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Preparing for Selichot with Rebbe Michel of Zlotshov

* based on a shiur given on Motza’ei Shabbat 26 Elul 5773

Notes taken during class, not reviewed nor edited by HaRav Ginsburgh

 

1. Rebbe Michel of Zlotshov’s Love for his Fellow Jew

Today on Shabbat was the yahrzeit of Rebbe Yichiel Michel of Zlotshov, one of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s most well-known disciples. Since we are here in the 4th meal of King David, melaveh malkah, it is appropriate to tell stories about tzadikim.

Let’s start with a saying from Rebbe Michel. He used to say that if one would take all the love, all the love that every father loves his children (he didn’t include the mothers, but certainly that was his intent) and all of it would be put together, all the love in the world, it would not begin to be near the love that the Almighty loves a wicked Jew, a rasha in the Jewish people.

He continued and said, “If I see a Jew exiting a house of iniquity (that is the phrase he used—meaning, a place where people go to sin), my love for that particular Jew would not change even a hairsbreadth because I see him departing that place, but I’ll think of him as having fallen on his head and broken his head, and assess the situation and think about what needs to be done to repair him.”

Each of the great tzadikim, each of the students of the Ba’al Shem Tov has a special saying about the love of the Jewish people, great love (אַהֲבָה רַבָּה), which has no boundaries. Apparently, this is the one that typifies Rebbe Michel of Zlotshov.

2. Stones of Love

Rebbe Michel said that if he were to see a Jew coming out of a house of iniquity, then the love towards him would not decrease at all, on the contrary, it should increase, because now he has compassion for him.

As is known, many times it is compassion, rachamim, that awakens love, as in the verse “Jacob who redeemed Abraham” where Jacob represents compassion and Abraham represents love. But the question might be posed: What would Rebbe Michel do if he saw a Jew about to enter such a place? What then? Without a doubt, his love for this Jew would not diminish, but the question is, since there is a mitzvah to prevent another person from doing something wrong (לְאֶפְרוּשֵׁי מֵאִיסּוּרָא), what would Rebbe Michel do?

It is written in the Tanya that when Moshe Rabbeinu was faced with such a situation, he preferred to get angry in order to prevent the Jewish people from sinning, all out of true love of Israel. Apparently, Rebbe Michel would also act the same way. But what exactly would he do? Would he throw a stone at this Jew? If out of experience he would know that throwing stones isn’t very helpful, what would he then do, especially since it awakens the opposite reaction in in a person? Even more so, if the rebuke does not come out of true love for one’s fellow Jew, considering how he described how the Almighty loves even the greatest rasha among the Jewish people. If there is such love and yet there is a mitzvah to prevent someone from doing a sin, you must work hard to figure out what can be done.

Rebbe Michel spoke about someone coming out of a house of sins, and then assessing the spiritual damage that befell him and treating it. The three-letter roots of “damage” (נזק) and “throw” (זרק) come from the same two-letter root, זק. Can throwing be a positive thing in any way, can it prevent damage (נֶזֶק)?

One idea is to look at the cantillation marks. It is written that the Mashiach will come to interpret the meanings of the cantillation marks. The first ta’am or cantillation mark is zarka (זַרְקָא), which is cognate with “throw.” The second is segol (סֶגּוֹל), which is cognate with segulah, or charm. These two always go together, so there must be some special effect in throwing. Indeed, there is a great deal taught in Chasidut about the power of throwing (even stones). The question is what needs to be thrown. How much does “throw” (זרק) plus “stone” (אבן) equal? It equals 307 plus 53, or 360, the value of Shechem (שְׁכֶם). The value of “throwing a stone” (זְרִיקַת אֶבֶן) is 770, which would imply a strong connection between the two words. The gematria of “stone throwing” (זְרִיקַת אֲבָנִים), in the plural (meaning throwing many stones), is 820, the value of the verse, “You shall love your fellow as yourself” (וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ).

But sometimes a stone is not a stone. To really understand the effect of throwing stones we have to recall that in the Book of Formation, the word “stone” (אבן) stands for a “letter”: “1 stone builds 1 house, 2 stones build 3 houses, 3 stones build 6 houses,” and so on. This teaching is the secret of “permutations” (צֵרוּף), or “combinations,” based on the mathematical function called a factorial. Therefore, the highest level of love that is useful for preempting damage, useful in preventing a Jew from doing something that is forbidden is to throw not stones, but letters; many, many letters that form many words. When these words are thrown from the heart and enter the heart of the other, they make an impact.

