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.
In a village not far from Lizhensk lived poor Berish, an upright widower who had a daughter. The girl had reached marriageable age and an appropriate match was proposed. The boy did not seek a dowry, but the new government tax was an insurmountable hurdle for Berish. He feared that he may never be able to marry off his only child, and his desperation and depression knew no bounds.
He figured that his only hope would be to seek Reb Elimelech’s intervention – and off he went to Lizhensk. The entire way he mulled over his bitter plight, and was bursting with animosity and ire. By the time he arrived at Reb Elimelech’s court he had lost all composure and broke in and exclaimed, “Rebbe, I have a din Torah against the Almighty!”
The second the words escaped his mouth he regretted what he had said – such a brazen accusation against Heaven – and in the presence of the holy Reb Elimelech no less! He looked for the nearest exit, but before he could even move, Reb Elimelech beckoned, “Come here, my son.
“I understand that you wish to have a din Torah against the Holy One, blessed be He. Fair enough, but a proper din Torah requires a panel of three judges. So please go summon my dayanim.”
Berish could not believe how matters had unraveled. He was appalled at the situation he had gotten himself into, but once the rebbe had spoken, there was nothing that could be done. He tried to focus on how he would present his case.
The dayanim appeared at the court without delay. Reb Elimelech turned to the poor man and instructed, “State your complaint.”
The dayanim peered down at Berish as he stumbled to find his tongue. “Honorable dayanim,” he began, “The Almighty has given us a Torah with 613 mitzvos, the first of which is “to be fruitful and multiply.” Yet the kaiser has decreed that no Jewish man in this country may marry off his daughter until he pays 400 golden coins to the government. There is hardly a family that can afford this astronomical sum and therefore it means that Jewish daughters will be disqualified from marrying and fulfilling the mitzvah that the Torah has commanded.
“I have a daughter who finally has an opportunity to wed and this royal decree will not permit the shidduch. As long as this edict is in force, it will be impossible for us to fulfill the very first mitzvah in the Torah! I therefore request that this law be annulled.” Having finished his recitation, Berish gulped some air and sat down.
“I imagine,” Reb Elimelech intoned, “that the Holy One would respond, ‘My people are not observing my mitzvos. I must therefore appoint a difficult ruler who will make harsh decrees that will cause them to repent.’ ”
He then paused and added, “According to the law, the litigants must exit as the dayanim deliberate. However, the Almighty fills every corner of the world. It would not be fair to request one of the parties to exit while the other remains; therefore the plaintiff may also remain as the judges clarify the law.”
The rebbe fell silent and his face burned like a flame. After quarter-of-an-hour of silence he opened his eyes and requested a Gemara Gittin.
His will was fulfilled and he opened to page 41, where the Talmud ponders whether a man who is only half-free may wed? Such an individual may not marry a servant, for he is partially free. And he may not marry a free woman, for he is partially a servant. Because of this midway status he will be unable to fulfill the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying, and therefore his master must set him free so as not to deny him.
Reb Elimelech stressed the last words, “The master is forced to set him free,” and looked Heavenward – and said no more.