by the 5th and 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe
Edited By Mendel Schwartz – 18th of Elul 2019
It was a typical day in the marketplace of Brody. Merchants haggled loudly with prospective customers; people dashed madly about in search of a bargain.
The Baal Shem Tov (The Founder of the Hassidik movement) who was taking a stroll in the market suddenly glanced up in wonderment. A simple Jew walked slowly by, a sack of flour lying heavily on his shoulder. His face was pale and drawn, his clothes were torn and frayed, and rivulets of sweat ran down his cheeks. Simple straw slippers covered his feet. Yet, rising above his head was a pillar of dazzling bright light, radiating with such intensity that the Baal Shem Tov could not help but stare in astonishment. In fact, the shining light appeared similar to the rays of radiance that shone from the face of Moses and the greatest of Sages! “He must belong to the circle of hidden tzaddikim,” thought the Baal Shem Tov. “And yet, I know nothing about him.”
The porter continued walking through the marketplace and the Baal Shem Tov heard the merchants call out to the porter sarcastically. “Hirshel, carry your packages in peace!” said one. “Hirshel Goat, bear your burden peacefully!” called another. “Be well, be well,” responded the simple Jew, nodding in thanks.
Puzzled, the Bal Shem Tov turned to the local merchants in the marketplace, trying to glean information about the righteous porter. “Oh, him?” said the merchants mockingly. “He’s a goat‐ keeper. He has four goats at home, because he claims to have a particular affinity for goat’s milk. We call him “Hirshel Goat”. His wife died ten years ago, so Hirshel lives alone with his goats in one of the ramshackle huts near the end of the village.”
The Baal Shem Tov’s astonishment increased. He resolved to follow Hirshel around on his errands to try to discover his meritorious deeds. Yet, even after a few days of careful surveillance, the Bal Shem Tov remained genuinely puzzled: How could a simple tender of goats merit such sublime spiritual radiance?
After three days of praying and fasting, the Bal Shem Tov approached the goat keeper and said “I am very hungry and weak, and I would particularly enjoy a cup of goat’s milk. I heard you sell this particular sort of milk; perhaps I can buy some?” “Certainly!” answered Hirshel joyously. “Come with me and I will give you milk, but not for money. I am also a Jew, and I am enjoined to share my bread and belongings with fellow Jews. I won’t take a penny from you!”
The pair walked silently through the streets of Brody, finally reaching a row of old, decrepit homes at the outskirts of the village. Most of the houses lacked proper roofing, many had broken windows, and all were in urgent need of basic repair. Hirshel pushed open the door of his home and the air was suddenly filled with the sound of loud bleating. The goats raced quickly toward Hirshel, licking his hands and feet fondly as they frolicked excitedly around their beloved owner. Hirshel greeted his goats warmly, stroking them gently and calming them with soothing words. Soon, the goats stood ready for their milking. Hirshel sat down to milk the goats, offered his guest a cup of warm milk, and soon the pair were engaged in conversation. To the Baal Shem Tov’s surprise and delight, Hirshel revealed his daily schedule and, in doing so, removed the shroud of secrecy surrounding his sacred work.
“All her life, my righteous wife Rachel Leah cared for the poor, sickly people in our village,” said Hirshel. “Whenever a destitute family had a child, my wife was there to help the mother and the newborn, washing, cleaning, feeding, and doing everything she possibly could. She started this mitzvah when she was very young, even before our marriage, and continued uninterrupted until the day of her death. “Ten years ago, Rachel Leah passed away. A few days after her demise, she appeared to me in a dream and related everything she experienced after leaving our physical earth. ‘I felt myself being escorted before the Heavenly Court,’ she told me. ‘They were busy reviewing every aspect of my life when suddenly a large group of souls appeared‐the same sickly women and children I had helped throughout the years. They told the Heavenly Court how I assisted them and, in merit of these good deeds, I was immediately escorted into Paradise. “‘I have come to reveal a secret,’ my wife continued. ‘In Heaven, special regard is shown to those who spend their lives helping other Jews. Since you are a simple Jew, unable to gain merit through the study of Torah, I have a suggestion for you how you can attain great spiritual reward: Help the sickly and suffering, and offer assistance to birthing mothers. However, keep your deeds secret. Do the deed for its merit alone, without fanfare or publicity.’ Saying this, my wife disappeared and I awoke.
