Co-sponsored by Rabbi and Mrs. Roberto Szerer, Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Gorin, Mr. and Mrs. Chaim Rosen, Yosef Katz, Rabbi and Mrs. Chezky Rodal, Mr. and Mrs. Dan Goldfarb, Mr. and Mrs. Betzalel Ness, Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Mammon, Mr. and Mrs. Yossi Mills, Mr. and Mrs. Chaim Antian, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Goldglantz, and Mr. and Mrs. Dov Farkash.
Itinerary and Trip Overview
Last week, my son Menachem Mendel and I joined a group of about 50 people who visited various holy gravesites in the Ukraine. This was in honor of the 204th Yahrtzeit of the Alter Rebbe, the founder of the Chabad movement, who is buried in Haditch, Ukraine. Rabbi Yossi Jacobson led the group and inspired us with stories and farbrengens throughout the trip. The trip was carefully planned and organized by Reb Gershon Chaimson. Here is a travel blog about the trip. Below are many stories that I heard while traveling.
We landed in Borispol airport in Kiev on Wednesday night, the 2oth of Tevet, 5777 / January 18th, 2017. Interestingly, in addition to our group, there were other groups of Chassidim who had come to the Ukraine for the yahrtzeit of the Rebbe of Vilednick. There was a series of minyanim (prayer quorums) for Ma’ariv (the evening prayer) in the baggage-claim area. We soon had gathered up all the members of the group. Most were from New York, but some were from California, others from Israel, and my son and I had come from Florida. We boarded the bus, which was called the Uman Express (replete with WiFi), and traveled straight to Babi Yar, on the outskirts of Kiev. This is the site where tens of thousands of Jews were brutally slaughtered by the Nazis yemach shemom (may their names be blotted out), in 1941. May G-d avenge their blood. There is a huge monument there built by the Soviets which gives no mention of the Jewish connection to the site. On the side, there is a smaller plaque, made by several Jewish federations, which tells the story of the Jews martyred on that site.
From there we traveled to Zhitomir where the Chabad has an educational complex that includes an orphanage, Jewish school, a soup kitchen, a shul and Men’s and women’s mikva’ot. The Tzadik Reb Zev Volf, author of the Ohr HaMe’ir, lived and is buried in Zhitomir. (See below for more about him.) While enjoying a sumptuous supper, all the members of the group shared a little bit about themselves as well as what they expected to gain from the trip. The group was truly eclectic including many “born and bred” Chabadniks, Chassidim of other persuasions, Ba’alei Teshuvah and many “mainstream Jews.” Many members of the group were students (or virtual students) of Rabbi Jacobson who teaches Talmud and Chassidus every morning in Monsey, New York. The shiur is broadcast live via www.theyeshiva.net
(See below for some of the comments.)
At 2 a.m., we checked into a 4-star hotel for a few hours of sleep. We woke up bright and early to use the mikvah, daven shachris and eat breakfast. We then set out to Mezhibuzh.
Thursday – Mezhibuzh
Mezhibuzh was the city where the Ba’al Shem Tov led the Chassidic movement and taught and inspired his followers for several decades. He passed away and was buried there. Mezhibuzh appears to have little changed over the past several centuries. It is still a little village with small homes and winding roads. Our first stop was the Ba’al Shem Tov’s well.
The Rebbe’s Well
The story goes that the Ba’al Shem Tov was once walking outside of Mezhibuzh with one of his foremost students, Reb Yaakov Yosef of Polan’ah. The hour was late, and the Ba’al Shem Tov realized that he had not yet davened (prayed) Mincha. So, he looked around in search of some water with which to wash his hands before praying as proscribed by Jewish law.
Reb Yaakov Yosef later described how the Ba’al Shem Tov fell on the ground in prayer with his arms and legs outstretched (Rabbi Jacobson reenacted this on the snow) and cried out to G-d tearfully, saying, “Master of the Universe (Ribono shel Olam), I plead in front of the Throne of Glory (Kiseh HaKavod), please, in Your great mercy, provide me with water so that I may wash my hands for the Mincha prayer. If I do not have this, I am better dead than alive so that I am not be forced to violate a law in the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law).”
Soon after he finished this prayer, water began to gurgle to the surface within three strides of where he was lying. The Ba’al Shem Tov washed his hands and prayed Mincha, thanking G-d for the miracle that enabled him to fulfill the requirements of Jewish law.
The well become known even by the local gentile population, as “Rabinova kerinitzah – The Rebbe’s well.” Over the course of the past three centuries, thousands of stories have circulated about the miraculous healing powers of this water. Several years ago, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Gabay, an activist who restores holy Jewish burial sites in Europe and around the world, built a men’s Mikvah that is fed by this very stream.
Rabbi Jacobson suggested that we may want to immerse in that mikvah. While we were standing around and mulling over the idea (since it was about 25 degrees – Fahrenheit), our Ukranian bus driver suddenly appeared as if from nowhere, dressed only in his underpants. To our astonishment, he walked through the snow to the wellspring and proceeded to draw two buckets of water which he dumped over himself. It was like the Ukranian version of the ice bucket challenge. I asked our young Ukranian Jewish guide (whose name was Shalom) about this unusual sight. He explained that, according to the local religion (Russian Orthodox?), one was supposed to immerse in a river (or at least pour the water over oneself) on the 19th of every month (Thursday was the 19th). This convinced several members of our group to immerse in the freezing Mikvah of the Ba’al Shem Tov. If the bus driver could do it for his religion, certainly we should not shy away from doing it ourselves (although it is not a mitzvah, per se). Certainly, those who immersed in that Mikvah will never forget it. The temperature ensured that it was a unique experience. Outside the mikvah, an elderly Ukranian woman was peddling souvenirs, knickknacks and Ba’al Shem Tov water bottles. If there’s money to be made, someone will make it…
The Ba’al Shem Tov’s Shul
From the Mikvah we proceeded to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s shul. Although the shul was destroyed by the Nazis, may their names be blotted out, it was rebuilt recently on the same site and in the same style based on photos and oral testimony. Even the tables and benches in the shul resemble those that were there before the war. This shul is near the site of an even older shul where the Bach, Reb Yoel Sirkish, would pray.
