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December 22, 2014 / 30 Kislev, 5775
 
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Reb Elimelech M’Lizhensk (Part III)

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Wherever the two holy brothers went on their self-imposed exile they generated a spirit of repentance. Their standard routine was to admonish themselves out loud for their supposed crimes, when in fact their “sins” were precisely the ones that the villager within earshot needed to rectify.

“Mellech, Mellech,” Reb Elimelech would reprimand himself, “how will you ever be able to face your final judgment knowing that you took advantage of your customers’ naiveté?”

“I am certainly no better,” Reb Zusha would join. “How could I,” he mourned, “have avoided davening with a minyan?”

The two of them used their clairvoyant abilities to determine exactly what it was that the locals had transgressed, and then elaborated as to how they would personally be punished for those very same sins. Invariably, this caused the true sinners to be filled with remorse and rectify their sinful deeds. Countless individuals improved their lives this way without having their dignity compromised or having been humiliated in the process.

Wandering from town to village, the holy brothers neglected their physical needs and were sustained solely by meager coins or scraps of food that were donated along the way. One Sunday night they found themselves in a new town on a cold wintry night. The tavern keeper offered to lodge them behind the fireplace that heated the pub.

The two of them took their places on the floor, with Reb Zusha, as always, offering his older brother the preferred spot nearer the fire. No sooner had Reb Elimelech and Reb Zusha retired their weary bones when the tavern began to fill up with Gentiles who had come to celebrate nothing other than their inebriated state. Wobbling and singing as drunkards do, they made themselves merry until they stumbled across a real cause for celebration.

Right before their eyes, innocently sleeping on the floor, was a Jew who could serve as the evening’s entertainment. As many of them were wagon drivers, they were equipped with whips and staffs that could readily enlist the sleeping Jew’s cooperation.

“Up and dance!” they ordered, as they snapped their whips and beat their staffs to ensure immediate compliance. Reb Zusha sprang to his feet and danced energetically for the leering drunks. The wagon drivers were not looking for a quick performance – they had all night – and they unsparingly utilized their appurtenances to assure protracted amusement.

Eventually, however, the drunkards grew tired and allowed Zusha to collapse to the floor. But it wasn’t just one Jew that they had savagely beaten. Reb Elimelech felt every blow on his own back and urgently pressed his brother to exchange places with him. “They’ll be back and then it will be my turn to suffer their indignities.” But in no way did Reb Zusha feel that he was getting the worst part of the deal. Being beaten simply because he was a defenseless Jew was good for the soul, he maintained. And he knew his brother did not dispute this point.

Still, Reb Elimelech would have none of it. He was insistent that they switch places so that when the drunks would decide again to be entertained, he would be the butt of their vile behavior.

And indeed the wagon drivers returned, eager for another dance performance. Not for naught had they entered a tavern.

But in a display of uncharacteristic egalitarianism, they announced that it would only be fair to wake the Jew lying nearer to the fireplace, for the outer one had already made his contribution to the night’s festivities.

Reb Elimelech stood up and explained, or at least tried to explain, that the outer Jew was previously the inner one, for they had switched places. But his entreaties fell upon drunken ears.

Reb Zusha sanguinely accepted his lot and commented, “Mellech, don’t feel bad. You see that one who deserves to be beaten cannot avoid it. Your desire to switch places was willed from Heaven.”

Eventually the wagon drivers tired of their entertainment and they crashed to the floor in a drunken stupor. The brothers arose to recite tikun chatzos and to thank the Almighty for having separated them from inhumane derelicts. Blessed were they to be servants privileged to worship the Almighty.

The holy brothers never forgot those that extended themselves on their behalf while they were in their period of exile. One such individual was Reb Aharon in the village of Ludmir who served as their host whenever they visited this town. Reb Aharon lived in abject poverty, but this never stopped him from extending hospitality and sharing his meager crumbs.

Once Reb Elimelech and Reb Zusha were revealed as famous tzaddikim, and their followers were everywhere to be found, they returned to Ludmir – this time in a horse-drawn carriage. Just as in the past, they turned to Reb Aharon for lodging, which he graciously offered, as always.

