Gazing wistfully through my window at the remaining leaves still clinging to the young maple tree on our lawn, I am reminded of the golden hues that come to warm the stark cold nights in the dead of winter – those of the Chanukah flames. Just when we desperately yearn for an infusion of warmth, Chanukah comes around to reassure us that our light is never extinguished, that the flame in our soul is eternal, and that from darkness comes light.
* * * * *
Life was once simple yet sweet. In the short days of winter, the boys hardly got to see daylight. In the cheder of their rebbe’s basement, the only source of light was a candle lantern, its flame casting a constantly moving shadow along the walls.
The young minds vacillated between that shadow and their aging rebbe’s gravelly voice. They eyed his wrinkled face with childish curiosity but were at the same time enthralled by his melodic tales of the Chumash. Old time stories came to life as each biblical segment, from the beginning of time, unfolded.
And then it was Chanukah. The boys could hardly wait to get home to bask in the warmth and light of the holiday, feast on scrumptious potato latkes, and, best of all, receive their Chanukah gelt.
It didn’t take little Yaakov long to figure out how he would spend his money. While his siblings spoke of tangible items, Yaakov had grander plans. He kept envisioning his rebbe’s gaunt and yellow face and long, bony fingers grasping the warm glass of golden-colored tea he would sip throughout the day, taking tiny bites out of one sugar cube on the side.
Yaakov imagined his rebbe tossing two cubes of sugar into his tea and the enjoyment he would derive from its sweetness. His Chanukah gelt stretched far enough to buy the rebbe a bag of sugar as a Chanukah gift.
“Rebbe!” cried Yaakov excitedly. “Here’s my Chanukah present for you!”
Each morning he happily observed the rebbe sweeten his tea with two sugar cubes. The clang of the mixing spoon hitting the sugar against the glass was music to little Yaakov’s ears.
But his euphoria was short lived; the rebbe soon reverted to his old habit of sipping unsweetened tea and taking miniscule bites of one sugar cube on the side. Yaakov was crestfallen and convinced himself that someone had stolen the bag of sugar cubes.
But the rebbe soon set his mind at ease; he had given the sugar to his impoverished neighbor whose wife had just had a baby and was in greater need of a sweet glass of tea. The rebbe, moreover, emphasized that the sugar and the mitzvah belonged to Yaakov.
Such was the purity of the “simple” Jews (the poshuter Yidden) of days past.
R. Yaakov Tovia, z”l, must have taken a cue from the rebbe, for whenever he was seen enjoying his glass of tea (always a glass, never a cup), he would be nibbling from a single sugar cube on the side.
* * * * *
The tzaddik Reb Moshe Leib Sassover, widely known as an ohev Yisrael, constantly sought to help a fellow Jew in distress.
To the disillusionment of his chassidim in Sassov, Reb Moshe Leib once traveled with his gabbai to the city of Brody where he planned to spend the festival of Chanukah. Prominent among the inhabitants of Brody who came to beseech the tzaddik for a blessing was the city’s affluent noblewoman, Riva’le Parness, who enjoined the tzaddik to intervene on her sick daughter’s behalf for a speedy recovery.
Responded the rebbe, “While it is within my power to pray for one’s physical state of health, the healing of the soul is far more complex the neshamah that self-inflicts the damage must also do the repair.”
The tzaddik’s words were lost on the woman; she cried bitterly, “I am ready to pay you anything – my entire fortune is yours if only you will see to my daughter’s healing!”
While Reb Moshe Leib was not in the habit of soliciting funds for his kindness, he made a startling request of the woman standing before him. “You have a menorah in your home that you inherited from your father. Bring it to me so that I may use it.”
Riva’le Parness rushed to fulfill the rebbe’s request and even insisted that the menorah was his to keep in exchange for his blessing.
Why the tzaddik would opt to light a candelabrum that belonged to Riva’le Parness when he had his own – a cherished gift from his rebbe, Reb Shmelke of Nikolsberg – stumped his chassidim.
