Our story takes us back 200 years to a small town in Russia. There was a simple villager who had hired a Torah scholar to tutor his children, a common arrangement for people of means living far from large cities or towns with organized Torah schools. Although the villager was a simple Jew, he hoped that his children would one day surpass his meager knowledge of Torah and Judaism. The tutor was a devoted student of the first Chabad Rebbe, known as the Alter Rebbe. A short while before the High Holidays, the teacher told his employer that he was traveling and would not be available for the season.

“What? Why?” asked the villager. “People are arriving from the other hamlets, and I thought you would join us here for services. In fact, we would be honored if you could be our cantor and shofar blower. We are simple villagers and can’t do any of that.”

“I am going to my rebbe,” explained the chassid, further stumping the villager.

“Your rebbe? How could you have your own rebbe?” asked the villager, who was accustomed to referring to the teacher as “Rebbe.” How could the rebbe have a rebbe of his own?

Seeing his employer’s confusion, the tutor described the uniqueness of a chassidic rebbe, someone who is righteous and cares dearly for others, like a shepherd for his flock. Since the rebbe is the head of the Jewish people, he continued, it is appropriate to visit him at the head of the New Year.

Curious, the villager said, “I want to come too!”

The prospect of a travel companion brightened the tutor’s mood. Being a teacher, he barely eked out a living, and was glad to ride in the comfort of a cart rather than make the long trip on foot. Having packed provisions for the journey, the pair set out for the Alter Rebbe’s court.

Immediately after their wagon came to a stop outside the Alter Rebbe’s synagogue, an enthusiastic crowd formed around the newcomers, and the tutor was greeted with joy. Everyone wanted to shake his hand or exchange a friendly word. However, no one approached the villager. Upset, he watched from the side and sulkily observed the warmhearted welcome he did not receive.

In time, the holiday guests began queuing for their annual audience with the Alter Rebbe, during which they would receive personalized directives in the privacy of the rebbe’s room. Seeing that even his rebbe was standing in line to speak with the rebbe, the villager asked to be admitted as well.

Stepping through the door of the Alter Rebbe’s study, the villager was greeted by an imposing man with a white beard. The rebbe did not say anything. The villager, unsure of what to say, also stood by wordlessly. For a few moments, the two stared at each other in silence.

Nu?” questioned the Alter Rebbe.

The villager still did not say anything.

“Nu?” repeated the Alter Rebbe.



Unable to hold back, the villager finally blurted out angrily, “Why are you repeating ‘Nu’”?

The Alter Rebbe calmly replied to the villager, speaking in a sing-song, as was his wont: “Sometimes it happens that a Jew sins. He committed this sin and this sort of sin….” And the Alter Rebbe listed all of the villager’s misdoings.

The villager was stunned. How did the Alter Rebbe know what he had done in the privacy of his home?

His suspicion turned to his rebbe, the tutor, who had been admitted to the Alter Rebbe before him. He must have told him.

Fuming, the villager left the rebbe’s presence and located the teacher, who suddenly found himself being berated and accused by his employer.

“You comfortably live in my home to the point where you lack nothing,” the villager fumed, “and yet you run to your rebbe and shamelessly tell him everything there is to know about me! Imagine that! From today you can begin looking for work someplace else. I don’t want to see you anywhere near my doorstep.”

The villager’s tirade left the teacher surprised and hurt. But the teacher also felt bad for his employer’s distress and embarrassment. After all, he had brought him to the rebbe, and his employer had always treated him kindly.

Entering the rebbe’s room for a second time, the teacher asked the Alter Rebbe to assure the villager that he never said a word about him. The Alter Rebbe quickly summoned the villager.

“There was no reason to get angry with him,” the Alter Rebbe said to the villager. “He never told me a thing.”

“So how did you know?” the villager asked.

“When did I say it was you who did those things?” said the Alter Rebbe. “I simply stated that a Jew is liable to commit those sins. How am I supposed to know if you’ve actually done them?”

The Alter Rebbe’s words shook the villager to his core. “Rebbe! What you’ve said is true. All the sins you’ve listed are in fact true about me!”

Hearing the villager’s sincere wish to repent, the Alter Rebbe wrote up a series of steps for spiritual growth for the simple villager who then, in time, became one of the Alter Rebbe’s closest followers.

Adapted from Shemu’ot Vesippurim Vol. 1, page 34