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THE CUNNING OF THE YETZER HORANow the serpent was cunning, more than all the beasts of the field that the Lord God had made… (3:1)
Excerpted from She'al Avicha v'Yagedcha, by R. Shalom Schwadron, vol. 1, p. 187. Cited in my sefer Trust Me!
Yossele was famous - or rather infamous - in his hometown of Slutzk. He was a child prodigy, blessed with a brilliant mind. But this very gift caused Yossele to be wild and uncontrollable, for he couldn't concentrate on anything for more than a short time without getting bored. As a result, he found it impossible to study for an entire day in the cheder with the other children. Instead, he spent his time playing with the pigeons that fluttered around the rooftops and with the stray dogs that roamed the streets. Another activity that he occasionally indulged in was going down to the river for a swim with his Gentile friends.
One day when Yossele was twelve years old, he was running past one of the houses in the town when he heard a loud cry. His curiosity piqued, the boy shinnied up a tree near the house and peeked inside to see what was going on. There he saw a father beating his disobedient son, shouting at him, "What do you think, that I'll let you grow up to be a wild animal like Yossele? I'd rather see you dead first! I won't allow it. You won't grow up like that!"
Yossele was shocked to the core at these words. "What?! Is this what's become of me? Have I sunk so low that if a boy becomes rebellious they say he's going to grow up like me? I'd better change my attitude and my behavior. I can't go on like this." Yossele had a few coins in his pocket. He went and bought some cookies, gathered all his dogs together, and gave each of them a final treat. Addressing them gravely, he said, "It's been wonderful playing with all of you. But now I've got to go. We can't be friends any longer."
Then Yossele went home and announced to his father, "Tatti, I've decided to go and learn in a yeshivah."
His father was thunderstruck. He knew Yossele like the back of his hand, and thought to himself, "What kind of scheme does he have up his sleeve this time? Who knows what he's planning to do!" With these thoughts in mind, Yossele's father firmly rebuffed him. "Don't play games with me. Go back to your pigeons and dogs and leave me alone!"
However, Yossele was determined, and he wasn't about to give in. "No, Tatti. I really mean it. I want to go to yeshivah, and if you won't let me, I'll go without your consent."
Now it was his father who had something to ponder. He knew that if Yossele said he was going to go on his own, then go he would. He did not know what to think. Finally, he looked deeply into his son's eyes, and said to himself, "I actually think the boy's serious this time." After a moment he asked Yossele, "And which yeshivah do you plan to go to?"
Yossele answered without hesitation, "Volozhin."
Unable to restrain himself, his father burst out laughing. "Volozhin! You've never learned a day in your life. In order to get into Volozhin you have to know five hundred pages of Gemara backwards and forwards. You don't even know one page!"
"I don't care, Tatti," Yossele answered with determination, "I want to go to Volozhin and start to learn, and if you won't let me, I'll go on my own."
His father saw that he was fighting a losing battle and that he couldn't talk his son out of this "lunacy." The boy's mind was made up, and that was that. So he reluctantly agreed, and gave Yossele a small sum of money, packed a few of his belongings, and sent him on his journey.
In high spirits, Yossele left Slutzk and made his way to the famed Yeshivah of Volozhin. He walked part of the way, and hitched a wagon-ride for the rest of the trip. After three days of traveling, he reached his destination. Immediately, he made his way to the yeshivah, where he entered the large courtyard and asked some of the students where the Rosh Yeshiva's office was. They all stared at him. Who was this young kid who walked in with such determination and asked to see the Rosh Yeshivah? Swallowing their curiosity, they pointed out the office to him.
Without another word, Yossele went to the door and knocked. Hearing a muffled voice call out, "Come in," he opened the door and went inside.
"Shalom aleichem," he greeted the Rosh Yeshivah.
"Aleichem shalom, my son," answered R. Chaim kindly. "What can I do for you?"
"I want to learn in the yeshivah."
R. Chaim was used to young geniuses knocking on the yeshiva's door, and so his next question was, "And what do you know, my son?"
"I don't know anything," Yossele answered. "But I want to learn."
R. Chaim directed a piercing gaze at the young boy. With the intuition that sprung from his spiritual greatness, he immediately realized that a great future lay before the boy. He gave Yossele a pat on the cheek and said, "If you want to learn, then you'll be able to. Come, let's get you set up in the yeshivah."
Yossele didn't delay for even a second. He headed straight for the beis midrash and sat down to study. R. Chaim arranged tutors for him in every subject: Chumash, Mishnah, and Gemara. With a voracious hunger, Yossele threw himself into his studies, analyzing and examining everything presented to him. Moreover, he attacked his lessons with a prodigious perseverance. After a mere three months he was able to join the yeshiva's regular program.
Two years of uninterrupted studies went by. Indeed, Yossele didn't even go home for his Bar Mitzvah, celebrating it in the yeshivah instead. By the time he was 14, he was deeply proficient in every area of Torah study. He continued his studies with fiery diligence. He learned the entire Gemara with Rashi and Tosfos. He even joined the "Eighteen Club." This was a well-known group of dedicated students who learned 18 hours a day. Yossele thus gained a distinguished nickname for himself: Yossele, der ochtzener ("the eighteener").
Several more years passed, and Yossele was already renowned in the yeshivah as a profound scholar. Then, one day, he received a letter from his mother bearing disastrous news. His father was a tailor, and he had a small business located in a long row of shops in the city of Slutzk. It seemed that a fire had broken out and had burned all these shops to the ground, his father's included. The merciless fire had spared nothing. His mother pleaded with him to come home: "You're already a young man, and you've learned a lot of Torah. Now your family needs you. Please, come home and help your father rebuild his livelihood."