At the lighting of the first Chanukah candle, the Sassover Rebbe was deeply engrossed in the holinessof the moment. After an emotional rendition of yoshev bassesser elyon, the tzaddik launched into a discourse of the “sacredness of the lights that we are not permitted to make ordinary use of…”
“The flames are neshamos,” he expounded, “as the verse in Mishlei says, ‘the soul of man is the candle of God’ – yet occasionally a soul remains culpable for his lapse in making use of the Chanukah lights. In such circumstance he attains his tikkun (rectification) by replacing that which he made use of.”
The Sassover Rebbe’s d’var Torah mystified his chassidim who were furthermore baffled when during the singing of Maoz Tzur the rebbe called on the indigent Yechiel Goldschmidt to approach him.
“What do you think of this Chanukah candelabrum?” asked the rebbe of the hapless Yechiel. “Take it, it’s yours. Riva’le Parness gave it to me as a gift, and I gift it to you.”
The tzaddik faced his questioning chassidim and regaled them with the following narrative:
R. Yechiel Tzoref, a goldsmith by trade, had been an ardent follower of the chassidic master Reb Zushe of Anipoli. Reb Zushe had a longstanding tradition of distributing blessed silver coins to his devotees, who would in turn sell them at profit. R. Yechiel was, however, an exception; he refused to part with nary a one of his silver coins, which he hid for safekeeping.
Having amassed a sizeable collection, R. Yechiel had them melted down and, as a skilled craftsman in his own right, molded a magnificent Chanukah candelabrum out of the pure liquefied silver.
His wondrous artifact left everyone in awe. One admirer, the prosperous R. Nachum Parness, was so taken by the masterwork that he proposed a lucrative offer for its ownership.
R. Yechiel, though, was unyielding; he would never consider selling the precious candelabrum made of the blessed coins he had accumulated over the years.
In time, R. Yechiel made a shidduch for his daughter and pledged a tidy sum as dowry for the privilege of acquiring an outstanding young man as a son-in-law. When he eventually found himself unable to make good on his commitment, he turned to the wealthy R. Nachum for an interim loan.
“Instead of borrowing an amount that you will be unable to repay, I’ll make you a deal,” submitted R. Nachum. “I will grant you the entire sum gratis – for the Chanukah candelabrum you fashioned of R. Zushe’s blessed coins.”
With a broken heart, R. Yechiel opted for a virtuous son-in-law – reasoning that a talmid chacham was worth his weight in gold (or silver, in this instance) – and the deal was done.
When R. Nachum Parness left for the Olam Ha’Emes (the World of Truth) and his earthly deeds were taken into account, his great mitzvah of hachnassas kallah was about to be celebrated as his life’s crowning achievement – but the deed was judged to be tarnished, for in the process of carrying it out, R. Nachum, blinded by his craving, had stripped R. Yechiel of his most prized possession.
At this point in his narrative, the Sassover Tzaddik interjected somberly, “Every mitzvah generates a malach [angel], but a mitzvah with a flaw creates an angel with a flaw. And this particular mitzvah produced a malach who was blind.
“This malach who was to usher R. Nachum to Gan Eden couldn’t see his way clear to the gates and wandered about in search of them.”
Reb Moshe Leib Sassover elucidated to his chassidim that his act of bentching Chanukah licht on this specific candelabrum had freed the soul of R. Nachum from its aimless roving. But the tikkun was incomplete until the tzaddik took the Chanukah candelabrum from Riva’le Parness (who had inherited it from her father, R. Nachum Parness) and returned it to its rightful heir, R. Yechiel Goldschmidt, the grandson of R. Yechiel Tzoref.
The sightless angel was suddenly able to see, and the neshamah in his charge was promptly escorted to its eternal rest in Gan Eden.
R. Yaakov Tovia, z”l, never related to the “R. Nachums” around him; his earthly indulgences were modest ones, until the very end: Savoring a soothing glass of tea, toiling contentedly in his self-cultivated garden, getting his newest great-grandson to smile. He was utterly oblivious to the hubbub of the human race perpetually chasing grandiose dreams of acquiring more, bigger, and better.
The only time R. Yaakov Tovia rushed was to make minyan or to make certain the Bais Medrash was orderly, as befits a House of God.
He lent chunks of his retirement savings to others down on their luck, declining to take action when the loans were defaulted on: “Why should I make them feel worse than they already do?”
