to Israel, so that the opening words read, "for the sake of Israel G-d created the heavens and the earth.." But what if this word, "bereishis," were looked upon as some type of entity. Then it would that "bereishis" created G-d, chas v'shalom, who in turn created the world. And so to avoid this possibility they inverted the opening words so that it would read, "Elokim barah bereishis," so that it would be clear that G-d is the one doing the creating. So in actuality, the translators surrendered the honor of Israel thereby preserving the honor of G-d.

This seems to bring up a question. When translating these opening words into Greek isn't it obvious that the Hebrew word "bereishis" would be omitted altogether, and a Greek rendering of the word would be put down? Take your pick for "bereishis:" In the beginning, for the sake of Israel, etc. How would the actual word "bereishis" have come into play at all? Perhaps someone has some ideas on this.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Alter Rebbe's Secret

Also in honor of yud tes Kislev a story of Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, first Rebbe of Lubavitch.

In the town of Liozna a chosid came the Rebbe with a question. His had faced difficult times, financially. He had struggled and failed in an array of ventures, and came to ask the Rebbe's advice concerning parnassah (making a living). The Alter Rebbe thought for a minute, and told this chosid that he should open a small market in town. The Rebbe told him that it would be a success, and told him to come back in a few months to report on how things were going.

After a few months he came back, and reported that, Baruch Hashem, the business had gotten off of ground, and the people of the town were regularly shopping in the store. He even had his daily customers. The Rebbe said was very happy to hear the news. When the chosid got up to take leave the Rebbe addded, "just one thing. From now on it would be a better idea to go to Vitebsk to buy the products for your store. There you could get them cheaper, and you'll buy enough so that you won't have to stock up as often. Report back to me in a few months."

After a few months the chosid came back, and reported, once again, that the business had really taken off, and he had his share of regular customers from the town. The Rebbe, once again, was pleased, but mentioned, "that's all very well, but from now on it would be best to take a trip to Moscow every few months where you could buy the products even cheaper. You will stock up so that you won't have to shop as often, and surely this will save you money, and you will make money, as well. Come back in six months."

The chosid made a trip to Moscow every few months, and after some time came to see the wisdom of the Rebbe paying off. All was going quite well. "Very nice," said the Rebbe, upon the chosid's next visit, "but from now I think the best idea would be to take a trip a bit farther away, to Leipzig, to the fair. There you could buy your products cheaper than anywhere in Russia, and you won't have to go as often." The chosid agreed, but before he left the Rebbe added, "oh, and when you're in Leipzig, relax a little. Buy a ticket for the theater and see a show." The chosid wasn't sure if he heard correctly, and from the look of astonishment on his face the Rebbe knew that he had to reiterate. "Buy a ticket for the theater and see a show while you're there. Relax a little. After all, it will be a strenuous day at the fair." The chosid, astonished, agreed, took leave of the Rebbe, and began to plan for his first trip to the Leipzig fair.

The work in Leipzig was tiring. All day at the fair, going from booth to booth, picking out the most suitable items for the store, and finding the cheapest prices. He bought his ticket to the theater, and almost as soon as the lights had gone down his head fell back, and he fell asleep. At the end of the performance, when all had left the theater, a janitor came over to wake him up. "Reb Yid, Reb Yid. Please wake up. The show is over." The chosid opened his eyes, and exclaimed, "who are you?" "I'm Karl," replied the janitor, "a fellow Jew." Karl inquired, "where are you from?" The chosid told him that he was from Liozna, and upon hearing this news the janitor said, calmly, "from Liozna. Then you must know my friend, Rabbi Zalman." The chosid opened his eyes wide, "Rabbi Zalman? Rabbi Zalman? You know the Rebbe? You call him Rabbi Zalman?" "Sure," said the janitor. "And if you see him please tell him that Karl says hi." "You know the Rebbe? But what are you doing here?" asked the chosid. "I work here. I'm the janitor," replied Karl. Amazed at the turn of events the chosid could not wait to get back to Liozna to tell the Rebbe about this unbelievable find in a theater in Leipzig, Germany.

Back home, the chosid reported to the Rebbe, and told him how everything had gone according to plan in Leipzig: cheap prices, superior goods, and he stocked up enough so that he would not have to go back for six months. But he was very anxious to tell the Rebbe about this Karl fellow. He related the entire story to the Rebbe, about how he had bought a ticket to the theater, fell asleep, and was woken up by a fellow Jew named Karl, the janitor, at which point the Rebbe's face lit up. "Please come back to see me before your next trip to Leipzig" said the Rebbe, simply.

Six months had passed. At the outset of the chosid's second journey to Leipzig he met with the Rebbe, as he was now accustomed to doing before any trip to buy goods. The Rebbe handed him a package, wrapped well, and told him to buy another ticket for the theater while in Leipzig and, at the theater, to hand the package to Karl.

The chosid was very busy in Leipzig, but managed to buy his ticket for the theater in the evening. Just as during his first trip to the theater he fell asleep almost instantly after the lights went down. Just as during the first trip he was woken up by the janitor, Karl. "Reb Yid, Reb Yid, please wake up. The show is already over, and everyone has left. I don't want to get into any trouble, so please wake up." Delighted to see the sight of Karl's very ordinary face the chosid quickly took out the package from the Rebbe, and handed it to him. Still wary and confused at the exact nature of his shlichus (his being sent by the Rebbe with this package) the chosid instructed Karl, "this is directly from the Rebbe. Whatever it is, you are to guard it with your life!" Karl responded calmly, "sure. No problem. And oh," he continued, "meet me back here at the theater tomorrow night at the same time." The chosid could not fathom what might be in that package, or what Karl might do with it overnight.

