The story goes*, according to I.L. Pertz, the Yiddish writer from the 19th century, that a Lithuanian misnaggid (opposer of – the chassidic movement) chanced upon a chassidic town during the Ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. During these days it is customary to rise early to recite selichos, the penitential prayers in the synagogue.
To the amazement of the misnaggid guest, the Rebbe was not present for selichos. And then, to his utter amazement, the chassidim explained the Rebbe’s absence with the outrageous assertion that he had ascended to Heaven to recite selichos.
Maybe it was the mention of “Heaven” that caused the misnaggid to look at the chassidim as if they had just flying-saucered in from some outer galactic super-cluster. Meanwhile, the chassidim began to swoon at the very mention of their Rebbe. Some of them closed their eyes in bliss, while others thrust their arms into the air in case the misnaggid was unfamiliar as to where Heaven was located.
“Huh?!” the misnaggid regurgitated, his eyebrows jump-roping in incredulity. But the chassidim continued to nod their heads in agreement as if they had just stated an irrefutable fact.
“You don’t really believe this?” the misnaggid questioned apparently no one, for his disputants had beamed up from Shangri-La to Nirvana at the mere mention of their Rebbe. The misnaggid saw that there was no one with whom to conduct a sane conversation; he felt as useless as a dentist in a town where everyone had false teeth.
Maybe, he thought in desperation, if the Rebbe would deign to come for selichos the next day, he could confront the grand rabbi as to where he had been. Despite the misnaggid finding himself in a loony bin of naiveté, surely the Rebbe would not be so brazen and shameless to claim that he was up in Heaven reciting selichos! It was also unlikely that the Rebbe would admit that he had overslept, but still the misnaggid would be able to see through any excuse.
But the next day the Rebbe also wasn’t there. The early penitential prayers continued, with everyone beating their chests in remorse over their past misdeeds as the Rebbe continued to turn over in his sleep. But just to be sure – in the unlikely event the chassidim had been stirred from their reverie – the misnaggid inquired again as to where the Rebbe was, and received precisely the same answer.
Wait until he returned home and told his fellow misnaggdim about what he had experienced, the man thought. The few that were still soft-hearted about chassidim would surely change their attitude after his report from Toontown!
And then the misnaggid had yet a different idea. He would get up very early the next day and lay in ambush outside the Rebbe’s house. This way he would be able to report exactly where the Rebbe was, when everyone else was where they were supposed to be – reciting selichos in shul.
In the early hours of the next morning, the misnaggid – deeply camouflaged – lay in wait across from the Rebbe’s house. His eyes trained on the Rebbe’s door, he did not expect it to open for a good few hours. It was worth missing selichos to puncture the bubble of these hopelessly gullible chassidim.
The misnaggid did not have to wait long. In the early pre-dawn, the Rebbe stepped out of his door with an axe over his shoulder and a looped bundle of cordage at his hip. The air was zesty, and a blue-edged circle formed an angelic corona around the waning gibbous moon. Spears of frozen breath issued forth from the Rebbe’s mouth, and at least they were heading heavenward.
The Rebbe picked up a brisk pace as he headed out into the woods, and the misnaggid, at safe distance, followed every step. Suddenly the Rebbe stopped, examined the tree in front of him, and looked like he had found what he was after. The misnaggid had not banked on this adventure and was unable to process all that he was beholding.
The Rebbe placed the rope on the ground. And then, as if he were an experienced lumberjack, took aim and swung at the trunk, creating a notch. With continuous blows between the knee and the waist, he persisted to strike until the tree was felled. The Rebbe then made quick work chopping the tree into manageable logs, tied them all together, and hoisted them onto his shoulder. In great haste – as if he had several other tasks to complete before dawn – the Rebbe headed out of the woods in a different direction than he had entered.
The mystified misnaggid attempted to keep pace until the Rebbe reached a path. The grand rabbi turned his head in both directions to assure that the coast was clear and that his movements were not being detected. He then raced over to a widow’s hovel and deposited the firewood anonymously at her doorstep and vanished.
There wasn’t much illumination, the night just barely alight from the twinkling stars, but it was incontrovertible what the misnaggid had just witnessed. With remorse gnawing at his conscience, the misnaggid made his way to shul for selichos.
When he completed his prayers, a chassid approached him and asked matter-of-factly, “What do you say about our Rebbe who recites selichos in Heaven?”
All the misnaggid could reply was, “Oib nisht nokh hecher – if not higher!
*I have never read it in Yiddish or any other language, so I am taking some liberties with my rendering.
I wish all readers a k’siva v’chasima tova, a very sweet and pleasant new year.