After he arrived at the Baal Shem Tov’s court, [Reb Mordechai] became a completely different person in a matter of days. Now, having been privileged to witness the Rebbe’s true path of avodah, his preparation for davening was very different.
And yet, sometimes the davening didn’t go so smoothly, even after the proper preparations. More than once Reb Mordechai complained to the Baal Shem Tov that the avodah of davening was exceedingly difficult for him. He begged the Rebbe to bless him that his prayer might come effortlessly.
The Rebbe replied that what he needed was more tilling of the earth — meaning more work on his own character — only then would the planting yield a good harvest.
Shortly after coming to the Baal Shem Tov, Reb Mordechai found himself astonished by his own ways. How could it be that he relished his study so very much and could study with such great willingness and diligence, while at the same time he found the avodah of prayer to be so difficult and alien?
There was a period soon after he had come to the Baal Shem Tov, when he had no desire at all to struggle with the avodah of davening. He almost gave up on this path of avodah, for he was careful not to waste time, and he spent every moment in study. It was then that the Rebbe delivered a teaching in which he quoted the passage from the Talmud that refers to Torah study as chayei olam [“eternal life”], while the avodah of prayer is referred to as chayei sho’oh [“transient existence”]. The Baal Shem Tov interpreted this passage with a different focus on the alternate meanings of the Hebrew terms: “Torah study is chayei olam,” — “life within the world,” for the Torah teaches us how to conduct our worldly existence. “Prayer, by contrast, is chayei sho’oh” — the word sho’oh also means “turning.” In prayer, a person learns how to turn toward, and pray, to the Supernal One, blessed be He.
When Reb Mordechai heard the Baal Shem Tov deliver this teaching concerning Torah and prayer, and the difference between them, he immediately recognized it as the truth. (For Reb Mordechai was a great scholar in the revealed aspects of Torah, and he also possessed broad knowledge of Kabbalah.)
This teaching brought about a major revolution in Reb Mordechai’s way of life, and he began to exert himself in the avodah of davening.
Whenever there was a day on which Reb Mordechai considered his davening to be satisfactory, he would refer to that day’s prayer as “Shabbos.” Very often, Reb Mordechai would repeat to himself a teaching that he had heard from the Baal Shem Tov shortly after his arrival, concerning a passage in the Gemara:
Rav Huna states: “If one is journeying in the desert, and he does not know which day is Shabbos, let him count six days (Rashi explains: “six days” starting with the day he becomes aware that he has lost count), and then let him observe one day (Rashi: the seventh day) [as Shabbos].
Chiyya bar Rav states: “Let him first observe one day, and then count six days.”
What is the reasoning behind their argument? One opinion [Rav Huna] holds that we follow the order of creation (Rashi: the weekdays came first); the other opinion [Chiyya bar Rav] holds that we follow the experience of Adam (Rashi: Adam was created on Friday, and the first day that he counted was Shabbos).
The Baal Shem Tov explained:
There are two kinds of avodah: the avodah of the six weekdays, and the avodah of Shabbos. Each week contains six weekdays corresponding to the six sefiros identified with the emotional attributes of Chesed, Gevurah, Tifferes, Netzach, Hod, and Yesod. It must also contain one Shabbos day, corresponding to the sefirah and attribute of Malchus. There are, however, two patterns of avodah for this sequence of six weekdays and the Shabbos day.
The first pattern is that the six work days come first, and the seventh day is Shabbos, which is the reward for the work days. The second pattern is that Shabbos comes first, and the influence of Shabbos permeates the six weekdays.
The avodah of the six weekdays is Torah study, while the avodah of Shabbos is prayer. “The desert” refers to the Torah.
“Rav Huna states: If one is journeying in the desert” — if one becomes completely engrossed in Torah study; “and he does not know which day is Shabbos” — he forgets about the avodah of prayer, then the remedy is to “count six days” — he must exert himself with his six emotional attributes until he remembers and understands the purpose for which he was created. The main object is to recognize the greatness of G‑d, which can be achieved only through the avodah of prayer. This is what Rashi means by saying “he becomes aware that he has lost count.”
Following the six days, “let him observe one day” — the seventh day, that is the avodah with kabbalas ol, [the sefirah of] Malchus.
“Chiyya bar Rav” — one who derives vitality from Torah study, meaning one who studies Torah solely for its own sake — for such a person, the proper order is, “let him first observe one day, and then count six days.” For such a person, the avodah of prayer should contribute vitality to the avodah of Torah study.
