Baruch Hashem

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Happiness Saved Our Lives
"The Nazis, may their name be blotted out, spent much needed manpower and time searching for Jews of all ages in basements, attics, forests and everywhere possible. And most of those caught were sent to 'concentration' camps, where the Nazis could concentrate on torturing and exterminating them in the most 'progressive, cultured and intellectual' ways. 

"In the camp where we were, were a lot of religious Jews and a lot of other Chassidim that they had rounded up near the end of the war.

"I had heard that the Germans were unusually cruel around the Jewish
holidays and it wasn't long before I saw how true it was.

"On Rosh HaShanna, they made us work all day non-stop, then on Yom Kippur they forced us to eat, and finally on Succot they decreased our meager rations by half.  But when Simchat Torah came around they really went berserk.

"They rounded up fifty of us, all young Vishnetzer Chassidim, and announced that we would be taken to the gas chambers in a matter of minutes.

"Everyone began to weep uncontrollably as we were led off to our deaths. Escape or resistance was impossible; we were so weak and they were armed to the teeth and besides there was no where to run to.  Barbed wire was everywhere and the guards had ferocious dogs.

"Then one of our group said, "Listen friends, tonight is Simchat Torah… we are Jews! Right?! These perverted animals can't take that from us. We have to be happy!"  He began a song and at the first note everyone joined in.  We sang, louder and louder moving our feet to the tune.

"Suddenly we were in control! We were free!! The Nazis could rule our bodies but our souls were free! Free!! We sang and even danced as much as possible.

"Abruptly the German commander shouted 'Halt'! And the soldiers stopped the procession.

We fell silent as he swaggered before us in his high, shining black boots and perfectly fit black uniform and then said with a satanic sneer on his lips.

"So you want to rejoice on your stupid holiday ehh?  Well, we also want to rejoice. Why are you so selfish?" He smirked, looked around contently, and continued.

"Tomorrow morning at five a.m. we will awaken the entire camp and you happy bunch will be publicly and slowly tortured to death, one at a time. Let us see how you Jews rejoice then!!"

"He barked an order and we were led back to a sort of prison room with a thick iron door that slammed ominously behind us.

"But HaShem had different plans.

"It seems that in the middle of the night there came urgent orders from on high that our camp had to supply one thousand workers to another location. A special unit was even sent to pick out and gather the workers.  But after a few hours of searching they could only come up with nine hundred and fifty able bodied men. Then someone remarked that he remembered seeing the fifty of us being led into the 'prison'.

"At five in the morning the camp commander got a big disappointment; he got his executioners ready, awakened all the Jews and gathered them all outside for the 'show' but when he got to our prison he found it...empty!!  There was no one to kill.

"Not all of us survived the work camp but one thing for sure; if it wasn't for our joy that night I certainly wouldn't be here to tell this story; we all would have been murdered." 

This true story happened during the Jewish month of Elul (September 1989). I was driving home from a bris in Elizabeth, New Jersey. On the way I stopped at a branch of the bank that I use to make a deposit. I parked in the lot behind the bank. I got out, locked the door and then remembered that the check was in the car. I opened the door, found the check, turned to close the door, and gasped.

Three men surrounded me. They wore tattered jeans and filthy t-shirts. Though it was before noon, they reeked of alcohol. The guy on the left was clutching a whiskey bottle like a hammer. He had a desperate, mean look in his eyes. The guy on my right almost looked friendly, but a little scared and hungry. He was about my size. But the one in the middle—he was big, bad and ugly. He loomed above. He had tattoos up the entire length of his bare arms.

"Got some change?" he said, extending his huge hand towards my neck. Three teeth were missing from his grin. A deep scar ran from his chin to his cheek.

Thoughts raced through my head. Think fast, stay calm. Everything happens for a reason. All is for the good. Only fear G‑d. All the Chasidic dictums about life were running through my mind. They made sense in yeshiva.

But now? Now it was Elul, when G‑d is supposed to be very accessible, like the King who leaves his palace and is in the fields and streets listening to the requests of the ordinary folks.

"Yes, I have some change for you," I said, while dropping the check back in the car, locking and closing the car door behind me.

Everything happens for a reason.

"Any of you Jewish?" I asked. I knew it was next to impossible.

