Part Two – Rabbi Yosef becomes a Teamster

When he returned home he was approached with the proposition to marry the daughter of Rabbi Nesanel Soifer (The Scribe), who had been widowed. She was young and owned and operated a grocery store. In the summer of 5568 (1808), she gave birth to a son whom they called Abba Zelig.

In the year 5574 (1814) representatives from the city of Leiplie came to Rabbi Yosef with a written request from the community of Leiplie offering him the position of Chief Rabbi of Leiplie. At this, Rabbi Yosef remembered that ten years earlier the Alter Rebbe had told him that for the good of his soul it would be better for him to be a teamster rather than to take a rabbinical post. He therefore refused the offer and sent away the representatives of Leiplie empty handed.

After they left, upon contemplating the Alter Rebbe’s words, Rabbi Yosef came to the realization that now that a rabbinical post had been offered him, the time had come that he must become a teamster. For a full month he struggled with his conscience about what to do about the matter. One moment he would decide to go ahead with it and become a teamster and the next moment he would hesitate and decide the opposite. Thus he went, back and forth, in a state of complete confusion, distress and indecision.

Finally, deciding to become a teamster, he went to a certain inn which was often frequented by teamsters, in order to make their acquaintance and learn their trade. When the teamsters saw Rabbi Yosef approaching them, they greeted him and asked him where he wished to travel. Did he want to go to Vitebsk or to Leiplie? (These were the two largest cities in the area.) Rabbi Yosef answered timidly that he did not wish to travel anywhere. He only wished to learn the skills of a teamster. The teamsters looked at each other with incredulity. They simply could not comprehend what he was saying.

“Rabbi”, one of his students who happened to be there, said to him, “You have a greater understanding in the laws of koshering vessels (Hagala), than in the laws of how to be a teamster (Agala). Those teamsters who had some Torah knowledge and could distinguish between hagala and agala began to laugh. However, one of the teamsters said in all seriousness, “If Rabbi Yosef the Teacher came to us, he obviously did not come to joke with us. This must be important to him.” He turned to Rabbi Yosef and said to him, “I am willing, Rabbi. Come with me and I will explain all your questions.”

Rabbi Yosef immediately went to the stable where all the horses were housed. The teamster showed him how to harness the horses to the wagon, how to use the reins and how to grease the axles etc. Not knowing how to take care, Rabbi Yosef became filthy with grease and one of the horses slapped him with its tail and nearly hit him in the eye.

Rabbi Yosef returned home filthy and exhausted, broken in spirit and in body. He changed into clean clothes and went to synagogue to pray the afternoon services and to teach Torah to the congregants. After the evening prayers his friends and acquaintances asked him, “Why did you visit the Teamsters guild? They say you went with Yitzchak the Teamster to learn how to harness the horses.” Rabbi Yosef avoided their questions and quickly went home.

When he arrived home he found his wife sitting and crying. He understood that most likely the news of his visit to Yitzchak the Teamster’s stable had reached her. He went to his room, wept bitterly and asked himself, “Have I invested over fifty years of my life to constant Torah study and Divine service just to end up as a wagon driver? Will a seventy year old man now become a wagon driver?” He decided that, come what may, he will not become a teamster.

However, even before he calmed down, he remembered how he had stood ten years earlier in the presence of his lord, master and teacher, the Alter Rebbe. The holy words of the Rebbe still reverberated in his ears. He realized that all the Rebbe’s words had fully come to pass and that certainly now the time had come for him to become a teamster.

Suddenly, the idea to fulfill the advice of our holy sages entered his heart. He would tell his wife everything and do whatever she said. He immediately went to the other room where his wife was. She was leaning over the rail of the crib where their little child Abba Zelig lay. Tears rolled down her cheeks at the terrible news that her husband had suddenly gone mad and had asked the teamsters to teach him their trade. When she saw her husband approaching she wiped her tears and tried to show a pleasant face.

“I have something to tell you”, Rabbi Yosef said. He related everything that the Alter Rebbe had told him. Concluding his words, he said, “Now, I don’t know what to do. Is it possible that after fifty years of sitting and studying Torah and serving G-d, I shall become a wagon driver? On the other hand, how could I not fulfill the words of our holy Rebbe, of blessed memory, whose soul reposes in Paradise?” When he concluded, he added that he awaits her decision. “I will do whatever you decide.”