“The order of creation” — the world was created so that man could engage in the avodah of bringing the world to refinement and perfection; therefore the avodah of Torah comes first, and is followed by the reward, which is Shabbos, the avodah of prayer.
“The experience of Adam” — Adam was created by the Holy One Himself. His [Divine service] thus corresponds to the avodah of Shabbos, which is prayer. [In this motif], prayer comes first, and lends its vitality to Torah.
This teaching was one of the very first discourses that Reb Mordechai heard from the Baal Shem Tov, and it had the desired effect, motivating him to occupy himself with the avodah of prayer. Reb Mordechai knew this teaching by heart, and he would repeat it word for word, in the same tone of voice that he had heard from the Baal Shem Tov.
Each repetition of this teaching awoke within him a willingness and desire to engage in the avodah of prayer. So it was on the present occasion too. After Reb Mordechai returned from the stream where he had immersed himself, he began his preparations for davening. He repeated the Rebbe’s teaching several times, and meditated deeply about it. Then, he commenced his davening.
At about ten o’clock in the morning, the city dignitaries began to assemble in the grave diggers’ shul for a meeting of the chevrah kadishah. A prominent and wealthy citizen of the town had just died (may we be spared). They had to decide what plot he was to be buried in, the price the chevrah kadishah was to charge for the grave, and on what civic improvements this money should be spent. The meeting lasted for several hours, and there was much shouting and screaming. But Reb Mordechai remained seated in the southwestern corner of the shul, completely oblivious to what was happening.
One of the men attending the meeting happened to notice the stranger sitting in tallis and tefillin, his eyes open, his face flushed, muttering a few words from time to time. His words were whispered, and it was difficult to make out what he was saying. Right in the middle, he would break into some kind of song with an unfamiliar melody. The one who first noticed it told several others, and soon all the men were staring at him, wondering who this stranger might be.
Just then, a few of the assistant grave diggers came, to ask the gabbai where they should dig the grave for the deceased. One of the grave diggers had been present the previous day between Minchah and Maariv, when Reb Mordechai had related that in Vohlynia-Podolia there lived a great gaon and tzaddik, a miracle-worker known throughout the region as the Baal Shem Tov.
The assembled dignitaries listened to the grave digger’s report with open mouths, as they remained sitting in the beis hamedrash gazing at the unknown Jew.
How strange! At twelve o’clock noon, a Jew sits in tallis and tefillin, apparently still davening! Hours passed, and these Jews still had not had their fill of watching the strange Jew daven. At last they heard the sounds of the funeral procession, and they left to join it.
As they marched along, they told the story of the unknown Jew who was sitting in the grave diggers’ shul and davening. The listeners were skeptical, so when they returned from the cemetery (Reb Mordechai was then up to Kerias Shema), a large crowd gathered to watch him daven. When Reb Mordechai finished davening, he removed a piece of bread from his bag, washed his hands, and ate the bread with some water. After this meal, he lay down on a bench to rest.
When Reb Mordechai rose from his rest, he went into the side-room where the porush was. The first thing he told him was that he had seen his son at the yeshivah in Kochenov, and therefore wished to speak with him. The porush answered with an indifferent “Hello,” neither asking where he came from, nor listening to much of what he said about his son.
Reb Mordechai now got a good look at the porush, and decided that the face was indeed somewhat familiar. However, since the porush kept his eyes closed, and had very thick eyebrows, he could not make a positive identification.
The porush was in the middle of studying the tractateof Menachos. Reb Mordechai caught a glance at the page, and began to discuss that topic. Only then did the porush begin to speak; he spoke quite coherently and clearly. From time to time he opened his eyes, and raised his eyebrows with his hand. It was then that Reb Mordechai became convinced that the face was indeed familiar, but he had no idea where and when he had seen him before. And so, the two of them — Reb Mordechai and the porush — continued their dialogue at length.
“Long ago,” said Reb Mordechai, “thirty or thirty-five years ago, while I was in the yeshivah, we studied this topic, and we worked it over thoroughly. I was one of three sworn companions: one was called Berel, and the other was called Chayim. Berel had a good mind, but slow; he would analyze each word a hundred times, and so he was known in the yeshivah as ‘Berel the Analyst.’ Chayim had a quick mind, but superficial; he would shoot out ideas one after another, all in rapid succession.”
“In Smorgon?” asked the porush.
