The Invisible Rebbe: Rebbe Shlomo of Karlin

The holy Rebbe Shlomo Halevi of Karlin, was born to Rabbi Nachum in 5494 (1738). He was a preeminent student of the Maggid of Mezritch and of Rebbe Aharon Hagadol of Karlin. After the passing of Rebbe Aharon, Rebbe Shlomo assumed his mantle in Karlin. He was known for his powerful devotion to God and became famous as a miracle worker motivated by genuine self-sacrifice. His prayers were fiery, he gave all his money to charity and his Torah learning was enthusiastic and stormy. The great sages of his generation admired him and he had a particularly close relationship with the Alter Rebbe of Chabad. His primary students include Rebbe Asher of Stolin, Rebbe Uri (the Saraf) of Strelisk and Rebbe Mordechai of Lechovitch.

In the year 5552 (1791) a Russian soldier shot Rebbe Shlomo while he stood devoutly in prayer. Rebbe Shlomo suffered for five days, until his soul ascended to heaven on the 22nd of Tamuz. Many considered him to be the Mashiach the son of Joseph. His teachings were compiled in the book Shema Shlomo.

Before settling in Karlin, Rebbe Shlomo traveled from place to place in White Russia, searching for a suitable location for his Chassidic court. On one of his trips, he came to a small village called Postov and stayed with a wealthy man called Reb Yehudah of Postov. Reb Yehuda was not a Chassid, but he agreed to host Rebbe Shlomo. In the morning, Rebbe Shlomo asked his host where he could find a mikveh (ritual bath). Slightly cynical, Reb Yehuda replied that there was no men’s mikveh in the town, as there is no obligation to have one, according to Jewish law. “Is there a river nearby where I can immerse?” Rebbe Shlomo asked, but this too, Reb Yehuda answered in the negative. “Is there at least a well here in which I can immerse?” the Rebbe asked. “There is one well in the entire town, but it is in the yard of the priest, who hates Jews like Haman. Only he has a well,” Reb Yehuda summed it up.

Much to Reb Yehuda’s surprise, Rebbe Shlomo ordered his assistants to gather some sheets and to prepare for their short trip to the priest’s yard. What the Rebbe says, the Chassidim do and in no time, a whole company of Chassidim and townspeople, with the Rebbe at their head, was marching down the road toward the priest’s well. The Rebbe and his followers reached the priest’s yard, opened the gate without asking, the Chassidim spread the sheets around the well to partition it off and the Rebbe descended into the well to immerse, with the entire entourage waiting and watching this decidedly extraordinary sight.

The priest and his family were sitting on their porch when suddenly they saw a long line of townspeople and Chassidim approaching their home and gathering around the well. The priest immediately called one of the spectators, who said to him, “Don’t you see? Right in front of your eyes is a Jew who entered your yard, spread out sheets, and descended to immerse himself in your well!” The priest and his family did not see. But when he heard what had transpired, he was livid. He ran down to his yard with one intention only: to kill the Jew who had dared to immerse in his well. The priest furiously approached Rebbe Shlomo, and just a moment before he smote him, an inexplicable and terrifying fear descended upon him and he turned around and ran.

The priest did not give up so easily, though. He sent some of his bullies to the Rebbe’s accommodations, but the same thing happened. The bullies entered in order to smite the Rebbe when they were also suddenly overcome by inexplicable terror, turned on their heels, and ran away.

The priest understood that the Rebbe was not just an ordinary person and that it was impossible to approach him, in addition to the fact that he had not been visible to him (as is told about Pinchas, who was like an angel, who the messengers of the king of Jericho could not see. Israel is, in essence, invisible. They see but are not seen)!

Eventually, the priest made his way sheepishly to Reb Yehuda Postover’s home and begged him to request of the tzaddik, from the holy man, that he should just allow him to see his face. Reb Yehuda Postover submitted the request, but the Rebbe adamantly refused. An impure, uncircumcised evil person should see his face? Under no circumstances.

All that had transpired awakened a great question for Reb Yehuda. He approached Rebbe Shlomo and said that he had a question for him and that he would thank the Rebbe if he would be kind enough to answer. “How could it be that this priest, an evil person, a Jew-hater like Haman, uncircumcised and impure, recognized that you are a righteous, holy person, while I, a Jew, still do not recognize this – even after all that has transpired?

Rebbe Shlomo answered him simply: “You do not belong to me, but rather to the Magid of Liozna (the Alter Rebbe). Go to him.” Reb Yehuda did indeed travel to the Alter Rebbe and ultimately became one of his greatest Chassidim.

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Rectification for Every Soul

This entire story is about the holiness of the brit/covenant, personal holiness. A person who has achieved a state of personal holiness has no reason to fear wild animals and if needed, has the miraculous ability to see and not be seen. In addition, this is a story about the custom of chassidim to immerse in a mikveh – to purify their brit, their state of personal holiness to ever-greater heights – and there is no limit to purity. Why does the tzaddik, who is rectified and holy, with no hint of impurity, have to immerse in a mikveh? Because there are limitless levels of purity, and every immersion is like an ascent from one Garden of Eden to a higher Garden of Eden.

This story also teaches us about the ability to recognize the “tzaddik, the foundation of the world.” Different people will identify different pious people as a tzaddik. With a bit of thought on the content of this story, a deep and important understanding crystallizes: That Jew-hating, Hamanic priest “belonged” to Rebbe Shlomo of Karlin while the Jew, Reb Yehuda, did not belong to him, but rather, to the Alter Rebbe. What does this mean? It turns out that everyone, including non – Jews and even the most depraved evil people in the world – is connected to a tzaddik.

This is part of the rectification process. The tzaddik has the Divine power to rectify those souls to a certain extent. Rebbe Shlomo performed a miracle in the priest’s yard. He did not allow him to see him, yet nonetheless, a certain rectification for the priest, who recognized the Rebbe’s holiness, did take place (as Reb Yehuda Postover saw that the priest recognized the Rebbe’s holiness deep in his soul).

When an evil non-Jew recognizes the holiness of a Jew, it is a sign that he belongs to him. This is one of the foundations of Chassidut: Just as “There is no place void of God,” so, the same is true for Knesset Yisrael, the holy Shechinah, God’s Indwelling Presence: There is no reality in the world, even in the most impure place, that does not have a relevance to a Jewish soul. Even the most impure thing in the world is relevant to the rectification of some Jew, somewhere. If it is a holy Jew, the non-Jew also has some sort of affinity to him and the ability to recognize his holiness. Although Rebbe Shlomo chased the priest away, he did have some connection to him.

Rebbe Shlomo did not settle in Postov. So why did God bring him there as part of his 42 journeys? We can say that it was in order to send Reb Yehuda to the Alter Rebbe. But it was also to rectify the evil priest so that he would recognize that there is a holy Jew. (Sometimes, the rectification is the extraction of the spark. In this story, the rectification was his recognition of Rebbe Shlomo’s holiness). This is a type of Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s Name. Turning Reb Yehuda Postover into a Chassid of Rebbe Shlomo of Karlin is not a sanctification of God’s Name. But the priest’s recognition of Rebbe Shlomo’s holiness certainly is.

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