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Weekly Story: I Need The Mansion, But Not For Me

by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon

Being that I am preparing to reprint, Early Chassidic Personalities: Reb Pinchas Reizes, I decided to excerpt one of the stories from the book. As many of you are aware, I added a Farbreng section with thoughts and/or reflections on each story, so that is also being posted. If anyone would like to help publish it, and cover some of the expenses, with a hakdasha, please contact me. Thank you!

Reb Pinchas used some of his fabulous wealth to build a brick mansion for himself. As most of the other houses in the city of Shklov were made of wood, his house stood out. In truth, in Shklov any mansion was a sign of affluence, but a brick mansion was something really spectacular.

When he mentioned to the Alter Rebbe his plans to build the mansion, the Rebbe asked him, “Pinchas, why do you need a brick mansion?”

“Rebbe, believe me,” explained Reb Pinchas, “when I thought about building my house, I shed more tears than there will be bricks. I keep reminding myself, ‘Do I need a brick mansion?’[1]

“But because I will have a mansion, important community meetings will take place in ‘Pinchas’ mansion.’ Since the meeting is taking place in ‘Pinchas’ mansion,’ Pinchas has a say. Once Pinchas has a say, the chassidishe melamed has a job!

“Now, if Pinchas doesn’t have a mansion, the meetings won’t be taking place in Pinchas’ home. Then Pinchas won’t have a say and the chassidishe melamed won’t necessarily have a job.”

The Alter Rebbe responded, “You are right; this is a proper thing for you.”[2]

Likkutei Sippurim, story #28 in the section on the Alter Rebbe

However, we should note, Reb Pinchas did not only assist the melamdim and poor among the chassidim; he helped everyone equally, and this brought about tremendous tolerance and goodwill in Shklov. This was evident from the fact that the misnagdishe talmidei chachomim looked forward to the Alter Rebbe’s frequent visits and to listening to his Torah thoughts.

WHEN HAUGHTINESS IS A VIRTUE, A THOUGHT ON I NEED THE MANSION

Reb Mordechai Liepler was a chossid of the Alter Rebbe. The Alter Rebbe instructed him to settle in the capital of Petersburg and open a jewelry store geared for the nobility, in order to befriend them through his exemplary customer service and extremely reasonable prices. Through these contacts, he would become aware of the new laws being considered and would use his friendship and influence to mitigate the severity of these decrees and the negative effect on the Jewish people.

When he settled there, Reb Mordechai was introduced to a whole new world. Instead of the sheltered life of a Jew in a shtetl, where everyone’s life revolved around the shul, Petersburg was something else entirely. There weren’t a lot of Jews in Petersburg, and the atmosphere was to the likings of the nobility, which did not meet the basic standards of decency and morality.

Reb Mordechai now faced tests and temptations that he never knew existed in his secluded and protected shtetl life. He once exclaimed, “Initially, this new environment almost took control of me. But then I said, ‘I am a chossid of the Rebbe! How can I lower myself to such a level? It is beneath my dignity!’ And that sense of realizing who I am protected me from all those tests.”

Haughtiness is known to all as a terrible trait. Indeed, we beseech Hashem every day in davening to free us from it, and grant us humility instead. Nevertheless, this trait sometimes can and indeed must be used in one’s service of Hashem. As the possuk states, “And his [Dovid HaMelech’s] heart became haughty in the ways of Hashem.”[3]  When it comes to serving Hashem, it is appropriate for a person to feel some self-importance, because his mitzvos are fulfilling the will of Hashem.

In Yiddish, there is a phrase “ess past yuh uhn ess past nisht,” meaning “this is appropriate and this is not appropriate [for a Jew].” Yes, we are a humble lot, but certain things are beneath our dignity. There is a certain way in which a Jew expresses himself in a refined and dignified manner.

Reb Pinchas faced a similar challenge. A brick or stone house was only within reach of a select few in those days. It was a sign of wealth and importance, a declaration of status; traits that are the antithesis of the lifestyle and conduct of a chossid. So the Alter Rebbe asked his dear student, “Why?”

Reb Pinchas replied, “The Rebbe is correct; I personally don’t need it or even care for it. However, through this I will be in a position to help my fellow chassidim, and that is why I am doing it.”[4]

Sensing that this was the truth, the Alter Rebbe blessed him and personally partook in the dedication of the house. This was not just a place of residence, it was a house from which kindness and assistance would come forth.

To present this thought, slightly differently:

A person once delivered a letter from the Baal Shem Tov to the Maggid. Entering the Maggid’s house, he was shocked to see that there was barely any furniture inside. The same board that served as a table, placed on two stumps, became the bed at night, when it was placed on the floor.

Turning to the Maggid, he asked in astonishment, “Where is your furniture?”

The Maggid replied by asking him the same question: “And where is yours?”

“My furniture is in my house,” he answered. “The only reason you don’t see it is because I am traveling right now. But this is your home, so where is yours?”

The Maggid replied “I am also traveling now. In my home [i.e. in Gan Eden], you will find my furniture.”

So yes, the Maggid was extremely modest. Not only didn’t he own luxuries, he was careful not to have more than the most basic necessities.

However, his great-grandson, known as the heilige Ruzhiner, lived in luxury. He travelled in a wagon of which even the Czar of Russia was envious of, and he wore boots made out of gold.

Some might ask, “Doesn’t modesty apply to all aspects of one’s conduct? A person should not ostentatiously show off his riches. Why did the Ruzhiner live with so much luxury?”

The answer is: At the same time the Ruzhiner wore golden boots, there were holes in the soles. In other words, the Ruzhiner felt that the gentiles and nobility looked down at the “poor” Jew. So in order to enhance the image of a Jew, he dressed and traveled in the above-described style. However, he never felt any sense of personal satisfaction from his riches.