In the back of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s shul there is a small room, which, according to tradition, was the room where the Ba’al Shem Tov’s main disciple, the maggid of Mezritch, would seclude himself in prayer. The wood heater in that room is probably the same type that was used three hundred years ago.
After davening, Rabbi Jacobson gave over a few teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov after which we broke out in a lively dance.
From the Shul, we proceeded to the resting place of the Ba’al Shem Tov. Some walked while others rode the bus. The Ba’al Shem Tov is buried in the Jewish cemetery of Mezhibuzh. A room (ohel) was built around his tomb and around the tombs of several other tzaddikim (righteous men) of that era. These include the Apter Rov, known as the Ohev Yisroel; the Degel Machane Efrayim, a grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov; and Reb Zev Volf Kitzes, one of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s foremost students.
We spent some time praying at the holy gravesite. Many people had brought the names of family members and friends for whom they prayed.
There is a complex that was recently built (by the above-mentioned Rabbi Yisroel Meyer Gabay) just across the road from the Ba’al Shem Tov’s burial site which includes a shul, mikvah and two dining halls. There is also a housing complex nearby to accommodate those who wish to spend the night there. We proceeded to daven Ma’ariv and again enjoyed an elaborate dinner. We then boarded the bus to go to Berdichev.
Berdichev is mid-sized city where more than 200 years ago Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, a leading student of the Maggid of Mezritch and a close colleague of the Alter Rebbe, was the Rav (rabbi) of the city. We parked across the road from the cemetery and trekked through the cemetery in the snow (glad my son and I brought boots) until we reached the ohel and gravesite of this unique tzaddik and advocate for the Jewish people, Reb Levi Yitzchok. The old Jewish caretaker who met us there (at about 11 p.m.) was a fluent Yiddish speaker who knew all of appropriate customs for the proper treatment of this holy site, seemed like a relic of a bygone era. The prayers there were especially heartfelt. Afterwards, some of the members of the group commented that this was the holy site that moved them more than any other.
Detour to Niezhyn
Our group was planning to travel through the night and arrive in Haditch, resting place of the Alter Rebbe, on Friday morning. Personally, I wanted to visit the gravesite of the Mitteler Rebbe, the second Chabad rebbe, in Niezhyn. (I am a descendant of his, through my grandmother, Rebbetzin Hadassah Carelbach (nee Schneersohn), may she live and be well.) My friend Meir Newman was hiring a car to travel there with two of his brothers. I asked him to hire another car for me and my son, hoping to find a third person to share the cost. After canvassing the bus unsuccessfully, I told him to cancel the second car. But, lo and behold, when we arrived at the gas station near Kiev where he had arranged for his car to wait, there were two cars waiting. I took this as a sign from Heaven and my son and I took the second car. The trip took us five hours. Meir’s car got a flat tire, and they had to wait for a new tire before they could continue. This reminded me of a saying that the Mitteler Rebbe was very particular about who should visit his resting place and that there were often obstacles that made those visits difficult.
Before going to the cemetery, we went into the city of Niezhyn to pick up the elderly Jewish caretaker of the site. It turns out that he is also the de facto head (and acting rabbi!) of the small Jewish community of Niezhyn. When we arrived at the cemetery (which is quite a drive from the city), we studied a ma’amar (Chassidic discourse) of the Mitteler Rebbe in the small, recently-built shul adjacent to the cemetery. (The mikvah is under construction.) We then davened shacharit (morning prayers) and proceeded to enter the ohel and resting place of the Mitteler Rebbe and his son Reb Menachem Nochum. By this time the Newman brothers had rejoined us. Perhaps because of our extra efforts to get there, the prayers there felt particularly meaningful.
While we were driving back, the caretaker told us about the 500 Jews who did not flee Niezhyn before the Nazis occupied it, including one of his grandfathers, an aunt, uncle and two young cousins. They were rounded up one day and murdered in cold blood and then buried in a mass grave. May G-d avenge their blood.
Onwards to Haditch
The journey to Haditch from Niezhyn took us longer than expected. For part of the way we were traveling on an unpaved road which made for a very bumpy ride. But by 2:20 p.m. we had arrived in Haditch, the town where the Alter Rebbe was buried (see below for the story). The Alter Rebbe’s burial site has been a pilgrimage site for centuries. Even during the communist era, Chassidim would visit it when it was possible. After the fall of communism, the ohel was renovated as well as the shul next to it which was originally built by the Mitteler Rebbe and renovated by the Rebbe Rashab (the fifth Chabad Rebbe). Steps were built going down to the gravesite since the incline is very steep. More recently, a large complex including a shul, mikvah and dining hall was built near the Ohel. And very recently, rooms for sleeping accommodations were built around the complex. In honor of the Shabbos before the Yohrtzeit, a large tent had been put up so that everyone could enjoy the Shabbat meals together. A caterer from Israel had arrived from Israel to cater (pro bono) for the nearly 500 people who were there for Shabbat.
There were many important Chabad rabbis and mashpi’im (spiritual guides) who had come for this Shabbat. Many of them had brought community members with them. Some of the rabbis were
- Rav Chaim Sholom Deitch, Rosh Kolel of Kolel Tzemach Tzedek in Yerushalayim
- Rabbi Fitche Ofen, Mashpia in Yeshivat Torat Emmet, Yerushalayim
- Rabbi Yosef Karasik of Bat Chefer
- Rabbi YY Jacobson, the leader or our group
- Rabbi Gershon Schusterman of Los Angeles, Rabbi Yitzchok Newman of Long Beach, and Rabbi Elchonon Lisbon of Baltimore, MD. (All of these were part of our group.)
- Rabbi Levke Kaplan of Crown Heights
- Rabbi Elya Chaim Levison of Charkov, Ukraine, and Rabbi Yechiel Shlomo Levitansky of Simy, Ukraine, both of whom were my classmates at different times in Yeshiva.
