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April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Baal Shem Tov’

Reb Elimelech M’Lizhensk (Part VIII)

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

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.

Orphaned from both of his parents at a very young age, he was nonetheless deemed a wonder-child by all who observed his unusual ways.

In his youth he was hired as a “behelfer” in a cheder, meaning he would escort young boys to their teacher and to shul in order to say “Amen” and “Yehei shemei rabba.”

His love of his fellow Jew – even toddlers – by that point nearly defies description. The Maggid M’mizretch commented upon those days, “Hallevai, if only we would kiss a sefer Torah on Simchas Torah with a fraction of the love the Baal Shem would kiss the young students.”

When he turned 18 years old, legend has it, he went out to the forests, as he was accustomed to doing, for special introspection in honor of his birthday. It was there that he met Elijah the Prophet, the first time that he had seen him alone and not in the company of hidden saints. And it was then that a new path in serving the Almighty was hatched, to be known as chassidus.

Yisrael (the Baal Shem Tov) saw his mission as encouraging the masses to have simple and pure faith and to pray with intense concentration. Critical was ahavas Yisrael and allegiance to pious Torah leaders. And everything was to be done with paramount joy and a constant awareness of G-d’s presence in all of life’s facets.

The Baal Shem Tov and a group of devoted followers would travel to the most faraway townlets to teach the children aleph-beis and rudimentary Judaism. They would establish educational systems for the youth and pay equal attention to their parents.

Focusing first on the lower classes and those most hard hit from the massacres and the pogroms, the Baal Shem Tov would not only raise their spirits but assisted in their livelihoods. Only then would he tend to the scholars who also sought his counsel.

The Baal Shem Tov’s message was not only tailor-made for the people, but it was precisely what they desperately needed to hear. Without fire and brimstone, righteous indignation or even a hint of castigation, he built up the bitter souls with a message of love.

Love for one Jew toward another, and unrestrained love of the Lord.

With boundless love and compassion, the Baal Shem perceived a spark, although sometimes dormant, of holiness in every Jew. It was this ember that he constantly tried to ignite. He never threatened or instilled fear, invoked purgatory or employed righteous indignation. His message was clear, simple and short: a fulfillment of the Talmudic dictum, “G-d desires the heart.”

Another principle that was drilled was that “no place is bereft of G-d’s Presence.” A philosopher once stated, “I took apart the world and didn’t find G-d.” In response, a violinist remarked to him, “That’s akin to me saying I took apart my violin and didn’t find music.” A person needs to look at the harmony of the whole world in order to behold G-d.

The result of the Baal Shem’s approach was magic. The masses flocked to him and found comfort and hope in lives that had been previously miserable and desolate. A heavy burden was lifted from their shoulders.

The Baal Shem Tov’s enthusiasm and pleasant countenance was contagious, and villagers freely welcomed guests into their modest hovels – fulfilling the Talmudic adage, “hospitality is greater than greeting the Lord.”

The concept of evil was thoroughly foreign to him. “What shall I do with my son? He is so wicked!” asked a despairing father. “Love him all the more,” was the characteristic counsel of the Baal Shem who shunned reprimands.

The Baal Shem mesmerized whomever he met, and seeing him meant falling under his spell. His repertoire of anecdotes, parables, metaphors and aphorisms was endless, and he appealed to the heart as well as to the mind. The Baal Shem Tov captured the hearts of the poor and the humble; everyone could approach him. The stories and legends of the Baal Shem Tov shine and sparkle in the darkness.

Reb Elimelech M’Lizhensk (Part VI)

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

History recounts that the Baal Shem Tov did not appoint a successor, so when he passed away on Shavuos 1760, his only son, Zvi, became the leader for a full year. According to tradition, on the first yahrzeit of his father, the Baal Shem Tov’s son disclosed that he had had a vision of his father relating that the Shechinah (God’s holy presence) had moved from Mezhubesh (the court of the Baal Shem Tov) to Mezeritch and then symbolically removed his white coat and placed it on the shoulders of Reb Dov Ber from Mezeritch.

