The stories concerning Rav Naftali of Ropshitz are quite numerous and reveal the sharp biting wit of the great gaon and chassidic rav. Rav Naftali was often persecuted and sneered at by misnagdim, but the sharp mind with which he was blessed always served him in good stead in finding proper answers.
It happened once that a misnaged, seeking to annoy and tease Rav Naftali, asked him:
“What do you think? Will Moshiach be a misnaged or a chassid?”
To the surprise of everyone who was listening – including the mocking misnaged – Rav Naftali answered:
“I would imagine that Moshiach would probably prove to be a misnaged.”
The misnaged looked at him in astonishment and asked: “How can you, a chassidic rav, say such a thing?”
Rav Naftali smiled and answered, “It is simple. If Moshiach would turn out to be a chassid, the misnagdim would not believe in him even if he turned out to be as great as Moshe Rabbeinu. Chassidim, however, are prepared to believe in anyone who is sincerely a G-d fearing person…”
Why Always Whiskey?
Yet another time, a misnaged asked Rav Naftali: “Rav, something has always puzzled me about the customs of the Chassidim, perhaps you can enlighten me.”
“It is the custom of the chassidim to drink whiskey at all happy times, like a wedding, a circumcision or redemption of the first born.
“On the other hand, should there be, G-d forbid, a tragic time – such as mourning or a yahrzeit — they do precisely the same thing. How is it possible that the two contradictory events, happiness and tragedy, evoke the same reaction?”
Rav Naftali replied, “Let me explain it to you. It is not the drinking of the whiskey, it is the opportunity to make a Shehakol – Blessed be Thou … at Whose word everything was created.”
“Chazal have taught us that a man is obligated to say a blessing in times of tragedy just as in times of happiness, and this concept is embodied in the blessing over whiskey, ‘… at Whose word every thing (both good and tragic) is created,’ and this is why we drink whiskey on all occasions so that we may have the opportunity to say this particular blessing.”
“But Rebbe,” the man asked, “if the whole purpose is to be able to say the blessing of Shehakol, why drink whiskey? The same blessing is said before drinking water, too.”
“That is true,” replied Rav Naftali with a smile, “but let me ask you this. When a chassid is so holy and good in that he disregards tragedy and praises his maker even in his sadness – is he not entitled to a glass of whiskey…?”
Rav Naftali’s Psychology
One of the great gifts Rav Naftali had was the ability to use psychology to help the people who came seeking assistance.
One day, as Rav Naftali was sitting at home, a young woman entered his study and asked to speak to him.
“Rebbe, I am a sad and bitter woman. I am married and my greatest dream is to give birth to a child but I am cursed by constantly miscarrying. Now I am pregnant again and I am in my eighth month. I have come to you to ask you for your blessing that I give birth to a healthy child.”
Rav Naftali looked at her and said: “I want you to know that you are presently in your ninth month and you will give birth in the tenth month.”
“But rebbe,” the woman protested, “how can you say that? I know exactly the number of months and I know that I am in my eighth month.”
“In that case, I order you to push your count ahead by one month.”
The chassidim were astonished but they held their peace until the woman had left. Then they turned to Rav Naftali and asked: “Rebbe, explain to us why you spoke to her the way you did.”
“The woman who was here is still young and she has obviously been suffering miscarriages in the last month of her pregnancies. She has become filled with fear and trepidation as she enters her ninth month and this might cause her to miscarry again. If she thought that she were wrong in her count and that this was not the dreaded month it would calm her soul and ease her mind so that the chances of her miscarrying would be greatly lessened.”
The Righteous Women
Rav Naftali was married to a learned woman but one who was, unfortunately, difficult to live with. Once, as they discussed the merits of women, she grew angry and said:
“If not for women we would all have remained slaves in the land of Egypt, as chazal say (Sotah 11b): ‘In reward of the righteous women who lived in that generation were the children of Israel redeemed from Egypt.’”
Rav Naftali shook his head and said:
“Let me explain to you chazal’s meaning. As is well known, the Almighty told our father Avraham that his children would be slaves for 400 years. On the other hand, we know that as matters turned out the Jews were only slaves for 210 years. Why is this so?
“The answer is as follows: The righteous women came to the Almighty and pleaded before Him, saying, “We beseech You to have mercy on our husbands and let them go free from their bondage immediately.’
“And the Almighty answered them, saying: ‘I sympathize with you, but what can I do, for I have already decreed that their slavery will be a full 400 years?’
“To which the women replied: ‘Sovereign of the universe, if that is the only obstacle then allow them to go free and we promise that we shall make them work twice as hard and make their lives even more miserable.’
“This,” concluded Rav Naftali, “is the meaning of chazal’s words – for because of the promise of the righteous women to make their husbands’ lives miserable, the Almighty freed them.”