And every morning at the time for the penitential prayers, the Nemirover rebbe would disappear; vanish!
He was nowhere to be seen: not in the synagogue, not in either of the study-houses, not at a prayer-gathering, and surely not at home. The house stood open. Anyone who wanted to could go in or out; nobody stole from the rebbe. But not a living soul was to be found in the house.
Where can the rebbe be?
Where could he be? In heaven, of course. Do you think a rebbe doesn't have a lot of affairs to attend to during the Days of Awe? Jews, God save them, need to earn a living; need peace, health, good marriages for their children; want to be good and God fearing. But their sins are great, and Satan with his thousand eyes watches, and accuses, and informs...and ― who is to help if not the rebbe?
That is what the people thought.
Once, though, a Litvak arrived in town, and he scoffed! You know the Litvaks: they don't have a high opinion of the books of ethics; instead they cram themselves full of Talmud and commentaries. And the Litvak quotes an explicit text and leaves you with your mouth open: Even Moses wasn't allowed to ascend to heaven during his lifetime, but had to stop ten handbreadths below! Try to argue with a Litvak!
― Where else does the rebbe go, then?
― How should I know? ― he answers with a shrug. And before the words are out of his mouth (what a Litvak is capable of!) he resolves to get to the bottom of it.
* * *
The very same evening, just after the evening prayers, the Litvak steals into the rebbe's bedroom, creeps under his bed, and lies there. He intends to wait all night and see where the rebbe goes; what he does during the time of the penitential prayers.
Someone else might have dozed off and missed the occasion, but a Litvak finds a way; he repeats from memory an entire tractate of the Talmud! I can't remember whether it was "Profane Things" or "Vows".
Before sunrise he hears the call to prayers.
The rebbe had already been awake for a time. He had heard him groaning for almost a whole hour.
Anyone who has ever heard the Nemerover groaning knows how much sorrow for the Jewish People, how much suffering there was in each groan ... Hearing the rebbe groan would dissolve you in pity. But a Litvak's heart is made of iron. He hears it and just keeps lying there. The rebbe lies there too: the rebbe, God bless him, on the bed; the Litvak under the bed.
* * *
The Litvak hears the beds in the house begin to creak; hears the inhabitants leave their beds, hears the murmur of a blessing, hands being washed, doors opening and closing. The people leave the house, and once again it is quiet and dark. Through the shutter a small gleam of moonlight barely penetrates ...
The LItvak confessed that when he was left all alone with the rebbe he was seized with terror. His skin prickled with fear and the roots of his earlocks pierced his temples like needles.
It's nothing to laugh about: alone in a room with the rebbe before daylight in the Days of Awe!?
But a Litvak is stubborn; so he shivers like a fish in the water, but he continues to lie there.
* * *
Finally the rebbe, God bless him, gets out of bed ...
First he does all the things a Jew is obliged to do, then he goes to the clothes chest and removes a bundle ... Peasant garments appear: linen trousers, great boots, a coat, a big fur hat, and a large leather belt studded with brass nails.
The rebbe puts them on. From the pocket of the coat a thick rope sticks out; the kind of rope peasants use!
The rebbe leaves; the Litvak follows.
On his way out the rebbe goes into the kitchen, stoops, removes an axe from under a bed, thrusts it through his belt, and leaves the house.
The Litvak trembles, but he doesn't falter.
A quiet autumnal sense of awe hovers over the dark streets. Often a cry can be heard from one of the prayer groups reciting the penitential prayers, or a sickly groan through a window. The rebbe keeps to the edges of the street, in the shadow of the houses. He glides from one house to the next, with the Litvak behind him.
And the Litvak hears his own heartbeats mingle with the heavy footfalls of the rebbe: but he continues nevertheless, and together with rebbe he arrives outside of the town.
* * *
Behind the town there's a wood.
The rebbe, God bless him, enters the wood. He walks thirty or forty paces and stops beside a young tree. And the Litvak is amazed to see the rebbe take the axe from his belt and begin to hack at the tree.
He watches the rebbe chop and hears the tree groan and snap. And the tree falls, and the rebbe splits it into logs and the logs into chunks of wood; and he makes a bundle of these chunks and ties it with the rope in his pocket. He throws the bundle over his shoulder, sticks the axe back in his belt, and walks back to town.
In a back street he stops before a half-collapsed house and knocks at a window.
― Who is it? ― a frightened voce calls from within. The Livak recognizes a woman's voice; the voice of a sick woman.
― Me! ― the rebbe answers in a peasant dialect.
― Who "me"? ― the voice from inside asks again.
And the rebbe answers again in Ukranian: "Vasil"!
― Vasil who? And what do you want, Vasil?
― Wood ― says the supposed Vasil ― I have firewood for sale. Very cheap. I'm practically giving it away!
And without waiting for an answer, he walks into the house.
* * *
The Litvak steals in behind him and by the gray light of dawn he sees a bare room with rickety furniture ... A sick woman lies in bed, covered with rags, and
she says bitterly:
― Buy wood? With what should I buy it? I'm a poor widow, what money do I have?
― You can have it on credit! ― answers the supposed Vasil, it comes to six groshen altogether!
― How will I pay it? ― the poor woman groans.
― Foolish woman, ― the rebbe lectures her, ― here you are a poor sick woman, and I trust you for this bit of wood; I have faith that you will pay me. And you have such a great and powerful God, and you don't trust Him, and you don't have faith in Him even for a silly six groshens' worth of wood!
― But who will lay the fire for me ― the widow groans ― Do I have strength to get out of bed? My son has to stay away at his job.
― I'll lay the fire for you, too, ― says the rebbe.
* * *
And having put the wood in the oven, the rebbe, with a groan, recited the first verse of the penitential prayers ...
And when he had lit the fire and it was burning merrily, he recited the second verse, somewhat more cheerfully ...
And he recited the third verse when the fire had subsided into a steady glow and he closed the oven door ...
* * *
The Litvak who saw it all stayed and became a Nemirover khosid.
And later, whenever a khosid said that the Nemirover gets up every morning during the Days of Awe and flies up to heaven, the Litvak would not laugh at all, but would add quietly:
― And maybe even higher!