Monday, December 20, 2010

Ba'al Shem Tov and the Nursing Baby

This week we begin the book of Shemos (Exodus). We learn that Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) was hidden among the reeds in the swamp by the Nile after a decree had been issued by Pharaoh, saying that all male children should be thrown into the river. Pharaoh's daughter, Basya, finds the boy, and attempts to nurse him. She does not succeed, and neither do any of the other Egyptian woman. G-d said, "should the mouth that is destined to talk with the Shechinah (Divine Presence) drink non-kosher milk? And furthermore, shall an Egyptian woman later boast that she fed the mouth that conversed with the Shechinah?" And so we have the following story.

A distraught woman once came to the Ba'al Shem Tov from a a faraway town, in order to receive a bracha. She had been childless all her years, and wanted nothing more than to raise a fine child together with her husband. The Ba'al Shem Tov preceded to bless her, and within the year she gave birth to an unusually beautiful baby boy. When the child was weaned she made the arduous journey once more, in order to show the Ba'al Shem her beautiful new baby, and to get a bracha for her son. When the Ba'al Shem Tov saw this stunning baby he asked his gabbai (attendant) to take the baby from the mother, and pass it on to him. The Ba'al Shem hugged, kissed and cooed at the baby, and returned him to the gabbai, who, in turn, returned him to his mother. He did not offer a bracha. The woman realized this omission, but did not question the ways of the Ba'al Shem, and so she made her way back to her distant town.

When she returned home the baby died. She rushed to the Ba'al Shem Tov. "You killed my baby!" she screamed. After all, he did not issue a bracha for the child. "Let me tell you a story," said the Ba'al Shem. "Please sit down.

"There was once a king and a queen. They lived contented, happy lives. They had the wealth of the kingdom at their hands, they loved each other very much, and they were loved by the people. The only thing missing from their lives was children. They had no son, specifically, no heir to the royal throne. The king, one day, consulted his foremost adviser, and said they following: 'You offer assistance in matters of state; you offer your wise counsel on the military front. Often, you even advise me in matters of a personal nature. It's no secret that the queen and I are childless. We have no male heir to the throne. What are we going to do?' The king's adviser thought for only a few seconds, and responded, 'the Jews. Only the Jews are able to help you here.' 'If the Jews are able to help me,' replied the king, 'then I shall take away all of their taxes and many tributes.' 'That's not enough,' said the adviser. 'You must make a threat. Tell them that they must pray for you to have a son, day and night, and if they fail in their prayers, then you will wipe them out from your kingdom altogether.'

"And so it was. The Jews were informed of their heavy burden, and they began to pray, day and night. They fasted, recited Tehillim (Psalms), and implored the Almighty to answer their prayers. Their prayers reached the heavens, and one lofty soul volunteered to come down to the earth to be the son of the king and queen.

"Nine months later a baby boy was born. The king, breeding his son for royalty, began to hire the foremost tutors in the kingdom for his beloved son, on subjects ranging from mathematics to etiquette. The boy was a wonder. He mastered every subject he took up in a short period of time, and with great ease. A few months after a new subject was introduced, the respective tutor was dismissed, because the boy had run the subject dry. He longed for something compelling, something profound, and he approached his father with the request, yet again. The king decided that it was time for the boy to take up spiritual matters. He spoke with the senior-most Christian cleric, and assigned him a room in the royal palace. The priest had but one request: 'Every day I meditate alone in a room for one hour. During this time I ascend to the heavens, and I cannot be disturbed. If someone were to see me in this state then I could make no guarantees for his life.' And so the request was granted.

"The boy took up the study of religion with great fervor and dilligence. He learned many hours of the day with the priest but, like any other young boy, he was curious. What exactly did the priest do during his hour of solitude? What exactly did it mean that he ascended to the heavens? And so he made a copy of the keys for the priest's study. He was bursting with anticipation on the next day when he stuck the key in the lock. He turned the handle, opened the door, and he could not believe the sight. The priest was sitting in tallis (a religious shawl) and tefillin, and was learning the Talmud! He looked up at the boy, and almost fainted. He began to stutter, and the only recognizable words coming from his mouth were 'please..please..' The boy looked up at him, and said, 'don't worry. I won't tell anyone. But under one condition: You teach me what you're learning.' He agreed. But the boy did wonder why all of this was a secret. 'Whatever the reason,' said the religious teacher, 'you could bet that it is a good one, and that I will have to keep up the charade for the rest of my life.'

"They studied Judaism, and the boy finally felt that this religious study, the length and breadth of which were infinite, contained the depth and profundity that he had longed for, for years. Eventually, he would tell his religious tutor, 'convert me to the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I want to be a Jew. But my father cannot stand to be apart from me for even a single day.' And so the religious tutor came up with a plan. 'You are to tell your father that since you are being groomed to take over the throne one day, and since you have never left the area surrounding the palace, it is your wish to travel for some time to get to know the governors of the various provinces and the local people, as well. But you will do this in increments. For one month you will leave for a few days a week, and then return to your father, in order to get him used to the idea of you not being at his side. And after a month you will say that you would like to travel a greater distance.'

"And so it was. The boy began to travel, and at the beginning of the second month, he reached a border town with the carriage driver, and told him to go back to the palace, because he would be spending a considerable amount of time in this town. And when all was clear he crossed the border, and looked for the nearest Jews. He spent his time in the beis midrash (house of study), and used the money he had taken along from the palace to support himself. He learned in the beis midrash until the day he died.

"When this soul reached heaven," said the Ba'al Shem Tov, "the prosecuting angels scoured his history in order to find some fault, but they could not come up with a thing. This was a soul who volunteered to leave the pleasures of the world above, and dwell in this world, in order to be born to a non-Jewish king and queen, and then abandon a life of royalty in order to become a Jew. One prosecuting angel, however, did speak up. 'For the first two years of his life he nursed from a non-Jew!' The verdict in heaven was that he be sent back down for two years in a new incarnation to be nursed by a Jewish woman. And this was the boy that you gave birth to," said the Ba'al Shem. "It should not grieve you that the child lived only two years, but rather you should contemplate the fact that for two years you were found worthy of caring for and nursing such a lofty soul."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Maggidim of Chernobyl and Bar

"Ke'Reuven v'Shimon yihiyu li, as Reuven and Shimon they shall be mine (Bereishis 48:5)."

As Jacob's life comes to an end in this week's parsah, parshas vayechi, he gives the famous birchos Yaakov, "blessings of Jacob," to his children. Before doing so he calls in his two grandsons from Yosef. Yosef has become viceroy over all of Egypt, and while there he gives birth to two sons, Ephraim and Menashe. Before his blessing to the grandsons he states "ke'Reuven v'Shimon yihiyu li." Due to their virtue, Yosef's children, Ephraim and Menashe, now have the status of Jacob's own children, such as Reuven and Shimon.

Reb Mordechai, the Maggid of Chernobyl, was married to the daughter of Reb Aharon of Karlin. She bore him five illustrious sons, all of whom became Rebbes in their own right. She passed away, and left Reb Mordechai a widower. He decided firmly that he would not marry again. As the years passed he began to get offers for shidduchim (matches for marriage), but he held his ground. It was not until he received a letter from his late wife's brother, Reb Asher of Stolin, that he began to consider a new life. Reb Asher goaded him to take as a wife the daughter of Reb Dovid Leikes, Maggid of the Russian town of Bar, who was a prominent chasid of the Ba'al Shem Tov. Reb Mordechai relented, and made the journey to Bar to ask Reb Dovid for his daughter's hand in marriage. He presented the proposal at arrival, and after closing his eyes and meditating over the matter for a couple of minutes, Reb Dovid said, "I'm sorry, but I flatly refuse your proposal." "But surely you could at least give me your reason for refusal," said Reb Mordechai. "If it's a financial concern, while I cannot provide your daughter with an extravagant lifestyle, I could promise that we would be well taken care of." "No, that is not the reason at all," replied Reb Dovid. "Let me explain something to you," he said. "In my meditation I have just seen that my wife is destined to have five children. I have also seen that you are destined to have three more children. And so that means that after having three children with my daughter, you will pass away and leave her a widow. She will then have to look for another suitable shidduch, and have two more children with that husband. So you see, this really is not an auspicious bargain from our point of view." Reb Mordechai asked for three days to think over the matter.

At the end of three days Reb Mordechai came to Reb Dovid, and said the following: "It is all worked out. You see, I have consulted with the Ba'al Shem Tov, of blessed memory, and he quoted the verse from parshas vayechi, 'ke'Reuven v'Shimon yihihu li,' meaning that as you said, I will give your daughter three more children. But when I pass away, two of those three children will have their own two sons who will be at the same level of saintliness as our children. Therefore, just as Ephraim and Menashe were grandsons of Jacob, but were given the same status as the children of Jacob, so too will the virtue and merit of our grandchildren be of the type that they will be moved up to the status of being our own children." Reb Dovid agreed to the shidduch, and it happened as Reb Mordechai had explained: They bore three tzaddikim, Reb Yochanan of Rachmestrivska, Reb Dovid of Tolna, and Reb Itzik'l of Skver. And from them came two grandchildren, Reb Dovid of Zlatopol (son of Reb Yochanan), and Reb Dovid of Skver. And it was through these two that the shidduch was complete, albeit retroactively.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Precocious Children

The Chiddushei HaRim, first Gerrer Rebbe, was known as an iluy (young genius). His father brought him to the Maggid of Kozhnitz for an assessment. The Maggid said to the young Yitzchak Meir, "I'll give you a gold coin if you could show me where G-d is." Young Yitzchak replied, "I'll give you two gold coins if you could show me where G-d isn't!"

As a child, Reb Yitzchak Meir learned with the son of the Maggid of Kozhnitz, Reb Moshe. Once, after quite some time deliberating an intricate matter, Reb Moshe asked young Yitzchak what he thought. He gave an astounding answer that solved the matter at hand, and Reb Moshe gave him a kiss on the forehead. Reb Yitzchak complained to his family, "I want a teacher who's going to rend the flesh off my bones, not one who is going to give me a soft kiss on the head." Soon after he left Reb Moshe to look for a new teacher.


