Wednesday, February 28, 2007
SAVED BY A PURIM SONG
A STORY BY MENACHEM ZIEGELBOIM
Many people flocked to Medzibuzh to spend Purim in the holy presence of the Baal Shem Tov. The forest near Medzibuzh seemed to suddenly wake up from its wintry slumber. The town of Medzibuzh was hustling and bustling with people, and wagons packed with Chassidim could be seen driving by.
Everybody knew that the Baal Shem Tov would celebrate the holy day with tremendous joy, and since our Sages say that the awesome day – Yom HaKippurim is K’Purim (like Purim) – the Rebbe would pray on behalf of one and all on this day.
Purim day. The joy of the festival filled everyone’s hearts. The streets teemed with costumed children. Despite the revelry, all knew that this was just a prelude to the evening hours, when the Baal Shem Tov would host the Purim meal.
Many of the guests came to Medzibuzh solely to be present at the Purim meal. “If Yom Kippur is like Purim,” they said, “then the meal that takes place towards evening is like the Neila prayer.” In addition, they knew that during the meal, the Rebbe was in a particularly good mood and that he dispensed brachos [blessings] generously as in the “gifts to the poor” that one gives on Purim.
People crowded around the long table. The greatest of the disciples, the Chevraya Kadisha, were eager to hear the Rebbe’s holy words. The Baal Shem Tov’s face shone, yet there was also a sense of deep seriousness about him. The sun’s rays streamed in through the windows of the Beis Midrash as the sun set. The Chassidim burst into a lively tune and the Baal Shem Tov sat there with his face radiating joy.
* * *
Among the disciples of the Chevraya Kadisha was the Baal Shem Tov’s beloved disciple, Rabbi Meir Margolis, the Rav of Lvov, and his young son, who sat on his lap. The child was all of eight years of age, and his father had brought him to his holy Rebbe for the first time so he could gaze upon the Baal Shem Tov’s face, a segula for fear of Heaven. The child was recognized as a talented lad when he was only five, but his outstanding quality was his remarkable voice.
When he sang at the Shabbos and Yom Tov meals at home with his family, all were transfixed. The child would sit with eyes closed and pour out his heart in sweet song. It wasn’t surprising then, that the Baal Shem Tov asked little Shaul’ke to sing something.
Everybody looked at them expectantly. The Rebbe watched and waited with a smile playing on his holy lips. The child thought for a moment, tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and sang a new version of “Shoshanas Yaakov.”
The tune started off slowly and quietly, but in the next stanza, the joy in the tune began to come forth, to penetrate the listeners’ hearts, and to fill the Beis Midrash with its sweetness.
The pure, clear voice of the boy grew stronger. The crowd’s curiosity was replaced with rapt attention. The niggun captivated them all, and overpowered them with feelings of joy and loftiness.
The Rebbe listened closely, his eyes closed in dveykus, and his face on fire. When the boy finished the song, and everybody was still spellbound by the impression the niggun had made on them, the Baal Shem Tov opened his eyes and looked gratefully at Shaul’ke.
The day after Purim, Rabbi Meir Margolis went to the Baal Shem Tov to say goodbye. The Rebbe greeted R. Meir and his son warmly, and in the few minutes that they had together, the Baal Shem Tov gazed at Shaul’ke with great pleasure. Even R. Meir, who was accustomed to signs of affection from the Rebbe, was amazed by the special recognition his son was getting from the Baal Shem Tov.
Suddenly, the Rebbe’s face grew serious and he sat in silent thought for some time. Then he said to R. Meir, “Perhaps you will leave your young son with me for a few days?”
R. Meir was astonished by the request, but the Baal Shem Tov went on, “Leave him here and I’ll make sure he continues with his studies, as usual. After Shabbos I’ll send him back home to Lvov.”
R. Meir regarded the Baal Shem Tov’s request as an order. He looked at his son for a moment, as though trying to read the boy’s mind.
Shaul’ke immediately understood what was expected of him, and nodded his head in acquiescence.
“Yes, Rebbe!” exclaimed R. Meir happily, “my son will stay until after Shabbos. I am sure that he will absorb much holiness and purity in his stay here.” The Rebbe looked pleased.
The days passed quickly. Shaul’ke stayed with the Baal Shem Tov for Shabbos too, and his songs at the Shabbos meals were a spiritual delight for the Rebbe and the Chassidim. Early Sunday afternoon, the Baal Shem Tov abandoned his usual routine and told Alexei the wagon driver to harness his horses and prepare for a trip.
While Alexei busied himself with the horses, the Baal Shem Tov asked three of his greatest disciples to join him on the journey. The disciples were happy to comply, for to be in their Rebbe’s presence on a mystery trip was a treat. They knew that on these trips it was an auspicious time for them to ask things they couldn’t ask in the Beis Midrash.
