When Reb Mordechai was approached with the proposal that he become the Town Maggid, he agreed, but with the stipulation that the appointment was only temporary, i.e., for as long as he chose to remain in Dubravna. Reb Mordechai planned to spend the winter in Dubravna, and so his first sermon was scheduled for the Shabbos before Selichos.

When Reb Mordechai was appointed Town Maggid, they planned to provide for his room and board at public expense, but Reb Mordechai refused to accept this. Therefore, they partitioned off some space in the side-room of the large beis hamedrash to serve as his quarters, and appropriated the sum of two guldens per week for his salary; this was to be in addition to any gratuities he might receive from private individuals.

During the days of Selichos, Reb Mordechai preached sermons from the pulpit every night after Maariv. He exhorted the people to do teshuvah, he quoted and explained various Talmudic passages, and he enlightened them about the meaning of the mitzvah of the shofar, all in a manner that even the unlearned could comprehend. The whole congregation, simple folk as well as the foremost scholars, came away fully satisfied.

Before Rosh Hashanah, notices were posted in each beis hamedrash, listing the locations and times when the Town Maggid would preach. The times were before Maariv on both evenings [of Rosh Hashanah], and before the blowing of the shofar on both days; the locations were in different shuls each time.

On the eve of Zechor Bris, Reb Mordechai returned to his lodgings from the Kalten Beis HaMedrash, where he had just finished preaching a several hour sermon on the words, “You, O G‑d, are righteous, while we are full of shame.”1 He had explained to the congregation that G‑d is the One who feeds and sustains all living things, and who watches over each individual creature. It is written,2 “And G‑d, your L‑rd, will bless you in all that you do.” All that is required of us is that we prepare a vehicle through which we can receive our sustenance, but we need not worry about it; instead, our efforts should be devoted to davening and learning.

He strongly admonished the congregation for not studying enough, and became quite agitated while interpreting the verse,3 “The ox recognizes its owner, and the donkey knows its master’s feeding trough, but Israel does not know these things, and My people pay no attention to them.” He related beautiful parables, all designed to teach the lesson that we must place our trust in G‑d.

“Tonight,” cried Reb Mordechai from the pulpit in a loud wailing voice, “is the final evening of the old year! You have all heard everything I have said; still, each of you will return home to eat his supper, babble some nonsense with his family, and go to bed. But don’t forget, dear Jews,” Reb Mordechai continued in a pleading tone, “that tomorrow evening the Day of Judgment begins.

“Tomorrow at this time, G‑d willing, all the Jews throughout the world, men and women, boys and girls, old and young, will gather in all the batei hamedrash in the world, for the great and terrible Judgment Day. Each of us, together with our wives and children, will come to the beis hamedrash or the shul to pray before the One Creator, our Father and King, the All-Merciful G‑d. We will implore our Father and King to grant us all a healthy and prosperous New Year, so that we may all live, and so that our sons and daughters will not be left orphans.”

The large beis hamedrash and women’s shul were packed with listeners; it was a long time since they had shed such heartfelt tears as they did now, hearing Reb Mordechai’s sermon. Each man and woman was deeply moved by Reb Mordechai’s mussar; each one privately poured out his heart with passionate weeping.

Then, Reb Mordechai began speaking about the awesome Day of Judgment, the day of the great trial; about the prayers that we direct to our Father and King, begging that our children should not be left orphans, that the fledglings should continue to have mothers, that the wives should continue to have husbands to support them. Thereupon, the whole beis hamedrash broke out in wailing; everyone began to sob and lament.

All the people, men and women, were touched to the core of their being. Reb Mordechai stood in the pulpit, wrapped in the communal tallis (each beis hamedrash possessed a communal tallis, to be worn by the maggid whenever he preached a sermon). The large lamp that hung over the pulpit illuminated the maggid’s ashen face; visible tears ran down his cheeks. The maggid raised his arms, and in a persuasive voice he resumed speaking.

“For what reason?” he cried in a grave tone, “and in return for what good deeds, should the All-Merciful G‑d grant us a good and healthy New Year, and allow our children to grow up healthy and strong? Let each of us and our wives examine his or her conduct; each one must make a careful account of any wicked deeds he performed during the past year. Let us return to G‑d! Let us do teshuvah! This is the final night of the year; this is the final evening before the great Judgment Day. All the evil spirits that were created by our sins of talebearing, slander, fraud, robbing, and stealing, will appear before the Creator to demand justice.

