Monday, October 5, 2015 (Shemini Atzeret, 5776) is the twelfth anniversary of the death of my father, the renowned author and lecturer, Yehuda Elberg. His novels and short stories were published in Yiddish, Hebrew, English, French, German and Spanish. He was Scholar In Residence at Oxford University, and took part in summer programs in the former Soviet Union. The following is one of his Hassidic tales.
Rabbi Elimelech ‘s Prayer of Fire
from Hassidic lore
If you think it was only in Givon that the sun stopped in its tracks, I beg your pardon, you’re wrong. It happened again when the tzaddik, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk was still a young man, and a disciple of Rabbi Ber, the holy preacher of Mezritch.
Rabbi Elimelech—of blessed memory—was on his way to his rebbe. As he walked along immersed in holy meditation, he suddenly realized that the sun was about to set, and that it was high time he said the afternoon prayer, mincha. He entered an inn at the roadside, and went to the kitchen for water to wash his hands, as required by law before saying one’s prayers.
The inn filled with drunken coachmen singing with raucous voices. Ignoring them, Rabbi Elimelech walked over to the corner, facing east to Jerusalem. Every fiber of his body was filled with exaltation of prayer as his holy lips parted to begin the Ashrei, when suddenly the innkeeper burst out of the kitchen screaming: “Who stole my loaf of bread?”
“That bum over there was in the kitchen,” said the drunk, pointing at the Rabbi. The innkeeper grabbed hold of Rabbi Elimelech, and threw him out. He dragged himself to some trees nearby. The Rabbi stood against one and began reciting psalms to raise his fallen spirits, so that he could recite his prayer, with a pure heart and proper devotion.
When he reached Psalm 29 and recited the sentence, “The voice of the Lord bursts into flames of fire,” a fire descended from heaven and engulfed the inn. The innkeeper and peasants tried to extinguish the flames, but it was in vain for the water they poured on dried up instantly as if devoured by the fire, and the blaze raged on.
Rabbi Elimelech —of blessed memory—had just begun to recite mincha when he caught sight of the fire. He stopped praying, and turned his face to the blaze. The flames were reflected in his eyes as if they, too, were on fire.
“You did that on my account, right? You wanted to vindicate my honor, right?” the tzaddik called up to heaven. “But I don’t want that kind of honor.”
By now the sun was setting at the horizon’s very edge. The time for the afternoon prayer would soon pass, and yet the Rabbi’s lips were sealed. He did not complete the Ashrei, but simply stared at the conflagration, and stubbornly remained silent.
In another moment, day would pass into twilight. Heaven’s window had already been shut against the evening’s dew, and beads of moisture hovered between sky and earth; they could neither fall nor rise. The sun’s rim hung to the brink of heaven, as a drowning man holds on to the rim of a well by his fingernails, with his last ounce of strength. The stars could not be lit until Rabbi Elimelech’s mincha reached heaven. The sky turned bloody, as if the day was to be snuffed out beneath the knife of a slaughterer. All the trees in the wood whispered: “Nu, well, so now what?”
Ought I tell you what happened next? Clearly Rabbi Elimelech had expressed his wish, and the Lord—blessed be He—fulfilled it. The blaze disappeared; the inn remained undamaged. It was only slightly scorched by the smoke, so that far and wide it would attest to the greatness of the tzaddik. The holy Rabbi continued the Ashrei with deep joy. “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, long forbearing, and of great mercy.”
As soon as the Rabbi—of blessed memory—had reached the closing prayer Aleinu, the dew descended in blessed abundance, and settled upon all that grows. The stars came out dancing, and covered the skies like jewels on a king’s crown. The Rabbi—of blessed memory—managed to get to Mezritch in time for the evening prayer, by a miraculous shrinkage of distance, I guess. The Lord loves his tzaddikim, and occasionally relaxes the laws of nature for their sake.
After the prayers, Reb Ber saluted Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk with the customary greeting “shalom aleichem” and added the words the angel spoke to Jacob when our forefather vanquished him, “For you have striven with God and have prevailed.”
Rabbi Elimelech began to tremble. He had not—God forbid—intended to challenge the Lord’s will. He merely meant to hold back a punishment.
The holy preacher consoled him: “If a mere mortal is not envious of his son or disciple, as our Sages have said, then surely even more so, our Father in Heaven would not be jealous. He takes pleasure in your compassion for his creatures.”
May the merits of the holy tzaddikim intercede for us, so that we be granted the privilege of serving the Lord with pure hearts and profound devotion.