The same is true here. The Alter Rebbe questioned Reb Pinchas, “Why are you building a mansion? Do you think you are better or more important than others? Are you showing off chas v’sholom? Don’t you realize that Hashem despises one who is haughty? This one act can pull you down tremendously. It is dangerous!”

Reb Pinchas replied, “I am aware of these pitfalls, and I have shed tremendous amounts of tears over this. However, while haughtiness, as the Rebbe pointed out, is a despicable trait and must be totally uprooted, it can sometimes serve an important purpose. As the possuk states, ‘And his heart was uplifted in the ways of Hashem.’”[5]

When a person reflects and realizes that he was entrusted by Hashem, the Creator of the entire Universe, to successfully accomplish his mission, how can he let Him down? He must and will persevere!

In this area, not only is haughtiness not frowned upon, it is laudable and in fact a necessity.

So Reb Pinchas stated, “The mansion is not for me. I personally don’t need it; it is simply a way in which I can help others.”

This brings us to a final thought on this story.

Many people feel comfortable in their own home. They feel that in the privacy of their house, they could do as they feel; after all, it is their own house. However, Reb Pinchas knew and stated, everything a person has is there in order to serve Hashem: “Yes, I have a large house, but it is only to enable me to help another Jew.”

Reb Pinchas stated that a person should envision his own house only as a place where Hashem’s glory should be present and be manifested. The Alter Rebbe was so pleased with this response that he came to the dedication and said a maamar.[6]

This is what the Rebbe requested from us when he asked us to turn our homes into Chabad Houses. Just as a Chabad House on campus or in a far-flung town serves the Jewish community at large, so, too, we should perceive our own house as a place from where G-dliness emanates.[7]

Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran mechanech and the author of numerous books on the Rebbeim and their chassidim. He is available to farbreng in your community and can be contacted at avtzonbooks@gmail.com

[1] The reasons not to have such a house are discussed later on in the story, “Humble Youself.”

[2] There is a maamar in Likkutei Torah, (Devarim p. 98d) that begins with the words Mizmor Shir Chanukas Habayis. The Rebbe notes that this maamar is also found among the transcriptions of Reb Pinchas with the heading, “Said at the dedication of a brick mansion, on the twentieth of Teves ז”תקס) “1807). It is believed that this Maamar was said at the dedication of Reb Pinchas’ house. However, in his humility, Reb Pinchas did not write that it was said in honor of his chanukas habayis.

[3] . II Divrei Hayomim 17:6.

[4]   This is similar to a story that occurred with a chossid of the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek. There was a city that was looking for a Rov and a shochet at the same time. The chassidim living there asked the Tzemach Tzedek, “Since our city includes both chassidim and misnagdim, for which position should we demand that the chosen one be a chossid?”

The Rebbe replied, “A chassidishe Rov would be nice, but it is not a necessity. However, for a chassidishe shochet one has to have mesiras nefesh.”

So they informed the communal leaders that they were not interested in creating arguments and wanted to continue living in peace. “While we know of many chassidishe rabbonim who would be appropriate for the position,” they said, “If the misnagdim are eager to have one of their own serve as the Rov, for the sake of peace we will accept their proposal.” Indeed that is what happened; they chose a misnagdishe Rov.

Now that a Rov had been chosen, the next question was who should the shochet. The chassidim said, “We allowed you to decide on your own who should be the Rov. Let us choose the shochet, one we are confident you will agree is extremely qualified.”

The lay leaders of the community were willing to accept this compromise. However, the new Rov said it was his prerogative to choose the shochet, as he was the most knowledgeable person in the town.

Hearing this, one of the chassidishe melamdim stood up and said, “The Rov just paskened that the most knowledgeable person in town should make the decision. So I am presenting myself as that person, and I will make the decision.”

The chassidim were shocked. Yes, the melamed was an extremely pious chossid and that is why they hired him as the melamed for their children, but why was he so presumptuous as to claim that he was more knowledgeable than the Rov?

However, the Rov seized the opportunity and agreed to debate the melamed.

The chossid deferred to the Rov to choose any masechta of Gemora he wished to discuss. Since he was learning a specific mesechta, the Rov took it out and challenged the chossid: “What does the Gemora say on this particular page?” Without looking inside, the chassidishe melamed began saying it verbatim and, after a few lines, he turned to the Rov and asked him to continue.

The Rov continued and then both began saying the Rashi, as well as the Tosofos on the page, verbatim. The people were astounded; they never imagined that this chossid was so learned (and they were also pleased with their choice of Rov). The chossid then began saying the commentary of the Maharsh”a (Reb Shmuel Eliezer HaLevi Eidels) by heart and then asked the Rov to continue. Since he wasn’t able to do so, he stood by his statement and allowed the chassidishe melamed to choose the shochet.

Later, the chassidim turned to their colleague and asked, “Why did you show off your scholarship?”

In his simplicity, he replied, “What could I do? The Rebbe stated that one must have mesiras nefesh to hire a chassidishe shochet, so regretfully, I had no choice but to demonstrate my knowledge.”

The melamed didn’t do it for himself or for his own honor; he only did it so that the wishes of the Rebbe be fulfilled.

[5] II Divrei Hayomim 17:6.

[6] Published in Likkutei Torah, Devorim 98d.

[7] See our overview in Early Chassidic Personalities Reb Binyomin Kletzker, pp. 119-137. There it is explained that this in essence the meaning of the two sayings of our Sages Kol ma’asecha yihiyu l’shem shomayim (Pirkei Avos 2:12) and B’chol derachecha da’eihu (Mishlet 3:6)

 

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