Dear Readers: You may remember how we once did an experiment with a story (about a monster fire in Arizona) without Jewish protagonists, but containing a universal lesson that I believed worthy to record for the readers of Chodesh Tov. We are there yet again, this time directly north in Wisconsin. Please bear with me as we once again record a story we investigated in the hope that the lesson is unique and worthy of our attention. It is going to take us five full columns to complete the tale, and I thank you in advance for your patience.
Reb Elimelech personally selected his burial spot, explaining that on that location he perceived the soul of the Baal Shem Tov. Reb Elimelech returned his pure soul to his Maker on 21 Adar, 1787 at the age of 70. Ever since, his burial plot has become a center for prayer and personal requests.
Ahavas Yisrael, the genuine love of one Jew for another, stood at the center of Reb Elimelech’s teachings. He always found a way to speak in praise of a fellow person and elevate the status of the Jewish people.
After Reb Elimelech had restored the glory of his colleague, Reb Shmelkeh of Nikolsburg, he departed home to Lizhensk. He was en route when a voice descended from Heaven and proclaimed, “In the merit of your helping Reb Shmelkeh you have the privilege of blessing whomever you desire during the next 24 hours. And your blessing will be fulfilled.”
Reb Elimelech was concerned for every Jew but himself. Even when he was physically assaulted by an over-zealous misnagid, his reaction was typical: “Master of the Universe, I forgive him with my whole heart. Let no man be punished on my behalf.” But when Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev was persecuted, Rabbi Elimelech rallied to support him. He was always there on behalf of others.
It was when Reb Elimelech assumed the leadership of the chassidic movement that the Austrian Kaiser decreed that before a woman may wed, a tax of 400 golden coins must be paid to the government. This tax was far too exorbitant for the commoner to pay and many feared that they would never be able to marry off their daughters.
Reb Elimelech maintained that just for him alone they will have to make a new Gehinnom, for the one that already exists is not adequate enough. He also commented – in his infinite humility – that the reason people come to him and request his assistance with children, health and parnassah is because it is his sins that are responsible for the absence of these blessings.
As has been noted in a previous column, Reb Elimelech – like the Baal Shem Tov before him – asserted that pessimism and depression cause sin and spiritual apathy. Repentance (yes, even repentance!) that causes depression and sadness distances the Holy Presence.
In 1648 and 1649 Bogdan Chmelnitzky and his hordes of Cossack warriors perpetrated an annihilation campaign against the Jews of Poland and the Ukraine....
Wandering from town to village, the Holy Brothers neglected their physical needs and were sustained by meager coins or scraps of food that were donated along the way.
On the sad day that Eliezer Lipman, Reb Elimelch and Reb Zusha’s father, passed from this world, his children gathered for the week of mourning. At the conclusion of the shivah the sons divided their father’s inheritance in the following way: Avraham received the cash and the house was given to Nosson. The jewelry and housewares went to Elimelech and the outstanding debts were to be collected by Zusha.
To the misnaged-opponent, chassidus was not perceived as a different strand of normative Judaism, nor as a movement to uplift downtrodden Jews – but as an existential threat to Judaism itself. And the threat was no longer viewed as a futuristic potentiality; it was a real and imminent danger, for the movement was no longer limited to just the commoner but had infiltrated the ranks of scholars.
The Baal Shem Tov was the founder and the visionary of chassidus, but the architect who built and spread the movement was Rabbi Dov Ber, the maggid of Mezeritch.
Scholars have debated where precisely the Baal Shem Tov was born, few giving credence to the tiny village of Okopy (pronounced Akup). Most likely he hailed from Kolomyya on the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains and on the banks of the Prut River. Nearly 300 years have lapsed since the passing of the Baal Shem Tov and all the while the stories of his miraculous abilities have increased. Yet all fail to fully portray his greatness.
In 1648 and 1649 Bogdan Chmelnitzky and his hordes of Cossack warriors perpetrated an annihilation campaign against the Jews of Poland and the Ukraine. Almost 100,000 Jews and 300 communities perished at the hands of these murderous mobs. All of the Jews, including infants, were targeted for murder; the general populaces nearly always joined in the attacks, and the torture and degradation of Jews was an integral aspect of the murderer’s procedures.
The popularity of the rise of chassidus did not go unnoticed by those who did not share the same allegiance. As long as the movement was limited to the commoner and isolated in a few pockets of Poland no one perceived it as a threat. But all of this had changed by 1772.
Baruch, from the village of Radovitz, was a sharecropper who barely eked out a living. His income was at the mercy of the infamously cruel Poritz, who owned the Radovitz environs.
Reb Elimelech M’Lizhensk was considered one of the finest students of the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, the Maggid MiMezretch. When the Maggid passed away, his disciples gathered for the funeral and then had to decide who would succeed their master.
Wherever the two holy brothers went on their self-imposed exile they generated a spirit of repentance. Their standard routine was to admonish themselves out loud for their supposed crimes, when in fact their “sins” were precisely the ones that the villager within earshot needed to rectify.
The parents of Reb Elimelech M’Lizhensk, Eliezer Lipman and his pious wife, Mirish, emanated from families that could trace their lineage all the way back to Rashi, Rav Yochanan Hasandlar of Talmudic fame and even King David. They lived in the townlet of Lapachi, not far from Tiktin.
Just when it seemed that the Jews could never recover from the ruinous events of the 17th and 18th centuries, their plight was worsened yet, by even heavier taxes imposed by the Polish government.
Whereas Salek's father's appearance was rather modern for that period - sporting only a short beard, just like his cousins - his grandfather, Avrohom Orenstein, had a flowing beard and wore a shtreimel on Shabbos.
The shtetl of Apt would rise early every weekday morning when the men would rush to one of the houses of prayer, better known as shteiblech.
In preparation for Shabbos, Salik Orenstein's (our protagonist, and through his eyes and his memoir are we viewing the shtetl) mother baked challos.
Over a year ago, I suggested that our knowledge of the Holocaust was limited because of our familiarity with only a few, well-known stories from that period.