Reb Baruch of Mezhibuz was the grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov. As a child, he was present when his grandfather was visited by an old man who posed a question. "The Torah relates that after the third day of his circumcision, Avraham saw three men standing above him. We learn that they were Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. But how could Avraham be standing before Avraham?" Young Baruch jumped in, "this old man is very silly. Obviously these three men, who were angels, represet the three attributes of the avos (patriarchs): chesed, gevurah, and tiferes (kindness, strength, and glory)."


The daughter of, I believe, the Mitteler Rebbe, Reb Dov Ber of Lubavitch, was very precocious. Once, as a toddler, she threw a crying fit. Reb Dov Ber gave her a candy and put her on his lap. Sucking on the candy, she said, "you only think I stopped crying but I'm just taking a break!"


It was the custom of Reb Moshe Leib of Sassov to arrange a meal every Sunday for the poor people of the city. He once visited the city of Brodt, and arranged his customary meal there. The Divrei Chaim of Sanz was a young boy, just one and a half years old at the time, and when a bad fire had broken out in the city of Ternigrad, where the family had lived, they were forced to travel to Brodt. Reb Chaim's wet nurse took him to the fesitve seudah (meal) thrown by Reb Moshe Leib. Young Chaim caught sight of the Reb Moshe Leib, and immediately propped his chin upon his wet nurse's shoulder so that he could get a full view of the Rebbe. He couldn't take his eyes off of Reb Moshe Leib. In fact, he recalled that his chin was hurting him for about an hour after the event. So what do we see from here? Was it that young Chaim was so spiritually attuned at the young age of one and a half that he was able to perceive the holiness exuded by Reb Moshe Leib, and therefore went to great pains to watch the tzaddik's every move? Or was the aura of Reb Moshe Leib so great that even a boy of one and a half years old could sense his eminent level of ruchnius (spirituallity)? It must have been a mixture of both, but there is certainly no denying the Divrei Chaim's spiritual nobility at such a young age.

The Divrei Chaim liked playing with wooden sticks in his youth, both during the week, and on shabbos. When he got older he was pained to learn that it is not permissible to do so on shabbos, because the sticks are considered muktzah (one may not touch them). Later he learned that if one arranges them before shabbos then he is allowed to touch and play with them on shabbos itself. But then it occurred to him! That even as a young boy he had arranged the sticks every week on the eve of shabbos. And about this, the Rebbe of Tziashnov said, "from this we see that a tzaddik (righteous person) is guarded from heaven even from the time of his youth." Even though he did not know that such a thing was prohibited, the knowledge was present in his heart, and he therefore arranged the sticks before shabbos.

The Divrei Chaim told that in his youth he had no money to buy seforim (religious books). He asked the seller at a local seforim store if he could sit in the store after hours, and spend the night learning. It was agreed upon, and one night he learned the entire hilchos melichah (the laws of salting meats to render them kosher, a very difficult subject), and he remembered them for the rest of his life.


Reb Eliezer of D'zikov, son of Reb Naftali Ropshitzer, once pulled a prank on his father. When Reb Naftali berated him, he answered, "what do you want from me? It's not my fault! The yetzer harah (evil inclination) made me do it! I didn't do anything wrong." "And that's exactly who's example you should be follo," said Reb Naftali. "The yetzer harah's example. He is commanded to follow a certain path, and that's the path he follows, without veering." Answered young Eliezer, "that's right, the yetzer harah doesn't veer, and that's because the yetzer harah doesn't have a yetzer harah! But we do. So what do you want from me??"


An iluy in a European city was summoned by the local bishop. The bishop had apparently heard of the child's consummate genius, and having complete faith that he would defeat the child in a religious argument, called upon him to appear at the church. "It says in your Torah that a majority rules, correct?" asked the bishop. "Yes, correct," answered the child. "Then you and all your brethren have to convert to Christianity! Because the majority of the world's population is Christian. Majority rules!" "Majority comes into play only in a case of doubt," answered the boy with great composure and coolness (since there's no doubt that the path of Judaism is the correct path in life, there is no argument in the first place!).


The brothers Reb Shmelke of Nickolsburg and Reb Pinchas of Frankfurt were very precocious children. At the age of five or six, they were already delving deep into gemara (talmud) with their father. A month before Purim they would begin mashechta (tractate) Megillah, in order to be finished in time for Purim. And immediately following Purim they would begin mashechta Pesachim, in order to be finished in time for Pesach. Immediately following Pesach their father asked young Shmelke, "and what should we begin to learn now my son?" Reb Shmelke responded, "Why, of course, we should begin to learn masechta Shavuous since the holiday of Shavuous is next." His father let out a chuckle, and remarked, "but surely Shmelke, you know that masechta Shavuous is not about the holiday of Shavuous, but rather about oaths." "Yes, and that's exactly why we should learn masechta Shavuous for the holiday of Shavuous," answered Shmelke. "Because on Shavuous we received the Torah, and we did so by taking an oath that we would keep the Torah and observe its mitzvos for all time. So therefore it's appropriate to learn about oaths for Shavuous. And, furthermore, there are forty-nine pages in masechta Shavuous, and forty-nine days from Pesach to Shavuous"


Once, when Reb Simcha Bunim of P'shischa was a child, his father had three guests in the evening. The three were talmidiei chachomim (Torah scholars), and were deep in discussion of Avraham Avinu and his primary trait of hachnasos orchim (hospitality to guests) since it had been at the time of parshas vayeira. Young Simcha walked into the room, and his father smiled at him, and said, "I would like you to think hard Simcha, and come up with a new interpretation on the mitzvah hachanasos orchim. Perhaps you could come up with a chidush (original Torah thought) of some kind." Young Simcha went into the next room, and half an hour later, as the four men got up from the table, Simcha's father called into him, and said, "OK Simcha, let's see your chidush on the mitvah of hachnosos orchim." And in the next room were three beds with three pillows and three sheets and covers for the three men in case they needed to spend the night.


When the Belzer Rebbe, Reb Aharon Rokeach, was a young boy, he was given a watch as a gift. His joy could not be concealed. When asked about his tremendous glee he replied, "there are two good things about a watch. One, it shows you the time, minute by minute, second by second, so that one knows what he is doing at every moment. It calls out, 'do not waste your time, do not waste your time, because the current moment is all but gone.' And two, by having a watch I can help out other Jews. If they ask what time it is I could tell them." The chassidim were impressed by the young boy's insight. One of them asked the boy the time, and he responded down to the exact minute and second. The chassid asked, "are you trying to show me that you could tell time?" to which young Aharon replied, "when I do a favor for a fellow Jew I do it with love and with perfect detail."


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Charata (regret) and gaivah (haughtiness)

Let's look at a beautiful Kehillas Yitzchak from last week's parsha, parshas Chayei Sarah, and then a story of Reb Zusya and Reb Pinchas Koretzer that is loosely related, and then one involving Reb Dovid of Lelov.

"Vayavo Avraham lispod l'Sarah v'livkosah - And Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry over her." The word "v'livkosah," he cried over her, is written with a small letter "caf," leading one to ask what the meaning of this is. And the Kehillas Yitzchak offers a wonderful interpretation. Avraham has just come back from the akeidah (the binding of Yitzchak). In the most difficult of his ten trials, Avraham is told by G-d to bring his son, Yitzchak, to Har Hamoriah, raise a knife to his neck, and offer him as a sacrifice to G-d. As difficult as it, Avraham is at that point, wielding the knife in his right hand, when an angel calls down to him, and tells him, essentially, that it was only a test. He lifts his eyes, and sees a ram caught in the thicket, and offers it up to G-d in Yitzchak's place.

Back home in Be'er Sheva, the Satan informs Avraham's wife, Sarah, of what has gone on. But, he leads her to believe that her son was actually sacrificed in the process. She lets out three cries and three wails, and then dies out of grief. And here is where the small letter "caf" comes into play. When Avraham and Yitzchak return home, find Sarah dead, and then find out why she has died, Avraham begins to experience a mix of emotions. He feels that he may have directly been the cause of Sarah's death. If he didn't bring Yitzchak to the mizbeach (altar), then she would still be alive. And so, says the Kehillas Yitzchak, he may have experienced at this point charata (regret). But charata and the performance of a mitzvah don't go together. The charata can actually take back the mitzvah retroactively. It is easy enough to understand how the Satan works against us before the performance of a mitzvah. In this case, the Satan created a stream of water on the way to Har Hamoriah, where Avraham was to take Yitzchak. But as they crossed the stream it became deeper until it was a small river. The water was up to their necks, but Avraham outsmarted the Satan, and they crossed successfully. This is how the Satan places an obstacle before us when we are on our way to do a mitzvah. And by making us feel regret is how he attempts to get us to lose the mitzvah after the fact. In order not to show that he did not have charata for bringing Yitzchak to the mizbeach, the word "v'livkosah - and he cried" is written with a small letter, in order to draw us to the fact that his crying was not excessive, not to lead people to believe that he had any regret for bringing Yitzchak to the mizbeach.

And this is the pshat in the davening when we say "v'hoser satan milifneinu umeiachareinu - and remove the Satan from before us and from after us." After us, meaning giving us a sense of regret, which if we do feel, will take back the mitzvah that we just carried out."

Another "after the fact" or "after the mitzvah" danger is contained in the following story. Reb Zusya needed to raise money for his daughter's chasunah (wedding). Now, he wasn't exactly the type to look for handouts, even though he was a poor man himself, so this didn't make for an ideal situation. He went to houses, to businesses, and to people on the streets, but he could barely raise a penny. He ran into Reb Pinchas Koretzer, who was passing through town, and told him the story. Reb Pinchas asked how much he needed: $500. He assured Reb Zusya that he would raise the money for him in a week's time.

And so it was. He delivered the money to Reb Zusya, who thanked him profusely. On the way home, Reb Zusya spotted a small crowd. Upon closer inspection the people surrounded a woman sitting in the street, wailing that her husband would kill her and that they would be ruined financially. Upon inquiry, it turned out that the woman helped her husband in business, and after a huge business deal she was walking home when she realized that the money was gone: all $500. Reb Zusya walked away from the crowd, and contemplated what he was about to do. Now, since Reb Zusay walked around as a pauper, he was not known in these parts. By name, of course, he was known as the great tzaddik Reb Zusya, but not in appearance. Without much deliberation he cut through the crowd, and said, "I found $500 in the street! It must be yours." The woman got up from her place, and the look of life began to show in her face, once again. Reb Zusya handed over the money. She began to count it, but as she got to the last few bills...there was only $490! "Didn't you say that you found $500??" asked the woman. Reb Zusya replied that since he found the money, he wanted schar (reward). He felt as if he should be entitled to $10. The crowd began to bustle, and soon they were yelling at Reb Zusya. "Just give her back the $10. What kind of guy are you? Who do you think you are?" He said, no way, no how, he's keeping the $10 as reward for finding the lost money. They dragged him to the Rav of the town, who looked at him incredulously. "How could you do this?" he asked. "What kind of person are you?" And again, not knowing the big tzaddik that he really was, they threw him out of the town on his head.

