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Thursday, October 23, 2008


Rebbe Levi Yitzchak’s True Love

Tonight is the 25th of Tishrei, and the 198th yahrzeit of Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. The Berditchever is one of the legendary figures of Chassidus, revered for his enthusiastic dedication to Torah and Mitzvos, but above all for his consuming love of G-d and his people. He became known as the defender of the people of Israel. He would argue with G-d, charging Him with being too stern a father to His children, pleading for an end to the long and cruel exile.
His work Kedushas Levi is a classic collection of Chassidic thoughts arranged according to the weekly Torah portions; it includes a commentary on Pirkei Avos, and an appendix containing a number of anecdotes that reflect his saintly life and his role as attorney for the defense of the Jewish people.
More about him can be found in previous posts:
The Yamim Noraim and the Defender of Israel
What Can the Angel Michael Say for You?
Longing for the Singing and a New Beginning


The following story is adapted from the book entitled Shlomo's Stories: Selected Tales, by Reb Shlomo Carlebach and Susan Yael Mesinai, published by Jason Aronson, Inc., Northvale, NJ.
It shows the great love Rebbe Levi Yitzchak had for Hashem, as only Reb Shlomo could tell us:

The Rebbe Reb Baruch's Tallis
by Shlomo Carlebach and Susan Yael Mesinai
Everybody knows that the heilige Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and the Rebbe Reb Baruch of Medzibuzh were the very opposites of each other. The Rebbe Reb Baruch was very civilized. When he davened, he barely moved. When he sat with his family at the Shabbos table, he was so regal he was the king of the world.

But when Rebbe Levi Yitzchak prayed, he jumped from one end of the room to another. He would dance, turn around, fall to the ground. At his table, one had to be very careful. You never knew what to expect. In the middle of Kiddush, he could go absolutely wild, take the wine bottle, pour it up, pour it down, throw the cup into the air.

Rebbe Levi Yitzchak wanted so much to spend a Shabbos with the Rebbe Reb Baruch, the Baal Shem Tov's grandson, that he finally invited himself.

The Rebbe Reb Baruch said: "You can come, but you have to behave my way. Especially at the table, with my family, you must be very proper."

Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev thought about it. "The only way I can behave is if I don't open my mouth. I won't even pray, except to say 'Amen,' because the minute I daven, I'm no longer myself."

So he said to the Rebbe Reb Baruch: "When we're making Kiddush, don't ask me to say a blessing. Let me be absolutely silent, because it's the only way I can control myself."

The two Rebbes agreed. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak came for Shabbos. They davened and he only answered "Amen." The praying went beautifully. Everybody was sure that by Kiddush, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak would start jumping on the table. But, no, the Rebbe Reb Baruch made Kiddush and Rebbe Levi Yitzchak only said "Amen."

Everybody knows that it's a minhag, a custom on Friday night, to eat sweet fish and sour fish. The deepest question in the world, and a big controversy among the Rebbes, was which fish to eat first. Some said sweet fish, because then you have the strength to bear the sour. Others said: "Let's get the sour fish out of the way, so that the end will be sweet."

But both ways are holy.

The Rebbe Reb Baruch was civilized. He had a little Chassid, like a waiter, bring the fish on a platter and ask each person which he preferred to eat first - sour fish or sweet. So the waiter came, sadly enough, to Rebbe Levi Yitzchak and asked, "Do you like sweet fish?"

That's all the poor Chassid had to ask. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak said: "Do I love sweet fish? I love Hashem! I love only G-d!"

And he took the whole platter of fish and threw it up to the ceiling. And the fish began to drip onto the Rebbe Reb Baruch's tallis, because in those days the big Rebbes always wore their prayer shawls for the feast on Friday night.

Everyone was aghast. Everyone, that is, except the Rebbe Reb Baruch who, for all his civilized behavior, would never wash his tallis after that feast because, he said, the stains were very holy. "These stains are caused by a Jew who really loves G-d. How can I wash them out?"

After the Rebbe Reb Baruch's death, the tallis was passed from one Rebbe to another to wear on Shabbos, but never washed. During this century it became so precious that the Rebbes only wore it for Yom Kippur. The holy Munkatcher Rebbe, the last to possess it, wore it only for Neila, the final prayer of Yom Kippur. He must have foreseen the destruction that would be coming into the world with the Holocaust. For the holy Munkatcher's last will was to be buried in the Rebbe Reb Baruch's tallis, covered with the stains caused by one who loved only G-d.

