(Guest Blog) The Man Who Wanted to Be Poor By Sudy Rosengarten

Art by Adele Steinberg
Art by Adele Steinberg


Reb Eliezer Lippe trudged along the familiar path deep in thought. The buckets he carried brushed against the foliage and swung back hard against his sides. AThough people in the synagogue pitied him, he felt no shame bird perched on his shoulder, whistling for the crumbs that it knew would soon appear. A squirrel darted into the bushes. The sun threw lacy patterns of light and shadow where it broke through the trees. The earth crunched beneath Reb Eliezer Lippe’s slight, bent form. A gust of wind tugged at his sparse greying beard, and as he emerged from the forest into the glare of the sun, he blinked hard, aware that anyone who saw him would immediately identify him as a poor water carrier, which he was—one of two in the city of Tarnow.

He loved his work, though it was humble. It offered him contact with the unadulterated kingdom of creation. Sometimes, as he made his way to the river through the hushed solitude of the forest, he could feel his soul soaring to unknown heights. Those moments overwhelmed and bewildered him, because he didn’t know what they meant. All he could do when it happened was cry out in supplication: “G‑d, have mercy on my two sickly children. Strengthen their weak minds so that they may serve You.”

And though those uplifting moments often frightened him, of one thing he was certain: in the clatter and clutter of town, those moments would never come to him, and he wasn’t ready to give them up. And though the people in synagogue looked at him with pity—an orphan, forced to earn his daily bread by being a water carrier—he felt no shame. The rabbi who had taken him in as a young orphan had reassured him that G‑d loved those who ate the fruit of their own toil.

The river suddenly appeared, sparkling in the sun like a bed of diamonds. His heart always rejoiced at the splendor of the sight, but today his thoughts were far away…

The image of the stranger who had passed through town a week before kept reappearing in his mind. He had been dressed shabbily, and was unknown to both the townspeople and the rabbi, but his voice was compelling, and his eyes had shone like the glistening gems of water Reb Eliezer now reached.

Reb Eliezer Lippe had not been able to tear himself away from the stranger, though he knew that it was foolhardy to lounge around town when he should be delivering his water. But the man’s words had mesmerized him as he’d stood there amid the poor, tired laborers, telling them wondrous tales of the Gemara to prove to them that G‑d did not desire riches or fat offerings, that all He wanted was the heart, that whatever a person gave Him, no matter how humble, if it was given in the purity and innocence and honesty of one’s whole heart and soul, that was what counted.

Reb Eliezer Lippe had looked around. In the knot of spellbound listeners, he sawDid they even realize what this stranger was saying? Reb Zalman Dov (the other water carrier), the bricklayer, the farmers, the shoemaker, the horse-hoofer, the tailor. Did they even realize what this stranger was saying? Being unlearned and even poorer than he, they also had nothing to offer G‑d. But the one thing that they could all give Him, their heart, was all that G‑d wanted from anyone!

A great weight lifted off Reb Eliezer Lippe at that moment. The sun pierced through with blinding light. An unbelievable joy filled him. He’d suddenly been given the answer to all his prayers. All G‑d wanted was his heart. He was ready to give it to Him.

But how?

He came to the river’s edge, placed his shoes at a safe, dry distance, cuffed his trousers and started to fill his pails with water. For 18 hours he did so, making the trip back to town as the buckets filled, returning to the river to refill the empty buckets again and again. The sun began to pale, gathering around her a robe of flaming pink and purple velvet. Night descended.

As Reb Eliezer Lippe trudged back home, the forest resounded with his agonized entreaty: “Father in Heaven, take my heart. I give You my heart. But show me how. In what way? My wife serves you with the challah that she bakes for every Shabbat and gives to the poor. She shows You her love of Your Torah when she wakes the children at dawn and carries them to learn Torah at school. She gives You her heart and her soul when she weeps all night for them to be strengthened in body and mind, to understand and obey Your holy word. But Father in Heaven, what can I give you? My buckets? Surely, it is not your wish for people to live on charity. Did not the rabbi teach me that he who labors with his hands is precious to the L‑rd?

“Dear G‑d, I want so much to serve You. I beg You, please show me how.”

Suddenly, the bent water carrier put down his two buckets and stood up straight and tall. He was silent but radiant. He had the answer. He knew what he must do.

