Everyone in Aleksander, Poland, knew and loved Reb Yerachmiel, the learned shochet of Kinov who always had a smile on his face. A devoted chassid, he often came to Aleksander to bask in the sanctity of his rebbe, Rabbi Yerachmiel Yisrael Yitzchak Dancyger (1853–1910). Reb Yerachmiel held a special position in the Rebbe’s court, serving as a jester of sorts, tasked with bringing joy and levity to communal gatherings.

Purim saw Reb Yerachmiel in his element—joking, singing, and entertaining.

One year, just before Purim, two calamities befell Reb Yerachmiel: His wife passed away and his daughter disappeared. Grief enveloped the poor man, and he seemed to drag his feet wherever he went. Fellow chassidim observed him with pity and concern. Despite their best efforts to lift his spirits, he remained melancholy and despondent. They wondered whether he’d attend the Purim celebration that year. What would Purim in Aleksander be without Reb Yerachmiel’s joyful antics?

Megillah reading on Purim night revealed no sign of Reb Yerachmiel. The next morning, shortly before the reading, he appeared in shul, face marred by a frown. Old friends attempted to make conversation, but Reb Yerachmiel ignored them as though deaf.

The Rebbe’s shul swelled with an enormous crowd for the Purim feast. Chassidim gathered around a beautifully set table bedecked with wine, pastries, and fruit. With craned necks, they anticipated the moment the Rebbe would enter the room. When the Rebbe took his seat at the head of the table, the room erupted into festivity. Platters of food, helped by eager hands, made their way through the crowd, and the wizened beadles took turns bellowing invitations to respected guests to sip some of the Rebbe’s wine.

Suddenly, the beadle announced, “Yerachmiel Kinover!”

Usually, this was the cue for Reb Yerachmiel to come forth and amuse the crowd. But the call went unanswered. Yerachmiel continued to stand listlessly against the wall, unbothered by the attention.

When the feast had reached its end, the Rebbe made his way to his room, escorted by close students. Reb Yerachmiel followed from behind and managed to squeeze in before the door was shut. The Rebbe, noticing the extra visitor, immediately addressed him.

“Oh, Yerachmiel, this is what you call Chassidus and its lessons? Is this what I taught you? Where’s the joy?”

Silence blanketed the room as Reb Yerachmiel paused before responding.

“There is a story,” he began, “of two Jews, who were neighbors in a village. One was a chassid and one was a mitnaged, an opponent of Chassidism. For the longest of times, the chassid tried mightily to influence his neighbor to taste the depth and joy of Chassidism. Finally, after numerous debates, the chassid succeeded, and the mitnaged agreed to learn more about Chassidism. Immediately, the chassid stood up and began preaching the foundations of Chassidism, lingering especially on the significance of joy. Happiness, he preached, meant sustaining unequivocal joy in the face of life’s challenges, without a stutter of despair.

The chassid asked his neighbor if he’d like to join him on his next visit to visit his Rebbe, and the two set out on foot. As the journey progressed and their provisions depleted, their stomachs began to moan with hunger. Though the chassid managed to ignore his hunger, his companion failed to overcome his pangs and bemoaned the lack of bread.

“‘Don’t worry, my friend,’ clucked the Chassid sympathetically, ‘we’ll make our way through a field, scrounge for some edible greens, and regain our strength.’

“The two scurried into a field and found some beans still hanging in their pods. They were so hungry they didn’t realize the field’s owner had appeared out of nowhere, looking none too pleased at the sight. Without warning, the owner of the field lunged at the mitnaged and started beating him. In pain, the erstwhile mitnaged cried out. The chassid, ever the teacher, rushed to admonish him.

“‘Didn’t I say that the foundation of Chassidic life is joy? What’s with all the crying?’

“‘It’s true,’ replied the mitnaged. ‘But not when you’re being beaten like this.’”

Reb Yerachmiel finished his story and exited the Rebbe’s room, only to return minutes later dressed as a Polish woodchopper. In one hand he held an axe, and in the other, a stout log.

“Will the Rebbe look at the wood on my shoulders?” asked Reb Yerachmiel, speaking in Polish. “I’m trying—with every fiber of my being—to split it. I swing again and again, but nothing splinters. I’m struggling to find a reason. Is the wood unbreakable? Is the axe too blunt? Or, perhaps, it’s just me, too lazy to exert myself any further?”

The Rebbe’s fierce gaze transitioned into one of fatherly concern. When the Rebbe replied, he too used Polish. “You continue to try again and again until it finally splits.”

Reb Yerachmiel found solace in the Rebbe’s words. Eventually, he recovered from his grief and learned to find joy in his life once again.

Adapted from Me’oran Shel Yisrael