We mentioned Shechem, Yosef Hatzadik’s city and about Yosef it says that he is the “stone of Israel” (מִשָּׁם רוֹעֶה אֶבֶן יִשְׂרָאֵל). The word “stone” (אֶבֶן) in Hebrew is considered an acronym for “father” (אָב) and “son” (בֵּן) and the plural form, “stones” (אֲבָנִים) is an acronym for “fathers and sons” (אֲבוֹת וּבָנִים). The first time the word “love” appears in the Torah is when God commands Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac and sacrifice him. In all, the word “love” appears 42 times in the Pentateuch, and we call these the 42 journeys of “love” (מב מַסְּעוֹת אַהֲבָה) in the Torah.[1] The first journey love made into our world, the first time love appears in the Torah, is in the love of a father—Abraham—for his son—Isaac.[2] When you throw a stone, a letter, that comes out of the heart, with a lot of strength, it should be with the strength of the first love, that of Abraham for Isaac, even though they had different character traits (Abraham is loving-kindness, the right axis of the sefirot and Isaac was might, the left axis of the sefirot), they were united by the Akeidah as we will explain.

3. The Deeper Meanings Behind a Stone

If we want to go even further with the meaning of stone, in Sha’ar Hayichud Veha’emunah it says that the word for “stone” in Hebrew, אֶבֶן, is a combination, a unification of two holy Names. The letters בן are the filling of Havayah that equals 52 (יוד הה וו הה) and the additional א comes from either the filling of Havayah that equals 45 (יוד הא ואו הא) or the filling that equals 63 (יוד הי ואו הי). The Alter Rebbe brings the stone as an example of how all objects in the world are created from the Hebrew letters, and of all the things he could have chosen, he chose the stone.

All this is just a prelude to our main topic this evening: Selichot. During Selichot, we ask the Almighty for forgiveness, but we do not forget to also ask for the Mashiach and for redemption. That is the main request we are making tonight. In this sense, Jews are very wise. When someone has done something wrong and comes to ask forgiveness, he may not necessarily understand that the best time to ask for something additional from the person you wronged is when you are asking for forgiveness. But that is what Moshe Rabbeinu did and from him, we learn how to conduct our Selichot. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe Rabbeinu saw that God was forgiving and therefore asked for more. So, on the one hand, one should come with great lowliness and humility to Selichot. We are guilty of wrongdoing and are embarrassed for that, but at the same time, we should use the opportunity to ask for everything we need from the Almighty.

In the word אבן the letter ב is common to both the father (אָב) and the son (בֵּן). But, if we were to add a “mother” (אֵם) and a “son” (בֵּן), we would find that their acronym is “Amen” (אָמֵן). So, every time we say Amen we should meditate on the love of a mother for her children, depicted in the verse, “the mother hovers over her children”[3] (הָאֵם רוֹבֶצֶת עַל הַבָּנִים). The father loves from afar, but the mother’s love is close and near. The sum of these two acronyms—“stone” and “Amen” (אֶבֶן אָמֵן)—is 144, or 12 squared. The point: if you throw a stone, it better be such that the other person is willing to answer Amen. The stone and the Amen should be like two companions that do not part. So if you spoke words from the heart and there was no Amen from the other side, apparently it didn’t work. Amen is said after a blessing. This is connected to today since Rebbe Michel of Zlotshov passed away in 5546 (תקמ"ו), which was 227 years ago,[4] and the value of “blessing” (בְּרָכָה) is 227! So there is a lot of blessing from him right now.

4. Rebbe Michel Prays Later in the Day

More about Rebbe Michel. He was the first among the disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov to daven (pray) late in the day. The Ba’al Shem Tov himself, in his minyan would daven vatikin, at sunrise. The first one to change this, and there were many who adopted his custom, was Rebbe Michel. The amazing thing is that he belonged to the cloise in Brod, a hub of great geniuses of Torah. And even though he davened late, no one said a word. Until one day a young, well-to-do man came in and asked him, “Why do you daven so late? We never heard such a thing, not even by the Ba’al Shem Tov!” Rebbe Michel replied with a bit of boldness. He said to the wealthy young man: “Look at all the great Torah scholars here. They’ve seen me do this for years and no one asked me this question. You are the first to do so. So, I have to conclude that it’s not you asking the question, it’s your money. And since it’s your money that’s asking me, and I don’t count your money for anything, I’m not going to give it an answer.”

