[This Shabbat, the one preceding Passover, is called Shabbat HaGadol. Two widespread customs on it are to hear the rabbi speak in the afternoon, and to read part of the haggadah after the afternoon prayer.]

A Jew in a village near Kolbisov, Poland, made his living as an innkeeper, renting the inn and the privilege to run it from the feudal lord who owned all the land of the village and the surrounding area. At first, everything went as he had hoped: the local peasants drank and paid for the large amounts of hard liquor they consumed, and so he was always able to pay the rent and the percentages to his landlord, and still make a reasonable profit.

Business at the tavern took a downturn.

Time passed. Business at the tavern took a downturn. Many of his regular customers stopped coming. The innkeeper began to be late in his seasonal payments. The first few times, the village landlord was somewhat tolerant of the delay. But when it started to become a regular pattern, he lost all patience, and finally told his tenant in a rage: “I won’t listen to any more excuses. The next time you are late to pay me, I’ll send some of my men down; they know very well how to deal with the likes of you.”

Unfortunately, it did not take long for his threat to come to fruition. The next due date fell on a Shabbat. That morning, most of the family was still in bed as the innkeeper prepared to go to shul. Suddenly, a group of drunken peasants burst through the front door. With a glint of hatred in their eyes, they began to wreck the house. They broke, they shattered, they smashed—whatever they could put their hands on, they destroyed. Not even the hot cholent stew on the Shabbat stove was spared; that was dumped all over the floor in the midst of the rest of the wreckage.

. . . the innkeeper’s wife and children finally broke down in bitter tears.

The unfortunate family looked on helplessly in shock as their home was destroyed in front of their eyes. It was clear that these thugs had been sent by their landlord. As the peasants slammed the door in satisfaction upon their departure, the innkeeper’s wife and children finally broke down in bitter tears. He himself tried to restore a little order from the mess, did his best to comfort the others, and then hurried off to shul.

It was very difficult for the innkeeper to maintain any spirit of Shabbat. The whole day, he was deeply worried about what would be. He knew this was just the beginning; he still didn’t have the money, so he could expect an even worse followup.

Immediately after Shabbat ended, he set off for nearby Kolbisov, where he knew the rebbe would be sitting at the melaveh malka meal with his chassidim. Hopefully, the tzaddik, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (1745–1825, subsequently to be famed as the Apter Rebbe), would be able to help him.

When he arrived, the rebbe was just finishing some words of Torah. He didn’t get to hear too much, but just when he entered, this is what he managed to hear the rebbe saying.

“Two different blessings mention the redemption of Israel. One, ga’al Yisrael, is in past tense—‘Blessed are You . . . who redeemed Israel.’ We say it when reciting the haggadah on Passover Seder night (and in the blessing following Shema Yisrael in the morning and evening). It refers to the redemption from Egypt, a past event. There is also a blessing go’al yisrael, in the present tense—‘Blessed are You . . . who redeems Israel.’ We say it three times every day in the Amidah prayer. It begins, ‘Please behold our affliction, and wage our battle.’”

At this point the tzaddik gave a small sigh, raised his eyes towards the entrance of the shul where the anguished tenant had just come in, and then returned to his talk.

“This blessing is expressed in the present tense, because it refers to the divine redemption that takes place at every moment. Therefore, even if there is a Jew in a village who is unable to pay his rent on time, and the landlord sends Cossack bullies to wreak havoc in his house, the Master of the Universe will arrange redemption and salvation for this Jew too.”

The innkeeper did not understand all that the rebbe said, but these final words penetrated his heart.

The innkeeper, an unlearned Jew, did not understand all that the rebbe said, but these final words penetrated his heart. He knew well that it was he who the rebbe was referring to. When he arrived home, he was full of joy. He tried to encourage and cheer up his still-grieving family, even though he couldn’t remember the rebbe’s exact words. “The Rebbe said, ‘Go’al Yisroel’! The Rebbe said, ‘He redeems Israel!’” he kept happily repeating to his bewildered family. They just couldn’t understand his remarkable reversal of mood.

Late that Saturday night, the duke sent his henchmen again, to keep up the pressure on the Jew and see if he had learned his lesson properly. They were astonished to see their victim singing and dancing in vigorous joy. “He is acting like someone who found a hidden treasure,” they reported back to their disbelieving master. “Bring him to me immediately,” he ordered.

The tenant bounded into the castle with a beaming face. The duke gave him a fierce look and demanded his money, but the emptyhanded Jew, confident in the rebbe’s blessing, just grinned even wider and friendlier.

The duke, startled, began to wonder. Could it be that from all the suffering and pressure, his tenant’s mind had snapped? It certainly seemed like it. How could he act so carefree and happy when his situation was so desperate? But it had never been his intention to do any permanent damage to the Jew. He just wanted his money.

As he stared at the grinning Jew and pondered the situation, he began to feel sorry for the poor bemused innkeeper. “Listen to me, Moishke,” he addressed his tenant in a more gentle voice. “Why are you such a failure at the inn? Look at you: you are impoverished, you can’t pay your debts, you can’t even afford to replenish your stock of liquor so that maybe you could turn a little profit.”

“So what should I do?” asked the innkeeper, shrugging cheerfully.

“I’ll tell you," replied the duke. “Go to the wholesaler. I’ll give you a note telling him to sell you several crates of bottles on credit. You can make good business with them at the tavern. Just be careful to put money aside to pay off the purchase, and of course to pay me what you owe me!”

What a deal! The innkeeper took his landlord’s offer with alacrity.

What a deal! The innkeeper took his landlord’s offer with alacrity. In a relatively short period he was able to pay all his debts. After that he made large profits. The whole while, he was clear in his mind that his sudden turn of fortune and everything connected with it was in the merit of the rebbe’s blessing. After some time, when he was able to return to Kolbisov to see the rebbe, he brought with him a pouch filled with silver. He presented it to the tzaddik, saying, “Rebbe, here is ‘He redeems Israel’ money.”

Translated-adapted from Sichat HaShavua #552.

Biographical note:
Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (?–5 Nissan 1825), the Apter Rebbe, was a primary disciple of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk. He is also often referred to as “the Ohev Yisrael,” after the title of the famous book of his teachings, and also because its meaning (“Lover of Jews”) fits him so aptly.

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