The Rebbe left the house with Shaul’ke’s hand in his. The disciples were waiting outside. Without further ado, they climbed into the wagon and the horses led them out of the town to some location unknown to all except the Baal Shem Tov.
The Rebbe sat there quietly, thinking. His brow furrowed and his disciples glanced at him somewhat worriedly. After traveling for some time, they arrived in an unfamiliar town and Alexei relaxed the reins and allowed the horses to go on their own. Suddenly the Baal Shem Tov looked out the window as though searching for something, and then he motioned to Alexei to stop the wagon.
The group alit from the wagon and the disciples followed the Baal Shem Tov. They walked until they were standing in front of a large building from which emitted hoarse shouting. The disciples were taken aback but the Baal Shem Tov confidently strode forward, while holding Shaul’ke’s little hand in his own.
The Baal Shem Tov opened the door to a bar and they entered a completely different world. A cloud comprised of alcohol and smoke hit them in the face. The Baal Shem Tov walked in with Shaul’ke as the disciples obediently followed. There were farmers rolling about on the floor, wallowing in filth. Others sat at tables, holding half-empty bottles of whiskey. The alcoholic vapors merged with the choking tobacco odors to make for a suffocating atmosphere.
Only a few of the locals turned to look at the newcomers, but they gazed in astonishment. Here was a distinguished looking rabbi, beard and all, and he strode over to the counter and banged it vigorously for attention.
“Quiet!” the Baal Shem Tov called out, his voice overpowering the din.
Most of the drunkards managed to direct their attention to the Baal Shem Tov who began speaking to them in their rough language.
“Hardworking farmers, listen to what I have to say! I have a little boy with me who sings beautifully. In all your life, you haven’t heard as sweet a voice as his. I brought him here to cheer you up, but you must listen closely to his song.”
The Baal Shem Tov’s announcement thundered in the sudden silence, and the drunks looked curiously at the Rebbe and his retinue. The Baal Shem Tov inclined towards Shaul’ke and whispered, “Please sing the ‘Shoshanas Yaakov’ again. Show these goyim your amazing singing abilities. Don’t be afraid. Nothing bad will happen to you.”
The child looked wide-eyed at the Baal Shem Tov, seemingly surprised by the request to sing a holy tune that belonged in the holy Beis Midrash and not in a place such as this. But the Rebbe had requested and he began to sing.
This time too, he started off quietly and slowly, then grew louder and increased the tempo. The sweet notes filled the air. The silence that followed the Baal Shem Tov’s speech grew even deeper as Shaul’ke sang. From their spots on the floor, the drunkards looked at Shaul’ke in wonder. The Baal Shem Tov and his disciples concentrated once again on the incredible song.
When Shaul’ke finished his captivating performance, the crowd burst into loud applause and shouted, “Bravo! Encore!”
The Baal Shem Tov looked pleased. He looked around the room as though searching for someone. He scanned the crowd and then approached three boys [who were] playing cards. He pulled each of them out of their seats and drew them into the center of the room.
“You heard how Shaul’ke sang so beautifully?” the Baal Shem Tov yelled in mock anger.
The three men stammered “yes” and nodded vigorously. The rest of the crowd watched and nodded along with them.
“What’s your name?” the Baal Shem Tov asked one of them.
“Zu-Zur-Zuraik,” stammered the second.
“And I’m Padrich,” croaked the third.
The Baal Shem Tov nodded gravely and scowled at them in feigned anger.
“Listen you three,” he thundered, “see this boy who sang for you? His name is Shaul’ke. You hear? Shaul’ke is his name. He’s a good boy. Remember this! Don’t you dare forget him. Understand?” The three of them assented.
The Baal Shem Tov was silent. The three nodded in fright and stared at the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov turned to Shaul’ke, pinched his cheek lovingly, patted his head and walked out with him. The three disciples silently followed, absolutely bewildered by what they had just witnessed.
“What did their Rebbe want from these gentiles? Why did he tell Shaul’ke to sing “Shoshanas Yaakov” in a bar for gentiles?”
They didn’t dare ask the Baal Shem Tov. He certainly knew what he was doing. Something was afoot and time would tell what it was. The Rebbe returned to his place on the wagon as did the others, and they traveled back to Medzibuzh.
Years passed and Shaul’ke grew up. His childish features matured and a brown beard framed his face. He had become a successful merchant who was known for his wealth and business dealings. That year there was more rain than usual and the cold was more penetrating. Adar was approaching and people’s spirits began to lift just a bit. R. Shaul had begun thinking about the upcoming Yom Tov of Purim. “It would be the right thing to do to spend Purim at home with my family,” he mused. “They’re certainly hoping I’ll join them for the festivities.”
Shaul hurriedly wound up a number of business deals and postponed the remainder. He quickly packed and began the trip home to Lvov. The trip took a few days. He tried to hurry despite the mud that filled the roads. He yearned to see his family once again and he left the main road for a shortcut through the forest.
