The Jewish Spirit Journal
A Journal of Jewish Mysticism and Spirituality
Vol. 1, No. 8 July 2004

TALES

1. Believing and Not Believing

Before he became a rebbe of the Slonimer hasidim, Rabbi Avraham Weinberg (d. 1981) lived in Tiberias. Once, all the residents of Tiberias were excited by the news that oil had been discovered near the town. Everyone was talking about it. The streets were full of groups of people excitedly discussing the new oil well. Men and women, young and old, ordinary people and important people, all without exception were discussing the thrilling news.

"The town of Tiberias will be rich and sell oil to the whole region!" said the knowledgeable ones and added more and more details about the town's rosy future. The happy news also reached the members of the town council, who were meeting just then in the town hall, and it was received with cries of enthusiasm.

The lone individual who did not share in the communal joy was the future Rebbe of Slonim, who dismissed the rumor with a wave of his hand and said, "There's no oil." It was hard for people to accept what he said, since he was the only one with this opinion; so everyone kept on rejoicing.

It was not long before they were all disappointed, when it came out that the report was inaccurate and that it was not oil that was discovered but water. In amazement, they went to the rebbe and asked him how he knew the report was false.

"Dear Jews," replied the rebbe, "everybody believes in something, gentiles too. The issue, of course, is in what do people believe. Since I strongly believe in what is real and true, I don't believe in 'air.' But since you don't believe so strongly in what's real and true, you're ready to believe in foolishness. So you believed in this too."

I'm convinced that the rebbe expressed himself without a touch of arrogance and that this report is inaccurate. But the meaning is clear all the same.

2. The Patient in the Next Bed

Imagine that a big doctor arrives at the home of a sick man. After a thorough examination, the doctor finds that he has a terrible disease and that his life is hanging in the balance. The doctor diagnoses the patient with conditions so horrible that the patient's hair stands on end at what his ears are hearing. After much weeping and pleading by the patient for the doctor to save him, the doctor has him sent to the hospital where the sick man lies in bed taking various medicines and drugs. While lying in bed, he sees hanging on the bedpost a clipboard with the doctor's notes about treatments for his dire condition and he is filled with fear and dread worrying if he will survive.

In the midst of all this awesome fear and terror, the man notices another sick man lying in the adjacent bed and he too is groaning in pain and crying out his complaints about what has befallen him. Now, would it occur to the first sick man to mock and make fun of the man in the other bed? Either he should concentrate on his own situation and healing or if he has the strength he should commiserate with the other man and console him, because they are both in dire straits!

So too is it with us! When we see others people's sickly spiritual condition, we tend to forget about our own diseases and to critically judge and even quietly mock them. While disparaging them, we might even forget to take our own medicines and pills! But we are in the same boat as them! So let us concentrate on our own desperate condition and need for healing. And if we go on to console others about their poor spiritual condition, we will receive consolation, with God's help.

3. Restraint

A widow and her four orphan children once went in to the study of Rebbe Moshe Mordechai Biderman of Lelov-Jerusalem. When the rebbe saw their pain and burden, his heart melted in anguish. But he did not allow his emotions to express themselves. Instead, he talked with them for a long time in the friendliest way, his face always smiling. But the moment they left his room, he no longer restrained himself and broke down in bitter weeping.

4. Self-Esteem

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav greatly esteemed his daughter, Sarah (nicknamed Sorke). In his letters to her, he addressed her with such praises as "My dearest daughter, the modest and wise, the exceptional and upright .." He once said, "All my daughters have the holy spirit and are close to being prophetesses; not to speak of my daughter, Sorke!" Rebbe Nachman wrote to his in-law, asking him to watch over his precious Sorke, "because my soul is bound up with her soul." It seems that his in-laws (like many others at that time) did not know to value a great woman. Rebbe Nachman once wrote to Sorke, "I wish that you lived in my home so I could always talk to you and hear your words of wisdom and piety." He ended the letter, "Among strangers, you're like a myrtle tree in a forest, where there's no human being to enjoy its fragrance!" Reading this letter in the presence of some hasidim, Sorke was upset with these praises and began to weep; she said, "Do you see! Father thinks I'm on such a low spiritual level that he needs to praise me to elevate my self-esteem!"