A few weeks later, when talk of the incident died down, Reb Pinchas was passing through town, and an acquaintance began telling him of this absurd story of this guy who would not give back the $10. Reb Pinchas asked, "could you please describe him?" It was him, he realized. It was Reb Zusya. He quickly set out to Hanipoli to find Reb Zusya. "Even though I raised that money for your daughter's chasunah," said Reb Pinchas, "what you did is still a great mitzvah. But why did you give her only $490? If you were going that far then why not the other $10?" Answered Reb Zusya, "you see, I know well, that if I did the COMPLETE mitzvah of giving this woman $500 which is really my own money, then I would become the epitome of gaivah (haughtiness). How many people would give away $500? For the rest of my life I'd be patting myself on the back saying 'Reb Zusya, do you know what a great tzaddik you are? You give away $500 intended for your daughter's chasunah to a broken woman on the street? What a tzaddik you are!' And so I kept $10 to tell myself that I'm not 100% good. If not, I would be taken over by pride."

Reb Dovid of Lelov was on a fast. We hear stories of tzaddikim of yesteryear who went on incredibly long fasts, sometimes shabbos to shabbos. For Reb Dovid, this happened to be a three day fast. On the third day, as he was taking a walk on the road in the heat of the day, beads of sweat began to trickle down his face. Dressed in his complete chassidishe levush (chassidic clothing) he felt his face burning up. Soon his forehead and face became soaked. But then he noticed something up ahead on the road. It was a spring. He began walking toward it excitingly when he remembered that he made this forbidden to himself three days back. And so he realized what was going on. The Satan had placed this spring before him so that he would drink and thereby break his fast. He resolved to strengthen up as he passed the spring, and he did just that. But after he passed the spring he stopped in his tracks. "The Satan didn't place that spring in my path so that I would drink," he said to himself. "There is something all together different going on here. The Satan WANTED me to walk past the spring, because then I would become so proud that gaivah (haughtiness) and pride would overtake me, and the humility I have tried to cultivate all of these years would be buried." And so he walked back to the spring, and took a good few gulps.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hachnasas Orchim

For this week's parsha, parshas vayeira, a couple of stories on the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim; hospitality and opening one's house to others. The parsha starts off by saying that G-d appeared to Avraham (to visit him on the third day after his circumcision), and almost immediately goes on to talk about three visitors that were passing by Avraham's tent. And from this we derive the rule "gadol hachnasas orchim mikabalas pnei ha'shechinah, greater is the mitvah of having guests than welcoming the Divine Presence," because as soon as he saw the potential guests, he took leave of G-d.

There was a businessman traveling on a cold wintery night through the town of Gostynin. Too cold to travel on to the next town, he looked for a house with candles still burning inside. It was late into the night, but there was one house with a flickering of light at the window. He knocked on the door, and was warmly welcomed in by Reb Yechiel Meir. Now, he had no idea who this man was had just taken him in, but was joyed to find hard drink and refreshments on the table taken out immediately for his sake. But after eating and drinking he was still hungry. Reb Yechiel Meir found some uncooked porridge in the cabinet, and a pan of fat lying on the stove. Not knowing much about the finer points of cooking, he threw them together and put the dish into the oven to bake. The visitor wolfed down the entree, and was sated. Reb Yechiel Meir then gave the man his own bed to sleep in, and with wet clothing and galoshes he fell into bed and slept soundly. Reb Yechiel Meir had nowhere to sleep now, so he stayed up for the night. In the morning, he instructed his family not to go into his room, and he himself walked on tiptoe until he left for shacharis (morning prayers). The man later got up, and made his way to shul, as well. Telling some of the people after davening about his inordinately giving host, he discovered that he had slept in none other than the Rebbe's house! He made his way to the Rebbe at the front of the shul and, with quivering lips, manged to say, "please Rebbe, forgive me. I did not know that it was the Rebbe that I had put through so much trouble!" Reb Yechiel Meir responded, "I'm sorry, but I am not able to accept your apology on this." Stupefied, the man begged, this time with a stutter. Reb Yechiel Meir responded to the man's plea by saying, "I cannot accept your apology unless you agree to one condition." Now, highly intimidated, the man took a nice big gulp, and responded, "O..O...K." "You must promise me that any time you pass through Gostynin, you stay at my home at a guest. Because when else do I have the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim in such a fashion??"

Reb Eliezer, father of the Ba'al Shem Tov, was known for the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim. He would go so far as to send out emissaries to the town's crossroads, in order to see if anybody passing through might need a meal or refreshments, or even a place to stay for the night. He was also known for giving out money to travelers for provisions for the road. His actions were so great that his name became known up above. It was decided that he would be put to the ultimate test. The Satan immediately came forward and volunteered to carry out this test. But Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) said that it would be more proper for he himself to go down to this world. And so it was.

One day on shabbos, Reb Eliezer got a knock on the door. He opened it to find a disheveled and slightly confused-looking man holding a sack over his back with a walking stick in hand. He was clearly being mechalel shabbos (desecrating the Sabbath). But Reb Eliezer promptly invited him in, prepared the third meal of shabbos for him to eat, and did not say one word to put him to shame. After shabbos he lavished him with a melavah malkah (meal that symbolizes taking leave of shabbos), and the man ate his fill. In the morning, Reb Eliezer gave the man some money for his upkeep, and escorted him to the door. Walking over the threshold he turned back to Reb Eliezer, and said, "you should know that I am Eliyahu HaNavi, and I have come down to give you a test. You did not make me feel ashamed, and due to this, you have been found worthy to beget a son who will illuminate the eyes of all of Israel." The blessing was subsequently fulfilled, and Reb Eliezer's wife gave birth to a baby boy within the year. Little did they know just how much light and fire he would bring to Israel and just how far it would spread.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Solitude vs. Leading The Tzibbur

Reb Pinchas of Koretz, who was known by the Ba'al Shem Tov and his contemporaries as "the sage," was visited by hundreds, in not thousands, of those seeking berachos (blessings) and advice. So many were his visitors on a daily basis that at some point he became frustrated that he did not have much time left for himself. He worried about his learning and his personal relationship with G-d. He became depressed, and prayed that people should just leave him alone! And so it was. Within a short period of time they stopped coming to the door. Reb Pinchas now had ample time for his personal avodah and for his learning. He lived an austere life. The only time he came into contact with people was when he went to shul to pray. And even then he stood in the back, by the oven, the least desirable spot in the shul.

When Sukkos came around Reb Pinchas relied on the same men that had helped him year in, year out, to build his sukkah. But none of them showed up this year. His wife was sent out to seek their assistance, but they all turned her down. They found a local non-Jew, but he didn't have the proper tools to build the sukkah. They asked the neighbors, but the only answer they got from all of these people was a resounding "no!" Reb Pinchas became depressed, once again.

With sullen faces on the first night of Sukkos, Reb Pinchas and his wife sat in their not-fully completed sukkah. They recalled years gone by: Decorations and bright colors to adorn the sukkah; enough guests to last through Pesach. But this year they were alone with their heads hanging low. But just then they sensed a presence at the door. They looked up, and it was the first of the Ushpizin (holy guests), Avraham Avinu. He stood by the entrance gazing down at Reb Pinchas and his wife. Reb Pinchas asked, "but why don't you come in? What sin have I committed that you don't come into my sukkah?" Avraham answered, "because it is not my custom to enter a sukkah that has no guests." The message was clear. And so Reb Pinchas prayed from that day on that he, once again, be given the opportunity to dispense advice, answer questions, and give berachos to those who were in need.

There is a saying: A day spent making mistakes is better than a day spent doing nothing. The gemara says that there were four people who died without sin. They were Binyamin HaTzaddik, Amram, father of Moshe, Yishai, father of King David, and one of the sons of King David. The only reason for their eventual deaths was because of Adam Harishon's (Adam - first man) eating from the eitz hada'as (tree of knowledge). Beforehand, man was not meant to die. By eating the fruit, Adam and Chava changed the nature of man, and he now became subject to death. But back to our four tzaddikim. Asks the Chasam Sofer, if these four died without sin to their name, then aren't they on a higher madrega (level) than the avos (patriarchs)? And furthermore, if they are on a higher madrega, why don't we put them up in our sukkas as the ushpizin (holy guests) instead than Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon and David? The Chasam Sofer answers that there were those on an elevated level throughout Jewish history that had the opportunity to go through life free of sin. Like our four tzaddikim, they could have spent time in solitude, contemplating their own spirituality, and accessing higher and higher levels G-dliness. But let's take Moshe, in contrast. He was the greatest of the prophets. He spoke to G-d panim el panim (face to face). He was chosen to be the leader over Bnei Yisroel, but because of his speech impediment, and because he wanted to remain in a state of receiving G-dliness in solitude, he was an unwilling leader. But ultimately, he surpassed his nature, and went out to become the greatest leader Klal Yisroel has ever known. And when a person mixes with other people, says the Chasam Sofer, he is bound to make mistakes. A leader, especially, is going to come into conflict and disagreement, and may later regret some of his actions. But this is what happens in life. If one remains in one's daled amos (four cubits), and prays, and learns, and worries only about his personal relationship with G-d, then he is not concerned with the other half of the Torah: Bein adam L'chaveiro (mitzvahs between man and his fellow man). One who is concerned with his fellow Jew will leave his quarters, leave the beis midrash, and go out and do good for the Klal, knowing well that he will have to compromise his own spirituality along the way.

