THE GAON AND THE DRUNK
January 9, 2018
Menachem Ziegelboim in #1101, 24 Teives, Story

Presented for Chaf-Dalet Teves, the hilula of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman 

PART I

The Alter Rebbe had Chassidim who were giants of spirit, powerhouses of soul, and although they were “mere” Chassidim, they were men of stature.

When the Alter Rebbe remained in Russia after Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk left for Eretz Yisroel, the Rebbe began sending rays of light of the teachings of Chassidus to every city and town in greater Russia.

At first, the Chassidim numbered only a few and the Chassidic movement was quite limited, but every day, more and more discovered the pure light of Chassidus and went to Liozna to see for themselves if what they had heard was indeed true.

One of those spiritual greats was Reb Yudel, who went to the Alter Rebbe in a way that was somewhat different than the others. He remained with the Alter Rebbe for years. Indeed, sometimes souls are drawn close in unconventional ways, sometimes, when necessary, even through homeless drunks who wander from place to place.

PART II

His clothes in tatters and with the odor of vodka constantly wafting from his mouth; this characterized the anonymous drifter who circulated through the cities and towns. He had a tall, thin frame, with protruding cheek bones, and he dragged his feet slowly. But the thing that drew the most attention were his eyes. A strange glittering spark shone from his eyes and the question was whether it was because of his constant state of drunkenness or because of a deep secret that lay hidden behind his bizarre exterior.

Very few knew him or knew who he was. The Volper is what they called him, but few knew that his name was Rabbi Chaim Volper, son of Koppel. Those few also knew that the Volper was an outstanding Torah scholar and used to be one of the students of the Mezritcher Maggid. He had even sat together with the Chassidic greats such as Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, Reb Pinchas – author of the Haflaa and his brother Reb Shmelke; Reb Zushe of Anipoli and his brother, Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk; and even with the youngest of the group, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. Together, they absorbed Torah and Chassidus from the great Maggid.

However, the Volper had special qualities that made him unique in the group. He could repeat what the Maggid said better than any of them and therefore, often, after the Maggid finished saying his holy teachings, they would go over to him to hear a review of what was said. When he opened his mouth, what emerged was clear and sweet and his listeners understood and were entranced. “At first, he was the greatest of the group, and everyone went over to him to hear the teachings of the Maggid,” writes the author of Beis Rebbi.

The Rebbe Rashab added that of all the students of the Maggid, there were only two who received all of the Maggid’s teachings, while the other students were unable to contain the greatness and intensity of the holiness of the teachings of the Maggid. For example, the tzaddik, Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin, would suffer from bloody diarrhea, and Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev would take leave of his senses from ecstasy and excitement when the Maggid spoke. Only the Alter Rebbe, R’ Shneur Zalman and the Rav from Volpe listened till the end.

Nobody knows how the Volper’s fall ensued. The students of the Maggid alluded to a worm that ate him from within for some time. Eventually he took to alcohol and was often quite drunk. He would even go to the tavern where he drank to inebriation.

He spoke little about himself, but when it came to Torah subjects he did not hold back. Wherever he went on his wanderings from town to town, he would pour forth Torah and wisdom and even share secrets of the Torah. When “wine entered,” out came the secrets of Torah. Listeners, who did not grasp the depth of what he was saying would often mock him.

One day, the Volper arrived in Liozna in White Russia and, as was his wont, he headed to the local beis midrash.

The Alter Rebbe was sitting with great Chassidim and outstanding Torah scholars, delivering a Chassidic discourse. The Volper crowded into a corner of the beis midrash and in a rare moment of sobriety and clearheaded awareness he leaned his head on his two hands and listened with concentration. Nobody turned to him and nobody even paid attention that he was there.

When the Alter Rebbe finished, he left the beis midrash. The Volper also left the beis midrash with his pack on his shoulder, intending to leave Liozna. Before leaving the beis midrash he gave a loud laugh, and announced suddenly, with an odd smile, which hinted to some inner pain or nostalgia, “Ah, we all ate from one bowl, but he got all the cream.”

