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The Sar Shalom of Belz: A Genius in Compassion

Rabbi Shalom Roke’ach of Belz was born in 5541 (1781) to his father Rabbi Elazar Roke’ach, one of the scholars of the kloyz in Brody. Rabbi Shalom was orphaned of his father at an early age and was sent by his mother to Skohl to learn Torah under the tutelage of her brother, Rabbi Yissachar Dov, the head of the Jewish Court in the city. (Later, Rabbi Yissachar Dov would choose Rabbi Shalom as a husband for his daughter, Malkah).

When he was about six, Rabbi Shalom desired to journey to Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk. His mother helped him save money for the journey, which was planned for the holiday of Shavu’ot. But on the 21st of Adar that year, Rebbe Elimelech passed away.

It is told that after his marriage, he would go to study Chasidut nightly from his first rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo the Maggid of Lutzk. He would descend from a rope from his bedroom window in his father-in-law’s home in the middle of the night out of fear that his father-in-law would be opposed to his study of Chassidut. Before daylight, when Rabbi Shalom would return home, his wife would be waiting by the window with the rope, and he would climb back up.

In later years, Rabbi Shalom learned by the Choizeh of Lublin (Rebbe Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz) and became one of his primary disciples. Following the advice of his rebbe, the Choizeh, Rabbi Shalom became the Rabbi of the village of Belz, where he served until his passing on 27 Elul 5615 (1855). He was referred to as “the Sar Shalom of Belz.”

About half an hour before his passing, he related that before he was born, his soul refused to descend into the world despite having been shown the reward that it would receive for fulfilling mitzvot and performing good deeds and despite the thousands of souls waiting for its guidance on earth. Ultimately the Holy Blessed One became his guarantor that he would not sin, and that his soul would return to the upper world pure as snow. Based on the above, Rabbi Shalom explained the verse “God, I am oppressed, be my guarantor”[1] as follows: “God, [remember that it was] for the oppressed souls [in this world] who were waiting to be redeemed that You became my guarantor that I would leave [heaven] in peace and return [to heaven] in peace. Hence, I request that You fulfill your guarantee.”[2]

Redemptive Leftovers

Before he became a Rebbe, the Rebbe Moharash of Lubavitch was an anonymous guest of the Sar Shalom of Belz, who was blind. The Rebbe of Belz, accompanied by his assistant, entered the Study Hall where thousands of people were waiting and suddenly stopped, saying that he smelled a good smell. The tzaddik walked through the crowd until he located the Rebbe Moharash. The Rebbe Moharash related that he was the son of the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch, and Rebbe Sar Shalom led him to the head table. As was the custom of the Rebbes of Poland, the Rebbe Sar Shalom ate just a bit and then distributed the rest as shairayim (leftovers from food that the rebbe has eaten). The Sar Shalom honored the Rebbe Moharsh to eat something and then distribute it among the chassidim, but he refused, saying that he had never seen his father do so. The Sar Shalom whispered the secret of shairayim into his ear, but nonetheless, the Moharash refused.

There is no custom in Chabad Chassidut to distribute shairayim, but to understand the secret of shairayim, we will open with the words of the Alter Rebbe of Chabad. In one of his well-known letters:[3]

Therefore I come with a general announcement to inform all our followers regarding the multitude of favors—"The great things that God has done with us“ [by releasing him from his incarceration in S. Peterburg in an openly miraculous manner]—that they should cling to the attributes of Jacob, the "remnant of His people" (שְׁאֵר עַמּוֹ) and the "remainder of Israel" (שְׁאֵרִית יִשְׂרָאֵל), who regards himself truly as shairayim [leftovers] and excess that has no use [and therefore will not confront those Jews opposed to Chasidut, who caused his imprisonment].

From this letter, it is clear that the shairayim, are identified with Jacob. It is no coincidence that humility and smallness are associated with him. Jacob was the last of the generation of the Patriarchs. A person who adopts the attributes of Jacob senses a supplementary energy added to him after he has completed his primary tasks, in the same way that Jacob was like a supplementary figure after the towering figures and achievements of Abraham and Isaac. It is specifically from such a sense of smallness that the tzaddik distributes the leftovers from his food and through them renders salvation for his disciples.

