Weekly Chasidic Story 1376 (5784-33) 14 Nissan 5784 (April 22, 2024)

"The Disappearng Words of The Haggadah"

It seemed like a miracle. For his entire life he had been so poor and now he was getting richer every day. Soon he had everything he had ever dreamed of: family, money, and a beautiful home.

Why this week? The week-long Festival of Pesach

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LEIBEL, like most Jewish shoemakers of the time, was a poor man that lived humbly and did his best to do 'a good job.'

One day his mazal changed. An officer of the Czar's army, on his way back to join his unit, rode through town where Leibel lived and worked. Upon noticing Leibel's shoe repair shop on one side of the street and a tavern on the opposite side of the street, an idea jumped into his mind. So he immediately dismounted and went in to see Leibel. "I want you to fix my boots and shine them up. Come with me to the tavern. I'll give you my boots and you can bring them back to me as soon as you're finished. Make sure you do a good job, or else."

Leibel followed the officer into the tavern, took the boots back to his shop and very carefully cleaned and polished them until they shone like a mirror.

The officer, in the meantime had a few drinks and was happy to see Leibel come in with his boots, especially since his feet were getting cold. He took the boots and looked them over. He was very impressed with the Jewish shoemaker's work. The boots were so beautiful, they would surely be the envy of his fellow officers. He paid Leibel handsomely and thanked him over and over.

A few weeks later, when the officer happened to again pass through Leibel's town, he had Leibel make him a new pair of boots. This time, he was even more pleased and mentioned that he would tell his fellow officers of Leibel's craftsmanship.

It wasn't too long before a stream of officers found their way to Leibel's shop. Soon, all of the officer's wanted a pair of Leibel's boots and so he became the official boot maker to the czar's army.

It seemed like a miracle to Leibel. For his entire life he had been so poor and now he was getting richer every day. He built a beautiful home surrounded by a large garden and a high fence. Soon he had everything he had ever dreamed of: family, money, and a beautiful home.

Meanwhile his esteem in the community rose accordingly. He was no longer a simple shoemaker but a successful and highly respected manufacturer. All of the local townspeople, looked up to him. They started to come to him for advice and help. He was invited to be on important town committees and honored in his shul.

Actually, Leibel was still an ordinary person, but all the respect and flattery got to him. As his money and honor grew, he believed that he was getting wiser. Before the change in events, he was a quiet humble man; now he was a haughty boor.

One more thing that grew along with his wealth was his paranoia. Sadly, Leibel was always fearful that everyone was scheming to take his money. And day-by-day, his fear about this grew. More and more Leibel stayed away from the townsfolk. He discouraged visitors to his home. He even kept two guard dogs to protect himself from unwanted visitors.

At that time, the Baal Shem Tov's name was spreading over the region. Many people spoke of his holiness and his caring and love for his fellow Jews. To many, just hearing his holy name was an inspiration. Leibel began to meet more and more people who had gone to see the Baal Shem Tov. Often they would ask him if he had met him yet.

"Who's the Baal Shem Tov and why should I bother to go and meet him? I'm probably just as important as him if not more so," Leibel thought to himself. However, he did notice that people were really impressed to meet anyone who had met the holy Baal Shem Tov in person. So he decided that it wouldn't be a bad idea to be able to say that he had actually met him.

As it happened, Leibel found himself in the vicinity of Medzibush during the last days of Pesach and he decided to stay there for the remainder of the holiday.

On the sixth day of Pesach he went to the Baal Shem Tov's shul. There he found a crowd of chasidim, some praying, some studying and some sitting around singing, telling stories about the Rebbe and discussing his teachings.

They welcomed him warmly and invited him to join them at the table. But no one made a fuss over him. Actually, they seemed rather simple to him and he felt a bit out of place. They told him that the Baal Shem Tov would soon come to learn with them, and so he decided to stay.

Suddenly, all the chasidim stood up in silence as the Baal Shem Tov entered the shul. As soon as the Baal Shem Tov sat down at the head of the table, they all quickly crowded around to catch every one of his words. Leibel found himself at the edge of the group of chasidim. It had been quite a while since the last time that he was treated just as an ordinary person and this made him feel a bit uncomfortable. He had grown accustomed to being honored and he actually liked receiving attention. It was strange for him to be among these chasidim.

After singing a niggun (melody), the Baal Shem Tov started to teach an idea about the Torah. Leibel listened in but he did not really understand most of what he heard. He did, however, catch one idea, but it made no sense to him. The Baal Shem Tov said that it is possible to say one's prayers and yet the prayers may not ascend to heaven for a long time. It is entirely possible that the prayers of one who prayed at 10:00 o'clock in the morning should reach the Ribono Shel Olam ('Master of the World') before the prayers of one who had prayed much earlier in the day.

"That makes no sense at all," Leibel thought to himself.

The Baal Shem Tov continued, "There are some Passover 'Seder' recitations and prayers that have yet to ascend to heaven, even though they were said five days ago." Leibel did not listen much after that; he was baffled as to why so many people were giving this man so much attention, especially since he didn't seem to say anything that made much sense.

