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5****Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apta - The Oheiv Yisrael (Chassidic leader)

Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apta - The Oheiv Yisrael 

Born: Neustadt, Poland, 1755

Died: Medzibosh, South Poland, 1825

Popularly known as the Apter Rebbe.

A scion of famous rabbinic families, on both his father's and his mother's side, Avraham Yehoshua Heshel showed great promise even at an early age. Acquiring fame as a talmudic scholar, he studied chasidut under the all-time great masters Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and Rabbi Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov. Becoming one of the foremost spokesmen of the growing chasidic movement in Poland and Romania, he began his career a Rabbi of Kolbasov. In 1800 he accepted the post of Rabbi of Apta. Although he held many other rabbinic positions, to the chasidim he remained always the Apter Rav. In 1808 he was chosen as Rabbi of Iasi, Romania. In the wake of communal strife there he was forced to leave his post and settled in Medzibosh, the birthplace of the Baal Shem Tov and the cradle of Chasidism, where he devoted himself completely to the study and dissemination of Chasidut.

It was during this period in his life that he gained the veneration of thousands of followers, among whom were a number of the preeminent rabbis of the age. His outstanding character trait was his burning love of the Jewish people, which earned him the title of Oheiv Yisrael, Lover of Israel. Oheiv Yisrael became the title of his book, a collection of his thoughts arranged according to the weekly Torah portions. The work abounds with lofty kabbalistic insights and interpretations. It is one of the basic chassidic texts, and bespeaks the Apter Rav's passionate love of his fellow Jews. The Apter Rebbe is one of the most notable and beloved luminaries on the chassidic firmament.

On his deathbed, crying bitterly over the long exile, he said: "Before his demise Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev promised that upon entering the World-to-Come he would not rest or sit until Mashiach would come. But they diverted his attention by teaching him lofty and mystical concepts, until he forgot his pledge-but I assure you, I will not forget." 

A Share in the World to Come

Noach, a disciple of the holy Rebbe of Apta, had once been a wealthy and successful merchant. Now, as he dejectedly stood before his Rebbe, he was broke. "All I have left," he tearfully told the tzaddik, "is one ruble - the last reminder of my better days. And my daughter has reached marriageable age, yet I have nothing with which to marry her off!"

"Tell me," said the Ohev Yisrael, "how much does a man like you need for a dowry and wedding expenses, so that you can marry-off your daughter respectfully?"

Noach sighed from the depths of his heart. "One thousand rubles, holy Rebbe."

"And how much do you have?" asked the tzaddik

"I already told the Rebbe - I have but one ruble left from all my years of hard work!"

"Fine," said the tzaddik, "it is enough! Hashem's blessing can rest upon one ruble just as well as a larger amount. Go in peace, and accept the first business offer that comes your way. And remember: Yeshuas Hashem ke-heref ayin, Hashem's salvation comes in the blink of an eye!"

Not long afterwards, as he traveled home, Noach stopped over in an inn to rest his aching feet. Though the food being served made his mouth water, he could hardly spend his last ruble on it, and preferred instead to partake of the stale bread he carried in his sack. Some well-to-do merchants sat next to him enjoying a sumptuous meal. Noticing the raggedly dressed pauper sitting next to them, they decided to amuse themselves. "Tell me, my fellow Jew," one of them said, "you have the appearance of a merchant. Perhaps you would be interested in a business proposition?!"

Startled, Noach suddenly remembered the tzaddik's words. "Yes!" he replied enthusiastically.

"And how much money do you have at your disposal?" they asked. "One ruble!" Noach replied without hesitation.

"One whole ruble!" they mocked. "Let's see what kind of a deal we can strike with a wealthy merchant who possesses one whole ruble," one of the merchants piped-in, "that for one ruble you could do no better than to purchase my share in the World to Come! Do we have a deal - your one ruble for my Olam Ha-Ba?!"

