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R. Levi Yitzchak’s “Atah Hareisa”

R. Levi Yitzchak’s “Atah Hareisa”

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Painting by Alex Levin (www.ArtLevin.com)
Painting by Alex Levin (www.ArtLevin.com)

The synagogue was packed to the rafters. The whole town had gathered as one for the annual Simchat Torah celebration. Only moments to go, and the stirring sounds of the ancient “Atah Hareisa” prayer would ring forth throughout the synagogue. People looked at each other in nervous anticipation; from among all those assembled, who would be chosen to lead the community in prayer?

Years before he had won worldwide fame as the rabbi of Berditchev, the young Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was widely respected for his erudition and unique path to spirituality. He was treasured for his dedication to others and his commitment to G‑dliness. Unfortunately, one of the only people not fully enamored of the youthful prodigy was his own father-in-law.

Undeterred by convention, and determined to follow his own path in Judaism, Levi Yitzchak had only just returned to town after months spent exploring the nascent chassidic movement, meeting its leaders and committing to the chassidic way of life. His father-in-law was livid; he mistrusted these revolutionary ideas and new-fangled methods of serving G‑d, and worried about his son-in-law’s prospects. Was this the end of all his hopes for his beloved daughter?

To the bemusement of the assembled crowd, he paused for a moment of contemplation, and then placed the tallit back in its place

The other townsfolk were more forgiving of Levi Yitzchak’s impetuosities and fervor. As proof of their regard, they selected him to recite the “Atah Hareisa” prayer leading off the Simchat Torah service.

Levi Yitzchak approached the central podium in a state of constrained ecstasy, and picked up the tallit (prayer shawl) preparatory to commencing the ritual. However, to the bemusement of the assembled crowd, he paused for a moment of contemplation, and then placed the tallit back in its place.

After a short while he again picked up the prayer shawl, only to once again replace it on the lectern.

When he picked up the tallit for the third time, an uneasy murmur filled the synagogue. The young rabbi seemed to be fighting a silent battle with an unseen opponent. Finally, in a dramatic denouement, Levi Yitzchak placed the tallit firmly back in its place, and announced: “If you’re a chassid and a scholar, then you lead the prayers!” and stalked back to his seat near the side wall of the synagogue.

His father-in-law was mortified. Bad enough that the young man insisted on adopting the chassidic lifestyle with its attendant new customs, but did he have to disgrace himself with public exhibitionism as well?

When asked for a justification of his unusual behavior, Levi Yitzchak explained that as he had approached the podium, he had suddenly realized that he was not alone; his yetzer hara (evil inclination) wished to accompany him in prayer.

“You don’t belong here,” he challenged the tempter. “I have been selected to represent the community because I am a scholar. What legitimacy do you have?”

“If you are a scholar, then I’m a scholar too,” the evil one replied. “Wherever you studied, whichever yeshivahs you attended, I was right there with you.”

“But I am a chassid,” Levi Yitzchak counterclaimed. “I have just returned from the rebbe’s court, where I learned to pray as a Jew should and devote myself to G‑dliness.”

“I could not win. He was right. I admitted to myself that I had been living a lie . . .”

“I too am a chassid. When you traveled to the rebbe, I accompanied you. When you were initiated in the ways of faith, I came along for the ride. I have every right to join you in prayer tonight and keep you company under that tallit.”

“I could not win,” Levi Yitzchak confessed. “He was right. I admitted to myself that I had been living a lie. He and I were partners in crime. The ties that bound me to evil were as strong as they were when I first began my journey of faith. I was almost ready to concede in despair, when I was seized by one last inspiration. With my remaining strength, I turned on my tormentor and cried, ‘If you are a chassid and a scholar as you claim, then you lead the prayers, and leave me out of your foul plots,’ and I ran from the stage.”


What does this all mean?

I first heard this story as a child, and have always been fascinated by it, yet it occurred to me recently that I had no real understanding of the deeper meaning behind the whole bizarre episode.

Upon reflection, I would suggest that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was making a fundamental argument about man’s attempt at self-improvement.

We go through the motions, we try to change ourselves for the better, yet how many can claim to have truly reformed? The sad reality is that we bring all our peccadilloes and character flaws along with us on our journey through life.

It is not enough to meander along the sterile pathways of aseptic existence, waiting and hoping to spontaneously combust. We’ve got to practice shock therapy, either bodily throwing away our ego and evil, or fleeing in a totally new direction, leaving the old us behind.

