(s5762-41/ 16 Tammuz)
In a village near Apta lived a wealthy and respected scholar. His sons, too, were prominent and learned citizens. When he was already an old man, the thought occurred to him: "The Almighty has blessed me with everything; I study the Torah and distribute charity. What is left for me to do?" He decided that in order to attain spiritual perfection he would have to fast. He started out by fasting one day a week. This however did not satisfy him - what was one day's fast worth? So he fasted two days a week, and so on and on, until he was fasting from one Shabbat to the next. This went on for a long time.
Late one Shabbat afternoon, after the Mincha prayers, when he was about to sit down to his last meal in preparation for his week-long ascetic exercise, he suddenly turned to his pious wife and said: "Listen to this. I've had enough of our faith. I want to go to the priest and baptize."
The poor woman was alarmed. "What's come over you?" she cried, "Are you out your mind? Some evil spirit must be tormenting you! Here, eat your meal before the long fast, and you'll feel better."
He did as he was told, and again fasted the whole week as usual.
However, the next week, at exactly the same time, on Shabbat before sunset, the impure spirit again began to stir within him, and he repeated the frightening words of the previous week.
His wife was sorely shaken by what she heard. She wept in her distress, and pleaded with him: "What kind of talk is this? We are faithful Jews! How can we ever show our faces if you talk like this?"
He ignored her and ranted on like one possessed, against G-d and his anointed, and insisted: "I don't want to be a Jew any more! I'm going to the priest to baptize!"
This was no joking matter. She fell to the floor in her anguish, and begged him to have pity on her, to calm down and eat his meal, and fast again as always. In the morning she decided it was time to tell her sons what had happened. Their hearts fell, for throughout the entire week there was no sign or symptom of his strange malady: he studied and prayed as usual. Nevertheless, they decided to be on the alert for the coming Shabbat.
The third Shabbat came, and late in the afternoon, without uttering a word, he cast off his festive garb, put on his weekday clothes, and ran breathlessly to the house of the priest. He wife rushed out to call her sons, who chased after him and caught up with him just before he arrived there. They seized hold of him and brought him home against his will. He shouted and screamed, the whole way discharging volleys of abuse against the faith of his fathers. He only wanted to return at once to the house of the priest. His sons however bound him with rope and arranged watchmen to guard him closely. When Shabbat came to a close soon after, they harnessed the horses and drove their father by carriage to Apta, where they related the whole bizarre episode to the great Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel.
"Follow these instruction at once," said the tzaddik. "Make the journey back to your village, and do not give your father any food whatsoever. Even if he is extremely hungry and asks for food, take no notice; do not give him even a spoonful of water. Even if he appears to you to be at the point of death, give him nothing at all until tomorrow evening. When at nightfall tomorrow you see three stars, pry open his mouth with forceps and pour a little bit of something inside in order to revive him. If you do exactly as I said, then with G-d's help everything will be in order."
The sons at once prepared for the journey home.
"Food, food!" the father kept crying out. "Something to eat! I'm starving!" In between these cries he hurled forth his blasphemy in all directions. The sons however obeyed the rebbe, and paid no attention.
By morning he was so weak and famished that he no longer had the strength to shout. At this point his sons unbound the rope, but still gave him nothing to eat. In the afternoon it seemed that his life was ebbing, but even now they heeded the tzaddik's stern warning. As soon as it was dark enough for three stars to be seen, they forced his mouth open and fed him some fluid, and only with difficulty did he again show signs of life.
He recalled at once what had transpired and was overcome by shame. He wept bitterly: Why had G-d done this to him? In the meantime he was so weakened by this one-day fast that he lay ill for several weeks. After he had gradually recovered he set out to Apta to visit the tzaddik, and with tears in his eyes asked him why he had thus been punished.
"Let me explain," replied the tzaddik, "Food contains two kinds of strength - material and spiritual. The material gives vitality to the body, the spiritual gives vitality to the soul. When a person fasts, this vitality is cut off from both the body and the soul-except if he is fasting purely for the sake of a mitzva, then his fast still provides vitality for his soul, though not for his body. If, however, a person fasts for an ulterior motive, then this fast can nourish his body - but not his soul! And this is what happened to you. Your fasts were not undertaken for the sake of heaven, but only to swell your pride. So the life-force to your soul was cut off, and all you were missing was the baptismal waters of the priest.
"Now you can understand why I told your sons not to let you eat all day. What I wanted was that your fast should bring you to its properly intended aim. And by virtue of this set aright all your fasts and elevate them. This explains why you became so weak, for on that day all of your fasts were concentrated and compounded. And from today on, you will no doubt act differently."
Then, as the tzaddik guided him along the humble path of repentance, the once-proud man became his devoted chassid, and illuminated his life by the lamp of his teachings.
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