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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Lightening the Burden: Rebbe Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtza

Today is the 19th of Adar and the 78th yahrzeit of Rebbe Meir Yechiel HaLevi of Ostrovtza zt”l. Although he was not known for Negina, my wife’s family had a connection to him, so this is a personal tribute.
Rebbe Meir Yechiel was a talmid of Rebbe Elimelech of Grodzisk zt''l, a scion of the Kozhnitzer dynasty [and father of the Piaseczno Rebbe zt”l]. Born to simple parents – his father was a bagel baker – he elevated himself to become one of the giants of the generation. After the petira [passing] of Rebbe Elimelech, many Chassidim accepted Rebbe Meir Yechiel as their Rebbe, and thus the Ostrovtza dynasty was born.
The Ostrovtza Rebbe led a large yeshiva, which attracted the most preeminent talmidim of the pre-war Jewish world in Poland. Ostrovtza was one of two Chassidic courts in the country known for their yeshivas and phenomenal lomdim; the other was Sochatchov. The Rebbe maintained a non-stop schedule of delivering shiurim, seeing Chassidim, writing, and davening at length. Along with all of his intense activities, he practiced self-affliction, fasting for some forty to fifty consecutive years [it is said that he foresaw what would happen to European Jewry in the Second World War and fasted to try to prevent it].


In a certain assemblage of Chassidic Rebbes, each one shared a dvar Torah from one of his illustrious ancestors. For his part, Rebbe Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtza had simple parents, and his father was a baker. "My father," he said, "taught that fresh bread is better than stale bread." Then Rebbe Meir Yechiel said a dvar Torah of his own.


When young Meir Yechiel was a small child, he would sit in the corner of the room while carefully watching his father who was engaged in his baking. “Meirl,” his father would say, “you should know: the tighter an oven is shut, the more heat it maintains.” He related that when he first became a Rav, he thought he had an ‘engine’ in his mouth – that he could conquer the world through speech. He later realized that his father’s saying was true – and kept a tight lid on his mouth, both in his speech and his eating.


Amongst the many gedolim who traveled to Chortkov was the famed gaon and tzaddik, Rebbe Meir Yechiel of Ostrovza. Rebbe Meir Yechiel would tell over the following story which he had himself experienced. Normally every time Rebbe Meir Yechiel arrived in Chortkov he was straight away ushered into the Rebbe's room without any delay. On one occasion, Rebbe Meir Yechiel arrived in Chortkov, and the gabbai straight away informed the Rebbe of his presence. This time, however, the Rebbe sent back a message to Rebbe Meir Yechiel that he should wait. While he was waiting, Rebbe Meir Yechiel thought to himself, "No doubt I have sinned in some way and therefore the Rebbe doesn't want to see me before I have done teshuva," and with that he started to ponder to himself what it must have felt like to receive malkus – thirty-nine lashes as was dealt out in the times of the Beis HaMikdash to those who had committed serious aveiros (transgressions).
While he was in the middle of his thoughts, the door suddenly opened and Rebbe Meir Yechiel was ushered into the Rebbe's room. After an introductory 'Shalom Aleichem,' the Rebbe said to him, "It is written in the Torah that a person who commits certain serious aveiros is to be given forty lashes, yet in practice Chazal instruct us to give only thirty-nine lashes. Why did Chazal deduct one of the lashes which had to be given? The reason is that a person must always realize that he can never do enough to fulfill his obligation to his Creator. If a person who committed an aveira would be given forty lashes he might think to himself that he is now totally innocent of any crime, for he has already received his due punishment. Chazal had pity on such a person who would transgress an aveira and was still capable of thinking that he is a tzaddik. Therefore they commanded to only give thirty-nine lashes, so that a person should realize that he still has to carry on doing teshuva, he can never do enough teshuva to atone for his sins."


That was what the Ostrovtza Rebbe was taught. But he later was able to pass on another teaching on this very matter:

Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, the chief Dayan (judge) of the Vilna Beis Din, once met the famous Rebbe Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtza. Though the Ostrovtza Rebbe was an eminent scholar and a renowned tzaddik, he was still extremely humble. Rabbi Grodzinsky asked him to share some Torah thoughts but the Rebbe quietly demurred, saying he wasn't worthy. Rabbi Grodzinsky urged him. "They say you are a great man. I am sure you can tell me something."
"Great man?" questioned the Rebbe. "I will tell you what a great man is."
He quoted the Talmud in Makkos 22b that derives the power of the Sages from a verse in Devarim: "How foolish are those people who stand for the Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) but do not stand for the Rav. Aren't the Rabbis more powerful than the Torah itself? The Torah tells us (Devarim 25:3) that there are forty lashes to be meted in case of a serious transgression, yet the Sages interpret the verse so as to mete only thirty-nine.
"The Talmud thus deduces the Rabbis have more power than the Torah. They therefore deserve at least as much -- if not more -- respect than the simple scroll."
The Rebbe turned to Rabbi Grodzinsky and asked a cogent question. "There are quite a number of occasions where the Sages reinterpreted the text. They tell us to wear tefillin above our hairline, not between our eyes as the text seems to command. And the other phylactery is placed on our arm, not our hand, though strict textual reading would have us do so.
"In fact, there is even an instance quite similar to the case of lashes. The Torah tells us to count fifty days of the Omer before celebrating the holiday of Shavuos. Yet, the Sages reinterpret the number fifty and tell us to count forty-nine. Why is that example not cited to show the power of the Sages? Is the ability to make a holiday one day earlier not a powerful enough attestation to the hegemony of the Sages?"
The Ostrovtza Rebbe explained. "The power of the Talmudic Sages was not just in refining a seemingly literal translation. Their greatness lay in the ability to read the Torah that says to give forty lashes and through myriad proofs and interpolations mete one less lash. The greatness of the Sages stems not the just the power of deductive reasoning. That ability constantly appears throughout the Talmud. It is the power to make life one flog lighter for a simple Jew -- even a Jewish sinner about to get lashes.
Rebbe Meir Yechiel turned to Rabbi Grodzinsky. "The greatness of a Torah leader is not to find more burdens for his followers, but to look for a way to lighten the existing ones. That is a great man."


The Ostrovtza Rebbe had an appreciation for Negina, as seen in the following [which we cited previously]:

Whenever a Chassid who knew niggunim, especially a Modzitzer Chassid, came before Rebbe Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtza zt”l, he would ask him to sing the Ezkera niggun, and tears would stream from his eyes. After the petira of the Divrei Yisrael [first Modzitzer Rebbe], he proclaimed, “There’s what to envy the Modzitzer Rebbe Zt”l for. He left the world a tremendous treasure, his niggunim.”
The Ostrovtzer’s Chassidim were astonished by his words. “Rebbe, what about your Torahs?” they asked.
In his pure humility, the Ostrovtza Rebbe answered, “Nobody was aroused by my Torah. But from the Modzitzer Rebbe zt”l’s niggunim, everyone’s heart was aroused to teshuva [repentance].


Similarly, at his own petira, the following was said:
On 19 Adar 5688/1928, Rebbe Meir Yechiel was niftar. The world of Torah and Chassidus was thrust into mourning. HaRav Aharon Menachem Mendel of Radzimin zt”l, called out after the aron [coffin], “If the earth would know what kind of treasure it is about to receive, it would say Shira [songs of praise]!''


Finally, there’s an interesting verse in Tehillim, which is interpreted similarly – yet slightly different – by the Divrei Yisrael [first Modzitzer Rebbe] (cited here) and the Ostrovtza Rebbe:

In Tehillim [106:44], the verse says, “And He saw their distress, when he heard their Rina – exaltation.” This is strange – when someone’s in distress, we would expect him to cry. However, at the crossing of the Reed Sea, we are told that “the women followed her [Miriam] with drums and tambourines” [Shemos, 15:20]. Where did they get drums and tambourines in the desert? Our Sages say that the righteous women were so certain that Hashem would perform miracles for the Jewish People, that they prepared themselves with drums and tambourines.

So therefore the verse which says, “And He saw their distress, when he heard their Rina – exaltation” can be explained: Hashem saw, that when the Jewish People were in the very midst of distress, He still heard their exultation and singing to Him, so He saved them. From here we learn that whenever a Jew is, G-d forbid, in a difficult situation, if he sings about his salvation which is to come, Hashem will help him.

That was the Divrei Yisrael’s explanation. On the same verse, Rebbe Meir Yechiel said the following to someone who had come to him at a time of distress.
At a time of distress, Hashem already hears the exaltation and song that will be sung to Him when the person is extricated. For this alone, Hashem will save him from his distress. Thus the verse can be interpreted: In what merit does Hashem see their distress, and save them? When he hears their exaltation and song that they will sing to Him upon being delivered, and with that He saves them!

Zechuso Yagein Aleinu – May Rebbe Meir Yechiel’s merit protect us all!

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