A Chassidic Shul Shining Through a Heart of Darkness
By Menachem Ziegelboim

Many years after the Alter Rebbe took on the chassidic leadership in Lithuania, there was still persecution and excommunication against the chassidim. Throughout the area, and with unremitting zealousness, the chassidim were harassed and hounded, and were even brought to physical harm. Sometimes the misnagdim slandered them to the government, as we know from the story of Yud-Tes Kislev.

The shul of the chassidim in Glubak, Lithuania was a magnificent building, the finest in the city. Its tall windows could be seen from throughout the city, and the shul’s beauty was greatly admired. Who built such a beautiful chassidic shul in a misnagdic stronghold, whose inhabitants so strongly opposed chassidim?

It was R’ Shraga the Wealthy, formerly rosh ha’kahal of Glubak, who had first championed the war against the chassidim, who renovated and rebuilt the shul, thus bringing an end to the period of zealousness. However, very few knew why Shraga had changed his views.

* * *

Glubak was a misnagdic stronghold. Well-meaning and not so well-meaning zealots persecuted the few chassidim who lived in the city. A severe cherem (excommunication) was issued against anyone who joined the chassidim, and it was forbidden to stand within their four cubits.

Shraga, the rosh ha’kahal, was a fierce opponent of the chassidim. Shraga had a brother by the name of R’ Zelig. Unlike his brother, Zelig was a simple and G-d fearing Jew, who loved other Jews and was constantly happy that he had been born a Jew.

One day Zelig secretly left his house, taking with him a small bundle, and walked in the direction of Liozna - to the Alter Rebbe. News of his defection spread quickly, leaving people wondering why Zelig made this decision, and who had negatively influenced him to leave the "straight path."

Five months later Zelig returned home, his face radiant with inner joy. He was naďve, and didn’t know what lay in wait for him. His wealthy brother, feeling guilty about his own flesh and blood "going off," personally led the zealots, who decided to beat Zelig so that others would learn a lesson.

Dozens ambushed him in the shul, and when Zelig showed up, they dragged him off to a side room, stripped him and beat him with wet whips until he bled. A few hours later, Zelig breathed his last, and he was buried ignominiously near the cemetery wall.

One would think that after such a horrendous episode nobody would dare to even think about going to Liozna, or having anything to do with chassidim, but it was specifically because of what had happened that Shraga’s youngest son, Mordechai, decided to go to Liozna. He realized that his uncle Zelig hadn’t endangered himself for nothing, and that there was good reason to take the risk and see for himself.

A few months after Zelig’s death, Mordechai snuck out of the city at night, heading for Liozna. He remained there for two years, diligently working on Torah and avoda as illuminated by chassidus. He dressed and conducted himself like the chassidim, and was a great maskil in chassidus.

When he felt the time had come to return home, he was very fearful, knowing what awaited him. The image of his beloved uncle was in his mind’s eye.

Mordechai consulted with the Alter Rebbe as to what to do and how to conduct himself upon his return to Glubak. The Alter Rebbe took a small piece of paper and wrote: "If he comes to your camp, do not kill him."

Mordechai took the note with deep faith, hid it among his belongings, and returned home. Late at night, when all were asleep, he headed towards his brother’s house. He knew that his brother would do him no harm, despite his opposition to chassidus.

When his brother saw him, he blanched. He remembered what had happened to their uncle when he had returned from Liozna. He took his brother in and hugged him.

"What did you do? Why did you go to Liozna? Don’t you know what’s going to happen?"

Mordechai said, "You should know that it’s very good over there b’ruchnius. Over there you can find the way to rise higher in Torah and fear of Heaven." While speaking, he removed the note he had received from the Alter Rebbe and showed it to his brother. His brother read it, smiled bitterly and said, "I don’t see how this note will help you. When you go to Father he is liable to beat you to death even before you have a chance to show it to him."

Silence fell as the two brothers thought over the situation, trying to come up with a plan. Suddenly the brother broke the silence and said, "Go to the shul in the courtyard and stay there. Try to make sure that people don’t see you, and I’ll find a way to show the note to Father. Perhaps the brilliance of the Maggid of Liozna will calm him down."

Mordechai went to the shul in his father’s courtyard. Since it was midnight, he removed his shoes, put ashes on his head, and began mournfully reading the Tikkun Chatzos. It seemed as though the words had been written especially for him for this difficult time in his life. His melodious voice could be heard out the windows of the shul.

