BY HARAV NECHEMIA PINKESOVIC
Harav Yosef Yehudah was a member of the inner circle of the Maggid of Mezeritch and Harav Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye. While he was living in the Bulgarian town of Biala–Cherkva in 5503/1743, his son Ephraim Fishel was born. It did not take long for Rav Yosef Yehudah to realize that his little son was very special. In a note he wrote years later listing his children, Rav Yosef Yehudah described him as “my son the Chassid, Reb Ephraim Fishel of Poland.” This note was once shown to the Sfas Emes of Gur, who reacted with great emotion, exclaiming, “He knew! He wrote, ‘my son the Chassid!’ He knew what he was writing when he used these words.”
Rav Yosef Yehudah moved to Balta, and a few years later to Brzeziny, Poland, where he remained for the rest of his years. It was here that Rav Ephraim Fishel first delivered his fiery messages and inspired people to teshuvah, and at the same time gathered a group of elite young students and began teaching them Torah.
Rav Ephraim Fishel absorbed the warmth of Torah and Chassidus in his father’s home, where the teachings of the great Maggid were paramount. He supplemented this by occasionally traveling to other chassidic masters, taking from each one additional viewpoints and methods in serving Hashem. He married Leah, the daughter of a wealthy Jew in Brzeziny.
One day, it was announced that the Rebbe Harav Moshe Leib of Sassov would be spending the Yamim Nora’im in the nearby town of Strikov. Jews from all the surrounding villages streamed to Strikov, Rav Ephraim Fishel among them. After a month of spiritual soaring, Rav Moshe Leib prepared to return to Sassov, and all the Jews stood in line to receive his parting blessings.
When it was Rav Ephaim Fishel’s turn, he offered his hand to the Rebbe, who took it and did not let go. He stared at Rav Ephraim Fishel for several minutes, and then told him, “You’re not going home. You will stay here and become the Strikover Rebbe.” The Rebbe then placed his hands on the young man’s head and blessed him.
Rav Ephraim Fishel did as he was told, remaining in Strikov. Decades later, he continued to tell people that he was in Strikov to obey the orders he received from Rav Moshe Leib.
Following the traditions of the Maggid’s disciples, Rav Ephraim Fishel remained far removed from all worldly pursuits. He spent all his time learning Torah, davening and doing mitzvos. In light of this, the Chassidim were amazed when they brought kvittel gelt to him and he said, “These coins are worthless. Bring me red groszen.” They did as they were told, although the coins he had requested were worth several times more than the coins they usually used.
It once happened that a Chassid thought, The Rebbe doesn’t know anything about money. Why should I give him such expensive kvittel gelt? And he handed the Rebbe cheaper coins. Rav Ephraim Fishel looked at them and said, “No, you ought to bring me red groszen.”
“But,” the Chassid protested, “those are so much more valuable. Why do you charge such a high fee?”
“I don’t need any money for myself,” the Rebbe replied. “I distribute all the money given to me to the poor, and I can see how their faces light up when I give them red groszen.”
One destitute Chassid came and poured out his troubles to the Rebbe, especially that his daughter was already of marriageable age, and since he had nothing for her dowry he could not find anyone willing to marry her. He feared that she would remain single for the rest of their lives. The man’s sorrow touched Rav Ephraim Fishel’s heart, and he gave him a sincere blessing for success in all his endeavors. The Chassid was not satisfied, however, and he asked the Rebbe to promise him that he would never again taste the bitterness of poverty. In his compassion for the man, the Rebbe acceded to the request and told him to purchase a lottery ticket. He said that he was certain that his would be the winning number.
The Chassid’s face brightened and he went immediately to do as he was instructed. Somehow he scraped together enough money to pay for a ticket, and then he waited for the drawing. In the meantime Shabbos was approaching and he had absolutely nothing for the meals. Another Jew, who knew that the lottery ticket was blessed, decided to take advantage of the situation. He told the poor Chassid, “I’ll buy you everything you need for Shabbos, and I’ll add a handsome sum to use for whatever else you want. All this in exchange for the lottery ticket that you purchased.” The hapless Chassid felt that he had no choice, and he agreed to the deal.
Two weeks later, the drawing was held, and the Rebbe’s promise was fulfilled. The ticket won the grand prize of 75,000 rubles, but our Chassid was still as poor and destitute as ever. Once again he went to Rav Ephraim Fishel and told him what had happened. The Rebbe became agitated, saying, “Oy! This means that Hashem does not regard me favorably and that my words are not honored in Heaven. After all, I blessed this man with wealth, and now he lost it all because he needed food for Shabbos. If this is the case, I cannot be the Rebbe anymore.”
With that, Rav Ephraim Fishel shut his door and refused to accept any more petitions from the Chassidim. They did not know to whom to turn.
When the Rebbe Rav Bunim of Peshischa heard what had happened, he was very upset. Feeling the pain of the Chassidim, he decided to travel to Strikov and attempt to rectify the situation. Upon his arrival, Rav Ephraim Fishel’s attendant ushered Rav Bunim inside. Rav Bunim got directly to the point, explaining, “It seems that there is a contradiction. The Gemara says (Moed Katan 16b): Hashem declared, ‘Whose authority is greater than Mine? The tzaddik, for I issue decrees and he goes and nullifies them.’ On the other hand, we say every morning in davening, ‘Who, among all Your creations, whether in Heaven or on earth, can tell You what to do?’
“It must be, therefore, that although a tzaddik has the power to bless Jews with confidence that Hashem will make the blessings come true, he does not have the ability to tell Hashem how to bring about the blessings and salvation. No tzaddik can tell Hashem ‘what to do,’ and dictate exactly how things should happen.