“Yes,” replied Reb Mordechai, “In the Smorgoner Yeshivah, where I studied for several years.”
“I too studied at the yeshivah in Smorgon,” said the porush, “I remember Berel the Analyst very well. He was my companion; another companion of mine was Mottel Bayever.”
“Then you must be Chayim Mazierer!” exclaimed Reb Mordechai with great excitement.
“Yes,” replied the porush, shutting his eyes.
“May your bones break!” shouted Reb Mordechai. “Just look at what’s become of you — a rag, a broken kettle. Open up your eyes! Why do you sit there like a blind imbecile? Have pity on yourself, and open your eyes. We’re old friends, after all; I am Mottel Bayever.”
“So!” said the porush, his eyes still closed, “you’re Mottel Bayever. It has been fourteen years and three months (thank G‑d) since I ceased to have relations with my wife. But my celibacy is perfectly legal, for she consented to it. I wrote out for her a contract stipulating that she waives her [conjugal] rights, and she signed the waiver. It is almost eleven years (thank G‑d) that I have kept my eyes shut, and it is over ten years that I spend the whole week, from Shabbos to Shabbos, in the grave diggers’ beis hamedrash.”
“You’re an animal!” said Reb Mordechai. “Open up your eyes, cut off your long eyebrows, and become a human being. Then I’ll talk to you.”
Reb Chayim Porush became flustered, and made no reply, while Reb Mordechai continued speaking quite heatedly. “You are following a false path,” he said to the porush. “You wallow in the filth of arrogance; one can smell your haughty spirit! Pretty soon you will go mad altogether because of your fantasies that the prophet Eliyahu will reveal himself to you. Have you ever seen a cow’s stomach?” Reb Mordechai asked Reb Chayim.
“Yes,” replied the porush.
“That’s just what you are,” said Reb Mordechai, “a sack bloated with dung! Open up your eyes, and start behaving like a human being.”
All his life, Reb Chayim Porush had risen to ever higher planes of Torah study, but he had never studied Kabbalah. He had studied nearly all the Mussar texts and often took a Zohar into his hands, but most of all he studied Medrash. He tortured himself greatly through fasting and other types of self-mortification.
Seeing that he could accomplish nothing with Reb Chayim through plain speech, Reb Mordechai began to discuss Torah study with him. Their dialogue lasted for several hours, until the congregation began to assemble for Minchah.
Before the day was out, everyone in town had heard about this visitor — the Jew who had taken up residence in the grave diggers’ beis hamedrash — a very eccentric individual, still davening at three o’clock in the afternoon! Several of the younger Torah scholars, along with a few prominent elders who were also eminent scholars, were very interested in seeing this guest, and so they came to the grave diggers’ shul to daven Minchah.
Reb Mordechai remained oblivious to all of this. When the minyan began to daven Minchah, he began davening with them, and when everyone finished Shemoneh Esreh the chazan waited for the visitor to finish too, before proceeding with the repetition. All the important people standing at the eastern wall had finished davening Shemoneh Esreh, and everyone’s eyes were focused on the end of the southern wall where Reb Mordechai stood and davened. They waited a long time until Reb Mordechai completed his prayers; only then did the chazan begin the repetition of Shemoneh Esreh aloud. Reb Mordechai was totally unaware that anyone was looking at him, or that they had waited for him before reciting Shemoneh Esreh aloud.
After Minchah it was customary for one of the people to teach Ein Yaakov to the congregants. When everyone took seats around the table, Reb Mordechai also joined them at the table. At that point, one of the prominent worshipers declared, “Perhaps we should give our guest the honor of reading the Ein Yaakov for us? We would be quite thrilled if he were to favor us with a lecture in Aggadah.”
Reb Mordechai didn’t wait to be asked twice. He took a copy of Ein Yaakov, asked what page they were up to, and began to read the Aggadah in Chulin 91b, concerning the verse, “And he dreamt, and behold: a ladder was standing upon the ground” and the explanation: the ladder symbolizes the song that the angels sing, and the prayer Shema Yisrael recited by the Jewish people. He explained everything lucidly, for after all Reb Mordechai was a great scholar and kabbalist, who knew a great deal of Medrash and Zohar, and had studied many works that expounded scripture allegorically. Thus, he was able to explain the Aggadah in such a way that the listeners understood it all quite well.
