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Thursday
Sep122019

A Heartfelt Confession at Age 93…

He was one of the great opponents of the nascent Chassidic movement; He was the life-force of the committee of Lithuanian rabbis of Vilna, Slutzk, Brisk and Shklov who proclaimed a cherem against the Baal Shem Tov

– PART I –

There was great excitement in the town. The great gaon, Rabbi Shlomo Refael’s had made a surprise visit to visit Rabbi Chanoch, the old rav of the town. A visit by such a distinguished personality doesn’t happen every day.

Who was R’ Shlomo Refael’s? What was he like and why did he exert himself to visit this small town?

R’ Shlomo Refael’s lived in Shvintzian and was known for his genius and outstanding fear of heaven.  For fifty years he had sat in the beis medrash of the “perushim” and immersed himself in Torah study without raising his eyes to look outside his four cubits.

R’ Shlomo Refael’s was one of the great opponents of the nascent Chassidic movement. He was one of the leaders of the rabbinic committee of Lithuanian rabbis who proclaimed a ban against the Baal Shem Tov and his movement. This committee of rabbanim united all the large Jewish communities such as Vilna, Slutzk, Brisk and Shklov.

So extreme was his opposition to Chassidus that a Chassid could not even step foot in Shvintzian. He instilled this spirit in his sons, sons-in-law and mechutanim and in this spirit they raised their children and descendants.

He was 63 when he traveled in 5517/1757 to Vilna to participate with the geonim of Vilna, Slutzk and Shklov in proclaiming a ban against the Baal Shem Tov.

It was actually due to his opposition that he exerted himself to go to the little town where R’ Chanoch was the rav, in order to convince him to join the ban against the “cult” of Chassidim. With a pained heart he told his host that the new approach (he never used the terms “Chassidus” and “Chassidim”) was spreading rapidly even in Lithuanian towns, the strongholds of the Torah world. Many of the scholars and geonim had already started to join the path of Chassidus, some openly and someone secretly. All this was under the leadership of the Alter Rebbe who sent secret agents to various towns. These “agents” worked hard to “entice” the students of the yeshivos and kollelim to learn about the world of Chassidus and Chassidim.

Therefore, R’ Shlomo Refael’s insisted that R’ Chanoch join the ban against the “cult.”

R’ Chanoch gave his attention and thought to this request. He did not want to sign on the ban for he never got involved in any dispute; he was particular about staying away from arguments. However, he did not want to gainsay the great rav who had made the effort to personally come to his small town.

In the end, R’ Chanoch answered cleverly, “Surely it is a holy obligation on the gedolei Yisrael to investigate the Chassidim and then to issue a din Torah. I would like to join my name to this declaration, but I cannot because of the following reason:

“Forty years ago, I went into exile, going from town to town and village to village. One day, I met a wayfarer. He looked like anyone else but when I got to talking to him, I discovered an outstanding Torah scholar, a hidden tzaddik. We went together for three months and during this time I acquired much Torah. I received from him great and lofty insights.  Before we parted ways, he (I never knew his name) warned me to stay away from three things. One of the things was, never to get involved in a dispute.

“So you see, even though my view is opposed to the Chassidim, I never got involved in disputes. I implore your honor not to compel me to break my resolution and join you. If you fulfill my request, may Hashem bless you in everything you do.”

R’ Shlomo agreed that this reason was justified and did not urge him any further.

 – PART II –

The Alter Rebbe paid a visit to Shvintzian in the days following Succos 5547/1787. Masses of people came to greet him and accord him honor. He spent three weeks there in the course of which he delivered many maamarei Chassidus and received many people for private audiences.

Shvintzian underwent many upheavals since the days of R’ Shlomo and his family’s sharp opposition against the Chassidic movement. The reason that the Alter Rebbe’s visit aroused no opposition had nothing to do with the passing of R’ Shlomo Refael’s or anything like that. On the contrary, R’ Shlomo ruled Shvintzian uncontested, and all community matters were conducted according to his ruling or that of his children. Nobody made a move without his approval. Then why was there no opposition?

The real reason was unknown. It happened suddenly one fine day. That day, R’ Shlomo sent an urgent message to the geonim of Vilna, Slutzk, Brisk, Minsk and Shklov and told them that even though he had fought against the Chassidim until now, he had decided to step away from the battle. In addition, he ordered his sons and grandsons not to talk with him about these matters any more.

R’ Shlomo went back to his place in the beis medrash to study Torah with his usual tremendous exertion. His dropping out of the fray left the geonim of Lithuania stunned and confused. Nobody understood why this had happened. Everyone knew that all the proclamations that had been issued until now, from the strongholds of the Misnagdim against the Chassidim, had been initiated by R’ Shlomo Refael’s. Now, of all times, he had left the battle while the Chassidim were making inroads among the bnei Torah of the town?!

An urgent meeting was called. The geonim, askanim and various leaders rushed to Vilna to plan what to do next. Nobody could figure out what prompted the change in R’ Shlomo.

In the end, the elders of the meeting decided that before choosing a replacement to wave the banner of opposition, they had to send a delegation to Shvintzian to try and convince R’ Shlomo to change his mind. If he would still refuse to retract his decision they would choose someone else.

The delegation left the very next day for the home of R’ Shlomo to check things out for themselves. They spent three days with him and all their attempts to engage him on the subject met with failure. R’ Shlomo welcomed them graciously, spoke to them about divrei Torah and halacha, but refused to discuss his dropping out of the battle, saying that he had his reasons.

On the final day, before the delegation left, one of them dared to ask, choosing his words carefully, “Have you found out that the members of the cult are fine, Torah and mitzvos observant Jews and is this why you no longer want to oppose them?”

The others held their breath in fear. What a bold question to have asked! Could someone even utter such a terrible possibility as this, that the great gaon had come to recognize the truth of the way of the Chassidim?!

R’ Shlomo did not become angry. He thought briefly and then said quietly, “I have no doubt about it!”

The delegation was thunderstruck.

 – PART III –

This radical change occurred after the visit of the gaon Rabbi Yosef Kolbo to Shvintzian. R’ Yosef (called “Kol-bo” because he contained everything, all knowledge) was formerly one of the big opponents who changed his mind and became an ardent Chassid of the Alter Rebbe. On his visit to Shvintzian, R’ Yosef attracted many souls to the ways of Chassidus. He spoke with the young men and budding Torah scholars in learning, then steered the conversations to the proper approach to acquiring Torah, fine character and fear of heaven. They saw that a man far and away beyond them stood before them, a tzaddik, a sage, and a man of greatness.

Within a short time, he had been able to attract numerous young men to Liozna where they entered the world of Chassidus.

In time, a number of descendants of R’ Shlomo were also attracted to the Chassidic movement. Two of his grandsons, R’ Moshe Gedalia and R’ Pinchas Eliyahu, were students in the Alter Rebbe’s chadarim. R’ Shlomo displayed extra fondness for these grandsons and would often listen to the words of Torah and Chassidus that they learned in Liozna.

Nobody understood the reason for R’ Shlomo’s sudden change of heart. It was a great mystery.

Since R’ Shlomo no longer fought the Chassidim, the Chassidim saw the opportunity to deepen their hold among the bnei Torah in town which is why they had invited the Alter Rebbe to come and visit.

When the Rebbe arrived in Shvintzian, many came out to welcome him. Many Chassidim already lived in this town.  The highlight of the visit was when R’ Shlomo, the old gaon, who had already passed the age of 90, personally dragged himself to pay a visit to the lodging of the Alter Rebbe in order to welcome him with honor. The excitement of the masses was great.

On this visit, R’ Shlomo asked the Alter Rebbe many questions that he had accumulated over the years and the Alter Rebbe responded to each one clearly. R’ Shlomo’s amazement and excitement were stupendous.

The Alter Rebbe spent more than two weeks in Shvintzian and during this time he received many for yechidus and said many maamarei Chassidus.

On the final Shabbos, parashas Vayeira, the crowds gathered in the central beis medrash. The Alter Rebbe went up and began to deliver deep discourses in Chassidus. These discourses infused the large crowd with tremendous excitement and warmth.

When he finished speaking, the crowd was in a state of great excitement and utterances of amazement could be heard from the people.

While the crowd was still marveling at the depth of what they heard, the bent-over figure of R’ Shlomo could be seen. He leaned on his grandsons and was making his way toward the speakers stage. Despite his advanced age, his eyes sparkled like that of a young boy.

R’ Shlomo raised a shaking hand and asked the crowd to listen. “I am old and my voice is weak,” he said apologetically.

“Morai V’Rabbosai, I recall my sins this day. Thirty years ago, I attended a meeting of geonim who went out against the founder of the Chassidic movement, the tzaddik Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov. I stood here and said that my intentions were entirely for the sake of heaven.

“For seven years, I waged a war against those whom I thought sought to destroy the vineyard of the Torah observant world.

“This is why many were perplexed when I ceased waging this war. Now, as I stand in this holy place, I can tell you the reason.

“It was on my birthday, when I turned 70. I was preoccupied with a difficult subject in the tractate Menachos. I had a difficult question and all my attempts at resolving it failed. While working on it, I fell asleep and my head fell forward on my Gemara. In my dream there appeared a luminous figure, enveloped in glory and splendor. ‘I am Yisrael Baal Shem Tov,’ said the image. ‘I am the leader of the Chassidim that you and your fellows excommunicated. This ban was made not according to Torah as it entailed no investigation on your part. Repent your ways!’

“I woke up agitated and confused. I thought about the dream and realized that the man was right as we had conducted no exhaustive investigation of the Chassidim before issuing the ban. As the Baal Shem Tov demanded, I began quietly making inquiries and ultimately came to the conclusion that the Chassidim are indeed particular in the observance of all mitzvos. Ever since that point in time, seven years after the outbreak of the war against them, I pulled out of the matter.

“Since then, more than 20 years have passed and throughout these years, I continued to detect and carefully observe the conduct and customs of the Chassidim.

“I am 93 years old today, Morai V’Rabbosai, and as I stand now in the House of Hashem, I saw unequivocally, ‘Boruch Ata Hashem, Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam, Shehechiyanu V’Kiyemanu V’higiyanu L’zman Ha’zeh’ for the opportunity to meet face to face with the Gadol, the Gaon and Tzaddik, Rebbi Shneur Zalman. The man who brought thousands of sons of the Jewish people to true fear of Heaven, and yagdil Torah v’ya’adir.”

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