5. Devotion to Tzedaka

Rebbetzin Sarah, the wife of the Rabbi of Skola (son of Rebbe Yehoshua of Belz) and daughter of Rebbe Menahem Mendel of Vishnitz, the Tzemach Tzaddik, was very devoted to tzedaka. She gave away all her money and everything she owned for tzedaka and gemachs (free-loan societies). She would regularly say to her husband, the Rabbi of Skola, "This hat doesn't befit you anymore!"-- and so too with other items of his clothing-- and then that piece of clothing would disappear from the house, because she gave it to a poor man.

She borrowed large sums of money to give away for tzedaka, and her debts kept growing too, until finally, she had to flee in the middle of the night from Skola to Vishnitz, from fear of her creditors. When her father-in-law, the Belzer Rebbe, heard about it, he said, "Why did she have to run away? I can pay off half of her debts and my in-law can pay off the other half. Then she can go home!" That is what happened. They paid off her debts and she returned home. Then she began to loan even greater sums for tzedaka, for now she saw that she had on whom to rely.

6. Bubba Tzippora of Kossov

The Rebbetzin of Rebbe Hayim of Kossov, whom everyone called "Bubba Tzippora" (Grandma Tzippora), was exceptional in every aspect of holiness and separation from materialism (perishut); in fact, she was the singular exemplar of the generation in this. She was the mother of Rebbe Menahem Mendel of Vishnitz, the Tzemach Tzaddik. After her holy husband's passing, she lived with her son, who became the rebbe; she outlived her husband by many years.

Rebbe Shimon of Yaroslav once visited the Tzemach Tzaddik in Kossov and the Rebbetzin served him soup [which was brought in by a hasid]. Tasting her holiness in the soup, he said, "When the Messiah comes, he'll ask to be served the soup of the Rebbetzin of Kossov." Then he asked to see the Rebbetzin. He entered her room and looked at her, although he was blind, for there is a seeing beyond the seeing of the physical eyes.

Rabbi Shlomo, the gaon and rabbinical judge of Skola, was a devoted hasid of Rebbe Hayim of Kossov and often traveled to visit him. But after Rebbe Hayim's death, Rabbi Shlomo did not visit his son and successor, the Tzemach Tzaddik (who changed many of his father's customs). One night, Rebbe Hayim appeared to Rabbi Shlomo in a dream and said, "Why don't you travel to Vishnitz?" Rabbi Shlomo then travelled to Vishnitz to the Tzemach Tzaddik. When he arrived there, the Rebbetzin said to him, "Why did you have to trouble my husband to come to you in a dream?"

The Tzemach Tzaddik greatly honored his mother, who lived with him in Vishnitz after her husband's death. The Tzemach Tzaddik had many enemies in Vishnitz but, in his goodness, never held it against them or returned their animosity. On the contrary, he sent them money every week for their Sabbath expenses. Once, his mother asked him to raise the sum he sent them and he obeyed her wishes.

7. Never Get Angry

When Rebbe Hayim Meir of Vishnitz was visiting in America from Israel in 1958, his uncle told him the following story about his great-grandmother, Rebbetzin Miryam Manya (the wife of the first Vishnitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel).

When her son Baruch (who became the second rebbe of Vishnitz) was a child, he became seriously ill. Rebbetzin Miryam Manya made a resolution that if he recovered and she merited to celebrate his bar mitzvah, she would never become angry.

One of the hasidim heard her express her intention and decided to remember her words.

Baruch recovered and his mother celebrated at his bar mitzvah.