Zechuso yagein Aleinu v’al Kol Yisrael – may Rebbe Levi Yitzchak’s merits protect us all!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


A Rebbe’s Appreciation of Music

Today is Isru Chag Sukkos [Simchas Torah in Chutz La'Aretz, the Diaspora], and the 27th yahrzeit of Rebbe Ben Zion Chaim Shlomo Meshulam Zusia Twerski, ztvk"l, Admor of Hornosteipel and Rav of Denver, one of the foremost Rebbes, in my opinion, of the 20th Century. The Rebbe's words reverberate in our hearts, and continue to inspire us till this very day.
You can read more about him in previous years' posts:
I Felt the Rebbe…Through his Niggun!
A Daring Beginning; and
Rebbe Shloime Twerski, Ztvk"l.


Rebbe Shloime had a great appreciation for music, as is evidenced not only by his own niggunim [as mentioned in previous posts], but by the following account. This was excerpted from the recent Sukkos issue of Mishpacha Magazine, in an article by Yisroel Besser called "Chords That Draw Close," which features an interview/conversation with Rebbe Shloime's son and successor, Rebbe Mordechai Dov Ber [Reb Mottel] Twerski of Hornosteipel-Flatbush. The article also discusses an upcoming recording by R. Srully Williger of Rebbe Mottel's niggunim, called "The Rebbe’s Niggun," (which hopefully I will review here after I obtain it).

Rebbe [Mottel] Twerski's father, Rebbe Ben-Zion Chaim Shlomo Meshulam Zusia, known as Rebbe Shloime of Hornosteipel-Denver, was an ethereal mystical figure. "He lived with music, [and] would become one with a song. And his music, like everything else about him, was a bridge back to the Baal Shem Tov, to worlds that were. My father raised us with such a strong awareness of where we came from that we felt connected to them."
Rav Mottel smiles. "I remember how, when I was young, I once related a story that I heard from my father about the great Trisker Maggid. At the time, I referred to him as der Trisker fetter, just the way my father did, as if he were an uncle that I was familiar with; that was the atmosphere in the home, and the songs reflected that as well."

"Our home was always filled with music," recalls Rav Mottel. "My mother is descended from the Nadvorna Rebbes and music was central to their avoda as well. My father, the Rebbe, loved music. He would listen to sophisticated complicated symphonies and study them with the depth that he brought to everything. We had a record changer in those days, so that he could hear the lengthy symphonies in their totality.
"My father would study songs the way he would learn a sugya [Talmudic section], pondering and analyzing the fine points. I would hear him on the phone, arguing with my uncle, Reb Michel, about which chord could better express the sentiment of a pasuk [Biblical verse]."


I ask Rebbe Mottel about the songs on this upcoming release, if there are stories behind the songs. For a fleeting moment, a look of wistfulness crosses his face. "My father was ill, and suddenly, I had to decide 'what to be when I grew up,' so to speak. It was a time of difficult decisions and also of personal development. One night during that tumultuous period, as I was putting one of my young children to sleep, I took [my] guitar in hand and expressed the emotions raging within me."
Reb Mottel played the haunting melody for his father Rebbe Shloime, who heard a message of contrition deep within it. "Everyone has their own path to teshuva,'' he remarked. That year, Reb Shloime used the melody as his nusach [recital] for the most poignant tefilla [prayer] of the Yamim Noraim [High Holidays], Unesaneh Tokef. Reb Srully [Williger] sings the tune with those words, K'vakaras Ro'eh Edro. It's the song that Rav Mottel uses in his own shul for the tefilla, and the entire tzibbur [congregation] sings the refrain along with him.

Rebbe Shloime Twerski ztvk"l dancing

He shares another memory. "It was just a few weeks before my father passed away, he was already so, so sick. We were talking, and he commented that it would be nice to have a niggun for the words of Kavei el Hashem [Have hope in G-d], David HaMelech’s timeless message of faith." And so Rav Mottel composed the song "Kavei," which appears on the CD as well, and played it for his father in the sukka that year. "His legs were so swollen that he couldn't really get up. But get up he did, and he danced on his swollen legs to the niggun. Three days later he was niftar [passed away].”


I ask if a song that is composed with an appreciation for the words of the pasuk can have a different effect on the listener.
"My father would study the words of a pasuk for a long time to ensure that they fit the tune. One has to approach the words with reverence, humility . . . he is coming to say a new pshat [meaning] in the pasuk!
"Making up songs is not a simple thing, not if they are meant to do more than merely entertain. I sometimes feel that I don't make up songs; songs are composed through me. Great Rebbes have taught us that the Heichal HaNegina adjoins the Heichal HaTeshuva."