Shabbat in Haditch
Shabbat in Haditch was a truly uplifting experience. There were shiurim (classes) in the Alter Rebbe’s ma’amorim (Chassidic discourses) taught by Rav Deitch (in Hebrew) and Rabbi Jacobson. The davening and recital of Tehillim had a special atmosphere to it. And there were numerous farbrengens (and discussions) happening on Friday night and Shabbat afternoon. There were Jews of all types that came together that Shabbat, including a very lively Breslav group. Towards the end of Shabbat, Rav Deitch began an inspiring farbrengen which lasted for about six hours. Rabbi Jacobson joined for the last half of the farbrengen.
Singing in the Ohel
The Tzemach Tzedek, a grandson of the Alter Rebbe who became the third Rebbe and who was present at his grandfather’s passing, said that the Alter Rebbe gave up his neshama at approximately 10:30 p.m. on Motzei Shabbat of Parshat Shemot. As such, the tradition evolved that at approximately 10:30 pm on the night of the Yohrtzeit, the Chassidim who are in Haditch gather in the ohel for prayers and to sing the songs of the Alter Rebbe as well as the songs of the other Rabbe’im (leaders). These nigunim (melodies) are quite stirring and can lead to a deep spiritual awakening.
In keeping with this tradition, we made our way to the Ohel for the Nigunim session. Some of the Nigunim of the Alter Rebbe were unfamiliar to the crowd, but Rabbis Deitch and Ofen tried to teach them. Overall, it was quite an uplifting experience.
After this, at Rabbi Jacobson’s recommendation, my son and I took a stroll down to the Psol River which is a few minutes walk further down the hill from the Alter Rebbe’s resting place. It was completely frozen over (we don’t see this too often in Miami!) and had the footprints of various animals on its surface.
As we were getting ready to depart for the airport, there were still dozens of Chassidim (and friends of Chassidim) arriving from various parts of the Ukraine. It did not seem like 2 a.m. at all.
Onto the Airport
As we did the six-hour bus trip back to the airport, rather than allow us to sleep, Rabbi Jacobson asked everyone to share thoughts about the trip. Apart from myself (too tired and busy writing) and maybe one or two others, everybody did so. For space reasons, I cannot include these, but I will say the thoughts that everybody shared were quite personal and revealing. This was actually a unique aspect of this trip for me, to be part of a group that was so open and willing to share their deepest thoughts and insecurities.
After checking in and getting to the gate, we were able to make a minyan (or two) for Shacharit before we boarded our (separate) flights back to our home countries. Each of us, hopefully, had plenty of spiritual luggage to bring home and share with his family and community for a long time to come.
Stories while on the Roads of Ukraine
Below, please find some of the stories that I heard on this trip. Most of them were from Rabbi Yossi Jacobson while traveling on the bus or elsewhere on the trip. Some are from others. (I will, G-d willing, specify them.)
On the way to Zhitomir
Before the war, there were 30,000 Jews in Zhitomir out of a population of 90,000. Many of them escaped the Nazis by fleeing with the Russian army. The 10,000 that remained were murdered by the Nazis, may their names be blotted out.
Zhitomir became a Chassidic city as it is situated in the cradle of Chassidus, near Mezhibuzh. A famous student of the Magid, Rev Zev Volf, was from Zhitomir. He was the author of the Ohr HaMeir. One of the students of Reb Levy Yitzchok of Berdichev, author of the Toldos Aharon, was also from the Zhitomir. (Many famous Yiddishists were also from Zhitomir.)
The famous Slavita printing press moved to Zhitomir in 1837.
The Shapiro Brothers and the Slavita Printing Press
The Shapiro brothers of the Slavita printers were grandsons of Reb Pinchos Koritzer. Their father, Reb Moshe, was the Rav of Slavita.
There was a dispute between the printers in Vilna (the Ram family) and the Slavita printers as to whether the Slavita printers still had the exclusive rights to print and sell the Talmud. There was a din Torah (case in a Jewish court) which the Vilna printers won.
This case led to allegations against the Shapiro brothers that they had printed books that did not have proper government censorship (which was mandated at that time). In addition, one of their workers committed suicide, and some accused them of murder. The anti-Semitic judge sentenced them to 1500 lashes each and that they be sent to Siberia. Miraculously, they survived the beating. Legend has it that one of them stopped when his yarmulka fell until it was put back on his head, despite the fact that this led to extra blows. 17 years later, the new Czar, Alexander, pardoned them. They then moved their printing press to Zhitomir since the Russian government had closed down all the printing presses with the exception of Vilna and Zhitomir.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (of New York) would dance on Simchas Torah with a small Sefer Torah that was written for the Shapiro brothers while they were in prison.
The Uniqueness of the Ba’al Shem Tov
The Ketzos HaChoshen
once asked the Ziditchover Rebbe
what made the Ba’al Shem Tov so unique, even beyond the Rashbi and the Arizal. The Zidichoiver said, I’ll give you a moshol (a parable):
There was once a country that had a very wise king. When he passed away, they started to look for another person to replace him. After some time, someone came and said “I heard about this amazing person and he could be the king. And these are his tremendous qualities.” Some people were convinced. But others were not.
Some time later, a person came and said, “I saw the person” and he proceeded to describe how he looked and what his qualities were. Several more people were convinced, but many people were still not.
A third person came along a said, “I have brought you the man and here he is.” When the people saw him themselves, they accepted him immediately.
So too, the Rashbi came and told people about Hashem. Some people believed.
Then the Arizal came along and said, “I saw Hashem and this is what He’s like.”
Finally, the Ba’al Shem Tov came and, so to speak, brought Hashem and showed Him to the world. That is the uniqueness of the Ba’al Shem Tov.
The Greatness of the Ba’al Shem Tov
The Ba’al Shem Tov was, of course, a tremendous talmid chochom (Torah scholar). But the historians don’t recognize that. They say he was warm Jew who was nice to simple Yidden. When Gershon Sholom gave a speech to this effect, the Rebbe sent a message to Zalman Shazar, the second president of Israel (who was a Lubavitcher Chossid by birth). The Rebbe said (in response to that speech) that, firstly, we have a tradition in the family saying that the Ba’al Shem Tov was a tremendous talmid chochom. Secondly, the Alter Rebbe was a brilliant scholar and would never have given over his soul to someone who was not great in Torah.