Yossele's mind was spinning after he read the calamitous news. His mother's despairing appeal pierced him to the depths of his heart. On the other hand, the progress he had made in his Torah studies was phenomenal. How could he simply close his Gemara and return home?
With his heart in turmoil, he decided to consult with R. Chaim. He showed the Rosh Yeshivah his mother's letter and asked what he should do.
R. Chaim read the letter carefully and a heartfelt sigh escaped from his lips. After a few moments of profound silence, he counseled the troubled young man to stay in the yeshivah and continue his studies.
Yossele didn't hesitate. He listened to his rebbe and went back to his studies. His family would have to cope with the situation on their own (aided by a small sum of money that R. Chaim sent them).
After some time had passed, Yossele received another letter from his mother, this one brimming with severe reproach and recrimination: "Why didn't you listen to me and come home? Now the situation has deteriorated even more. You father is physically ill from everything that's happened. Come home right now!"
Yossele felt tremendous pressure. Now he really didn't know what to do. He went back to R. Chaim and showed him the latest letter. This time the Rosh Yeshivah sighed even more deeply, but still he said, "I can't tell you anything except to listen to me. Don't feel any remorse. Go back to your studies."
The possibility of contravening the Rosh Yeshiva's advice never even entered Yossele's mind. If that was what R. Chaim had said, that was what Yossele must do. And so he returned to his studies once more. All too soon, however, he received a third letter from his mother. Although briefer than the first two, it was the most devastating of all: "Your father has passed away."
Yossele couldn't contain himself, and burst into tears upon reading the tragic news - not only from grief, but from a sense of guilt as well - for who knew whether or not his actions had hastened his poor father's death, God forbid!
He ran to R. Chaim crying bitterly. After hearing what had happened, R. Chaim cried along with his precious disciple. After a few moments, however, R. Chaim told him again, "I can't tell you anything more than I told you before, except to listen to me this time as well. You must sit shivah and afterwards return to your studies. "
Once again, Yossele unhesitatingly obeyed his rebbe. He sat shivah, and he wrote his mother a letter of consolation to tell her that he was suffering along with her - but he was firm in insisting that he had no other choice than to listen to his rebbe. Along with the letter, he sent some money to help her out. And after the seven days of mourning, he returned to his studies in the yeshivah.
A few years passed and the Rav of Slutzk passed away. After the mourning period was over, the town's governing council sent a delegation to Volozhin. The distinguished group of visitors entered the Rosh Yeshivah's office and asked if he could suggest a replacement for their deceased Rav. They promised that they would take care of the new appointee's every need: they would find him a good shidduch, build him a house befitting his stature, and provide him with a respectable salary. He would be able to occupy his position with honor and prestige.
R. Chaim replied, "Please wait for a moment. I have just the right person for you."
Immediately, he sent for Yossele. When the young man came into the Rosh Yeshivah's office, R. Chaim stood up out of respect. The members of the delegation were astonished. Here was the gadol ha-dor, the Rosh Yeshivah of Volozhin, giving supreme honor to one of his young talmidim! But that was not all. R. Chaim turned to Yossele and told him to come closer. When Yossele approached, he warmly shook his hand to congratulate him. After inviting Yossele to take a seat, R. Chaim turned to the Slutzker delegation and smiled broadly:
"Do you happen to remember a wild young boy named Yossele who lived in your town some years ago? Whatever happened to him?"
The surprised members of the delegation replied, "Yes, we remember him. Who could ever forget Yossele? He played every prank in the world! But several years ago he disappeared, and we haven't seen him since."
R. Chaim smiled, and turned to the young man. "R. Yossel, please stand up." Then he turned to the delegation. "Gentlemen, here is Yossele. He is your new Rav." As the delegation sat there stunned, the Rosh Yeshivah proceeded to shower the youth with lavish praise. He concluded by turning to the men and asking, "Do you agree with my choice?"
"Certainly! If the Rav says so, how can we disagree?"
The Rosh Yeshivah sent for some refreshments, and the members of the group wished one another "mazal tov." In good spirits, R. Chaim gave a short speech. "R. Yossel, do you remember when you came to me in your distress and told me that all the stores had burned down, your father's among them? You didn't know what to do about your mother's entreaty that you return home, and I told you that you should continue with your studies. Do you know why I answered you like that?
"I understood that this fire was a ma'aseh Satan - an act instigated by the Satan. Just as the Satan tested Iyov, so too he came to test you. A delinquent little boy suddenly leaves all his wildness behind him and sits down to learn with fiery diligence, until he eventually becomes a great Torah personality. The Satan demanded that this young man be tested to see if he would hold on to his resolve. Heaven acquiesced, and gave the Satan permission to burn down all the tailor shops in Slutzk, with the sole intention of burning down your father's store. I understood what was happening, but I couldn't tell you. All I could say to you was that you should listen to me and not have any regrets.
"Then the Satan came again. This time he made your father ill. When you came to me then, I sighed together with you, and gave you the same answer that I gave you the first time. Fortunately, you listened to me and withstood the test.
"But that wasn't enough, and once again, the Satan came. This time he was forced to take your father from the world. Now he was certain that you had no choice. Surely you couldn't withstand this test, the most difficult of all. But you did!"
R. Chaim concluded: "How elated is your father in Gan Eden now. The Torah that you have learned is a source of great pride and comfort to him. Now, may R. Yossel go forth and lead the great community of Slutzk!"
Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos!
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