"Yeh, I'm Jewish," the big guy said.

"You're Jewish?" I said in disbelief. It must be a ploy. "You have a Jewish name?"

"Shmuel Yankel ben Moshe," he said with pride, like a boot soldier responding to his officer. In his eyes I probably looked like a rabbi.

"Did you have a Bar Mitzva?" I asked.

"Yuh. Baruch ata..." The big guy, nee Shmuel Yankel, began singing the Haftorah blessings.

"Why are you asking for a few cents? You should be asking for millions. It's right before Rosh Hashana and you can ask G‑d for anything. He's here in the streets with you and me and we can ask Him for anything now. On Rosh Hashana, G‑d goes back into His palace and it's not so easy for us to get in, but now He's taking requests. I might have some change, but G‑d has millions.

"You know what tefilin are? Put them on, Shmuel Yankel. I'm sure G‑d will hear you."

As I spoke I slipped the car key out of my pocket and got my tefilin out. "Put out your arm."

The sleeve was torn off his shirt. That made it easy to slide the tefilin over his arm, past the chorus line of tattoos and rows of little holes.

Those must be needle tracks, I thought.

"Here," I said, as I took off my yarmulka from beneath my hat. "Let me put this on you so you can say the blessing with me." He lowered his head so I could reach it. "Baruch ata..." We said the blessing and then I reached up and put the tefilin on his head. Shmuel Yankel said the Shema and his eyes became wet.

"G‑d's right here with you, Shmuel Yankel. Ask Him whatever your heart desires." He was quiet. A tear rolled into the scar groove.

One of his partners was pacing back and forth on the asphalt, like a shark swimming in front of his prey. "Let's go already," the Shark snapped.

"You just wait. I'm praying," Shmuel Yankel said. The Shark backed off like a guppy. The third guy looked with amazement at the whole ceremony. Why was he so interested?

I asked him his name. "Michel," he said with a slurred French accent.

"Are you Jewish, Michel?"

"No, I'm Catholic. My mother was Jewish but she became Catholic. The Nazis killed her parents and a Catholic monastery raised her."

"You're Jewish," I told him. "If your mother was born Jewish, then nothing can take that away. Once a Jew, always a Jew," I said. "Today is like your Bar Mitzva. Put on these tefilin and we'll make a Bar Mitzva celebration."

Michel repeated the blessings for tefilin as best he could. The tefilin sat on his greasy, long, black hair. His eyes sparkled with life, and Michel began to look like a scraggly Jewish boy, like the lost prince who had been dragged through the mucky alleys of medieval Europe, beaten and abused, and now has finally stumbled across his royal home. The King met him in the streets, and Michel recognized his Father.

"We can take them off now," I said. Michel held out his arm and let me unwrap them as if he were a gentle baby.

I had some cake with me from the bris. The four of us split the two slices of cake. "L'Chaim. To life," I said, raising my cake.

My two Jewish friends thanked me. We shook hands and hugged.

"Wait," I said, running after them, "here's some change."

"No, that's all right," Shumel Yankel said as he waved good-bye.

A Rich Man's Hospitality

For many years the two saintly brothers, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk and Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli, wandered the back roads of Galicia. Disguised as simple beggars, they journeyed from town to town and from village to village, refining their souls with the travails of exile and inspiring their brethren with words of wisdom and encouragement.

Late one evening, the brothers arrived in the town of Lodmir. Seeing a lighted window in a large, well-appointed home, they knocked on the door and asked for a place to stay the night. "I don't run a hotel," was the irate response of its large, well-appointed resident. "There's a poorhouse near the synagogue for wandering beggars. I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding accommodations there."

The heavy door all but slammed in their faces, and Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zusha walked on. Soon they came upon another lighted home, whose resident, the town scribe, welcomed them in and put his humble hut and resources at their disposal.

Several years later, the two brothers again visited Lodmir. This time, they were official guests of the community, which had requested that the now-famous rabbis come for a Shabbat to grace the town with their presence and teachings. At the welcoming reception held in their honor and attended by the entire town, a wealthy gentleman approached them. "Rabbis!" he announced, "the town council has granted me the honor of hosting you during your stay. G‑d has been generous to me, and you'll want for nothing in my home. I've already explained to your coachman how to find my residence, though he's sure not to miss it—everyone knows where 'Reb Feivel' lives..."