The Ba’al Shem Tov and the Alcoholic
When the Ba’al Shem Tov would daven for many hours every day, there was an alcoholic who would come and listen, then he would go and drink in the bar for the rest of the day. When people asked him why he does this, he explained that all physical desires are limited, even the desire for alcohol. But the Ba’al Shem Tov has a limitless love to Hashem. “So, every day,” he said, “I go to hear the Ba’al Shem Tov to experience some of this love. Then I fuel my love for alcohol with that love.” This is the definition of Yenikas hachitzonim (when the unholy forces get nourishment from holiness). [In the name of Reb Yoel Kahn.]
Strength from the Students
The students of the Ba’al Shem Tov used to stay and listen to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Shachris every day after they finished davening themselves. One day they went home with the intention of coming back later. When they returned, the Ba’al Shem Tov had already finished. This was a quicker davening than usual. He explained to them that this was like a group of people who made a human pyramid to reach a bird on a tall tree. If the bottom members of the pyramid get tired and leave before the top fellow reaches the bird, the top fellow falls down. So too, as long as you were here, you were giving me energy in my davening. But when you left, I didn’t have that energy any more.
Don’t Miss the “Li”
The Gemoro in Eiruvin says that this world is like a wedding. The Ba’al Shem Tov explained this as follows: A wedding has many aspects. There are photos, food, drinks, gowns, etc. etc. But the main thing is the kiddushin (wedding ceremony) itself at which time the Chattan (groom) says to the Kallah (bride) “harei at mekudeshes li – behold you are betrothed to me.” When at a wedding, one should not be distracted by all the side points and miss the actual Kiddushin.
So, too, in this world, there are many distractions. But one should not lose sight of the main thing which is the “li” – cleaving to Hashem Himself.
Learning with Hashem
The Gemoro says that it’s not the same if one learns something 100 times than if he learns it 101 times. The Ba’al Shem Tov says that this means, “It’s not the same if one learns something 100 times than if one learns it 100 times together with the one Hashem.”
Just One Word
The Ba’al Shem Tov once said that he wishes on every Jew that he should daven at least one word in their lives with complete kavana (concentration). This is only possible if one fulfills what the Ba’al Shem Tov taught: “Bo El HaTeivah – Come into the Word.”
To completely immerse oneself in the word of davening and leave behind all other matters.
Who is Chasing Whom?
The Zohar says that the possuk says, “Vayegoresh es ho’odom (He chased the man)” from Gan Eden.
But it could mean that the man chased Hashem out of Gan Eden.
Reb Zev Volf was a great-grandson of Reb Shaul Vohl whose original name was Shaul Katzenellenbogen. Reb Shaul Vohl was the king of Poland for one night. According to the legend, Poland was in between kings and, according to the law of the land, they were not allowed to be without a king for more than a certain amount of time. So, they temporarily appointed Reb Shaul, who was a court Jew, because they knew that he would not think that he would be able to keep the throne. On that night, he succeeded in repealing many of the anti-Jewish, discriminatory, laws.
Reb Zev Volf did not write the book called Ohr HaMeir himself. Rather, the Ohr HaMeir was written by a shochet who was a student of Reb Zev Volf. The Kamarner Rebbe would say that he would only learn a little bit of the book at a time as the shochet did not properly understand the teachings of his Rebbe. In fact, tradition has it, that when they brought Reb Zev Volf this sefer for the first time, he says that the author didn’t even understand one word of his.
But many great Rebbes (Reb Mordechai of Chernobyl and others) gave haskamot (approbations) to the sefer. The Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch quotes it. In fact, a great Rebbe once said that even though the author of this sefer didn’t properly understand the teachings in it, which he was quoting from his teacher Reb Zev Volf, it still awakens the Jewish people to serve G-d. Therefore, when it is learned, the author’s lips move in the grave. (The Talmud says that when a Torah teaching is quoted in someone’s name, that person’s lips move in the grave.
As a side point, Rabbi Jacobson mentioned that Rabbi Pinchos Hirshprung from Montreal, of blessed memory, was once was testing a group of Bochurim (yeshivah students) on their studies in Gemara (Talmud). One of them quoted the wrong Abayeh as having said a certain teaching which was, in fact, said by someone else. Rabbi Hirsprung said, when you started to quote Abaye, Abaye opened his mouth. But then, when you proceeded to quote the teaching of someone else, his mouth remained open…
A Vort from the Ohr HaMeir
The Ohr HaMeir answers the following question about the Megillat Esther. The Megillah recounts how Vashti refused to come to the party at the beck and call of Achashverosh and that he had her killed in retribution.
According to the Midrash
, he had asked her to come without any clothes on, and she refused because a rash had broken out on her skin. Why is this important? So long as we know that Esther became queen, why is it relevant how her predecessor died? The Ohr HaMeir gives the lesson it teaches us: that Vashti could not come without clothes. Because Vashti represents Kelipah (unholiness), and Kelipah has nothing inside of it. All it has is a façade. So, when Achashverosh (representing Hashem, the King of kings) summons Vashti to come without any clothes, she cannot, since Kelipah has no inner substance whatsoever.
The Light Seen by the Ohr HaMeir
When Reb Zev Volf of Zhitomir passed away, Reb Boruch of Mezhibuzh (a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov) came to Zhitomir to be menachem ovel (pay a condolence call) to his wife. While in Zhitomir, Reb Boruch saw a fellow in the street (who seemed to be a random stranger) and asked him if he had a daughter. The man said that he did. Reb Boruch said, “I have a son. Let’s make a shidduch” (match). The man agreed.
The Rebbe’s shamosh (attendant) told the Rebbe that this person was known as the town ganiv (thief) and therefore it might not be such a good match. But the Rebbe did not back down. This caused a big tumult in the town.
When Reb Boruch went into the Shiva, Reb Zev Volf’s almona (widow) said that she heard about the shidduch and that she thinks it’s a good one. By way of explanation, she told the following story:
In those days, if a ganiv was caught, the government would parade him through the streets of the town in a particular wagon that said, “This man is a ganiv” on it. This embarrassment was meant to deter others from doing the same.
