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August 2, 2015 / 17 Av, 5775
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Reb Elimelech M’Lizhensk (Part I)


Teller-Rabbi-Hanoch

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. The townsfolk were increasingly hostile, and the police were indifferent to attacks upon Jews and their possessions. As a matter of law, Jews were banished from most professions, forcing a large number of them to engage in agriculture. But they were not allowed to own the land.

They worked for what might be compared to a feudal lord, and was referred to in the colloquial parlance as a “Poritz.” Invariably, the Poritzs were interested in squeezing whatever money they could out of the Jews and mercilessly punished, with full government endorsement, any delinquency in tax or rent.

One of the many Jews who had incurred the wrath of his Poritz had an outstanding debt of 3,000 golden coins. It was off to prison for him and the Poritz made it very clear that he would never see the light of day until his debt was paid in full. These were never vain threats, and the kindhearted and benevolent Reb Eliezer Lipman learned of this poor soul’s plight.

Reb Eliezer engaged in many acts of chesed, including the supreme mitzvah of redeeming Jews from captivity. This time it would be an august challenge, for he only had 1,000 golden coins. Still, he did not falter in his quest and asked to speak with the Poritz.

As he was making his way to the Poritz’s doorstep, he heard torturous moans that he gathered were from the Jewish prisoner held in the mansion’s dungeon. Those awful moans only further strengthened Reb Eliezer’s resolve.

The visitor was shown into the Poritz, who was cordial until he learned the purpose of the call. Any trace of geniality evaporated at the very mention of the prisoner. “The stinking Jew owes me 3,000 golden coins,” the Poritz fumed, “for all of the time that he hasn’t paid his debts. He will rot in the cell to the last of his days, until every coin is received!”

Eliezer attempted to reason with the hardened landowner. “What have you to gain from a prisoner who dies in jail? You are after your money, and this will not return it. Let me pay you all the money that I have, 1000 golden coins, for the freedom of the prisoner and surely the Lord will bless you so that you will not lose out from this deal.”

But the Poritz would not budge; nor would Eliezer give up. Finally, the determined ba’al chesed prevailed, and the prisoner was released.

The Poritz was impressed both by Eliezer’s negotiations and that a perfect stranger would spend 1,000 coins of his own money to redeem a fellow Jew. “I see that you are an upright man,” the Poritz commented, “and I am therefore going to offer you a break. Since you are a flax merchant I recommend that you travel to my brother-in-law who is a flax distributor. I will write you a letter of recommendation encouraging him to give you a substantial discount.”

“Thank you,” Eliezer responded softly, “but I parted with my last coin in order to redeem your captive.”

“In that case,” reflected the Poritz, “here is your money back; invest it wisely with my brother-in-law!”

Joyously, Eliezer departed to the flax distributor armed with his letter of recommendation. The new Poritz read the letter and was amenable to making a sale at a fair price. He had Eliezer escorted to his warehouse so that he could personally inspect the material. Eliezer was impressed by the quality of the flax and it’s low cost.

Just as they were leaving the warehouse, Eliezer heard a tormented shriek and wail from somewhere nearby. “What is that noise?” Eliezer Lipman wanted to know.

“Oh that,” the worker said with a flip of his hand. “It’s hard for me to believe that old Jewish farmhand is still alive. Ever since he was imprisoned he has made such a racket that we have denied him food and drink to quiet him down. Eventually, I guess, it will work…”

Upon hearing this Eliezer dropped the bolt of flax and rushed out of the warehouse to speak with the man he had just negotiated with. Using the money that he had brought for his purchase, Eliezer Lipman managed to redeem the prisoner.

The captive was released in a dreadful state, and Eliezer had a doctor summoned and food gingerly administered. He then invited the man to come to his house for the holiday of Passover that was imminently approaching.

Grateful that he managed to save a fellow Jew before it was too late, Eliezer and his guest were about to set off when the wholesaler called out, “Hey, what about our deal? Don’t you wish to purchase some flax?”

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