If only each of us paid heed to the words of the powerful prayer we silently read through remorseful tears, perhaps we would think twice before allowing negative emotions – such as envy – to bring us to ruin.
… And all who come into this world pass before You like sheep … as You count, calculate, and contemplate every living soul … apportioning the fixed needs of all Your living creations and inscribe their verdict.
For the better of thirty years he was a permanent fixture at the entrance to the private quarters of Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Spira, the Munkatcher Rav, devotedly supervising the Rebbe’s comings and goings from daybreak to late night, day in and day out, season after season.
And then one day Reb Gershon, a man of wide build and few words who would peer out at others with eyes protruding from underneath black, bushy brows, was simply not there. The towering figure had vanished from his post like a piece of furniture gone missing.
Prior to his sudden disappearance, Reb Gershon had only been absent when the Rebbe had personally summoned him inside for an intimate t?te-?-t?te.
With his honed intuition, he knew precisely when the Rebbe could be seen and when he needed to be left alone. Reb Gershon and his wife had no children and lived near the outskirts of the city from where he made his way to the Rebbe’s residence early each morning.
Out of the blue, another man stood in Reb Gershon’s place. R. Gershon would later be spotted in the bais medrash walking its floors to and fro, occasionally settling into a corner to learn some Torah before resuming his pacing. This pattern repeated itself daily, for the better part of the day.
Anyone daring to inquire of R. Gershon about his sudden departure from the Rebbe’s court would be met with silence. On one occasion, a revered elder took up stride alongside R. Gershon in the bais medrash, the two quietly walking in step together until R. Gershon stopped in his tracks, faced the elder squarely and said, “Since I am no longer the Rebbe’s sexton, it would appear that this is the way it is supposed to be.”
No one brought the matter up to him again.
Many years later, when R. Tzvi Hirsh’s soul returned to its Maker (on the second day of Sukkos in the year 5674), his son Reb Chaim Elazar took over the mantle of leadership.
Still recognized by his statuesque build though the black of his beard had by now turned starkly white, R. Gershon was one among the many thousands who would flock to the home of the new Rebbe for advice, counsel and blessings. To the older chassidim, R. Gershon was cloaked in a veil of secrecy that still piqued their curiosity. In fact, the mystery surrounding R. Gershon inevitably made its way into the many stories exchanged among the Munkatcher chassidim about their previous Rebbe.
One particular Motzei Yom Kippur, following a day of fasting and devout praying by countless followers who had converged on the court of R. Chaim Elazar for the holy day, a small crowd of chassidim gathered in a corner of the bais medrash. Reflecting on the day, they partook of a l’chaim and shared feelings of contentment, trading chassidic narratives and anecdotes.
Absorbed in one another and infused by the warmth of the atmosphere, they failed to notice R. Gershon taking a seat at the edge of their table. When they spotted him, it was with a certain degree of incredulity – in all these years he had steadfastly kept to himself.
As R. Gershon sipped the schnapps he was offered, he felt himself become totally at ease. The years seemed to melt away.
As if in a trance, he began to speak without focusing on anyone, as the others at the table huddled closer together so as not to miss a single word.
“Thirty years I served the Tzaddik … thousands upon thousands stepped over the threshold. They came for advice and guidance from near and far – the weary, the heavyhearted. Thirty years.”
As R. Gershon gripped his empty glass, the wide-eyed listeners held their collective breath, waiting for more.
“Among them was a woman, obviously well to do, who would arrive in a horse-drawn carriage. She’d step into the antechamber and anxiously ask for a private audience with the Tzaddik. Inside she would break down with great heaving sobs, barely able to get her words out. ‘Rebbe, I have no children,’ she would cry pitifully. ‘Please pray for me. I would give anything no amount is too steep!’
“It was as if the Tzaddik didn’t see her standing there. With a defeated demeanor, she would be escorted out of the room.
“This scene would repeat itself every couple of months. And who could know her pain better than I, being childless myself? Her anguished cries would rip into my innards, and yet the Tzaddik remained unresponsive.”
R. Gershon sighed heavily, as though the events were just unfolding.
“Once, as I stood by the window, I saw her carriage pulling up. She dashed right past me, before I could stop her. In the Rebbe’s room, she fell to her knees and whimpered, ‘This time I am not leaving until you assure me that I will have a child!’ She wailed bitterly and collapsed. I ran to summon help and arranged for the poor woman to be taken to the rebbetzin’s private chamber.
“When I returned to my post, the Tzaddik asked me to relay a message to the poor woman. ‘Tell her that during this coming Rosh Hashanah she should come to our shul to pray; she should stand in the right-hand corner of the women’s section during shofar blowing … and with God’s help, she will be blessed with a son.’
“As it happened, I could not transmit the Rebbe’s message straightaway, for I was told to wait outside while the woman regained her composure. As I paced outdoors in the evening air, I pictured how she would return home to her husband and how excited they would be at this great new development. And then, in my mind’s eye I saw my wife and the stillness that prevailed in our own household for so many years now. An inner voice goaded me: ‘Head on home and relay the Rebbe’s instructions to your wife…tell her what the Tzaddik said.’ No matter how I tried to quell that inner force, it was of no use.
“The rebbetzin interrupted my thoughts. I went in to face a broken woman with tear-stained swollen eyes and couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I escaped the premises and ran home.”
