On Serving Hashem With Joy

Not With A Sour Face

It was chol hamoed Sukkos, when writing is prohibited except under pressing circumstances. Despite his busy schedule, the Chofetz Chaim penned a careful letter to the rosh yeshiva of Lomza, Rav Eliezer Shulevits, and sent it to Lomza posthaste.

The contents of the letter were surprising. In the missive was contained only a few terse lines: Regarding the individual you consulted me about, whether he should be offered the position of mashgiach in your yeshiva, I had originally told you that he was a suitable candidate. However, I am withdrawing my advice and ask that you don’t offer him the position.

(Rav) Yisroel Meir Hakohein Kagan

The rosh yeshiva of Lomza was very surprised. He had gone to consult with the Chofetz Chaim before the Yomim Noraim and asked his opinion about the very same candidate. On that occasion, the Chofetz Chaim had waxed enthusiastic about the young scholar, praising him as a lamdan, a yorei shomayim, and a ba’al middos. What had changed in the interim? And why was this such an important message that it had to be delivered on chol hamoed?

Fortunately, the candidate had not yet been hired, and Rav Leizer did not have to deal with retracting his offer. Still, at the first opportunity, he traveled to Radin to ask the Chofetz Chaim about the letter.

The Chofetz Chaim, who guarded every word that emerged from his lips, explained:

“When you had asked me if the candidate was an appropriate choice, I had a high opinion of him and felt he would be a role model for the bochurim. However, in the interim he came to see me, and began to krechtz about his life, his difficult financial challenges, etc. When I saw how full of bitterness and negativity he was, I quickly wrote a letter retracting my position. After all, a person who only sees the darkness and constantly focuses on the challenges in his life, to the exclusion of the many blessings, such a person cannot be in a position of leadership, especially for young, impressionable bochurim.

**

Breaking His Chains

It was dark and cold on the streets of Karlin, formerly in Russia (now Belarus). All the Jews in the city were safely home, shivering in their dark and cold apartments, as no one dared break the curfew. The Russian authorities were not known for their compassion to anyone who broke the law.

However, one devout chossid, Reb Feitel, found the curfew impossible to observe. It was a freezing winter night, but his heart was aflame with a desire to see his rebbe, Rav Aron of Karlin, and observe his avodas Hashem.

Clutching a sefer Tehillim in his trembling hands, the chossid, wearing only a thin overcoat, hurried through the streets of Karlin, heading to the home of his rebbe.

Suddenly, a Russian policeman towered above him, blocking his path. The policemen leered at the hapless chossid, who quickly slipped the Tehillim into his pocket.

“Spy! Counter-revolutionary!” the policeman shouted. “You’re going to regret this nighttime excursion!” Without further ado, he trussed the man’s hands and marched him off to jail at gunpoint. The jail cell, a dank pit in the cellar of the city hall, reeked with mold and grime. It was inhabited by half a dozen vagabonds. Feitel was thrown inside and the door was locked from the outside. Dazed and stunned, all he could do was stand in a corner and try to make sense of his surroundings.

His hands had not been tied well, and he tugged at the rope until it was slack. Now that his hands were free, he reached for the Tehillim in his pocket. “It wasn’t bashert for me to see my rebbe tonight, but at least I have my Tehillim,” he mused.

Feitel opened to the first chapter and began to say Tehillim with tremendous fervor. The criminals around him watched, open-mouthed, as this strange man communed with his G-d. His dismal surroundings melted away, and all that remained was a Jew and his sefer Tehillim.

Suddenly, the jail cell swung open, and a rough pair of hands grabbed the Tehillim from the chossid. Now Reb Feitel stood, alone and bereft. A small kernel of despair wormed its way inside his heart.

But only for a moment. Suddenly he caught himself. A Jew never gives up hope. “They took me away from my rebbe, and they snatched away my Tehillim,” he murmured to himself. “Still, I am a Jew, and they can’t take that away from me!”

He was suddenly suffused by a tremendous wave of joy and gratitude that he was from the Chosen People, Hashem’s beloved child. Reb Feitel, trapped in a Soviet prison with the dregs of humanity, lifted his feet, raised his arms in the air, and began to dance. As he danced, he hummed a merry niggun, “Ya da da da dada di da da.” He kicked up a storm as he twirled to the tune in his head.

Once again, the door to the jail cell burst open, and the prison guard stood there, eyes bulging in shock.

“Get out of here, imbecile!” he shouted. “This prison has no room for crazy people. You belong in a mental institution!” As the other prisoners watched, the guard shoved him out of jail, up the stairs, and into the freezing night.