The next evening at the show, after the same routine, Karl appeared. "Tell Rabbi Zalman that I approve," said Karl, and he handed over the package. "That he approves? That he approves??" thought the chosid to himself. When he finally returned to Liozna he didn't even stop at the store with the wagon to unload. Nor did he stop home for a drink or a hot meal. Instead he went straight to the home of the Rebbe, and upon handing him the package he reported that he had seen Karl, and that Karl "approves" the contents of the package. The Rebbe's face seemed to light up with a special glow upon hearing this news and upon receiving the package back into his hands. He gave the chosid a very meaningful bracha (blessing), wished him well, and told him that as far as his store was concerned he was now on his own, because he would be assured further success. But the chosid wasn't content with just that. He looked across at the Rebbe deeply, but before he got a chance to speak the Rebbe said, "he's one of the lamed vav tzaddikim. And in this package is something I have been working on called Tanya. Now I could publish it." The chosid, quite astounded, but now able to make at least a little bit of sense out of all the events of the past couple of years, was sworn never to tell another soul.

(The lamed vav tzaddikim are the 36 righteous people in each generation that sustain the world. They are hidden tzaddikim; hidden righteous people; hidden to the world, usually appearing as simple and ignorant to the casual observer. It is only those with the keenest spiritual sensibilities, someone such as the Alter Rebbe, that can detect their identities.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Cryptic words of the Maggid

For the Yahretzeit of the Maggid of Mezeritch, yud tes Kislev, a most unusual story.

It was shabbos, and disciples of the Maggid sat around the table, while followers stood forming a small crowd to the end of the room. It was leil shabbos, and the Maggid was giving over words of Torah. When he completed his thoughts he paused. He then stated, "if there is anyone here in the this room who could give over lashon harah (evil speech, gossip) about Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, I could promise him a cheilek in olam habah (a share in the world to come)." The room was completely silent, presumably out of astonishment and shock. Nobody budged. The Maggid stated one more time, "if there is someone here who could give over a good piece of lashon harah about Rebe Levi Yitzchak, come forward. I could promise him a cheilek in olam habah." There was no response. People didn't know what to make of his words, but some suspected that he was talking in code. The third time he asked there was a bit of a rumble toward the back of the room. A young man in his 30's, a man who had recently become successful in business, had stood up. As he took a step forward the chassidim grabbed hold of him. "No," they said. "You don't understand what he's saying. He's not talking on a level that you and I can understand. He doesn't really mean what he's saying." And so the man sat back down.

During the shabbos day meal the Maggid, once again, gave over his statement to those assembled in the room. He asked three times, as he did the night before, but not a sound was to be heard in the room. During shalous sheudis (the third meal), after he had finished speaking Torah, he stated in a particularly heavy tone, "if there is anyone here who could give me a good, juicy bit of lashon harah against Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, I could promise him a cheilek in olam habah." Upon his third utterance the young man stood in the back of the room stood up, and there was no stopping him this time. He had been holding back all of shabbos, but not any longer. He walked toward the Maggid, looked down at him, and could barely contain himself. "I have a piece of lashon harah against Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev," he said. "It happened last week. I was in Berditchev on business, and I thought I would pay a visit to this man that everyone says is a great tzaddik (righteous person). I asked around one morning, and people directed me toward his shul. As I was about to open the door of the shul Reb Levi Yitzchak threw the door open from the inside and, garbed in tallis and tefillin, and a crazed look in his eye, he said to me, 'WHAT WOULD GAVRIEL SAY? WHAT WOULD MICHAEL SAY?' Then he charged back into the shul. Could you believe this?" said the young man. "Reb Levi Yitzchak talks in the middle of davening!!! Even worse, he leaves the shul, and says crazy things!" The Maggid looked into the young man's eyes deeply, and said, "you have made a very, very grave mistake my friend. You may not know it, but Reb Levi Yitzchak is the advocate in shamayim (heaven) for all Yidden! When a Jew's case comes to the court above Reb Levi Yitzchak stands against the prosecuting angels, and picks out the merits of that particular Jew that will save him from punishment, or even worse, gehinom. When you were in Berditchev last week you were staying at an inn. On the morning that you had gone to meet Reb Levi Yitzchak you had breakfast at the inn, and as you were leaving the dining room you noticed a silver spoon lying on a table. As you walked by the table you discreetly put the spoon into your pocket. When you reached Reb Leve Yitzchak's shul he was exactly at the point of his davening when he intercedes on behalf of klal Yisroel (the Jewish nation). When they got to your case in shamayim Reb Levi Yitzchak, for the first time in his life, had no defense! He couldn't think of a single word to say on your behalf. You live comfortably, you've done well in business. You didn't need that spoon! But you took it. And as you approached he asked you what the malachim (angels) Gavriel and Michael would say about this completely unnecessary act of thievery. Now," said the Maggid, "you are to go immediately back to Reb Levi Yitzchak in Berditchev, and tell him all that has transpired here this shabbos. You will then ask his forgiveness for speaking lashon harah about him, and you will accept upon yourself whatever teshuva (repentance) he puts upon you for speaking the lashon hara and stealing the spoon.

The young man set out for Berditchev the next day, and the story goes that the extensive process of teshuva which Reb Levi Yitzchak designed for the young man, replete with renewed passion for Torah and for mitzvos, was of the type to assure him a place in the world to come.