The lights in the bais medrash had already gone out. The chassidim at the table were barely visible to R. Gershon, who could feel their breath and the palpable tenseness.
“That night when I asked my wife whether she desired to have a son, she thought I wasn’t feeling too well. But from the moment I gave her the Tzaddik’s instructions, our lives changed and the world took on new meaning for us.
“One day, the woman in the fine carriage showed up in the Rebbe’s court again. She approached me as she had so often in the past and beseeched me to allow her an audience with the Tzaddik. I hesitated and stalled – and then I heard the Rebbe call my name. He stood in the doorway, for long moments that seemed like hours, and then motioned for me to come in.
“With eyes averted, he intoned, ‘As of right now, you are no longer my shammes. You are hereby dismissed from your post.’
“I never saw the woman again. Some weeks later my wife gave birth to a stillborn child. An air of gloom and darkness settled heavily upon us; my despondent wife practically stopped talking to me altogether. Since that day, I have guarded my terrible secret of having snatched a blessing away – a blessing that belonged to another.”
Stillness reigned as the first light of daybreak cast its rays through the windows of the large shul. The chassidim were rooted in their seats, gripped by R. Gershon’s pain.
* * *
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed…on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the world and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who of famine and who of thirst, who by storm and who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning…who will enjoy serenity and who will endure suffering, who will be impoverished and who enriched, who will be degraded and who elevated …
The Baal Shem Tov once had a visitor who claimed to have no special needs. He had come only because he was passing through the town of Medzhibozh and could not give up the opportunity to greet the revered rabbi. He maintained that he had, baruch Hashem, health and wealth and that everything was wonderful with him and his family.
The Baal Shem Tov responded with a story.
Two very close friends who had learned together as children went on to learn together as young men. They had formed an exceptionally close bond, even encountering at the same time the women who would become their wives – one from a local family, the other from the city of Berditchev.
Fortune smiled upon both as they met with success in all their endeavors.
Despite the physical distance that kept them apart, they agreed to maintain close ties by mutual correspondence. They managed this for a while but eventually began to lose touch until they had virtually no contact with one another.
As the wheel of fortune turned, the one residing in Berditchev with his wife sustained heavy financial losses and became poverty stricken. Recalling the friend of his youth whom he had heard to be well off, he decided to pay him a visit.
Overjoyed to see one another, the two reminisced about the good old days and got caught up on recent events. When the destitute one unburdened his sorry state of affairs, his devoted friend offered to help him – even insisting he would split his riches with him. After all, they were so close from so far back.
The friend returned to Berditchev, paid off his debts, and fortune soon smiled upon him. His benefactor, on the other hand, having suffered a downturn and lost all his holdings, decided he would visit his revitalized friend in Berditchev.
The reaction he encountered was not quite what he expected. His wealthy friend, while acknowledging their closeness and the other’s kindness to him, balked at repaying the favor. His logic: it had become obvious that when one of them climbed up the ladder, the other would begin his descent. If he were to share his resources, the proverbial wheel would most certainly revolve and he would be thrust into poverty again.
Reluctant to dig his own pit, he coldly turned his friend away empty-handed.
Disheartened by the unsettling encounter, the poor one returned home where other kindhearted souls took pity on him and pooled together to help out a brother in need. With Hashem’s help, he survived and once again became well to do.
As luck would have it, his friend in Berditchev began another downward slide and was soon impoverished. Wavering not an iota, he revisited the city of his youth to contact the friend whom he had so recently and cruelly rebuffed. But his friend held no grudges and promptly shared all his possessions – in addition to reassuring him that he completely and wholeheartedly forgave his selfishness.
When the two reached a ripe old age, both passed from this planet on the same day and reached the Heavenly Court of Justice together. The goodhearted soul was granted entry into Gan Eden, while the unsympathetic of the two was banished to Gehinnom.
But the fortunate soul declined his exalted place, arguing that his childhood friend be allotted one as well. A commotion ensued among the Heavenly Host and it was decided that the two souls would return to earth and become close friends again in their new lives. The previously devoted one would suffer neediness while his friend would grow to be rich. If the latter this time would extend a generous hand to his less fortunate friend, they would merit to dwell in Gan Eden at the end of their earthly sojourn.
And so it came to pass as ordained. When the indigent man came to his friend’s opulent home to plead for some relief, a mean-spirited servant shooed him away. The aggrieved one pleaded with the servant to let him in to allay his hunger pangs, but to no avail. He was humiliated and ordered to take his leave. The rich man soon came to investigate the source of the racket and demanded that his servant get rid of the beggar by any means required. As the brokenhearted man tumbled down the staircase, his heart gave out and he breathed his last.
At this point in the Baal Shem Tov’s narrative, the man to whom the story was being told fainted. When he was revived, he began to wail, “Woe is me! I am the evil one who gave instructions to my servant – and the poor soul, unable to withstand the brutality visited upon him, succumbed to our merciless treatment. If only…”
“But,” countered the Baal Shem Tov, “did you not state earlier that you had no need of anything? No help … no counsel?
“Just the same, all is not lost. Go seek out the orphans the poor man left behind and provide them with all of their needs. Do we not, after all, know for a certainty that teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah remove the evil decree?”
Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.