“Upon pondering her words, I decided to purchase four goats. Whatever money I earn from peddling, I use to buy superior grain for feeding the goats. Thus, they produce healthy, nutritious milk, of inestimable value for invalids or birthing mothers who have no means of acquiring medication. I distribute the milk secretly, leaving full containers on doorsteps of needy households. Thank G‐d, my milk has healed many of the sick and needy.
“Last night, my wife appeared to me as I slept,” continued Hirshel, looking intently at the Bal Shem Tov “She said: ‘if you meet a poor man tomorrow who asks you for something, bring him home with you. Offer him some milk and tell him our secret. Through him, you can attain everlasting salvation.”‘
Deeply moved by the porter’s sincerity, the Bal Shem Tov resolved to stay in Brody for an entire month. As the Baal Shem Tov observed Hershel’s dally schedule, he could not help but marvel at the porter’s righteous deeds. Pure faith illuminated his every deed. Seeing this, the Bal Shem Tov readily understood Hirshel’s great spiritual reward and found him deserving of the dazzling pillar of light that shone above his head.
The Baal Shem Tov instructed the leader of the “Hidden Tzadikim” to let Hirshel in their group, and to teach Hirshel the entire Torah.
After five years, Heaven instructed Rabbi Hirshel to relocate to the city of Anipoli. There, too, he continued curing the sick, and his prayers and amulets helped heal literally thousands of people. After some time, Rabbi Hirshel took the wandering staff in hand and began to travel from town to town, helping others with his work. Shortly before his passing, Rabbi Hirshel arrived in the city of Ostropol. On a cold day in the month of Elul, 1761, merely a year after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov, the righteous goat keeper passed away quietly at a ripe old age. Heavy, soaking rains fell on Ostropol that day; icy winds cut through the city. Hearing about the demise of a relatively unknown recluse, very few people ventured outside to accompany Rabbi Hirshel to his final resting place. Barely a minyan gathered to bury Rabbi Hirshel in the drenching deluge.
Rabbi Hirshel’s soul ascended heavenward, where a large procession of souls gathered to meet him. They were the souls of all the hidden tzaddikim including the Bal Shem Tov, along with all the sickly and
needy souls who had benefited from Rabbi Hirshel’s charitable acts on earth. Throngs of angels created by Rabbi Hirshel’s righteous deeds kept arriving, clamoring to see the great tzaddik. As Rabbi Hirshel’s soul arrived, pandemonium erupted. The prosecuting angels accused the Jewish residents of Ostropol for their grievous sin of practically ignoring the demise of the saintly Rabbi Hirshel. “They disgraced the Tzadik!” roared the accusers angrily. “Hardly ten people turned up to accord Rabbi Hirshel his final honor. In fact, the circle of hidden tzaddikim and their leader also deserve due punishment for allowing such an abomination to occur.” The souls of the tzadikim, headed by the Talmudic Sage of Rabbi Chaninah ben Dosa, began exerting their utmost effort to avert the Heavenly decree facing the Jew of Ostropol, but their desperate attempts bore no fruit.
Suddenly, an announcement was heard “Make way, make way for the soul of the righteous women Rachel Leah, the wife of Rabbi Hershel.” Rachel Leah’s soul suddenly appeared, accompanied by thousands of shining souls and equally dazzling angels. “Can the Jews of Ostropol really be blamed for their apathy!” she beseeched the Heavenly Court. “Could they have known that this elderly wanderer was in fact, a righteous saint? “Furthermore,” continued Rachel Leah, “punishing the Jews of Ostropol means, in essence, punishing my saintly husband. After all, he is the sole cause for your prosecution!”
Hearing her truthful words, the accusing angels slunk way in shame and the evil decree was abolished.
A hundred and fifteen years passed. In 1875, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, merited to envision the Baal Shem Tov in his Heavenly chamber of light and hear various stories from his saintly soul. Among them was this story of “Hirshel Goat,” the simple goat keep who merited to become one of the foremost tzaddikim of his day.