“Now,” Reb Mordechai shouted, “we can still do something about it; we can still do teshuvah. We have another twenty-four hours before the Day of Judgment. Upon returning home, let each of us think carefully about his deeds of the past year; let each do teshuvah, expressing remorse for the past, and resolving to do better in the future.”

Now, sitting in his modest quarters, Reb Mordechai reviewed what he had said in his sermon. He pictured in his mind the image of the whole congregation, all of them listening intently to what he had to say. Everyone had been touched to the depths of his soul. When he recalled the heartfelt crying, sobbing, and moaning that had issued from each member of the audience, Reb Mordechai’s own heart began to ache. What had these dear and pious Jews, and these good and virtuous women, ever done to him? Why had he caused them to become so dejected? For what reason had he admonished them so harshly?

“The truth is,” thought Reb Mordechai to himself, “that these simple men and unpretentious women are far better than I. For after all, who are they, and who am I? They are only simple Jews and unsophisticated women, who are unable to learn, and know nothing. Nevertheless they daven, even without knowing the meaning of the words; they recite Tehillim, they perform mitzvos.

“Unfortunately, they are only poor working folk, earning meager incomes; every penny is gotten through bitter sweat. They literally support themselves by the toil of their hands, yet they give charity, and are eager to receive mussar; they wish to improve themselves. They mean everything sincerely, and truly wish to do better.

“On the other hand, who am I? I am a great scholar (true, I should not have the haughtiness to say it, but one must at least be aware of one’s own qualities). I know the whole Babylonian Talmud, and am quite familiar with the Jerusalem Talmud. I am already in my fourth cycle of in-depth study of the Babylonian Talmud, and I have a broad knowledge of Kabbalah. I have studied many Mussar texts, and have learned through the entire Medrash and the holy Zohar several times.

“I have no financial worries; I left my wife and several children an endowed trust fund, a house, barrels of tar, a barrel of herring, sacks of salt and of flour, a barn with a goat, a large quantity of firewood, and two large gardens that produce enough potatoes and vegetables for the whole year; this enabled me to spend two years at the Rebbe’s court.

“A person in such a situation,” he thought to himself, “should carry out his Divine service in an entirely different manner.” He — Reb Mordechai — was in truth worse than these simple Jews. What right did he have to rebuke these earnest people, causing them pain and anguish, motivating them to cry out with such wailing?

Reb Mordechai began to ponder over the whole approach of Mussar philosophy, coming to the realization that it is the exact opposite of the Rebbe’s approach. Mussar requires breaking one’s body, while the Rebbe’s approach is to teach and guide the body, without breaking it. This applied especially to those noble and innocent Jews, who were willing to be guided, and would surely obey any instructions he gave them. So why had he found it necessary to give them mussar, to break their weary bodies? For what purpose had he added to the troubles that afflicted their hearts, already overburdened with financial worries? Why had he further lowered their spirits, that were already depressed by poverty and poor health?

The longer Reb Mordechai contemplated that day’s sermon and its effect on his audience, the more agitated he became. His conscience tormented him: why had he abused a congregation of dear, pious Jewish men and women? At that point he was struck by the notion that the Rebbe was certainly aware of all his deeds; without doubt, the Rebbe could see all of Reb Mordechai’s conduct by means of his ruach hakodesh, and must surely be angry with such undesirable behavior.

The Rebbe’s approach is that we must befriend every Jew and teach him to follow the correct path. But this must be done with brotherly closeness. The Rebbe says that within every Jew there lies hidden a great treasury of refined character traits (for Jews are modest, merciful, and charitable4); he values the most undistinguished Jew even more than the greatest scholar and gaon.

Reb Mordechai reminded himself of all that he had seen at the Rebbe’s court, and of how the Rebbe dealt with great scholars: he sent them away to rural settlements and small villages to learn good character traits from the simple country folk and villagers.

He remembered that [the Baal Shem Tov] had sent one scholar to an innkeeper to learn trust in G‑d; one was sent to a butcher to learn fear of Heaven; one was sent to a tailor to learn truthfulness; one was sent to a water-carrier to learn kindness; one was sent to a house painter to learn ahavas Yisrael. All these people whom the Rebbe sent away to learn good character traits had been great scholars, while the people to whom he sent them had all been very simple Jews.