One morning, (Reb Zev Volf’s wife said), my husband was looking out the window and he saw the procession of “the ganiv wagon.” The man in it was your future mechutan (son’s father-in-law). My husband said “He’s not the ganiv.” I asked how he knew. He said, because there’s a light coming from his face. Reb Zev Volf continued: “Proof that what I’m saying is true is that, many years from now, a Tzadik will come and make a shidduch with this man.” Now that you have come and made this shidduch, I see my husband was right.
What actually happened was that the real ganiv had been caught and was facing “the wagon treatment.” He confided to the future mechutan that he couldn’t face the embarrassment of the wagon treatment. So the fellow said that he would take the blame for the robbery and would get the wagon treatment instead of the real ganiv. And so it was. From then on, he was known as the town ganiv. This great mitzvah is why he had a light shining from his face. But only the Tzadikim, Reb Zev Volf and Reb Boruch, were able to see it.
As it happens, the name of the book attributed to Reb Zev Volf (as mentioned above) was Ohr Hameir – the light that shines. Perhaps this was an allusion to the light that he was able to see.
Reb Yitzchok of Vorke – True friendship
Here is a vort (Chassidic teaching) from Reb Yitzchak of Vorke. The only friendship mentioned in the Five Books of Moshe is that of Yehudah and his friend Chirah. The reason for this is that this friendship is considered a classic paradigm of true friendship as Yehudah did not hold back any secrets from Chirah, even embarrassing secrets. This happened when Yehudah sent Chirah to pay Tamar, who he thought was a prostitute, for her services.
A sign of a true friend is if you feel safe to share even the most embarrassing and uncomfortable facts with them.
- Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev
Reb Levi Yitzchok’s Kadish
Before starting kadish on Musaf of Rosh HaShono (or maybe Ne’ilah of Yom Kippur), Reb Levi Yitzchok would say, “The Russian czar says ‘I’m the king.’ The German Kaiser says “I’m the king.’ The French emperor says ‘I am king.’ But I say, ‘Yisgadal Veyiskadash shmei rabbah…’ (Hashem Almighty’s name should be exalted).’”
The Neilah of the Czar’s Soldiers
One Yom Kippur, Reb Levi Yitzchok said that he wanted to go to the shul of the Russian soldiers for Ne’ilah. So he went. One of the soldiers was acting as the leader since they had no rabbi. The following was his speech before Ne’ilah:
“In other shuls, everybody has something that they want to daven for in Ne’ilah. Some for parnassah (livelihood). Some for health. Some for family matters. But here we don’t need to daven for any of these. We are not allowed to get married. We are fed, clothed and housed by the czar. And we’re all healthy. So we have none of these things to daven for. Instead we daven for yisgadal veyiskadash shemei rabbah (May G-d’s name be exalted)”
Early Years of the Alter Rebbe
When the Alter Rebbe became a chossid, his father-in-law was upset. He wanted his daughter to divorce him. However, she did not agree. So he stopped supporting them and started harassing the Alter Rebbe in different ways. After he passed away, the Alter Rebbe’s mother-in-law said that if he would move back to Vitebsk to be with them again, she would support them. The Alter Rebbe told her that, though a baby in the womb is very happy, once he comes out, he will never agree to go back in again.
After the Maggid passed away, it was a very difficult time for Chassidim. The Vilna Gaon had made a cherem against Chassidim. A ban was made forbidding them to marry Chassidim. Another ban pronounced that moridin ve’en maalin, a dire decree indeed.
Reb Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk decided to move to Eretz Yisroel together with many Chassidim and Rabbe’im. The Alter Rebbe wanted to go along. He traveled as far as Mogilev. Reb Menachem Mendel told the Alter Rebbe that he should stay in White Russia and Lithuania to lead the Chassidim. That year, the Alter Rebbe learned Shas for the 16th time with all the meforshim (commentaries) while standing. During the next several years he established the principles of Chabad Chassidim. It is noteworthy that these were the years of the American Revolution. The possible connection is that the United States became a place of democracy (under G-d). And the concept of Chabad Chassidus is that every individual can connect directly with Hashem.
The Alter Rebbe’s Sefer shel Tzaddikim
The Alter Rebbe had written a sefer called Sefer shel Tzaddikim. Here is the story of how it was burned.
When the Alter Rebbe visited the Shpoler Zaide, the Shpoler Zeide said that there was a kitrug on this sefer and that it would be burnt and that he would go up in that fire as well.
After the Berdichever Rebbe passed away, the Alter Rebbe went to visit his almona (a few months after he passed away). When he was there, she commented that Pesach would be very difficult without her husband. And she asked the Alter Rebbe to stay in Berdichev for Pesach. He agreed. It turns out that the Alter Rebbe had brought wheat with which he could make shemura matzahbecause he had thought this might happen. While on this trip, the Alter Rebbe visited Reb Boruch in Mezhibuzh and Rav Nachman in Bresslov. During this trip, a fire broke out in the Alter Rebbe’s home in Liadi and many manuscripts of the Alter Rebbe were burned. One of them was the Sefer shel Tzadikim. So were many sections of the Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch. The Shpoler Zaide passed away at this time as well.
The Alter Rebbe’s son, Reb Dov Ber, later known as the Mitteler Rebbe, told the Chassidim in Liady that they should donate to rebuild the Alter Rebbe’s home because otherwise, when the Chassidim in Berdichev would ask him to move there (and take Reb Levi Yitzchok’s place as Rav of the city), he might agree. So they collected money and rebuilt the Alter Rebbe’s home, and the Alter Rebbe moved back. But this only lasted two years. Then the war with Napoleon started, and the Alter Rebbe had to leave to escape the French army (see below).
The Greatness of the Alter Rebbe
The Rogachover Gaon said that in order for the Alter Rebbe to say the svaros (logical arguments) that he says in the Kuntres Acharon, he must have had veins in his brain that were the size of fingers.
The Sfas Emes said that he got his derech halimud (method of learning)from the Alter Rebbe’s Kuntres Acharon.
Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin said that the fundamental principles (yesodos) of the Brisker path in learning are found in the Alter Rebbe’s Kutres Acahron.
