When the board of the Tzemach Tzedek shul saw their newly appointed rav pouring his heart out in prayer, they assumed he was in trouble; the lesson they learned from him then still applies to us today.
by Rabbi Binyomin Cohen for Perspectives Magazine
The year was 1924 (5685) and the place was Baltimore, Maryland, USA. It was the first night of Rosh Hashana and the Tzemach Tzedek Shul was absolutely packed. There were, at the time, four shuls in Baltimore which davened according to the nusach of the Arizal, all of them catering for Russian immigrants.
Most of these émigrés had arrived in America about twenty-five years earlier, at the turn of the century, and were therefore by now fairly well settled in their new environment. They had not forgotten their Yiddish or even their Yiddishkeit, but life in the States was not that easy.
Even the most basic aspects of Jewish observance seemed to require phenomenal determination. It was extremely difficult to find a job where you did not have to work on Shabbos, and a Jewish education for the children was, at best, an antiquated and ineffective melamed in a musty after-school cheder. People were not rich, but managed. Life was a struggle, but bearable.
It was a pity that the children didn’t seem to be overly enthusiastic about their Yiddishkeit, but what could you expect? At least people managed to stick together, had their own Yiddish-language newspaper and kept each other company. Going to shul on Shabbos was a different matter, and was almost impossible.
Of course, if they wouldn’t have had to work so hard it would be entirely different, but, under the circumstances.… Not that they were happy about it, but for most people, and especially for those supporting a family, it just wasn’t possible any other way.
They may not have been in shul that often during the year, but tonight was different. Tonight was Rosh Hashana. On three days of the year all the Jewish factories and businesses were closed. Which Jew wouldn’t be in shul tonight and tomorrow? The place was full and the atmosphere quite intense as people squeezed into their seats and prepared themselves for davening.
A young man with a bushy brown beard sitting at the front of the shul attracted more than a few curious glances. His distinctly un-American appearance made him quite conspicuous and reminded many of those present of the towns and villages in which they had grown up.
It didn’t take long for even the most infrequent shul-goer to find out that this was in fact the new Rov of the shul, who had moved to Baltimore a few weeks ago, after arriving in the USA at the beginning of the year. He too hailed from Russia, but his background and upbringing had been somewhat different from most of those present.
Avrohom Eliyahu Akselrod was born in 1893 (5653) in White Russia. At the age of thirteen he entered the Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim in Lubavitch, studying there (and later in Krementchug and Rostov) for the next fourteen years. During this time his achievements – both scholastic and devotional – were, to say the least, exceptional, and formed the basis for a lifetime of uninterrupted immersion in the study of Torah and the service of Tefillah.
After his marriage in 1921 (5681) the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe (the Rayatz) recommended that he move, with his family, to America in order to strengthen there the learning of Torah and Chassidus.
The unprecedented, and almost revolutionary, nature of this recommendation should not be under-estimated. The Rebbeim of Chabad-Lubavitch had always been totally opposed to the idea of their Chassidim moving to America. They felt that they could not condone the idea of a Chossid raising his family in a spiritual wilderness and were not prepared to give their approval or blessings to such a step, even at a time when pogroms prompted thousands of other Jews to cross the ocean.
That the Rebbe Rayatz should actively encourage the newly-wed Rabbi Akselrod to set his sights on the Goldener Medinah, and to choose that as the place to bring up his family, was a clear indication of his confidence in this exceptional individual.
He once indeed testified about him that, “Avrohom Elye never once lifted his eyes to look at the skyscrapers of New York.” Such a person would surely be able to influence without becoming influenced, and to bring others close to Torah without compromising one iota of his own principles.
For some reason the young Rabbi did not leave Russia until the beginning of 1924. A few months after his arrival in the USA he was appointed as the Rov of Congregation Tzemach Tzedek in Baltimore. He was, of course, happy to have obtained a position, and people seemed to be welcoming and supportive, but something disturbed him.