The gathering dispersed, and Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zusha went to pay their respects to the town rabbi and meet with the scholars in the local study hall. The rich man went home to supervise the final arrangements for the rabbis' stay. Soon the coachman arrived with the brothers' coach and luggage. The horses were placed in the stables, the luggage in the rabbis' rooms, and the coachman settled in the servants' quarters.

Hours passed, but still no sign of the two visitors. Growing anxious, the host sought out their coachman. "What happened?" he asked. "When are they going to come here?"

"They're not coming," said the coachman. "Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zusha are staying at the scribe's home."

"At the scribe's?! What are you talking about?! You're here, aren't you?"

"Those were the rabbis' instructions. 'Take the horses and our luggage to Reb Feivel's,' they said to me. 'We'll be staying with the scribe.' "

Reb Feivel rushed to the scribe's hut and fairly knocked down the door. "Honored Rabbis," he cried, finding Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zusha before the fire, having a cup of tea with their host. "Why have you done this to me? It was agreed that I would host you. You must tell me what I have done to deserve such humiliation!"

"But you are hosting us," said Rabbi Elimelech, "at least, that part of us that you desire to host. Last time we were here, but without a coach, horses, coachman and bundles of pressed clothes, you turned us away from your door. So it is not us you want in your home, but our coachman, horses and luggage—which are currently enjoying your hospitality..."

After seventeen years of marriage Rabbi Yossi Mutzkin and his wife Sari had no children.

They were observant Jews, helped others, gave charity,
did everything they could to be good people, were active in the Montreal community where they lived.  But the thing they really wanted and prayed for constantly; the most precious gift of all, a child, was lacking. 

G‑d is almighty, for Him to send a child is certainly no problem.  The world is filled with billions of them! But not for the Mutzkins.

But they did not fall into despair, rather they kept hoping and praying for the best, did more good deeds and were happy to be able to serve their Creator.

In fact Sari Mutzkin was far more concerned with the problems of others than her own. For instance every day she led the class she taught with a few psalms for the frightening situation in Israel and for other tragedies that only Psalms can help.

One day after the Psalms session, one of her pupils, a girl from a non-observant family, requested with tears in her eyes that the class add a prayer for her grandmother who had undergone a serious operation several months ago and never regained consciousness. Now she was in intensive care and the doctors had given up hope.

The class prayed and Mrs. Mutzkin even promised the girl that she would go to visit her home to see if she could help.

That very evening she kept her promise. The girl's mother was very grateful when Mrs. Mutzkin entered. She shook her hand with tears in her eyes and said.

"My daughter told me that you taught her how we are now entering the Jewish month of Iyar (the month after Passover) whose initials stand for 'I am G‑d your doctor', right? And that now is a good time for healing.

"You don't know how depressed we were was till we heard those words..... Do you really think that this month my mother will be better?"

Mrs. Mutzkin held back her own tears and answered "With G‑d's help anything can happen".

That evening at home she had an idea. The Lubavitcher Rebbe used to pass out one-dollar bills (to encourage people to give charity) every Sunday morning to tens of thousands of Jews and she had a lot of these dollars. She would give one to the girl for her grandmother!!

She searched through her collection of dollars until she found one that she had received in the month of Iyar (21st of Iyar to be exact) over fifteen years ago. The next day in school she gave the girl the dollar together with a picture of the Rebbe she added and said. 

"Give this money to your mother and tell her to put it under your grandmother's pillow and whisper in her ear 'it's a gift from the Lubavitcher Rebbe'."

Then she added without knowing why, "I'm sure that by the 21st of Iyar she will be well."

As soon as it came out of her mouth she regretted it.  Where did she get the brazenness to make such a prophesy?! How could she have promised such a thing? She was ashamed of herself.

But the girl's mother took it seriously.  That evening she visited her unconscious mother did what Mrs. Mutzkin said, gave her mother a kiss on the forehead and went home. 

The next afternoon when the relatives were standing around the bed, the grandmother opened her eyes for the first time since the operation, lifted her head a bit, looked around at the amazed faces and asked

"Where is the money?".