The plaintive tones woke Shraga up, and he wondered who was reciting the Tikkun Chatzos so beautifully. He quickly got dressed and went outside, standing beneath the windows of the shul. He tried to peek inside to see the hidden tzaddik who was saying the Tikkun Chatzos in such a sublime manner, as his heart melted at the sound. The dim light from his candle did not allow him to identify who was inside.

Shraga was still standing there when his son suddenly appeared. "Listen to the sweet sound of the person in there, and how he recites Tikkun Chatzos," Shraga said. "His cries can melt any heart and arouse the neshama to a high level of t’shuva."

The son saw that the time was right, that his father was ready to hear the truth about who was in the shul. "Dear Father, that is the voice of your son from Liozna."

The father was taken aback and silent. He was deep in thought and struck by the truth, that even among the chassidim there were men of truth and feeling who could attain new heights in avodas Hashem.

The father realized that his son was afraid to return home, thinking that what had happened to his uncle would happen to him. Despite the father’s vigorous opposition to chassidus, he listened to his conscience, went into the shul, and invited his son home. Since the cherem was still in effect, the father did not enter his son’s four cubits, but provided him with a room that was separate from the rest of the household, where he could do as he pleased.

* * *

One day, Shraga and his wife had an argument and could not arrive at a compromise. Their altercation grew more severe as the weeks went by, to the point that his wife asked for a divorce.

Shraga planned to go to Vilna to ask the rav of the city to write the gett, but his wife refused to go to Vilna. Mordechai had brought a bit of the chassidic atmosphere into the house, and she wanted to go to Liozna for the Alter Rebbe to arrange the divorce.

Shraga had no choice but to grind his teeth and head to Liozna with her. After much effort they were able to meet the Alter Rebbe. The Alter Rebbe’s hadras panim and pure eyes immediately captivated Shraga’s heart, and he remained standing near the doorway as though hypnotized. The holiness and purity in the room could be felt even by one so degraded as he.

The Alter Rebbe heard their complaints, and after a long conversation he restored their marital harmony. The couple arrived at a compromise, aided by the Alter Rebbe’s brilliant advice.

Shraga left the room, his head in a whirl. On the one hand, feelings of admiration for the Alter Rebbe warmed his heart, which he tried to dismiss to revive his former zealousness, but he just couldn’t do it.

Since feelings of t’shuva and regret began to fill his heart, he remembered his brother who had been killed. Guilty feelings began to plague him, and he knew that such a grave sin could not be corrected or forgiven. He decided to go back to the Alter Rebbe so that the Rebbe could direct him on a path of t’shuva.

When he entered the room, the Rebbe looked at him with a piercing gaze. Nothing was hidden from him, and he knew good and well why Shraga had come to see him again.

"I could see how great your holiness and genius are..." mumbled Shraga with downcast eyes, "and I know only the Rebbe can show me a path of t’shuva for causing my brother to be killed."

The Alter Rebbe looked at him as though examining him, to see whether Shraga was speaking from the depths of his heart or whether this was only a momentary pang of regret.

"You’re a lamdan (scholar)," said the Rebbe, "I have a question for you. When your brother returned to Glubak, did you find a heter in the Gemara to kill a Jew simply because he had veered off the path?"

Shraga lowered his eyes in discomfort and said, "No, Rebbe, there is no such heter in the Gemara, but I still ask for a way of doing t’shuva for my sin."

"You are still a lamdan," continued the Alter Rebbe. "Did you find a path to t’shuva in the Gemara to correct this sort of sin?"

"I don’t know," said Shraga.

"If you don’t know, I’ll tell you. We find in Gemara Bava Basra the story of Hurdus, who killed all the rabbanim. Hurdus came to Bava ben Buta and blinded him, but did not kill him. Then he spoke with him and recognized his greatness of spirit, and regretted his heinous deeds.

"Said Hurdus, ‘If I had known that the rabbanim were so brilliant, I would not have killed them. Now what can I do?’

"Said Bava ben Buta, ‘He extinguished the light of the world; let him go and be involved in the light of the world.’ Hearing this, Hurdus spent years renovating the Beis HaMikdash to the point that people said, ‘Whoever did not see Hurdus’ building, never saw a beautiful building.’

"That is your Tikkun," said the Alter Rebbe. "You extinguished the light of a chassid. Your t’shuva is to return to Glubak and build a shul for the chassidim there. By doing so you will raise the stature of the chassidim of the city so that people will hear and know about it."

(Based on the notes of R’ Mordechai Shusterman, a’h)


The Alter Rebbe



A severe cherem excommunication was issued against anyone who joined the chassidim, and it was forbidden to stand within their four cubits.



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