But he must first consult with his wife…

When Reb Eliezer Lippe arrived home, his wife was waiting for him with a hot bowl of soup. Too tired to eat, and too excited to even speak, he leaned heavily against the window frame and pensively stroked his beard. His heart throbbed in anticipation and more than a little fear. Would his wife agree to his plan?

“Come, eat already,” his wife urged, tugging at his sleeve to lead him to the table. “The soup is getting cold.”

But instead of sitting down to eat, Reb Eliezer Lippe blurted out, “Tomorrow, I plan to change my water route with Reb Zalman Dov.”

“What?” his wife asked, and again told him to sit down and eat.

He could see that she hadn’t understood what he had said, because she then askedSurely she had not heard correctly him if she should reheat the soup. But what had he expected? It was simply not feasible for her to understand what he had tried to tell her. To change water routes with Reb Zalman Dov meant forfeiting half of his earnings. Every morning and every night his wife would say a special prayer of thanksgiving to G‑d for her husband’s good fortune in having Tarnow’s four richest merchants, who paid him a little extra, on his water route, whereas Zalman Dov had the misfortune of carrying water for the four synagogues in town, which paid half of the standard price. As a result, Reb Eliezer Lippe lived in comparative comfort next to the pitiful, poverty-stricken Reb Zalman Dov.

Reb Eliezer repeated his words, this time a bit more emphatically, looking straight into his wife’s eyes: “Tomorrow, I intend to change water routes with Reb Zalman Dov.”

This time she heard. A shudder passed through her. She shook her head as though to rid herself of the words that had finally penetrated. Surely she had not heard correctly. It was late. Her husband was tired and hungry. After some food and a good night’s sleep he wouldn’t speak such nonsense. “Husband, to bed,” she said. “I thank the good L‑rd eternally for His kindness and mercy in giving us our daily bread. No more of this foolish talk.”

But though she tugged at his sleeve, Reb Eliezer would not budge. He began to tell her of the stranger in town, his piercing eyes, his hypnotic words. He saw her shake her head in disbelief, in sorrow.

Poor, good woman, he thought in tenderness. Also orphaned at an early age, this is her only compensation for being poor in spirit. Dare I deny her that also?

But those thoughts he kept to himself. Instead he said, “I am unlearned. We are both orphans. Though G‑d has been good to us, and we manage somewhat better than our neighbors, we will never attain a degree of wealth that will enable us to honor G‑d as befits Him. And yet, all that G‑d wants of us is a pure heart. No matter how humble and insignificant it might seem to others, a pure heart is all that G‑d wants from any of us, from each of us, from all of us. Think of all the prayers and tears that we have spent, pleading that our children grow strong in body and mind.

“Perhaps, this deed, of bringing water to the synagogues to enable others to learn andThere were no more misgivings in her heart pray in purity, will give us the merit that our own children do the same. Just think! Each holy word that is uttered in every synagogue in Tarnow will go straight up to heaven and be heralded by the angels: ‘So have done the parents of the sickly Zusha and Elimelech … forfeited half of their earnings to bring water to the synagogues, in the hope that their mitzvah will be a merit for their children. How the angels will envy our sacrifice! How G‑d Himself will rejoice!”

The hand that had tugged on Reb Eliezer Lippe’s sleeve tugged no more. His wife went to the window, searching in the moonlight for something beyond the black veil of night. When she came back to the table, she again urged her husband to eat, thinking of the meagre meals that would follow. But there were no misgivings in her heart. She too longed to serve Him. They would do theirs. Her husband would bring water to the synagogues instead of to the rich householders, and they would both pray that each word uttered in the synagogues in holiness enter the gates of heaven as a merit for their children.

Reb Eliezer Lippe did not eat his supper that night, nor did his wife succeed in getting him to bed. Instead, they greeted the morning star with their habitual saying of Psalms, he reading a word, the meanings of which he had never learnt, she repeating. But this time it was not in anguish and tears that the verses emerged. It was with trust and belief, a trembling rejoicing that they had found the way to serve Him with all their heart.

In the world of today, who is to judge their decision? Was it the sacrifice of fools, or of the righteous?

Suffice it to say that their two puny children blossomed into the great Reb Zusha of Anipoli and Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, giants in the world of Torah and Chassidut.

(Based on a story from the Yiddish book Reb Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, p.103.)

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