The Maggid was a masterful imparter of his master’s teachings, but because he was physically weak, restricted to crutches and an ill individual, he could not go out and intermingle with the people. The center of chassidus was transplanted to Mezeritch and whoever was thirsty to hear chassidic teaching would travel there.

Because the Maggid could not physically take the message on the road and to the people like the Master before him, he appointed shalichim (agents) to act on his behalf.

These shalichim entered study halls and they entered beer halls – virtually anywhere that the commoners could be found. When they encountered a Torah scholar they would offer no rest until he would agree to visit the Maggid in Mezeritch, who would invariably enchant – converting a skeptic into a chassid.

Many of these scholars, after having personally imbibed the world of chassidus, would head out to the field and metamorphose towns into chassidic centers.

By the time of his death in 1772, the Maggid had attracted to his center of learning in Mezeritch some of the most brilliant minds, extraordinary personalities, and dynamic leaders of his day. He would mold them into inspired teachers and holy men. The Maggid was able to take a man of outstanding potential and develop him into “the tzaddik” that the Baal Shem Tov had described, the very key to the success of chassidus.

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.

Because of the outreach work of the Maggid’s agents the movement flourished and expanded beyond all assumed, natural geographic borders. It extended to Central Poland and Galicia, Lithuania and White Russia.

But the nascent movement of chassidus not only leapt passed geographic boundaries, but it also flowed up from the commoners and impacted upon important scholars and leaders. Suddenly the non-chassidic mainstay of Polish, Lithuanian and White Russian Jewry felt threatened. Overnight, everything the chassidim did was suspect.

The hitherto reluctance to consult kabalistic texts was disregarded by the chassidim, creating panic and alarm that the influence of Shabbetai Zvi and Jacob Frank lingered yet. There was also concern that the unprecedented emphasis upon prayer would shift time-honored priorities. It had previously been assumed that only a scholar familiar with all of the intricate minutiae of the law could be considered holy and close to the Almighty. Suddenly chassidim had hoisted the unschooled commoner to an equal level of closeness to God by opening the gateway of prayer.

Prayer did not require erudition or diligence, only sincerity. The story is told of an ignorant, shepherd-boy who entered a synagogue on Yom Kippur and was taken by the sincere devotion of the congregation. He too wished to offer up his voice in prayer but was unschooled in how to pray – even how to read from a prayer book. He therefore took out his recorder and began to offer the only profound expression that he knew how to articulate.

The worshippers in the synagogue were shocked, disgraced and appalled at the boorish behavior of this simpleton, who desecrated the Yom Tov with his simple flute. A shonda, they cried in unison and derision!

Only the Baal Shem Tov came to his defense, chastising those present by admonishing, “I could see that the prayers of this shul had almost made their way to the high Heavens, but they were lodged impenetrably at the gates. It was only this sincere and utterly pure blowing of the recorder that was able to hoist and transport all the prayers of this assembly into the portals of Heaven.”

(To be continued)

Chodesh tov – have a pleasant month!

Reb Elimelech M’Lizhensk (Part IV)

Friday, January 20th, 2012

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. The consensus was that there was a need for a leader that was robust and energetic, articulate and charismatic, who would know how to watch over his flock and even, if necessary, to engage in battle. Once these guidelines were established, the question of succession would become a mute one.

Unanimously the disciples elected to crown Reb Elimelech, and they chanted in unison, “Yechi adoneinu v’rabbeinu – Long live our master and teacher, Reb Elimelech!” From Mezeritch the group of chassidim departed to Lezhensk, with Reb Elimelech at the head of the procession. The group continued until evening descended, and it was necessary to lodge for the night. They entered an inn along the way and requested a single room for their newly appointed master.

To the great astonishment of the chassidim Reb Elimelech requested pillows and covers from the innkeeper – as if he were planning to retire for the entire night. Several hours later the chassidim were, well, appalled that their new master was still sleeping like a commoner.