The listeners were so amazed by what they heard from the guest that they were oblivious to the passage of time. It was quite late when they finally davened Maariv, after which they all went home. One of the leading citizens invited the stranger to his home to be his guest, but Reb Mordechai declined, and remained in the beis hamedrash as before.
Reb Mordechai resumed the dialogue with his old friend Reb Chayim Porush, but to no avail. Reb Mordechai was greatly disturbed by this, and resolved not to leave the beis hamedrash until he succeeded in convincing Reb Chayim to change his ways.
The next day passed much the same as the previous one. When the congregants were about to study Ein Yaakov, they once again honored Reb Mordechai with delivering the lesson. He did so gladly, hoping that by means of the study he would be able to inject some life into these Jews.
During Reb Mordechai’s second lecture, he discussed all aspects of the Rabbinic teaching on the verse, “And upon the vine were three branches.” He spoke at length about the statement by Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, “The [Jewish] nation is likened to a vine,” and gave a most fascinating explanation of how the branches of the vine represent the landowning class, while the leaves represent the working class that follows the worldly pursuits of labor and farming.
He began with a detailed analysis of Reish Lakish’s identity, according to two views of the early commentators. One opinion holds that Reish Lakish was originally a thief whom Rabbi Yochanan influenced to become a baal teshuvah and scholar. [So accomplished did he become,] that Rabbi Yochanan later took him as a husband for his sister. The second opinion holds that Reish Lakish was already a great scholar before he met Rabbi Yochanan at the Jordan River, but that he later abandoned his study and joined a band of robbers; eventually, Rabbi Yochanan influenced him to become a baal teshuvah, and took him as a husband for his sister.
Reb Mordechai’s Ein Yaakov lectures created quite a stir in the town, and people spoke about them in the study houses and in the streets. When Shabbos arrived, several of the most prominent and prestigious citizens invited Reb Mordechai to be their Shabbos guest, but he declined.
Reb Mordechai had a problem that had been disturbing him for several days: what was he to do about the Shabbos morning immersion? Using the public mikveh was certainly out of the question, and as for immersing himself in the river, he was afraid that someone might observe him. In the end he decided to perform the immersion in the river during the pre-dawn darkness.
Reb Mordechai spent a most joyful Shabbos. Friday night while asleep, his Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, appeared to him in a dream and even conveyed a teaching to him. And thus, Reb Mordechai awoke in the beis hamedrash refreshed and in fine spirits. Outside, it was still pitch dark, and he went to the river for the immersion.
He returned to the beis hamedrash in a very cheerful mood just at daybreak. As soon as he could see, he sat down to learn Zohar. Some time passed before the members of the chevrah Tehillim began to assemble, for on Shabbos it was customary to begin reciting Tehillim somewhat later than on weekdays. [And then his mood was marred when] he saw Reb Chayim walking in blindfolded while someone led him by the hand. This caused Reb Mordechai much pain. Indeed, it was pitiful to behold Reb Mordechai’s deep anguish.
Reb Mordechai’s davening flowed naturally that Shabbos. He felt that the Rebbe’s blessings that he should have love and fear of G‑d were being fulfilled. Reb Mordechai lost track of his physical whereabouts. He was so deeply engrossed and preoccupied with the meaning of the words of his davening that he was transported in thought, floating somewhere among the supernal sefiros and the sublime partzufim [which he had studied about in Kabbalah]. One moment he found himself in one sefirah, the next moment in another sefirah.
Reb Mordechai put his whole being into that day’s davening; he appeared to be possessed by some higher force. On that particular Shabbos, he was in such feverish excitement that it seemed he might faint at any moment.
A bystander observing Reb Mordechai’s davening, his gestures, and the melody that he hummed might have thought him to be suffering from a deep yearning for something he loved dearly; his whole body was seized by great spasms of emotion.
A major battle was raging: ratzu and shuv, advance and retreat, expiration and recovery. One moment you thought he was ready to expire: the face ashen white, the eyes wide open and gazing, no sign of life, the whole body about to collapse. But the very next moment came the recovery: the life force was restored, the deathly pale face became flaming red, the eyes filled with a most lively expression of delight, the body relaxed and moving slowly to the rhythm of the melody he sang.
Reb Mordechai’s dream of the previous night, in which he saw the Baal Shem Tov and heard a teaching from him, refreshed him with renewed energy. In spiritual matters, geographic distance plays no role, and Reb Mordechai felt himself close to the Rebbe. That day’s avodah of davening fulfilled what the Baal Shem Tov expected of Reb Mordechai, both in quantity and in quality.
