The Tzaddik and the Rosh Yeshivah

Rabbi Fred Davidow

There's an old Hasidic proverb, "Give people a fact and you enlighten their minds; tell them a story and you touch their souls."

The master gave his teaching in parables and stories, which his disciples listened to with pleasure - and occasional frustration, for they longed for something deeper. The master was unmoved. To all their objections he would say, "You have yet to understand that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story."

Hear now this story with a truth I pray will touch your souls.

Once there was a famous yeshivah, an academy for training rabbis, which had fallen on very hard times. Formerly its study halls were filled with young scholars and its big synagogue resounded with the chanting of the prayers and the Torah. But now it was avoided by the young seeking wisdom. Students no longer came there to be nourished by prayer and talmudic study. A handful of old rabbis, members of the faculty who had settled in the town with their families, remained but they shuffled through the halls and praised God with heavy hearts.

On the edge of the town where the yeshivah was located, there was a woodsy area, where an old tzaddik, a miracle-working rebbe, had built a little hut. He would come there from time to time to fast and pray. No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from Talmud scholar to Talmud scholar. "The tzaddik walks in the woods." And, for as long as he was there, the scholars would feel sustained by his prayerful presence.

One day, the Rosh Yeshivah, the head of the yeshivah, the chief rabbi himself, decided to visit the tzaddik and to open his heart to him. So after shachris, the morning prayers, the Rosh Yeshivah set out through the woods. As he approached the hut, the Rosh Yeshivah saw the tzaddik standing in the doorway, his arms outstretched in welcome. It was as if the tzaddik had been waiting there for some time for the Rosh Yeshivah to come to see him. The two embraced like long-lost brothers. Then they stepped back and just stood there, smiling at one another with smiles their faces could hardly contain.

After a while the tzaddik motioned the Rosh Yeshivah to enter the hut. In the middle of the room was a wooden table, on which was set a Torah Scroll, opened to the Book of Deuteronomy. The tzaddik took the pointer and read, "Remember the long way that the Eternal your God caused you to travel in the wilderness these past forty years to test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts ... in order to teach you that a human being does not live on bread alone, but on all that goes forth from the mouth of the Eternal."

The tzaddik and the Rosh Yeshivah stood there for a moment in the presence of the Torah. When the tzaddik began to cry, the Rosh Yeshivah could not contain himself. He covered his face with his tallis and began to cry too. For the first time in his life, he cried his heart out. The two men stood there like lost children, filling the hut with their sobs.

After the tears ceased to flow and all was quiet again, the tzaddik lifted his head. "You and your rabbonim, your rabbis, are serving God with heavy hearts," he said. "You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you a teaching, but you can only repeat it once. After that, no one must ever say it aloud again."

The tzaddik looked straight at the Rosh Yeshivah and said, "The Messiah is among you." For a while all was silent. Then the tzaddik said, "Now you must go."

The Rosh Yeshivah left without a word and without ever looking back.

The next morning the Rosh Yeshivah called his faculty together in the bes hamidrash, the House of Study. He told them he had received a teaching from the tzaddik who walks in the woods. He would tell them this teaching but it was never again to be spoken aloud. Then he looked at each of his colleagues and said, "The tzaddik said one of us is the Messiah."

The Talmud scholars were startled by this teaching. "What could it mean?" they asked themselves privately. Is Dov Baer the Messiah? Could it be Hershel Tsvi? Duvid Lieb? Aryeh Leib? Am I the hidden Messiah? What can this mean?

They were all deeply puzzled by the tzaddik's teaching. But no one ever mentioned it again.

As time went by, the scholars began to treat one another with a very special reverence. There was a gentle, wholehearted, human quality about them now, which was easy to notice. They stopped complaining about every little thing.

They conducted their arguments over points of law in the Talmud with respect for each other's opinion. They ceased their derogatory comments about their friends. They acknowledged their faults and mistakes and apologized. They lived and studied with one another as men who had finally found something. Occasional visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these scholars. Before long, Jews were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer and study of the scholars and young men were once again coming to the yeshivah for rabbinical study.

In those days, the tzaddik no longer walked in the woods. His hut had fallen into ruins. But, somehow or other, the old scholars who had taken his teaching to heart felt sustained by his prayerful presence.

When the Rosh Yeshivah had first told them the tzaddik's teaching, they put their minds to work trying to figure out who the tzaddik was. But they came up with no suitable answer. Over time, after the tzaddik's teaching had worked its miracle in bringing new life to the yeshivah, they finally figured out that the tzaddik had been none other than the Prophet Elijah, who always comes in disguise to teach us an important lesson: The Messiah will come when we listen to God's words, take them into our hearts and put them into our actions. We do not live on bread alone but on all that goes forth from the mouth of the Eternal.

Rabbi Davidow serves Temple B'nai B'rith of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Among his many talents is an extraordinary facility for storytelling, our people's most ancient and time-honored method of teaching. For a another sample, read Stone Soup Via Vishnitz.