1 During the entire time that I was relating my story to my master and Rebbe, his jewel-like eyes gazed at me with intense concentration. This caused great fear to overcome me, a fear born out of shame. I realized that my master and Rebbe could see — by means of ruach hakodesh — everything that had ever happened to me, from the day I first emerged from my mother’s womb, up to that very moment, when I was privileged to stand before him.

I was sure that my fate hung in the balance at that moment: On one hand, the future might be kind to me — my esteemed master and Rebbe might act benevolently toward me, by lighting up the darkness of my soul, and guiding me firmly on the path that ascends the ladder of holiness. On the other hand, punishment might await me (G‑d forbid), and he might lock me out of his holy palace and bolt the door.

Therefore, I steeled my nerve, and presented an exaggerated account of my humble stature and my trivial worth. I revealed to my master and Rebbe everything that lay hidden in the depths of my heart (as described above), in an entreating voice, and with great submissiveness.

When I finished speaking, my strength suddenly left me. Raising my voice, I wept profusely from the core of my being. My master and Rebbe asked me, in his holy way of speaking, “Why do you weep so? Don’t you see that with the help of G‑d (blessed be He, and blessed be His Name) you have been set upon the right path? Your sole desire is to worship the Creator (blessed be He); why do you weep?”

I could have told him many reasons why I wept, for just then I recalled every wicked deed I had ever done (of which I now repented) since the day I was first able to reason. I desired to recite my confession before my master and Rebbe, but because of my profuse weeping and my broken heart, I was unable to speak. Even the few short phrases that I did manage to utter, were choked by tears.

My master and Rebbe meditated deeply, and then commanded me to come and appear before him again on the following day after the Maariv prayer. I emerged from my master and Rebbe’s office very cautiously, so that no one would notice me, as the shammes Reb Avraham Shaul had instructed me. After I emerged, I found myself completely disoriented, and I hurried to the beis hamedrash in the street where I lived.

At the Minchah prayer prior to entering my master and Rebbe’s office, I had taken upon myself to fast for two nights and two days, with a break in between. Now, after leaving my master and Rebbe’s presence, I decided that — besides fasting — I would also refrain from sleeping even for a short while during the entire period of the fast. I also resolved not to speak even one word on any subject except Torah and mitzvos, and to make sure that no other person was aware of this.

The period of intermittent fasting would last seventy-two hours, the same as the numeric value of the word Chesed.2 Thus, I hoped that G‑d (blessed be He) would act toward me with kindness, prompting my master and Rebbe to agree to teach me the proper path for worshiping the Creator.

I now realized that during the recent hours — starting before the Minchah prayer when I resolved to undertake the fast, and ending after I left my master and Rebbe’s presence — I had been very preoccupied.3

Therefore, I now resolved that the seventy-two-hour period would begin when I arrived at my lodgings, at the beis hamedrash in the market street. Any time that was not used for Torah and prayer during this intermittent fast, even for the shortest while, would be repaid by extending the fast, so that it would really last for a full seventy-two hours.

Never had I felt so weak and exhausted as on that night. Though my employment usually involved carrying very heavy loads, it never left me so fatigued and so weary as on that night.

When I began to recite the Tikkun Chatzos prayers, my heart was numb. A long while passed before I managed — with great effort — to overcome my emotional lethargy. In fact, from that moment on, various wicked thoughts came into my head, and various lewd scenes appeared in my imagination. Such things had never before happened to me, and I was deeply upset by this.

I struggled to obliterate these evil thoughts from my mind, and these sinful pictures from my fancy, but I was unable to do so. I began to study aloud, but this didn’t help either. And so, I implored G‑d with my supplications.

Suddenly, I recalled the horrible event that had happened to me at the widow’s home in Viazhyn. That scene appeared before my eyes, and I imagined that I felt someone embracing me. I cried out in a bitter voice, “Woe! Woe! Master of the world!” At that very moment, my emotional lethargy was broken, and my depression left me.

I proceeded to recite the Tikkun Chatzos prayers while weeping profusely. After finishing Tikkun Chatzos, I studied some Torah, and then davened with the sunrise minyan. After davening, I again studied for an hour.

