Thursday, March 4, 2010

Koidenov and Alexander

The Koidenover Rebbe of Bnei Brak came to New York last year, and told a story. The Rebbe has revived Koidenover chassidus over the past number of years, and has established a prestigious yeshiva ketana (elementary school), which is already highly sought after.

In his lecture, the Rebbe was discussing the state of affairs in today's broken world. He spoke of gashmius (materialism), and the preoccupation with the dollar. He said that he had recently visited Tel Aviv, and had stopped by a library that contained old and rare seforim (religious books). He pulled a book from a shelf, and it was a sefer written by an ani (a poor person). The author happened to be the nephew of the first Alexander Rebbe. He thought that by publishing a sefer that included a few stories of his uncle, he might make a few dollars.

In one of the stories, the Alexander Rebbe was presiding over a beis din (religious court). One party claimed that he had been cheated out $500, while the other claimed that it was rightfully his. After hearing the lengthy arguments the beis din ruled in favor of the man who claimed he had been cheated, leaving the other man furious and enraged. Those present tried to calm him down, but the man insisted that the money belonged to him, and he and refused to accept the ruling of the court. After the beis din broke up for the day an announcement was made that it was time to daven mincha (the afternoon prayer). As the frantic man was hurrying out of the room, someone took hold of his arm, and said that they needed him for a minyan (quorum of ten men to pray). "Mincha? Mincha??" exclaimed the man. "I just lost money, and you expect me to think about davening mincha?" He stormed out of the room. The Alexander Rebbe began to pace back and forth, with his head in his hands. Someone asked what was bothering the him, and the Rebbe cried out, "twenty years! Twenty years this man has been my chosid, and this is what he learns from me? He can't daven mincha? I can no longer be a Rebbe of chassidim." Those assembled were in shock. The Rebbe was clearly distressed, and they knew not to take his words lightly. The Rebbe was crying, and insisted that he was not fit to be a leader. It took the Rebbe a few days to get over the incident, and after desperate pleas and appeals by his chassidim, the Rebbe agreed to stay on as their leader.

"He couldn't daven mincha. He couldn't daven mincha!" exclaimed the Koidenover Rebbe, astonished, as if the story were taking place then and there. "And so," concluded the Rebbe, "this is the type of thing that happens in our times on a regular basis. Stocks, bonds, the market. Nobody could make a dollar fast enough. And everyone worries excessively over their money." The Rebbe then spoke words of chizuk (strength) and inspiration despite his adverse assessment of the materialism of our times, and after this five-minute modulation in emotion and spirt, he was able to leave his audience uplifted and assured of the available spiritual treasures of even our times.

And in this week's parsha, parshas ki sisah, we have a reference to the dangers of money. The pasuk states, "zeh yitnu...this is what they shall give," referring to the half shekel contribution by which the nation would be counted for the census. When the Torah states, "zeh, this," it means that "this" actually refers to something tangible that was shown to Moshe Rabbeinu or the Bnei Yisroel. In this case it was "c'min matbei'a shel aish, a sort of fiery coin," indicating the half shekel that was to be given. And, so too, in parshas Bo, the pasuk says, "hachodesh hazeh, this month," referring to the shape and size of the moon that Hashem showed Moshe. He indicated that when the moon is this size "zeh," we are to bless it. And, so too, in parshas beha'aloscha, "v'zeh ma'aseh hamenora, and this is the work of the menorah," with "zeh" indicating the fiery menorah that Hashem showed to Moshe after he expressed difficulty making the menorah himself. And, so too, in parshas beshalach, "zeh keili v'anveihu, this is my G-d, and I will exalt him." On the world "zeh," the Bnei Yisroel pointed up to the heavens. Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, in Noam Elimelech, explains the significance of the fiery coin in this week's parsha. Fire could be used for useful purposes, such as cooking or heating a home, and it can also be used for negative purposes, such as burning down a house and causing destruction. And, so too, just as the coin, money, could be used for positive things, such as chesed and giving to the poor, it can also be the root of all evil. It could lead to gaivah (haughtiness) and kavod (honor). And the message is that we have to be inordinately careful in our dealings with money. In some cases it could lead to an inappropriate elevation of the self, and in the worst case it could come to play in our dealings bein adam l'mokom (between ourselves and G-d), as with the man in the above story.

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