Never Separated from the Baal Shem Tov
The Alter Rebbe said that he was asked at the interrogation following his arrest if he was a follower of the Baal Shem Tov. He said he was. Later he explained that had he said no, they would have let him go immediately. But he didn’t want to separate himself from the Baal Shem Tov, even just with words, even if it was just in the eyes of the non-Jews.
At one point the Alter Rebbe was being transported to jail, to the Petropavlovsy prison in St. Petersburg. To get there, one must cross the Neva River by boat. The Alter Rebbe thought they were going to throw him in and drown him, chas veshalom.
When the Soviet Union broke up and the archives became available, they discovered the longest extant document written by the Alter Rebbe himself. He wrote a discourse, explaining to the gentile judges many basic concepts of Chassidus, including what a Rebbe is, what Chassidus is, and similar things.
The Vilna Gaon passed away Chol Hamoed Sukkos 1797. One year later the Misnagdim made a libel against the Alter Rebbe. The Russian officials came to arrest him on Chol HaMoed Sukkos. One reason for the Misnagdim doing what they did was that they were afraid that, without the Vilna Gaon, the Alter Rebbe would completely win over the Jewish people of that part of the world to his derech (path).
After the second time that the Alter Rebbe was arrested and released, he moved to Liadi from Liozhna. A new machlokes (disagreement) arose. It was with his colleagues, fellow-students of the Maggid. They felt that the Alter Rebbe’s way was too intellectual.
Here is an example of the difference between the Alter Rebbe’s ways and the ways of his colleagues.
Chaikel Burns in Him
One of the talmidim (students) of the Maggid of Mezritch was Reb Chaim Chaikel of Amdur. There was a Chabad chossid in Amdur who would daven together with a chossid of Reb Chaim Chaikel. The chossid of the Alter Rebbe once came to the Alter Rebbe and said that he doesn’t understand; the chossid of Reb Chaim Chaikel davens every day like fire. But for him, he needs to work very hard to get inspired. And after all his work, he is not always successful.
The Alter Rebbe put his head down (in hisbonenus – contemplation) for a few minutes. When he lifted it up he said to the chossid, “When this chossid davens, Chaikel brent in em (his Rebbe, Reb Chaim Chaikel burns within him), but I want that you should burn yourself,” (i.e., you should be inspired based on your own Avodah – service of Hashem). (In the name of Reb Yoel Kahn.)
Protest on the Tanya
When the Tanya came out, Reb Avrohom Kalisker wrote a protest letter to the Alter Rebbe. He said the Tanya was too intellectual. And that sechel (intellect) is dangerous, as the verse says, uvas kohen ki techel liznos, ba’esh tisaref. The Kohen represents sechel. The bas kohen means the result (bas – daughter) of sechel is the beginning of z’nus (immodest behavior). Rather, what must you do? Burn it in fire, i.e., destroy the intellect and focus on the emotion.
When the Alter Rebbe was in prison, the young Nicholas (who later became czar and was a terrible anti-Semite) used to send his dog to scare the prisoners. When the Alter Rebbe was walking and the dog came to scare him, the Alter Rebbe looked up at Nicholas with a sharp look. Nicholas became afraid, and he left. The Chassidim would say that the look of the Alter Rebbe managed to break some of the klipah of Nicholas (which was bad enough even after this).
Napolean vs. the Czar
The Riminover Rebbe, the Kozhnitzer Maggid, and the Chozeh of Lublin wanted Napolean to win the war as he was much more tolerant towards the Jewish people than the czar. But the Alter Rebbe recognized that the freedom that Napoleon was granting was dangerous. His chassidim asked him why he was supporting the czar when, after all, “Phonye noef, Phonye rotze’ach – Paul (the Czar) is promiscuous, Paul is a murderer.” The Alter Rebbe responded that though that was true, the Czar did not go against HaShem Echod (i.e., he believed in a higher power.)
The Travels of the Alter Rebbe before his Passing
The Alter Rebbe was very particular to never be in a territory that was under the reign of Napolean. He was always one step ahead of Napoleon’s soldiers. Sometimes by one day. Sometimes they were so close that they could even see Napoleon’s soldiers.
At every crossroads, they would stop the caravans and the Alter Rebbe would come out and decide where they should turn. And he would tell his grandson, Reb Nochum (son of the Mitteler Rebbe) who would tell the wagon drivers. At one crossroads, there was a misunderstanding and Reb Nochum told the wagon drivers the opposite direction from the one the Alter Rebbe had chosen. Ten minutes later, the Alter Rebbe realized that they had taken the wrong turn. But by that time it was too late to turn back. The Alter Rebbe commented, that it used be that the grandchildren would listen to the grandparents, but now the grandparents have to listen to the grandchildren.
This turn caused them to go to an area that was much colder. When the Alter Rebbe passed away that winter, Reb Nochum blamed himself for it. He spent much of the rest of his life in Haditch at the Alter Rebbe’s Tziyon.
The Alter Rebbe and his family arrived in Pienna on 16 Kislev, Erev Shabbos Parshas Vayishlach. They rented a large house from a gentile who treated them well. They decided to stay there because Napoleon was not nearby. Besides which, he was already on the way to defeat.
The winter of 1812 was extremely cold and the Alter Rebbe became ill. It seems to have been pneumonia. Around that time, they heard him mentioning Haditch. (Pienna had no Jewish community and no Jewish cemetery, but Haditch had a community and a cemetery.)
Chof Dalet Teves
On Motzei Shabbos, Parshas Shemos, the Alter Rebbe made havdolah on coffee with clarity and great deveikus. Tzlilus hada’as uvidveikus nifla’ah. (This is the language of the Mitteler Rebbe in the introduction to the Shulchan Aruch – the Alter Rebbe’s code of Jewish Law.)
That night, the Alter Rebbe watched the Tzemach Tzedek daven Maariv. The Tzemach Tzedek davened with tears and crying. The Alter Rebbe said to him that this is not the way because the face you show is the face that Hashem shows you from above. (Thus, if you show sadness, Hashem will show the same.)
