[by Avraham Meizlish, translated by Basha Majerczyk]
In the city of Zhoravitz, in the White Russian province of Mohilev, lived a G-d fearing and humble Jew. Whatever he learned he put into practice, and with true acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, never questioned the ways of the Holy One, Blessed Be He. His livelihood was earned by the sweat of his brow, but not once did he ever complain.
This Jew had a son who was an exceptional child from the day he was born. It was almost eerie the way the boy absorbed information, seeing or hearing something only once was enough to imprint it in his memory forever.
The first time his father showed him the alef-beis, it was already mastered. The dots and squiggles under the letters were also picked up immediately. But the most amazing thing of all was how the toddler was able to put them together and read - and understand what he was reading! The most complex philosophical concepts were comprehended at once. Without doubt the boy was a phenomenal genius.
His parents, fearful of an ayin hara, were afraid to send him to cheder. For a while the father taught his son at home, but it soon became obvious that he wasn't up to the task. A private tutor was hired, but he too was rapidly outpaced. "I've never seen anything like it" the melamed said, throwing up his hands in wonder. "Such a young child, and already he can teach me!"
As time passed, the contrast between the child prodigy and the other youngsters his age became more noticeable. While other children were first learning to distinguish the letters of the alphabet, the boy had already finished the entire Chumash and was well on his way through the Mishnah. The tractates Zeraim and Moed were "swallowed" whole, Nashim and Nezikim soon followed. Kodashim and Taharos were a little more difficult, but they too were eventually mastered in a relatively short time.
By the age of ten a great number of tractates had been committed to memory; by the time the boy reached bar mitzvah it was said that he was familiar with the entire Shas. The child had become an experienced swimmer in the sea of talmudic wisdom.
Yet not only had the child been endowed with a photographic memory; his devotion to Torah study and diligence in learning were unparalleled. Blessed with this winning combination, the young man steadily climbed the ladder of knowledge in a truly remarkable manner.
In Scripture, the phrase "And it came to pass" usually has a negative connotation. And indeed, one day "it came to pass" that the father walked into his son's room and saw him reading from a small pamphlet, ignoring the open Gemara on his desk. The father's blood ran cold as he realized it was a treatise written by the Maskilim, designed to lure unsuspecting yeshivah boys into the net of the Enlightenment.
For a moment the father was speechless, but the innate love he felt for his son enabled him to find his voice. "Why do you need to search in foreign pastures?" he scolded him. "The entire Torah is yours, the true source of G-dly wisdom. There is nothing to be gained by looking elsewhere."
"You are right, father" the boy apologized. "I found this pamphlet lying in the street, and to tell you the truth, it didn't interest me at first. The only reason I was glancing through it now was to see for myself how groundless are the claims of the Maskilim. I wanted to be able to rebut their arguments."
The father wasn't entirely convinced, but like many parents he preferred to delude himself. In his heart of hearts, however, he worried that his son had already been "infected" by the Enlightenment's poison, as had so many other young people. Nonetheless, he tried not to dwell on it and pushed it from his mind. Maybe the problem would go away.
A few weeks later, the father came across his son reading the forbidden literature a second time. No longer could he deny that the boy was headed down a dangerous path, yet he still had hope that he could arrest his son's spiritual deterioration. Desperately he tried to convince him of the error of his ways and begged him to stop exposing himself to such foolishness.
This time the son made no attempt to justify himself or apologize. In a voice totally without conviction he promised to stop reading the Enlightenment literature, but by then the father knew it was too late.
Over the next few weeks and months the boy was caught red-handed several more times. He was silent when confronted by his father, and would not deny that the Maskilim had captured his heart.
One day the boy went to sleep much earlier than usual. A few hours later he awoke and began to get dressed hurriedly. "Where are you going?" his father asked him innocently. The boy responded with a lecture that made the father's jaw drop.