I heard an interview with Rav Shlomo Amar, chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, the other day, part of which touched on this same subject. He said that years ago when he served as av beis din (head of the rabbinical court) in the city of Petach Tikvah, he would give shiurim (classes) and inspirational sermons in the local shuls and yeshivos. He spent great amounts of time on that, and soon realized that he was left with little time for learning. One shabbos he was in Jerusalem, and picked up a new sefer written by Rav Yonasan Eibshitz. He opened it up, and the following practically jumped off the page: "With all my learning and with all the piskei din (religious rulings) I write, there is no time as valuable as the time spent offering words of inspiration to strengthen others. This is equal in importance to all of my learning." Rav Shlomo was astounded by both the fact that he opened to that exact page and line, and by the message itself. His depression began to lift. He met soon after with Rav Ovadia Yosef, and told over the story. Rav Yosef said that this exact matter pained him, as well. "There is so much time that I am not learning Torah because I am busy inspiring the public," he said. In fact, in his sefer, Rav Yosef recounted that once when he was suffering greatly from this same dilemma, the Ben Ish Chai came to him in a dream. His message was that educating the public makes a great impression up above in the heavens, and it is very dear to Hashem. He commanded Rav Yosef to continue his work in inspiring others.

On the pasuk (verse), "tzaddik katamar yifrach, k'erez bal'vanon yisgeh," "the righteous will flower like a date-palm tree; he will grow like a cedar in Lebanon," the Maggid of Mezritch says that this represents two different types of tzaddikim (righteous people). The one is concerned with his brothers. Lilmud al menas lelamed (learning for the sake of teaching others) is his motto. He goes out and influences the simple Jew, the unlearned Jew and the disheartened Jew. The other is concerned only with the learning itself. He doesn't lift his head from his book. The first bears nourishing fruit like the date-palm. And the second is like the cedar: Lofty and unfruitful.

The inside of a Chinese fortune cookie said, "knowledge and not doing is equal to knowing nothing at all."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sukkos Stories

dIt was the first morning of Sukkos in Lizhensk, and something was bothering Reb Elimelech. There was something in the air; something that just didn't seem right. He paused in the middle of hallel, and began to walk around the shul with his nose in the air, trying desperately to find the source of his disturbance. After davening he made his way, once again, around the shul, but before he walked out the door, his olfactory senses directed him to the esrog in the hand of the last man, in the last row, in the last seat. Reb Elimelech rushed over: "What is it about your esrog that emits the scent of Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden)?" he asked after taking in a long steady whiff. "Where did you acquire this esrog?" The man said that it was a long and not-so-exciting story, but if the Rebbe wished, he would tell it over.

"I live in Strelisk. I'm not a wealthy man, but I make a living. Every year before Sukkos I save money, even months in advance, so that I could buy a fancy and pleasing esrog. I save up 50 gulden, and make my way to Lemberg for the purchase. When I stopped this year at an inn on the way to Lemberg, I was woken in the night by screams and shouts outside of the inn. I made my way downstairs to see what the commotion was all about. Apparently, a ba'al agalah (wagon driver) needed to buy a new horse. His trusty horse had broken its leg, and the driver would lose his livelihood without a new horse by the next day. He begged the innkeeper to sell him a horse, which the innkeeper tried his best to do, but the price was way beyond the ba'al agalah's budget. The horse cost a total of 50 gulden. The driver begged the innkeeper to lower the price, but to no avail.

"And so I asked the innkeeper if he would give the driver the horse if I would pay him 45 gulden in cash. He agreed, and the ba'al agalah, astonished, thanked me profusely, and offered a free ride to any destination at any time.

"When I arrived in Lemberg I bought the best esrog I could find with only five gulden: Small and unattractive. When I got home, my wife and I agreed that we would be laughed out of Strelisk with such a tiny, ugly thing. And so we set out to Lizhensk to be in the company of the Rebbe, where we knew we would be accepted no matter how displeasing our esrog was."

"This is truly an amazing story," said Reb Elimelech. "Now I understand why the scent of Gan Eden has been wafting through the shul all through davening. You are really a lucky man, and you truly deserve this esrog. I'd like to hold it for a few minutes before you go home."

Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was once so excited and so anxious about making the bracha (blessing) over the lulav and esrog on the first day of Sukkos, that he broke the glass esrog case because his hands were shaking so intensely. It was only after he made the bracha that he realized that his hand was bleeding.

The Rizhiner's youngest son, Reb Mordechai Feivish, would spend several hours concentrating on shaking the lulav and esrog. He shook so intensely at times that it looked as though he was going to faint. Once, he coughed up blood out of exhaustion, not realizing that he had stained his esrog with his blood. 

And this recalls the story of the second Skverer Rebbe, Reb Dovid, who while slicing a piece of bread, sliced into his finger, and did not take notice of it right away. When his wife saw blood dripping from the counter she ran for the doctor. While the doctor sat at the table stitching up Reb Dovid's hand, Reb Dovid sat immersed looking into a sefer. Such was his prishus (separation from earthly happenings).

And this, of course, recalls the story of the "Ezkara Gedolah" of the first Modzitzer Rebbe. Read Inspiration Under the Surgeon's knife by clicking "Modzitzer Rebbe" on the right side column.

A few days before Sukkos one year, the Chassam Sofer was interviewing two prospective students for his illustrious yeshiva in Pressburg. There was only one slot left open for the new zman (session). One turned out to be a young man of extraordinary learning, while the other turned out to be quite average. The Chasam Sofer's mind was made up. He accompanied the bachurim off the grounds of the yeshiva and, on their way out into the yard, they saw the sukkah being erected. One bochur, the talmid chochom, stepped onto the schach (bamboo used for the top of the sukkah) on the ground, and the other walked around the schach. Said the Chasam Sofer later, "for someone to trample on a mitzvah?" And now his mind was made up for sure.

According to Abudraham, the reason that the lulav is waved several times during davening is because it signifies a gesture of triumph. Just as kings wave their flags over territories they have won from their enemies, so too do we wave the lulav to proclaim victory over the accusers on Yom Kippur.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

No Esrog in Berditchev

All of Berditchev was in a panic just before Sukkos, because there was no esrog to be found in the vicinity. Reb Levi Yitzchak had one last hope, and that was to send a few of his chassidim to the crossroads in the hope of finding a passer-by who owned an esrog for Yom Tov. And, indeed, the chassidim came across a Jew who was carrying a big, beautiful esrog, but he lived in a far-off town, and was in quite a hurry to return before the start of the holiday. The chassidim begged him to come into town, and when the man continually refused, they told him that he was summoned by Reb Levi Yitzchak himself to appear with his esrog in hand.

Reb Levi Yitzchak immediately entreated the man to spend the Yom Tov in Berditchev, so that the Rebbe himself, in addition to as many townsfolk as possible, could pronounce a bracha on the lulav and esrog. But the man had a wife and children waiting back home. He couldn't possibly have them spend Sukkos alone. Reb Levi Yitzchak offered him brachos for children and wealth, but he already had seven children, and he was a wealthy man. Finally, Reb Levi Yitzchak made him an offer: "If you stay in Berditchev for Sukkos, I can promise you part of my portion in the world to come." And at this the man agreed, and the people of Berditcheve were overjoyed.

Following this news, Reb Levi Yitzchak issued an unusual order saying that no townsman is allowed to receive this man into his sukkoh. The people were baffled, but, after all, this was an order from the Rebbe. Upon coming home from shul, the man entered his rented room, and found wine for kiddush, two challahs, candles, and a complete Yom Tov meal. He exited the house only to hear singing and general jubilation coming from his temporary landlords sukkah. When he entered, he was told that he was not allowed in. Dumbfounded by this decline, he took a walk around town, listening to and watching complete families exult in the simcha of the festival. But whenever he poked his head into a sukkah he was denied entry. Finally, he learned that this was by order of the Rebbe. "What is all of this? What have I done to deserve it?" he asked of Reb Levi Yitzchak. "If you will waive your claim to the promise I made to you earlier (to receive part of the Rebbe's portion in the world to come), then I will rescind my order, and you will then be allowed to enter the sukkah of your choice," said Reb Levi Yitzchak.

"What to do now?" wondered the man. It was a choice between receiving a portion of the Rebbe's lot in the world to come vs. fulfilling the mitvah of eating in the sukkah this year. The sukkah had won out. "All my life I've been sitting and eating in the sukkah each year, and now, this year, would I simply eat like a goy, indoors?" The two shook hands. The promise of the Rebbe was taken back, and the man found a nice family with a nice sukkah for the evening meal.

As Sukkos came to an end, Reb Levi Yitzchak called for the man. "I hereby return my promise to you," said the Rebbe. "Naturally, I wanted you to have part of my portion in the world to come. But I didn't want you to gain your extra portion in the world to come cheaply through a small matter of bargaining. I wanted you to earn it, through your deeds. And so that is why I put you through the test with the matter of the sukkah. And now, since you've withstood the test, and demonstrated the self-sacrifice of mesirus nefesh so that you could fulfill that mitzvah, now you really do deserve a portion of my lot in the world to come."

More to come...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Yom Kippur Stories

A few vignettes for Yom Kippur.

One year during davening (prayers) on Yom Kippur, the Alter Rebbe, Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi (one of the early chassidic masters), was seen taking off his tallis (prayer shawl) in the middle of the service. It was just before musaf when he put his tallis aside, and hastily made his way for the door of the shul. The chassidim were flabergasted. Came the beginning of musaf, and the Rebbe had not yet returned. He had not returned for the rest of the davening, in fact. And so a delegation was sent out to look for the Rebbe on this cold day. But he was nowhere to be seen in the houses, and nowhere to be seen in the town. They asked the children playing in the street if they had seen the Rebbe, and the children pointed in the direction that they had last seen him walk in haste. The delegation then came about some more children and, once again, followed in the direction that they had indicated. Finally, they were at the edge of town. They walked on a bit, and there was Reb Shneur Zalman, chopping wood in the cold, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. The chassidim looked on in utter astonishment until they mustered up the courage to approach the Rebbe. It turns out that there was a sickly, neglected widow at the edge of town, whom the Rebbe forgot to visit before the start of the holiday. He was customarily active in buying her food, providing her with wood to heat her home, and looking after her general well-being. "Unfortunately, too many widows are neglected on the holidays," said the Rebbe. Although any type of labor is forbidden on Yom Kippur, the Rebbe found it his duty, as soon as he remembered that he had not come to the aid of this older woman, to make his way out of the shul, even during the davening, and to take upon himself the aveirah (sin) of working on this holiest of days, in order that a widow would not be left in the cold.