“My opinion”, his wife answered, “Is that if this is what your master and teacher told you, then you must fulfill his words immediately, without delaying even for a day. Tomorrow I will sell my pearl necklace and my two jackets embroidered in gold. That should bring in sufficient funds for you to buy a horse and wagon. May you begin this trade, according to the advice of our Rebbe, in a good and propitious time!”

When Rabbi Yosef heard his wife’s words, spoken with such a pure heart and such pure faith, on the one hand, he was very impressed and happy at her pure faith in the Tzaddikim. However, on the other hand, his heart broke within him when he considered that now he, Rabbi Yosef, will be a wagon driver. He, “Rabbi Yosef the Understanding”, as the learned men of the city called him, “Rabbi Yosef the Provider of Sustenance”, as he was called in all the surrounding towns and villages, because he was proficient, almost by heart, in the entire Talmud and Rambam, will now be the associate of wagon drivers. This thought brought him to tears.

After a few moments Rabbi Yosef realized that it was almost time to recite the midnight prayers (Tikkun Chatzot). He prepared himself to go to synagogue to say the midnight prayers with a minyan, as was his custom, and then to say the morning prayers at the crack of dawn.

Rabbi Yosef regularly attended the synagogue for the midnight prayers. In the summer he would pray the morning service at the crack of dawn. On the weekdays he would pray for two to three hours and on the holy Sabbath he would pray for four to five hours. After the morning prayers he would study Talmud and Rambam for approximately three hours. He would then eat breakfast. After breakfast he would nap for one hour. He would then learn for approximately four hours with his students. Then he would eat dinner, sleep for three hours and learn another two hours with his students. He would then review Mishnah for an hour. In addition he regularly reviewed Torah teachings by heart before going to sleep, morning, afternoon and night. The afternoon services would be prayed with the congregation and then he would teach the congregants Talmud, followed by evening services. During the winter months he modified this schedule to fit with the different lengths of day and night.

That night, Rabbi Yosef recited the midnight service with a greater degree of broken heartedness. He wept bitterly over his personal catastrophe, that in his old age he would have to leave the halls of Torah. Not only did he not accept a rabbinical post, but now he would also be stripped of the raiment of a Torah scholar and would have to dress in the filthy clothes of a wagon driver. All this, though he was not in any financial distress, thank G-d. Rabbi Yosef prayed from the depth of his heart and pleaded with G-d to save him from his distress.

Besides his general anguish, Rabbi Yosef had particular anguish because of the pure words of his wife. He was anguished by the fact that when she heard what the Alter Rebbe had told him, she did not hesitate for even a moment and gave her opinion with complete trust and simple faith in the Rebbe.

He was ashamed of himself from the inner depths of his heart. After all, He, Rabbi Yosef, had a bond with the Rebbe for thirty-five years and had devoted himself to the study of the teachings of Chassidus for over forty years. Nonetheless, when it came to fulfilling something which he felt was below his imagined honor, he was thrown into confusion for over two weeks of distress, in which his life was not a life.

He compared himself to his wife. She was a simple woman, who had no real grasp of the true worth of people of understanding and Divine service and who could not possibly begin to fathom the essential spiritual level of a “Rebbe” or matters of Divine inspiration nor understand how the Rebbe’s, “Open eyes” could to peer into the future. Nonetheless, because of her proper upbringing, she had simple and pure faith in the Tzaddikim, the servants of HaShem. She did not hesitate even for a moment, as he did, and gave her opinion in the affirmative immediately, even offering to sell her jewelry so that the holy words of the Rebbe could be fulfilled quickly.

With this, Rabbi Yosef started to contemplate the great importance of proper upbringing. He himself had been raised in the lap of Torah and fear of heaven. His father, Rabbi Abba, had been a great Tzaddik. Though he earned his livelihood as a tailor, nonetheless, in all his days it never happened that he did not get up at midnight and recite the midnight prayers and study Torah until daybreak. Throughout his life he never engaged in idle conversation, not only on the holy day of Shabbos but even during the days of the week. Furthermore, on Shabbos and Holidays he only spoke words of Torah and on such days, he only spoke the Holy Tongue (Biblical Hebrew). He would fast every Monday and Thursday and keep “little Yom Kippur”. Furthermore, he took care never to look beyond his four cubits and he would give tithes from all his earnings.