While still in Russia he had heard reports about the materialism rampant in America, and about the difficulties in leading a religious, Chassidic life. Hearing is one thing, but, being faced with the realities of the situation, he was deeply shocked. Never before had he met people who were so involved in their livelihoods and so obsessed with their possessions.
True that he had led a rather sheltered, and almost other-worldly, existence within the enclaves of Lubavitch, but he was now confronted with the opposite extreme. These people’s priorities seemed to be very different from his. How on earth was he going to be able to even relate to such congregants, let alone influence them?
He had had several weeks to ponder the matter, and now here he was together with them on the first night of Rosh Hashana. What a contrast between the shul’s normal appearance every Shabbos and the way it looked now! Every week it seemed to be a struggle to get a minyan, and now it was standing-room only.
Well, at least this showed how special the day was for them. Surely, it should be no less special for him? Rabbi Akselrod decided on the spot that Rosh Hashana in Baltimore would, for him at least, be no different from Rosh Hashana in Lubavitch. There, the focus had been on Tefillah, and so too it would be here.
Tefillah requires preparation. In this case he would prepare himself by reflecting on the idea of Rosh Hashana as explained at length in many maamorim (Chassidic discourses). Hashem creates and enlivens this world, and similarly all higher worlds, for a period of one year. This year starts on Rosh Hashana and ends on the eve of the next Rosh Hashana. Thus, last Rosh Hashana the decision was made in the Heavenly Court to grant life for a whole year.
That year just finished half an hour ago. Once again, the Day of Judgment has arrived. Hashem will now sit in judgment and decide whether to grant yet another year of Creation and life. He will examine every detail, and hopefully listen to what we have to say in our Tefillos, before arriving at His decision. In addition to our Tefillos, which will be poured out from the depths of our hearts, we will also blow the Shofar tomorrow, thus arousing the mercy of our Father in Heaven.
An awareness of all of this would have a profound effect on a person. No wonder the Alter Rebbe interpreted the words “hayom haras olam” to mean that “today the world is trembling”. Today, this world and its inhabitants, as well as all other worlds and the angels in them, tremble as they face the judgment of their Creator.
We stand before Hashem and beg Him to agree to be the King over the whole of Creation, as we willingly and unconditionally accept His complete authority. On such a day, and at such a critical juncture, in what could a Jew possibly be interested or involved, other than begging and beseeching Hashem to be our King and to give us life? In comparison with this, all else is minor detail.
Engrossed in these thoughts, and a myriad of connected concepts elaborated upon in Chassidus, the Rabbi was, emotionally and spiritually, once again with his Rebbe and the atmosphere of Rosh Hashana as it had been in Lubavitch. There, hundreds of Chassidim, and even very simple Jews, davened for hours on the first night of Rosh Hashana as they united themselves with the day and immersed themselves in its meaning.
Rabbi Akselrod scarcely noticed what was going on around him in the shul. His body was in Baltimore, but his soul was elsewhere.
The congregation finished davening and many of those present approached the young Rabbi in order to wish him the traditional – may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year – but the Rabbi didn’t seem to hear them. He was oblivious of his surroundings and completely involved in his davening.
It didn’t stop there. The congregants had long since gone home, and the Rabbi was still davening. The Shamash returned to lock up the shul, after he had finished his Yomtov meal, and the Rabbi had still not finished. At long last, after a davening which had lasted for hours, the Rabbi left the shul and went home. The Shamash was slightly irritated at having to return to lock up the shul, but his surprise at the Rabbi’s behavior was far greater. What was going on?
The next day in shul it was common knowledge that the Rabbi had prayed for hours on end, and everybody was completely baffled. Who had ever heard of a Rabbi who didn’t daven together with everybody else? Who had ever seen a Rabbi who was unapproachable when you wanted to wish him a good year? And what on earth was this young Rabbi doing davening in the shul hours after everyone else had left? After all, how long is the davening? Does he have a different machzor from the rest of us?
The members of the congregation were genuinely concerned. If the Rabbi would be a conceited and aloof individual maybe his behavior would make sense, as he chose this special day to demonstrate his spiritual uniqueness and isolation. They knew, however, that this Rabbi was not at all like that.