Reb Dovid of Lelov was making his way to shul one year on Erev Yom Kippur. Passing by a house, he heard the wail of a baby. He opened the door, and found the baby lying wrapped up on the table, with no parents to be seen. It was obvious what had happened: The parents had gone to shul to hear Kol Nidrei, and they simply left the baby behind, hoping that it would rest quietly and peacefully until they had returned an hour or two later. Reb Dovid was horrified at this idea. He sat with the baby, and cradled it in his arms for the complete duration of Kol Nidrei. Meanwhile, the shul was abuzz with rumors and theories as to what could have happened to the Rebbe on the most important night of the year! The door to the house finally opened, and the baby's parents were astonished to see the Lelover Rebbe sitting at their table with their baby in his hands. "One must not leave a young baby unguarded EVEN if it is to hear Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur," said the Rebbe. Here too, the Rebbe had compromised his own spiritual obligations on Yom Kippur, in order to give comfort and warmth to a needy infant.

Rav Zelig Epstein, Rosh Yeshiva Shar Hatorah - Grodno, who recently passed away, had been friendly with a family. The parents survived the Holocaust, but only one of the children survived, a boy. The father had passed away at some point, and the son died in the mother's own lifetime, as well. Now this woman lived in a section of New York that was not inhabited by many Jews. Her neighborhood was certainly not in walking distance and, due to her advanced age and her poor health, she would not be able to attend Yom Kippur services, and she would, most likely, not even come into contact with any other Jews during the holiest day of the year. Rav Zelig Epstein walked into Yeshiva Torah Voda'ath, then in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and went up to Rav Yaakom Kamenetzky, as he was reciting kriyas shema. At Rav Kamenetzky's conclusion Rav Epstein whispered his shailah (religious question) into his ear: Could he take a bus on Yom Kippur to visit a poor, sickly widow at the edge of town, who doesn't have a friend or relative left in the world. Rav Kamenetzky put his hand in his pocket and handed Rav Epstein change for the bus.

One year for Yom Kippur at yeshiva Ponovitch in Bnei Brak, there was an issue at hand. The yeshiva was a popular place to daven (pray) for the High Holidays, but the yeshiva just didn't have enough room. Year after year, they made expansions, but more people kept on coming. One year some of the members of the yeshiva came up with a plan. They would put a mechitzah (separation) through the ezras nashim (women's section), thereby decreasing the ezras nashim by half, and allowing more men to enter the yeshiva to daven. The question was taken to Rav Shach. "Do you know what kind of women come to shul on Yom Kippur to daven?" he asked. "The women with the babies, the women with the families are home with the kids. Those that come are made up of widows, women who are alone, and so on. And the tefilla (prayers) of the entire yeshiva ascends to heaven on the backs of these women. So no, you may not put up a second mechitza!"

The Tolna Rebbe of Jerusalem told a story of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. It was erev Yom Kippur, and everyone was scrambling with last minute preparations. Rav Shlomo Zalman, presumably busier than anyone in the Sha'arei Chesed vicinity, undoubtedly answering last minute shailos on fasting, and doing his own spiritual hachanah (preparation), had heard about a young girl of fifteen. She was broken down emotionally; she had lost her Yiddishkeit (Judaism) all-together. Nothing in the world could help her. On Erev Yom Kippur, a few hours before Kol Nidrei, Rav Shlomo Zalman called this girl up, and asked, "how are you?"
After the holiday, the girl's father came to Rav Shlomo Zalman, and said, "you were mechaye meisim (you resurrected the dead). After the phone call, she asked me for a ticket to go to shul to hear Kol Nidrei." The busiest time of year, and the busiest Rav around, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, took the time to make a phone call to a young girl in need. And it changed her life.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Reb Elimelech, Reb Zusya and Teshuva

A story of teshuva (repentance) for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which may be a little bit difficult to interpret.

It was the custom in Berditchev that when someone in the town passed away, his tefillin would go to the chevra kaddisha (burial society), which would then sell off the tefillin to raise funds. Reb Levi Yitchak once visited the chevra kaddisha looking to purchase a new pair of tefillin. He looked over the many pairs, and finally picked one out. The head of the chevra kaddisha, with eyes opened wide, said, "surely Reb Levi Yitzchak is not looking to buy an ordinary, used pair of tefillin! Why this particular pair? There has to be a very good reason for this." Reb Levi Yitzchak stood in silence. After further cajoling, he decided to tell him why, in fact, he chose this particular pair of tefillin to buy.

"As is well known," said Reb Levi Yitzchak, "the brothers Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk and Reb Zusya of Hanipoli would travel the countryside in order to make ba'alei teshuva (returnees to Judaism). While spending the night with a host, it was their custom to play a little game. But this was no ordinary game, but rather a holy game. It had the intention of awakening a fire in dormant souls. One would play Rebbe, while the other would play a Jew coming to him to confess an imagined sin, and he would then take upon himself a penance proscribed by the Rebbe. The host would hear the wail of the sinner, and come to the realization that he too had committed that selfsame transgression, whereby he would come to seek repentance for his sin.

"On this particular occasion, Reb Elimelech played Rebbe. Reb Zusya cried out, 'I must confess! I have gone my entire life without checking my tefillin. I finally went to a sofer (scribe), and discovered that there were no scrolls inside the tefillin whatsoever!' The host, listening by the door, began to tremble. He himself had gone his entire life without getting his tefillin checked. When Reb Elimelech explained to his brother what a serious offense this was, their host swung open the door, and cried out, 'I too am guilty of the same offense!' He ran to fetch his tefillin, and brought them in to the brothers. Reb Elimelech opened them up, only to discover that there were no scrolls inside. Upon the sight of two empty casings, their host cried out, once again. 'Please Rebbe, tell me what to do to repent for this sin!' Reb Elimelech now told his brother to take out a pen, ink, and parchment, and write out a set of scrolls for their host. 'And as you write, make it your solemn objective to draw down into their words the kind of radiance from above that will be of the intensity appropriate to a man who has never fulfilled the mitzvah of tefillin his entire life.' The intensity of this awesome light ended up being so potent and forceful that it was too much for the man to bear. Soon after he received the new parchments he moved to Berditchev, and died shortly thereafter.

"And these are the tefillin that have made their way into the hands of the chevra kaddisha of our city," concluded Reb Levi Yitzchak.

So besides for the awesome connection above that Reb Levi Yitzchok had forged, in this case manifesting itself through his detecting the tefillin in Berditchev with the intense radiance emanating therefrom, and besides for Reb Elimelech's and Reb Zusya's connection and deep insight into their hosts' lives in the countryside, what else is this story telling us? Is it that Reb Zusya's power in bringing down the light or his any other act wrapped in holiness for that matter, was beyond the power that any human could endure? Surely there are other stories of Reb Zusya making ba'alei teshuva that endured. Could it be that there is actually no recourse and no teshuva suitable for the sin of not donning tefillin for the majority of one's life? That's very frightening if that is the case.

Speaking of secondhand items, there is the story of a tzaddik who spent the night at an inn. In the morning he came down to the innkeeper, and remarked, "there was something about the clock in my room last night. My entire life, when I hear a clock strike the hour, I think that I have one less hour to live. But upon hearing that clock strike the hour I continually thought that I am one hour closer to the coming of Meshiach. What is it about that clock?? I must have it." The innkeeper decided to sell it to him, but the clock came with a story. "It had actually belonged to the Chozeh of Lublin. Somewhere down the line, his grandchildren fell into debt, and sold it to me. It has been hanging in that room ever since."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Reb Meir of Premishlan and the Chazzan

In a town not far from Premishlan, there lived a wealthy man, who one day decided that he was going to be the chazzan (cantor) for the Yomim Noraim (high holidays) that year. Now this man had an explosive and violent temper, and all in the town were afraid of confronting him and attempting to dissuade him from this unusual decision of his. A delegation was set up, and it was decided that the issue would be taken to Reb Meir of Premishlan, who would certainly come up with a solution. A messenger was sent to nearby Premishlan, and the Rebbe sent back word that he this man would come to him on his own, and that he would deal with him personally. There was a local custom in which the chazzanim from the surrounding towns and villages would visit Reb Meir before Rosh Hashanah for a blessing of success in leading the congregation during the holy days.

And so, it was. As Rosh Hashanah approached, and Reb Meir had finished giving brachos to the local chazzanim, he was approached by the wealthy man of our story. After all, this was the custom in the area, and he wanted a visit with the tzaddik no less than anyone else.

Reb Meir said to him, "their are three types of tefilla (prayer): Tefilla le'Moshe (the prayer of Moses), tefilla le'Dovid (the prayer of King David) and tefilla le'oni (the prayer of the poor man). Now Moshe Rabbeinu was kevad pe uchevad lashon (heavy of mouth and heavy of speech), but he was our greatest prophet and the teacher of all Israel. King David was a sweet singer, and full of emotion. And the poor man is lowly and humble, and we know that G-d will look favorably on a broken and repentant heart.

"Our chazzanim," continued Reb Meir, "fall into these three categories. There are those who are not particularly musically inclined, but they are righteous and wise, so their prayers are accepted like tefilla le'Moshe. And there are those who are not quite as righteous, but they are gifted ba'alei tefilla (prayer leaders), and move people with their sweet singing. Their prayers are accepted like tefilla le'Dovid. And last, there are those who are not particularly righteous and wise, and have no affinity toward singing, but they are poor, and their hearts are humble, so their prayers are accepted like tefilla le'oni.

"And as for you," said Reb Meir," you are neither a tzaddik (righteous person), nor are you musical. And you are certainly not poor. So if you still, in fact, want to lead your congregation in prayer, you know that I will have to pray for one of these three things in heaven. Now you should know that there is no point in praying to heaven to tell them to make you a tzaddik or a good singer, just like that. The only option is that I pray to heaven that they make you poor. And that way, at least your prayer will be teffila le'oni, the prayer of the poor man."

"No, no!" said the man. "I don't want to be chazzan! I changed my mind!" And he went running out of the room.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Neki Chapai'im - A Lesson on Theft

I read this story recently, and found it VERY, VERY significant. With Spinka Rebbes running around, and with Lakewood roshei yeshiva accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in dirty money, and so on, and so on, and so on, the common belief is that if the money comes from a non-Jew, then it is mutar (permissible). Yes, this is what many in our community believe: that it is permissible to steal from a non-Jew. I have gone over this subject over and over again with talmidei chochomim over the past ten months and in the final analysis, what I've learned is that if you study the gemara alone, relating to this matter, it may seem as though theft is mutar. But if you study it with the poskim (those who makes decisions on the law), it is clearly, clearly asur (prohibited) to steal money from a non-Jew. And so we have the following story that takes place on Rosh Hashanah.