None of the sons of the Alter Rebbe were present when he passed away as it was completely unexpected. The Mitteler Rebbe, the oldest son, had been sent by his father to find a suitable place to settle. Reb Chaim Avrohom, the second son, was not well. And the youngest son, Reb Moshe, had been captured by the French.
The Alter Rebbe was 68 years old when he passed away. The Rebbe pointed out that it’s the gematriyah of chayim – life (as a tzadik never dies since his life is his neshomo and his avodas Hashem which never depart). The Alter Rebbe had a very strong constitution. His grandson, Reb Menachem Mendel, later known as the Tzemach Tzedek, said that, had these events not unfolded they did, the Alter Rebbe could have lived another 10 years (from a physical perspective.
It was decided to bury the Alter Rebbe in Haditch. One of the reasons for this is that, when the Alter Rebbe was traveling towards that area, the various Chabad communities of that area sent the Alter Rebbe letters inviting him to come settle in their town. The Alter Rebbe chose Haditch. So, they felt that this would be fulfilling that choice.
Transport to Haditch
They transported the Alter Rebbe for 90 viorst (approx. 250 km) by sled to Haditch. This was done by his grandchildren, the Tzemach Tzedek and Reb Nochum. Some say one of the people was a gentile. Since it was wartime and they did not have a permit to transport a deceased person for a long distance, they dressed the Alter Rebbe as if he were alive and propped him up between them (sitting). When they stopped in an inn for a short while, a pig crawled under the sled and the gentile was shocked to see that the entire sled lifted itself off the ground (to remove itself from the impure animal.)
After the Alter Rebbe passed away, the Mitteler Rebbe wanted to stay in Haditch as did the Tzemach Tzedek. But in the end they both moved to Lubavitch because the kavono is to leave Gan Eden and elevate the world.
The Ohel of the Alter Rebbe
The Mitteler Rebbe oversaw the building of the Rebbe’s tziyon and the shul adjacent to it. When the Rebbe Rashab had it renovated, there were some who said that the door between the Ohel and the Shul should be closed (to accommodate the Kohanim). The Rebbe Rashab said that the door should stay because the davening in the shul when the door is open to the Ohel is very different.
The Mitteler Rebbe composed the Ma’aneh Lashon for reciting at the Alter Rebbe’s Tziyon.
Reb Aharon Strasheler
After the Alter Rebbe passed away, many of the Chassidim became connected to his student, Reb Aharon Strasheller. Reb Aharon had been taken in by the Alter Rebbe as a young orphan and had become one of his most outstanding students. He was very emotional and charismatic, in contrast to the Mitteler Rebbe who was more intellectual and reserved. It is noteworthy that the Strasheler passed away in middle of shmoneh esrei on Shemini Atzeres. (Many chassidim went to neither the Mitteler Rebbe or Reb Ahron Strasheller because they couldn’t imagine anyone taking over from the Alter Rebbe. Reb Binyomin Kletzker went around to various communities to explain to them that the Alter Rebbe’s toros [teachings] were still alive.)
The shamos by the Alter Rebbe’s Tziyon was a chossid of the Mitteler Rebbe. One 24 Teves, the shamos didn’t let him in. Having no choice, he climbed through the window. The Miteller Rebbe came to the tziyon later that day and when he came out, he said the Alter Rebbe wanted to know why they hadn’t let in Ahre’le.
Haditch in the Communist Era
Rabbi Yechiel Shlomo Levitansky related that even during the difficult communist era, Chassidim would endeavor to visit and pray at the resting place of the Alter Rebbe. There was always a caretaker in Haditch who had the key to the Ohel.
Escape from the Nazis
There was a legend that, when the Nazis were rounding up the Jews of Haditch, the Jewish people gathered to pray in the Ohel of the Alter Rebbe. While praying, they discovered a trap door in the Ohel that opened into a tunnel through which they got to a forest, from which they were able to escape. Nowadays, there is no remnant of a trapdoor or a tunnel in the Ohel. But, it is possible that the story happened in a fortified castle of Haditch. This castle was built in the middle ages and included a trap door with an escape tunnel to the forest. The above-mentioned event may have occurred in that castle.
The Alter Rebbe was once asked for the definition of teshuvah. He explained it with the following moshol (parable):
In Russia, in the winter, when the rivers were frozen, one could travel with a wagon across the river. But as the spring came and the ice began to thaw, it became dangerous to do this.
Once a peasant wanted to cross the frozen river in his sled to shorten his journey despite the fact that spring had already started. His friends warned him that he shouldn’t do it as it was dangerous. He didn’t listen and went across it anyway. Unfortunately, the ice cracked and he fell in.
The feeling of regret that he had as he was going down — that is what true teshuvah feels like.
The Nine Shluchim
Reb Simon Yaakov Bashvili (Reb Yossi Jacobson’s father’s father) was from a Sefardic family in Georgia. As a young man, he was on his was to Italy to join his family’s fur business. While traveling, he passed through Rostov and stayed there for Rosh HaShono. This is where the Rebbe Rashab was staying at the time, having left Lubavitch before the Germans conquered that part of Russia in the beginning of World War I.
Simon Yaakov certainly didn’t look or dress like a chossid. During davening, he noticed that everyone wanted to be near the Bimah. He too went there and stood near it. People tried to move him away as that was very close to where the Rebbe would blow Shofar. One of them even bit him on the shoulder, but he stayed. When the Rebbe Rashab came in, he told the people to leave the young man alone.
He went to yechidus (private audience) with the Rebbe Rashab after Yom Tov and told the Rebbe Rashab of his plans to go to Italy. The Rebbe said, “To Italy, you will go in the right time. For now, sit and learn.” And so he did. Soon he became a chossid.
Several years later, when the communists were persecuting those who were promoting Yiddishkeit, the Frierdiker Rebbe (previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, son of the Rebbe Rashab) called in nine Chassidim and asked them to be his Shluchim (agents) to promote Yiddishkeit until the last drop of blood in their body. The Frierdiker Rebbe divided up Russia and each one took on a certain area. Most of these shluchim were eventually killed by the communists.