Later, I went to a secluded spot in a corner of the garden behind the shul. While I sat there in isolation, I noticed a bee flitting from branch to branch, sucking nectar from the flowers. Thereupon, I chided myself: “This creature does not deviate from the appointed task that G‑d created it to accomplish, but I myself have sinned before G‑d.” And so, I set my mind to doing teshuvah.

When the scheduled time for study arrived, I went to hear the lecture of the Rosh Yeshivah, our master Reb Chayim Uri. Afterwards, I very diligently reviewed the lectures, and the novel insights they had contained. I then davened Minchah, adding the confession of Al Cheit. Between Minchah and Maariv, I again went into seclusion, and set my mind to doing teshuvah.

After Maariv, I stood waiting at the doorstep of my master and Rebbe’s office, aware that the future course of my entire life depended upon this audience. Conflicting thoughts ran through my mind, and I felt myself to be quite insignificant. My emotions grew more powerful by the minute, and my whole body began to tremble.

When the shammes Reb Avraham Shaul finally summoned me to enter my master and Rebbe’s chamber, I was unable to lift my feet; they felt as if they had been encased in cement. It took a great deal of effort to enter the office, as my knees beat against each other from fear.

The cordial expression on my master and Rebbe’s face gave me courage, and my spirits rose. I allowed myself the hope that he would act kindly toward me, and would agree to my request, showing me the correct way to serve the Creator (blessed be He).

“Which ‘Gate,’4 and how many chapters, did you study in the sefer Reishis Chochmah,” asked my master and Rebbe, the gaon. “And how many chapters did you study in the section of the sefer Avodas HaKodesh dealing with the subject of avodah?”

“In the sefer Reishis Chochmah, I studied “Shaar HaYirah,”5 and I am now up to Chapter 14,” I replied. “As for Part Two of the sefer Avodas HaKodesh, I have studied all forty-four chapters. I toiled and struggled with the greatest exertion, but I was unable to understand most of it.”

My master and Rebbe then said:

If you studied a few chapters in Avodas HaKodesh and a few chapters in Reishis Chochmah, you must also have engaged in fasting and self-torment. Who gave you permission to do such a thing? The Sages of blessed memory said,6 “Appoint a master over yourself,” so that you would not act on your own initiative. Sometimes, even these things are done at the instigation of the evil inclination, in order to distract a person from Torah study, and to deceive him into considering himself a tzaddik whose every act is correct.

As for your present situation, I am not inclined to release you from your vow. In fact, I hereby expressly grant you permission to fulfill your vow by fasting intermittently for a seventy-two-hour period. In the future, however, you must not do such things on your own, without obtaining authorization from an accomplished rav.

The Sages of blessed memory described the evil inclination as an “expert at his craft”7 in his calling to motivate people to disobey the Holy One’s will. Thus, all paths of worshiping the Creator are hazardous, because of the craft of the “old and foolish king”8 who appears to each person according to that person’s station.

This evil inclination, which inspires a person to transgress the commandments of the Creator (G‑d forbid) by failing to do a mitzvah or by actually committing a sin (may G‑d preserve us), is the same evil inclination that sometimes persuades a person to be more scrupulous in doing a mitzvah, or to behave in a saintly manner and undertake fasting and self-torment. But his real goal is to cause the person to fall because of his haughty spirit, imagining himself to be a tzaddik.

But when a person is privileged to entertain thoughts of teshuvah by means of Heavenly inspiration, and he accepts upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven through prayers and supplication, then the evil inclination wages war against him openly, and puts evil thoughts into his mind to confuse him.

Just then, I saw clear proof that my master and Rebbe possessed ruach hakodesh. He knew of my previous day’s vow of fasting, and everything that had happened to me at night while reciting Tikkun Chatzos. I had managed it only with an enormous effort, because of trials and tribulations that I had never experienced before that night. But beyond that, as a side remark, my master and Rebbe had also reminded me of things that had happened to me during my journeys. All this constituted open ruach hakodesh.

One of the things [that he reminded me of] was the evil occurrence in Viazhyn during the month of Kislev, which had given me no rest all this time.

