A tall man with hardened facial features, seemingly cold and calculated, Reb Chaim Ber Wilensky of Kremenchug didn’t look like a warm “chossid.” The truth, however, was quite the opposite, and those who were close to him, dubbed him, “the cold firebrand.”
One night, the Alter Rebbe came with a candle to see how the chassidim slept. R. Moshe Vilenker woke up bewildered and asked the Alter Rebbe, “What is a neshama? What is Elokus?” The Alter Rebbe told him to go back to sleep, but later said a maamar on the topic.
Reb Yitzchak Chaim Dovber HaLevi Wilensky (“Reb Chaim Ber Kremenchuger”) was born around 5597 (1837) and was a chossid of the Tzemach Tzedek, the Rebbe Maharash and the Rebbe Rashab. He was one of the “Kremenchuger Beralach,” a group of great chassidim in Kremenchug named DovBer after the Mitteler Rebbe. He was a phenomenal maskil and a reserved but firm leader. Reb Chaim Ber passed away on the second night of Chanukah, 5653 (1892) and is buried in Kremenchug.
In 5649 (1889), R. Chaim Ber visited Lubavitch, and since his legs suffered and could not stand, he davened in the cheder sheini next to the small zal. He sat there on a bench, covered with his talis, and davened.
The Rebbe Rashab recalled: “I had davened in the main shul and I passed by the door of the cheder sheini. I stood there for some time and listened to R. Chaim Ber davening. When I came home I said, ‘Now I have found justification for intellectual study for Chassidus.’ Until then, intellectual study was totally objectionable in my eyes.”
In the year 5647 (1887), the Rebbe Rashab was exceedingly occupied with studying Imrei Bina of the Mitteler Rebbe, in Shaar HaKrias Shema, chapters 12-13. He learned so intensely that hair fell from his head. He then sent a question to R. Chaim Ber, but R. Chaim Ber did not reply.
When R. Yitzchok Yoel Rafalovitch, the rov of Kremenchug, visited Lubavitch, the Rebbe complained that he did not receive a response from R. Chaim Ber. When R. Yitzchok Yoel returned to Kremenchug he scolded R. Chaim Ber, “How is it that the Rebbe writes you a letter and you don’t bother to reply?”
R. Chaim Ber disclosed what the topic of the letter had been, “He asked me a question in Imrei Bina.”
“So, why didn’t you answer him?” R. Yitzchok Yoel pressed.
“He’ll manage just fine without me,” R. Chaim Ber explained.
The following year when R. Yitzchok Yoel visited Lubavitch, he told the Rebbe Rashab what R. Chaim Ber had answered. The Rebbe heard him and said, “My intention wasn’t to gain an explanation in Imrei Bina, but to know how one could possibly work it out with human logic.”
The Frierdiker Rebbe related:
“One day I was walking home from cheder, which was then in the cheder sheini, to eat lunch, and as I ran through the courtyard I met R. Chaim Ber. He asked me if I could show him the path leading to the garden which stood behind father’s house. I showed him the entrance which was near the well, and I followed him to see what he would do there.
“Around our garden, there were several benches which were sunk into the ground. R. Chaim Ber sat down on one of the benches, removed his hat and remained seated in his yarmulka. I left him and headed home.
“During that time I was learning by the secondary level melamed, R. Shimshon. The day began at eight in the morning with davening, then a quarter-after-nine we had to be in cheder to study until two in the afternoon. Two to four was a break for lunch and writing, and then four to seven we learned some more. At seven, I would usually go with a group of friends to the garden where we would converse.
“How surprised was I when I found R. Chaim Ber sitting in the same position as I had left him five hours earlier! My childish mind could not comprehend how a man could sit for five hours and think. I had seen people learn all day, but just to think?! “I was so amazed that I could not contain myself and I ran to tell my father.”
R. Chaim Ber’s intense concentration was not restricted to a quiet bench in a Lubavitch garden, but rather it was ever-present with him.