The Rebbe could discern in the most undistinguished Jews the most magnificent examples of the glory of the Jewish people. But he — Reb Mordechai — had brought grief to these noble and delightful Jews. He might even have committed the equivalent of murder by humiliating his fellow Jews,5 for a person receiving mussar certainly feels humiliated.

Reb Mordechai felt quite sick and in much pain. He hurled accusations at himself, “I explained to these Jews what sort of broken spirit one must have when reciting, ‘we are full of shame,’ while it is I who should be full of shame!” It is difficult to describe the strong language and the wicked names Reb Mordechai applied to himself as he became angrier and more vexed with himself by the minute.

Reb Mordechai had been so upset with himself that he had forgotten to break his fast; during the days of Selichos he would fast every day, not eating until after the sermon that he preached following Maariv. But today he had become so involved with his thoughts that he forgot to eat upon returning home. Now, he began to prepare his usual supper, which consisted of bread with yogurt or buttermilk.

As he was about to wash his hands, the thought occurred to him that at that moment there were people who had heard his sermon and now were undoubtedly busy doing teshuvah. Meanwhile, he — the preacher, the mussar sayer, the one who demanded they do teshuvah — was busy with his supper, and was about to sit down to eat. What a fraud! How lowly a creature he was — what nerve! Imagine — directing others to do teshuvah while he himself was busy feeding his body. “This cannot be!” he thought, as he continued to reprimand himself.

“It has only been eight or nine months since I left the Rebbe, and look how low I have fallen. I have become a mussar sayer, one who directs others and who demands teshuvah — but only from them. I censure, I chastise, but only other people; I tell others to do teshuvah, but I myself am all right! Myself I do not reprimand, to myself I say no mussar; I myself do not need to do teshuvah!

“A congregation of perfectly religious Jews was brought to tears of teshuvah. I told them that tonight is the final evening of the old year; I announced that this is the last night before the great and terrible Day of Judgment. But this was all told to them — to myself, I had nothing to say!”

He broke out in loud weeping. “What will become of me? I wallow in the mud of deception, in the muck and mire of false pretenses.” In his mind he began to plead with the Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, to take pity upon him and rescue him from his grave situation.

Reb Mordechai remembered how well off he had been a year earlier at the Rebbe’s court. He pictured to himself an image of the avodah of the month of Elul, the days of Selichos, Rosh Hashanah, the Ten days of Teshuvah and Yom Kippur. Now, where was he? He had gone to the other extreme.

Crushed and dejected, hungry and heart-broken, Reb Mordechai lay down on the hard bench to rest for a while. He had not yet recited Kerias Shema before retiring, but he was so completely exhausted that he had no strength even to say the words of the Shema; as for the accompanying meditations, that was totally out of the question.

This was, after all, the last night of the year, and Reb Mordechai wished to achieve an especially high spiritual state; at least, it should be no lower than that of any ordinary night of the year. For that reason, he simply had to lie down for a while. He was annoyed with his body for being made of such coarse matter that it needed to lie down and rest. But he had no choice in the matter; he must lie down for a short time.

Reb Mordechai awoke suddenly, disoriented and in fright. He had no idea how long he had been asleep. His head was filled with obscure and confusing images; he had seen many hundreds of people, their faces swollen from crying, running around as though looking for something in grief and in anguish. Then, he had seen the Rebbe the Baal Shem Tov, and he had begun to cry and to unburden his bitter heart to him. The Rebbe had smiled and spoken to him briefly.

Reb Mordechai tried to recall the exact words; was it possible that the Rebbe had spoken such words of utter praise to him? He had clearly heard from the Rebbe’s holy mouth the words:

Both your intentions and your actions are approved; they cause delight in the Heavenly Court. Be strong and steadfast in your avodah. The word teshuvah (תשובה) contains the letters boshes6 hei (בושת ה').7 Remember the days of your youth.

“G‑d is my light”8 refers to Rosh Hashanah, while “and my salvation” refers to Yom Kippur. May you be written and sealed for a good New Year.