Blood Money

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

I recently received an envelope from Belgium, with legal documents informing me that I was found eligible to receive Holocaust compensation. I saw this as a symbolic rectification of a bitter injustice that seemed to represent the very essence of my life. As I flipped through the pages, my mind wandered back to my childhood.

I cannot remember the first time I heard my grandmother tell the story of how my family had fled from Belgium during the Holocaust. But I heard her tell this story so many times that it became deeply etched into my consciousness. My grandmother told the story from many angles, as if to purge her system of it. She never succeeded, for she continued to retell the same traumatic tale to the end of her life. I always hoped for a happy ending, knowing bitterly it would never be. The story still haunts me.

My grandparents lived with my grandmother’s parents in Belgium. My great-grandfather, Yossel, was a generous man who owned and operated the town’s kosher bakery. He made his fortune supplying the surrounding towns with hand-made matzahs for Pesach. He also owned property and businesses that provided jobs for family members and friends, and he funded a shul that was open to one and all.

When the war broke out, rumors began to circulate about Nazi atrocities. People heard about murder and destruction. Men, women and children were being herded into cattle cars, never to be seen again. Everyone was terror- stricken. My grandparents feared that their town would be next, so they began packing to leave for the south of France. My grandmother was very close with her parents, and she urged them to join them in the escape. However, my great-grandparents stubbornly refused to consider the idea.

The day of departure came. My grandparents and their son, my Uncle Maury, got ready to leave. They brought very little with them. They sewed money and jewels into the seams of their clothes. This would eventually purchase their survival.

A horse-drawn wagon was waiting to take them to the train station. My grandmother would tell me the next part of the story with glassy eyes that pooled with tears streaming down her cheeks.

“We climbed onto the back of the wagon with Maury between us, our bundles tightly clutched in our hands. My parents stood crying, giving us blessings for safety, and I kept thinking that if they didn’t join us, I might never see them again. I begged my father once more to join us. He replied that he was too old to leave, that he would remain with his books. How could he leave them to be destroyed?

“I will not leave my books,” he cried.

“Then the wagon began to move. My mother cried, and my father began to hobble after us with his cane, yelling that he loved us.

“I never saw them again,” my grandmother would finish with a heartrending sob.

My great-grandparents died sometime later that year in Auschwitz. When they were taken away, all of their money, properties and bank accounts were stolen by the Nazis and the Belgian government.

My grandparents, their son Maury, and their two daughters born during the war – one being my mother – miraculously survived. They overcame great hardships that haunted them throughout their lives.

As a young child raised without Torah, I couldn’t understand what was so special about those books for which my great-grandfather died trying to protect. What sort of books was worth dying for?

Years later, after becoming observant, I had an epiphany. The books that my great-grandfather died trying to save were holy Torah sefarim. My grandfather, who owned a shul, thought that by staying, he could protect the Sifrei Torah and other holy books from destruction. He died for the Torah he loved so dearly.

Recently, I filed a claim with Belgium’s government for compensation of my family’s losses in the Holocaust. My extended family members, all of them secular, filled out the forms and we all waited. The family speculated how much money we would get, and some talked about what they’d do with the money. I felt resentment. This was blood money, certainly not “let’s-take-a-vacation-money.”

We were all surprised at the outcome. I was the only great-grandchild found eligible to receive compensation because I’d filled out the most specific information. I quickly got messages from relatives that this was unfair, and that I should share my money with them. Instinctively, I felt that if Hashem had seen it just for me to receive this money, I was destined to do something sacred with it.

I began my mission to right a wrong. My great-grandfather had died trying to save his beloved holy books, and I would use this money toward the purchase of sefarim to replace them.

Today, there are two bookcases filled with sefarim in the Khal Chassidim shul in Chicago. The plaque on the bookcases reads as follows: “In Loving Memory of Yossel and Rifka Czwern, a”h, pious people who loved their fellow man, and valued family, all living creatures, and Torah above all!”

Some sense of restitution had finally been achieved.

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.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/the-eighth-commandment/2010/05/18/

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