Saturday, January 29, 2011

The genius of Rav Moshe Feinstein

Rav Moshe Feinstein

Rav Moshe Feinstein, the great gaon and posek of the 20th Century, was the decider of many sheilos (questions regarding Jewish law), many being questions warranted by the new technology as it emerged in modern times, and others relating to modern issues in American life. On one occasion, a not-too-religious father approached him at home regarding his son's possible college education. The story goes as follows:

The man and his wife dragged their son to the home of Rav Moshe so that he would convince their son that college was the next logical step in his life. The boy had attended yeshiva up until the end of high school, and now wished nothing more than to continue on with his yeshiva education. The father sat down at the table, leaned in to Rav Moshe, and said in a hard voice, "my son wants to go to yeshiva, but my wife and I want him to go to college. Now, I'm going to prove to You Rabbi from YOUR Torah that he goes to college. First of all, it says in YOUR Torah that majority rules, correct?" "Correct," said Rav Moshe. "Second, it says that each person has three partners in life: His mother, his father, and G-d. Correct?" "Yes." "Well let us make you G-d, Rabbi Feinstein, in this little arrangement. Taking my son's three partners into account, I say he goes to college, my wife says he goes to college, and you obviously say that he goes to yeshiva. That's two against one! We win. He goes to college!"

Rav Moshe thought for a second, and said, "you are absolutely right. Each person is made up of three partners, his mother, his father, and G-d. That means that I have three partners, you have three partners and your wife has three partners. Your mother and father say he goes to college, and G-d says he goes to yeshiva. That's two against one. Your wife's parents say that he goes to college, and G-d says that he goes to yeshiva. That's four against two. Now, my mother, my father and G-d all say that he goes to yeshiva. That's five against four in our favor. We win. He goes to yeshiva." The man looked at Rav Moshe squarely in the face, and said emphatically, "If THAT is what he is going to learn in yeshiva, then he is going to yeshiva."

And the matter was cleared up in just under ten minutes.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Famous Births Part I - Ba'al Shem Tov and the Divrei Chaim

The story of the birth of the Ba'al Shem Tov is taken from an earlier post on the subject of hachnasas orchim (hospitality to guests).

Reb Eliezer, father of the Ba'al Shem Tov, was known for the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim. He would go so far as to send out emissaries to the town's crossroads, in order to see if anybody passing through might need a meal or refreshments, or even a place to stay for the night. He was also known for giving out money to travelers for provisions for the road. His actions were so great that his name became known up above. It was decided that he would be put to the ultimate test. The Satan immediately came forward and volunteered to carry out this test. But Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) said that it would be more proper for he himself to go down to this world. And so it was.

One day on shabbos, Reb Eliezer got a knock on the door. He opened it to find a disheveled and slightly confused-looking man holding a sack over his back with a walking stick in hand. He was clearly being mechalel shabbos (desecrating the Sabbath). But Reb Eliezer promptly invited him in, prepared the third meal of shabbos for him to eat, and did not say one word to put him to shame. After shabbos he lavished him with a melavah malkah (meal that symbolizes taking leave of shabbos), and the man ate his fill. In the morning, Reb Eliezer gave the man some money for his upkeep, and escorted him to the door. Walking over the threshold he turned back to Reb Eliezer, and said, "you should know that I am Eliyahu HaNavi, and I have come down to give you a test. You did not make me feel ashamed, and due to this, you have been found worthy to beget a son who will illuminate the eyes of all of Israel." The blessing was subsequently fulfilled, and Reb Eliezer's wife gave birth to a baby boy within the year. Little did they know just how much light and fire he would bring to Israel and just how far it would spread.

The father of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz, Reb Leibush of Ternigrad, often visited Reb Moshe of Pshevorsk. On one of his visits the daughter of Reb Moshe, who was a mature twelve year-old, passed by the kitchen where the two gaonim were standing. Reb Moshe jumped backwards as she passed, and needed a second to catch his breath. His preeshus (separation from earthly things) was so great that he did not even recognize his own daughter (he, like many tzaddikim, went to great lengths to guard their eyes from temptation, especially from the sight of women, although not recognizing one's daughter is beyond the call). He did not even know her age. The Rebbetzin looked at him incredulously, and asked, "is this not our own daughter?" Answered Reb Moshe: "If we have a daughter that is already that age then we need such and such an amount of money to marry her off." Reb Leibush was standing with a small sack of money in his hands. He had planned on traveling to Danzig for business after he took leave of Reb Moshe, but when he heard Reb Moshe's words, he simply handed over the package of money. Reb Moshe, astonished at this gesture, knew not what to say or how to respond to such generosity, so he bentched Reb Leibush "b'zera shel kodesh," and said, "may you have a son that will illuminate the world," because up until that point he had no boys. The beracha came to fruition, and soon after was born the Divrei Chaim.

Have you ever heard a story of such preeshus as describe above involving Reb Moshe?

This is a bit of a different matter, but it reminds me of the story of a Rebbe who was walking with his gabbai (attendant), when the gabbai jumped back, and did a little dance. The Rebbe asked what the matter was, and the gabbai responded, "I bumped into a poll, but I thought it was a woman!" The Rebbe said, "Fool! When you bump into a woman you're supposed to think that it's a poll."

