Chassidic Story #232

(s5762-28 / 14 Nissan 5762)
THE COLONEL'S SEDER
The new bride's father strode straight into the bedroom to uncover what dread secret lay hidden under his son-in-laws pillow.
The shock was greater than his worst nightmare: the book of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye.

THE COLONEL'S SEDER

Soon after the wedding, the bride detected that something was amiss. The young couple had recently married in some obscure township in the Vilna district, and now she observed the oddest behavior in her husband. He would rise at midnight like some mystics do and recite the passages lamenting the exile of the Divine Presence; at dawn he would immerse in the mikveh; and he was fond of reading a certain book which he would keep hidden under his pillow. The young girl reported these phenomena to her father, who strode straight into the bedroom to discover for himself what dread secret lay hidden under his son-in-law's pillow. The shock was greater than his worst nightmare: the book was Toldos Yaakov Yosef, the work of one of the leaders of the "Sect" - Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye! It could not be denied: his own son-in-law had become ensnared by the growing chassidic movement.

By the time he found the young man he was a seething cauldron of wrath and abuse - all of which he poured forth over his son-in-law's head. But this left no impact whatever. He therefore tried another approach, and deployed instead all the arts of gentle persuasion in an effort to implore the young fellow to desist from his evil ways. The effect was the same. He now tackled the problem from a third direction, and demanded that the recalcitrant fellow give his bride a divorce. The young husband would not cooperate: although was bound to the chassidic movement with all his soul, he did not want to divorce his wife.

Helpless and frustrated, the father-in-law turned his townsmen for advice as to how to rid himself of this embarrassment in the family. This threw the little town into turmoil, as the local misnagdim vied with each other in advising their unfortunate friend. Some held that pressure should be applied to force the depraved young wretch to divorce his wife. Others pointed out that a divorce issued under duress would only lead the poor young woman into an endless labyrinth of legal disputes and rabbinic responsa as to whether it was in fact valid. The only way out therefore was to offer the husband such sums of money that he would agree to give the divorce on his own free will.

These consultations simmered and boiled for so long that the episode eventually reached the ears of the nobleman who owned that region. This paritz was a retired military officer. When he heard that the whole uproar was sparked off by a book, he asked who its author was. He was told that it was an individual who misled his fellow Jews from the path of their traditional Law; his name was Yaakov Yosef HaKohen, from the town of Polnoye. Upon hearing this, he asked to see the book. When he read for himself the title and the name of the author printed in Russian at the foot of the title page, he summoned before him the parties to the dispute together with all their friends and relatives.

"The time has now come," he began, "to relate an incident which happened in my youth. Listen carefully, please.

"Many years ago, when I was serving as a colonel, I was encamped late one winter night with my unit near Polnoye. We received the order to move. The procedure for such occasions was a full parade before dawn at which the men were given their marching orders. At roll call, three soldiers were missing. So I ordered a few of their friends to go to the nearby town to locate them and bring them back. After a little while they returned, but with the wierdest report. They said that they found the three soldiers in a certain house which was lit up by candles. At the table inside sat a venerable gentleman of impressive appearance. And our three missing soldiers were standing there, speechless and motionless, as if they were paralyzed. I , of course, couldn't believe such a strange story, so I sent off a different squad to check up. But they repeated exactly the same story. I decided to go and find out the truth for myself. I took a few men with me, but as soon as I walked into the room and saw that old man looking like an angel from heaven sitting at the table deep in thought, I literally shuddered from awe. And the missing soldiers, sure enough, were standing there petrified in their places as if they were nailed to the floor.

"I finally mustered the daring to disturb his sublime meditation, and said: 'I see, sir, that you are a holy man. You see, my soldiers here have to leave this district today together with the whole unit. So could you please do something so that we will be able to leave your house?'

"The old man answered: 'No doubt they have stolen something. If you remove the stolen objects from their pockets they will be able to leave.'

"We searched their pockets, and found that they where full of silver vessels of all kinds. As soon as we took them out two of the men began to walk away, but the third was still stuck to the floor. His friends said, 'He must have something hidden in his boot.' They were right. We took out a small silver goblet, and then he too walked away."

[All this had taken place on the first night of Passover. When the Seder was over the family had all gone to bed, leaving the head of the house sitting at the table in holy meditation. The door of the house had been left open, for this night is leil shimurim, a night guarded against all harm. The three soldiers had passed by, and seeing through the windows that everyone was asleep, had walked straight in through the open door and helped themselves to the matzah and the remnants of food which had been left on the table. They had then stuffed the pockets of their greatcoats with silver utensils which had been placed on the table in honour of the Seder. And it was then that they had discovered that they could not budge.]

The retired colonel continued his story: "Now when I saw this miraculous thing I asked the holy man to give me two blessings. Firstly, children, for I was childless until then; secondly, long life. He obliged, and blessed me. Then I asked him to tell me when my days on the earth would come to an end.

" 'The end of man is hidden and cannot be revealed' he said. 'But listen: just before the end of your life an occasion will arise through which you will make my name known among Jews who do not know me.'

"The old rabbi's blessings were fulfilled. The Almighty blessed me with children, and as you see I have been spared to a ripe old age.

"'Now tell me, gentlemen,' concluded the old squire. 'is there any man among you who would still dare to say an evil word against a holy man like that? Is there anyone here who could see it as a sin that a young man should study a book written by such a man of G-d? I am now ordering you that you make peace between yourselves at once - and let no one say a harsh word to this young man here!'"

After listening to his narrative, all those present solemnly promised to follow his instruction.

"It is now clear," the aged paritz added, "that my end is near, for the last words of the holy man have finally unfolded. Nevertheless I am pleased that I have been able to bring peace between you, thanks to the name of the holy man who now reposes in the Garden of Eden."

And indeed, a few months later the old squire passed away to his final rest.


[Adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from the rendition in
A Treasury of Chassidic Tales (Artscroll), as translated by the incomparable Uri Kaploun.]

Biographical note:
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef HaKohain of Polnoye
(?-1784) was one of the earliest and closest rabbinical disciples of the Baal Shem Tov. He was the first to author a book of Chassidic teachings, called Toldos Yaakov Yosef, which had a revolutionary effect immediately upon publication. Other chassidic classics followed.

 

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