Rav Moshe Leib Sassover’s Three Loves

Nov 26, 2014
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Rabbi Moshe Leib Sassover’s Love of G-d, Israel, and Torah: 1
To learn about love, the inner side of chesed, we turn to Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, the disciple of Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg, one of the greatest students of the Maggid of Mezeritch, all of them of blessed memory. Rav Moshe Leib (yahrzeit 4 Shevat, 5567 – 1807), excelled in love of G-d, Israel, and Torah, exemplifying the ideal of the Baal Shem Tov, as expressed in the following anecdote.

The Baal Shem Tov, as his new teachings on Chassidut were beginning to spread, was once confronted the following challenge. “We always thought, and our father’s told us,” said a skeptic group, “that a pious person is someone who fasts from Shabbat to Shabbat. You say that one who fasts excessively is a sinner. So tell us, what is the main path to service of G-d?” The Baal Shem Tov answered, “It seems to me that one should emphasize three things,
love of G-d,
love of Israel, and
love of Torah –
and there is no need for afflictions.” (Botzina Kadisha, quoted in the Baal Shem Tov al Hatorah)

Rav Moshe Leib of Sassov not only excelled in each of these three loves, but his life and teachings showed how these loves are intertwined.

Love of Torah
Rav Moshe Leib was, from birth, immersed in Torah. He was born in Brod, Poland, a city known for Torah scholarship, and was the son and grandson of great talmidei chakhamim. He went to the beit medrash of the great Rav Shmelke of Nikolsburg and, after learning for an extended period of time (some say seven years, others eleven or twelve) became his closest disciple.

Love of Israel
The White Cloak, the Loaf of Bread, and the Coin
Rav Moshe Leib not only learned Torah at yeshiva, he was also a student of Rav Shmelke’s renowned love of people. When he left yeshiva his rebbe gave him three gifts: a white caftan, a loaf of bread, and a coin. On the way he veered off the main road to find lodgings in a small village. He passed by a building and heard crying from a barred window. He quickly went over to the window and it discovered it to be a Jew imprisoned by his landlord for not paying a 300 ruble debt. Rav Moshe Leib threw his loaf of bread to the Jew and made his way to the house of the poritz (wealthy and powerful landowner). He made his way into the poritz’s house and said, “You must free that Jew immediately! Here’s a coin to redeem him.” The poritz laughed in his face – “One little coin for a three hundred ruble debt! What impudence! Get out of my house!”

Rav Moshe Leib left, but wasn’t able to stand that the Jew was still stuck in that prison. So he once again marched into the poritz’s home and announced, “You’ve got to free that Jew! Here’s a coin to redeem him!”

“Take that Jew and send him to the dogs!” commanded the poritz to a couple of his men. And they picked him up and threw him into the dog kennel. When Rav Moshe Leib saw the eyes and teeth of the fierce hunting dogs he knew that if he didn’t act quickly his end would be near. He immediately pulled out the white cloak his rebbe gave him and put it on. At the sight of him, the dogs immediately backed off in fear and cowered in a circle around him. The poritz got scared at the sight, and realized he was dealing with a supernatural phenomenon. He called out to Rav Moshe Leib, “OK, we’ll let you out of there.” Rav Moshe Leib did not let him off easy and insisted, “I’m not leaving here until you redeem that Jew with my coin!” He did not continue on his way until the poritz personally released the Jew and the Jew was once again safe at home.

What it Means to Love
Even at a young age Rav Moshe Leib was already so full of love that he was ready to give his life for another. Rav Moshe Leib’s love was all encompassing. Wherever he found himself, he quickly became involved with those around him – the poor and the rich, widows and orphans (he used to make the rounds daily after davening to greet the town’s widows and orphans), the unfortunate, the simple and the learned – all found Rav Moshe Leib someone willing to listen to their problems and a helpful friend who got things done.

R’ Moshe Leib used to tell his chassidim that he learned what it means to love a fellow Jew from two Russian peasants. Once he came to an inn, where two thoroughly drunk Russian peasants were sitting at a table, draining the last drops from a bottle of strong Ukrainian vodka.

One of them, in a slurred drunken drawl yelled to his friend, “Igor! Do you love me?” Igor, somewhat surprised by the question answered, “Of course Ivan, of course I love you!”

“No no”, insisted Ivan, “Do you really love me, really?!”

Igor, now feeling a bit cornered, assured him, “What do you think? I don’t love you? Of course I love you. You’re my best friend Ivan!”

“Oh yes, yes?” countered Ivan. “if you really loved me … then why don’t you know what hurts me and the pain I have in my heart?”

Reprinted from Darche Noam staff member Rav Binyomin Adilman’s B’Ohalei Tzaddikim, Parshas Bo, 5760.

One episode in his life seemed to Rav Moshe Leib himself to be a high point of chesed.
The Wedding Dance and the Funeral Band
At one point in his life, Rav Moshe Leib decided to move to Apt, a city known for raising Torah scholars. He and his family were travelling in their carriage and met up with two people on a horse and wagon — one horse and a small wagon. Rav Moshe Leib recognized them as a poor father and his son on the way to get married to the daughter of the shamas of Apt. He went out to greet them and was struck by the sad expressions on their faces. Rav Moshe Leib realized that the unfortunate couple hadn’t the wherewithal for even the basic wedding festivities, so right then and there he and his wife decided to sponsor the wedding. He said to the father and son, “A chasan is like a king – you and your son deserve the best.” Rav Moshe Leib dressed the chasan in his own clothes, fed them from his own provisions, sat him in his own carriage and sang and danced the chasan and father into Apt. When they reached Apt, his wife likewise cared for the kalla and prepared the wedding feast for them.

According to one tradition of the story it finishes in the following way:
Rav Moshe Leib got a klezmer band to play at the wedding of this poor boy and the daughter of the Apter shamas. There was tremendous rejoicing in the town — the townspeople of Apt, the parents of the chasan and kalla, and especially for for chasan and kalla themselves and for Rav Moshe Leib. In the middle of a particularly beautiful song he called out, “If only they would play this niggun as I leave this world.” The wedding feast went on and the slightly cryptic statement was forgotten.

Years later the same Apter klezmer band was in their wagon on the way to a wedding when their horses started to gallop. The driver tried whatever he could but the horses kept flying ahead. The horses continued on and on until they reached Sassov, and stopped short where a large group had assembled. They asked people why the crowd is gathered and they were told, “Didn’t you hear? The Rebbe Reb Moshe Leib Sassover passed away and this is his funeral.” They heard the name and remembered the cryptic statement Rav Moshe Leib had made at that wedding of the daughter of the shamas of Apt years earlier. The band made their way to where the great rabbis had assembled and told them of their supernatural journey and of Rav Moshe’s wish years earlier to play the wedding niggun as he leaves this world. They decided, for the honor of the one who has passed away, to fulfill his wish and the band played a wedding tune at the funeral of Rav Moshe Leib of Sassov on the third of Shevat, 5567 (1807).

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