Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev

When we speak of a Tzaddik, a righteous man, two sayings of our Sages come to mind. The first is “The Tzaddik is the foundation of the world.” We learn from this that, despite the torments that they’ve endured throughout history, if the Jewish people have managed to survive where other nations have disappeared, it is because of the presence of the Tzaddikim among them. The second saying is “The Tzaddik decides and G-d executes” and it perfectly illustrates the considerable influence that the Tzaddik, the living symbol of piety and virtue, has on the highest celestial entreaties that govern the entire universe.

These two sayings seemed to have been coined to define the exceptional character of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Whenever the name of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is mentioned, one immediately thinks of the defender of the Jewish people. This Tzaddik, in reality one of the pillars of the Chassidic movement, has become indelibly etched in our collective memory as the one who, in all circumstances, didn’t hesitate to take G-d as witness to plead Israel’s case.

When it came to requesting favors for the community, or for coming up with unexpected agreements in their favor (arguments that were fervently true yet disarmingly simple) the Celestial Court could not refuse him.

It must be said that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had been endowed by G-d with enormous spiritual powers that allowed him, whenever necessary, to raise his soul towards the celestial realm. It was there that he made himself the poignant advocate of the Jewish people and usually won his case.

It was an unconditional, absolute love for the Jewish people that burned in the heart of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. This love was so evident that whoever approached the Tzaddik had but one desire: To emulate him, if even just the slightest bit, and to take shelter under the wings of the Shechinah (the Divine Presence). For this, everyone got ready to go back on the road of Torah and mitzvot. It was in this way that, thanks to him, many of our Russian brothers who had been more or less dangerously removed from Judaism came to make the decisive choice to do Teshuvah. Just as for Moses, we say of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak: “Many were those that he removed from sin.”

Many are the stories and testimonies that evoke the righteous mission that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had taken upon himself, as well as the unique manner in which he carried it out. Each of them invites us to emulate him, for as our Sages teach us, the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoices every time a Jew invokes him in order to defend another. And, our Sages add, the more this happens, the quicker the long awaited Geula (Final Redemption) will happen. What follows is just one of those stories.

It happened that in Berditchev, when the large synagogue overflowed with people on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was standing near the amud (the lectern) of the speaker. His voice, both strong and beautiful, as well as his prayers – sung with such force and emotion that they could only belong to him – shook everything around. The faithful, their souls moved to trembling on that Yom Hadin (Day of Judgment), didn’t miss one word of the Rabbi’s prayers, all while their eyes filled with tears. Such an irresistible magnet, Rabbi Levy Yitzchak carried away all the Jews in the town with his own emotion.

After the Amidah (the prayer composed of 18 blessings) and just before the Kedusha (the solemn sanctification of the Divine Name), Rabbi Levi Yitzchak began singing, with trembling voice, the song la-El orech din (“to G-d Who judges”). Each of the faithful felt his heartstrings tighten, and each was truly and deeply cognizant of appearing, at that moment, before the King of kings Who presides over the Celestial Court and Who judges the entire world. He places one and the other on the balance of good and evil, and He examines all hearts with a penetrating and forceful gaze, revealing all secrets. He knows the least of our thoughts and will soon pronounce His verdict.

“Avinu Malkeinu! [Our Father, Our King!]” – a single and unified cry sprang from the mouth of all – “consider us with kindness and mercy. Otherwise, no one can stand before You!”

Now, just before chanting the phrase lekonei avadav bedin (“Who acquires His servants through judgment”), Rabbi Levi Yitzchak abruptly stopped. His face turned pale – as white as a ghost. He was incapable of uttering the least sound. The faithful, at first surprised by this interruption, were later shocked by what their eyes saw: The Tallit (prayer shawl) of their Rabbi slowly slid off his head, all the way onto his shoulders. Having come closer, certain of the Rabbi’s long-time Chassidim found him motionless, his eyes shut. His disciples, as opposed to the rest of the congregation, understood what was happening. Due to Ruach Hakodesh (Divine inspiration), Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had learned that at that moment the Celestial Court was preparing a great punishment (G-d forbid) for the Jewish people. As soon as they learned this, they followed their Rabbi’s lead and closed their eyes, then began a great soul-searching exercise in Teshuvah, repenting of any evil thoughts that they had perhaps once entertained.

For many long and seemingly unending minutes, the entire synagogue remained like this, as if frozen in time. Finally, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak opened his eyes and little by little his features began to take on their normal appearance. Everyone truly had the impression that the Tzaddik, after having left this world, had just made it back. And for all the more reason, the faithful started to feel happy and reassured when the face of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak began beaming with joy and he finally started to sing that famous phase, lekonei avadav bedin (“Who acquires His servants through judgment”).

After the service, as the Rabbi and his disciples were gathered around the table to eat, one of the Chassidim got up the courage and asked his teacher what he had seen in the upper worlds.

The Rabbi agreed to answer and said, “All of a sudden I saw the Satan pulling a large bag behind him, and that gave me a very bad feeling. I understood that in that bag, the Prosecutor kept all the sins that the Jewish people had committed in the year that had passed. I approached to see its contents: Gossip and slander, baseless hatred, pettiness, negligence of Torah study … there was everything there, enough to delight the Satan, the Prosecutor who rushed before the Celestial Court to pronounce the most violent accusations against our people. As soon as I saw this I thought, ‘Oh no!’ The vision had thrown me into such a distressed frenzy that I didn’t know what to do.

“All of a sudden, it happened that the Satan stopped. His shrill eyes had just caught site of a Jew who, on that very day of Rosh Hashanah, was about to commit a sin. He then let go of his bag and ran in the direction of the Jew to take his sin and add it to his evil harvest. I took advantage of the situation to approach the bag and examine each of the sins. I realized that the poor authors of these sins had mitigating reasons for their actions, namely the bitter exile to which we had been condemned and the bitter lot of many of us: Ignorance, suffering, poverty, etc. What could our brothers do in such circumstances? What could they do in light of temptations that were capable of making a Jew forget his spiritual identity and transform the people of the G-d of Abraham into coarse beings that wallow in sin? However, I asked myself, what were theses sins compared to the murders, acts of armed robbery, and thievery that so many in other nations committed?

“As I reflected on this, it happened that the sins of our brothers disappeared from that terrible bag. When the Satan discovered it empty, he let out a scream, ‘Thieves! I’ve been robbed of all the sins of the Jews that I had worked so hard to gather!’ It was then that he saw me, standing near the bag, and understood that I had tricked him. He took me by my shirt and demanded compensation from me for having stripped him of the sins of our brothers! I replied that I didn’t have any money. But the Satan, who knows Torah, answered that he would therefore have to sell me as a slave! He took me by the beard and offered me to the first angel that passed by there. The angel refused, explaining that I was an exiled Jew who had to earn a living, and so he didn’t want to have the responsibility for me, even if he could acquire me freely. Can you believe that? Even for free he didn’t want me! All the other angels to whom the Satan offered me as a slave also refused.

“Seeing this, the Satan brought me all the way to the Master of the universe, Who was seated on His royal throne. The Holy One listened carefully to the arguments of the Prosecutor, then declared, in citing a Psalm of David, ‘It is I Who will act, I Who will judge, and I Who will save!’ He then said, ‘I Myself will buy you!’

“With these words, the Satan remained frozen with his mouth wide open. He had no further arguments. It was then that I began to pull myself together. As you can see, we can now better understand the phase of the song that states lekonei avadav bedin. We are the servants of the Holy One, and thanks to our piety we may escape the clutches of the Satan.”




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