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Rabbi Naftali Tzvi of Ropschitz: Messianic Holy Humor and the Intercepted Midnight Prayer

By Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropschitz was born on the holiday of Shavuot in 5620 (1760) – the very day that the Ba’al Shem tov passed away. Rabbi Naftali’s father was Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his mother was Baila, the daughter of Rebbe Itzikel of Hamburg, under whose tutelage Rabbi Naftali learned Torah when he was young. Rabbi Naftali then studied under Rebbe Elimelech of Lizansk. After Rebbe Elimelech’s passing, he learned Torah from his student, the Seer of Lublin and also travelled to the Maggid of Kozhnitz and Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Rimanov. He was a rabbi in Ropschitz and additional cities, and after the passing of his rabbis, Rabbi Naftali became a Chassidic Rebbe.

Rebbe Naftali was known to be smart, endowed with a sharp wit. On his tombstone, it is written that he was “unique in his generation in Divine wisdom.” He would dress his wisdom in humor and clever sayings. Among his disciples were Rebbe Chaim of Tzanz, Rebbe Shalom of Kaminkah, Rebbe Hanoch Henich of Alesk, Rebbe Yosef Baba”d, author of the ‘Minchat Chinuch’ and more. He authored the books, ‘Zera Kodesh’ and ‘Ayala Shlucha.’ Rebbe Naftali passed away in Lantzot on 11 Iyar 5687 (1827) and was buried there.

The Royal Jester

Once, when Rebbe Naftali was studying in Lublin with his Rebbe, the Seer of Lublin, he heard two people arguing loudly in one of the adjacent homes. Two fathers-in-law to-be were quarreling about who was going to pay for the badchan, the wedding jester, a customary feature of weddings at that time. (In Hebrew, the root of badach/humor shares the same letters as Chabad.) Rebbe Naftali entered the home and turned to the two: “I don’t like hearing such loud arguments, so I will come to the wedding and be the badchan for free.” The two fathers happily accepted his offer and good cheer was restored.

Rebbe Naftali, as he had promised, went to the wedding a few days later, stood up on a table and regaled the guests with humorous stories and wit. A good badchan can talk non-stop. Rebbe Naftali talked and talked and the guests laughed and laughed.

The Seer of Lublin did not know about this, but when he arose at night to say the Tikun Chatzot (midnight prayers and lamentations on the Exile) he felt that something was not in order. The words just wouldn’t come out of his mouth. Something was preventing him from saying Tikun Chatzot!

The Seer called his assistant and asked him to check if something unusual was going on in the town. The assistant went out to search. He reached the wedding hall and saw the sight. He returned to the Seer and told him what he saw: There is a wedding at the other end of town, Rebbe Naftali is entertaining the guests with humor and everybody is laughing. The Seer understood that in Heaven, as well, there was much joy and laughter in the air, and with all the laughter in Heaven, he could not cry for Tikun Chatzot.

The Seer decided that if he could not say Tikun Chatzot, he would also go to hear his student’s humor. The Seer hid outside the window of the wedding hall and listened to Rebbe Naftali for a long time, enjoying the Divine wisdom in every joke and play on words – truly secrets of secrets of the Torah.

Rebbe Naftali continued to delight the audience, while the Seer listened outside, until somebody told him that his Rebbe was outside, listening to his words. Rebbe Naftali immediately descended from the table and went outside to ask his Rebbe for forgiveness for speaking in his presence – and telling jokes, at that!

‘There is no reason to apologize,’ said the Rebbe, asking Rebbe Naftali to continue with his humorous act, because he was enjoying the presentation.

Rebbe Naftali felt that it was an eit-ratzon, a time of good will, and replied with holy boldness that he would be willing to continue on the condition that the Rebbe would agree to dance the mitzvah-tantz with the bride at the end of the wedding. (Until this very day, some of the Chassidic courts have retained the custom that at the end of the wedding, the tzaddik dances before the bride, while both of them hold opposite ends of a long gartel or cord).

‘My purpose at this wedding is to bring joy to the people and to draw holiness down to the wedding through humor (specifically through the power of the holiness of the humor)’, said Rebbe Naftali to the Seer of Lublin. ‘I also request of the Rebbe, if he wants me to continue, that he will please dance with the bride.’ The Seer, who wanted to continue hearing the words of his disciple, agreed to the ‘deal.’ The story goes that one of the tzaddikim of the generation (whose name we do not know) was born from the union of this newly married couple.

Thus, Rebbe Naftali’s ruach hakodesh to volunteer to be the badchan at the wedding, with the excuse of stopping the argument, ultimately brought the Seer of Lublin himself to come to the wedding and dance with the bride. And in the merit of the holy humor and the Rebbe’s dance, one of the tzaddikim of the generation was born to the couple.

Holy Folly to Defeat the Impure Husk

There are many things that we can learn from this story, but the main point is the power of the tzaddik, Rebbe Naftali to draw down the loftiest wisdom, dressed in worldly matters – and by doing so, to bring the Mashiach. This is the way of all the disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov – each tzaddik with his unique path. Rebbe Naftali, however, excelled at this more than all the others. Humor is even part of his name. Chassidut explains that  Naftali is made up of two words “nofet li”, which means, “sweetness to me,” nectar and sweetness. Moreover, the month that corresponds to the tribe of Naftali is the month of Adar, which is the month that corresponds to the sense of laughter. (A gematriah that adds potency to this thought: Naftali Tzvi equals Purim Purim. Purim, the peak of human laughter, is the average value of Rebbe Naftali’s two names!). Drawing Godliness down to this world – to the point that it produces holy laughter hastens the coming of the Mashiach.

Good and bad are in constant conflict in this world. Everything on the side of holiness has its opposite on the side of impurity. We learn of three levels of evil from the first verse in  Psalms: “Happy is the man who did not walk with the counsel of the wicked, and in the way of sinners he did not stand, and in the gathering of scoffers he did not sit.” It is written that the “counsel of the wicked” is the impure husk that corresponds to the “2000 years of void;” “the way of sinners” is the impure husk that corresponds to the “2000 years of Torah” and the “gathering of scoffers” is the impure husk that corresponds to the “2000 years of the days of Mashiach.” If so, the main battle that we have today, in the era of the footsteps of Mashiach, deep into the final 2000 years – is against the “gathering of scoffers,” the worst impure husk. (The sages explained that the three stages of the verse describe three stages of deterioration).

How do we defeat the scoffers, the laughter of the impure husk? In his Chassidic treatise, “Bosi L’gani,” the Rebbe Rayatz says that in order to defeat the impure husk that blocks the arrival of Mashiach, what is needed is “holy folly,” – a holy badchan. To stand against the “gathering of scoffers,” we need holy jesters like Rebbe Naftali and the Schpoler Zaydeh, who defeated the Cossack at his best game, as is related in the famous niggun, “Hop Cossack.” To face off against the games of the impure husk, the “gathering of scoffers,” we need wise people who know how to defeat the impure husk at its own game and on its own turf.

It is written that each of the Twelve Tribes, in the order that they are written according to the prince of each tribe, corresponds to five hundred years of the world. Naftali is the last tribe written according to this order, and from the year 5500 when the Ba’al Shem Tov was 42,  six years after he was revealed –until the end of the sixth millennium, everything corresponds to him, the rectification of laughter and holy humor. One can tell the secrets of secrets even within jokes. This is the holy, messianic humor of sharp-witted tzaddikim like Rebbe Naftali.

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