The Jewish Spirit Journal
A Journal of Jewish Mysticism and Spirituality
Vol. 1, No. 3 June 1999


A Holy Argument Between In-Laws

One of the sons of the Holy Grandfather, Rabbi Dov Ber of Radoshitz, was getting married. The bridal canopy was all set up, and everyone was ready to go there, when the rabbi realized that he and his in-law -- another holy rabbi -- had not yet "fulfilled" the saying of the talmudic sages that there is no marriage agreement without an argument! (Indeed, it is commonly believed that such an argument actually has a mystic potency to aid the new couple's success!) So the rabbi began an argument with his holy in-law.

But the holy rabbi didn't argue like most people, to lift himself up to the skies and to humiliate and lower the other person to the dirt. Instead, he argued the opposite way. He said to his future in-law: "How did a righteous person like yourself, who knows the Torah backwards and forwards, get the idea to arrange a marriage with a lowly ignoramous like me?!" And he continued to say many insulting things about himself-- so that the person who recorded this story said they are not proper to put in print.

Now when his in-law heard these degrading and humiliating things said by Rabbi Dov Ber, and saw how he lowered himself to the ground, the other rabbi, the in-law, began to argue back. He said: "How can you say such things about yourself? Aren't you a truthful person?! Actually, all these humiliating things and faults you're mentioning about yourself are true of me! I'm so much lower than you that it is shameful!"

Now this went on for a while, until they had both lowered themselves to the dirt. Finally, Rabbi Dov Ber stopped and said, "Now we can go to the bridal canopy."

This is the way holy people argue. The hasidic book which is the source for this story has a commentary. It mentions the Jewish marriage custom to break a glass underfoot. The reason, it explains, is that when two individuals, two families unite in a marriage, there is a new thing created, a new energy that comes into the world. But, at the interface, there is also a new tension as the two sides merge. That tension produces arguments, which is why there is, typically, an argument at the writing of a marriage contract. But holy people, who are humble, use that energy differently, in a holy way.

This lesson applies to many situations. For example, before Shabbat and holidays, there is a new energy coming into the world, as people prepare for the day. There is tension and a tendency for arguments to erupt. But if people are conscious, they use that energy to prepare for the day not only physically but spiritually and apologize to their spouse, etc. for all their sins against them.

(see my book, Jewish Spiritual Practices, Shabbat, for more about this practice).

Take This Spoon as a Gift!

There was a great rabbi and author who lived in dire poverty. Once, the Hatam Sofer was in his town and visited him. When the Hatan Sofer walked in, the rabbi was in the middle of a meal, and the Hatam Sofer saw that he was eating on a crude wooden plate and using a wooden spoon. The Hatam Sofer was astonished. It was hard to believe. A great and holy rabbi in such poverty!

After the rabbi finished his meal and they were still sitting at the table, the Hatam Sofer picked up the spoon and looked at it with wonder. The rabbi, his host, however, couldn't understand that the Hatam Sofer was simply dumbfounded by his poverty, that he was eating with wooden utensils. So he began to think, "My guest must be fascinated with this spoon because he admires it. God-forbid that he stumble over the precept of 'thou shalt not covet [anything of your neighbor's]'! So he said to the Hatam Sofer, 'My dear friend, I want to give you this spoon as a gift!'"

The Hatam Sofer used to enjoy telling this story about how pure and innocent this tzaddik was and how it would never occur to him that the Hatam Sofer was simply sad and astonished that he was so destitute that he used wooden utensils to eat!

Was this rabbi and tzaddik a fool? No. He was so separated from materialism that it did not even occur to him that his material circumstances were less than admirable and ideal. We could all use less materialism and pampering ourselves, and more temimut -- holy innocence.

The Hatam Sofer Hits Back

There is another tale about the Hatam Sofer that is unusual.

When he was fifteen, he finished studying the whole Talmud for the first time. He went and asked his teacher, the gaon, Rabbi Nathan Adler, what to do to commemorate the occasion. Rabbi Nathan told him to fast for three days.