In addition, his mother too was a very G-d fearing woman who was always involved in many charitable endeavors. She was always the first to volunteer for Hachnasas Kallah (providing for the needs of poor brides). She was an expert in medicinal remedies and always visited the sick or mothers who had recently given birth and she supervised her sons and daughters with great care in all matters of the fear of heaven. However, Rabbi Yosef mused, with all this, he still lacked simple and pure faith in the Chachamim (Sages). However, his wife, a simple woman who was raised in the home of her father, the Chassid, Rabbi Nesanel Soifer, had complete faith in the Tzaddikim without even a moment’s hesitation.

Rabbi Yosef sat silently for a long while after his prayers recalling the days of his youth and young adulthood when he was nourished by the teachings of his teacher, the Gaon, Rabbi Avraham Ze’ev, Sagi-Nahor and when he lived on the estate of his father-in-law, Rabbi Zelig, HaTamim (The Pure).

He remembered one of his conversations, many years before, with a guest who was a Torah scholar. This scholar had been one of the students of the Baal Shem Tov (The founder of the Chassidic Movement). He was the first to open Rabbi Yosef’s eyes to the ways of Chassidism when he explained that the beginning of everything is to have a pure faith in the Chachamim (Sages) and Tzaddikim (Righteous ones).

He remembered that this Torah scholar had explained the difference between having faith in the Chachamim and having faith in the Tzaddikim and that he had contemplated this subject for two years afterwards. He had discovered many words of our sages in both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud that substantiated the scholar’s words. He also recalled many conversations that he had with his Chassidic comrades on his visits to Lioznia or Liadi, and it suddenly dawned on him that up to this point he had been lacking and incomplete in his faith in Tzaddikim. This caused him to weep silently and he was simply incapable of learning Torah during this time, as was his custom.

For two days he walked about not knowing what to do. His wife had already given him the money she had gotten by selling her jewelry and in the meantime Shabbos, the day of rest, came. Try as he may to distract his mind from his predicament, he was incapable of doing so, because he knew that when Shabbos would end he would be under the yoke of a different occupation. This would be his last Shabbos as Rabbi Yosef the Teacher. By next Shabbos he would already be Yosef Baal Agala (Yosef the wagon driver). In his imagination he pictured how it would be and his soul mourned for him. He thought, “What will be of my Torah learning?” and he wept bitterly.

A new thought began to gnaw at him. “Am I truly worried about what will become of my Torah learning or is it just my inner pride, haughtiness and loss of dignity that I am upset about?” Upon contemplating this he remembered his friend, one of the Chassidim of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua Baal Agala of Velliz (Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua the Teamster of Velliz) and he was suddenly hit with ecstatic joy, like a lightening bolt.

“Is not Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua a teamster from his youth? And is he not fluent in the entire Tanach (The twenty four books of the Bible), the six orders of the Mishnah and Tanya by heart? And he has an outstanding knowledge of all the laws of Orach Chayim (The first section of Shulchan Aruch, the “Code of Jewish Law”). Besides this, his sons are outstanding Torah scholars. His son Binyamin is a Rav in Vitebsk, his son Yaakov Aryeh is a Rav in Kalisk and his son-in-law Rabbi Raphael Yitzchak is a Rosh Yeshivah (The Chief Rabbi of a Rabbinical Academy) in the city of Nevel.”

With this realization he felt like a new spirit of life was breathed into him. He wondered why he hadn’t remembered Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua of Velliz in the first place. If he had he would not have had to suffer all this anguish and loss of Torah learning and service of HaShem.

“It is possible to be a teamster, a scholar and servant of G-d at the same time,” thought Rabbi Yosef, “And the proof of it is Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua, who reviews Tanach, Mishnah and Tanya by heart as he travels. I too will do this. When I travel from town to town I will review Mishnah and Tanya by heart and when I stop at an inn or boarding house I will then learn in depth!”

After Shabbos he told his wife that he knows a teamster in the town of Velliz who himself is a Torah scholar and whose sons are rabbis and Torah scholars. “I will go to him to learn the trade.” That Sunday he arose early, took the money pouch and set off to Velliz.

When he arrived in Velliz Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua was not home. He had gone to the big fair in the city of Nevel and would not be returning for two weeks. Rabbi Yosef decided to go to Nevel too. He arrived before the holy day of Shabbos and was greeted as an honored guest since he had many Chassidic friends and acquaintances there. Even those who were not his acquaintances had heard of him and this caused a great rejoicing amongst the learned of the city, for his good name had preceded him.

