The Tisch: Counsel for the defense

Like a good lawyer, R. Levi Yitzhak was concerned with the good of his client and his arguments directed before God reflected a steadfast loyalty to the well-being of the Jewish people.

July 9, 2010 16:38
3 minute read.
Haredim at the Emmanuel 'pirate' school court hear

Haredim court 58. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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One of the most beloved personalities in the pantheon of hassidic masters is undoubtedly R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809). He was one of the central personalities of the third generation of Hassidism, the generation in which the idea and ideal coalesced into a movement. His work, Kedushat Levi, is a hassidic classic. Besides his leadership as a hassidic master, R. Levi Yitzhak served as a community rabbi in a number of towns in what is today Ukraine.

The fame of R. Levi Yitzhak, however, lies primarily in his attitude toward fellow Jews. He is popularly known as sanigoran shel Yisrael, the defense attorney of Israel, for his willingness to staunchly stand before the Almighty and argue on behalf of the Jewish people. Like a good lawyer, R. Levi Yitzhak was only concerned with the good of his client and his arguments directed before the heavenly court reflected a steadfast loyalty, not necessarily to the objective truth, but to the well-being of the Jewish people.

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Hassidic lore recalls R. Levi Yitzhak’s wit in turning to God. Thus when the Berditchever Rebbe saw someone eating instead of fasting on Tisha Be’av, the religious national day for mourning the tragedies that have befallen our people over the ages, he turned to heaven and proclaimed: “Master of the universe, if Your people cannot respect and commemorate this day in the manner befitting such a sad day, why not take it away from them? Send the messiah and turn the day into a festival!”

It appeared that R. Levi Yitzhak had a direct dialogue with God, talking to the Almighty as one would talk to a friend, rather than as one should address the King of Kings. One time as the Berditchever Rebbe was reciting the midnight supplications favored by the pious, he came to the verse: “And on that day God, the Lord of hosts calls to weeping and to mourning and to baldness and to girding with sackcloth” (Isaiah 22:12). With tears in his eyes, R. Levi Yitzhak said: “God Almighty, You are indeed justified in weeping over the dire situation of Your children... But it is also in Your power to remedy this situation. Why don’t You redeem the Jewish people so that you will no longer need to cry?”

R. Levi Yitzhak’s every pronouncement was punctuated by a love for the Jewish people. When R. Levi Yitzhak once chanced upon a Jew standing in the street on Shabbat and smoking a cigarette, he did not approach the young man with harsh admonishment: “My beloved brother, you probably do not realize that today is the holy Shabbat.”

The smoker responded in a belligerent tone: “I know that today is Shabbat,” and demonstratively placed the cigarette back in his mouth.

“Then, dear friend, you probably do not realize that it is forbidden to smoke on the holy Shabbat.”

“I know that it is Shabbat and I know that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbat!” replied the smoker cantankerously as he exhaled puffs of smoke.

Seeking some line of defense, R. Levi Yitzhak’s brow became knitted for a moment until suddenly his eyes lit up and with a satisfied grin he said: “My friend, you must be ill and the doctors have told you that the only remedy for your health is to smoke and you must smoke even on Shabbat because of your life-threatening condition!”

The Shabbat smoker’s eyes were ablaze as he aggressively responded: “I am perfectly healthy, I know it is Shabbat and I know that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbat.” And with that he blew smoke straight into the face of the Berditchever Rebbe.

R. Levi Yitzhak raised his eyes heavenward and called out to God: “Master of the universe! Look how unbelievably worthy Your children are: They will smoke on Shabbat, but they would never dare to tell a lie!”

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.

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