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."

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