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The Skeptical Litvak – They All Are
The rebbe didn't show up for Selichot prayers during the Ten Days of Repentance. The people of Nemirov asked, ‘Where is the Rebbe?’ And all the disciples now had to repent for speaking Lashon Hara. Speaking gossip is a sin. You shouldn’t ask such questions. It leads to gossip. But they did, as it was about the rebbe, and everybody talks about rabbis. People love to talk about rabbis. You see the rabbi at the restaurant and everybody’s talking about how he didn’t have enough intent with his blessing, and too little stuffed derma.
Discussion continued and the Chasidim knew there is only one place their rebbe could be. In heaven.
A Litvak came to the town during this time of Selichot, early in the morning, and he noticed the rebbe's absence. The pupils of the Rebbe of Nemirov said, ‘Where is our Rebbe? He is in heaven.’ And the Litvak laughed. It was more of a guffaw. We all know Litvaks are very sarcastic. They’re straight and they have no creativity with their practice of Mitzvot. When was the last time a Litvak celebrated Shabbat by starting a bonfire, playing an electric guitar, throwing together some fireworks, and tanning a hide? No creativity.
Upon hearing that their rebbe was in heaven, the Litvak knew the rebbe was up to something. To quote the Litvak, ‘I have seen many people try to get out of Minyin. People love to skip Selichot. I’ve heard people were sick, with a cough. I’ve heard people had to go to work. They didn’t even have a job. I’ve even heard people say they had to watch their kids, when we had babysitting at the shul. But using heaven as an excuse to get out of services?!’
The Litvak laughed and reprimanded, ‘You fools. Your rebbe is not in heaven. Even Moshe, our great leader, didn't go up to heaven. It’s impossible.’ And the Litvak said, ‘I will find out.’ And he did.
Sleeping Under Somebody’s Bed is Not Comfortable – Even if They Are a Rebbe
That evening, the Litvak snuck into the rebbe's house and slept under his bed. The Litvak was scared. Of course, he was scared. It was even creepy back then to sleep under somebody's bed. But the Litvak did it.
I don’t suggest sleeping under anybody’s bed. There is no precedent to sleep under somebody’s bed, unless if you are their student. Then it makes sense. You learn their snoring patterns, and you can be a better disciple.
He wanted to see what the rebbe was up to. He had to get to the bottom of this skipping prayers racket the rebbe was running. And the Litvak was going to figure it out, by trespassing and hiding under the rebbe’s bed, and taking some of the rice cakes he found in the kitchen. It wasn’t easy. He couldn’t breathe normally or the rebbe would figure him out. He also couldn’t breathe normally, because of the dust under the rebbe’s bed. The rebbe wasn’t known for sweeping. They didn’t have Swiffers back then.
It was a hard night and the Litvak didn’t get much sleep. The rebbe even took a fly swatter and smacked him with it a few times, thinking his room was infested with loud bedbugs.
What Rebbes Do When They Skip Prayers and Selichot
The next morning, when all had left the house, the rebbe got up. ‘Ah Ha. The rebbe wakes up late. Everybody else was out of the house at 5:30am and the rebbe is only moving at 5:35am. A sloth,’ thought the Litvak, ‘I got him.’ Then, the rebbe put on peasant clothes, and took an ax and rope with him. The rebbe went to the forest and cut down a tree, then cut it into pieces and tied it in the rope. He was the only in shape rabbi I’ve ever heard of. I’ve never heard of a rabbi who does anything but go to the shvitz. Rabbis sit and sweat. They don’t exercise. Not the Rebbe of Nemirov. He exercises. Two hundred pushups every morning. The Litvak was lucky he skipped them that day.
Legend has it that no other rabbi could take the Rabbi of Nemirov in an arm wrestle. But that's a different story of inspiration. He competed in strong man competitions and lumberjack carries under the name Vlad.
The rebbe started dragging the wood. The Litvak was still there, following the rebbe. He was very good at stalking. He had done it before. If I recall correctly, there was another time the Litvak slept under a rabbi’s bed because he was interested in finding out what he wears under his Bekishe. What’s under the rebbe’s coat has always been an anomaly,
The Litvak was disturbed. Why did the rebbe need to start a wood business? Why are his disciples not paying him enough? Why do the rebbe’s students not sleep under his bed? Are they just not good pupils? Why is the rebbe killing the forest? There were many questions.