The Maggid who had preceded him had never allowed himself more than a few hours of sleep. Without anyone saying a word, there was a profound sense of regret over their choice of leader. Still, no one had the temerity to arouse Reb Elimelech. But when several more hours passed and Reb Elimelech remained sleeping, they knew they had to do something. They summoned Reb Zusha, who was with them at the inn, to awaken his brother.

“Waking Rebbe Elimelech is the simplest thing in the world,” he commented, as if he was just asked by the trembling chassidim to tie a shoe. And with that he entered the room where his brother was sleeping and placed his hand over the mezuzah in the room. At that instant Reb Elimelech jumped out of bed.

The confounded chassidim asked Reb Zusha to explain what they had just beheld. “As you know,” Reb Zusha began, “man must envision the name of God before his eyes at all times. But what is one to do when he slumbers? The answer is that he relies on the ineffable name inscribed in the mezuzah.

“Thus, when I covered over the mezuzah, my brother no longer had anything to rely on, and he was therefore compelled to awake and envision the Almighty before his eyes.” All of the chassidim released a pent-up collective sigh of relief.

With Reb Elimelech at the helm, Lezhensk became the Jerusalem of the chassidic world. Like Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Elimelech could establish instant rapport with both scholars and the masses.

Similarly, when he detected the need, he would take up the wanderer’s staff and visit far off villages and distant hamlets. In this way he came to understand the economic struggles, as well as the spiritual needs, of his people.

In the course of 13 years, Rabbi Elimelech armed his followers with weapons that enabled them to survive the onslaughts of the misnagdim. These weapons were prayer, kindness and compassion. Not undeservedly was he called not only Rebbe Elimelech, but also “the Second Baal Shem Tov.”

Because Reb Elimelech devoted all of his time and energy to serving the Lord, he didn’t have the means to support his family. There was never enough to eat, and the most modest and essential needs were barely met.

There was one businessman who davened in the same minyan as Reb Elimelech and he could not fail to notice the plight of the young man who spent his entire day immersed in Torah study. Therefore, every day he would discreetly place a coin into the tallis bag of Reb Elimelech. After awhile the businessman realized that his financial dealings were improving and his profit was increasing.

It didn’t take long before it became manifestly clear that his support of the poor scholar was a source of untold blessing. Hence he began to up his donations, and the increase in his personal income was commensurate to his contributions. In no time he had become a wealthy man.

One day Reb Elimelech was absent from shul. The businessman nervously inquired about the whereabouts of his goldmine and was informed that Reb Elimelech had departed to visit his rebbe, the Maggid of Mezeritch. The man made a quick calculation. If he had done so well by contributing to a student, then he would surely gain by donating to the master! Accordingly, he set off for Mezeritch and handed the Maggid a handsome donation. The man returned home confident that he had made the greatest investment of his lifetime.

Neglecting The Shul

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Neglecting The Shul

Once a regiment of Austrian soldiers visited the city of Rimanov. Lacking pro­per facilities to house the troops, the com­manding officer decided to use the main shul in the city for their quarters.

When the Jews of the city were no­tified they became fright­ened. Their only house of worship would now be desecrated. The officials of the congregation pleaded with the officer, but to no avail.

In desperation they ran to their rav, the pious saint, Rav Mandl, to inter­cede for them. While they were discussing the mater with him, one of the balebatim remarked, “There is yet a chance that the army will not use the shul.” They turned towards him and asked, “why?”

“They would be foolish if they do,” he replied. “The walls are shaky, the roof is leaking and the whole appearance of the shul is drab and dirty.”

When the rav heard this he jumped up in anguish and exclaimed: “Now I know why Hashem punished us with this frightful confiscation of our shul. If we, ourselves, have no consid­eration for Hashem’s house, if we do not re­spect it enough to keep it clean and tidy and in good order, then why should Hashem have consideration for us? He decided to turn it over to the army, for they may take better care of it.

“This I advise to do immediately,” continued the rav. “Hire carpen­ters and laborers to repair the shul. Beautify it until it becomes the holy place it was supposed to be.”

