How High Can We Go?
November 20, 2020
Dear Holy Friends,
I hope this correspondence finds you doing well and keeping your spirits up during this difficult time. Please be in touch with me to let me know how we can help. We, as a community, need to support each other as best possible, now, more than ever.
As many of you know, I grew up in Toronto, Canada, and was blessed with a loving and close relationship with my Bubbie, Freida Wolfe (of blessed memory), who was born in the town of Mulch, in the province of Grodna, in White Russia, in the year 1895. Having seen so much in her life (including two World Wars, surviving the Great Depression, escaping the Holocaust, the invention of the automobile, and the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup in 1967), I used to ask her what the most amazing life-event was that she experienced. She always answered the same, saying that seeing a man walk on the moon, ascending almost to the heavens, was the most fascinating of events.
She was a pious and bright woman, who would often share with us stories of Yiddish Literature. One of my favorite tales that she would share was written by I.L. Peretz, a Yiddish intellectual, who wrote about the theme of ascending to heaven.
The story is told of a Litvak – a skeptical Lithuania Jew – who is determined to disprove a fervent belief of the Hasidim of Nemirov, who claimed that their charismatic Rebbe literally ascended to heaven during the Ten Days of Penitence to plead with God on their behalf. They made that audacious claim because their Rebbe was NOT in shul on the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
Seeking to disprove what he saw as nonsense, the skeptic sneaks into the Nemirov Rabbi’s room one night and hides under his bed. Early the next morning, before the breaking of the sun, the Litvak sees the distinguished Rebbe dressing himself in, of all things, peasant clothes and thereafter marching into the woods. Working quickly, the rabbi chops up a tree with an axe and takes the bundle of wood to the broken-down shack of a sick, old woman. The Litvak has no idea what is going on.
Pretending to be Vasil, a simple peasant, the Rebbe brings the wood inside and proceeds to make a fire in the oven. The woman says that she cannot afford the wood, but the peasant suggests that it is only worth a few zloties and surely God will provide her with the opportunity to repay.
While placing each stick of wood into the oven, the Litvak hears the Rebbe recite a part of the day’s Selichos or prayers of forgiveness.
After witnessing the famous Rebbe perform this completely anonymous act of charity, the Litvak becomes a devoted disciple of the rabbi.
Thereafter, whenever the Litvak heard a Hasid mention that during the Ten Days of Penitence the Rabbi of Nemirov goes up to heaven, the Litvak would add quietly to himself, if not higher.
During these next few months, may God bless us with the opportunity to extend ourselves to neighbors, friends, spouses, relatives and even strangers, so that the Litvak can boast about our lovingkindness in the same way that he did about the Rebbe.
Perhaps our journey begins today!
Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD