Beis Moshiach Magazine is powered by:



What We Can Learn From
R’ Yosef The Wagon Driver

By Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Ginsberg

The following is an adaptation of a story printed in the introduction of the Rebbe Rayatz’s kuntresPokei’ach Ivrim,” about the Chassid R’ Yosef Baal Agala (the Wagon Driver) from Beshenkowitz:

R’ Yosef was in Liadi in 5564 (1804), and when he went to the Alter Rebbe for a yechidus, the Rebbe asked him whether he was proficient in the six orders of the Mishna by heart. R’ Yosef said that he regularly reviewed the Mishna by heart once a month.

The Alter Rebbe said that “Mishna” has the same letters as “neshama” (in Hebrew). He told R’ Yosef to marry a woman capable of having children, and that she would give birth to a son. Hashem would grant him a long life, and for the sake of his soul he would be better off being a wagon driver than a rav.

Upon his return to his city, a match was proposed to him with the daughter of R’ Nesanel Sofer. She was a young widow who had a grocery store. They married, and in the summer of 5568, she gave birth to a son, Abba Zelig.

In 5574, householders from Liepele offered him a position as rav of their city. R’ Yosef recalled what the Alter Rebbe had told him ten years earlier — that for the good of his soul it would be preferable that he be a wagon driver, not a rav. Thus, he refused the offer. Moreover, when R’ Yosef considered what the Rebbe had told him, he realized that now that they had offered him the position of rav, the time had come to become a wagon driver.

He struggled with this idea for a month, sometimes leaning one way and sometimes leaning the other way. He was utterly confused, not knowing what to do. One day, he almost decided to become a wagon driver. He went to the inns where the wagon drivers congregated to befriend them in order to learn their trade. When the wagon drivers saw R’ Yosef heading in their direction, they greeted him and asked him where he was going, was his destination Vitebsk or Liepele, etc. R’ Yosef said that he wasn’t going anywhere, and that he wanted to learn how to be a wagon driver. The wagon drivers looked at each other in astonishment, wondering what he meant. “Rebbi,” said one of his pupils who was present, “You will understand hilchos hagala better than hilchos agala” [a play on words meaning that he would understand the laws of koshering utensils better than he would the ways of wagon drivers].

When the laughter subsided, one wagon driver said that R’ Yosef Melamed would not come to mock; certainly this matter is of importance to him. He invited R Yosef to his house, offering to explain whatever he wanted to know. R’ Yosef accompanied the wagon driver straight to the barn where he kept his horses. The wagon driver showed him how to harness the horses, how to place the straps around a horse’s neck, the saddle over its back, and the reins in place. He also taught him how to grease the wheels.

R’ Yosef became filthy with mud. One of the horses flicked its tail at him, stinging his eyes. Discouraged, R’ Yosef went home to change his clothes. Then he went to shul to daven Mincha and to give a shiur.

After Maariv, his friends bombarded him; rumor had it that he had gone with Yitzchok the wagon driver to learn how to harness horses. R’ Yosef avoided them and went home.

At home, his wife was sitting and crying. He realized that she had heard the news. He went to his room crying, wondering, “Was I involved in Torah and avoda for over fifty years for this! Should a man of seventy become a wagon driver?” He decided that come what may, he would never do it.

Then he remembered standing ten years earlier in the Alter Rebbe’s room. The holy words reverberated in his ears. The Rebbe’s words had all been fulfilled, and certainly the time had come for him to become a wagon driver.

Suddenly, he had an idea. He would fulfill the advice of the Sages to tell one’s wife everything, and do whatever she said. He went to the room where she was sitting, leaning on the baby’s crib, crying. Seeing her husband, she dried her tears and composed herself.

“I have something to tell you,” said R’ Yosef, and he told her what the Alter Rebbe had said. He admitted that he did not know what to do. Was it possible that after fifty years of being involved in Torah and avoda he should become a wagon driver? On the other hand, how could he not fulfill what the Rebbe had told him? After a few moments, he said that he awaited her decision, and would do whatever she said.

“My opinion,” said his wife, “is that since your teacher and Rebbe told you something, you should do what he said without waiting even one day. Tomorrow I will sell my string of pearls and two aprons sewn with gold threads, and you can use the money to purchase a horse and wagon. In a good and auspicious time you will begin working as the Rebbe advised you.”

