And the Rebbe of Nemirov, every Friday morning early at Sliches-time, disappeared, melted into thin air! He was not to be found anywhere, either in the synagogue or in the two houses-of-study, or worshipping in some Minyan, and most certainly not at home. His door stood open, people went in and out as they pleased—no one ever stole anything from the Rebbe—but there was not a soul in the house. Where can the Rebbe be? Where should he be, if not in heaven? Is it likely a Rebbe should have no affairs on hand with the Solemn Days so near? Jews (no evil eye!) need a livelihood, peace, health, successful match-makings, they wish to be good and pious and their sins are great, and Satan with his thousand eyes spies out the world from one end to the other, and he sees, and accuses, and tells tales—and who shall help if not the Rebbe? So thought the people.
Once, however, there came a Litvak—and he laughed! You know the Litvak Jews—they rather despise books of devotion, but stuff themselves with the Talmud and the codes. Well, the Litvak points out a special bit of the Gemoreh—and hopes it is plain enough: even Moses our Teacher could not ascend into heaven, but remained suspended thirty inches below it—and who, I ask you, is going to argue with a Litvak? What becomes of the Rebbe?
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” says he, shrugging his shoulders, and all the while (what it is to be a Litvak!) determined to find out.
The very same evening, soon after prayers, the Litvak steals into the Rebbe’s room, lays himself down under the Rebbe’s bed, and lies low. He intends to stay there all night to find out where the Rebbe goes, and what he does at Sliches-time. Another in his place would have dozed and slept the time away. Not so a Litvak—he learned a whole treatise of the Talmud by heart!
Day has not broken when he hears the call to prayer. The Rebbe has been awake some time. The Litvak has heard him sighing and groaning for a whole hour. Whoever has heard the groaning of the Nemirover Rebbe knows what sorrow for All-Israel, what distress of mind, found voice in every groan. The soul that heard was dissolved in grief. But the heart of a Litvak is of cast-iron. The Litvak hears and lies still. The Rebbe lies still, too—the Rebbe, long life to him, upon the bed and the Litvak under the bed!
After that the Litvak hears the beds in the house squeak—the people jump out of them—a Jewish word is spoken now and again—water is poured on the fingers—a door is opened here and there. Then the people leave the house, once more it is quiet and dark, only a very little moonlight comes in through the shutter. He confessed afterwards, did the Litvak, that when he found himself alone with the Rebbe terror took hold of him. He grew cold all over, and the roots of his ear-locks pricked his temples like needles. An excellent joke, to be left alone with the Rebbe at Sliches-time before dawn! But a Litvak is dogged. He quivers and quakes like a fish—but he does not budge.
At last the Rebbe, long life to him, rises in his turn. First he does what beseems a Jew. Then he goes to the wardrobe and takes out a packet—which proves to be the dress of a peasant: linen trousers, high boots, a pelisse, a wide felt hat, and a long and broad leather belt studded with brass nails. The Rebbe puts them on. Out of the pockets of the pelisse dangles the end of a thick cord, a peasant’s cord. On his way out the Rebbe steps aside into the kitchen, stoops, takes a hatchet from under a bed, puts it into his belt, and leaves the house. The Litvak trembles, but he persists.
A fearful, Solemn-Day hush broods over the dark streets, broken not unfrequently by a cry of supplication from some little Minyan, or the moan of some sick person behind a window. The Rebbe keeps to the street side, and walks in the shadow of the houses. He glides from one to the other, the Litvak after him. And the Litvak hears the sound of his own heart-beats mingle with the heavy footfall of the Rebbe; but he follows on, and together they emerge from the town.
Behind the town stands a little wood. The Rebbe, long life to him, enters it. He walks on thirty or forty paces, and then he stops beside a small tree. And the Litvak, with amaze, sees the Rebbe take his hatchet and strike the tree. He sees the Rebbe strike blow after blow, he hears the tree creak and snap. And the little tree falls, and the Rebbe splits it up into logs, and the logs into splinters. Then he makes a bundle, binds it round with the cord, throws it on his shoulder, replaces the hatchet in his belt, leaves the wood, and goes back into the town.
In one of the back streets he stops beside a poor, tumbledown little house, and taps at the window.
“Who is there?” cries a frightened voice within. The Litvak knows it to be the voice of a Jewess, a sick Jewess.
“I,” answers the Rebbe in the peasant tongue.
“Who is I?” inquires the voice further. And the Rebbe answers again in the Little-Russian speech:
“Which Vassil? and what do you want, Vassil?”
“I have wood to sell,” says the sham peasant, “very cheap, for next to nothing.”
And without further ado he goes in. The Litvak steals in behind him, and sees, in the gray light of dawn, a poor room with poor, broken furniture.
In the bed lies a sick Jewess huddled up in rags, who says bitterly: “Wood to sell—and where am I, a poor widow, to get the money from to buy it?”
“I will give you a six-groschen worth on credit.”
“And how am I ever to repay you?” groans the poor woman.
“Foolish creature!” the Rebbe upbraids her. “See here: you are a poor sick Jewess, and I am willing to trust you with the little bundle of wood; I believe that in time you will repay me. And you, you have such a great and mighty God, and you do not trust Him! not even to the amount of a miserable six-groschen for a little bundle of wood!”