Years later, a large group of hasidim had gathered in the house of the rebbe, Rebbe Menahem Mendel. Now there was an expensive piece of crystal on the table that Rebbetzin Miryam Manya had received as an heirloom from her holy father, the great Rebbe Yisrael of Rizhin. Because of the pushing of the crowd, the crystal fell off the table and exploded on the floor into a thousand pieces.

Just then the rebbetzin entered the room, saw what happened, and stood as still as a stone from her great distress at what had happened.

That hasid was present and said to himself, "Now we'll see if the rebbetzin gets angry."  At that moment, the rebbetzin turned to him and said, "I remember my resolution very well! Do you think I'm going to get angry? No, I'm not going to become angry at all!"  When Rebbe Hayim Meir heard this tale about his great-grandmother, he said, "It's enough that I came to America just to hear this story! If you had told me that my great-grandmother had resurrected the dead it wouldn't be as important to me as this story!"

Most of us also want never to become angry. Why are we not brave enough to make a resolution like the holy rebbetzin? Probably because we fear we could never fulfill such a resolution. Rebbe Hayim Meir, learning about his great-grandmother's spiritual heroism in making and fulfilling her resolution, and himself totally rejecting anger, was thrilled to hear this tale.

For many more stories about holy women, see my book Jewish Tales of Holy Women.

8. A Good Night's Sleep

When Rebbe Shalom Shachna of Prohobitch went to sleep, it was hard to wake him, and he had a special aide for this task. The rebbe said that it was hard for him to part from the deep d'vekut he had while asleep, but that was not the purpose in this life.

9. Holy Sleep

There was a certain tzaddik whose special divine service was by means of sleep. He slept most of the day. When people came to ask him to pray for someone, they would knock on the window near his bed to wake him up; he would open the window and they would mention the name and situation of the person who needed to be prayed for. Then he would go back to sleep. That was his divine service.

(To learn more about what the divine service of sleep entails, see the chapter on sleep in my book Jewish Spiritual Practices.)

10. The Prayer-leader

Rebbe Yehoshua of Djikov (d. 1913) once travelled to a certain town to spend the Sabbath there. On erev Shabbat he approached the prayer-leader's stand for Minha, but before beginning, he turned to the congregation and said, "I was thinking: Why should I lead the prayers and let someone else make fun of me? Better to let him lead the prayers and I'll laugh at him!" The rebbe paused, then continued, "Then I decided: No! Why should I allow my bile to come up? Better that his bile should come up when he makes fun of me!" Then he began the prayers: "Hodu ...!"

The late Rebbe Yehudah of Djikov heard this story from a man who was present when the event occurred. This man said, "When I heard these words, I wanted to leave the synagogue! Is that the way to begin Minha on erev Shabbat, when every Jew, without exception, feels a little of the holiness of Shabbat? But I was embarrassed to make a protest by leaving, so I stayed. And what can I say? I heard a Shemoneh Esreh that was more exalted than any I've ever heard in my life! I recite this prayer three times every day but never truly understood it. This time, its deep meaning entered my very bones."

By speaking in a way to remove their judgmentalism, the rebbe enabled them to join his elevated and fervent praying. Among its other lessons, this story shows us the negative consequences of being judgmental about the prayer-leader.

11. Continue Sinning!

Another unusual tale about Rebbe Yehoshua of Djikov:

When the rebbe was once in Krenitz for the baths, there sat at his holy table on Shabbat an elderly man. The rebbe said to the crowd in attendance: "This Jew hasn't written me or visited me [as a rebbe] in a long time! Why? He once wrote me a letter saying that since he was already getting on in years and, thank God, he lacks nothing-- a livelihood, children, grandchildren-- it was time for him to begin thinking about a person's purpose in this world, and to begin to prepare himself for the next world. How should I have responded to such a letter?!" said the rebbe. "I wrote back to him that just as he had sinned for the first 70 years of his life, he should continue sinning until 120! That's why this Jew didn't come to me for so long a time!" After the Sabbath meal, this elderly man confirmed that everything the rebbe said was exactly true.