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Reb Nachum of Chernobyl and the Mountain Jews

Reb Nachum of Chernobyl, founding Chernobyler Rebbe, was a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch. Early on, the Maggid told Reb Nachum to become a maggid himself (preacher; someone who goes around rousing people to repentance), and travel to off-the-beaten-path communities to provide inspiration and hope to downtrodden Jews.

During his travels, Reb Nachum happened upon a small community in an even smaller town. As was his custom, he would go to the town square, and announce himself. "I am a traveling salesman. I have needles, in case anyone needs prodding. I have perfumes if anyone needs to be uplifted. And I have soothing balms for the soul." He would then tell the townsfolk to assemble in the shul at a particular time so that he could preach inspirational words. Next to this particular community stood a mountain. The townspeople informed Reb Nachum that there was a small community of Jews up top, just a few minyanim (quorums) worth of Jews, but it was no easy feat getting up the mountain. They were a community of woodcutters and lumberjacks. There was also an elderly affluent man who lived atop the mountain, not because he particularly wanted to live there, but because he had a lung disease, and the fresh mountain air was good for his health.

Reb Nachum resolved to make his way up the fairly steep hill. Atop the mountain he found the local shul, pulled out a sefer (religious book), and waited until the people assembled for mincha (afternoon prayer). Nobody came for mincha, nor did anyone show up for maariv (evening prayer). He went for a walk, and bumped into a Jew. Upon inquiring as to why nobody in the community davened mincha or maariv, he was told, "you know, it's tough for a Jew to make a living. Nobody really has the time to daven daily. And besides, when we do daven, we do so at the old man's house. He has trouble making his way to the shul, so we assemble in his house on particular days of the week." Reb Nachum, frustrated, began to walk around. Word got out to the community that this was Reb Nachum of Chernobyl who was gracing their town. Various people vied for the honor of having Reb Nachum spend the night at their home, and after some debate, a host was chosen.

It was arranged that Reb Nachum would daven with the minyan in the old man's house in the morning. He awoke early, and asked his host to direct him to the mikveh (ritual bath). "The know Rebbe" said his host sheepishly. "What's the problem?" asked Reb Nachum. "Well," said his host, now stammering, "we..we don't have a mikveh. You see, at one point we wanted to build a mikveh, so we got craftsmen from the next town to give us an estimate. It came out to 300 gold coins, and we can't afford anything near that price. You know how it is. They would have to dig very deep being that we're on top of a mountain." Reb Nachum was dumbfounded. After shacharis at the old man's house he stood up, and announced that the entire community should meet at the shul at such and such a time. "Everyone," said Reb Nachum. "That includes men, women and children."

When everyone was assembled later that day, Reb Nachum took the podium. A few minutes into his speech the small crowd was aghast. The Rebbe was extolling his own virtues. He delved into each period of his life; how when he was a child his father taught him how to daven, and how he cultivated his avodah (worship) to celestial heights over the years; how he began learning at a very young age, and how people were amazed at his precociousness; how well he excelled in the entire spectrum of Yiddishkeit... Why would the Rebbe talk about himself with haughtiness, they wondered! When he was finished speaking, he said, "and all of the zechus (merit) that I have amassed up until this point, the entire bounty of my reward for all endeavors and successes I have just enumerated; my entire chelek in olam habah (portion in the world to come) I am willing to sell right now to the highest bidder. This means an actual kinyan, a sale, with a written contract. Somebody make me an offer." The old man stood up. "I am willing to buy all that you have acquired up until this point for 100 gold coins." Reb Nachum, like a seasoned salesman, said, "100 gold coins? I don't think so. You're going to have to do a lot better than that." "150...175...200 gold coins." "That's not good enough," said Reb Nachum. "225, 250 cold coins," said the old man. "And that's my final offer." Reb Nachum said that this would just not due. He would not sell his zechusim for under 300 gold coins. The old man stood up, once again. "Rebbe, as you know I am an affluent man. I have my share of wealth. But I don't have 300 gold coins." Reb Nachum stayed firm. "Take it or leave it." The old man stood with his head downcast contemplating just what this acquisition would mean: A life of mediocrity replaced by one of infinite virtue; a free pass on the Day of Judgment due to a lifetime of good deeds. And so he raised his head high. "OK Rebbe, I will pay 300 gold coins." The crowd assembled around the old man to wish him mazel tov, and to share in his new-found joy.

Later in the day, the two wrote up a contract, and counted out the gold coins. Reb Nachum left with the money, and went over to the community leaders. "Here, go call the craftsmen from the next town, and build yourself a mikveh. NO Jewish community should be without a mikveh."

Later, some of the men came up to Reb Nachum, and questioned how his countenance shined with joy at the completion of the sale in the shul. "Rebbe, you lost everything you've worked for up until now. You've lost all of your zechus. And you're still besimcha." And Reb Nachum answered, "you see, up until this point in my life I've always suspected that I've had an ulterior motive when performing a mitzvah. I've never been quite comfortable with myself. But now, for the first time, I know for sure that I did a mitzvah lishmah (for the sake of doing the mitzvah). The community was lacking a mikveh, and I am helping them get one. By giving away my zechus for the sake of the mitzvah there is no way that I could have had an ulterior motive this time. I have given away that which I would have wanted to gain from a mitzvah, namely zechus. And aside from performing this mitzvah, now I get to start over with a clean slate."

The chassidim used to tell that shortly after this incident took place he heard a voice: "Don't worry Nachum. You didn't lose anything." Not that the old man didn't get his share, but rather they both got Reb Nachum's complete share.