R’ Yosef listened what his wife had to say. Although, on the one hand, he was most satisfied with her wholehearted faith in tzaddikim, on the other hand, he felt terrible about the idea of becoming a wagon driver. After all, he was R’ Yosef the baal hasbara (one skilled at explaining difficult concepts)! He was R’ Yosef Mashbir Bar, as they called him, expert in Shas and Rambam by heart! He would be pals with the wagon drivers? Again he cried.

Some time passed. It was past midnight, time for Tikkun Chatzos. R’ Yosef said the Tikkun Chatzos and cried bitterly over his personal churban — that in his old age he had to leave the tents of Torah. Not only had he not accepted the position of rav, but he had to remove his clothes, the clothing of a Torah scholar, and put on dirty clothing and become a wagon driver. It was especially exasperating to him, since, thank G-d, he had a livelihood.

His wife was a simple woman. She did not understand what it takes to be a baal haskala or baal avoda. She had no concept of the greatness of the Rebbe with his ruach ha’kodesh. Yet she, with her simple faith in tzaddikim as servants of G-d, had not given it a moment’s thought. She was perfectly willing to sell her jewelry in order to quickly fulfill what the Rebbe had said.

R’ Yosef began to wonder. He had been educated with Torah and fear of Heaven. His father, R’ Abba a’h, a great tzaddik, had supported himself as a tailor. At night, he said Tikkun Chatzos and studied Torah. He never spoke idly, even on a weekday, and on Shabbos and Yom Tov he only spoke divrei Torah, and only in lashon ha’kodesh. He fasted on Mondays and Thursdays and Yom Kippur Katan. He was careful about not looking past his four cubits. He gave a tenth of his earnings. His mother was a G-d fearing woman who was involved in tzedaka. She was the first to get involved in hachnasas kala, was expert in healing, visited the sick and new mothers, and she supervised her sons and daughters in all matters related to fear of Heaven. In his youth, R’ Yosef had served his teacher, the gaon R’ Avrohom the Blind, and had been in the surroundings of holy people. But despite his top-quality education and influence from his holy parents, he was lacking simple faith in tzaddikim.

Many years before, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov had been the first to open his mind by explaining to him that before anything else, one must have pure faith in tzaddikim. For two years he thought about it and found many sources in Shas Bavli and Yerushalmi to corroborate this concept. He recalled the various conversations he had had with his fellow Chassidim when he went to Liozna and Liadi. Suddenly, the thought crossed his mind that perhaps until now he had been lacking or incomplete in this emuna, and he began to cry silently. For two days, he was despondent and could not continue his usual study schedule.

His wife gave him the money she promised. Shabbos arrived. Although he tried to avoid thinking about it, he was unsuccessful. He knew that after Shabbos he would have to begin work. This was his last Shabbos as R’ Yosef the Melamed, and next Shabbos he would be Yosef Baal Agala. He imagined what this would be like and sighed. What would become of his Torah?

Then a new thought surfaced. Was he really concerned about his Torah learning or was it really just his ego and that was bothered?

He remembered a friend, a Chassid of the Alter Rebbe, R’ Chaim Yehoshua, who was a wagon driver from Veliz. In a flash, he suddenly had a sense of peace of mind. One could be a wagon driver, thought R’ Yosef, and still be a lamdan and oveid Hashem. R’ Chaim Yehoshua was proof, for when he traveled, he reviewed Tanach, Mishnayos, and Tanya by heart. He would do the same thing! When he traveled from city to city, he would review Mishnayos and Tanya by heart, and when he would stay over at a hotel or inn in the city, he would learn in greater depth…

R’ Chaim Yehoshua was shocked to hear what his friend had to say, and looked at him wide-eyed, wondering if he had lost his mind. R’ Chaim Yehoshua was so rattled he couldn’t speak clearly. He kept quiet, just nodding his head sympathetically.

After some time he asked, “What spirit of folly overcame you, R’ Yosef, that after toiling in Torah for over forty years, you have chosen this line of work?”

R’ Yosef cried, so overcome he couldn’t respond. R’ Chaim Yehoshua cried along with him, repeating, “Why are you crying, R’ Yosef? Who is forcing you to become a wagon driver? Forget about this nonsense and return home to your Torah and avoda.”