Reb Mordechai could still see the entire scene before his eyes, and he could still hear the Rebbe’s voice. Reb Mordechai reviewed the Rebbe’s words repeatedly; the Rebbe had said, “The word teshuvah contains the letters boshes hei.” While he had been at the Rebbe’s court, he himself had heard the Rebbe say in one of his teachings:

The word teshuvah (תשובה) contains the letters Shabbos vov hei (שבת ו'-ה').9 G‑d’s name Havayah (י-ה-ו-ה)10 represents the range of our spiritual potentials: the yud is identified with Chochmah, the first hei, with Binah, the vov, with the six emotional attributes, and the final hei with Malchus.11

Of the higher levels, Yud hei,12 it can be said,13 “What is hidden is for G‑d, our L‑rd.” The letters vov hei, however, represent lower levels, “what is revealed.”67

On Shabbos, our avodah is with our intellectual capacities; therefore teshuvah is Shabbos vov hei.14

But now, the Rebbe had also told him that teshuvah is boshes hei. The letter hei symbolizes action;15 this must refer to the Rebbe’s statement that his intentions and his actions were approved, and they cause delight in Heaven. And why should this not be so? For after all, so many Jews (may they not be affected by an evil eye) had assembled to hear words of our Sages and words that awaken their spiritual faculties. Being innocent folk, they had become truly aroused in spirit, and this caused such delight in Heaven. The awakening of these noble and pious Jewish men and women to teshuvah will result in their doing good deeds; the Rebbe was referring to this when he said, “Be strong and steadfast in your avodah.” The avodah of causing Jews to do good deeds is very great. But this only refers to his avodah with others.

To Reb Mordechai himself, the Rebbe had said that teshuvah is boshes hei. This [was the term the Baal Shem Tov had chosen to] describe Reb Mordechai’s own level of teshuvah.

Reb Mordechai recalled once hearing from the Rebbe that teshuvah (תשובה) contains the letters toshuv hei (תשוב ה'),16 which means that we must repent for our [imperfect] deeds. But to Reb Mordechai himself, the Rebbe did not say that teshuvah is toshuv hei, and that he should repent his own deeds. For Reb Mordechai need have no regrets about his deeds of arousing Jews to teshuvah and good deeds. On the contrary, the Rebbe had told him: “Be strong and steadfast in your avodah.” His own level of teshuvah, however, was according to the Rebbe: “boshes hei” — he should be ashamed of his deeds.

Reb Mordechai applied the Rebbe’s words to his inner feelings. With the words boshes hei the Rebbe was saying to him, “Mottel, you should be ashamed of your own deeds. To others you say mussar, you admonish them, you command them to do teshuvah, you arouse them to good deeds, you arouse them to teshuvah. But what about yourself; what are you? Why don’t you admonish yourself, give yourself mussar, awaken yourself to teshuvah?” In this vein, Reb Mordechai worked on himself the whole night. He recited Tikkun Chatzos, after which he said Tehillim, all with a bitter heart and with tears from the depths of his soul.

The chevrah Tehillim members began to assemble; when they started saying Tehillim Reb Mordechai joined them, for he desired to be a part of this circle of simple Jews, with their honest, noble, and pious appearance. In each individual Jew, Reb Mordechai detected some unique appeal.

“It was these very Jews whom I chastised, it was these Jews to whom I caused grief,” thought Reb Mordechai. “But the Rebbe said to me, ‘teshuvah is boshes hei,’ — my deeds are an embarrassment,” and he broke out in loud weeping.

When the people saw that the maggid himself (who was known in town as a great gaon and tzaddik) was crying, it affected them greatly, and they too all began to cry. The sound of weeping invaded the women’s shul, where the women were already gathering for the Selichos service.

In this atmosphere of intense fervor, one of the Jews went to the lectern and began to recite the Selichos. Just as the chazan said aloud the opening words, “You, O G‑d, are righteous,” and the whole beis hamedrash and women’s shul began to wail and shout, “You, O G‑d, are righteous, but we are full of shame,” Reb Mordechai fainted.

A great commotion ensued, but as soon as Reb Mordechai came to, he requested that they continue saying Selichos. For the words “Be strong and steadfast in your avodah,” reinforced Reb Mordechai and restored his energy.

The city of Dubravna (possibly even the entire vicinity) had never experienced a month of Tishrei like that one. What a Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur! During all of the Days of Repentance except Shabbos, they read the passage Vayechal.17 The maggid preached every day. Such a Shabbos Teshuvah sermon, such a joyful Sukkos, the Jews of Dubravna had never seen or heard of in their lives. This was all thanks to the maggid; the maggid had instilled new souls into them, and their lives had completely changed. All of them — wealthy citizens as well as working folk — waited for the holy Shabbos when the maggid would preach. Everyone was able to comprehend the maggid’s sermons, for his sermons were somehow different from those of other preachers. They never heard him curse them, and he never called them names. He always spoke so kindly and with such benevolence, the way one would speak to his children. Every Jew was like his own son, and every Jewess was like his own daughter.

