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.


Crawling Axe said...

So, what lesson in our personal avoida must we learn from this behavior?

Chazzan805 said...

Good question. I put the story up because I thought it might be important to know that this is part of the history of chassidus, albeit a small part. And, of course, it wasn't just in chassidus. Jews adopted the practice long before Reb Elimelech. So on avodah? I would say let's follow the Ba'al Shem's advice, stay away from such behavior because it leads to depression as in the case with Reb Naftali, who became depressed and despondent later in life. Heard that he stopped talking to people completely, but I'm not sure if that's true. So let's daven and carry out our other forms of avodah with intensity, but with simcha.