R’ Yosef stood up, for that was the custom of the early Chassidim when they repeated something from the Rebbe, and he told R’ Chaim Yehoshua what the Alter Rebbe had told him in yechidus in 5564. He described how the Alter Rebbe’s words concerning the shidduch and his son’s birth had been fulfilled, how he had been offered a position as rav, and how according to what the Rebbe had told him, the time had come for him to become a wagon driver.

Hearing this, R’ Chaim Yehoshua said, “If that’s the case, why are you crying? You should be happy to fulfill the Rebbe directive! Come with me and I will choose a good horse and a wagon with everything you need. Today, Kopel, my horse flogger, will teach you how to harness a horse, and within three days you will know everything there is to know.”

* * *

The story goes on to describe in detail how R’ Yosef became a wagon driver and how he was instrumental in influencing a Jew named Shlomo Leib, who had abandoned his wife and children and married a gentile woman, to become a baal teshuva. As it turns out, Shlomo Leib came to Lubavitch at the same time that R’ Yosef came to the Mitteler Rebbe. The Rebbe Rayatz concludes the narration as follows:

“My father spent two months in Lubavitch,” related Abba Zelig, “and when he went in for a yechidus to the [Mitteler] Rebbe, he was told to take the place of Nachum the Elder, who had passed away, in order to lead the minyan of Anash in the street of the marketplace. [The Mitteler Rebbe] said to him, ‘Father [the Alter Rebbe] came to me and said that Yosef Beshenkovitzer has accomplished what he was meant to accomplish.’”

The Mitteler Rebbe concluded, “Father, for the sake of an individual, made a wagon driver out of a melamed. He told me that for the sake of the public at large, I should make a mashpia out of a wagon driver. You must be a mashpia and lead the Chassidim in the minyan in the market of Beshenkowitz.”

Said Abba Zelig, “When my father returned home from Lubavitch, he sold the horse and wagon, retired from his job as wagon driver, and became a mashpia. Until his final days, he made his way by foot to Lubavitch. And when he was quite old and his strength failed him and he could no longer walk there, he did not want to travel by wagon because he said, ‘in Yerushalayim darf men gein’ (you must walk to Yerushalayim).”

* * *

R’ Yosef’s experience teaches us an important lesson. With all the wonderful upbringing of a child thriving in a Torah environment, the immersion in Torah learning and teaching, and the bekiyus in Torah, it still wasn’t enough. The basis of faith had been missing all along, and affected R’ Yosef when it came down to fulfilling the Alter Rebbe’s requests.

Emunas tzaddikim is the prerequisite. It is also the conclusion, both regarding oneself and regarding one’s mission in the world in spreading the wellsprings of Chassidus.

We have a task of the highest priority, especially in connection with Yud Shvat (discussed in the famous letter about our conduct on this day, which the Rebbe told us to publicize):

It is important to set aside a time during this period, to explain to one’s household about the Rebbe Rayatz and the work he did throughout his life. During this time, (those who are fitting should) visit shuls and battei midrash in the city, and review a thought or Torah of the Rebbe Rayatz. Explain about his love for every Jew, let them know about his takana about saying Tehillim and learning Chumash with Rashi, and, where suitable, also about learning Tanya as it is divided over the course of a year. If possible, all this should be done at a farbrengen.

During this time period, (those suited to this should) visit the places where religious youth congregate, and try as much as possible, in a peaceful manner, to go to places where as of yet the youth are not religious, and explain to them how the Rebbe Rayatz had a special fondness for them. Explain what he required of them and how he relied on them to ultimately do their mission to strengthen Yiddishkeit and spread Torah with the energy, warmth, and chayus characteristic of young people.

Naturally, wherever appropriate, these things should continue in the days following the yahrtzeit, especially on the following Shabbos.”

Obviously, the directives about the Rebbe Rayatz apply to him as he exists in our generation — “nishmaso bi” (i.e., the Rebbe MH”M said of the Rebbe Rayatz in the sicha of Purim 5711 that “his soul is within me”).

