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."