The man misunderstood the rebbe's written rebuke. The rebbe was telling him that the way he expressed his desire to repent was wrong-headed and misguided. Do you see why? Reread his words carefully.

12. Comedy Saves from Death

A certain hasid used to perform as a badhan (traditional comedian) at weddings. Once, one of his children became seriously ill. The hasid took the boy to the doctor for an exam and the doctor said the child's condition was not good; his life was in danger. The father came home depressed and crushed.

Then there arrived at his home a few people with a request: There was going to be a wedding in the neighborhood of a poor couple and there was no one to do the comedy. Could he please come with them and do the great mitzvah of rejoicing bride and groom? He told them that he had just been informed of the bad situation of his son and he was very depressed and was in no way able to prepare even a single joke to say at the wedding feast. But they kept urging him until he was forced to go with them against his will.

When he arrived there he began to do the comedy at the meal. Although he was very familiar with various routines, he began speaking confusedly; he almost did not know what he was saying, since his mind was not on what he was doing. Nevertheless, he saw that the people were thoroughly enjoying his act and laughing loudly at his jokes. The next day he took his son back to the doctor, and after another exam, the doctor told him that the previous results were a mistake and that the child had no dangerous illness at all. In a short while, the boy was well.

13. If Not for the Joking!

Rebbe Menahem Nahum of Stefinesht would sometimes play practical jokes and push people unexpectedly, all in good humor. His holy father, the Rizhiner rebbe, said, "If it weren't for his joking, he couldn't exist in this world due to the intensity of his d'vekut!"

14. A Good Silence!

Rabbi Yudel Kozloitchezner, a hasid of the Yesod HaAvodah, Rabbi Avraham, the first Rebbe of Slonim, lived in one village and another Slonimer hasid lived in the next village, within the Sabbath limits. Every Sabbath night after davvening and eating, Rabbi Yudel would walk half the distance toward his friend, and the other hasid would walk half the distance; and they would meet in the middle and have a "hasidic gathering."  

Once, after the Passover seder, they met and sat together silently without saying a word.  

The next time Rabbi Yudel visited the Rebbe, the Rebbe, who knew by the holy spirit about this silent meeting, said to Rabbi Yudel, "A good silence after the seder!" Even many years afterward, the Rebbe would mention this and say to Rabbi Yudel, "A good silence!"  

Rabbi Yudel was silent most of his life. It was unusual to hear him utter a single word, because silence was a central part of his spiritual practice. He only spoke when it was necessary. Until once, the Beit Avraham, Rabbi Avraham, the third Slonimer Rebbe, told him, "From today on you should begin to speak." After that he began to speak a great deal and told many stories.

15. God's Decrees

During the years of the Holocaust, Rabbi Tzvi Yaakov of Reisha drank the bitter cup to the bottom, among the people of Israel. And he accepted the heavenly decree with love for God. When the Nazis (may their memory be blotted out) forcibly shaved his beard, he remarked, "One must accept this with love, because it is the decree of the Holy One, blessed be He, just as He decreed for us to grow a beard." Rabbi Tzvi Yaakov was martyred in 1943. The pious path has two aspects: to fulfill God's decrees and to accept God's decrees.  

16. You Try!

Reb Bentzion, the gabbai (aide) of Rabbi Yitzhak, the rebbe of Vielepoli, used to sit near the door of the room in which the rebbe was studying Torah and engaging in his divine service. And Reb Bentzion would sit there chanting psalms while tears streamed steadily from his eyes. They once asked him, "Why are you crying so much?" He replied, "You try and see if you can sit here without crying!"

The benefit of a holy person: When we are near someone who truly serves God, our heart opens.

During the "heal us" blessing in the Shemoneh Esreh, one should intend to ask for healing in one's spiritual life, not only physical healing. (Rabbi David Brizal)

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