[Now how could I NOT quote that! - yitz]


I ask Rav Mottel if there is anyone from the recent generations whose music inspired his own. He smiles. I ask it again, and finally Reb Srully interjects, "Do you want to hear the Rebbe say, 'Reb Shlomo Carlebach'?'' I nod. That is indeed what I was hoping for.
I turn to Rav Mottel for some perspective on this very enigmatic figure, someone whose songs have clearly influenced not just him, but almost every single serious composer of inspiring niggunim.
Okay, let's talk about Reb Shlomo. His songs changed everything. He himself was a remarkable person, and he went way back with my father. When he came to [Yeshiva] Torah Vodaath, just arrived from Germany, he spoke no English, so Reb Shraga Feivel paired him up with my father, who spoke a fluent Yiddish, and they learned together. They forged a close bond, and in later years, when Reb Shlomo was in the gutters of San Francisco pulling Yiddishe neshamos [Jewish souls] out of the filth, he would take broken souls and deposit them on our doorstep.
"I remember so many lost, confused people over the years that were traveling back cross-country. They would ring our bell and say 'Shlomo Carlebach sent me to find Rabbi Twerski.' Many of the people that he discovered are today chashuveh erliche Yidden [esteemed, refined Jews] with beautiful families.
"What can I say? His life was a big paradox, and that itself made his music so meaningful. There is a definite strain of melancholy that runs through many of them, for he was always struggling, suspended between darkness and light. But aren't we all like that? Can't we relate to the sincere desire to change that is hidden in his songs?
"When he would come to Denver, he would always draw large crowds, but if he heard that there was a lone Jew in a small town or a single Jewish student on a college campus, he would travel there as well. There was no such thing as an insignificant Jew to him.''

Zechuso yagein Aleinu v’al Kol Yisrael – May Rebbe Shloime’s merits protect us all!

Sunday, October 05, 2008


The Yamim Noraim and the Defender of Israel

What would our holiest days, the Yamim Noraim, be without the Defender of Israel, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev? How could we make it through without him? So without further ado, here are three of my favorite stories:


The first one is excerpted from a longer piece by Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple on Arutz-7:

One Note in a Hundred – A Rosh Hashana Prayer

One Rosh Hashana, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev said to G-d:
"Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the World! You ordained 'a day of terua' - blowing the shofar (Bamidbar, 29:1). See how much Your children love You! You commanded a [single] terua - and they blow a hundred notes. Thousands, tens of thousands, millions of Your people Israel have blown those hundred notes for millennia. How many shofar notes have been sounded over the ages? No one can count them. But at the same time, they have called upon You with the words, T'ka b'shofar gadol l'cheiruseinu - G-d, blow just one note on Your great Shofar to herald the beginning of our Freedom and Redemption. G-d, You asked us for one terua, and we give You a hundred multiplied over and over again. All we ask from You is one tekiya. Why can't You give us just that one note?"