The rebbe dragged the wood to a poor women's house who was sick, and he knocked on the door. You don’t just enter a house, unannounced. She probably would’ve shot the rebbe.
This story is based on the Chasid's account. That student of the rebbe was following the Litvak. I can’t tell you what kind of house it was. You have to ask the Litvak. I believe it was wood. Might have been brick. Not a sturdy foundation. A very nice kitchen. Granite countertops. Granite was big in the 1800s.
The poor woman asked, ‘Who’s at my door.’ The Rebbe said, ‘Vassil.’ Vassil is not a Jewish name. Nobody names their kid Vassil. It hurts their chances at a good Shidduch.
She told the rebbe he can come in. The rebbe’s sale, posing as Vassil, was, ‘You don’t have money? You can repay me later. You believe in Gd, but you don’t believe that He will give you six kopeks?’
The rebbe wasn’t a very good businessman. He could’ve got more than six kopeks out of her. He could’ve told her that she didn’t have to pay him a thousand kopeks. But he didn’t. He missed the moment to make a bit. The Litvak however, learned a valuable lesson. The Litvak became very rich later in life, when he sold a house for eight million kopeks, by telling the guy that if he believes in Gd he should buy it. The guy purchasing the house only had a million kopeks. With newfound belief in Gd, due to the Litvak’s sales technique, the guy borrowed the rest from the bank. The guy lost the house when he couldn’t make the first payment. Thank Gd, the Litvak got top dollar on the deal,
What Happens in A Poor Women's House
The rebbe entered the poor women’s house. As the rebbe put the wood in the oven, he recited the first portion of Selichot in a groan. That’s the tradition. I know they do that at my shul. It’s early in the morning and you’re supposed to express how tired you are when repenting. If you show Gd how hard it is, and complain, He’s more merciful.
When the wood began to burn and it became bright, he recited the second portion of Selichot with more joy. When the fire was lit and ready, he recited the third portion and shut the oven.
Why the rebbe shut the stove, we don’t know. We hope the stove still made the room warm, even though he shut it.
The Litvak was amazed that the rebbe knew the Selichot by heart. The rebbe had been skipping the prayers all this time.
The Litvak became a Chasid of the Rabbi of Nemirov. And every year, when they spoke of the rebbe ascending to heaven during the Days of Awe, the Litvak wouldn’t laugh anymore. The Litvak would say, 'If not higher.'
Lessons of What Followed
The Litvak learned the lesson from the rebbe and stopped going to shul.
He started working as a laborer and never helped with Minyin again. The community wanted him to help with the quorum, but he said he can get closer to Gd by not showing up.
Years later, the Chasidim of the rebbe learned of his great Mitzvah. Once the story got out, they couldn't get a Minyin in Nemirov for Selichot anymore.
Many don’t know the truth behind the story. It was the rebbe’s morning workout. He had to get it out of the way, and he knew the Litvak was following him. He couldn’t just chop down a tree and leave it. The Litvak would know the rebbe was just trying to get jacked.
Why the rebbe didn't use his strongman name, 'Vlad,' we will never know.
The rebbe groaned when putting in the wood, for he killed his back carrying the bundles all the way to the sick woman’s house. The Litvak couldn't get a hint. The least the Litvak could’ve done is offer to help. If you’re stalking somebody already, you might as well help.
The rebbe was singing the Selichot more joyously once the oven was lit, as he wasn’t freezing anymore. The house was very cold. Being the proper guest the rebbe is, when he’s in the character of Vassil, he didn’t want to complain to the woman.
The poor woman tried finding Vassil to pay him the six kopeks. She wanted to pay him back so badly. Trying to pay back Vassil, she got caught in the cold and came down with pneumonia. If she would’ve known it was the rebbe, she would’ve been a healthier woman. She would’ve went to his house and even given a donation to the Yeshiva.
The Litvak couldn’t mock the rebbe anymore and he lost his sense of humor.
***For the story, also see I.L. Peretz’s Selected Stories
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