Reb Shmuel Abba of Zichlin was davening for the amud (leading the prayers) on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. When he got into the 24th chapter of Tehillim (Psalms), the chassidim looked up from their siddurim (prayer books). "Mi ya'ale b'har Hashem...neki chapai'im uvar leivav (Who will ascend to the mountain of G-d....those with clean hands and a pure heart)." "NEKI CHAPAI'IM, NEKI CHAPAI'IM!" shouted Reb Shmuel Abba. He began running up and down the aisles shouting these words (CLEAN HANDS, CLEAN HANDS!). Just then, a man in the back of the shul hurried out the door. The Rebbe went back to the amud, and continued where he left off. The chassidim were baffled.

The day after the close of Rosh Hashanah, everything became clear. This man had stopped in to a neighboring town of Zichlin to pay off a debt he owed to a non-Jew. After giving over the money, this non-Jew wrote the man a receipt, placed his money on the table, and walked out of the room. Now this Jew's yetzer harah (evil inclination) got the best of him, and he couldn't help but grab the money from the table and run. Since he was near the town of Zichlin, he decided to spend Rosh Hashanah with the Rebbe for what he thought would be a memorable New Year. He didn't know just how memorable it would turn out to be. The non-Jew had meanwhile sent out a large contingent to look for the man, but the Jew had already reached Zichlin.

As the man was on his way home from Zichlin at the close of Rosh Hashanah, he was caught by the police, and arrested. Remembering that the Rebbe was already aware of the incident, he sent him a desperate telegram while being detained. He figured that if he denied the charge, the police might rule that the non-Jew was a liar. Besides, this way he would get to keep the money because, after all, this wasn't real theft. It was theft from a non-Jew, and that doesn't count. This man had mentioned in his message to the Rebbe that he was afraid he would be put into jail. The Rebbe responded, "it says in our Torah that one is required to pay back double or even four or five times the amount for theft. But it doesn't say anything about imprisonment. Return the money AT ONCE, and you will be a free man. But you must return it at once. The money does not belong to you." The man reluctantly returned the money, and was freed.

We have no doubt about Reb Shmuel Abba's opinion on the matter of theft.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dubno Maggid on Chodesh Elul

The Dubno Maggid gives a mashal (parable) on the month of Elul, the penitential Hebrew month leading into Rosh Hashana, the New Year. Elul is a time of teshuvah (repentance), introspection, and the recounting one's deeds from the past year. Because when Rosh Hashanah is upon us we are already asking to be inscribed in the book of life for the coming year. There are many stories of tzaddikim from yesteryear who literally walked around with frozen faces, frozen with fear during the month of Elul, because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were almost at hand, and they knew that soon they would be judged for the past year's activity. A man once came to the chassidim of the Chozeh of Lublin on motzei Yom Kippur (evening following the holiday), and saw the chassidim dancing festively with the utmost joy. The man asked the Chozeh, "what are they so happy about? Yom Kippur just ended!" The Chozeh replied, "they're dancing because they know that they've been inscribed in the book of life. You see that man sitting in the corner over there crying?...." And now to the mashal.

The king had decided that he wanted a new goblet. He was looking to out-due royalty. No expense would be spared in the making of what would become the true treasure of the palace. And so a master craftsman was called in for the job. The craftsman was given gold, silver, emeralds, diamonds and rubies. He was given one year to fashion out of the materials what only an expert craftsman could conceive of. One year, and no more.

The craftsman had been in debt. During the first month he got the idea into his head that he could sell a couple of the diamonds, and quickly work his way out of it. This worked out quite well, and without really thinking too hard about the consequences, he began to sell off some of the rubies. At the same time, he became lax in constructing the goblet. In fact, it was three months through, and he had not yet begun his royal work. More time had passed, but he had only gone about his daily routine, thereby not fulfilling king's wishes. In fact, the goblet really wasn't much on his mind at all. As the months passed, he sold off a few more jewels, and continued his humdrum life of laziness and laxity.

One month before the end of the year he caught the date, and smacked himself on the head. "Woe is to me! The goblet for the king!" And he frantically began working with the few resources he had remaining. When the month was up he came to the king. The entire king's retinue was standing around the king's royal table. The craftsman unwrapped the goblet, and presented it to the king. "What a sight!" they said. The king picked up the goblet, and remarked on how intricate the silver pastoral scenes etched into the goblet had been. The goblet shined so brightly. But just then, the treasurer walked over. "The goblet is all silver," he remarked. He went over to treasury books, and saw that gold, silver, diamonds, rubies and emeralds had been allocated. "This goblet is only made of silver!" he shouted. And at his shout, the craftsman fell down on his knees, and began to scream, "please, please, spare me my life!" And this is us on chosdesh Elul and Rosh Hashanah, says the Dubno Maggid. A whole year goes by, and we waste our resources that Hashem has been gracious enough to send down upon us. We don't pray like we should, we don't learn Torah like we should, we don't visit the sick like we should. Then comes the months of Elul, and fear sets in. We try the cram all the year's deeds into one month in penitence of what we've missed out on throughout the year. Then comes Rosh Hashanah, and we fall down before the king, and we beg for our lives. We beg to be inscribed in the book of life for the coming year.

One more mashal. There was once a businessman who went into a shop to buy goods at wholesale prices. He asked for one of these, one of these, and one of these. The storekeeper wrote up an invoice, and handed it to the businessman. The businessman said, "please sit down. I'm sorry to say that I don't really have the money to pay you right now, so what I'm asking is that you give it to me on credit." And this is what we ask of Hashem on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. "Avinu Malkeinu, chaneinu va'aneinu ki ein banu ma'asim." "Our Father our King, grace us and answer us even though we don't have worthy deeds." Even though we did not live up to our potential in our relationship with you, and in our relationship with others, and in our relationship with ourselves, please extend our life for yet another year. We don't have the deeds to make such a request, but please give it to us on credit, so that in the coming year we may exert ourselves and form a truer bond with you Hashem.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Reb Aharon of Chernobyl Makes Peace

The following story relates to this week's parsha, parshas Ki Seitzei, concerning the returning of lost items. Reb Aharon Chernobyler was one of the eight sons of the Maggid of Chernobyl, Reb Mordechai, who was the son of Reb Menachem Nachum Twersky, the Meor Einayim. Reb Mordechai's eight sons all became Rebbes in their own right. Skver, Tolna, Hornsteipel and Rachmestrivka are a few of the dynasties that emerged from the Maggid's sons. The subject of our story is the son who continued the Chernobyler dynasty, Reb Aharon Twersky.

A man was traveling through Berditchev, and stopped into a shtiebel to inquire whether the members of that particular shtiebel were Chernobyler chassidim. When they replied in the affirmative he took out some money, and asked them to plan a festive meal for the evening. At the meal, he related to the chassidim that he had just come from Chernobyl for a visit with their tzaddik, Reb Aharon. "I will now tell you a story that will demonstrate just who your Rebbe is," said the stranger.

"A number of years ago I was traveling through Berditchev. On the road I saw a man drop his wallet in the distance. I walked up to the wallet, and found a fat sum inside; so fat, that I had to adjust my eyes at the sight, because I had never seen such a sum of money before at one time and in one place. I inspected the wallet further, thereby hesitating from doing the right thing. But then I remembered that the parshas hashavua (weekly Torah portion) was ki seitzei. 'And does it not say,' I thought to myself, 'hasheiv toshiv le'achicha (that you should surely return it to your brother - a lost item; Devarim/Deutoronomy 12:1). And it doesn't merely say that you shall return, but rather uses the double lashon (expression), hasheiv toshiv, you shall SURELY return.' So I began to run after the poor man, but once he entered the market I could no longer keep my eye on him. I tried for half an hour to pick him out, but to no avail. This man was a businessman, as I later found out. He made trips to Berditchev laden with all sorts of local foods and delicacies from his township, and would sell them at profit, return the money and the profit to those who sent him, and then be given a commission for every product he sold. When he returned home from this trip his creditors were infuriated, and he was no longer allowed to do business. He was trusted no longer. He became ill, and died a few months. His wife became a wretched widow, and she had no money to give the children an education. Meanwhile, I invested my new-found money wisely and, in time, G-d made me a wealthy man.

"A few years later I had a dream. The businessman appeared, and asked, 'why did you kill me? And furthermore, you made my wife a widow, and my children are now illiterate. I summon you to a tribunal in the world of truth.' When I awoke I was shaking until my wife gave me some warm milk and calmed me down. Pondering the dream in bed later that night I thought 'does not Zecharia HaNavi (Zacharia the Prophet) say that dreams speak falsehood? And don't chazal (our Sages) say that the content of dreams are merely the product of what a man ponders in his heart by day?' And so I went back to sleep.

"The next night the businessman appeared to me again. 'Why did you kill me?' he asked. 'My wife is a widow and my children don't know how to read or write. I summon you to a lawsuit in the world of truth.' The dream occurred on a third night, by which time I finally spoke back. I told the businessman that I would have to think about it. The next night I actually did agree, but told him that the lawsuit could not take place in the world of truth. Because what good would it do him if my wife became a widow, as well? He agreed that I would get to choose the time and the place.

"The next morning I set out straight for Reb Aharon of Karlin. He told me that the case was beyond his capabilities, and he instructed me to travel immediately to Reb Aharon of Chernobyl. I made my way. After telling over the course of events to Reb Aharon, he agreed to hold the case at his court. An appointment was made up for the next day, and he instructed me to pass the information over to the businessman when he appeared to me that night in a dream. The businessman subsequently agreed.

