When he had reached a ripe old age, one of the respected citizens of the community of Uman sold all his belongings and set off to live out his remaining years in Eretz Yisrael. He wanted to be buried in the soil of the Holy Land when his time came — “after a hundred and twenty years,” as people say.
After only a few days there he decided to leave Eretz Yisrael, and a few months after having bid him farewell, his old friends were surprised to see him back in his hometown. He was showered with questions from all sides: What made him go? What made him return? But he gave no answer whatsoever, and the whole episode remained a puzzle in the eyes of his townsmen.
A short while later he took ill, and called for the officials of the Chevrah Kadisha, the voluntary burial society of the town, for he had something of importance to tell them. They hastened dutifully to his bedside, but when they arrived he merely made conversation on all manner of trifling subjects. The officials were surprised, and left his room.
The next day he summoned them again, and though their first impulse was to ignore him, they finally decided to accede to his request. Once again he took up their time with inconsequential small talk, as if he were out of his mind, and they eventually left him in annoyance.
When he called for them again on the third day they refused outright to be bothered in vain, but when he received this message he sent word that this time he would explain his invitations; he earnestly requested that they not take offense, but come to see him.
They took up seats around his bed, and the pale little man said: “The time has come to reveal a certain episode from the story of my life.
“When I was a young man I used to travel to various fairs and markets, earning my living from merchandising. Most of my business was in the region of Berditchev, and every time I passed by the town I would spend a day or two there in order to be able to see the tzadik who lived there, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak.
“On my way from a certain fair one morning, I passed through Berdichev and went straight to the house of the tzadik. He was walking up and down in his study, robed in his tallis, and whispering the preliminary passages of the daily prayers in an ecstasy that was beautiful to see. I did not dare to disturb him at a moment like this, of course; so I waited in the adjoining room, and listened to his voice.
Suddenly an angry little knot of noisy men and women brushed past me and stormed their way straight into the rebbe’s study, where they kept up their raucous arguments. It was clear that they had come to the Rabbi with a lawsuit, and as I heard their bitter claims and counter-claims, I pieced the story together.
“It transpired that a poor Jew had made a bare living by working as a money-changer. Having no capital of his own, he conducted his entire business with money which he borrowed from acquaintances. Every so often he would pay his debts from his meager earnings, and so continue. Now during the previous night this man had lost three hundred rubles – all of it borrowed money. He was in great consternation: he would lose his entire means of support, and be spurned as a bad debtor as well.
He suspected the maid of his household, and despite her protestations of innocence he abused and cursed her and even beat her in order to persuade her to return the money. She reported this treatment to her parents. They of course descended upon his house in a fury, and now, at the height of their violent dispute, they had all decided to bring it to the rebbe for adjudication.
“After listening to all parties the rebbe said: ‘I can see that the maid is utterly innocent. This was an unfounded suspicion. At the same time it is clear that the money was in fact lost, and that this man did not simply invent this story in order to cast aspersions on her. As to where the money is — that, I am afraid, I do not see.’
“And Rabbi Levi Yitzchak walked up and down his room in distress, not knowing how to find a way out of this confused situation.
“Suddenly he stood still and said: ‘If some person were to be found who would give me three hundred rubles so that we could make good this man’s loss, I would promise him a share in the World to Come!”
“Hearing this from the adjoining room, I walked straight into his study and said: ‘Rebbe, are you prepared to give this promise in writing?’
‘I am,’ he said.
“I took three hundred rubles out of my pocket and gave them to the tzadik, who handed them directly to the money-changer.
“Then he said to the maid: ‘Because you were suspected in vain, I give you my blessing that you will make a good match.’
“And to the man he said: ‘And as for you – you have my blessing that you will never again suffer a loss.”
“The little group left the rebbe’s presence in good spirits, and I retired to the waiting room, allowing him to proceed with his morning prayers.
“When he was ready I entered his study again, and reminded him about the written promise. He immediately asked his gabbai to bring paper, pen and ink, and sat down to write a note. As he folded it up he said: ‘Here is your note, but take care never to open it or read it all the days of your life. When your time comes, and you sense that your last day in This World has arrived, hand over the note to the officials of the Chevrah Kadisha, and ask them to place it inside your grave.’
“I took it joyfully from his hands, and of course took good heed of his instructions. Moreover, in order that it should be preserved safely, I decided to hide it in a special place: I had it bound by a bookbinder into the cover of my Siddur.
“When I left for Eretz Yisrael I forgot that prayer book in all the excitement of my preparations, and only when I arrived there did I realize that I had left it behind me, here in Uman. I lost no time in deciding what to do, and left the Holy Land at once. So now you understand that I did not leave there because of confused thinking.
Now two days ago, when I fell ill, and thought my time had come, I called for you. By the time you arrived I felt somewhat better. I saw that this was not yet my last day, so I had to start talking on some other subject. The same happened yesterday. Today, however, I feel that my end is in fact drawing near. Gentlemen, here is the note, I beg of you to fulfill the instructions of the tzadik. Place it in my grave.”
He stretched out a wrinkled hand, and in exchange for their solemn promise, entrusted them with the folded note. A few hours later the man was no more.
After his passing the officials said to one another: “It was only this man alone whom the tzadik forbade to read the note. There is clearly no prohibition on our reading it, now, after his death.”
Accordingly, before carrying out their promise to the deceased, in a funeral that showed much honor to his memory, they unfolded the tiny note and read these words:
“Open for him the gates of the Garden of Eden. – Levi Yitzchak the son of Sarah.
[Adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from the rendition in A Treasury of Chassidic Tales (Artscroll), as translated by our esteemed colleague Uri Kaploun from Sipurei Chasidim by Rabbi S. Y. Zevin.]
Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit