The most famous of the students of the Baal Shem Tov was Reb Dov Ber, known as the Maggid of Mezerich. He spread the Baal Shem Tov’s Torah to thousands of students and was responsible for the continuance of chassidus.
Reb Dov Ber, however, was also blessed with descendants of his own who carried on his chassidic dynasty. His son was known as Reb Avraham HaMalach because of his almost total spirituality. He would sit wrapped in his tallis and tefillin, isolated from the materialism of the world, deep in study and contemplation.
In a significant way, he differed from his father, Reb Dov Ber, and the Baal Shem Tov. The latter elevated the concept of joy as found in the verse, “Worship Hashem with joy…” and stressed the importance of happiness in the service of G-d. As the Baal Shem Tov would say:
“Happiness is a greater attribute than sadness or weeping. Weeping only opens the gates of Heaven while happiness shatters them entirely.”
Reb Avraham, however, was immersed his whole life in sorrow for the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jews.
There is a significant story that illustrates this well.
One year, a venerable chassid from the town of Redzivilov, by the name of Reb Yitzchak, came to spend Tisha B’Av with Reb Avraham.
As evening approached, Reb Yitzchak went with Reb Avraham to shul where the entire congregation, sat on the floor in mourning. As the chazan began to chant Eichah, Reb Avraham began to wail bitterly, and then placed his head between his knees and was silent. All through the reading he sat in that position, not moving or speaking.
Reb Yitzchak waited until past midnight for Reb Avraham and then finally returned to his hotel. Awakening early in the morning, he returned to shul and was astounded to see that Reb Avraham was still there, in the same position in which he had left him – in silent, bitter mourning for the Bais HaMikdash and Bnei Yisrael – and there he stayed until the fast was over.
Reb Avraham inherited from his father a deep faith in G-d and a disregard for personal suffering. His father, Reb Dov Ber, was very poor and not in good health. When his wife would sigh and weep, he would say to her:
“Why do we weep? What has happened already in the past has gone and I give thanks to the Almighty Who has allowed me to survive to this day. As for the future, I have constant faith that He will send me salvation. There is left, then, only the present. The present is always only an instant – shall we then worry about an instant of suffering?”
Reb Shalom Shachna
The one who truly followed in the footsteps of Reb Dov Ber, however, was not his son, Reb Avraham, but his grandson, Reb Shalom Shachna.
Reb Shalom Shachna did not keep himself from the world; he met it and attempted to purify it. He introduced an element of happiness and, indeed, a regal quality, and his home became a palace of sorts to his followers. While he himself disdained materialism, he was equally adamant in his opposition to undue emphasis on fasting and self-denial.
Thus, the story is told of a tragic woman who, through a sad and unfortunate accident, crushed her infant child as they slept in the same bed.
The bereaved woman felt that some punishment was due her and she appealed to the rabbanim to punish her.
The answer she received was that since she had taken a life out of negligence – though it was accidental – she should suffer exile from her home for a period of time and, in that exile, fast every Monday and Thursday.
When she told Reb Shalom Shachna of the judgment, he said to her:
“Go home to your husband and every Monday and Thursday eat and drink and be healthy and beautiful and I assure you that your punishment will be expiated.”
When the woman left, the chassidim asked the Rebbe what the meaning of his words were:
“It is really not difficult,” he replied. “After all, the best repentance is that which compensates for the sin. What now was the sin of this poor woman? She had caused the death of a soul in Israel. Let her therefore go home and look beautiful and find favor in her husband’s eyes and may they have another child to take the place of the first and this will be the true repentance.”
The Next Generation
Reb Shalom Shachna in turn was blessed with a son, who brought his great-grandfather’s dynasty to its peak of glory. This was the famous Reb Yisroel of Rizhin. Reb Yisroel carried himself with the bearing of a king and his courtyard rivaled that of real monarchs. Nevertheless, his learning and greatness were recognized by chassidic Rebbes who were themselves great scholars. One such man was Reb Chaim of Tsanz.
One day, following a journey to see Reb Yisroel, Reb Chaim encountered Rabi Shimon Sofer (son of the great Chasam Sofer and the rav of Krakow). Rav Shimon was opposed to chassidus but he greatly respected Reb Chaim for his learning. He asked him:
“I am amazed that a great scholar such as yourself, despite his poor health, leaves his family and travels to see Reb Yisroel of Rizhin. What do you see in this man: Torah, depth of understanding, breadth of knowledge?”
And Reb Chaim answered: “There are two mountains that have acquired greatness in Jewish history. One is Har HaMoriah where Yitzchak was prepared to give his life to the Almighty, and Har Sinai where the Eibeshter gave us the Torah. The question arises: Why was the Beis HaMikdash built on Har HaMoriah and not on Har Sinai where the Torah was given?
“We see from this that Hakadosh Baruch Hu prefers a place where a Jew has stretched forth his neck and prepared to die for the sanctification of His Name even more than a place where the Torah was given. While there are many places and many men in the communities of Israel where Torah is paramount, there are few places where one can see the willingness to sacrifice to give up one’s very life for Israel. This latter quality is what I find in Reb Yisroel of Rizhin.”