"As I sat in front of the tzaddik, his clairvoyance was apparent in his face. I didn't see the businessman; I didn't hear the businessman. But what was transpiring was very clear. Reb Aharon was, in fact, in communication with the soul from the world above. He shook his head, up and down, up and down. He then said to me, 'this man has many well-founded claims against you. What do you have to say for yourself?' I stumbled over my words. 'I wanted to return the wallet. OK, I guess I hesitated for a moment or two, but I...I.. did finally go after him...' Reb Aharon continued. 'Does it not say in the Torah hasheiv toshiv le'achicha? And does the Torah not speak the double lashon, you shall SURELY return making it an emphatic statement, whereby you should not have stood there first counting the money?' Reb Aharon peered into my eyes, and finally asked, 'if I hand down a verdict right now, will you abide by it?' I shook my head in agreement. He then asked the businessman, and by the manner in which Reb Aharon shook his head it was apparent that the businessman would be agreeable to the verdict, as well. And so Reb Aharon instructed me, 'you are to go home, and take an honest stocktaking of all your money and property down to the last shoestring. You may keep half of it for yourself. You are to go to this man's township, and personally deliver half of your money to his wife. While you are there you are to hire competent tutors for the children. With your half of the money you will give a chunk of it - and exactly how much is to be determined by you - to tzedakah. If you follow my instructions then the businessman will be at piece with you, and he will no longer haunt you in your dreams.'"

"And so," said the man. "I have just come from the tzaddik in Chernobyl to inform him that I have followed his instructions, step by step, and that myself and the businessman are finally at peace." He gazed at the chassidim sitting around him in the shtiebel, and said, "and since I was traveling home by way of Berditchev, I thought I would stop in and throw a thanksgiving meal in honor of your tzaddik, and relate this story to you so that you may know the full greatness of your Rebbe."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chofetz Chaim and Weights and Measures

"Lo sa'asu avel bamishpat; bamidah bamishkal, uvamesurah. Moznei tzedek avnei tzeddek aivas tzeddek v'hin tzeddek y'hiyeh lachem..."

This week's double parsha, parshas acharei-kedoshim, deals with the commandment of having correct scales, measures and weights in one's business dealings. "You shall not commit a perversion of justice" in this regard. And this is the parsha of the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim's first published work was an anonymous pamphlet regarding correct scales and measures after he witnessed improprieties at the local markets on a regular basis.

At one point, the Chofetz Chaim and his wife opened a grocery store to bring in some money. To say that the Chofetz Chaim was scrupulous in his business dealings would be an understatement. One day, after he had sold some small measured packets of salt, he noticed that the scales were a bit off. Not knowing exactly who had been "cheated," he went around town giving tiny packets of salt to anyone and everyone he came into contact with on the streets. His philosophy was that when he passes on, and is being judged on high, he needs that extra little bit of salt to tip the scales in his favor; because he had no degree of gaivah (haughtiness), but only self-negation. When he learned in yeshiva as a bachor he would leave the beis midrash (study hall) each day for set period of time. Nobody knew exactly where he went, but many were curious. One day, a small group followed him into the woods. They saw him standing over a ditch, and heard the following: "So Yisroel Meir. You learn for a few hours and you think that you're somebody? Keep this up, and you will end up right there, down in that ditch."

On another occasion, a woman had come in to buy a few items including a herring. She forgot the herring in the store, but upon discovery, the Chofetz Chaim could not remember the exact person that left behind the fish. To make sure to pay this person back he gave everyone that walked into the store during the next few days a free herring.

And speaking of weights and measures, when the Belzer Rebbe met the Chofetz Chaim during the latter's historic trip to Warsaw to meet with the Prime Minister, at the Chofetz Chaim's general understatement the Belzer Rebbe remarked in private, "he has golden scales in his mouth, and he weighs every single word carefully before he speaks."

And speaking of weights and measures one more time, the Vilna Gaon authored a musar sefer (book on ethics) called Even Shleima. Many wonder what the significance of this name is. The Vilna Gaon asked where his name appears in the Torah. He found it in parshas ki seitzei, which also speaks of weights and measures. The words Even Shleima spell out Eliyahu ben Shlomo.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

25th of Nissan - Yahretziet of the Divrei Chaim

The following is a shocking and somewhat disturbing story. When I read this story in the Pshevorsker Rebbe's sefer, Shelosh Esrei Oros - Sippurei Kodesh, I wrote to Rabbi Tal Zwecker for some more information on the asceticism of the Rebbe Reb Elimelech and some of his disciples. The Pshevorsker Rebbe heard this from the mouth of Rav Ephraim Dovid Halberstam and others.

But just for some background, the Rebbe Reb Elimelech's greatest desire was to separate from the world of materialism, and he practiced strict self-denial as a means of attaining higher degrees of ruchnius (spirituallity). He abstained from alcohol, and fasted regulary. He went as far as to poke himself with sharp thorns. But he dicouraged his disciples from using such forms of asceticism as a means of coming closer to G-d, but there were those, such as Reb Naftali Ropshitzer, who ignored his advice, and followed in his severe ways.

Reb Naftali or Ropshitz was the badchan (a kind of comedian) of Rebbes. But he was a holy badchan. He made people laugh. He made other Rebbes laugh. He made jokes of other Rebbes, and he still made them laugh. He was once traveling incognito, and stopped at an inn for a rest. There was a wedding going on, but the calah, the bride, was spotted sitting at a table and crying. He went over to her, and asked what was wrong. She responded that the two families were poor, and that they could not afford a badchan for the wedding. Reb Naftali replied, "I'm a badchan!" He stood up, and began improvising on the spot to the delight of the bride and to all those assembled. But there was another side to Reb Naftali, and it wasn't all jokes. Although discouraged by his Rebbe, Reb Elimelech, he did adopt some of his severe practices, as we'll see.

The Ba'al Shem Tov went out of his way to discourage self-denial and intentional physical affliction. He taught that asceticism leads to depression and an even greater spiritual danger, that of pride.

The Divrei Chaim, Reb Chaim Halberstam of Sanz, was a student of Reb Naftali, but this story only tells of the Divrei Chaim's recounting of a story of his Rebbe. Reb Halberstam, in addition to his excellence in Torah and kabbalah, was known for his compassion and humility. The poor knew that they would always have a hot meal either directly from the Divrei Chaim, who gave away practically all of his money to the poor, or through one of his organizations to help the needy.

Reb Shlomo Halberstam, first Rebbe of Bobov, was the grandson of the Divrei Chaim. One day they were taking a ride in an open carriage to take in some of the crip cold air. The Divrei Chaim became engrossed in his thoughts, and seemed to sink into an otherworldy state of consciousness. Reb Shlomo, a young man at the time, noticed a high flame coming from his grandfather's pipe ("lulka"). He was worried that the flame might catch onto the wooden side panel of the carriage and set the carriage on fire. He moved close to his grandfather to cover the flame with the iron lid of the pipe, but burned his hand in doing so. Still worried about the flame, and not wanting to wake his grandfather, he began to switch his fingers on the iron lid, so that he would not burn himself futher. When the Divrei Chaim woke up from his dveikus he saw his grandson moving his fingers and switching his hands on the lid of the pipe in order not to get burned. The Divrei Chaim took the pipe out of his mouth, and said, "HA! (you think that's something?) One day I was walking with Reb Naftali and the Rebbi of Kaminka on a cold afternoon on the icey streets. The Kaminka Rebbe and I walked ahead of Reb Naftali, who kept stopping along the way. We became curious, and walked back to Reb Naftali, who was a distance behind us. As we approached, we noticed a pool of blood surrounding him. We looked around, and found blood in all of the spots where he had stopped. His shoes were off and his feet were frostbitten and stuck to the ice. Apparently, he would stand long enough so that his feet would cling to the ice, and he would then tear his feet from the ice, thereby tearing some of his skin off in the process, and his foot would begin to bleed.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bluzhever Rebbe on Pesach (Bergen-Belsen)

The Bluzhever Rebbe, Reb Yisrael Spiro, was one of the great chassidic leaders of the last century. His wife and children were slaughtered in the Holocaust. High on the Nazis' most-wanted list, the Rebbe himself had been interned in labor camps, and at some point was shipped to Bergen-Belsen. As Pesach approached that first year there was talk among the inmates about obtaining matzah. Needless to say, there was very little hope, and few dwelt on the subject matter for any length of time. While there were some that had been able to don tefilin almost a daily basis, and others who stealthily managed to light shabbos candles on given weeks, and still others who under the cover of night davened b'tzibbur (prayed with a group), obtaining matzah would actually entail a much more serious set of difficulties, namely finding a small oven, and getting the ingredients for the baking. There was no hope in this particular situation.

But there were a few who decided to go to the Rebbe. Perhaps he could think up some idea. The Bluzhever Rebbe, like other "Wunderrabbiner," was particularly hated by the Nazis. But the Rebbe had a special way about him. Oddly enough, there was one kommandant in the camp that saw the Rebbe as a sort of curiosity and, from time to time, would go over to the Rebbe, and engage him in conversation. It is needless to say, however, that he left no doubt as to who was in charge. Their conversations took place in clandestinely, lest someone from the high command find out, and reprimand the kommandant. That wouldn't be good for the Jews either. After meditating on the matter for some time, the Rebbe decided to take a chance; a big chance. When the opportunity arose he casually struck up a conversation with the kommandant in private, and a few minutes into the conversation began to explain that a holiday of the utmost importance for the Jews was almost at hand. "And it is essential for the observance of this holiday," he explained to the kommandant, "that we have a sort of bread baked in a very particular fashion. Is there anything that Herr kommandant could do to perhaps obtain for us a very small oven and some flower and water so that we may bake some of this bread? Of course it would be done in stealth and out of sight." The kommandant, with eyes now opened so wide that they looked as if they were about to burst, gave the Rebbe a long, hard stare. The Rebbe believed now that he had overstepped the bounds of his little camaraderie with the Nazi, and began to back away. He began to fear for his life. The kommandant took his eyes off the Rebbe, and let out a little chuckle. He began to walk away, and said, shockingly, "I'll see what I could do." The Rebbe did not repeat this story to the other inmates. There was really no point in getting their hopes up. But there was a shred of hope implanted in the Rebbe's own mind.

About a week later, when Pesach was almost at hand, the kommandant called for the Rebbe. He was instructed to send two men to a certain gate, and to carry a package to the bunker. The kommandant had, in fact, procured a small oven, and small amounts of flower and water to go with it. Word of the oven spread among the Jews of Bergen-Belsen, and many believed that a miracle was at hand. A small group of Jews began preparations at the first opportunity. It was late into the night, and they began the baking. The oven was tiny, and could only bake a few pieces of matzah at one time, but the joy and elation among those who stood around the oven were so great and palpable that nobody dared complain about the size.

