By Yiddish WriterYehudah Leibush (Y.L.) Peretz.
what follows is a translation by Harvard Yiddish professor Ruth Wisse.)
Early every Friday morning, at the time of the Selichos Prayers, in the days before Rosh Hashanah, the Rebbe of Nemirov would vanish.
He was nowhere to be seen - neither in the synagogue nor in the two study houses nor at a minyan. And he was certainly not at home. His door stood open: whoever wished could go in and out; no one would steal from the Rebbe. But not a living creature was within.
Where could the Rebbe be? Where should he be? In heaven, no doubt. A Rebbe has plenty of business to take care of just before the Days of Awe. Jews, G-d bless them, need livelihood, peace, health, and good matches. They want to be pious and good, but our sins are so great, and Satan of the thousand eyes watches the whole earth from one end to the other. What he sees, he reports; he denounces, informs. Who can help us if not the Rebbe!
That’s what the people thought.
But once a Litvak (a Jew from Lithuania where they opposed the sentimental emotions and spiritual feelings of Chassidim and their Rebbes) came, and he laughed. You know the Litvaks. They think little of the holy mystical books but stuff themselves with Talmud and law. So this Litvak points to a passage in the Talmud - it sticks in your eyes - where it is written that even Moses our Teacher did not ascend to heaven during his lifetime but remained suspended two and a half feet below. Go argue with a Litvak!
So where can the Rebbe be?
"That’s not my business," said the Litvak, shrugging. Yet all the while - what a Litvak can do! - he is scheming to find out.
That same night, right after the evening prayers, the Litvak steals into the Rebbe’s room, slides under the Rebbe’s bed, and waits. He’ll watch all night and discover where the Rebbe vanishes and what he does during the Selichos Prayers.
Someone else might have gotten drowsy and fallen asleep, but a Litvak is never at a loss; he recites a whole tractate of the Talmud by heart.
At dawn he hears the call to prayers.
The Rebbe has already been awake for a long time. The Litvak has heard him groaning for a whole hour.
Whoever has heard the Rebbe of Nemirov groan knows how much sorrow for all Israel, how much suffering, lies in each groan. A man’s heart might break, hearing it. But a Litvak is made of iron; he listens and remains where he is. The Rebbe - long life to him! - lies on the bed, and the Litvak under the bed.
Then the Litvak hears the beds in the house begin to creak; he hears people jumping out of their beds; mumbling a few Jewish words, pouring water on their fingernails, banging doors. Everyone has left. It is again quiet and dark; a bit of light from the moon shines through the shutters.
Finally the Rebbe - long life to him! - arises. First, he does what befits a Jew. Then he goes to the clothes closet and takes out a bundle of peasant clothes: linen trousers, high boots, a coat, a big felt hat, and a long, wide leather belt studded with brass nails. The Rebbe gets dressed. From his coat pocket dangles the end of a heavy peasant rope.
The Rebbe goes out, and the Litvak follows him.
On the way the Rebbe stops in the kitchen, bends down, takes an ax from the bed, puts it into his belt, and leaves the house. The Litvak trembles but continues to follow.
The hushed dread of the Days of Awe hangs over the dark streets. Every once in a while a cry rises from some minyan reciting the Selichos Prayers, or from a sickbed. The Rebbe hugs the sides of the streets, keeping to the shade of the houses. He glides from house to house, and the Litvak after him. The Litvak hears the sound of his heartbeats mingling with the sound of the Rebbe’s heavy steps. But he keeps on going and follows the Rebbe to the outskirts of town.
A small wood stands just outside the town.
The Rabbe - long life to him! - enters the wood. He takes thirty or forty steps and stops by a small tree. The Litvak, overcome with amazement, watches the Rebbe take the ax out of his belt and strike the tree. He hears the tree creak and fall. The Rebbe chops the tree into logs and the logs into sticks. Then he makes a bundle of the wood and ties it with the rope in his pocket. He puts the bundle of wood on his back, shoves the ax back into his belt, and returns to the town.
He stops at a back street besides a small, broken-down shack and knocks at the window.
"Who is there?" asks a frightened voice. The Litvaks recognizes it as the voice of a sick Jewish woman.
"I" answers the Rebbe in the accent of a peasant.
"Who is I?"
Again the Rebbe answers in Russian. "Vassil."
"Who is Vassil, and what do you want?"
"I have wood to sell, very cheap." And not waiting for the woman’s reply, he goes into the house.
The Litvak steals in after him. In the gray light of early morning he sees a poor room with broken, miserable furnishings. A sick woman, wrapped in rags, lies on the bed. She complains bitterly, "Buy? How can I buy? Where will a poor widow get money?"
"I’ll lend it to you," answers the supposed Vassil. "It’s only six cents."
"And how will I ever pay you back?" asks the poor woman, groaning.
"Foolish one," says the Rebbe reproachfully. "See, you are a poor, sick Jew, and I am ready to trust you with a little wood. I am sure you’ll pay. While you, you have such a great and mighty God and you don’t trust him for six cents."
"And who will kindle the fire?" asks the widow? "Have I the strength to get up? My son is at work."
"I’ll kindle the fire," answers the Rebbe.
As the Rebbe puts the wood into the oven he recited, in a groan, the first portion of the Selichos Prayers.
As he kindled the fire and the wood burned brightly, he recited, a bit more joyously, the second portion of the Selichos Prayers. When the fire was set, he recited the third portion, and then shut the stove.
The Litvak who saw all this became a disciple of the Rebbe.
And ever after, when another disciple tells how the Rebbe of Nemirov ascends to heaven at the time of the Selichos Prayers, the Litvak does not laugh. He only adds quietly:
"If not higher…"
For in Judaism, there is one thing even higher than heaven: bringing it down to earth.
The holy is heaven, says Rabbi Schnuer Zalman in Likkutei Torah. The holy of holy is when heaven is brought down to earth.