The short time he had already been in Baltimore had been more than sufficient to convince all who met him that he was completely without airs and graces. He was an intensely warm person who seemed to have time for everybody and was prepared to do anything to help others.
This man would never dream of putting himself on a pedestal or of separating himself from his congregation. So what on earth was the explanation for his totally uncharacteristic behavior?
There could be only one answer. The Rabbi must be in deep trouble, and what more opportune time could there be than Rosh Hashana for him to pour out his heart and pray to Hashem to help him in his time of distress.
What could his problem be? Well, that wasn’t very difficult to work out. No-one was very rich, and people were working a seventy-hour week just in order to make ends meet. They liked their Rabbi very much, but it was a real struggle to make sure that one had enough for one’s own family without having the extra burden of supporting someone else’s.
The man was young and had just started with them and couldn’t really expect them to pay him too much. No doubt he was finding it difficult to support his wife and children and was not the sort of person who would be able to take on another job in order to have a few more dollars available.
Maybe he was in arrears with his rent, or maybe he couldn’t afford decent clothes for his children? No wonder he had prayed so passionately last night. He was praying for a year in which he would be able to put enough food on the table, a year in which he would be spared the grinding poverty which he had, until now, had to endure.
The members of Congregation Tzemach Tzedek may have been slightly materialistic, but they were not lacking in compassion. They might not have been the most righteous and observant Jews, but they knew how to value true piety and devotion.
At a special meeting of the Shul Committee, convened the night after Rosh Hashana, it was decided to significantly increase the Rabbi’s salary. They had been deeply moved by his obvious distress and hardship, and hoped that the extra money would enable him to have a somewhat easier life. This, in turn, would assist him to perform his communal duties in a more peaceful and settled state of mind, to the benefit of the whole membership.
The President of the congregation was chosen to be the bearer of the good news to the Rabbi, and the members of the Committee dispersed, happy to have been able to start the new year doing the right thing and helping another Jew in his time of need.
Two days later the President approached the Rabbi and informed him of the Committee’s unanimous decision. The Rabbi thanked him politely and refused to accept the raise. “I really have quite enough for my needs,” he said to the flabbergasted President, “and if there will be any difficulty, I am sure that Hashem will help, as He has always done.”
“But I don’t understand,” exclaimed the bewildered President. “You davened for hours on the first night of Rosh Hashana. If everything is fine and you have all you need, why do you need to pray to the One Above for hours on end?”
The Rabbi looked at him in amazement, as it dawned on him that the President’s understanding of davening and Rosh Hashana was poles apart from his own. “On Rosh Hashana,” he responded quietly, “the whole of the Jewish People and all other nations are being judged. The existence and the future of this world and all other worlds is being decided.
“We stand together before Hashem and beseech Him to overlook our shortcomings, and to accept us as His subjects. We crown Hashem as our King, and resolve to focus our lives upon giving ourselves over to Him completely. I had to prepare myself for a long time in order to mean sincerely what I said at the time of davening.
“Do you really believe that at such a time a person should be focused on his own material needs? I thank you for your kind offer, but I came to America in order to help and inspire my brothers to understand what is really important. I didn’t come here to live a life of luxury and material comforts.”
My initial reaction when I first read the above story was one of amusement. After all, Committees and Boards of Management are not normally renowned for their generosity. Even when an employee has a perfectly valid claim for increased remuneration he is often turned down.
That a Committee should make an unsolicited offer of an increase is in itself remarkable. That their open-heartedness should have turned out to be directed to the one person who was ideologically opposed to accepting it, is, if not laughable, at least ironic.
More serious reflection served to remind me of another story – this one, unlike the previous one, totally fictional. It has been used to illustrate and explain the Midrash which describes the neshama as “the king’s daughter”.
The story goes that the daughter of the king, who had been brought up in her father’s palace in the lap of luxury, decided that she wished to marry a simple peasant boy who lived in a hut on the outskirts of the king’s estate.
