The Tisch: A rebbe on the road

Rabbi David Twersky of Tolne once traveled to spend Shabbat with Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Friedman of Sadigora.

Rabbi blowing shofar 520 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Rabbi blowing shofar 520
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Rabbi David Twersky of Tolne (1808-1882) once traveled to spend Shabbat with Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Friedman of Sadigora (1820-1883). The Sadigora Rebbe accorded great respect to his older colleague and even invited the Tolne Rebbe to lead the Friday night tisch.
The Tolne Rebbe was known for his unassuming humility, but the hassidim were surprised when the guest turned to them at the tisch and inquired: “How much does a horse cost here?” The rebbe continued with such questions, and the hassidim responded politely while wondering to themselves whether they had gathered for mere idle conversation instead of spiritual inspiration.
The Sadigora Hassidim decided that they would approach their own master in the morning and request that he lead the next tisch, rather than allow the guest to ask senseless questions. Alas, when the Sadigora Rebbe arrived in the morning, he was accompanied by his guest, and the hassidim could hardly broach the topic in such circumstances. After the service it was the same: Some of the more venerable hassidim sought to approach the Sadigora Rebbe, but could not catch him alone.
The hassidim sat down at the next tisch, and as they expected, the Tolne Rebbe began with questions wholly inappropriate for a holy hassidic gathering.
In the middle of the tisch, the Tolne Rebbe suddenly changed his tone: “Sadigora Hassidim! I know that you must be wondering how could it be that your master honored me to lead the tisch, and yet I ask such mundane questions. Is this really the atmosphere of the holy Shabbat?” He continued: “Indeed, King David requested, ‘Hear my voice, O Lord, in my speech; preserve my life from fear of the enemy’ (Psalms 64:2) – why did King David refer to his ‘speech’? Why didn’t he say ‘my prayer’? Could it be that King David spoke mere idle chatter?” The visiting master explained: “King David feared that Satan would hear his lofty songs and diligently and persistently seek King David’s downfall. He therefore chose to clothe his holy words in the garments of the mundane, out of fear of the enemy.
“I, too,” continued the Tolne Rebbe, “have that fear of the enemy, and therefore prefer to avoid lofty talk.”
To what specific fear was the Tolne Rebbe referring? He did not share what pitfall he sought to avoid, but another tale of a visit to Sadigora may shed light on the matter. When the Sadigora Rebbe once invited the Tolne Rebbe to speak publicly to his hassidim, the guest declined, declaring: “Something once happened that I acted as a hassidic master while traveling and I ‘fell’; since then, I have accepted upon myself not to act as a hassidic master while on the road.”
He related the tale: “Once, after traveling for some distance, I reached an inn. I went up to my room to unpack my suitcase, while my attendant went downstairs to speak to the innkeeper and request something to eat. A few minutes later, the attendant reappeared and quickly began to repack our belongings.
“‘What are you doing?’ I enquired.
“‘Rebbe, this is not a place for you.’ “The attendant explained that he had gone to the innkeeper and asked for some food, since his master was in a hurry to continue his journey. The innkeeper replied: ‘If you are in such a hurry, why don’t you go already?’ “I quickly responded to my attendant: ‘If that is the case, this indeed is the place for me.
We are not going anywhere.’ “I went downstairs and extended my hand: ‘Shalom.’ The innkeeper ignored me.
“‘Why don’t you say shalom to me?’ “‘If I say hello to each guest,’ responded the innkeeper, ‘and inquire about his well-being, where is he coming from and where is he going to, it is entirely possible that a poor, hungry traveler will enter my inn and I won’t be able to attend to him because I am busy talking to the other guests. I therefore took upon myself not to get stuck saying hello.’ “‘But I am a hassidic master!’ I protested.
“‘I don’t say hello to rabbis, either,’ explained the innkeeper.
“‘But I am a great master!’ “‘I am, too,’ said the innkeeper.
“‘You are a great hassidic master?!’ I wondered incredulously. ‘In what way are you a great master?’ “The innkeeper responded with a question: ‘In what way are you a great hassidic master?’ “Without thinking, I responded: ‘I can see on your forehead your entire life story.’ “‘I, too, can see on your forehead your entire life story,’ retorted the innkeeper.
“I lifted my hat. ‘Indeed? What is my story?’ I challenged the innkeeper.
“‘I can see on your forehead that you cannot see on my forehead anything!’” After describing this trying, humbling – perhaps even degrading – experience, the Tolne Rebbe concluded: “That was how I learned that when you are traveling, you don’t act like a hassidic master.”
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.