One day, I had made several trips and delivered numerous parcels. I was very exhausted, and it was extremely cold outside. As part of my wages, my employer fed me supper. Then, she suggested that — in view of the terribly cold weather — it would be better if I remained there to sleep, and departed early in the morning.

Being very exhausted from carrying heavy packages during five or six round trips, I accepted her invitation. I recited Kerias Shema before retiring, undressed, and lay down to sleep on a straw-filled mattress that she showed me.

Suddenly, while still asleep, I became aware that someone was embracing me, but I simply could not wake up. Eventually, I mustered sufficient strength to awaken, and discovered that it was the landlady’s daughter. I scolded her, and ran outside. The cold was very great, and I tortured my body by rolling in the snow for a sufficient length of time, until I guessed that the wicked girl had gone away. I then returned to the house, my whole body shivering from the cold. I got dressed, and returned to the city.

When I arrived at the shul it was still the middle of the night. I was in great distress because of the horrible thing that had occurred, and I implored G‑d to forgive my unintentional sin. I also chided myself for disobeying the rabbinic law by spending the night in a home where there was no husband.9

Because of this event, I had resolved not to return to my former employment at the widow’s. But, since that time, my longing to ascend the ladder of worshiping the Creator had grown ever stronger. A little while later, G‑d brought the holy sefer Avodas HaKodesh to my attention.

When my master and Rebbe spoke to me, he said:

In reward for that ordeal — and even more, in reward for your correct decision to quit your employment in that home where temptation was prevalent — the Heavenly Court decided to arouse your heart and instill in you a longing to ascend the ladder of worshiping the Creator (blessed be He).

A great privilege was bestowed upon you when Heaven brought the sefer Avodas HaKodesh to your attention, and when Heaven gave you the idea to go away in search of the proper path for worshiping the Creator.

Now, I make the following stipulations: all your practices, studying, and davening must be done with truth. Adopt the attribute of humility to the ultimate degree. If you agree to these stipulations, then with the help of the Founder of the Universe (blessed be He and blessed be His Name) I will show you the proper path for worshiping the Creator. The most important condition that I make is that not only must no one know about this, but it must be done in such a way that it is not visible to others in any way.

“I hereby accept the stipulations you have mentioned,” I said, “especially, the stipulation that I will not reveal this to any person, and that I will do everything in my power to avoid anyone’s noticing anything. Any other stipulations that my master and Rebbe sets for me, and any commands that he issues to me, I hereby accept with love and adoration for all that is holy. My only wish is that my master and Rebbe teach me the proper ways for worshiping the Creator (blessed be He).”

When I left my master and Rebbe’s presence, I was met by several students of the yeshivah. They surrounded me and demanded that I tell them what our master and Rebbe had discussed with me. This was the custom of the yeshivah students, who were very friendly with one another: whenever one of them had the privilege of going in to see our master and Rebbe, all the students (even the senior students of the first table) would greet him with the blessing of mazel tov! The student would then tell them what he had been privileged to hear from our master and Rebbe’s mouth.

A yeshivah student’s admittance to his office was a rare occurrence. Indeed, there were numerous students who had already been studying at the yeshivah for two or three years, and had never been inside his private office. In fact, no one ever entered the office unless our master and Rebbe had specifically summoned him. Or, if someone had an extremely urgent matter to discuss, he would ask the Rosh Yeshivah to intercede in his behalf and obtain permission for him to enter.

During my first two weeks in Brysk, our master and Rebbe happened to summon a senior student, the illuy Yechiel Gershon of Klim,10 who had already been studying at the yeshivah for three years, and held the second rank at the first table. (The first rank at that table was held by the senior student and illuy, Shmuel Gedaliah of Pinsk, who had been awarded the title of Oker Harim.11 It was said of him that our master and Rebbe would occasionally honor him by allowing him to deliver a public pilpul before the yeshivah students.)