The king gave his consent to the union, but insisted that his daughter should, after her wedding, move out of the palace and live with her new husband in his home. The princess was not too keen on this, but her determination to follow the desires of her heart left her no choice.
After marrying she moved into the hut, where her husband did all he could to make her comfortable. He smoothed over the earthen floor and her brought in some extra wooden crates to be used as chairs. He arranged extra ventilation in the hut and made sure that there was a plentiful supply of food. He was a truly devoted husband who would do anything to make his wife happy.
Everything was fine for the first few weeks, as the newly-wed princess was still living in the clouds. Later on, however, as reality began to set in, she was not quite so happy. After all, she was accustomed to the elegance and luxuries of her father’s abode.
You can sit on an upturned crate, but an upholstered armchair is, somehow, more satisfying. Similarly, you can live perfectly well in a hut, but this hardly compares with the grandeur and magnificence of the royal palace.
Gradually, she fell into a state of depression. When he returned to the hut after a day’s toil in the field, the husband found his wife listless and unhappy. He tried to find out what was wrong, but she just burst into tears and refused to answer.
Good-hearted soul that he was, the husband had to do something about this. He thought long and hard and decided that the problem was that he was not bringing home enough food. Oh, it was true that there were plenty of potatoes and beetroots, but she would probably appreciate a more varied diet.
The next day he spent several hours on the estate filling sacks and bags with carrots, turnips, various types of grain and a large variety of fruits. To top it all off, he went fishing I the nearby river and managed to catch a large trout. Returning to the hut in the evening, he brought in all the extra food and stood back expectantly, waiting for his wife’s smile and gratitude.
Her reaction was just the opposite. If there had been some tears yesterday, there was now a veritable torrent of weeping. The poor husband had no idea of what he had done wrong, or what his wife wanted of him.
Later on, she sat him down and started to explain: “I grew up in my father’s palace. My every whim was catered for and I lacked nothing. Not only were the surroundings elegant but the whole way of life was befitting of a royal family.
“Great emphasis was laid on culture and education. There were many libraries filled with thousands of literary classics, and chamber-music concerts were held regularly. Banquets were regular occurrences to honor important and distinguished dignitaries, who were often interesting and even fascinating personalities. That was life the way I was always used to it.
“Now I sit here in a hut without furniture or surroundings. There are no servants, no comforts, no culture and no personalities. I feel as if I have lost all that I was accustomed to, and with it my life.
“Do you really think that a sack of carrots or fish will satisfy me? They just emphasize to me even more how far I am from that which I really want. I need an entirely different type of existence from yours. You mean well, but I am not sure that you will be able to make me happy.”
Similarly, it is explained, the neshama is called the king’s daughter, who finds herself wedded to the physical body (corresponding to the peasant). Being a part of, and one with, Hashem, the neshama has a natural desire and longing to be re-united with its source i.e. with Hashem Himself.
Neither the equivalent of a sack of carrots, nor even the greatest and most impressive material accomplishments, will do anything to satisfy the neshama or to fulfill its needs. Only matters which are themselves kedusha i.e. Torah and Mitzvos, can provide true satisfaction for the neshama which is totally kadosh.
Steeped as he was in the teachings of Chassidus, Rabbi Akselrod had no intention of spending his life in the peasants’ hut of materialism. His place was in the King’s palace, i.e. caring for his neshama, while his material necessities would be of no more than secondary importance.
The Alter Rebbe said (Hayom Yom, 27th Teves) that Hashem gives us material wealth in order that we use it for a spiritual purpose. In other words, we need and want our gashmiyus, but only in order to achieve more and more ruchniyus.
We stand before Hashem on Rosh Hashono and pour out our hearts to Him in the fervent hope that He grant us for the coming year all that we desire.
It might be a good idea for each one of us to first spend a few minutes considering what we are actually looking for. Merely our material needs? Are we incapable of higher ambitions and more meaningful aspirations?
May Hashem give us a good and sweet year in which we demonstrate that His needs and our needs are one and the same.