Within several months of Reb Mordechai’s arrival in Dubravna, the townsfolk were already telling stories about him; some even hinted that he could perform miraculous and wondrous deeds. Everyone remembered the grand fair held in Dubravna that year: an annual event at which merchants from the large cities sold their wares in makeshift stalls with walls and roofs made of cloth. Every year disputes and fighting broke out. This year, however, while the maggid was still preaching in the grave diggers’ shul, he had read a story from the Gemara. The moral of it was that maintaining peaceful relations guarantees prosperity. “If you don’t fight amongst yourselves, there will be plenty of customers for everyone,” he told them.

On the first day of the fair (that ran from Sunday to Friday), right after the sunrise minyan, when people were just arriving for the fair and the merchants were first putting up their stalls, the maggid went from store to store, from stall to stall, and from cart to cart, begging the Jews to maintain friendly relations and act toward one another with love. He promised that if they did so, they would have good customers and much profit.

And that is exactly what happened: the words went from his holy mouth directly into G‑d’s holy ears. At this year’s grand fair prosperity rained down upon the Jews (may no one be affected by the evil eye). Money flowed during all five days of the fair.

Later, after Reb Mordechai was appointed Town Maggid, he would often walk along the sidewalk where shopkeepers sat at the doors of their shops and peddlers set up their display cases. He would beg them to treat one another with love and peace, promising that in return, G‑d would give them a good profit. This promise was fulfilled.

In the middle of a summer day, when the peasants were busy working in the barns, several non-Jewish merchants suddenly arrived, driving their carts at such great speed that one might think they had just escaped the executioner. They purchased such large quantities of all sorts of merchandise, that both storekeepers and peddlers made a good profit. During that summer the people of Dubravna noticed that, for some reason, the neighboring squires were sending their agents to Dubravna to shop more often than they had in previous summers.

In addition, there were sick people whom the maggid had blessed, and who had recovered (thank G‑d) because of his blessings. There were others too, whom the maggid had saved with his holy prayers. For example, there was a woman who had such a difficult labor that both the doctor and the old midwife predicted that they would have to resort to pressing.18 The maggid happened to be passing by in the street, and heard people crying in the house. Going inside, he had instructed her father and her husband to recite Psalm 20 seven times, whereupon the woman immediately gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

The maggid brought the dead back to life. Everyone was amazed by what happened to Avremel Chayimke, a slow-witted fellow who spent his days in the stables skinning animal carcasses. He frequented the villages where the gentiles lived, ate all sorts of unkosher foods, and attended gentile celebrations. He never davened, and didn’t even bother to find out the dates of his parents’ yahrtzeits. One day, the maggid approached him in the marketplace when he was carrying a horse’s hide that he had skinned.

“Young man! Where are your tzitzis?” he asked.

“I’m Avremel the Skinner — everyone in town calls me Avremel the Skinner,” replied the lad.

Nu,” said the maggid, “[why do you think that] just because you skin hides, you don’t have to wear tzitzis?”

“The whole city calls me Avremel Chayimke,” said the lad again.

“After you deliver the hide,” said the maggid, “come to see me in the grave diggers’ beis hamedrash. I’ll tell you a beautiful story about what once happened to someone just like you. The Gemara says that skinning is also an honorable profession.”

This brief remark made such a profound impression on the lad that he became a follower of the maggid. A tutor was found for him, and he began to daven and to behave like a Jew. He was now called Avraham the Tanner, for the maggid had instructed him to learn the trade of tanning, and blessed him with success. He was indeed successful (may he not be affected by the evil eye), making money hand over fist. His conduct was now exemplary, and he gave large donations to charity; on the eve of Yom Kippur and on Hosha’ana Rabbah, he gave away money freely. People were even suggesting excellent marriage prospects for him.

Reb Chayim [Porush] experienced a unique Yom Tov. Never in his life had he celebrated the High Holiday season in such a manner. He could find no words to describe his inner joy; during that season he had turned into a different person. He had come alive and was more alert and vigorous. He now walked by himself and no longer needed someone to lead him by the hand. Whenever Reb Mordechai preached in the evening, Reb Chayim was present, for he made an effort to attend all of Reb Mordechai’s sermons, which he listened to attentively.