The elders of the congregation rushed away immediately and engaged workers to repair and beautify the shul. They worked continuously, day and night, until the shul was once again a beautiful place to behold.

A few days later, the general of the army arrived to inspect the shul and to put his final approval upon it. He spent many hours examining and mea­suring. Finally, he announced that the shul was too small to be used. In­ asmuch as there was no larger hall in Rimanov, they decided to move to the next town where there were larger quar­ters for the entire regiment.

 

Foretells The Future

Reb Shaul, son of Reb Yisrael Shlomo of Slobodka tells the following story of the Baal Shem Tov:

A count who was noted for his anti-Semitism, heard that the Baal Shem Tov was visiting one of the towns in his province. Having heard that the Baal Shem Tov was able to predict the future and because of it he attracted a multitude of followers, the count ordered his servants to bring the Baal Shem Tov to him, by force, if necessary.

When he was brought before the count he was asked, “Is it true that you are able to see the future? For many of my subjects swear by you.”

The Baal Shem Tov had little choice but to say, “Yes.”

Drawing out his sword, the count said, “If that be the case, then tell me when will you die?”

The Baal Shem Tov realized the count intended to harm him.  If he responded by saying that he would live a long time, the count would kill him immedi­ately to show the Baal Shem Tov was a liar; and if he said that he would die today or tomor­row, he would intentionally let him live so as to prove him a liar and a charlatan.

With a prayer in his heart the Baal Shem Tov answered: “My lord, G-d will never reveal the day of death of any mortal. But this I know, the one day following my death, my lord, the count will also die.”

The count was amazed at this pro­found answer. He was afraid to kill the Baal Shem Tov for fear that his prophecy would come true and he would die the following day. The Baal Shem Tov left for home in peace.

 

Being Kind To Other People

The Chofetz Chaim (Rav Yisrael Meir HaCohen of Radin) would always point out that gemilas chesed doesn’t only involve giving money to the needy, but it also meant being kind to others. It meant in­viting guests to your home, escorting them home when it was dark, arranging the wedding of a poor bride and groom, vis­iting the sick and the bereaved and all the ­little things in life which makes the other persons happier.

Once, during a long winter night in Shevat, after praying Maariv, the Cho­fetz Chaim sat down to learn and review the Gemara. As was his custom, he placed the bottom of his long frock alongside of him, not wishing to sit on it and crease it. The Gaon became so engross­ed in his studies that he didn’t notice an elderly man stretch out on the bench alongside of him and place his head on his frock. The poor man was homeless and tired and he soon fell asleep.

Reb Elimelech M’Lizhensk (Part II)

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

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.

As Mirish was illiterate in the holy tongue, she would recite her blessings by heart. Reb Zusha testified that at the time that his mother prayed, the Divine presence could be found in the home. On Erev Shabbos she would travel to Tiktin to dispense alms.

One story tells of a group of destitute beggars who came to her home, including a leper covered in ghastly boils. While everyone else distanced himself or herself from this wretched discomfiture, Mirish reached out and saw to his needs. Just before the group’s departure the leper blessed her: “May your children be like me.”

Before she could respond to this worrisome blessing, the entire entourage vanished. She then understood that she had been tested from Heaven.

One day, the Baal Shem Tov – who would travel from town to town and address assemblies of the commoners regarding the value of prayer and the sanctity of the synagogue – visited Eliezer and Mirish’s village. This marked a turning point in their lives. From that day on, they faithfully provided candles to the shul and were meticulous in prayer, as they beseeched the Almighty to open the hearts of their four sons and one daughter to the Torah.

On the sad day that Eliezer Lipman passed from this world, his children gathered for the week of mourning. At the conclusion of the shiva 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.

The division had been thus contrived for Zusha, who was very clever at disguising his ways and who appeared to have plenty of time on his hands. It only seemed fitting that he should be the one to go out and collect the debts.

However, Zusha was in no way suited for this mission, and without a penny from the inheritance, was left destitute. Bereft of any means of support, he decided to travel to his uncle who was an assistant to the Maggid of Mezeritch.

