On the first night of Selichot over one hundred years ago, instead of going to the large Shul to signal the beginning of the prayers, the rebbe, Rabbi Shalom of Belz, ordered his attendant to harness the horses. He said they would be going into the forest.

The astonished attendant wanted to remind the Rebbe that thousands of chassidim were waiting in the Shul, but he knew better than to ask questions and went out to prepare the wagon. After a half hour drive the Rebbe signaled him to stop. They alighted and walked down a narrow path till they saw a small hut in the distance. The Rebbe signaled the attendant to wait for him, and then tiptoed alone up to the window and peeked in.

An old Jewish man was sitting alone at a table.

An old Jewish man was sitting alone at a table. On the table was a bottle of vodka and two small cups, one in front of him and the other before the empty seat opposite him.

Through the window the Rebbe couldn’t hear what the old man was saying, but he saw him raise his cup in a toast, drink it, and then drink the second cup as well. This he repeated two more times, after which the Rebbe tiptoed back to the attendant. They walked quickly to the wagon and the Rebbe motioned him to drive back to Belz.

Meanwhile the chassidim had been waiting for over an hour and were becoming worried. But when the doors of the Synagogue opened and the Rebbe entered, the congregation fell silent. All eyes followed him to his place at the front of the Shul, and then the room burst into prayer as they began Selichot .

When Selichot ended the Rebbe turned to his attendant and said, "There is an old man that came in after everyone and I’m sure he will finish after everyone also. He’s the one I saw in the house in the woods. Please wait for him to finish, and then tell him I want him to come to my study Where I’ll speak to him privately."

Half an hour later the simple Jew was standing in fear before the Holy Rebbe.

"Sit down, Isaac," said the Rebbe, indicating a chair. "I want you to tell me what you did in your house before you came here tonight. What were those two cups of vodka for and what was that strange l’chayim you made?"

"The Rebbe knows that?" he exclaimed, his eyes bulging in amazement. Then he started to shake. "How does the Rebbe know?"

"I sensed that something important was going to happen," the Rebbe answered, "so I drove to the woods and peeked in your window. But I want to understand what you were doing."

"The Rebbe peeked in my window?"

"The Rebbe peeked in my window? How could it be? I am a nothing!"

Now the poor chassid was really confused. He was silent for a moment. Then, realizing that there was no alternative, he sank down onto the chair and began to explain.

"I’m a poor man, Rebbe, I have no children and my wife passed on years ago. I live alone with just a few farm animals. That is, until a few months ago when my cow became sick. I prayed to G‑d to heal the cow. ‘After all’, I said to G‑d, ‘You create the entire world and everything in it; certainly you can heal one cow!’

"But the cow got worse. So I said ‘Listen G‑d, if You don’t heal that cow I’m not going to shul any more!’ I figured that if G‑d doesn’t care about me—I mean, it’s nothing for Him to heal one old cow—so why should I care about His place?

"But the cow died anyway. I got mad and … and… I stopped going to synagogue.

"But then my goat got sick! I said to G‑d, ‘What! You haven’t had enough? Do you think I’m bluffing? Listen, if this goat dies I’m not putting on tefillin any more!’ But the goat died and so I stopped putting on tefillin.

"Next, my chickens got ill. I told G‑d that if they die I’m not going to recite Kiddush or keep Shabbos. Well, a week later I was without chickens and G‑d was without my Shabbos.

"I held out for over a week until suddenly I realized that the time for Selichot was approaching. I thought to myself, ‘What, Isaac, you aren’t going to go say Selichot with the Rebbe? What, are you nuts?’ But on the other hand I was angry with G‑d and had vowed I wasn’t going to the shul.

"But then I remembered that once I had an argument with Shmuel the butcher. For about a month we didn’t even say hello. Then one night he came to my house with a bottle of vodka and said, ‘Let’s forget the past and be friends, enough enemies we have among the goyim; why be enemies.’ So we made three l’chayims, shook hands and even danced around a little together. Baruch Hashem, we were friends again.

‘Listen, G‑d, you forget my faults and I’ll forget yours. All right? A deal?’ L'chayim!

"So I figured I would do the same thing with G‑d. I invited Him to sit opposite me, poured us two cups and said, ‘Listen, G‑d, you forget my faults and I’ll forget yours. All right? A deal?’ L'chayim!

"So I drank my cup and understood that since G‑d doesn’t drink, He probably wanted me to drink His. And after we did it twice more I stood up and we danced together! Then I felt better and came to Selichot."

The Rebbe looked deeply into Isaac’s innocent eyes. In a serious tone, he said, "Listen to me, Isaac. Before we began Selichot I saw that in heaven there was a terrible decree on our holy congregation, because the chassidim were saying the words in the prayer book but they weren’t really praying seriously to G‑d. Of course, there are a lot of distractions and other excuses; nevertheless this terrible decree was looming.

"But you, Isaac, you talked to G‑d like He is your friend. Isaac, your sincerity saved the entire congregation!"


Connection to this week: Elul 27 is the yahrzeit of the first Belzer Rebbe; it always falls during the days of Selichot.

Biographical note:
Rabbi Shalom of Belz [1779-27 Elul 1855] was the first of the Belz chassidic dynasty. He became the main rebbe of Galician jewry, and had tens of thousands of chassidim. His teachings are collected in Dover Shalom.

Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the rendition of Rabbi Tuvia Bolton for //ohrtmimim.org. Actually I first heard this story from a mutual teacher of both Rabbi Bolton and mine, the venerable chassid Rabbi Abba Pliskin of blessed memory. I had expressed astonishment when he said, "it has been known for Chassidim to arrive tipsy for Selichos," and [a version of] this story was his reply.

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