As soon as he was freed, Feitel ran through the darkened streets until he arrived at the home of his rebbe. “Nu, so now you know that with simcha, a Jew can break his chains of captivity!” the rebbe said with a smile.

**

It’s Only A Dream

Rebbe!” Mendel burst into the home of his rebbe, trembling in fear. It was the day after Yom Kippur, and everyone was joyously preparing for Sukkos. Yet his face reflected intense anguish.

“What ails you, my child?” the rebbe asked.

“I had a terrible dream last night,” his chossid stammered. The rebbe waited while Mendel tried to collect his thoughts.

“I dreamed…I dreamed, oy, my dream is too horrific to repeat!” He buried his face in his hands and burst into a fresh fit of weeping.

“Tell me what you dreamed, my dear child,” the rebbe prompted.

“I dreamed that my little Chaim’l, my precious youngest….that…that…” A storm of tears drowned out his words.

“Before you continue, I want to remind you what our sages say about dreams, that most of our dreams are nonsense, or the fears we harbor by day.”

“But this dream was so vivid, so real,” Mendel continued to sob. “I dreamed that my Chaim’l would not survive the year!”

The rebbe was silent for a long, long time, and then uttered a single sigh. It was a sigh laden with meaning, a virtual death sentence. Although he later reassured Mendel that all would be fine, his chossid refused to be comforted.

Somehow, Mendel staggered out of the room and into the beis medrash, where he collapsed over a sefer Tehillim.

Several days passed and Sukkos arrived. The rebbe tried to catch Mendel’s eye, to reassure him, but Mendel remained in the back of the beis medrash, absorbed in his gloomy thoughts. It was as if the joy and festivities of Sukkos couldn’t touch him.

Then came Simchas Torah. To the rebbe’s surprise, Mendel was in his element, singing and dancing with the Torah as if he had not a care in the world. It was as if he’d forgotten his dream.

After yom tov, Mendel came to take leave of his rebbe, joining a long line of the other chassidim. When it was his turn, the rebbe smiled and assured him that all would be well. “You will yet come again, with your Chaim’l, next year.”

Mendel emotionally thanked the rebbe, admitting that a huge stone had fallen off his heart.

“Tell me, was there anything special you did on Simchas Torah?” the rebbe pressed on.

“Nothing extraordinary,” Mendel replied. “I came to shul and began to dance, just like everyone.”

“But your dancing was special,” the rebbe said. “I was watching you, Mendel. There was something unique and other-worldly about your dancing.”

Mendel shrugged. “To be honest, I really wasn’t in the mood of dancing after such a melancholy yom tov. All I could think about was my precious Chaim, with whom I thought I only had another few short months. Then, as the olam began to dance, I realized that these thoughts belonged to the soton, who wanted to make me miserable. With a firm resolve, I thrust my negative thoughts aside and began to dance with genuine joy and enthusiasm.

“As I danced, I felt my fears and paranoia melt away. I was suddenly suffused with simcha shel mitzvah. I felt that the evil decree regarding my Chaim had disappeared, that the soton could no longer harm me.”

“You are right, my dear Mendel,” the rebbe smiled. “It was your simcha shel mitzvah, your genuine joy as you danced, that tore up the evil decree.”

**

After The Dancing

After traveling through chol hamoed, he’d finally arrived at the court of the Chozeh of Lublin on Hoshana Rabbah, in time for the hakafos. Despite his exhaustion, the chossid hurried to the Chozeh’s home to give his rebbe shalom and announce his presence.

Although he had been coming to the rebbe for many years now with no incident, this year a strange thing happened. The Chozeh looked carefully at his loyal chossid, and asked him to leave Lublin.

“B…but I just came here!” he protested, a strange fear overtaking him.

The Chozeh merely repeated his instructions. Morose and broken, the chossid left Lublin and headed for the nearest Jewish city, where he would spend Simchas Torah. As he trudged down the main road, he met a group of chassdim heading to Lublin. They expressed surprise at his sudden departure, and were even more taken aback at their rebbe’s instructions.

“Come, let us dance a little,” said the leader of the group to the forlorn chossid. The chassidim drank a l’chaim and began to dance. After they had danced for a while, and the banished chossid was smiling, they encouraged him to return to Lublin with them.

This time, the Chozeh welcomed him with open arms. Later the rebbe explained his unusual behavior. “I sensed that you would leave this world on yom tov, and I didn’t want it to happen in my court,” said the Chozeh. “However, after you danced and allowed your inner joy to transform you, the decree became null and void. After all, one can accomplish great things with simcha.”