Lodging with his uncle meant constant exposure to the Maggid and, in no time, Zusha became an ardent chassid. In the meantime, Elimelech had moved to his wife’s hometown of Shineva.

After his stay with his uncle in Mezeritch, Zusha departed for his brother, Elimelech. The very long and arduous journey took its toll on Zusha’s attire. His worn-out tatters were far shabbier than those that clad the poorest of beggars.

Ever vigilant of the honor of his in-laws, Elimelech was ashamed to allow his dreadfully-appearing brother into his home. He therefore arranged accommodations for him at the home of a local baker.

However, Zusha’s night was not earmarked for mundane sleep. Those precious hours were devoted to learning, prayer and the loud recitation of tikun chatzos. Zusha’s nocturnal agenda effectively brought an end to his tenancy at the baker’s house and Elimelech had no other recourse but to invite his brother into his own home.

It was there that he was able to observe Zusha’s ways first-hand. This sparked within Elimelech the desire to draw close to the Maggid of Mezeritch.

Reb Zusha convinced his older brother to join him in a self-imposed exile that they would devote to elevating the people that they would encounter. Attired in the clothes of exile, they would travel from village to village to persuade, direct and inspire the people to desist from sin and return to their holy roots. The exile would also, as the Talmud teaches, purify their souls.

The Eighth Commandment

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Lo Signov – You Shall Not Steal.

On the surface, it sounds quite uncomplicated. (Aren’t even young children taught not to help themselves to something – anything – that is not theirs?) If we are honest with ourselves, however, we’d have to agree the myriad ways this commandment is breached render it less straightforward than the two simple words might at first glance imply.

Take the recalcitrant man who denies his wife a Get. Is he not guilty of stealing years from the woman whom he heartlessly keeps imprisoned for his own warped agenda?

How about the man (or woman) who makes a play for someone else’s spouse, in essence attempting to steal the affection to which he is not entitled and which rightfully belongs to another?

Defaming someone with evil speech, lashon hara, can rob that person of a livelihood, a shidduch, a reputation and, subsequently, much more.

And what of the rationalization that “It is only the government and they already have enough money”? Is the massive chillul Hashem this type of pilfering engenders not enough incentive to keep our hands out of the till?

Two exceptional luminaries who relinquished their holy souls to their Maker on Shavuos have for centuries served as the embodiment of integrity for our people. Legendary figures in their exalted Avodas Hashem, they have bequeathed to us a lasting legacy of absolute faith and belief in the Master of the Universe.

One is our beloved King David, the eloquent Psalmist; the other is the founder of chassidus, the holy Baal Shem Tov.

Commemoration of their Yahrzeit on Shavuos, the anniversary of the grandest occasion of all time – our spectacular union with God at Har Sinai – is certainly no coincidence but rather divine orchestration meant to imbue us with inspiration and prompt us to fortify our everlasting bond with our One and Only.

 

* * * * *

Lead me on the path of Your Commandments for that is my desire; incline my heart toward your testimonies and not to monetary gain (Tehillim 119:35,36).

The repercussions of defying the Eighth Commandment may not be immediately discerned. In fact, it can take years, even generations, for retribution to come full circle.

In the days of the Baal Shem Tov, a wealthy businessman about to set out on a lengthy journey decided to leave his substantial fortune with a close friend for safekeeping. This friend was of very modest means but most trustworthy, and so written documentation of the temporary transaction was dispensed with.

As it happened, the poor man suddenly took ill and passed away. Following the mourning period, his many children browsed their father’s belongings and were shocked to discover the riches. They split this unexpected bounty among themselves and immediately took to enhancing their lifestyle in accordance with their unanticipated windfall.

Upon his return, the rich man confronted the children of his friend and laid claim to his money.

“Where is proof of your claim?” they asked him. Since there was none to speak of, the matter came before the beis din which ruled in favor of the deceased man’s children.