The Hatam Sofer was a healthy and strong boy, but on the third day of the fast he felt weak, so he went out for a walk with a few friends. During the walk they went into an orchard and prayed Minchah. The Hatam Sofer used to pray the Shemoneh Esreh for a long time and his friends often teased him that during the time he was praying the Shemoneh Esreh they learned a whole page of Gemara. He'd answer, "That's OK. The sages say that whoever prays long lives long, so during the extra time that I live I'll make it up and more."

While they were praying in that orchard, he also prayed a long Shemoneh Esreh as always, after his friends had already finished. Meanwhile, the orchard's owner, a gentile antisemite, saw these Jewish boys on his property and went out with a stick to chase them away. When the boys saw him running out with a stick, they took off. The Hatam Sofer, however, stood there and continued praying. The man began to beat him but he continued to pray. He was hitting and the Hatam Sofer was praying. But when the Hatam Sofer finished praying, he turned to the man, and knocked him down with such a whack that he was unconscious for an hour. Then the Hatam Sofer went back to the yeshiva.

We so rarely encounter religious stories about Jews fighting back. On the one hand, fighting is not spiritually elevating and we're probably not missing much. But it is also refreshing once in a while to see a great rabbi defending himself and Jewish honor. This is a good Purim story.

An Impressive Appearance

Once, a delegation of leading Jewish rabbis went to visit the Austro-Hungarian Kaiser, Franz Josef, on an important communal matter and they were in the waiting room. Before they went in for their audience, they were discussing among themselves who among them should address the Kaiser first.

The holy rabbi of Serdihal, Rabbi Yehuda Assad (who was the most senior rabbi there and a great kabbalist), looked over to the other side of the waiting room, which had mirrors all around the room, and saw, for the first time in his life, his own reflection in one of the mirrors (for Rabbi Assad, out of his piety and humility, never looked at his reflection in a mirror). But this time, by chance, he did look and he saw a Jew whose face shone with holy dignity and beauty.

Pointing at the image in the mirror, he whispered to some of his colleagues in the delegation, "Look at that elderly Jew there! You can see the Shechinah on his face. We should let him be the first to speak ..."

When we remember God and forget ourself, God's image, the Shechinah, shines from our face.

Hearing What People are Saying

When Rabbi Israel of Rizhin was a young man, he once stayed for a week in a small town named Pavlitch and toward the end of the week the elderly Rebbe Velvela of Zhitomir came to that town for Shabbat. He thought the Rizhiner would celebrate the Sabbath there with him. But he found out that the Rizhiner intended to spend Shabbat in another village. When Rabbi Israel came to the Rebbe of Zhitomir on Thursday night to say goodbye, the Rebbe of Zhitomir asked him, "Where do you plan to spend Shabbat?" The Rizhiner told him the name of the village. "And when will you arrive there?" "Tomorrow afternoon about three."

Surprised, the Rebbe of Zhitomir said to him, with a tone of rebuke, "You're traveling so close to the onset of the holy Sabbath? By Friday noon I already have my Sabbath clothes on and am chanting the Song of Songs to prepare for the Sabbath!"

The Rizhiner answered, "An innkeeper sent me a message a little while ago to tell me that his cow is calving and he's very worried about her surviving -- she's his whole livelihood -- and he asked me to come and say Psalms for the welfare of the cow and the calf."

The Rebbe of Zhitomir laughed and said to him, "But why do you have to go there? You can pray here and the cow can calve there! And, you know, it's not right to travel after noon on Friday."

"Rebbe," replied the Rizhiner, "when the farmer sent me this message, I understood that he was saying, 'I'm feeling so depressed and low. I need you to be with me in this difficult time.' How can I not go to him?"

"Oh," said Rebbe Velvela, "I see that you're on the level that you hear what people are really saying."

Then the Rebbe of Zhitomir -- who was a very old man -- took the two candles that were on the table and accompanied the Rizhiner all the way to the outskirts of town. And as the Rizhiner continued on his way, the Rebbe of Zhitomir said to him, "Go in peace, go in peace!"

How often we fail to hear what friends are really saying. A friend may call and ask if we would like to see a movie. We answer, "Oh, I don't feel like seeing a movie tonight." But our friend was really saying, "I'm feeling so low. Can't you come and be with me? Your company would be so important to me." But she is too embarrassed to say it that way.

May we be blessed to hear what people are saying.

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Copyright 2004-2005, Yitzhak Buxbaum. All rights reserved.