"For a long time now I've been studying the subject of wisdom and foolishness" he began. "And I've come to the following conclusion: The biggest fools in the world are found in Russia, and in Russia itself, no place is more foolish than White Russia. Within White Russia, the province of Mohilev is the worst, and within Mohilev, the city of Zhoravitz has more fools than any other. In Zhoravitz, the biggest fools are in our neighbourhood, on our street, and specifically in our house. And you, father" the son concluded with undisguised contempt, "are the biggest fool of all. I will have nothing more to do with such an idiot!" With that he picked up his knapsack and walked out the door. A carriage was waiting for him at a pre-arranged location, and it whisked him off to Berlin, the seat of the Enlightenment.
In Berlin, the Academy of Sciences received the lad with open arms. In no time at all he distinguished himself with his extraordinary talents and phenomenal intellectual abilities. His rise through the ranks of academia was steady and swift.
Years passed. Although he was still in his teens, he stood head and shoulders above his instructors, and after several years in Germany he went on to study in Paris. There too he was soon famous for his accomplishments. Recognized as the top in his field, the young man couldn't have been happier.
Two subjects interested him the most: mathematics and medicine; and the young man decided to write a book on each of them. The mathematical treatise dealt with an original theorem that he himself had formulated. The other book was on the subject of anatomy. These two works were a tremendous undertaking, and the young man spent countless hours perfecting them. When he was satisfied with the results he submitted the books to the university's faculty, and they were highly acclaimed. Scientists throughout the Western world praised his crystal-clear logic and sound presentation. The young man was the darling of the international scientific community.
The fame and celebrity soon went to his head. Around the world people were clamouring for him to have his books published, but for some reason he still hesitated.
In the meantime he was growing older. The time had come for him to get married. There were many who sought the eligible bachelor's hand, promising large dowries if he chose their daughters. But the young man could not make up his mind. He decided to visit his parents before taking such a momentous step. He was, after all, a sensitive individual. For years he had felt guilty over the way he had mistreated his parents. He rationalized it to himself as a youthful indiscretion; rather than engaging them in pointless arguments he had fled from home. Nonetheless, he regretted his ill-mannered behaviour. Now that many years had passed he wished to make amends. Perhaps his old-fashioned parents could now understand that his abrupt departure had been necessary.
At the first opportunity the young professor took a leave of absence and set out for home, back to White Russia. In those days the journey took a long time, and it afforded the young man much time to think. What good will it do to show my father the books I've written? he thought to himself. He has no understanding of such matters. None of my writings will impress him in the least. Better I should first go to my father's Rebbe, the Tzaddik of Liozhna, and get his approval. They say that as a young man he studied geometry and astronomy, no doubt he will be able to appreciate my books. If he pronounces them an important accomplishment, my father will respect his opinion.
Indeed, for years, a story had been circulating about the Alter Rebbe. A certain prince near the city of Vitebsk had had a sundial that had suddenly stopped working between the hours of two and five in the afternoon. No one, not even the greatest scientists and astronomers, had been able to solve the problem. The Alter Rebbe, who was then only 15 years old, had been called in to try his hand. The Alter Rebbe had quickly determined the cause of the malfunction, based on a statement in the Talmud. When his instructions were followed to the letter the sundial began to work again. The Alter Rebbe's success was discussed in the highest academic circles.
Thus the young man changed his course slightly; instead of going directly to Mohilev, he decided to make a detour through Liozhna, in the province of Vitebsk. There he would astound the Alter Rebbe with his original mathematical and anatomical discoveries.
When he arrived in Liozhna the young man went straight to the Alter Rebbe's beis midrash, where his modern style of dress, as befitted an upper-class member of German society, drew immediate attention. Among those in the beis midrash that day was Reb Moshe Meizlish, a chassid who, years before, had left his native Vilna to study in Berlin with the Vilna Gaon's blessing. Reb Moshe was fluent in German, French and Italian. He walked over to the stranger to extend his welcome, and the two began to converse. After explaining the reason for his visit, the young man requested a private audience with the Alter Rebbe. Although the Alter Rebbe was not then in the habit of receiving visitors for yechidus, he agreed to see him at once. The young man was ushered inside.