I finished reading this story from a book written in English called the Great Mission and researched where this story came from. Turns out, this story was put to print by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1949, just a few months before he passed away. (It is printed in Sefer Hamamorim 5709 pg. 94). The previous Rebbe heard it from his father the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe named Reb Sholom DovBer AKA “The Rashab.” The previous Rebbe writes in his book of 1949 that when he was a teenager, his father gifted him a few stories that he heard directly from the Bal Shem Tov, and this story Hirshel Goat was one of those stories. The Previous Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak as a teenager wrote notes from his meeting with his father and put this story to paper. His father corrected the teenager THREE times and corrected various details of this story in order that his son had the complete and accurate story.
I read this story about Hirshel Goat, and the history with the 5th and 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe on Sunday night April 28th, 2013 as I went to bed at 11PM. After reading this story, I told myself if I ever get a call to assist in a minyan to bury somebody, I will act. I will not ignore the opportunity to perform this great mitzvah. For who knows what decree I can avert by having an additional Jew bury somebody, and who knows the quality of the soul that will be buried. Perhaps it may be a holy Tzadik.
Monday morning April 29th at 9AM I saw a facebook post from my former classmate Simcha Kagan who lives in LA. He posts that he has a distant friend Allen from Seattle that is 20 years older than us, and Allen just lost his mother. Allen is on the way from Seattle and asked me to find a minyan to bury his mother at 1PM today. His 83 yr old mom lived for many years in an old age home in LA and they will bury her at Eden Memorial. Allens’ friends live in Seattle, the moms’ friends died, and Allen is panicking that he may not have a minyan. So my former classmate without many options posts a random message on facebook for all his friends to see hoping to get a minyan.
I couldn’t be more excited when I saw this facebook post. I called my buddy on his cell phone about this great mitzvah of burying the dead and how I was looking forward to being part of this very small minyan. My buddy questioned my excitement. He said, “Mendel, I know you’re a nice guy, but such excitement to clear your schedule to make a minyan?” So I told him the story I read the night before. Naturally, my buddy was amazed, and as we pulled into Eden Memorial for the 1PM burial, my friend Simcha tells Allen, since there is no Rabbi officiating, I’d like Mendel to share with everybody during the burial a story he read last night which is perhaps about your mother as well. Allen says, of course.
The story is not over…
As two guys from our minyan are covering the coffin with dirt, before Allen says the Kadish, I share with the few people standing including Allen and his daughter Natalie the bal Shem Tov story about “Hirshel Goat”. Allen and his daughter are sobbing as I am retelling the story with every detail. I talk about the power of Hirshel and his wife Rachel Leah. And I said perhaps the lady we are burying right now BasSheva the daughter of Abraham is a reincarnation of this Rachel Leah who acted modestly, and who shared with hundreds of people acts of kindness that nobody including her own family may have known about. I continued that perhaps there are thousands of souls, and tzadikim, and angels who were created from your mothers deeds of love and kindness who are now smiling that this great woman who may be a reincarnation of the original Rachel Leah are finally getting to have her soul back with the rest of her extended family. I continued that everybody in the heavens are smiling that in Los Angeles there was more than a minyan. We had 12 people present there. May Basheva the daughter of Abraham have an elevation on high.
But the story is not over…
Allen then approaches me and thanks me for helping make the minyan to bury his mother, and hugs and cries on my shoulder for sharing such a powerful story. He then asks me my name. I respond, “Mendel Schwartz”. He asks, “would your father be Rabbi Schwartz – Schwartzie?” I said, “that’s him.” Allen tells me that the first Chassidic Rabbi he ever met was Schwartzie which was 30 years ago before he became religious. And he told Schwartzie then, “I think you’re a great man, but I will never look like you.” Today, Allen wears a beard and is a religious man.
I then asked Allen, “Where was this encounter 30 years ago with my father”? He says “on a Shabbaton at Brandeis Bardin Campus.” I asked, “when exactly did your mother pass away”? He says, “this past Saturday night right after the Havdala service.”
I asked him, “do you know where I was this past Saturday night? Performing a Havdala service for 50 high school kids on a Shabbaton. That’s right, I was at Brandeis Bardin campus for the first time.”
Shana Tova, Rabbi Mendel