We all know well the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching on the verse, “Enter into the ark.” The Baal Shem Tov commented:
A soul descends to this world, and thus the person [who possesses this soul] becomes involved with the necessities of physical life in order to provide sustenance for his family through manual labor. (The Baal Shem Tov’s opinion is well known that Jews should engage in manual labor rather than in commerce.) When the person is completely occupied with his work and is beset by monetary worries, he is in danger of [spiritually] drowning (G‑d forbid).
The solution to this is “Enter into the ark” — cling to the words of the prayers you recite and the words of the Torah you study.
And the Baal Shem Tov had promised that the merit of clinging to the holy words of prayer and Torah will shelter “you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives,” and G‑d, blessed be He, will provide for all your needs.
With this teaching, the Baal Shem Tov underscored that deveikus, clinging to the words of prayer and Torah, is one of the foremost means of rising to the highest spiritual plateaus. Deveikus, emphasized the Baal Shem Tov, is the key that unlocks all doors. And deveikus with the words of prayer and Torah is within the reach of everyone. Every Jew — even the most unsophisticated — can achieve the highest deveikus.
The Baal Shem Tov went on to teach that the genuine wholehearted faith with which a simple Jew or a simple Jewess says Tehillim constitutes the highest degree of deveikus. Regarding this, there is no difference between one soul and another. It may be true that for the person who is learned in Torah, deveikus opens the gates of Torah knowledge, while for the simple Jew who is unable to learn, this does not apply. Nevertheless, the merit of deveikus with the words of prayer and Torah arouses G‑d’s mercy, and He works wonders for the person who recites the holy words with deveikus. This is equally true for the simple Jew and Jewess as for the greatest Torah scholar.
Reb Mordechai’s davening was a living example of “Enter into the ark”; he put his whole head and heart into the words of the davening. Each verse and every phrase had a life of its own. Each word was accompanied by a muffled melody of rapture — a tune expressing not only joy, but also deep longing.
Reb Mordechai was a great scholar, who knew all the sayings of the Rabbis of blessed memory concerning the verses we recite while davening. Thus, he was aware of the nuances of each individual word. In addition, Reb Mordechai was a great kabbalist, who knew to which spiritual world and to which sefirah each verse belonged. But besides all that, Reb Mordechai’s davening possessed a sort of yearning quality; his voice sounded somehow pleading, yet nostalgic, and it captured your heart.
It was several hours past noon when a large crowd began to gather in the grave diggers’ shul for the lesson in Medrash that was delivered every Shabbos. Reb Mordechai was still in the middle of his davening, and those who had just arrived looked on with amazement. Some people related that Reb Mordechai had put on his tallis together with them, when they had begun davening with the sunrise minyan, and he had been davening all this time!
A few of the Jews seated themselves at a table near the southern wall, close to the place where Reb Mordechai was sitting and davening. They listened and watched as Reb Mordechai davened, tears flowing from their eyes. They themselves could not say why they wept. Was it because of the sweetness that they detected in his davening, or was it perhaps out of pity they felt, hearing the entreating note in his voice and observing the wistful look on his face? Regardless of the reason, hearing and seeing his davening made them cry.
The largest beis hamedrash in Dubravna was called the Kalten Beis HaMedrash. The gabbaim of that shul envied the gabbaim of the grave diggers’ beis hamedrash, and they begged Reb Mordechai to come to their shul occasionally to teach them Ein Yaakov.
Reb Mordechai agreed to come, and a large crowd assembled. Reb Mordechai inquired where they were up to in their study, and they pointed to the Gemara, Sanhedrin 105b, which deals with the subject of Bilaam, and particularly with the meaning of the blessings which Bilaam conveyed upon the Jews.
Reb Mordechai thoroughly explained all the Talmudic statements so that they could be understood by all. He gave an exceptionally interesting interpretation of the statement by Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:
What is the meaning of the verse, “Faithful are the wounds inflicted by a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are unrestrained”? [It means that] the curse that Achiya of Shilo pronounced upon Israel is preferable to the blessings that Bilaam the wicked granted to them.”
Reb Mordechai also gave a full explanation of the difference between a reed and a cedar branch, and elucidated the statement, “One should rather be flexible like a reed, and not rigid like a cedar branch.” The audience listened in complete satisfaction, and a movement was started to appoint the visiting orator to the position of Town Maggid.