We go through the motions, we try to change ourselves for the better, yet how many can claim to have truly reformed?

Rosh Hashanah has come and gone; Yom Kippur is now just a memory. We gathered in synagogues and cried and prayed to G‑d. I promised to change, to become a new person inspired by new purpose, but I’m still the same facile fraud that I always was.

Simchat Torah is my hope for self-transformation. The High Holidays were all about prayer and performance; Simchat Torah is our chance for passion and purpose. We may have spent the hours of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur praying, but are we sure that our inclination towards evil wasn’t with us all along, under the tallit?

On Simchat Torah, we close our minds and open up our hearts. We dance till we drop, and allow the spirit of the day to permeate our souls. We refuse to allow even a thin veneer of sham spirituality to distract us from our journey towards G‑d.

Unconcerned by public opinion, dedicated to nothing but the truth, on Simchat Torah we let our inner Jew hang out and proudly proclaim that nothing in our life exists other than our union with G‑d.

Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum is spiritual leader of Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation and co-director of L’Chaim Chabad in Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia.
Artwork by Alex Levin. Ukrainian-born Alex Levin lives in Rishon Lezion, Israel. His works, many of which depict Jewish life in Israel, have been admired by Israeli presidents and international celebrities. Alex has received the Award for the Contribution to the Judaic Art from the Knesset. Paintings can be viewed and purchased at ArtLevin.com.
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Yaakov January 13, 2013

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak can reach the heart of a Jew like no one else. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma October 19, 2011

what core responds? I have a mystic story that involves the synagogue in Cambridge MA, on Tremont Street where on Simchas Torah the street is closed for dancing. This is so "uplifting" in every way. It was in front of this synagogue that I saw, with a friend, the Hebrew letters made of rain, strewn though out the street, and they shone in the moonlight. We were alone with AWE itself and I think the location was no accident.

Life is filled with mystery, and this story, about a Chassid, has its own mystery, and interpretations, as indicated by the responses. And something wonderful happened here, as in genealogy and the answering of a question, that too, is astoundingly beautiful.

Whose voice is the yetzer's, and couldn't it be, the voice of what is Divine in each of us, that is urging us towards new heights, as we work to deny access by separating the wheat from the chaff?

Simchas Torah. Souls on Fire. This, a correspond DANCE.

We're all being, messaged. Acknowledge one another! Reply

Edna Anzarut-Turner Beaconsfield, Quebec/Canada October 18, 2009

Levy Ytzhak He was just "daring" his yetzer ha rah to take over.

He was proving that he Levy Ytzhak was far stronger and could rise above this..and rise above it he certainly did !

He did not have to lower himself and grapple in a power struggle.

We should always try and separate outselves from that part of us which is vexatious to the spirit and use our better self to energise what is good. and productive. Reply

Smadar Thornhill, ON/Canada October 18, 2009

R. Levi Yitzchak's 'Atah Horeitah' With respect ... wasn't Rabbi Ytzchak cutting off his nose to spite his face. If he leaves and allows his yetzer ha rah to run the show ... then what. Then who will lead the prayers. Is there someone without a yetzer ha rah. Besides ... if he leaves the stage, does he not take his yezer ha rah with him.

Why do we try to separate from that which is a part of who we are. Are we not better off taking the power and the energy that we might use struggling against that which is a part of us and using it for the good that is our true selves.

When we bring something out into the light we expose it for all that it is. Recognize the yetzer ha rah ... YES! But run from it ... where can we run where it is not. Reply

Edna Anzarut-Turner Beaconsfield, Quebec/Canada October 18, 2009

Levy Ytzhak Dear Rabbi Greenbaum,

I wrote to you about my genealogy - direct descendant of Lwevy Ytzhak through his second daughter.

Unfortunately I do not have the name of this daughter or any of his three daughters. I also need the name of the second daughters daughter.

Also the name of Levy Ytzhak's wife and her parents (her father was a rabbi and they were a very well to do family)

Would you have any information that would help me add to my family tree ?

Thank you so much for any help you may be able to give me. Reply

Edna Anzarut-Turner Beaconsfield, Quebec/Canada October 17, 2009

Levy Ytzhak ben Sarah Very excited to read this. I am a direct descendant of Levy Ytzhak the rabbi of Berditchev.

I have my genealogy...and my maternal grandmother was called Sarah after her ancestor, Levy Ytzhak's mother. Reply