“And who is to light the stove?” groans the widow. “Do I look like getting up to do it? and my son away at work!”
“I will also light the stove for you,” said the Rebbe.
And the Rebbe, while he laid the wood in the stove, repeated groaning the first part of Sliches.Then, when the stove was alight, and the wood crackled cheerily, he repeated, more gaily, the second part of Sliches. He repeated the third part when the fire had burnt itself out, and he shut the stove doors….
The Litvak who saw all this remained with the Rebbe, as one of his followers. And later, when anyone told how the Rebbe early every morning at Sliches-time raised himself and flew up into heaven, the Litvak, instead of laughing, added quietly: “If not higher.”
דְּאָמַר רָבָא: יוֹם טוֹב שֶׁחָל לִהְיוֹת בְּשַׁבָּת, שְׁלִיחַ צִיבּוּר הַיּוֹרֵד לִפְנֵי הַתֵּיבָה עַרְבִית אֵינוֹ צָרִיךְ לְהַזְכִּיר שֶׁל יוֹם טוֹב, שֶׁאִילְמָלֵא שַׁבָּת אֵין שְׁלִיחַ צִבּוּר יוֹרֵד עַרְבִית בְּיוֹם טוֹב. הָכִי הַשְׁתָּא?! הָתָם בְּדִין הוּא דַּאֲפִילּוּ בְּשַׁבָּת נָמֵי לָא צְרִיךְ, וְרַבָּנַן הוּא דְּתַקִּינוּ מִשּׁוּם סַכָּנָה
וחשו שיש שאין ממהרין לבא ושוהין לאחר תפלה לכך האריכו תפלת הצבור
Rava said: On a Yom Tov that occurs on Shabbat, the chazan who descends to lead services in the evening need not mention the festival. For if it were not also Shabbat, the chazan would not lead services on a festival. Actually, strictly speaking, even on Shabbat, the prayer leader need not repeat the prayer. It was the Sages who instituted repetition of the prayer due to concern for danger.
Rashi: The Sages were concerned about those who did not rush to shul on time and would linger until after the service. Therefore, they extended the service of the congregation.
On Friday night, we have a special bracha that the chazan recites after the silent Amidah. It is a mini-repetition of the Amidah, called ‘Bracha me’ein Sheva.’ Rava explains why it was instituted: We are worried about people coming late to shul. Back in the day, before the Kabbalat Shabbat service was introduced, Friday night prayers were quite short. If someone came a little late, the service would be almost over. They would then be left there by themselves to finish davening. They would have to walk home alone, which could be dangerous. In order to make sure nobody would have to walk in the dark by themselves, the Sages inserted an extra prayer.
Think about that. The whole congregation must now daven longer because of one or two dawdlers who couldn’t get themselves to shul on time! Despite their negligence, the community puts its collective comfort aside to ensure that nobody is placed into any situation of danger. If that’s the care we demonstrate towards those who act irresponsibly, it goes without saying how concerned we must be for those who are alone, through no fault of their own.
The Yerushalmi teaches that the Tribe of Dan would travel as the final tribe in the Israelite formation in the wilderness, as the “gatherer of all the camps” (Num. 10:25). If anyone had dropped anything, Dan would collect the missing items and return them to their owners. The Rosh explains that these weren’t only objects that were dropped. Dan would be there to escort all the stragglers, who had fallen behind. Abarbanel adds that this included even the eirev rav – the Egyptians who had accompanied the Israelites into the wilderness (and were often a thorn in their side). We have a duty to care for all in need.
We currently find ourselves wandering through the wilderness. You might not have it so bad. You work from home. Your job is safe. You’re able to order what you need at the click of a button. You’re healthy. It’s really not the end of the world.
But it’s not about you. We are all only as strong as our weakest link. Many people are suffering terribly. Isolation, especially when you’re all by yourself, can be soul-destroying. We need to make sure we are doing whatever we can for those who might be falling behind. We all know people who have nobody to turn to for assistance. Like the Rebbe of Nemirov, we need to ensure we’re looking out for opportunities to reach to the heavens, ‘if not higher.’ All the selichos in the world are meaningless if we are not there to take care of those who are alone.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany C19) is reported to have declared, ‘If I had the power, I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish home.’
While Rav Hirsch’s focus may have been on sustaining Jewish home life, the closing of the synagogues has also brought us all to a greater awareness of the plight of those who might not enjoy many of the benefits of communal life. Some people never have bar and bat mitzvahs, britot, and weddings, to celebrate. Living alone with no extended family, years can go by, while they suffer in silence, passing under the radar of Jewish communal life.
The current crisis has opened our eyes to those who have been suffering for all these years. We’re now all doing our best to seek the welfare of every member of our communities and make sure they have their regular shopping provisions, Pesach needs, and daily check-ins. Undoubtedly, many of these unfortunate individuals are uttering silent blessings that finally someone has acknowledged their existence and taken time to show them the love and care they need.
The challenge we have as individuals and communities is to keep our eyes open wide even once the crisis is over, please God very soon. Once the air has cleared, will we assume that life is wonderful for all, or will we continue to think about these isolated individuals?
You might not be able to make it to shul right now. But you can soar to the heavens, if not higher. May you dedicate your life to seeking opportunities to helping those in isolation right now, as well as after the crisis has ended for most of us!