* * * * *
A young chassid had chronicled his unique expedition with some elderly chassidim to the aged Rizhiner Rebbe for Chanukah. One of the group had stood out among the rest; it was said that the rebbe himself referred to R. Nachman’tche as a “Cossack for whom the yetzer hara trembles like a fish!”
They all were thrilled at the prospect of spending Chanukah with their revered rebbe, but the meld of joyfulness and spirituality that radiated from R. Nachman’tche affected everyone around him – that was, until they were but a mile short of Sadigura and R. Nachman’tche was gripped by a sudden fever and massive headache that left him reeling. The distraught chassidim urged their wagon driver to hurry.
The young chassid chosen to notify the Holy Rizhiner of the perilous state of the beloved elder chassid was awestruck at the rebbe’s reaction. “Nachman in a perilous state? Never! He is full of mitzvos, ma’asim tovim and emunas tzaddikim. He need not fear.”
The Rizhiner Tzaddik then added that the Benevolent One “can provide the remedy.” Can provide? This was a rebbe who wasted no words. “God will take pity” meant that the sick one would be healed; “God should help” implied no hope. But at the rebbe’s “Hashem can help,” the chassidim felt faint.
The remark about R. Nachman’tche not being in a perilous state was easy enough to interpret: The elder chassid had ample provisions for his journey to the hereafter and did not need to fear the Yom HaDin (his day of reckoning on the other side).
Upon the young chassid’s return from the Holy Rizhiner, R. Nachman’tche was eager to know what his rebbe had said. But even before he could be given a report, the bedridden chassid appealed to them to remember him to the tzaddik and to drink a lechayim to his soul before his interment.
When R. Nachman’tche was finally told that the rebbe had said that he had nothing to fear, a smile spread across his pallid face and he breathed his last on erev Chanukah.
As the tzaddik stood unmoving in front of his large, magnificent menorah, lit shamesh candle in hand, it was apparent to his chassidim that their rebbe’s heart was on fire. With a sigh emerging from the depth of his being, he began the blessing.
All eyes were closed, all ears poised to catch every syllable enunciated by the holy Rizhiner. “Lehadlik ner shel ” A hushed moment of silence reigned before the rebbe concluded the blessing with “Chanukah.”
The chassidim later learned that this first Chanukah flame had also served as a ner neshamah, a light for the departed soul of their beloved R. Nachman’tche, and that the rebbe had paused before pronouncing “Chanukah” in order to meditate on the blessing of “Lehadlik ner shel neshamah.”
When the Rizhiner Rebbe was updated on R. Nachman’s final moments, he declared repeatedly, “An elevated soul, an exalted soul!” and then, “He will find more peace than he had here ”
As per the rebbe’s stipulation, only the chassidim who had accompanied R. Nachman on their journey to Sadigura were to involve themselves with the preparations for his burial.
Having completed the appropriate purification and outfitting procedure, they drank a lechayim – but not before uncovering the deceased one’s face so that he could ascertain his last desire being carried out. Each of his travel mates wished him eternal tranquility alongside the old chassidim and tzaddikim he would find himself with in the next world.
The youngest chassid, fortified by the aura of emunah and the schnapps he had just swallowed, took the niftar’s hand and said, “Lechayim, Nachman Ben Reizel; don’t worry, brother, you are fortunate to be where you are; as the rebbe said, you will find true peace, and, by the way, he did you a good turn last night when he lit the first Chanukah light. Lechayim and don’t forget about us there.”
The young chassid would later insist the niftar’s face had lit up with a smile.
It was the morning of erev Chanukah one year ago that found R. Yaakov Tovia, z”l, sitting in his favorite living room chair, helped there by his only son. As the light of day was beginning to dawn, father and son recited the Shema prayer together, the elder in barely a whisper. Suddenly he reached for his son’s hand and gripped it in his own, breathed deeply – and relaxed his hold as he relinquished his pure neshamah to his Maker.
Remarkably, my father, R. Yaakov Tovia ben Boruch, z”l, departed this world the same way he’d lived his life: calmly, quietly, without fuss or commotion; simply with a purity of heart and a steadfast emunah in Hashem.
Tati, we know you won’t forget about us there…
May his memory be a blessing in the World to Come.
Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press. She can be contacted at email@example.com.