One of them was Reb Simon Yaakov Bashvili who went to Kutais where there was no operational Mikvah (ritual bath essential for women to observe the laws of family purity). So, he forged a document on a KGB letterhead saying that they should open up two Mikvaot within 24 hours. The local authorities complied. It took 9 months for the KGB office in Moscow to correct this and identify the document as a forgery. Meanwhile the (men and) women of that area had these Mikvaot. When the forgery was discovered, Red Simon Yaakov had to escape. Eventually he was caught and sentenced to death. At his sentencing, he took an inkwell and threw it at the judge. As a result, they declared him insane and said that he could not be put to death. While in prison, he wrote a letter to the chief of police, whose name was Berry, asking him for mercy considering that they were both from Georgia. (It was known that Berry had a soft spot for his countrymen.) Berry had the case reopened and he was released from jail and instead sentenced to 25 years hard labor. (This Berry was later killed by Khrushchev.)
It is noteworthy that when the Frierdiker Rebbe was being interrogated several years later, one of the accusations against him was that his Chassidim forged KGB documents.
After one year, Reb Simon Yaakov’s brother came to Siberia and bribed the guards to release him. After the war, he was able to escape Russia with a forged Polish passport. From there, he went to Italy. He remembered that this was a fulfillment of the Rebbe Rashab’s comment about going to Italy “later.” While there, he got involved in spreading Yiddishkeit. He raised money from a wealthy fellow named Tzipel. And he brought the shochet Gansburg to Milano.
The following are some thoughts shared by members of our group
When Rabbi Schusterman was the principal of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, he received a postcard from a student of the Academy who was visiting Yerushalayim. The picture on the postcard was of an arial view of Yerushalayim, taken from Mt. Scopus. The note said, “Dear Rabbis of the Hebrew Academy, I am at the site where this picture was taken. And I wanted to tell you that everything you taught me is true.” (I got this same feeling about the teachings of Chassidus from traveling to the gravesites of the holy masters.)
Rabbi Hershel Fogelman a”h, the Frierdiker Rebbe’s shaliach to Worcester was the principal of the school there for over 65 years. When there was a celebration there in honor of his 65th year, Rabbi Lisbon came and saw that Rabbi Fogelman was running around, putting up posters around the school just like he had been doing decades earlier.
Rabbi Fogelman was once in a Yechidus by the Rebbe and he asked for a brocho to be able to run the mossad (institution) successfully despite the many hardships. The Rebbe quoted the verse “uveirachecha Hashem elokecha bechol asher ta’aseh (G-d will bless you in whatever you do).
” This means that the blessing comes from asher, which can be read as osher – happiness. If you are happy with your accomplishments, you will be successful. Indeed, according to his children, Rabbi Fogelman never complained at home about any of the difficulties he was having in the school.
Stories from Rav Chaim Sholom Deitch
The Effect of even a Basic Davening
Rav Deitch was explaining that every mitzvah which we do, impacts the world in a real way, even if we cannot see that impact. To illustrate this he mentioned a story that there was an early Chassidic Rebbe whose attendant was always being bothered by the Chassidim about appointments with the Rebbe and the like. For this reason, he was never able to daven without interruptions. One day he decided that, since he could never daven properly, he was not going to daven at all. When he went into the Rebbe’s office, the Rebbe sensed that he hadn’t davened and asked him about it. The attendant said that he didn’t think his prayers were worth anything. So, the Rebbe said, they must be worth something if I can sense that you are different when you do not daven.
Lighting the Menorah and Shining in all the Worlds
There were Chassidim in a town near Lublin that were suffering from a moser – an informer who made their lives miserable by telling all their “crimes” to the government. They were powerless to do anything to him as he was protected by the government. So, the Chassidim decided to go to their Rebbe, the Chozeh of Lublin, and ask him to pray for the downfall of this wicked man. The Chassidim came to see him on the first night of Chanukah. When they went in to the Rebbe and asked for a brocho, they mentioned the moser’s name. The Rebbe expressed wonderment and said “I don’t understand, this man’ soul is shining in all the worlds.” The Chassidim could not understand why the Rebbe was speaking this way about such a wicked man. They stayed for Chanukah and, before they left, they mentioned, once again, about the wicked moser and asked for a blessing. This time, the Rebbe recognized their difficult situation and said he would pray for them. The Chassidim could not understand what made the Rebbe change his attitude.
When they returned to their town and discussed this with the other Chassidim, they realized that, at the time they had gone into the Rebbe the first time, the moser was lighting the Menorah. So, despite the fact that he was a wicked person, his soul was shining in all of the worlds.
Who’s Knocking on the Door?
Rav Deitch recounted, that when he was studying with Rav Shlomo Chaim Kesselman the Chabad mashpia in the Yeshivah in Lud, from time to time, young men who were being drafted to the army would come to spend a few weeks in the yeshivah in order to boost their spiritual energy before beginning their army service. There was one young man who was particularly taken in by the Chassidic lifestyle. Even after he joined the army, he would return to the yeshivah for Shabbat when he had a weekend off. He commented that learning Tanya is what gave him the ability to overcome his spiritual challenges. The Tanya had taught him that the various desires that pop up in his heart have different sources. Some are from the G-dly soul and some are from the animal soul. So, he said, “if I can identify whether the desire emanates from my G-dly soul or my animal soul, I am able to decide whether or not to heed that desire. Whenever a desire pops up, I ask, ‘Who’s knocking on the door?’ In this way, I am able to make the right choice.”
G-d willing, I will add several more thoughts and stories to this article after Shabbat. Please let me know if you would like to receive an updated version. Thank you.
May we continue to draw inspiration for the teachings and stories of our holy Rebbes!
In this context, chassidim say that the Alter Rebbe represents Chessed (kindness) while the Mitteler Rebbe represents Gevurah (strength or strictness).
Reb Aryeh Leib HaKohen Heller (1745 – 1812) authored the classic work on Choshen Mishpat known as the Ketzot HaChoshen. He also wrote the Avnei Miluim (on Even Ha’Ezer) and Shav Shmateta.
Reb Tzvi Hirsch of Ziditshov (1763-1831), author of Ateret Tzvi on the Zohar
A paraphrase of Gen. 7:1
Targum Sheini on the Megilat Esther
Wishing you a Good Shabbos and a Chodesh Tov!