From Holy Brother: Inspiring Stories and Enchanted Tales about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach,
by Yitta Mandelbaum, Jason Aronson Publishers.
(Courtesy: Rabbi Uziel Weingarten)
There was a time when the Russian police had an easy way to make money. They would arrest a Jew, and then tell his community that if they wanted him released, they’d have to put up bail, which in effect was a ransom.
As it happened, there was a police chief in Mezhrich who got caught having embezzled ten thousand rubles, and was given twenty four hours to return the money. So he decided to apprehend a Jew and get the communi¬ty to put up the money.
There were two orphans in Mezhrich who, until they met each other, had nobody in the world. They became engaged. As neither had any family, the community banded together to give them a beautiful wedding.
It was the morning of the wedding, and the police chief put the groom under arrest. He told all the elders standing outside the synagogue, “If you want this groom to make his wedding, you’d better put ten thousand rubles on my desk by tonight.” The police officer was so determined not to be talked out of the ransom that he hung a sign on his door: “Any Jew who comes to see me without ten thousand rubles will be shot.”
The community was brokenhearted; ten thou¬sand rubles was beyond their means. Fortunately, the three most important disciples of the Maggid of Mezhrich were there: the Alter Rebbe (the first Hasidic Master of Lubavitch), who was seventeen and not yet a rebbe (Hasidic master); Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who was already twenty¬-seven; and Reb Mendel of Vitebsk who was a little older, say thirty one. The three got together in the syna¬gogue and talked. “We have to get that young man out of jail! Not only is he getting married tonight, but he’s an orphan. He has no one in the world to save him.”
Meanwhile, the Jews were meeting. They were willing to sell everything they owned–cows, chick¬ens, pil¬lows, forks, spoons, coffeepots, even Sabbath candlesticks. But the most that would raise was five hundred rubles. It was clear they needed a benefactor.
Now, there was one wealthy person in Mezhrich named Zev, but he was, without doubt, the biggest miser in the world. Zev never gave away a penny in his whole life. He even had a sign outside his house. “To all beggars: Anyone who trespasses on my property will be shot.” And he would have done it. Worst of all was the manner in which he had become rich. In those days, a Jew couldn’t get rich without converting to Christianity. So Zev had changed his faith.
The Alter Rebbe, who had been quietly considering the situation, turned to Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev and Reb Mendel of Vitebsk and said: “The only one who can give us the money is Zev the Miser.”
“I don’t think so! Everything from Heaven points to him. Be¬sides, there’s nobody else with the resources we need.”
“What happens when he shoots?”
“He won’t shoot. I’m going to see him right now!”
“If you go, you’d better take us with you for protection.”
The Alter Rebbe thought it over. “You can come with me on one condition, namely, that I do all the nego¬tiating. Whatever I suggest, you just smile. Don’t so much as open your mouths or you will ruin everything.”
Although the Alter was the youngest of the three, he was very force¬ful. The others agreed to his terms, though they didn’t believe he would succeed. Only the Alter Rebbe felt confi¬dent he could get the money.
The first miracle was that Zev the Miser was so shocked to see a delegation of rabbis at his gate that he didn’t shoot. The Alter Rebbe spoke. “For¬give us, we wouldn’t ask you for help, but we have no choice. This young boy’s wedding is tonight. He’s an orphan. The police arrested him for no reason and will not re¬lease him unless we raise ten thousand rubles.”
Zev the Miser had tears in his eyes. “This is a most heart-breaking story. Certainly, I will help you!” He went into his office and came back with one penny one lousy penny, which he had kept around for years in case of “an emer¬gency.”
Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev and Reb Mendel of Vitebsk wanted to jump the Miser. A penny! But the Alter Rebbe gave them a sharp look to remind them of their prom¬ise. Then he took Zev’s hand and said: “Thank you so much. You don’t know what you’ve done for this boy. I bless you that God should give you the strength to do more good deeds like this in your lifetime.”
The three men left and walked away in silence, deep in thought. They had gone about half a block when Zev the Miser sent a servant to call them back. “Please, return. I want to help more.”