Everyone there almost fainted. The doctors were called in and they couldn't explain it. But the girl's mother began to understand.

As if that wasn't enough, she recovered so miraculously that she got released from the hospital in a bit over two weeks - on the 21st of Iyar!!

That was enough to make the girl's mother decide to take her Judaism more seriously....or rather more joyously.

But that isn't the end of the story.

Mrs. Mutzkin wrote a letter to the Rebbe (about his dollar) and receiving the following unique answer.

"Trust only in G‑d, He is the miraculous healer of all flesh.  May your
medical treatment be a success with good news and joy." 

At first Sari didn't understand what connection it had to her letter, but suddenly it dawned on her. The Rebbe was writing to her about her own problem! He was advising her to trust in G‑d but take treatments for having children.

There was no mistaking that this was the intention of the letter, but it was not exactly what she wanted to hear.  Oy! 'treatments'!

She had undergone tens of expensive, time consuming, promising and
exasperating treatments with only traumatic disappointments.  She and her husband had decided years ago - no more depressing 'treatments'!

But against all odds they decided to forget all that try once again, maybe now, with the Rebbe's answer it would be different.

They found a good doctor, one of the best, with a new method who agreed to give it a try despite Sari's records and tests. 

But after a few treatments he invited her and her husband into his office, closed the door, sat them down and told them that his personal advice was that they should save their time, money and nerves and just adopt a child. It was hopeless.

Sari went home and wrote again to the Rebbe, and received the following prophetic answer.

"Thank you for the news of the birth of your son and his brit mila (circumcision).  Remember the importance of ignoring pessimism and always being in joy.  Especially after seeing such great miracles."

The next morning, full of certainty, they returned to the doctor and joyously announced that Sari wanted to continue; they were sure of a miracle.

But there was none.

In fact, after a few more treatments the doctor again invited them to his office, pulled out the results and sadly announced that, as he had suspected, there was no progress. He tried a few words of consolation and bade them good luck.

But they did not lose spirit. The Rebbe's words stood before their eyes; "joy even in the face of pessimism.´

Late that night their phone rang ominously; it was the doctor. "I have something more to say." He said. "There was one last test that hadn't returned from the laboratory and I was certain that it would be like all the others but....

"I was wrong!  Mrs. Mutzkin you have received a gift from G‑d!"

Nine months later she gave birth to a boy and at the Brit they named him Menachem Mendel after the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

The Singing Heart

The Baal Shem Tov displayed a remarkable affection for simple pious folk. This approach was widely known and was a major reason for the tremendous number of simple Jews who became his devotees in a short while, as many accounts attest.

However, his greatest disciples, who were tzadikim (righteous and saintly) and gaonim (Torah geniuses), could not accept this approach. True, the Baal Shem Tov frequently sent them to learn traits like sincerity, trust, simple faith, faith in sages, faith in tzadikim, love of Israel and the like from simple Jews, still they could not appreciate the Baal Shem Tov’s regard for ordinary people, and certainly could not emulate him in this.

It was the practice that guests ate two of the Shabbat meals at the Baal Shem Tov's table, but one meal was reserved for the inner circle disciples, the "sacred fellowship," while guests were not admitted, even to observe from a distance. One summer Shabbat, between 1753 and 1755—when the circle of disciples included brilliant and renowned men like the Mezritcher Magid and the Rov of Polnoe—an incident occurred that thoroughly perplexed and confused the disciples.

A large number of guests came for that Shabbat, including many undistinguished people like farmers, artisans, cobblers, tailors, vintners, gardeners, stockmen, poultrymen and small merchants. At the Friday evening meal the Baal Shem Tov showed extraordinary affection for these people. He poured of the remains of his kiddush wine into the cup of one, to another he gave his own kiddush cup to recite the kiddush; he gave pieces of the loaves of his hamotzi to several; to others he gave of the meat and fish of his portion. He showed other gestures of friendship and regard for these guests, leaving his disciples no little perplexed.

The guests knew that they could not attend the second Shabbos meal that was reserved for the inner group of disciples, so after their repast they assembled in the Baal Shem Tov's shul, and being totally uneducated, barely able to go beyond simply reading Chumash and Tehillim (psalms), they all started chanting Tehillim.