This occurrence left at least one of the Baal Shem Tov’s talmidim deeply troubled and he voiced his dismay to the tzaddik. Being that the deceased’s indigent state was widely known, the beis din’s ruling seemed illogical.

The Baal Shem Tov, in reply, asked his student to set out early the next morning to a specific location, where he would find a large tree next to a well. The student was told to hide himself high up in the branches of the tree from where he was to quietly keep watch of the day’s goings-on and report back to his rebbe.

The talmid did as the Baal Shem Tov bid, and by noontime he observed a rider dismounting his horse to avail himself of some water from the well. Having quenched his thirst, the merchant lay down in the shade of the large tree to catch some sleep, using his vest and money belt as a cushion for his head.

Awakening a short while later, the man hurriedly rode off, leaving his bundle of money behind. It wasn’t long before another merchant came by with the same itinerary in mind, but just as he was about to set himself down under the tree he caught sight of the first man’s property and wasted no time placing the money belt around his waist and beating a hasty retreat.

A drifter with his belongings swung over his shoulder soon wandered by and stopped to drink from the well. The shade of the tree beckoned the weary man, who lay down to rest.

Just then, the first rider showed up in a frantic bid to recoup his possessions. Seeing the vagrant lying there, he shook him awake and brusquely demanded his money back. The poor man, oblivious to the recent chain of events, pleaded his innocence to no avail. The outraged merchant mercilessly pummeled him, even spilling the contents of his sack of meager belongings.

When the coast had finally cleared, the young chassid realized it was time to return to give an accounting of the day’s events.

The Baal Shem Tov clarified them for his talmid: The first man was a merchant who had had a din Torah in a previous life with one who had sought to collect an outstanding debt owed to him by the merchant’s father. The merchant swore that his father had never made mention of any such transaction and based on his testimony was freed of the obligation of having to repay the petitioner.

The second man (who had shown up in time to find the forgotten money belt) had been that petitioner in an earlier life, the one who had lost the money through the beis din’s ruling. So the money had now reverted to its rightful owner.

The talmid began to have a clearer picture of the circumstances surrounding the first two merchants but was still perplexed about what he perceived as a senseless and brutal assault of the poor man.

The Baal Shem Tov explained that this third person at the scene had been the dayan (judge) on the beis din who had been remiss in his obligation to seek justice for the aggrieved party.

Thus, added the Baal Shem Tov, though present-day occurrences may at times escape our understanding, every soul is made accountable for his or her transgressions.

* * * * *

 

The life of the Baal Shem Tov was extraordinary from day one. Yisrael ben Eliezer was born on the 18th day of Elul (yud-ches transposed reads chai – life) in the Hebrew year 5458 (taf nun ches – which transposed reads nachas). He marked his time on earth with extreme humility and, displaying compassion for wrongdoer and righteous alike, was a constant source of sublime nachas to his Creator.

A heartbroken father once approached the holy Baal Shem and cried to him about his son who was distancing himself in a detrimental way. The man was advised to intensify his love for his son, which in turn would induce the young one to feel a greater love for his father. This, assured the Baal Shem, would bring his son around. And it did.

 

* * * * *

Remove from me the way of falsehood and favor me with your Torah (Tehillim 119:29).

Devout followers of the Baal Shem Tov, accompanying their rebbe at an outdoor procession to the chuppah of one of his grandchildren, were more than a bit intrigued when he sidestepped the crowd to approach a wagon driver happening by. After a brief verbal exchange, the Baal Shem Tov rejoined his chassidim, but the odd encounter aroused much curiosity. There must have been a good basis for the tzaddik to have interrupted his march to the chuppah of his grandson, they reasoned, and so they assumed the wagon driver was one of the world’s hidden tzaddikim.

Two young chassidim were called upon to follow the wagon driver and learn his identity, as well as the gist of his discussion with the Baal Shem Tov. When they caught up to him, they greeted the wagon driver by the title of Rebbe.

“Why do you address me as such? I am but a poshuter Yid, a simple man,” protested the stranger.