Indeed, our connection to all the Rebbeim is likewise; they are all incorporated within the Rebbe MH”M shlita. The Rebbe said (Sicha VaYeitzei 5711, Hisvaaduyos 5711, Vol. 1, p. 106) that our connection to the Mitteler Rebbe “does not, ch’v, contradict our connection to the Rebbe, my father-in-law. We relate to nasi doreinu, for the hiskashrus to the Mitteler Rebbe is as he is incorporated within my father-in-law, nasi doreinu.”

In the sicha of Beis Nissan 5748, the Rebbe explained concerning Beis Nissan, the yom hilula of the Rebbe Rashab: “The main point is not the hilula of the Rebbe Rashab, but the start of the nesiyus of the Rebbe Rayatz. That nesiyus continues until the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu.”

This concept applies to us in our present situation. All previously mentioned directives about hiskashrus, hafatza, and publicity about the Rebbe Rayatz are also instructions for us concerning our nasi, the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach.

There is an obligation, in addition to the Yud Shvat directive, to inform people about the Rebbe, his ahavas Yisroel, and how to connect to him by observing his enactments:

It is important to publicize to all members of the generation that we have merited that Hashem has chosen and appointed a person with free will, incomparably greater than anybody else in the generation, to be the judge, advisor, and prophet of the generation. He will give directives and advice regarding the service of all Jews and all the people of the generation in all matters of Torah and mitzvos in day to day life...[and to publicize] the main prophecy, the prophecy (not just in the role of wise man and judge, but as a prophet, which means it is certain) of “immediately to Redemption” and “behold Moshiach comes.” Along with this privilege, each member of the generation has the responsibility to accept upon himself the judge and advisor, and to follow his directives and good advice.”

Thus, our main task is to publicize everywhere about the Rebbe. Not just about his greatness, but about his being nasi. Not just that he is the head, but that he is the heart, and without a connection to him there is no way to connect to Hashem. We should explain how it is a privilege and obligation to connect to the Rebbe, to fulfill his directives, to consult with him, and to realize that he conveys the word of Hashem. In other words – Kabbalas pnei Moshiach Tzidkeinu! As the Rebbe wrote in the famous letter of Gimmel Tammuz 5710:

There are many who seek to describe the greatness of the Chabad leaders in general, and nasi doreinu, my teacher and father-in-law, the Rebbe, in particular, in various ways: he has mesirus nefesh, he is a gaon, a baal midos, a tzaddik, has ruach ha’kodesh, does miracles, etc. But these descriptions fall short. He is the nasi Chabad. That is the essence of his greatness and the most pertinent to us, his Chassidim and mekusharim.

A nasi in general is called the head of the multitudes of Jews. He is the head and brain relative to them, and from him they derive nourishment and life. By connecting with him, they are uniting with their source Above.

This has been and still is the way of the Chabad leaders, from the Alter Rebbe through my teacher and father-in-law, each their own type and category, giving in a way of pnimiyus and makif, in Torah, avoda, and gmilus chasadim, concerning both material and spiritual matters. Thus, the hiskashrus of the Chassidim to the Rebbeim extended to all 613 parts of their souls and bodies.

Every one of us must know — i.e., to give this deep thought — that he is the nasi and head. From him and through him come all hashpaos in both material and spiritual matters, and by connecting to him (and he said in his letters how and in what way to connect) one connects and unites with the source and the source of the source, higher and higher, etc.”

* * *

Let us ensure that every Jew has a picture of the Rebbe. Let us try to go to 770 and to bring others there too, especially for Yud Shvat. May we merit to see the Rebbe long before that special day, and may we celebrate the yovel year with him at the great farbrengen, where we will sing:


Was it possible that after fifty years of being involved in Torah and avoda he should become a wagon driver? On the other hand, how could he not fulfill what the Rebbe had told him?







The Mitteler Rebbe said, “Father, for the sake of an individual, made a wagon driver out of a melamed. He told me that for the sake of the public at large, I should make a mashpia out of a wagon driver.





With all the wonderful upbringing of a child thriving in a Torah environment... it still wasn’t enough. The basis of faith had been missing all along.





There are many who seek to describe the greatness of the Chabad leaders... But these descriptions fall short. They are the leaders of Chabad. That is the essence of their greatness.





Home | Contents | Archives | Contact Us | Subscriptions | Submissions | Classified | Advertise

©Copyright. No content may be reprinted without permission.