(This Torah-shmuess was said in the city of Nikolsburg, Czech Republic, during a trip to visit the gravesite of Rebbe Shmelke of Nikolsburg zt”l on occasion of his yartzeit)
אשה כי תזריע וילדה זכר וגו' עד מלאת ימי טהרה.
“When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male…. and thirty three days she shall wait… until the days of her purifying will be complete.” (Vayikra 12:2)
We are now in a city in which the greatest giants of Torah Jewry lived. In this city, the sounds of Torah reverberated through the streets at all hours of the day and night. Our saintly master, the holy tzaddik Reb Shmelke, established here his famous Yeshiva that included as students the great tzaddikim Reb Moshe Leib Sossover, the holy Chozeh, and according to some the holy Barditchiver tzaddik, whose greatness is beyond our comprehension.
Reb Shmelke was like an angel of Hashem, and even the non-Jewish emperor of his country titled him so. This took place when the emperor made a decree that was detrimental to the Jewish community in his kingdom. Reb Shmelke traveled to the capital city in order to meet the emperor and request that the decree be annulled. He arrived at the riverbank opposite the capital, but was unable to cross. It was at the end of the winter and the frozen river was beginning to thaw. Large blocks of ice were interspersed with semi-frozen water, creating a very dangerous, impassable waterway.
Reb Shmelke was determined to cross the river, but he was unable to find a boatman who was willing to risk such a trip. The floating ice could tear apart any type of vessel that dared to set out on the river. Finally, Reb Shmelke found a small, dilapidated boat on the riverside and stepped into it along with his trusted disciple, Reb Moshe Leib. The boat was so tiny, they didn’t even have room to sit! Reb Shmelke started to sing the shirah that Bnei Yisroel sang after the Splitting of the Sea, and sure enough, the huge ice blocks split apart to allow the boat to pass!
The entire population of the capital city came running to the riverfront to witness this miraculous spectacle. The river was visible from the imperial palace, and the Emperor watched the entire scene from his window. Upon seeing the two tzaddikim alighting from the boat, the emperor remarked in awe, “These are ‘angelmen’ – angels!”
People of such greatness and unbelievable Torah-powers populated Nikolsburg. Their miraculous powers were not the only facet of their greatness. Their devotion to learning Torah with their last bits of strength was equally legendary. It is told that the scholars of Nikolsburg would tie their peyos (hair) to the lower edges of the rafters, so that if they dozed off while learning in the wee hours of the morning, they would be awakened instantly by their pulling hair. This is how they studied Torah, disregarding their fatigue and discomfort!
And they didn’t just learn – they learned with such fear of Heaven we cannot even comprehend such greatness. Reb Shmelke obligated one of his students to ensure that he – the Rebbe – would not forget about Hashem’s presence while learning. The student never needed to remind the Rebbe, but one day, he saw the Rebbe so deeply immersed in learning that he cleared his throat to speak up and remind him about Hashem’s presence. The Rebbe saw this and nodded to him, saying, “I remember, I remember.”
We cannot comprehend their greatness in Torah, their fear of Heaven and their devotion to serving Hashem. It is so painful to see this city in a state of spiritual desolation, without the sounds of Torah, without the sounds of prayer. This certainly pains the saintly tzaddikim who rest in this city. It is our responsibility to make the most of our short stay here and learn as much Torah as possible. When we will visit the holy gravesite of Reb Shmelke on Motzei Shabbos, he should be proud of us and grateful that after so many barren years, the sounds of Torah and an atmosphere of purity and holiness were returned to Nikolsburg.
The Gemara says that at the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdosh, Avrohom Avinu came to intercede for the Jewish people. Upon seeing Avrohom, Hashem said, “How come My friend has come to My home?” This is a puzzling remark, for Hashem’s “home” was already destroyed. Besides, a friend is always welcome and his presence should not be questioned.
When Avrohom came towards Hashem, he brought along with him the same spiritual aura that existed when the Bais Hamikdosh stood, hence the question, “How come My friend has come to My home? My home no longer exists, so how is he there?”
The same could be said, albeit on a lower scale, when we recapture the spiritual aura that our masters and teachers left behind. Before Reb Shmelke became the Rov of Nikolsburg, he was Rov in Shiniva. Years later, when the saintly tzaddik, the Yismach Moshe, was Rov in Shiniva, he lived in the same house in which Reb Shmelke had lived. He sensed a special aura of holiness, full of love and fear of Heaven, which he said was left behind by Reb Shmelke.
Reb Shmelke certainly left behind large doses of love and fear of Heaven here in Nikolsburg. There is much discussion among Chassidic masters as to which of these attributes come first. Should a person first work on developing a deep love of Hashem or should he first work on developing his awe of Him? The saintly Maggid would say that the attribute of loving Hashem is a very lofty concept, and it can only be achieved through fear of Heaven. He used a statement of the Gemara (Kiddushin 2b) to imply that since “fear” is referred to in feminine terms while “love and kindness” is referred to in masculine terms, the fear of Heaven should be developed first.
Using this teaching, we can see a similar lesson in the first verse of this week’s Torah portion. “When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male…” The Hebrew word for woman – isha – is an acronym for the Hebrew words “Our master Shmuel Shmelke Halevi Horowitz,” the Rebbe of Nikolsburg. The fear of Heaven (hinted at by the word “woman”) that our Rebbe has implanted here can give birth to love of Hashem (hinted at by the word “male”). By upholding his legacy and following his teachings, we can achieve the supremely lofty attribute of loving Hashem.
The verse continues, mentioning the 33 days of purity. We are now approaching Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day of counting the Omer, when thousands flock to the gravesite of the holy Tana Reb Shimon bar Yochai. Why do we come to the gravesite of a tzaddik to pray? Hashem is everywhere, and we can pray to Him from our own homes without incurring so many travel expenses and spending so much time on the road. But the verse is telling us that although we are leaving our shuls and yeshivos and cannot uphold our regular Torah study sessions while traveling to the tzaddik, we benefit so much from the holiness of the tzaddik that it “completes our days with purity.” Indeed, by traveling to the tzaddik’s gravesite, we achieve far more than could be accomplished at home.
May the merit of the tzaddik Reb Shmelke protect us and may we merit continuing his legacy until the coming of Moshiach.