The beautiful and sensitive prose of Isaac Leib Peretz (1851–1915) brings us a well-known Hasidic tale, an abridged version of which is presented here.
A long time ago, during the days of Selichot, the Rebbe of Nemirov used to disappear every morning. He is nowhere to be found — neither in the house of study nor hall of prayer, nor home. “Where could he be?” everyone wondered. People thought that in these Days of Awe the Rebbe rose to Heaven every morning to seek help.
One day, a Litvak who came to town scorned this idea. That same afternoon, after prayer, he went into the Rebbe’s room without being seen and hid beneath his bed. He stayed there all night until he could see, with his own eyes, where the master went.
In the middle of the night, by the time they heard the call for the Selichot prayers, the Rebbe had already been awake for quite some time. At that time he got up and got dressed in lumberjack clothes: linen pants, boots, a coat, and a fur hat with a wide leather strap. He could see that from the coat’s pocket hung the end of a countryman’s rope, and in his belt he hung an ax. The Rebbe left the house and the Litvak followed him. The Rebbe walked for a long time and got far away from the town until he was well into a small forest. The Litvak sees, amazed, that the rabbi hefts the hand-axe from his peasant belt. With blow after blow, he cuts the dead tree to cordwood, the cordwood into sticks, ropes it all into a mighty bundle, and heaves the bundle to his back. He returned the ax to his belt and marched back toward the city. In one of the back streets, the Rebbe stops at a tumble-down shack, and taps at the cracked, paper-glued window.
“Who is there?” cries someone fearfully from within.
“I,” answers the Rebbe, in a villager’s accent.
“Who are you?” insisted the voice from inside the shack.
The Rebbe replied again, in the same accent:
“I know no Vassil,” the voice quavers, “what do you want?”
“I have firewood to sell,” said Vasil in his disguise, “and very cheap, too.”
Awaiting no permission, he enters the hovel. The Litvak slips in and sees a sick old Jewish woman lying in a broken bed barely a step away. She said bitterly:
“Wood to sell, but how shall I buy, a poor widow with no money?”
“I will lend it to you! No more than six cents.”
“How would I ever repay it?”
“Woman,” the Rebbe interrupted her, “you are a poor Jewish woman who is sick, I trust you enough to give you some log and I am sure you will pay me back.”
“And who will kindle the wood?” she sighed. “Does it look like I have the strength to get up? My son is out working.”
“Fire I can also kindle,” said the Rebbe.
And while he set the log, with a sigh, he said the first of the Selichot prayers. As a flicker licks bravely up in the stove, under his breath he recites the second portion of the Selichot, already feeling less sad. He recited the third prayer when the fire already burned…
At precisely that moment, the Litvak became a disciple of the Rebbe of Nemirov.
After that, whenever someone told the story of the Rebbe of Nemirov who, during the days of Selichot, got up early in the morning to ascend to Heaven, the Litvak, instead of laughing, added quietly:
“Or even higher.”
We study in the Talmud a debate on kavanah, the intention we put in our actions, and how it interferes in the search of kaparah, atonement, and of selichah, forgiveness. Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said: “Greater is an aveirah, a transgression, committed for the sake of Heaven, than a mitzvah, a good deed, performed not for the sake of Heaven” (Talmud, Nazir 23b).
This teaching reminds me of the Rebbe of Nemirov, who walked away from the house of prayer during the Selichot prayers. An apparent transgression done for the sake of Heaven can be more elevated than a mitzvah done without kavanah, without a higher intent, one which is not done for the sake of Heaven.
Rabbi Damián Karo
Dean of the Ibero-American Institute for Reform Rabbinical Education