Two of the talmidim who stood nearby grasped the implications of what was said and were greatly surprised. They realized that something was afoot. Before they could ask, he was gone.

Word got around until it reached the Alter Rebbe. His face darkened as though a cloud had passed over it. “That was the Volper,” he said sadly. “If I knew he was here, I would have convinced him to stay with us and wander no longer.”

PART III

The Volper continued his wanderings. This was the will and decree of divine providence, which surely involved some sublime rectification.

The Volper arrived in Vilna, a big city full of Torah scholars, rabbanim and dayanim. He was anonymous and nobody paid any attention to him. He entered a hekdesh (homeless shelter) where he was given a hot meal. After that, he removed a bottle of vodka from his worn bag, filled up a big cup, and drank deeply.

The drunk stretched out in his place and went to sleep on top of the warm stove while revealing secrets of the Torah that were never heard before. He quoted works of Kabbala, interwoven with concepts in p’nimius ha’Torah and every so often burst out in drunken laughter.

Present was the gaon, Rabbi Boruch Mordechai Ettinger, who was known among the geniuses of Vilna as the “ilui from Shventzian” and “the master of logic.” He noticed that the man was not merely a drunk and he kept a sharp eye on him. When R’ Chaim Volper left the room for a few minutes, he began to quickly rifle through his belongings to find some writings of the Mezritcher Maggid. Suddenly, the Volper entered and caught him in the midst of his search.

“Ach,” the Volper waved his hand dismissively, “to you, the Rebbe and his teachings are one thing, and the Chassidim are something else, which is why you need the writings. By us, the Rebbe and the teachings and the Chassidim are one thing.”

On a different occasion, when the Volper went to a tavern in Vilna, this time too, he said lofty words of Torah which were not the usual fare. They rolled off his tongue with both genius and clarity. Nobody who was present noticed R’ Yudel who was standing nearby and listening closely to what the drunk was saying.

R’ Yudel was a distinguished Torah scholar, and people honored him and respected his opinion. He was one of the outstanding students of the Vilna Gaon and therefore, he had a place of honor in the beis midrash, near the eastern wall.

R’ Yudel was in the tavern for some reason, when he suddenly noticed what the drunk, lying prostrate and warming himself by the oven, was saying. At first he thought his ears were deceiving him, but the more he listened, the more his amazement grew. He realized that this person wasn’t an empty vessel but an extraordinary Torah scholar expert in Nigleh and Kabbala.

R’ Yudel stood there for a long time, astounded by what he heard, until the drunkard gave a drunken snore and nearly fell asleep. R’ Yudel approached him and shook him by the shoulder.

“Tell me, my dear brother,” he said loudly in his ear, “from whom did you get all this?”

The Volper looked at him through one eye and Yudel saw the odd flash in his eyes and recoiled.

“Ah, ah,” stammered the drunk. “You want to know where I got this from?”

R’ Yudel silently nodded. His astonishment rendered him mute.

“Naaah,” the drunk said in a strange whisper. “The one from whom I got it, you can no longer get from. But if you want Torah thoughts like these, go to Liozna where you will find what your soul seeks.”

R’ Yudel moved backward in dismay. He knew good and well whom he’d find in Liozna. He knew this because he was one of those who fought vigorously against the teachings of Chassidus and those who learned it.

What the drunkard said entered his heart and a fierce battle was waged therein. “If this drunk knows so much, what does the Rebbe himself know?!”

A few days passed before he dared to make the decision to go to Liozna and learn Torah from the tzaddik, Rabbi Shneur Zalman. He understood good and well that there was much for him to learn in that place.

PART IV

Like many other Torah greats, R’ Yudel went to Liozna. He ultimately became an ardent Chassid of the Alter Rebbe. He was a great maskil in Chassidus (who is also written about in Beis Rebbi). Later on, the Rebbe sent him to Liepli to serve as rav and to bring the light of Chassidus to the townspeople.

As for the Volper, Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin said about him, “It seems to me that he died in repentance.”

 

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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