Rabbi Yechiel Michel Ashkenazi of Tolchin was the son of Rabbi Baruch. The story of his life is mostly unknown. According to tradition he was born in Germany (and was thus called ‘Ashkenazi’ and in Yiddish, “der Deitschel”) from where he moved to Podolia. It was in Podolia that he became connected to Chasidut. Rabbi Yechiel Michel was the son-in-law of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the husband of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s only daughter, Adel. He was one of the rabbis of his son, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sadilkov, author of the Degel Machaneh Efraim, and of Rabbi Yisrael of Kuzhnitz. It is told that the Ba’al Shem Tov sent one of his disciples to test Rabbi Yechiel’s Torah knowledge, to explore whether he was worthy to marry his daughter. Rabbi Yechiel responded “I did not know, I do not know and I will not know.” This Ba’al Shem Tov greatly valued his response and arranged Rabbi Yechiel’s marriage to Adel in approximately 5495 (1735). In honor of the 7th of Adar, the day of passing of Moses, we bring you the story of this wondrous tzaddik, whose date of passing and place of burial are unknown.
Once, the Ba’al Shem Tov was traveling with his righteous son-in-law, Rabbi Yechiel (who was called ‘der Deitschel’). On their way to Odessa, the two went down to the sea to immerse. Rabbi Yechiel drowned there. The Ba’al Shem Tov sent his wagon driver to Odessa and directed him: “Tell the first Jew that you meet, in my name, that he should come here immediately.” The wagon driver hurried off and a Jew from Odessa came to the Ba’al Shem Tov. “My son-in-law has drowned and must be buried,” related the Ba’al Shem Tov. “I do not want anyone to know where he was buried. Please return to the city and bring back all that is needed – a shovel, burial shrouds, etc.”
“Whoever will pray here, his salvation is guaranteed,” the Ba’al Shem Tov continued. “But I decree upon you, that nobody should ever know about this place.”
“I have an only son,” the Jew replied. “May I bring him with me to here?” The Jew returned with his son, they buried Rabbi Yechiel and left. Word of what had happened spread quickly, but the burial place remained a secret.
Many years passed, and a local ruler enacted a harsh decree on the Jews in his city. The Jews sent an honorable delegation to the Rebbe of Ruzhin to request his intervention. The delegation spent Shabbat with the Rebbe’s congregation prior to their planned private conversation with him. At one of the festive Shabbat meals, the Rebbe spoke about the unknown burial place of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s son-in-law and the spiritual assistance that it offered. The delegation decided to travel to Odessa and to search for the son of the Jew who buried Rabbi Yechiel. They hoped that due to the danger that their community was facing, the son would agree to show them the burial place so that they could pray there and be saved. They were certain that their salvation would come from there, while they were not sure that the Rebbe of Ruzhin could help them.
Without saying anything to the Rebbe of Ruzhin, the delegation set out after Shabbat to search for the son in Odessa. They learned that the father had indeed passed away but that the son was still alive. They came to his house and saw that he lived in dire poverty. They offered him a large sum of money and urged him to reveal the burial place as this was a matter that related to the safety of their community, but he refused. Then they suggested that he would accompany them to the site while they would be blindfolded and when they would reach the burial place, he would tell them, they would pray and then return. For this, too, they would pay him handsomely. The son agreed and they hired a wagon driver to take them the following day.
That night, the father came to his son in a dream and said to him: “Because you agreed to reveal the secret place to the delegation – even though they were to be blindfolded – it was decreed in heaven that you will leave the world. Take your leave from your family, for tomorrow you will die.” And so it was. The next day, the son passed away. The delegation returned to the Rebbe of Ruzhin and told him all that had transpired. The salvation for the community actually did come through the Rebbe of Ruzhin. [Shmu’ot V’sippurim vol.I p. 15]
What did they Ba’al Shem Tov mean by guaranteed salvation if he enacted a severe prohibition on revealing the actual location of the grave? To understand this, we will delve into the Rebbe of Ruzhin’s story. Of all the chasidic masters, the Rebbe of Ruzhin was known for the stories of tzaddikim that he would tell at every opportunity. Here, as well, he related a story and the delegation jumped to the conclusion that they must travel to the actual physical grave.
We learn of the loftiness of stories of tzaddikim from Rabbi Hillel of Paritch, who was the greatest educator in Chabad. For him, stories of tzaddikim were the entry ticket to the family of chasidim. When a new potential student would come before him, he would not give his permission to teach him Chasidut until the more senior chasidim would ‘fill him up’ with stories. He would ask to tell each story many times, until they would permeate the inductee’s heart and he would relate the story to his own personal life. Only after the new student would hear many stories would the teachings of Chasidut have the proper effect.
As we know, every person who hears a chasidic story – particularly a chasid who hears it from his Rebbe – should listen to the story and Torah teachings and integrate them with the knowledge that they were intended for him, personally. Even the tzaddik, from whose throat the Shechinah speaks, is not always conscious of all that transpires as a result of his words. The listener has to be prepared to properly absorb the words that are intended for him. What then, was the mistake of the delegation? Why didn’t the story, which they tried so hard to integrate and take action as per its instruction – work?
“Where a person’s thoughts are – that is where he is” is one of the foundational teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov and is the source of the strength of the chasidic story. The entire intent of the story is to open the heart to matters that the listener would not otherwise integrate and to bring events from the distant past and distant places to life. (This is similar to the difference between the Jerusalem Talmud, which frequently uses the idiom “come see,” as opposed to the Babylonian Talmud, which uses the idiom “come hear. The Jerusalem Talmud aspires to bring the situation being described to a point of tangibility and clarity, which can create new insights much more wondrous than intellectual understanding).
A tzaddik, particularly a tzaddik like Rabbi Yechiel whose place is unknown, is actually in every place by power of his thought. This may also be the way that his passing occurred – he was so invested in his intentions that he forgot to come up from under the water…
Surely, there is benefit to praying at the actual grave of a tzaddik. But in the inner dimension, one can connect to him from any place by means of true thought. If there is a grave of a tzaddik that cannot be accessed, it is a sign that a person does not have to physically be there. Surely, if one makes an effort to get there, God adds the good intention to the deed.
Rabbi Yechiel is like Moses, about whom it is written “And no man knew the place of his burial.” משה (Moses) is the attribute of knowledge itself, invested in מחשבה (thought – this word includes the letters of Moses’ name). He connects the attribute of wisdom with the attribute of understanding and the attribute of understanding with the emotions, while remaining above wisdom. The same is true of the wondrous, unknown burial place of Rabbi Yechiel, which can only be discovered by means of the attribute of knowledge and inner connection.
[Please note that there is debate regarding the life span of Rabbi Yechiel and if he really did die during the lifetime of his father-in-law, the Ba’al Shem Tov. We have brought this story here without relating to the debate].
 Deuteronomy 34:6.