What we learn from this is that if you don’t count money for anything, you can daven late. In addition, since Rebbe Michel passed on the day of the world’s creation (the 25th of Elul), you have to have a connection to the act of creation. One of the reasons that he davened late was to gather all sparks from all the prayers said by those before him and to rectify them. There are a few different ways to explain the reason for davening late, but the one who started this minhag was Rebbe Michel.

Another thing about Rebbe Michel was that he received the key to the chamber of music of Chasidut, which is why the Maggid of Mezritch sent the Alter Rebbe (the founder of Chabad) to Rebbe Michel to receive the secret of nigunim (Chasidic melodies) from him. The connection between the two—Rebbe Michel and the Alter Rebbe remained—even though the Alter Rebbe did not stay with him. One Shabbat, Rebbe Michel was heard saying a teaching in the Chabad style, which was not his style at all. Where did he hear it? He later explained that he heard it telepathically from the Alter Rebbe and in his honor repeated it.

5. Rebbe Michel’s Trust in the Almighty

Let’s tell another story about him before we get to Selichot. When he was married, his father-in-law gave him a tremendous dowry, a thousand gold dinars. Something truly astounding at that time and an amount he could invest and live off the profits for his entire life with. His first thought was to do exactly that and free himself to learn Torah his entire life. But then he had a second thought: that if his livelihood would come from an investment and would be secured for his entire life, how would he be able to work on his confidence and trust in God—that God would provide for him. So, he thought he should give half the huge sum to tzedakah. He gathered all the poor people he knew and asked them all to bring other poor people, and he was able to pass out half the dowry before long.

But, since the sum was so great, even with only half, he could invest and live off the profits. So, he started thinking about his situation again, and decided that he would still have a problem with developing his trust and confidence in the Almighty. So, he made the decision to give the other half of the dowry away to tzedkah too. Again, more and more poor people came and the other half was gone. He threw away his money, just like you might throw stones away (indeed, diamond merchants refer to diamonds as stones). From the entire tremendous dowry he had received, he only kept a cow for himself, so that at least he would have milk in the morning. Every morning his wife would go milk the cow so that she had at least something to give their children at the start of the day.

One day he thought, “Where is my trust in Hashem?” So, he called the shochet to slaughter the cow and gave all the meat to poor people. He didn’t tell his wife, and the next morning she went out to milk the cow. She asked naively, “Where is the cow?” And he answered, “She went up to heaven.” His wife understood what had happened. Then she asked, “What will be with us?” He said, “God will help.”

6. Rebbe Michel’s Wife and Infinite Tzedakah

After a while, a poor bride came, she had no money for her wedding and didn’t have a dress. He went to his wife, who had a single dress. He asked her to give her dress to this poor girl. She was happy to do so.

What we see from these two stories is that everything comes from one’s wife. All the money was hers and every time he thought again about what to do with his money, it was thanks to his wife.

So, his wife gave her dress happily and made herself a burlap dress. It doesn’t say how long she had to wear it.

A few days ago, we learned in the Tanya that when it comes to tzedakah, Rabbi Akiva’s teaching, “your life comes first” (חייך קודמין) only pertains to when you and the poor person have the basic necessities for living. But if he has less than you do, you have to make sure that he is provided for, before you can provide yourself and your family with anything beyond the basic necessities. If the poor person doesn’t have bread to feed his family, but you have meat, you must make sure that the poor family has what you have.

In today’s Tanya, we learn the verse, “Your commandment is very wide” (רחבה מצותך מאד), which refers to the mitzvah of tzedakah that God performs with the world, by sustaining it for free, as an act of charity. Likewise, when we give tzedakah we create an infinitely large vessel for the revelation of God in the future to come. By hashgachah (Divine Providence), the most powerful letters in Iggeret HaKodesh relating to tzedakah are found in the daily Tanya reading for the final days of Elul. The most important day of the whole year for giving tzedakah, according to the Arizal, is Sukkot eve, but the entire month of Elul is special for tzedakah.

In the previous shiur we mentioned the verse, “Skin for skin” (עור בעד עור) etc. This verse is brought three times in the Tanya and one of the instances is in that igeret, which is why we suggested that every person increase their tzedakah by 276, the value of “skin” (עור).

Image by Yael Shilo יעל שילה – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11533579

[1]. Explained in length in the article by the same name in Sha’arei Ahavah VeRatzon.

[2]. Genesis 22:4. “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac….”

[3]. Deuteronomy 22:6.

[4]. To date, in 5783, it has been 237 years.

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