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.