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VayeraIn this week's parashah, we learn that at the age of ninety nine, on the third day after his circumcision, our Patriarch Avraham sacrificially received the three "guests" who suddenly appeared before his tent. Avraham thought that they were Arabs, and never suspected that they were really Angels in disguise.
This should teach us to be very careful when dealing with others since appearances are not always what they seem to be.
I remember a very scary story I once heard from Reb Shalom Shvadron, zt"l.
Chaikel Miletsky and his friends were learning together in a shul. In the middle of the shul was a wood oven which kept the holy place very warm, even on the coldest winter nights. Stationed near the oven, as in most synagogues in Europe, was the neighborhood shlemazel; a poor, homeless fellow who was usually drunk. Most of the townspeople used to make fun of "Yitzchak the shikker" and the children would even enjoy throwing stones at him. The group of Torah scholars usually paid no attention to him and he ignored them too.
One very cold night, the roads were covered with deep snow and ice and anyone who could remain indoors considered himself very lucky. Suddenly, a wagon driver came into the shul and begged the boys to help him. He explained that his entire livelihood was dependent upon his horse and wagon and, unfortunately, his horse had slipped on the ice and he could not pick it up alone. He asked the fellows to come with him and together they could surely save the animal's life.
Eager to do a great mitzvah, the young men asked the driver where his horse was situated. But when he told them that they would have to walk with him for several kilometers, they dreaded the thought. The group decided to discuss the issue among themselves, while the poor wagon driver waited to hear the decision his life depended upon. The boys began to debate. On the one hand, it was surely a very big mitzvah to help someone maintain his livelihood. But, on the other hand, the greatest mitzvah in the world is learning Torah, and they would be wasting precious hours until they finally would return to their studies. Obviously, there was really a personal issue at stake; walking so far in the snow and the cold, and this surely had more than a little bearing on their decision which was not to go with the man. Brokenhearted, the wagon driver left the shul to try to find someone else to help him.
Suddenly, a voice called out from near the stove. It was none other than the poor man calling Chaikel Miletsky. "What did you and your friends decide?" he asked. Chaikel was more than a bit surprised that "Yitzchak the shikker" was mixing into their affairs. Nevertheless, he politely responded that they had concluded that they should not go.
"Really?" Yitzchak said. "Listen to me, young man. They'll chop off both of your legs if you don't use them to go and help that unfortunate fellow!"
"Since when did you become a posek (one who decides issues of Jewish Law)?" Chaikel retorted. Nevertheless, Chaikel was shocked to hear such strong words. And, although they came from a dubious source, he took them seriously and decided to reconvene the group and discuss the matter once again. This time, they decided that they should go and find the wagon driver and help him out. The boys trudged through the snow, but by the time they found the fellow, he was standing and crying next to the carcass of his dead horse. They had taken too much time to decide to help and their energies and time were spent in vain.
One day, some months later, "Yitzchak the shikker" called Chaikel over to him and asked him a personal favor. "Tonight, at midnight," he began; I am going to pass away." Chaikel didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He looked deep into the old man's eyes, but he definitely appeared to be sober.
"I want you to come to my home, about half an hour before, and be with me when I die."
Chaikel was flabbergasted and asked since when does he have a home. He had always thought that he lived in the shul. The man explained to him that he really lives in a very modest house in the middle of the forest, and he explained to him exactly how to get there.
"Will you come?" the poor man asked him. "Yes," replied Chaikel bewilderedly.
"Very good," said Yitzchak. "Be sure to be on time."
At eleven thirty sharp, Chaikel showed up at the shack in the forest and found the old man lying in bed. The entire house contained not much more than the bed and a chair and a desk. "Very good, Chaikel," he called out to him. "You came just in time. Now I want you to do me a favor. Please ask the Burial Society to bury me in the old cemetery."
"The old cemetery," Chaikel exclaimed. "First of all, who says that there is room there? And second of all, that is a place where great Rabbis were buried. With all due respect, why would they agree to bury you there?"
But Yitzchak was adamant. "I assure you that there is an empty place there for me. Now open that drawer in the desk and take out all of the papers that are there."
Chaikel felt numb and did as he was told. He glanced at the sheets but could not understand a thing. He realized, though, that they were writings of Kabala.
"These papers must be delivered to the Rav of the town. He will know what to do with them. And then he will instruct the Burial Society to bury me in the old cemetery as I requested. Will you hand them over to him please?"
"I surely will," replied the startled young man.
"Very good," said Yitzchak. "If so, Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad." And with that, he expired.
Chaikel took the papers and began to run from the forest through the streets of town screaming, "Gevald. The Tzaddik died. Gevald. The Tzaddik died."
People began waking up and asking him, "What Tzaddik? Whom are you talking about?" Chaikel began telling everyone that "Yitzchak the shikker" was really a hidden Tzaddik. He gave the papers to the Rav who realized that a great and holy man had lived in their midst and they had not realized. A funeral, fitting for a great Rabbi, was immediately arranged and the Rabbi instructed the Burial Society to check if there was some space in the old cemetery befitting a holy man like he. To everyone's surprise, a place was found, and the entire town came to pay their respects and beg the saint forgiveness for having mistreated him.
Many years later, Reb Chaikel Miletsky became a prominent Rabbi in Israel. He was very successful in reaching out to the estranged youth and had many, many disciples. One day, though, he became ill and the doctors had no choice but to amputate one of his legs. After a while, they said that they would probably have to remove the other one too. That is when he told this story publicly, apparently hoping that in its merit, his second leg would be spared. Suddenly, his wife became ill and they amputated one of her legs. His second leg was never removed and before he died he warned his children to respect their mother strictly because she is a tremendous tzadeikus. They understood that she had apparently given up one of her legs to save his second one.
On his tombstone, Reb Chaikel asked that they engrave a request that everyone who visits his grave should recite, "I believe, in perfect conviction, in the coming of the Moshiach, speedily in our days." In this way, he was able to continue influencing people in the precepts of the Torah, even after his death.
May his memory bring blessing to us all.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network