The great Hasidic master, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, was born in the Ukrainian city of Brody in 1745 to Rabbi Ya’akov, a bitter opponent of the Hasidic movement. But from an early age, his son Moshe Leib was attracted to the movement and longed to come into contact with one of its masters. Eventually, he left home without his father’s permission to study under the tutelage of Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg, one of the leading disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch.
When Rabbi Ya’akov found out what his son had done, he flew into a rage and rushed out to cut a switch from a nearby tree. He then put this in his room, intending to beat his son with it when the boy returned. Whenever it happened that he saw a better switch with which to beat his son, he immediately cut that one and threw the other away. This went on for a very long time, until one day, a servant cleaning the house, took the switch and put it in the attic. On that same day, Reb Moshe Leib asked Reb Shmelke’s permission to return home for a short visit.
When Reb Moshe Leib entered the house, Rabbi Ya’akov jumped up at once and began to search for the switch he had recently cut. He searched everywhere, but could not find it. While he rushed about, frantically searching for the switch, Reb Moshe Leib walked calmly past him and retrieved it from the attic. He then brought it to his father and laid it at his feet. The old man gazed into his son’s earnest face and was suddenly overcome with love.
Such was Reb Moshe Leib’s humility, much of which he had learned from his master, Reb Shmelke. But he also sought to emulate Reb Shmelke’s profound love of Israel, literally, ‘those who wrestle with God.’ Thus, after thirteen years, when their studies together were completed, the blessing Reb Shmelke gave to Reb Moshe Leib was that the love of Israel should truly enter his heart.
Later, Reb Moshe Leib said that he had learned how to love others from a couple of drunken peasants in a roadhouse.
One peasant said to another, “Do you love me?”
The other replied, “I do.”
And first said, “No, you don’t love me; if you did, you would know what I need?”
Thus, Reb Moshe Leib’s most profound service to God was always in how he sought to anticipate and meet the needs of the people around him. For this reason, he was often called the “father of widows and orphans.” He would personally go to the homes of the bereaved and offer what comfort he could. There is even a famous story of his going disguised as a peasant to chop wood for a needy young mother.
Just as he spared no effort in helping the needy, he was equally committed to raising funds for the redemption of captives (those unfortunate tenant farmers who had fallen behind in their rent payments and had been thrown into prison by their Polish landowners). To redeem these captives, he would often travel from town to town raising funds. All the money he received, he gave to the cause of the captives or distributed to the poor. Once he was reproached for giving money to someone of ill repute and replied, “Should I be pickier than God, who gave it to me?”
It is said that Reb Moshe Leib was a broad shouldered giant of a man. But in spite of his size, he was known to be the most graceful of dancers. Once, when his friend Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev fell ill, Reb Moshe Leib laced up special shoes made of Moroccan leather and danced a holy dance, every spin and gesture of which was imbued with holy meaning. Through this ‘prayer,’ the holy Berditchever was healed.
His love of music and dancing was such that he even broke with convention because of it. Once he was present at a wedding where the musicians played so wonderfully that he danced the whole evening. Afterward, he said to the band, “I would love it if you play this music at my funeral.” Well, years passed and everybody forgot about it. Then, one day, while the band was traveling, their horses suddenly bolted and took the wrong path. They ran and ran and ran, until finally, they arrived at a funeral in Sassov. The musicians asked, “Whose funeral is this?” Someone answered, “The great rebbe, Moshe Leib of Sassov.” Then they remembered his request and told the guests at the funeral. But how could you play music at a funeral? So a beit din, a legal council, of Reb Moshe Leib’s disciples was quickly convened, and the musicians offered their witness to Reb Moshe Leib’s request. The disciples, knowing their master well, accepted their witness and the band played on the way to the cemetery.
There is a tradition that says, when Reb Moshe Leib died on 4th of Shevat 1807 and had no more mitzvot, or commandments to fulfill, he decided to do what he had done in life; he burst straight into hell and refused to leave until all its prisoners were released from their captivity. Some say that he got his way.*
* A version of this was originally published in Moshe Leib of Sassov. A Guide to Spiritual Progress. Tr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Boulder, CO: Albion-Andalus Books, 2011.