The Tisch: Prayer and action

If the Almighty should so decide, no king or queen could ever harm the Jewish people.

February 26, 2010 17:24
3 minute read.
queen esther 88 298

queen esther 88 298. (photo credit: Gener8Xion Entertainment)


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There were times that the rulers of lands imposed draconian laws against the Jewish community. Sometimes these edicts had altruistic purposes, aimed at affecting positive change in society; other times they were driven by anti-Semitism.

The goals of the harsh edicts, however, were of little interest to the hassidic community; from their perspective the rulers were encroaching on the traditional Jewish lifestyle sanctified by the Torah and by tradition. Jewish leaders, therefore, sought any avenue to have such laws abrogated. Some attempts were of a political nature, others focused on the spiritual and mystical. Underlying the mystical attempts was the understanding that no decision of a temporal ruler could be entirely divorced from divine will. If the Almighty should so decide, no king or queen could ever harm the Jewish people. Thus better than to petition the temporal sovereign, it is worth petitioning the sovereign of sovereigns.

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Thus in the late 18th century, a proposed decree was considered that would severely harm Jewish life. The decree under consideration was to prohibit marriage for any man who had not completed his duty of army service or any man who could not speak German. For a community where the Jewish home was a central ideal, any decree preventing Jewish marriage was considered a disaster.

The leader of the hassidim in Galicia, Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1786), was naturally troubled by this proposal. Through heartfelt prayer he beseeched the Almighty to annul the decree before it would be formally enacted as the law of the land. Alas, Rabbi Elimelech felt that his prayers and supplications were rejected.

Still he did not despair: He decided that the very night when the law was to be legislated, he would rise at the mystically auspicious time of midnight and try once again to reverse the heavenly decision. To gather his strength, Rabbi Elimelech lay down to rest for two hours before the appointed time of midnight. As he lay there, he could hardly rest as he sensed the heavenly court was allowing the temporal rulers to enact this harmful law.

As Rabbi Elimelech rose from his bed to begin his supplications, the students were busy putting the final touches on the wedding preparations; as tears began to pour down the cheeks of the master as he opened his prayer book, the disciples danced before the bride and groom. Before he began to pray, Rabbi Elimelech perceived a benevolent illumination and sensed that the decree had been annulled in heaven, but he was confused: Who had affected this annulment? He had not even begun to pray!

With no clear answer to this question, Rabbi Elimelech called his attendant and instructed him to notify the students that the decree had been annulled. Rabbi Elimelech was sure that his disciples would also be beseeching the Almighty at that time.

The attendant went to the beit midrash to notify the disciples, but found the hall empty. He turned to their lodgings, but also could not find them there. Indeed the students had been troubled by the alarming situation, but they decided on a different course of action.

Led by two of the disciples who would become great leaders in their own right – Rabbi Ya’acov Yitzhak Horowitz (1745-1815), later to be known as the Seer of Lublin, and Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanów (1745-1815) – the students had gone from house to house trying to raise money for an impoverished bride and groom. They had managed to raise a nice sum, and it was on this very night at midnight with the decree looming, that they decided to conduct the wedding.

Rabbi Elimelech’s attendant eventually located the disciples, dancing before the newlyweds, who stood there beaming on this special day.

Rabbi Elimelech then understood who had convinced the heavenly court to cancel the decree. It was not his heartfelt prayers and supplications, but the selfless actions of his disciples.

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

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