R. Chaim Ber would travel to Kishinev once or twice a year to buy his supply of wine. In Kishinev he would stay in the home of his supplier who treated him with fitting respect. Once, he arrived in Kishinev but the man had stepped out, so R. Chaim Ber waited in a corner and began to contemplate on Chassidus. When the supplier came home, he welcomed R. Chaim Ber, but no response came forth. The man could not understand why R. Chaim Ber ignored him.
A few hours later, R. Chaim Ber began walking around as if he were looking for something. The supplier offered his help and R. Chaim Ber said that he wished to wash his hands. Upon showing him the sink, R. Chaim Ber expressed surprise that it was not where it usually stood. He then greeted the supplier warmly and asked him what brought him to town. The man was dumbfounded by the question, until he realized that R. Chaim Ber had forgotten where he was.
The chossid R. Zalman Zlatapolsky would often merit that the Rebbe Maharash said private maamorim for him. In the year 5638 (1878), the Rebbe said a special maamar for him and in it he quoted the passage that R. Eliezer would give a coin to a pauper before davening. The Rebbe explained, “Davening should be with liveliness; by enlivening the pauper with the gift, the giver gains an incredible increase of life and enthusiasm,” – and he threw his hands upwards to demonstrate the incredible asset.
When R. Zalman passed though Kremenchug, he repeated the maamar before R. Chaim Ber. From then on, each morning before he davened, R. Chaim Ber would set up a table with drinks and cakes for the poor to eat something after davening. The Rebbe Maharash later said to someone, “You think that R. Chaim Ber’s intellectual prowess resulted from his study of the Mitteler Rebbe’s Shaarei Orah and Ateres Rosh? No! His haskala came from the cakes that he distributed before davening.”
In a questionnaire that the Frierdiker Rebbe sent to Reb Michoel Wilensky to fill out about his father, he writes what he heard from the Rebbe Rashab at a gathering of Simchas Beis Hashoeiva in the year 5654 (1894):
First the Rebbe spoke about the previous chassidim of Kremenchug, and then he said “Olam HaTikkun [the realm of correction and stability] began with Chaim Ber.” He continued to speak of how wary my father was of behaving in a manner that might make him look pretentious: how much he deliberated until he decided to wear a gartel for davening.
He then added, “He was here for several years. I had then repeated my father’s maamar for him with my own ‘introduction.’ My father’s words are good, so he had what to work with, but he didn’t take anything from my additions (those last words the Rebbe said with a smile). The skill of listening, I saw in him. He listened without making a single move, yet all of his limbs heard. He listened with his entire being, until he became red behind his ears.”
In another section, the son writes:
Everything about him gave the opposite impression of who he really was. Starting from his outward appearance—which mostly had nothing to do with him—he didn’t look like a “chossid”: He was a tall man with hardened facial features, a beard as neat as if it were trimmed, and he was extremely particular about the cleanliness of his clothes.
He looked as though he were a cold and calculated man who is impressed by nothing, someone who knows his value and is confident in himself. So much so that people would joke that he was a man whom death could not reach, due to his healthy body and nerves of steel. The truth, however, was quite the opposite, and those who were close to him, dubbed him, “the cold firebrand.”
My father could not always contain his emotions, and they would occasionally burst out at random times.
It happened once on a secular new year (I don’t remember the year but it was around 1887), that his eldest son-in-law Reb Zalman Rotinsky invited him for breakfast, since all the shops were closed. Generally, my father kept the instruction [in Mishlei] not to visit often, and he only visited his children on Yom Tov. However, this time he accepted the invitation, and for some reason, he stayed there for some time.
While he was there, some of my brother-in-law’s relatives also came to his home—they weren’t part of my father’s small circle—and during the conversation one of them said something to the effect of needing to do teshuvah. My father began suddenly to cry uncontrollably for several hours, and spoke about various things between his tears. Eventually, he recited Tikkun Chatzos and then came home.
For the full questionnaire and other stories, see “The Cold Firebrand – The Life of R. Chaim Ber Wilensky” in Perspectives Fifteen.