'The first business offer,' Noach reminded himself of his Rebbe's words. "Yes," he responded, "I will do it." Eager to prolong their amusement, the merchants went about arranging the writing of a legal contract, and the deal was done.

The wealthy merchants were still basking in their revelry when the wife of the merchant who had made the sale entered the room. Seeing her husband's face red with laughter, she now wished to know what was going on. Priding himself on his cleverness and wit, he related to her exactly what had happened. By the time he finished his story to the laughter of his peers, however, his face had turned ashen white. He could tell by the deathly serious expression of his wife, and by her blazing eyes, that his idea of fun pleased her not the least. Nor could he do as he please, for his wife was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and everything he had was ultimately her's.

A tense silence now came over the once-merry group. All at once, the woman began pouring out her wrath at her husband in front of the entire crowd - the empty-headed yokel who could find nothing better to do than to give-away his insignificant portion in Olam Ha-Ba! "You fool!" she cried, "How does a Jew dare to make sport of the most important thing he possesses! Take me to the Rav immediately - I refuse to be married to an imbecile like you who is so disconnected from Judaism that he does not even have a share in the World to Come!"

Overwhelmed with shame, the merchant realized that his only hope was to buy back his portion. Noach was searched for, found, and brought back to their table. "Hey, Yid," called out one of the merchants, "cute joke you played on our friend! Now give him back his share in the World to Come!"

Noticing the merchant's hysterical wife standing over him, Noach began to grasp what had occurred. Slowly, he spoke up. "Honored gentlemen," he began in a composed voice, "I ask all of you here to bear witness to the fact that the transaction between myself and the merchant was no joke nor prank. Indeed, I have the contract to show for it. That is not to say, however, that for the right price I would not be willing to relinquish my purchase and give him back his share in the World to Come..."

The merchant pleaded with Noach to sell it back to him; he would even pay him fifty rubles - a five-thousand percent profit - if only he would relent. But Noach was adamant - one thousand rubles was his price, not one ruble less. "Understand, honored merchant," said Noach, "that I was once a highly respected and successful merchant. Then one day, the wheel turned, and I lost all my money. This is how I fell into the state in which you now find me. Just recently, when I could not gather a sum sufficient for a dowry for my daughter, and other wedding expenses, I traveled to the holy tzaddik, the Ohev Yisrael, to ask for his advice. It was he who instructed me to accept the first business offer that came my way. It is clear to me that Hashem has guided my steps and brought me here - and that the money for my daughter's wedding lies with you."

The couple could not speak. Tears welled up in the merchant's eyes, although ostensibly he had never before experienced such emotions. Without hesitation, he withdrew a fold of bills from his pocket, and counted out 1000 rubles into the hands of Noach. The merchant took the contract from Noach, and tore it into shreds. "Even without this contract," he said, "it is worth investing a 1000 rubles for the mitzvah of hachnassat kallah (providing for a bride)!"

His wife, who had been standing at his side the entire time, glanced at him in amazement. She was prepared to swear that in all his life, this was the first time that such selfless and noble thoughts had ever entered his mind.

"I wish to meet the tzaddik that blessed you," the merchant's wife said to Noach. "Perhaps we too will merit receiving his blessing." Noach could not refuse, and together they made their way back to the Rebbe. The tzaddik received his visitors with a shining countenance; he had already known of the rich merchant's noble deed, and bestowed the couple with many blessings. Before they left, the merchant's wife turned to the tzaddik and said, "Holy Rebbe, there is one thing I would like to know: Is my husband's portion in Olam Ha-Ba really worth the thousand rubles he paid for it?"

"If the truth be told," he said, "at first, when he sold it, it was not even worth the one ruble he received for it. But now, that he has merited giving 1000 rubles for the mitzvah of hachnassat kallah, its value is so great that it is impossible to estimate!" 

May the merit of the tzaddik Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apta  protect us all, Amen.

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