They hurried back. At the door, Zev the Mi¬ser fished in his pocket and handed them another penny. Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev and Reb Mendel of Vitebsk clenched their teeth to keep their mouths shut. But in their thoughts they were yelling: “What chutzpah! You think we have time to fool around with your pennies? We need ten thousand rubles by tonight!” But they kept their promise to the Alter and didn’t say a word. And the Alter Rebbe shook the miser’s hand, blessed him and said: “Thank you so much. God will surely reward you for what you have done for these orphans.”
To make a long story short, this went on for some time. Each time, Zev offered them another penny. The Alter not only was patient but reacted to every coin Zev the Miser offered as if it were the most significant gift in the world.
But then came a breakthrough. Zev the Mi¬ser began to give rubles! Then it became five rubles, ten, a hundred. And soon he had given them the entire sum.
(As the story continues, the money made its way back to Zev, who then completed his transformation by giving it to the new couple as a gift.)
Later that night, the Alter Rebbe, Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, and Reb Mendel of Vitebsk met again at the synagogue. The two older Rebbes asked the Alter: “Holy Brother! What hap¬pened with Zev? How did you know what to do?”
“Zev,” he told them, “had the spiritual strength to give only one penny, but no one would take it. My accepting that first penny gave him the strength to give one more. The more he gave, the more he wanted to give, until finally he be¬came so spiritually strong that he was able to give us the full ten thousand rubles.”
Shlomo concluded: The deepest torah (= teaching) is that just as you need strength for physical work, you also need spiritual strength for a mitzvah. Every time you do a mitzvah (a good deed), the capacity to do more grows.
The angels say: “Sometimes a person gets angry at another person for doing so little good, not realizing that, alas, the other one lacks the strength to do more.” It’s up to us to welcome their little deeds of char¬ity as a way of opening up the gates for them to give much more.
REFLECTIONS ON THIS STORY
In addition to profound compassion and courage, there are two qualities that the Alter demonstrated in this story. One was the ability to look beyond external appearances and recognize the divine essence of another person. At our core, we are made in “the image of God.” This is the very first thing that the Torah says about human beings (Genesis 1:27), and also the most significant. We are not born fallen, we are not born damaged, and we are not born misers. We are born as divine, loving essences.
Over the course of our lives, distortions creep into our spirits, the result of pain and hurt and fear. A spiritually evolved person–and the Alter was surely one such person–looks past the distortions and sees us for who we really are, loving essences created in the image of the wise, loving God. It is a place of compassion and honoring, not judgment.
The second quality that the Alter demonstrated is what I call “spiritual patience,” the patience born of the awareness that we cannot take quantum leaps in our ability to do express our goodness. We can take small steps, one at a time, step after step.
When we sense a demand that we take bigger steps than we are capable of, we tend to feel overwhelmed and do nothing. The Alter did not criticize Zev for only being able to give one penny. Instead, he honored him for doing what he could. The result of this was that Zev gave the next penny, and the next, until he had given ten thousand rubles.
In the pithy formulations I heard in the Spiritual Psychology program at the University of Santa Monica, “growth is a process, not an event.” We grow step by step, not in one big leap. The wise counselor gives people “the dignity of their process,” not demanding that they move quicker than they are able to, but rather supporting them as they take the small steps that lead to bigger steps. (The Torah demonstrates this principle by including animal sacrifices in its legislation, as I pointed out in my studies on Leviticus.)
In one of my last conversations with Shlomo, I told him that I thought I figured out how he had such a powerful effect on me and on so many thousands of others that he met. “It has to do with how you love,” I said tentatively. “You come with complete, total and unconditional love, and with absolutely no judgment. What is more, you see us not as we are now, but as we can be. You touch our highest selves, and that is how you elevate us.”
Shlomo looked at me for a long moment, and then said: “So if you understand, please be my friend. Here is my card. Call me when you get a chance.”
May God bless us to embrace and accept each other with love, and to see the holiness in each of us and in even the smallest positive acts we do.