"Why did I bother coming here, I should just have stayed home, Leibel thought. "There is nothing special about this man and he says these foolish things. Can it be possible that the words I said at my seder have not yet reached Heaven? How ridiculous! And just look at these chasidim, pushing around their master, just to hear silly ideas!"

It was too late for him to get home for Yom Tov, and so he resigned himself to being with the Baal Shem Tov and his chasidim for the last two days of Pesach.

Leibel found that praying with the chasidim was very intense and very different from anything he had ever experienced. They sang, they cried, they were loud and they were silent, they danced, they 'shuckled' (rabidly bent forward and back) often and fervently - they seemed uninhibited. Here he had no choice but to eat simple food and sleep in a simple home; he missed the luxurious comforts of his own home.

The Baal Shem Tov had instituted a custom that is practiced to this very day- Moshiach's Seudah. About two hours before the end of Pesach, chasidim have another meal at which we eat matzah and drink another four cups of wine with much singing and dancing in honor of Moshiach and the ultimate redemption; may it come quickly in our days. Leibel had never participated in such a meal, and frankly he was already anxious for the holiday to be over so that he could run out and find some bread to eat. But these chasidim were in no rush, in fact it seemed as if they would be much happier if Pesach wouldn't end.

At one point in the meal, the Baal Shem Tov and the chasidim sang a very hauntingly, beautiful niqun and everyone went into a deeply introspective and high spiritual place. Everyone's eyes were shut and only Leibel was looking around.

In the midst of the niggun, the Baal Shem Tov put his hands on the shoulders of those who were next to him, and they did likewise. It became very quiet. Leibel, as unaccustomed as he was to all of this, did sense that something extraordinary was taking place and without much thought, he too shut his eyes and placed his hands of the shoulders of those who were next to him. It was not long before he began to have his first-ever spiritual experience.

Leibel felt as if he was transported to a heavenly sphere and he was seeing a replay of his own Seder--what had actually happened on the first night of Pesach. Leibel had gone to shul and knowing that it was customary to invite the needy to one's Seder, he approached two wayfarers and invited them. He didn't introduce himself to them, he just said "You and you, you'll be my guests tonight," and then he went to his seat at the front of the shul. He didn't really want any guests, but it was the respectable thing to do. In fact, he finished the prayers before everyone else and went home alone. When the services were over, the two wayfarers waited for their host.

The shul was already empty and the shamash (attendant) was about to close up. He saw these two forlorn fellows and asked them if they had been invited anywhere. They told him that someone had indeed invited them but they did not know who it was. They described him as best as they could.

"It sounds like you're going to Leibel's home. I'll tell you how to get there, but be careful!" the shamash told them. He didn't explain, but he was thinking about Leibel's vicious dogs.

Leibel had gone home before everyone else and had already started his seder as his two guests were still finding their way to his home. He had already made Kiddush and was about to say the opening lines of the Haggadah, "Ha Lachmah Anya…" -- "This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, let them come and eat, all who are needy let them come and join us in,..." just as his two guests were about to open the gate.

And then Leibel saw himself sitting at his Seder table and the words and letters of 'Ha Lachmah Anya' leaving his mouth and beginning to ascend to Heaven. Suddenly one of his guard dogs jumped up and with a great snarl snatched the word "Ha" right out of the air and devoured it. And then the second dog ferociously leapt up and snatched the word "Lachmah" before it rose and it too devoured the word.

And so it was with every word that he said. Why? Because at the very moment that he was reciting the words of the Haggadah about inviting the poor and needy, his two guard dogs were ferociously attacking his poor guests. The guests barely got away and ran for their lives.

Now Leibel realized what the Baal Shem Tov meant when he said that some the words of the Haggadah recited at some Seders had never ascended to Heaven. He grew faint and passed out on the floor. The chasidim revived him.

Later that evening, during a personal meeting with the Baal Shem Tov, he humbly asked for guidance in doing tshuvah (repenting and returning to better behavior). He felt very embarrassed to look at the Baal Shem Tov, but the Rebbe's love and words of encouragement restored his confidence.
Needless to say, Leibel came home a much humbled and joyous servant of G-d Al-mighty and from that time on, he was a faithful follower of the Baal Shem Tov.

Source: Excerpted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the free adaptation by Tzvi-Meir Cohn on his website, baalshemtov.com, based on a story told by Rabbi Sholom Brod.

Biographical note:
Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer [of blessed memory: 18 Elul 5458- 6 Sivan 5520 (Aug. 1698 - May 1760)], the Baal Shem Tov ["Master of the Good Name"-often referred to as "the Besht" for short], a unique and seminal figure in Jewish history, revealed his identity as an exceptionally holy person, on his 36th birthday, 18 Elul 5494 (1734), and made the until-then underground Chasidic movement public. He wrote no books, although many works claim to contain his teachings. One available in English is the excellent annotated translation of Tzava'at Harivash, published by Kehos.

WHY THIS WEEK? Last Days of Pesach

Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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