The second story is courtesy of the Chabad.org website

He Who acquires His servants in judgment...
It was the first day of Rosh Hashana in the synagogue of the Berditchever Rebbe, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak. The synagogue was crowded. The Berditchever Rebbe himself was at the amud, leading the congregation in the solemn prayers.
"All declare Your Majesty O’ G-d, Who sits in judgment…"
The Rebbe's soft, vibrant voice touched the heartstrings of every worshipper. Hardly anybody's eyes were dry. From the women's gallery many a sob burst forth, loud enough to send the tears rolling down every face.
"…to Him, Who searches the hearts in the Day of Judgment…"
As the Rebbe pronounced the words, his voice broke, and everybody's heart was filled with remorse. Everybody pictured himself standing before the Seat of Glory, where the judge of the whole Universe presided to dispense justice, and to pronounce the verdict.
"Be merciful and gracious to us," was the inaudible plea, coming from the innermost recesses of every heart.
The Rebbe recited line after line of the solemn prayer, which the congregation repeated, until he came to the line: "…to Him, Who acquires His servants in judgment..."
Here the Rebbe suddenly paused, for the words died on his lips. His tallis slid from his head onto his shoulders, revealing his pale face; his eyes were shut, and he seemed to be in a trance.
A shudder passed through the worshippers. Something was amiss. A critical situation must have arisen in the Heavenly Court - things were not going well for the petitioners! The Prosecution was apparently on the verge of triumph! Only increased prayer and repentance could change the ominous verdict...
The congregation of worshippers held its breath, and waited with palpitating hearts.
A few moments later, the Rebbe suddenly came to. The color returned to his face, which now became radiant with joy. His voice shook with ecstasy and triumph as he declared: "To Him, Who acquires His servants in judgment!"
After the service, when the Rebbe was sitting at his festive table, surrounded by his ardent followers, one of the elders plucked up courage to inquire of the Rebbe as to what caused the interruption in his prayer, and why precisely at those words.
The Rebbe began to relate: "I felt myself lifted up to the gates of heaven, and then I saw Satan carrying a heavy load. The sight filled me with anxiety, for I knew that the Unholy One was carrying a bag full of sins to put onto the scales of justice before the Heavenly Court. Suddenly Satan put the bag down and hastened in a downward swoop - no doubt to pick up yet another sin, committed by some hapless Jew on this very solemn day."
"The bag having been left unattended, I went up to it and began to examine its contents. The bag was crammed with all kinds of sins: evil gossip, hatred without reason, jealousies, wasted time which should have been spent in study of the Torah, thoughtless prayers, and ugly creatures of sins, big and small. And while I was wondering what to do, I knew that even at that very moment the One with a Thousand Eyes had spied yet another sin, and would soon bring it gleefully to put into the bag! Dear me, I thought, things don't look too good…
"I pushed my hand into the bag and began pulling out one sin after another, to look at it more closely. I saw that almost all the sins were committed unwillingly, without pleasure, downright carelessly, or in sheer ignorance! No Jew was really bad, but the circumstances of exile, poverty and hardships, sometimes harden his heart, set his nerves on edge, bring about petty jealousies, and the like… And strangely enough, as I was examining all these sins, and thinking what was really behind them, they seemed to melt away, one by one, until hardly anything was left in the bag. The bag dropped back, limp and empty…
"The next moment, I heard a terrible cry. Satan was back, and discovering what I had done, he was filled with anger and consternation. 'You thief! What did you do to my sins?' He grabbed at my beard and peyot, yelling, 'Thief, robber! All year I labored to gather these precious sins, and now you have stolen them! You shall pay double!'
"How can I pay you? I pleaded. My sins may be many, but not so many…
"Well, you know the Law, the Adversary countered, he who steals must pay double, and if he is unable to pay, he shall be sold into servitude. You are my slave now! Come!
"The thought of being Satan's slave chilled my blood, and I was ready to collapse. My captor brought me before the Seat of Glory, and pleaded his case before the Supreme Judge of the Universe. After listening to Satan's complaint, the Holy One, blessed is He, said: I will buy him, for so I promised through my prophet Isaiah [46:4]: 'Even to his old age, I will be the same, and when he is gray-headed, still will I sustain him. I have made him, I will bear him, I will sustain and save him…'
"At this point I came to,” concluded the Berditchever Rebbe. "Now I understand the meaning of the words: To Him, Who acquires His servants in judgment! We are the servants of G-d, and if we are faithful servants, G-d protects us and is our Merciful Master. Let us remain faithful servants to G-d, and we'll be spared from being servants of servants, and in the merit of this, the Almighty will surely inscribe us all in the Book of Life, for a happy New Year!"


This last one is from Reb Shlomo Carlebach as it was transcribed by Miriam Rubinoff for Connections Magazine.

A Blessing for Yom Kippur
Do you know what the most Divine thing in the world is? To forgive is Divine, it's true. But not to give up is even more Divine. Not to give up on G-d is not so hard. Not to give up on people, that is really hard - the most Divine thing a person can do.

Brooklyn, 5749 - Reb Shlomo speaking:
There is a most beautiful story, before Yom Kippur, the heiliger [holy] Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev gave notice to the whole city of Berditchev that he wants everyone to come and receive his blessings -- but that it would cost one ruble. Everybody came. One way or another, they either had a ruble, they borrowed a ruble, everybody came. It was getting later and later, and Rebbe Levi Yitzchak was not going to shul yet. People were saying, it's late, it's late, but obviously he was waiting for somebody.

Very late, very late -- and all of us are so late. The secret of life is to know it's never too late, but gevalt are we late!

Finally, a very poor woman came. And she said to him, "Heiliger Rebbe, here is my ruble, please bless me."

And Rebbe Levi Yitzchak blessed her and she went on to say, "Rebbe, believe me it was so hard for me to get this ruble. But here is my little girl with me. I don't have a ruble for her. Could you please bless her for free?"

So Rebbe Levi Yitzchak says, "I'm sorry, the price is one ruble. What can I do? If you don't have a ruble, I can't bless your daughter."

The woman burst out crying and said, "Rebbe, I have only one ruble. Take away the blessing you gave me. I don't care what happens to me ever. But please bless my child, heilege Rebbe, bless my child."

Rebbe Levi Yitzchak couldn't control himself any more. He got up and he went to shul. He opened up the Holy Ark and said, "Ribono shel Olam, Master of the Universe! Did you hear what this woman said? 'I don't care what happens to me, but please bless my child.' Ribono shel Olam, how can you not do the same? I don't care what happens to me, but please bless your children."

May we all be blessed in these Awesome Days!!!

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