Someone had spotted a Nazi walking toward the bunker, and the operation was quickly halted. "Keep on working," whispered one of the Jews, "it's only the kommandant." But as the kommandant came closer, those who looked him in the face saw clearly that this was not the same kommandant. Yes, it was the kommandant who had obtained an oven for the Jews, but by the look on his face his graciousness was now but a fleeting memory. His eyes spoke of evil, punishment and death. He was a blood thirsty Nazi like all the rest. He marched up to the group, and exclaimed, "a letter was intercepted from this camp! I am going to find out who in this camp smuggled out a letter! Because of this letter I have been reprimanded and have gone down in rank!" With these words he went over to the tiny oven, and with one great malicious stomp, smashed the oven flat with his boot. One stomp, and there was nothing left. The oven was completely destroyed. The Jews began to cry. The mitzvah was so close; it was in hand's reach. But all they were left with now was about a dozen pieces of matzah. They had only begun to bake.

It was erev Pesach, and the obvious question arose: who should get the matzah? Who out of all the Jews in Bergen-Belsen hungry for food, and hungry to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach was going to get a piece? Discussion groups broke out. Nobody had an answer. The Rebbe, of course was asked to decide, but this would be a weighty and momentous decision. He needed more time. He contemplated the profound consequences that lie ahead as to who would and who would not get to eat matzah that Pesach in Bergen-Belson. The Rebbe finally came to an answer. "The adults, the oldest among us will get the few matzohs. But just then came a voice. "Binoreinu uviskeineinu! binoreinu uviskeineineinu!" It was a woman's voice. She lay on the ground, almost lifeless, looking as if she could not go on for even another few minutes. "Binoreinu uviskeineinu," she cried out with what little strength she had left in her emaciated and broken body. "When Moshe Rabbeinu came to Paro at the commandment of Hashem. He said 'let my people go,' and he said, 'binoreinu uvizkeineinu neileich,' the young ones go first. They were going out to the wilderness for matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), and Hashem put the young ones before the old ones. If this was the case with matan Torah, then here too, we must put the young ones first, the children, and give them the little matzah that we have so that they could fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach. Because we have the hope that we will be liberated at some point. And we don't know what will happen to us in this destroyed world afterwords. People could go astray. Children could go astray. But if they have this mitzvah of matzah now on this Pesach in Bergen-Belsen, then they will have it with them for the rest of their lives. The Rebbe went over to this woman, and said, "binoreinu uvizkeineinu. You are absolutely right." And so, that year on Pesach, amidst the horrors of the camp, the matzah was given to the chidren.

After liberation the Rebbe married this woman, and they began a new life. She became known as the Bluzhever Rebbetzin.

I was watching a documentary recently on Peter Bergson, the activist who tried to save Jews from Nazi hands during the Holocaust. It is only in recent years that his efforts have come to light. Stephen Wise, head of the reform movement of Judaism who had ample political contacts did little if nothing to help Jews escape Europe at the time. He told the president directly that the major issue in the Holocaust was not that of Jews. Wise, along with a host of other high-profile non-orthodox Jewish leaders, have blood on their hands until this day. What I did not know was that Rav Aharon Kotler and other orthodox leaders presided over organizations that did try to influence the fate of the Jews in Europe. 400 orthodox rabbis marched on Washington in an attempt to publicize the machinations of the Nazi empire. In general, although they fought hard, these groups were not successful in influencing the president, as Stephen Wise was constantly telling the president that these religious Jews are nothing but trouble. Thank you Stephen Wise and your cronies.

But that is not why I brought up the documentary on Peter Bergson. It was mentioned that many of the Jews who were deported to Auschwitz around Pesach time came with small amounts of flower. They believed, as the Germans had told them, that they were being taken on train rides to be resettled. So as Pesach approached they brought flower with them. Few knew that it would be their last day. The Sonderkommandos were in charge of collecting the gassed bodies and throwing them into the ovens of the crematoria. They also gathered their belongings and found the flower. One of the Sonderkommandos was a Chassidic Jew named Moshe Grossman. He had already lost his wife and children. Using the flower, he made matzah in the ovens of the crematoria as an "act of defiance" against the Nazis. The matzah was distributed to a number of prisoners, and as they gathered around on Pesach night they said, in the words of the Haggadah, "this year we are slaves, next year we will be free."

I'm really not sure how I feel about this episode. On the one hand, the matzah was baked among human remains; skin, blood, hair, nails. Surely it was an act of defiance, but still, I'm not so sure about this being a heroic act. Please tell me what you think.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Martin Grossman Affair

The following is a letter I sent to one of the Jewish papers regarding the execution of Martin Gross, and to my surprise, it was printed.

Communal Priorities

As a ba'al teshuva I am bothered by a number of phenomena I have encountered in the frum world to this point. The latest issue involves the appeals being made on behalf of death-row inmate Martin Grossman, the 19-year-old who brutally beat up an officer, and then shot her in the head at point-blank range with her own gun.

Let's put on the backburner the fact that this is a horrific crime. What I don't get is why the frum community, time and time again, concentrates its collective effort on one cause - which is sometimes questionable, as in the Grossman case - but hardly lifts a finger for the 90 percent or so of Jews out there who are dying on a daily basis through assimilation, intermarriage and apathy.

These Jews, all with neshamos as precious as ours, can be granted life in olam habah and menuchas hanefesh through Torah and mitzvos in olam hazeh with a little more help from our community.

Sure, we have an Ohr Sameach here and an Aish there. But can we honestly say we are using more than a small amount of our spiritual resources for the millions of Jews dying all around us? The holy Chofetz Chaim said if go out and see people drowning, and someone helps him, that's a wonderful thing. But if you go out and see people drowning in the river every day, then you have a chiyuv to jump in and save as many people as you can.

And if you can't swim, hire a lifeguard (donate to a kiruv organization or someone who does kiruv).

Yisroel Rosenzweig
New York

Eize hu chacham, haro'eh es hanolad (who is wise? The one who sees the consequences down the road). How many people are actually taken off of death row? Not many. Could you imagine what the world would have said if they actually did let someone off, and it was a Jew? Think of the the consequences and the backlash against the Jewish community that this would have created. "Of course he got off, he's a Jew. Finally, it's come out - the Jews control the media, the banks, Hollywood, and now they control the judicial system, as well!" Think hard if you don't get it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Chofetz Chaim and the Gerrer Chassidim on Yom Kippur Katan

For Yom Kippur Katan, a story of the Chofetz Chaim.

The day before rosh chodesh, the new month, some have the custom of davening Yom Kippur Katan (a "mini" Yom Kippur - the day of atonement - service). Yom Kippur Katan is not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish Law). The minhag (custom) began in the 16th Century in the mystical city of Tzfas. The hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, and at the beginning of each month we bless the new moon. The commandment is the first in the Torah, in parshas Bo, in which Hashem says to Moshe, "hachodesh hazeh rosh chadashim... - 'this month is the beginning of months,'" and when the Torah uses the lashon (language) of "zeh -'this,'" it means that something is actually being pointed to (for a list of more examples of the word "zeh" refer to "Koidenov and Alexander" on this website). In this case Hashem is telling Moshe that when the moon looks like "this," when it is this shape and size, you are to bless it, and new month begins. And so, since the new month is a time of renewal it was decided that one should do teshuvah (repentance), supplicate toward the heavens and seek atonement for sins and misdeeds committed over the past month, just as we do on Yom Kippur, when we're seeking a clean slate for the coming year, and beseeching heaven to be inscribed in the book of life. In the words of the holy Shela in regard to Yom Kippur Katan, "one must make restitution both in money and in personal acts in order that he may enter the new month as pure as a new-born infant." Some also have the custom of fasting on this day. And now to the story:

The Chofetz Chaim was taking a trip from Radin to Warsaw. Whenever he took a train ride he looked for a fellow Jew to sit next to on the journey so that he could talk with him in learning. The Chofetz Chaim usually presented himself as a commoner. Before he boarded on this occasion he noticed a Jew, and asked him if he was coming aboard that train. It came out that they were both going from Radin to Warsaw. On the train, the Chofetz Chaim found that the man was not particularly learned, but this was no matter of concern for the Chofetz Chaim. As a rule he spoke little when encountering someone he did not know, because he enjoyed learning about people's lives. "From everyone there is something to be learned," was his motto. As soon as the first stop after Radin came, the man bid the Chofetz Chaim farewell, and made for the exit. The Chofetz Chaim called out to him asking if he did not say that he was going all the way to Warsaw. The man responded that he was an ani (a poor man), and that he didn't have enough money to go all the way to Warsaw in one train ride. He explained that he would get off of the train, try to sell some of his little trinkets, and with the little money he was able to make, he would buy a ticket to the next stop where he would repeat the procedure, until he made it all the way to Warsaw.

When the Chofetz Chaim arrived in Warsaw it was the day before rosh chodesh. He began to look for a shul at which he could daven Yom Kippur Katan. He walked into a Shtiebel (small Synagogue), and inquired as to whether they davened Yom Kippur Katan there. It turned out to be a Gerrer shtiebel, and the chassidim responded that no, they don't do so because it is not the Rebbe's custom. And so the Chofetz Chaim told them a story. He told them the story of the man he met on the train on the way to Warsaw, and because of his poverty he was forced to get off at every stop along the way, make a few dollars and refuel in a manner of speaking, and then get back on the train until the next stop, until he made his way all the way to Warsaw. "And so," said the Chofetz Chaim, "the Gerrer Rebbe has the spiritual resources to carry him from one Yom Kippur to the next. But we, the ordinary people, need to make stops along the way. We need to supplicate to Hashem, ask for forgiveness for our sins in the passing month, and do teshuva so that we will gain the resources to make it through the next month unscathed. The stops along the way for this man were necessary for him to regroup and get his bearing, just as the stops at rosh chodesh are a time for us to reflect and ascend to a greater spiritual level so that we can make it all the way to our destination, Yom Kippur itself." The chassidim stood with there mouths gaping, staring at this unknown holy man who had presented himself as an everyman off the street. And the story ends there. But the big question! Did they or did they not daven Yom Kippur Katan? In all likelihood they did not, and the Chofetz Chaim had to go on searching. It is unlikely that the chassidim would have gone against their Rebbe's minhag (custom).

What do you think?