When the Baal Shem Tov sat at the table for the second meal, he arranged the disciples in a deliberate order, characteristic of the meticulous system governing everything he did. In a short while he started to hold forth, "saying Torah," and all of the disciples felt a tremendous G‑dly delight in their master's teaching. It was customary that they sang at the table, and when they saw the obvious cheery mood of the Baal Shem Tov, they were even more pleased, filled with a sense of gratitude and happiness for G‑d's favor to them, granting them the privilege of being among the disciples of the saintly Baal Shem Tov.

It occurred to several of them that now it is so delightful, without the crowd of simple people who have no idea what the Master is saying. Why, they thought, does he display such affection for these people, pouring from his cup into theirs, even giving his cup to one of them.

These thoughts still flitted through their minds and the Baal Shem Tov’s expression changed. He became serious, immersed in his thoughts (d'vekut), and without a shift in this mood he began to speak.

"Peace, peace, to the far and the near," he quoted. Our sages observe that “where the penitent stand the perfect saints cannot,” stressing perfect saints. He explained that there are two paths in G‑d's service—the saint's and the penitent's. The service of simple people is similar to the penitent's, the simple person's humility of an order with the penitent's remorse and resolve.

When the Baal Shem Tov concluded they resumed singing. Those disciples who had been questioning the Master’s open affection for simple people, realized that he was aware of their thoughts. His exposition of the qualities of the simple, equating them with the superiority of the penitent over the saint, was obviously addressed to them.

During the songs he was still in his deep d'vekut, and when they finished singing he opened his eyes, intently examining each disciple. Then he told them to each place his right hand on the shoulder of his neighbor, so that the disciples sitting around the table would be joined. The Baal Shern Tov, naturally, sat at the head.

He told them to sing certain melodies while in this position of union, and after the songs he told them to shut their eyes and not open them until he tells them to. Then he placed his right hand on the shoulder of the disciple to his right, and his left on the disciple sitting there. The circle was closed.

Suddenly the disciples heard songs, melodies, interlaced with moving pleas, touching the very soul. One voice sang, "0, Ribbono shel olam (Master of the Universe)," and launched into a verse of Tehillim, "The sayings of G‑d are pure sayings..." Another sang--"Ai, Ribbono shel olam,” and another verse, “Test me G‑d, prove me, purify my heart.” A third introduced his verse with a spontaneous cry in Yiddish--"Tatte hartziger... (heartful fatrher) Be gracious to me; I trust in You and I shelter in the shadow of Your wings." A fourth voice: "Ai gevald, zisser foter in himel, (sweet father in heasen)... Let G‑d arise; His foes will scatter; His enemies will flee." Another voice was anguished. "Tyerer tatte (precious father)... A bird has a home; a swallow a nest." Still another pleaded, "Lieber foter, derbarmdiger tatte, (dear father, merciful father) Bring us back, G‑d who helps, erase your anger against us."

The disciples hearing these songs of Tehillin trembled. Their eyes were still shut but tears coursed down their cheeks. Their hearts were shattered by the songs. Each of the disciples fervently wished that G‑d help him to serve Him in this manner.

The Baal Shem Tov removed his hands from the shoulders of the two disciples, and the group no longer heard the songs and Tehillim. Then he told them to open their eyes and to sing a number of designated songs.

"When I heard the song of Tehillim," the Maggid later told Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, "my soul just spilled forth. I felt such a longing, such blissful love (ahava b'taanugim, that I had never yet been privileged to feel. My boots were soaked with the perspiration and tears of teshuvah from the inwardness and depths of the heart."

When the Baal Shem Tov stopped singing an instantaneous hush fell over the group. He sat in deep dvekut for a prolonged time, then looked up and said, "The songs you heard were the songs of the simple Jews saying Tehillim with sincerity, from the recesses of the heart and with simple faith.

"Now, my pupils, think carefully on this. We are only the 'edge of truth' (sefat emet) for the body is not truth and only the soul is truth, and it is only part of the essence, and so is called the 'edge of truth.' Still we do recognize truth, and feel truth and are affected by truth, affected deeply. Consider then how G‑d Who is perfect Truth regards the Tehillim of these simple people...."