“I am certain that your prayers and blessings are highly regarded in Heaven. If you decreed that this Chassid should become wealthy, there is no doubt in my mind that this is what will happen. You, however, decided that it would happen specifically through purchasing a winning lottery ticket, and that did not work.”
Rav Ephraim Fishel’s face lit up when he heard this, and he told his attendant to open his door to the Chassidim as always. He then went back to blessing the Chassidim, bringing them solace and salvation.
Leading With a Pillar of Fire
One morning, Rav Ephraim Fishel went to the mikveh, and while immersing he suddenly had a vision of a pillar of fire. At the same time, he heard a voice telling him, “Ask, my son, for whatever you want.”
The Rebbe overcame his shock and declared forcefully, “I ask that I never have such a frightening vision ever again.” Later that morning, he related the occurrence to his family and they asked, “Why did you respond that way?”
“I became frightened,” he explained. “I was afraid that the yetzer hara would trick me into asking for some personal benefit, and that would have ruined everything.”
“But,” they protested, “this was obviously an opportunity. Why didn’t you ask for Klal Yisrael to have salvation and to bring an end to their suffering?”
Rav Ephraim Fishel took this complaint to heart. He sighed and groaned for this oversight, and told his family that Hashem had blocked his mind from thinking correctly at that time. News of this incident spread quickly throughout the town. From then on, the Chassidim referred to the Rebbe as Amud Eish — the Pillar of Fire.
If the Rebbe was known for his compassion and efforts to ease the plight of all suffering Jews, he was even more famous for being the champion of those who suffered from illness and were confined to their sickbeds. Every night before he retired he would pour a shot of schnapps, recite Shehakol and take a sip. Then he would say, “Ribbono shel Olam, l’chaim! After all, You are the Source of all life. Have a good night.”
He once explained that the purpose of this practice was to bring a speedy recovery to all Jews who suffered from illness. Usually, someone who is sick feels much worse during the night, and we know that whenever a Jew suffers, Hashem feels the pain along with him. Therefore he began wishing Hashem to have a peaceful and painless night, which meant that no Jews would experience pain during the night, either.
In his waning years, the Rebbe rose to even higher spiritual levels. He continued to argue in favor of Klal Yisrael’s righteousness, refusing to hear about any sins Jews might have committed. In his mind, it was impossible for a Jew to sin willfully against Hashem’s commands.
When well into his 70s, the Rebbe continued serving Hashem with all his energy despite his steadily increasing physical weakness. It was obvious to those close to him that his body was racked with pain, but he never breathed a word of complaint and refused to have a doctor examine him or treat him.
On a gray Thursday, 17 Teves 5582/1822, the Rebbe’s soul ascended to Heaven, to the sorrow of his thousands of Chassidim. All the Gedolei Hador came to his funeral and to eulogize him, seeing in him a vestige of an earlier generation.
The Rebbe’s son, Harav Yaakov of Brzeziny, refused to succeed him, preferring to serve Hashem quietly and away from the limelight. Instead, the Zychliner Rebbe, a relative of Rav Ephraim Fishel, tended to the orphaned Strikover Chassidim. People continued to flock to the Rebbe’s gravesite in Strikov and daven for salvation, health and livelihood in his merit.
Harav Zev Wolf, author of Zer Zahav, was a resident of Strikov. The Avnei Nezer came from Sochatchov to attend his funeral. Afterward, he asked for another set of clothes, and after changing into them he went to the ohel of Rav Fishel. He closed the door behind him and remained there alone for some time. When he came out, his face was aflame with emotion, and he told those near him that the soil covering Rav Fishel’s grave was especially sacred.
Jews continued to visit the gravesite in Strikov until World War II, especially on the Rebbe’s yahrtzeit. Inside the ohel, hundreds of kvittlach covered the paved floor all around the tziyun.
Almost all the Jews of Strikov were murdered during the Holocaust, including Rav Fishel’s descendants and the Rebbes of Zychlin, Hy”d. The town’s Jewish cemetery was neglected and forgotten. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jews came back, located many shtetlach and their cemeteries, and rebuilt and refurbished the gravesites of many Rabbanim and tzaddikim.
Rescuing the Gravesite
In Strikov, things were different. The local Catholic church zealously protected the cemetery as a historical landmark. The non-Jewish residents honored the site, known to them as the grave of Fishel the Kabbalist. This was the situation until 1972.
Then the Polish municipal authorities designated the cemetery as a garbage dump. As a result, many tombstones were destroyed. Furthermore, a cement factory was built on the cemetery grounds. More recently, this factory made plans to pave a new road across the cemetery. Fortunately, Rav Simcha Keller of Lodz got involved and managed to force the factory managers to pave the road on another side.
Together with Rav Simcha Keller, the Or Haganuz Institute has succeeded in saving and rehabilitating many Polish Jewish cemeteries. After great efforts, they managed to obtain the Germans’ aerial photos of the Polish towns and cities from 1942. Using these photographs and comparing them to ancient maps and charts, they succeeded in pinpointing the location of two ohalim in the cemetery, one next to the other.
After taking careful measurements, it was determined that the cement factory is not sitting on top of the ohalim. Although the walls no longer exist, the graves themselves are visible just off the factory’s western wall. The site is in total disrepair, overgrown with weeds and bushes, making the graves entirely invisible to an onlooker.
The Or Haganuz Institute, together with Rav Keller’s staff, are working with Harav Yisrael Meir Gabbai, head of the Oholei Tzaddikim Association. They plan to hire a company to clean the area completely, and then to use radar equipment to locate the underground graves. Once the exact location is determined, they plan to rebuild the ohel and make it available once more to Jews who wish to daven there.
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