RABBI LEVI YITZHAK OF BERDICHEV'S SIMPLE PESSAH LESSON
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809) was a gentle soul, more interested in the simple faith of the unlearned than in the sophistication of rabbis and communal leaders.
That is not to say that he was ignorant; all evidence points to the contrary.
R. Levi Yitzhak was born into a distinguished rabbinic family; his father served as the rabbi of small town in Poland. Young Levi Yitzhak was raised with the Torah education of the child of a rabbi.
Throughout his life he would serve in the rabbinate of various towns: First in Ryczywol for a short tenure, then in Zelechow, where his identification with the nascent hassidic movement led to his sacking.
From Zelechow, he moved to Pinsk, where he was elected rabbi in 1775. He remained in Pinsk for 10 years until he was dismissed from his post, once again by those who opposed the hassidic movement.
In 1785, he moved to Berditchev, where he served as rabbi until his death.
While R. Levi Yitzhak battled the mitnagdim more than many of his peers in the hassidic movement, even his adversaries acknowledged that he was a worthy Torah scholar. They never cast doubt on his talmudic erudition (though they questioned his knowledge of Kabbala).
R. Levi Yitzhak also took part in public affairs. In the early 19th century, he convened a meeting of leaders to discuss the oppressive measures against the Jews, including a prohibition of Jewish settlement in many villages. In 1807, we find his name at the top of a list of Jewish contributors to the Russian war effort in anticipation of the impending French invasion.
But for all his learning and leadership, R. Levi Yitzhak was most enchanted by the simple folk whose faith in the Almighty was untainted. It was from such people that he drew inspiration and it was their pure service that he emphasized when he pleaded before God.
On Pessah night after the service, R. Levi Yitzhak would take his time as he made his way home, slowly winding a path through the alleys and back streets and listening to his fellow Jews as they began to conduct their Seder.
He stopped at a door of one particular house as he heard the father explain the Haggada to his children: “My dear children, when I was a young boy and was still blessed with the opportunity to study Torah, I remember my teacher telling me that one has to draw out the pronunciation of the word ehad [one].” Of course the father was referring to the obligation to meditate on the final word of the first sentence of the Shema declaration: Hear O Israel, God is our Lord, God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4).
Alas, the simple father could not recall the context of his teacher’s instruction: “My teacher must have been referring to this passage in the Haggada: ‘The Torah has spoken of four children: one [ehad] is the wise child, and one [ehad] is the wicked child, and one [ehad] is the simple child, and one [ehad] is the child who knows not how to ask.’ Come, my children, let us read the Haggada together, draw out the pronunciation of the word ehad and meditate on the unity of the Almighty.”
As R. Levi Yitzhak stood outside the door he heard the family recite the Haggada and fervently proclaim “eha-a-a-a-d!” He raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed: “Master of the universe, look how unbelievable Your children are – even the unlearned proclaim Your unity at the Seder. Moreover, as we read in the Haggada, the great sages sat in Bnei Brak discussing the Haggada the entire night until dawn rose and the students came and said, ‘Rabbis, the time has come to read the Shema of the morning’; an entire night of preparation before they could proclaim Your singularity by reciting the morning Shema.
And look at this simple family, at the beginning of their Seder they are already making such a proclamation.”
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.