(By: Shel Krakofsky)
Needed some cheering up the other day. Took a quick stroll downtown. It was dark and raining. Went looking for Gene Kelly kicking up water and twirling around a lamppost. No such luck. People don’t spin around lampposts in the rain any more. Maybe that’s what’s wrong. It’s not the history. It’s the choreography. If I couldn’t sing and dance with Gene Kelly, I could at least go home and read about his chassidic equivalent (a stretch?), Levi-Yitzchak of Berdichev. The stories of Levi-Yitzchak, though never forgotten, have been made more popular this century through and in the writings of Martin Buber and Elie Wiesel.
Buber correctly describes chassidic tales as “a world of legendary reality.” The transmitted stories cannot be authenticated with any degree of certainty, yet they accurately reflect the passionate fervor and exalted joy of the masters and their chassidic followers. With unbridled enthusiasm, they affirmed the quotidian union of the natural and the Divine. Levi-Yitzchak said: “Whether someone really loves God can be determined by the love he bears toward human beings.”
Only the outlines of the actual life of Levi-Yitzchak (1740-1809) are known. Born in Galicia, he was a talmudic prodigy who studied Chassidism with the Maggid of Mezritch, who had studied with the Baal Shem Tov. Levi-Yitzchak learned with the Maggid that a Jewish life must be lived as well as studied.
He defended his community before God, even when its members were involved with wrong-doing. Once the rabbi of Berdichev saw a man attired for Shacharit services with prayer shawl and tfillin, greasing the wheels of his wagon.
“Lord of the world,” exclaimed Levi-Yitzchak. “Behold this man. Behold the devoutness of Your people. Even as they grease the wheels of a wagon, they are still mindful of Your Name!”
Even as he defended his people, he could bristle against them. When Levi-Yitzchak discovered that the young women of Berdichev worked continuously from early morning until late at night kneading the dough and baking matzah for Passover, he mourned their drudgery from the pulpit. He cried aloud, “Those who hate Israel accuse us of baking matzah with the blood of Christians. But no, we bake matzah with the blood of Jews!”
It has been said of Levi-Yitzchak that he loved God, he loved Torah but above all, he loved the people of Israel. He was a man of the people who revered the ordinary while intimately praising the Almighty, possessing the temerity to confront Him with threats and sarcasm. With Abraham, Moses and Job, for example, there were dialogues with God. Levi-Yitzchak was different. He insisted on answers and even threatened his Judge. This rebbe was comfortable reminding God – even on Yom Kippur – that He too must ask forgiveness for the inflictions He had visited on His children. The request for pardon had to be reciprocal. Once he remained standing at his pulpit all day without uttering a sound. He had warned God, “If You refuse to answer our prayers, I shall refuse to go on saying them.”
Levi-Yitzchak tried hard to be above rivalries. His faith in God and man was too genuine for him to sanction differences and intolerance. One day, the wife of a militant Mitnagid threw garbage on the head of Levi-Yitzchak. Without responding, he continued his walk to synagogue. “Don’t be angry with her Lord,” he prayed. “It’s not her fault. Poor woman, she wishes only to please her husband. Can You blame her for that?”
For Levi-Yitzchak, one could be a Jew with God or even against God – but not without God. Once he vented his anger and frustrations, he always came back. One Passover, he compared himself to the one who does not know how to ask. “Ah, it is not why I suffer that I wish to know, but only whether I suffer for Your sake.”
Levi-Yitzchak still remains sui generis, someone who by his example can help us to accept each other and that which we will never understand. Or, as my wife Dalia (who is not from Berdichev) likes to remind me, better to sing in the rain than to curse in the sun.