**

Gimpel’s Metamorphosis

Reb Abish, a beloved local figure in his shtetl, was the picture of inner serenity. This angered his neighbor, Gimpel, to no end.

Gimpel was an old, feeble man, angry at himself and the world. Though he was a wealthy man, with connections to the government, it didn’t bring him any satisfaction. He had never married or raised a family, and he lived alone in an opulent home. His only pleasure in life was making others miserable.

Gimpel had no compunctions about going to the anti-Semitic government officials and telling tales about his co-religionists. Sometimes the “offender” would be punished with a fine, or imprisoned for a few days. The Jews in the small town despised Gimpel, but could do nothing to stop him. “That man has poison in his blood,” they often said, grinding their teeth and shaking their fists in helpless frustration.

As Gimpel aged, he began to suffer from arthritis and gout, and found it hard to move around. Yet he evoked no one’s sympathy. On the contrary, the more bitter he became, the more people hated him. The only person who pitied Gimpel was Reb Abish, his neighbor. But Gimpel didn’t need pity. On the contrary, he wanted everyone to fear him. The more Abish went out of his way to be nice to Gimpel, the angrier Gimpel became. He couldn’t destroy Abish by complaining to the government officials, because Abish owned virtually nothing they could confiscate.

Gimpel was terrified of dying, and became obsessed with thoughts of death. To keep his mind distracted, he began to think of ways to cause Abish harm and aggravation. Gimpel knew it was a difficult task. His neighbor always radiated contentment and happiness.

One year, shortly before Sukkos, Gimpel came up with a plan. He knew that Abish loved the mitzvah of sukkah with all his heart and soul. Thus, he hired a local thug to steal Abish’s sukkah boards. Then he let it be known that whoever would sell Abish new boards would be reported to the government for counterfeiting. In addition, those who would invite Abish to their home for Sukkos would bear the brunt of his anger.

The Jews in the town were horrified. They were appalled that one angry, bitter old man could wield such power over an entire village. Yet despite their outrage, not a single person was brave enough to challenge Gimpel.

When Abish realized that he had no sukkah boards, he immediately set about trying to procure new ones. He trekked from one merchant to the other, but all said the same thing. “I’m sorry, my dear friend. I would love to help you, but I’m terrified. My life is too precious to throw to the winds for some boards.”

Abish was crushed. Did that mean he would have no sukkah of his own this year? He tried asking his good friends for an invitation to their homes, but again, they explained to him that they were terrified that Gimpel would make good on his threats. “He wants nothing more than to destroy you,” they explained.

For the first time in his life, Abish felt the bitter taste of despair. Though he lived in abject poverty, and his little hovel was in danger of falling apart, he never ascribed much importance to material matters. But the mitzvah of sukkah was a different story.

Abish finally walked home, dejected, the sounds of hammers banging against nails echoing in his ears. He sighed as he contemplated spending Sukkos without a sukkah. It was unthinkable!

Suddenly, he bumped into a sneering Gimpel, who had been waiting to meet him.

“Ah, so I have succeeded in taking that smile off your face,” said Gimpel maliciously. “If you want, you can join me for Sukkos, ha ha ha ha ha!”

Abish smiled, suddenly suffused with bitachon. “Do you think you have the power to take my simchas yom tov away from me? I’ll celebrate Sukkos in my own sukkah like every year. Hashem won’t forsake me.” Humming a merry tune, Abish continued home, with perfect faith in the One Above.

What a surprise was awaiting Abish upon his arrival home! His courtyard was littered with planks of wood. Paltiel, the village undertaker, head of the chevra kadisha, was waiting with a smile.

“I couldn’t stand the way Gimpel manipulates everyone in this village,” he said. “How dare he get away with his evil schemes! I’m not afraid of him or his threats. Here, take these sukkah boards. They are leftover boards from which I construct coffins and monuments.”

An overjoyed Abish thanked Paltiel profusely, and began to build his sukkah, humming a heartfelt niggun. Paltiel departed quickly, grateful that he was able to help such an ehrlicher, beloved Jew.

The first night of Sukkos arrived. Every man in the shtetl was ensconced in his sukkah, enjoying a delicious meal. Reb Abish sat in his own hastily constructed sukkah, surrounded by his family, his face suffused with joy.

Only Gimpel, whose magnificent sukkah was the nicest in town, sat alone, morose and bitter. After eating his repast of stuffed fowl, he had nothing to do. Out of intense curiosity and boredom, Gimpel decided to check up on his neighbor, who was sitting in his home, sukkah-less, no doubt.

But Gimpel was in for an unpleasant surprise. He was shocked to hear Abish’s sweet voice emanating from a sukkah.

“That wretched man is happy again!” Gimpel raged. “Someone betrayed me and sold him the boards! In a fit of anger, he burst the sukkah door open, without knocking. Abish and his family looked up, startled at the intruder.

“Who gave you these boards?” growled Gimpel, without so much as an introduction.

Abish, nonplused, welcomed him with a smile.

Shalom aleichem, Reb Gimpel,” he said. “Come, let me show you something.”

Abish escorted Gimpel inside the sukkah, and showed him the inscriptions on the boards. On each board, the letters “pei” and “nun” (abbreviation for poh nitmon, here lies buried) were etched.

Gimpel noticed the inscription and turned white as a sheet. “W…what…where did you get these from?” he stammered.

“Don’t be afraid, Reb Gimpel,” said Abish. “Let me tell you the story of these boards. As I was walking down the street today, desperately searching for sukkah boards, I met the Malach Hamoves. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked him.

“‘I’m on my way to Gimpel’s, to punish him for torturing you,’ said the Angel of Death. ‘In my book, rich and poor are equal.'”

Gimpel began to shake. “B…but I’m still alive,” he stammered, pinching himself to make sure he was.

“Of course you’re alive,” said Abish soothingly. “I didn’t want you to die. I wanted you to live. I told the Angel of Death to leave you alone. I said that you are a sad, lonely old man, whose bitterness makes you want to take revenge upon the world. I begged him to have mercy upon you, to give you another chance.”

“W…what did he say?” asked Gimpel, trembling in fear.

“Fear not, Gimpel. The Malach Hamoves has agreed. He gave me these boards, which he intended to use for your coffin, as a gift.

“And now,” continued Abish, putting his arm around Gimpel, “Listen to me. Let’s use the letters pei and nun, and bury past hurts. Bury your bitterness and anger. Bury your fear and despair. Be reborn with joy and happiness. Let us dance lekavod yom tov.”

Before Gimpel could respond, Abish began to dance, pulling the old man into a circle with him. Their dancing became merry, with the children joining in. Round and round they danced, singing lively yom tov niggunim.

At first, Gimpel’s joints felt rusty, and his bones ached from the unaccustomed exercise. But as the dancing continued, his grumpiness dissipated, and Gimpel realized he was enjoying himself. Soon the dancers were covered with perspiration. Gimpel actually allowed himself a hint of a smile.

“And now,” said Reb Abish, after the dancing wound down, “I want to invite you to join us for the rest of the meal.”

Wonder of wonders, Gimpel agreed. He sat down in Abish’s sukkah and listened to the heartfelt niggunim and divrei Torah. That meal was the turning point. He began to realize how much he had missed out with his morose attitude. From that day onward, Gimpel was a changed man. The residents of the shtetl welcomed their lost brother back with open arms.

**

A Dance In The Night

Rav Moshe Leib Sassover and Rav Yisroel of Pikov, the son of the Berditchever, went together on an urgent trip for pidyon shevuyim. It was winter in Poland, and a fierce wind blew. The streets were blanketed with a firm layer of snow, as the chill seeped into their bones.

One night, during their exhausting travels, they stopped at a roadside inn to get a few hours of rest. The inn was in an advanced state of disrepair, with holes in the roof, broken furniture, and sagging beds. Still, the price was affordable; the two distinguished rabbonim refused to use public funds to pay for upgraded lodgings.

Unfortunately, they had underestimated just how uncomfortable their night’s rest would be. The room the innkeeper allotted them had a large hole in the ceiling, allowing the elements to penetrate. All night long the wind howled, and an icy rain pelted the two sages as they tried to get some rest.

As they tossed and turned, trying, in vain, to get warm, Rav Moshe Leib began to enumerate the numerous kindnesses they merited this night, even under such terrible conditions.

The first kindness: That he had no soreness or pain on his right side, and thus he was not in such severe pain when the ice slabs fell on his right side. The second kindness: that he had no pain on his left side, and thus was able to handle the assault on his left side. The third: if the ice would have fallen on his back, he would have been sore for days.

And so it went. The Sassover Rebbe spent the rest of the night enumerating his gratitude to the Ribono Shel Olam, and encouraging his companion. Soon, energized by their shared appreciation for all their blessings, the two rebbes stood up and began to dance. The rain slowed, the wind died down, and a spiritual warmth filled the room. It was the warmth of appreciation, gratitude for their many blessings, and for having a roof, albeit a compromised one, above their heads. When morning came, instead of being weary and exhausted from their sleepless night, the two rabbonim were energized and invigorated, ready to continue their mission of redeeming Jewish captives, who were in far worse shape than they were.