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Rabbi Mordechai of Lechovitz: Loud Prayer of the Angels on Earth

Rabbi Mordechai Yoffe of Lechovitz was born in 5502 (1742) to Rabbi Noach Haparnas of Nesvizh (in Belarus). He was orphaned as a child. In his early years, Rabbi Mordechai was a disciple of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who once remarked that a third of the world stood upon his shoulders. Later, Rabbi Mordechai became the preeminent disciple of Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin. He would also travel together with his friend, Rabbi Asher of Stolin (the first) to Rabbi Baruch of Mezhibuzh. Rabbi Mordechai lived in Nesvizh until the passing of his Rebbe, Rebbe Shlomo of Karlin (on 22 Tamuz 5552 – 1792), when he began to lead his own congregation in Lechovitz, Lithuania. His chassidim numbered in the thousands. In 5559 (1799) Rabbi Mordechai was imprisoned by the Russian government, along with Rabbi Schneor Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe of Chabad) and Rabbi Asher of Stolin following accusations by opponents of Chassidut. He was released in Kislev of that year. Rabbi Mordechai was a close friend of Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk despite the fact that they never met in person. He was appointed by Rabbi Avraham to head the tzedakah fund for the poor of the Land of Israel run by Kollel Reicin. In this role, Rabbi Mordechai was very active in supporting the chassidic community in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Mordechai passed away on 13 Shvat 5570 (1810) while he was in Stolin for the wedding of his grandson, Rabbi Shlomo Chaim. Rabbi Mordechai’s son, Rabbi Noach, succeeded him in leading his chassidic court.

 In the city of Smargan there was a community that was very opposed to the teachings and customs of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his students. A young chassid of Rebbe Mordechai of Lechovitz came to Smargan, concealing his chassidic leanings from his surroundings. One day, however, the young man began singing a beautiful melody in the middle of his Torah lesson. His friends sensed that he was from a chassidic sect and began pressuring him to reveal the name of his Rebbe. He was forced to reveal that he was connected deeply to Lechovitz. His friends asked him to repeat a Torah teaching that he had heard from his Rebbe. He related to them what the Rebbe of Lechovitz had said on the verse that Joseph said to the wife of Potiphar, “How can I do this very evil thing and I will sin to God?”[1] Why did he not include Potiphar’s wife in the description of the intended sin? After all, this conduct was also forbidden for the descendants of Noach. The Rebbe answered that Joseph simply did not want to include her and himself in the same sentence – even just by saying, “And we will both be guilty of sin.”

As they were Torah scholars and men who served God, the yeshiva students of Smargan realized that this Torah teaching could only be said by a person who learns Torah for its own sake. They decided to send the best of their young Torah scholars to the Rebbe of Lechovitz so that they could form their opinion about him. The young men journeyed to Lechovitz and remained there!  The Torah scholars in Smargan sent another young, accomplished Torah scholar to bring them his opinion, but he remained in Lechovitz as well. One after the other, Torah scholars traveled to Lechovitz and remained there, until the entire group was there, serving God in the Lechovitz path. Among them were also a number of married men, who had left their wives in Smargan.

The community of Smargan was very upset and when the Torah scholars eventually returned, their in-laws did not allow them to enter their homes. The entire group found themselves an old hut on the outskirts of Smargan and studied and prayed there. Every day, two of the young men would forage for food. They lived in poverty and harsh conditions. Nonetheless, they served God in the Lechovitz way with loud, enthusiastic prayer.

Once, one of the Torah scholars became ill, and they sent a member of the group to ask their Rebbe, the holy scholar of Lechovitz, to pray for him. “And they will say among the nations God is King,[2]” answered Rabbi Mordechai. Even though they did not understand Rabbi Mordechai’s answer, they returned to their hut outside Smargan with faith and trust and continued in their service of God.