That Shabbos was Shabbos HaGadol (The Shabbos before the holiday of Passover). All three Shabbos meals were eaten with a minyan of at least ten men, each in a different place. They all delighted in words of Torah and tales of yore. All the Chassidim were in a joyful spirit except for Rabbi Yosef who was aggravated by the knowledge that in a few short days he will be wearing the garb of a wagon driver, whip in hand.

Throughout Shabbos he observed Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua and listened in on his conversations. He saw clearly that all the Chassidim and learned men treated him with honor and respect and even love, without regard to his occupation as a wagon driver. He never heard anyone call him Chaim Yehoshua the wagon driver. Rather, he was called Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua Vellizer. “Not so when I am a wagon driver,” He mused to himself, “They will call me Yosef the wagon driver.” And his spirit fell within him.

The next day, after the morning prayers, Rabbi Yosef said to Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua that he came to Nevel because he has a very important matter that he needs to discuss with him. They went to a private room and closed the door behind them.

He told Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua that he had married the daughter of Rabbi Nesanel Soifer of Bieshenkovitz, a very good woman. (Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua was acquainted with Rabbi Nesanel Soifer. They had met in Lioznia and Liadi.) G-d had blessed them with a son, may he live long, and they named him Abba Zelig, after his father and after his former father-in-law. Furthermore, thank G-d, he has a good livelihood from his wife’s grocery store. He himself has students who he teaches Torah for free, since he does not need the income. However, because of a certain secret reason he must become a wagon driver. Therefore he has come to learn this skill. Will Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua please teach him the tricks of the trade? He also told him that he brought sufficient funds to buy a horse and wagon and whatever other equipment would be necessary.

Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua was shocked by what he heard. He looked wide eyed at Rabbi Yosef, thinking that he had lost his mind. Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua just sat there, dumbfounded. All he could do was shake his head in sympathy for his poor friend, who had seemingly gone mad, heaven help us. It took some time for Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua to collect himself enough to say, “What kind of foolishness has gotten into you, Rabbi Yosef? After toiling so greatly in Torah for over forty years, you choose to become a wagon driver?”

Rabbi Yosef broke into tears. He was so overcome with emotions that he couldn’t speak. Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua likewise wept and said, “Why do you cry Rabbi Yosef? Who is compelling you to be a wagon driver and weep? Leave this foolishness and go home to your Torah learning and Divine service!”

Rabbi Yosef stood up. (This was the custom of the early Chassidim when they would repeat the holy words of the Rebbe; they would stand up.) He repeated the holy words of the Rebbe, whose soul reposes in Paradise, the words that he told him during his private audience with him in the year 5564 (1804). “All the Rebbe’s words have been fulfilled,” he added, “The marriage to a woman with children from a previous marriage, the birth of a son and now an offer from the important representatives of Leiplie to be the chief Rabbi of their city. Accordingly, it seems that now the time has come for me to become a wagon driver.”

When Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua heard these words he said, “This being the case, what are you crying about? You should be rejoicing and celebrating that you have the opportunity to fulfill the command of our holy Rebbe, whose soul reposes in Paradise! Come, I will select a good horse and wagon and all the equipment that you need. This very day Koppel, my assistant, will teach you how to harness the horse to the wagon. Within two or three days you will learn everything there is to know of this profession.

Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua’s words sent Rabbi Yosef’s head reeling. He answered, “Can’t the holy words of our Rebbe be fulfilled in a different manner? Let me become your business partner. I will give you the funds that I brought to buy a horse and wagon and we can employ your assistant Koppel or someone else to do the work. I too will sometimes travel with him as a wagon driver. We’ll split the profits fifty, fifty.”

“No,” Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua answered him, “The holy words of our Rebbe will not be fulfilled in such a manner. He specifically said that for the good of your soul, it is better for you to be a teamster than a Rabbi. Therefore, for your own good you yourself must become a teamster!”

After Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua emphasized this point three or four times Rabbi Yosef had to concede that it was the “bribery” of his self-love and imagined dignity which blinded his clear thinking on the matter. He therefore set off with Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua to make all the necessary arrangements.

Rabbi Chaim Yehoshua publicized the matter (that the Alter Rebbe had commanded Rabbi Yosef to be a wagon driver) and in short order news spread that Rabbi Yosef the Understanding, as the Chassidim called him, or Rabbi Yosef the Provider of Sustenance, as he was called by the learned men in all the surrounding areas, had become a wagon driver.

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