Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev / The High Holy Days
[EDITOR’S NOTE: We never grow tired of repeating the wonderful stories of our gaonim and their pious deeds. It is our hope that we will be inspired by their devout and holy behavior. In the zechus (merit) of repeating these stories (V'Shinantam L'Vanecha) we pray that we will all enjoy a year of peace, good health and happiness.]
Few people loved the nation of Israel as much as the great tzaddik, Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev. His very fiber and being was permeated with this love and every Jew's pain was his own. As the Days of Awe approached he would gather together all his strength and ability to plead the case of his beloved nation of Israel before the Throne of Mercy.
One Rosh Hashanah, as the people prepared to listen to the blowing of the shofar, Reb Levi Yitzchok rose and proclaimed in a loud voice:
"Sovereign of the Universe! What complaints have You against the people of Israel? Had I not seen with my own eyes how they observe Your mitzvos, how they give charity and carry out good deeds, I would never have believed people could possibly have the strength to do such things in the midst of this bitter exile.
G-d Forms the Letters of Prayers
Which Come From the Heart
On another Rosh Hashanah, - Reb Levi Yitzchok heard the pitiful cries of a poor man who lived next to his synagogue. He listened and kept quiet. When the time came to blow the shofar, the rabbi ascended the pulpit, donned the kittel, took the shofar in his hand and began to recite the prayer of "Lamenatzeach" seven times.. The congregation repeated the prayer after him.
Suddenly, Reb Levi Yitzchok stopped and waited. The congregation waited silently for the rabbi to make the bracha and begin to blow the shofar. One hour passed, and still the rabbi made no effort to begin blowing the shofar. The audience became fidgety and some were becoming frightened.
Reb Levi Yitzchok then put aside the shofar and addressed the congregation: "My friends," he said, "outside of my window sits a man who had been in prison for many years. Because of it he knows very little Hebrew and nothing of prayers. Hearing us in this synagogue praying has made him very sad and in a crying voice he is pleading to G-d as follows: 'Father in heaven, you know that I can't pray although my heart longs for prayer. All I know are the 22 letters of the Jewish alphabet, which I do hereby repeat before you. Will you in your infinite mercy arrange these letters into the proper words of prayer?'
"Therefore," concluded Reb Levi Yitzchok, "G-d is now busy arranging these letters into words. We will have to wait until He is ready to hear us." (It isn't t what you say but how you pray which counts.)
Forbidden On Shabbos
Still another time, Rosh Hashana fell on Shabbos and Reb Levi Yitzchok rose to proclaim:
"Father in Heaven, according to Your own Torah, You are required to write a good decree for Your people, Your beloved children.”
The people looked at each other in amazement as they heard the words of their great rabbi. What did he mean? Why was this Rosh Hashana so special?
Reb Levi Yitzchok saw their puzzlement and explained as follows:
"Today" ; he said "is the holy day of Shabbos, when it is forbidden to write. Thus, even the Heavenly Court is forbidden to write today - except to save a life. That means writing an evil decree is forbidden - but a good one - to save a life, it is permitted to write on Shabbos.
The Price of Hair
One year on the eve of Rosh Hashana, a young man training to be a barber passed by the home of Reb Levi Yitzchok. His head was uncovered, and his many wavy curls were carefully combed over his forehead.
Seeing him through the window, Reb Levi Yitzhok led him in and said: "Why do you grow your hair that way?"
"Because my job brings me in touch with many women," said the young man, "so I have to make myself look good."
"Listen here," said Reb Levi Yitzhok. "I'll give you a gold ruble if you cut off those curls. After all, wearing your hair as do the gentiles is against the commandment in the Torah - 'You shall not walk in the way of their laws.'
"No!" said the youth. "Very well," said the tzaddik, "then I will give you three rubles." The youth did not agree - and still would not listen to the Rabbi even when the offer reached 20 rubles.
"If you cut off your curls at once," said Reb Levi Yitzchok, "I promise you a share in the World to Come."
No sooner did the youth hear these words than his hand dived deep into his pocket for his scissors, and within seconds he had cut off his wavy curls.
"Master of the Universe!" exclaimed Reb Levi Yitzhok. "How strong is the faith of Your people, even the simplest among them! How many weary hours of work and trouble must such a young man go through to earn just one gold ruble! Why, 20 rubles is for him an undreamed of fortune... And yet, what he was not willing to do for 20 gold rubles he did for a share in the World to Come, even though he has never laid eyes on it!"
It was the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The shul was crowded. Reb Levi Yitzchok himself was leading the congregation.
Reb Levi Yitzchok's soft, vibrant voice touched the heartstrings of every worshipper. As Reb Levi Yitzchok pronounced the words, his voice broke, and everyone's heart was filled with remorse. Each pictured himself standing before the Judge of the Universe.
Reb Levi Yitzchok 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 Reb Levi Yitzchok suddenly paused, for the words died on his lips. His prayer shawl slid from his head, revealing his pale face; his eyes were shut, and he seemed to be in a trance.
A shudder passed through the worshippers. A critical situation must have arisen in the Heavenly Court; things were not going well for the petitioners.
A few moments later, the color returned to Reb Levi Yitzchok's face, which now became radiant with joy. His voice shook with ecstasy and triumph as he recited:
"To Him, who acquires His servants in judgment!"
After the service, Reb Levi Yitzchok explained: "While we prayed, I felt myself lifted up to the gates of heaven, where I saw Satan carrying a heavy load. The sight filled me with anxiety, for I knew that he was carrying a bag full of sins to put onto the Scales of Justice before the Heavenly Court.
"For a moment the bag was left unattended, so 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 - ugly creatures of sins, big and small.
"I pushed my hand into the bag and began pulling out one sin after another, to look at them 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 hardship, sometimes hardened his heart, set his nerves on edge, brought 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 had discovered what I had done. 'You thief!' he screamed. 'What did you do to my sins? All year I labored to gath-er 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,' Satan 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!'
"My captor brought me 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 ...I have made him, I will bear him, I will sustain and save him!"'
"At this point I returned to this earthly realm," concluded Reb Levi Yitzchok. "Now I understand the meaning of the words, 'To Him, who acquires His ser-vants 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 Al-mighty will surely inscribe us all in the Book of Life, for a happy New Year.
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Page last updated - 09/11/2009