“You don’t fool us,” countered the two young men. “We saw you interact with the holy Baal Shem and we are honored to make the acquaintance of one whom the Besht would go out of his way to acknowledge.”

Seeing the two would not be dissuaded from their conviction, the man decided to take them into his confidence.

“As I said, I am a simple man residing in a small community. My closest neighbor is my closest friend whom I have known since our childhood days. We share in each other’s joys and sorrows and have never withheld secrets from one another.

“My friend earns a living by shopping wholesale pantry goods and reselling them to vendors. Upon his return from one such excursion, his friends – I among them – went to personally welcome him back.

“While in his home, I yearned for a smoke and was at ease enough to search for some tobacco. One cabinet drawer held a sizable packet of money that my friend had brought back with him from his latest venture. Amazed that he would simply leave it lying around in such an accessible place, I devised a plan on the spot by which I hoped to teach him to be more wary and responsible.

“I took the packet and placed it in my pocket, fully intending to return it once he’d learned his lesson. When my friend later discovered the money gone, the shock nearly gave him a heart attack. He and his wife searched the entire house in vain, the loss causing them tremendous aggravation. The neighbors hearing the commotion rushed in to see if they could be of help, but all they could do was commiserate.

“As you can well imagine, it was hardly the ideal time for me to speak up and I determined that I would return later on when things would have calmed down some. Much to my dismay, things didn’t settle down at all; the family was disconsolate at having suffered such calamity and the neighbors kept streaming in with their show of support.

“The more time that passed, the worse I felt about confessing my part in this fiasco. Had I acted immediately, I’d have been berated for causing my friends needless anxiety. But all these hours later, it would certainly give the appearance that I had stolen the money and was returning it due to all the tumult. I could not fathom facing such condemnation and found myself in a terrible bind.

“My friend’s situation further deteriorated when his creditors began to hound him for payment and to suspect him of a setup to deny them their dues. My wife and children attributed my sour disposition to my feelings of empathy with my close friend’s misfortune.

“My yetzer hara began to egg me on. Since I could not return the money, why not make good use of it, and maybe in the future I would find a way to settle the score. When I countered that suspicions would be aroused if I suddenly became affluent, the yetzer hara had a solution for that, too. Leave this place and start anew somewhere else where you are unknown. Once you’ve established yourself, you can have your family join you.

“And so I rented a horse and wagon and informed my family and close acquaintances that I was off to try my mazal elsewhere. You witnessed my coming upon the procession that was on the way to the Baal Shem Tov’s grandchild’s chuppah and – though we have never before met – the Besht approached me to urge me to go back home and return the packet of money to my friend.

“He assured me he would personally testify at a beis din hearing as to my innocence and to the fact that I had truly no ill intent to cheat my friend out of his money.

“Now I feel as though the weight of a stone has been lifted from my heart. I will follow the Baal Shem Tov’s instructions and am on my way home.”

* * * * *

 

On a certain erev Shabbos, the Baal Shem Tov found himself so destitute he was unable to purchase even the barest essentials for Shabbos. Early Friday morning he tapped lightly on a window of a house and vocalized his neediness. He then made an about face and walked away.

The man of the house, roused from his sleep, sprang up and – not knowing the identity of the man he was pursuing – ran after the Baal Shem Tov.

“Why did you knock at my window?” he asked. “And if you are short of necessities for Shabbos, why do you leave without giving me a chance to respond?”

“In reality,” replied the Baal Shem Tov, “we are all born with each of our needs provided for by Heaven, but the sin of man brought upon us the edict of ‘by the sweat of your brow shall you earn your bread.’

“The means vary, however, by which we each derive our share. For some, a livelihood arrives effortlessly at their doorstep; others must go the extra mile. As for myself, my struggle is not a great one but I nonetheless must invest a determined measure of effort. From the instant my responsibility is carried out, Hashem sees to my needs. So essentially it makes no difference whether it will be through you or through someone else; my part is done.”

The Torah of Your mouth is better for me than thousands in gold and silver (Tehillim 119:72).

Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.

To Each… His Own

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

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.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page//2009/09/23/

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