The door to the Alter Rebbe's holy chamber was closed for a long time. When it finally opened and the young man emerged, his face was red and he was extremely agitated. Up and down the courtyard he paced, oblivious to everything and everyone. It was obvious that he was in the midst of an inner battle, as if facing the most important decision of his life.
Suddenly, without warning, the young man grabbed one of the books he had brought with him and threw it into the furnace at the far end of the beis midrash. A look of relief crossed his face, but he resumed pacing to and fro. A minute later he walked back to the furnace and opened the vent. This time the second book he had brought with him was thrown inside. Both of his masterpieces, on which had toiled long and hard, were immediately consumed by flames. Only then did the young man calm down and take a seat.
Reb Moshe Meizlish, who had been watching the whole spectacle, decided that it was now safe to approach. When he saw that the young man did not object to his presence he asked him what had happened inside the Rebbe's room. And this is what he told him:
The young man had entered the Alter Rebbe's chamber and handed him the two books, whereupon the Rebbe had requested permission to read them. The first book he examined was the mathematical treatise. The Alter Rebbe had scrutinized only five pages when he took out a pencil and drew a line through several paragraphs. He then continued to leaf through the rest of the book.
When he was finished, the Alter Rebbe had turned to the young man and said "The reasoning behind your treatise is sound; the theory you propound is constructed in a logical fashion. Unfortunately, however, the book is based on an error in calculation that was made at the very beginning. As the foundation is faulty, it goes without saying that the rest of the edifice is also flawed."
"I was shocked" the young man related to Reb Moshe Meizlish. "How had the Rebbe grasped the entire concept so quickly? I tried to defend myself but there was no arguing against pure logic. I had to admit that I had made a mistake.
"The Rebbe then picked up the second book and the same thing happened. After drawing a line on one of the first few pages, he went through the rest of it from start to finish. 'Here again you've constructed a beautiful edifice. But look at what you've written...' The Rebbe pointed to the page he had marked off. 'This sentence contradicts what our Sages tell us about the juncture of veins in the body. As our Sages are undoubtedly right, the entire treatise is based on an untruth.'
"What could I say? The Rebbe was right. I walked out of the Rebbe's room embarrassed and humiliated. My mind was in a turmoil. I kept thinking about the Rebbe's comments. Maybe there was some point he had missed? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the mistake was mine. I couldn't believe that all of the French and German scientists who had read my work had neglected to discover the error.
"I had no choice" the young man concluded. "The only thing to do was to destroy the books."
"But what will you do now?" Reb Moshe asked. The young man thought for a minute. "I wish I could speak to the tzaddik again..."
"Would you like to learn with him?"
"It would be the greatest pleasure of my life!"
"I'll see what I can do about it" Reb Moshe promised.
"I will bless you for the rest of my days if you are successful" the young man thanked him.
Reb Moshe Meizlish conveyed the message to the Alter Rebbe, and again he was summoned inside. Quite out of character, the Rebbe agreed to learn with the young man - alone - every single day.
When the Alter Rebbe's son (who would one day be known as the Mitteler Rebbe) learned of the arrangement he asked if he could join them, but the Alter Rebbe refused. "What you ask is impossible, but in seven weeks you will understand."
Seven weeks to the day after the young man began to study with the Alter Rebbe he fell ill. A short time later he passed away. Only then did the Alter Rebbe reveal his secret:
"The young man was a gilgul (reincarnation) of Rabbi Eliezer ben Durdia. His soul had already descended into this world several times, and in each lifetime it had followed the same progression. As a young man it would faithfully observe Torah and mitzvos, but as time passed it invariably left the straight and narrow. This time, when the young man came to me, I decided that enough was enough. I refused to let him leave until his soul had accomplished its final tikkun."
(Incidentally, the Alter Rebbe later gave his son the manuscripts of all that he had learned with the young man. It was based on these writings that the Mitteler Rebbe authored his work Derech Chaim)
Biographical Note: Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi - "The Alter Rebbe"- was born in the White Russian town of Liozna on Elul 18, 5505 (1745)