His coach penetrated deeply into the forest as the horses trudged through the trees. Shaul relaxed, as businessmen do when they’ve completed their business dealings successfully.
“I wonder what Moshe’le is up to,” he thought of his young son. “He can probably say a few words by now... And Shmerel, no doubt, has made progress and has begun learning Mishnayos in school. And Chana’le...”
He stopped in horror and looked about. “Who screamed? Where am I?” He jumped up in terror and looked all around and realized that this wasn’t a dream. He had been daydreaming about his children, but here in the forest, stood three menacing characters brandishing knives.
One of them called out to him to get down from the coach, as he waved his knife threateningly. It finally sank in; Shaul was being held up by robbers.
One of the three approached him and Shaul put up his hands helplessly. They made a quick search of Shaul’s clothes and belongings while one of them pushed Shaul into the mud. His hands and feet were tied to the trunk of a tree, and Shaul began to realize that his end was nigh.
He looked about him in desperation but help was nowhere to be found. There was only the forest, the robbers, and himself.
One of the men came over to him and snarled, “Prepare to die.”
Trembling in fright, Shaul tried to focus on his final Vidui [confession]. “These are my final moments,” he thought resignedly. Images of his parents were clear in his mind’s eye, as were his dear wife Sarah’le and the sweet faces of his children. His eyes filled with tears as he thought of leaving everything he cherished behind.
Thoughts of the past continued to flit by: the Beis Midrash of his Rebbe...an eight-year-old child – himself – sitting on his father’s lap...his father whispering to him to sing...
Shaul opened his eyes and faced the grim reality. He looked at the robbers who sat around a bonfire, eating and talking amongst themselves. His mind worked furiously as he thought about how these were his final moments. A cool breeze made him shiver. The trees rustled ominously and the shriek of a forest denizen rent the air.
‘Well, I wanted to be at home to hear the Megilla and to fulfill the mitzvos of Purim, but apparently, this is not what Hashem wants. I can make my peace with that but at least I should do a little something in honor of Purim. What can I do while tied up like this? I will sing that “Shoshanas Yaakov” niggun that I sang for the Rebbe!
Shaul began to sing, and although he sang quietly, he could be heard clearly in the silence of the forest. For some reason, the robbers didn’t shout at him to be quiet. Shaul closed his eyes tightly. He didn’t want the sight of the hoodlums to disturb his concentration. His tremulous voice wove a spell and it seemed as though everything stopped to listen.
For some reason, his voice was more clear and beautiful than ever, like it was back when he was a child, but this time his hands were tied.
He felt himself transported, and no longer thought of the forest and his untimely demise. He began singing the joyous stanza and his voice rose easily and flowed like a ship that sails confidently through the stormy waves.
Shaul finished the song slowly, in his attempt to forestall his inevitable end, and then he opened his eyes and saw the three men facing him. Their mouths were open and their hands were outstretched as though holding something invisible. They stood there like that for a long moment. Then they roused themselves from their frozen state and hesitantly approached Shaul.
Shaul was terrified as he prepared to meet his end with the blade of a knife. But the three men stood there, half a step away from him. He looked at them and beheld something strange, though he himself didn’t know what it was.
The knife was still grasped in the hand of the one who had bound him, but the eyes of the threesome seemed softer and kinder. One of them whispered, “Is it you, Shaul’ke?”
It was as though a light turned on in Shaul’s mind. “Anton? Zuraik? Padrich?” he whispered in incredulity.
The three men trembled and they looked utterly confused. They untied the thick ropes that bound Shaul to the tree.
“Your rabbi... we haven’t forgotten him. It was thirty years ago when a boy sang that song. The rabbi said we should not harm him. His song was so sweet; we couldn’t possibly forget you, Shaul’ke.”
That year, Shaul’s voice trembled as he uttered the words of the bracha at the end of the Megilla: “Shoshanas Yaakov – the rose of Yaakov was cheerful and glad when they jointly saw Mordechai robed in royal blue. You have been their eternal salvation, and their hope throughout the generations.”
Double-dotted yitz.. - I believe it was the Chozeh who said that while one does not need to believe that every Chassidic story actually happened, he does need to believe that they could have.
Or another version has it that anyone who believes every Chassidic story is a na'ar [fool], but if you don't believe them you're an apikoris.
Take your pick, my friend!
Check out http://dixieyid.blogspot.com. If you like the content, please considering linking to me.
I want to be able to just believe all the hassidic stories. But this is greatly hampered when someone takes them and embelishes and "writes" them. (fictionalizes them) Instead of telling/relating them.. the way Reb Shlomo did.
This is the first story I didn't know what to think, seeing as how it's got all of this extra filler added, it just seemed less authentic.