The Sar Shalom’s Compassion

Another attribute associated in Kabbalah with Jacob is compassion (rachamim), which is the ability to set oneself aside and feel someone else’s pain. The Rebbe of Belz also excelled at this attribute and saw it as his conduit to render salvation for those who came to seek his blessings:

The Sar Shalom was known as a tzaddik who could bring salvation. Jews would come to him from around the world to receive his blessing. “What is the Rebbe’s secret?” he was once asked. “How does he work such wonders?”

“It is very simple,” the tzaddik replied. “A Jew comes to me and relates all his troubles. I listen and begin to feel compassion-rachmonus for him from the depth of my heart. I feel such compassion for him that in Heaven, they say, ‘If a person of flesh and blood could have such compassion on a fellow Jew, should we not have compassion for him as well?’”

The principle the Sar Shalom demonstrated and made use of was that of kal vachomer [literally “mild and severe,” or in logic, (argumentum) a minore ad maius]: The mild case is that a mere mortal can have such great compassion. If so, it stands to reason that a the infinitely compassionate realm above should have at least as much compassion.

Based on the Sar Shalom’s argument, other tzaddikim explained the saying of the sages, “Anyone who has compassion for God’s creations, receives compassion from heaven.”[4] The plain reason behind this saying is the same as that which lies behind, “He who prays for his friend is answered first.”[5] In other words, compassion benefits the compassionate person himself. However, in light of the Sar Shalom’s explanation, this statement can be understood even more plainly: When someone has compassion for God’s creations this awakens compassion in heaven for those same creations. The sages did not limit their statement to tzaddikim, to the truly righteous individuals in each every generation. You do not have to be a tzaddik to awaken compassion from heaven. Rather, when any of us feels compassion for someone, we are immediately joined from above with heavenly compassion! A person who encounters a physical or spiritual lack in someone else, which he cannot remedy or correct, should know that just by having compassion upon this person, he is awakening Divine compassion.

Healing with the Hands, Healing with the Mind

Someone told the Ruzhiner Rebbe that he saw the tzaddik, the Sar Shalom of Belz put his holy hand on the stomach of a critically ill person, and he was immediately healed. The Ruzhiner said: “He derives the strength in his hand from the verse in Psalms, ‘He sent His word, and healed them’[6] (יִשְׁלַח דְּבָרוֹ וְיִרְפָּאֵם). The initials of this phrase spell the word ‘his hand’ (יָדוֹ). It is from this verse that he received the power of the hand. I take my power from the final letters of the same phrase (יִשְׁלַח דְּבָרוֹ וְיִרְפָּאֵם), and they spell ‘brain’ (מוֹחַ).”

Healing by means of the mind, the power of the tzaddik of Ruzhin, is done through good thoughts about every person who comes to ask for help. By thinking good thoughts about others, the holy Ruzhiner fulfilled the Chasidic instruction to “Think good and it will be good” (tracht gut vet sein gut). In his thoughts, the Ruzhiner sees the person standing before him as healthy and strong. All that is needed is that this “true” state be revealed right now.

By contrast, healing by means of the hand, the power of the Sar Shalom of Belz, stems from his compassion for the person suffering. His outstretched hand is an extension of his heart and a conduit for the compassion he feels, which goes out to the troubled person and strives to save him from his pain and trouble. Among the sefirot as well, the attribute of beauty (tiferet) whose inner dimension is compassion, represents the body (and especially the heart), from which the hands extend.

Healing with the hand and healing with the mind are not isolated from one another. In fact, mind-healing is the source of hand-healing. On the verse, “Whatever your hand has [the power to do], do with all your might”[7] (כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תִּמְצָא יָדְךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת בְּכֹחֲךָ עֲשֵׂה), the Ba’al Shem Tov taught[8] that “your might” (בְּכֹחֲךָ) refers to wisdom (chochmah). The hand finds its strength by means of the power of wisdom in the mind.

Both these tzaddikim believe in God’s compassion for the ill with all their hearts, and in the body’s ability to heal. But while the Ruzhiner draws the healing down through this very thought. The healing potential is an existing fact in his mind. The Sar Shalom brings this thought into actual reality by extending his hand to the ill person, with compassion in his heart.

[1]. Isaiah 38:14 (אֲ-דֹנָי עָשְׁקָה לִּי עָרְבֵנִי).

[2]. Dover Shalom, p. 35.

[3] Igeret Hakodesh 2.

[4]. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 247:3.

[5]. Baba Kama 92a.

[6]. Psalms 107:20.

[7]. Ecclesiastes 9:10.

[8]. Keter Shem Tov (Kehot edition), 91.

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