The poritz (local landowner) of Smargan was celebrating his birthday and some of his friends, also local landowners, came to join the celebrations. They all went out to see his properties and possessions. They rode up to the hut with their horses and heard the loud voices of prayer that were emanating from there. They saw the young Torah scholars fervently serving God and remained there, in awe, for some time. The chassidim inside did not notice the landowners outside at all. “You fool!” the poritz of Smargan’s friends ridiculed him. “You showed us your fields and barns and cattle, which are nothing new to us. And here, you have lofty people, true angels – and you didn’t even mention them? They are men of God! How can you allow them to live in these terrible conditions?”

The poritz was duly embarrassed and immediately sent a messenger to Smargan to find out why these young men were living in the hut. He discovered that it was particularly due to one wealthy woman whose son-in-law was in the group. He immediately had the wealthy woman placed in an impure animal’s pen and directed the Torah scholars to return to their homes, where they would be treated with the utmost honor. The poritz warned that if they would not do as he said, he would imprison all the in-laws.

Eventually, all the Jews of Smargan became chassidim. And the young Torah scholars understood the words of their holy Rebbe, “And they will say among the nations God is King.”

(As related by Reb Avraham the son of Rabbi Yoel Ashkenazi, who heard this from Rabbi Itche Garnitzer, who was in the group of Rabbi Moshe Midner, of blessed memory.)

The term “angels” that the landowners used to describe the Lechovitz chassidim may sound simply figurative. But if we contemplate deeply, we will discover that there is an actual connection between the chassidim’s service of loud prayer and the service of the angels.

In Kabbalah, the service of prayer is called “construction of the kingdom” and “the ascent of the kingdom.” In the service of the soul, the sefirah of kingdom is the act of prayer itself or more specifically, the praying personality. It is this persona that we construct and create as standing before God. It is this persona that we strive to elevate to infinity, cleaving to God and completely uniting with Him. In the Chabad service of God, the construction of the kingdom and its elevation are accomplished by means of the intellect: With deep contemplation (the attribute of understanding) or at the very least “the thought of Torah” (the attribute of wisdom). These afford an understanding of the correct relationship between a person and his Creator and lend vitality and motivation to ascend and be included in Him. As a rule, this service typifies the souls of Israel, who identify with the sefirah of kingdom-Shechinah and ascend with it.

But there are also angels here on earth. Their service of prayer is with heartfelt cries, like angels who cry out and coronate God with great fanfare. The service of this type of soul can be called “a voice that arouses focused intention” (קול מעורר הכוונה) which relates first and foremost to a loud voice.  The meaning of this loud voice continuously deepens as it is impregnated with the inner voice of the soul.

The simple voice that swells up from the heart is a tool for the raw emotion of the person praying. When that voice couples with the mouth that verbalizes the letters, a unification of voice-speech is created in the soul of the person praying. He has focused his intention on the Holy One Blessed Be He (heart) and His Shechinah (speech).

Above and beyond that point, the primary attribute of the heart is the sefirah of tiferet (beauty), which parallels the letter vav in God’s Name, Havayah. The arousal of compassion in the voice that arouses focused intention is the inner dimension of the sefirah of tiferet. Its root is in the sefirah of da’at (knowledge), “the soul of tiferet,” which includes all the attributes. Hence, the primary measure of the power and significance of the voice that arouses focused intention of prayer is the level of the attribute of knowledge enclothed within it. The authenticity of the emotions of the person praying and God’s arousal to fill his needs will be in accordance with his level of the attribute of knowledge.

Until this point we have related to the attribute of malchut (kingdom) as the Shechinah (God’s Divine Presence), prayer or the person praying. In our story, however, we should point out that there is a simpler face of malchut, which is God’s control and influence over the worlds that He created.  In the merit of the enthusiastic prayer of the chassidim, even the non-Jews were aroused to accept the yoke of God’s kingdom upon them (even if just for a particular issue). Had these non-Jews encountered quiet, internal service of the soul, it may have been difficult for them to identify with it.  They may not have noticed it at all. But the enthusiastic, loud service of the angels on earth moved them out of their serenity and penetrated their hearts with the feeling of God’s kingdom over them and the world.

Image by Orna Wachman from Pixabay

[1] Genesis 39:9.

[2] Chronicles I, 16:31.

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