When this senior student, the illuy Yechiel Gershon, emerged, we all stood in line to wish him mazel tov! That evening, after we finished reviewing the [yeshivah] lectures, we all gathered around him to hear what he would tell us of the things he had been privileged to hear from the holy mouth of our master and Rebbe. The senior student then began to speak:

In Berachos 8a, the rabbis discuss the verse12 “G‑d loves the Gates of Zion above all the dwelling places of Yaakov.” [The interpretation is]: G‑d loves learned discussion that produces straightforward rulings of Halachah13 more than all the batei hamedrash and shuls. This accords with the statement [loc. cit.] of Rabbi Chiya bar Ami in the name of Ulla: “Since the day that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, the Holy One (blessed be He) possesses nothing of consequence in this world beyond the four cubits of Halachah.”

[He then explained the above passage]:

The shuls where we gather to pray to our Creator, and the holy batei hamedrash where scholars gather to study our holy Torah, to discuss pilpul with one another, and to develop novel Torah insights, constitute the “dwelling places of Yaakov,” to which Scripture refers, saying,14 “How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, and your dwelling places, Yisrael.” The term “tents” is in the plural form, for it refers to two kinds of tents: the shuls, which are the tents for prayer, and the batei hamedrash, which are the tents of Torah. But the “Gates of Zion” are the four cubits of Halachah.

He then spoke at length, delivering an intricate pilpul on the difference between simple Halachah and a definitive legal ruling. A definitive legal ruling results from achieving an understanding of a Talmudic passage according to the Law. This involves studying a given subject in the Mishnah, the Gemara, and the important Rishonim and Acharonim. Only then, does one arrive at a definitive ruling of Law. Thus, Halachah involves an orderly study in depth, as taught by our system of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, which stipulates how we must study a subject and discover in it some novel insights.

The senior student then went on as follows:

My brethren and comrades, fellow students of our holy yeshivah: it is our holy yeshivah that embodies the “dwelling places of Yaakov,” for it features a shul in which we pour out our hearts in prayer before our Father in Heaven, and a beis hamedrash where we study our holy Torah, we develop its pilpulim, and (thank G‑d) we discover novel insights.

However, all this is but the “dwelling places of Yaakov,” the tent of prayer and the tent of Torah, which are so beloved by the Holy One that He lights up our eyes with His holy Torah, enabling us to develop pilpulim and discover novel insights. But the fact is that “G‑d loves the Gates of Zion above all the dwelling places of Yaakov.” This means that “G‑d loves learned discussion that produces straightforward rulings of Halachah,” for He “possesses nothing of consequence in this world beyond for the four cubits of Halachah,” namely, our master and Rebbe’s chamber.

From there, the light of Torah shines out to all of Israel, enabling us to know and to study our holy Torah, and to discover its true novel insights. Were I not so timid, I would go so far as to state that whoever has the privilege of entering our master and Rebbe’s holy chamber must recite the blessing of Shehechiyanu, including G‑d’s Name and Majesty.

He then proceeded to deliver an incisive pilpul, explaining why a blessing is not recited before entering the Holy Temple15 in general, and specifically before the Kohen Gadol enters the Most Holy Chamber on Yom Kippur. During his speech, he compared the entry of a student into our master and Rebbe’s chamber to the entry of the Kohen Gadol into the Most Holy Chamber.16

After he finished delivering his pilpul, he repeated the novel Torah insights he had heard from our master and Rebbe on the topic of bereirah,17 based on the Mishnah, Masneh Adam al Eiruvo18 in the Chapter Bakol Me’arvin.19 He explained the novel insights discovered by our master and Rebbe, including a study of the whole topic with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafos.

The student’s pilpul made a great impression upon us, especially his comparison of the entry of a student into our master and Rebbe’s private office to the entry into the Most Holy Chamber. In particular, the student illuy Shmuel Gedaliah gave his approval to the pilpul developed by the student illuy Yechiel Gershon. He also added some afterthoughts of his own, as befits such a great genius.

The following day, the Rosh Yeshivah, our master Reb Chayim Uri, delivered a special lecture on [the subject mentioned by the senior student, Yechiel Gershon,] the Mishnah, Bakol Me’arvin. Then, in three lectures, delivered over three days, he explained to us intermediate students the details of the logical development of our master and Rebbe’s novel insights. He continued to explain it at length, until each of us had succeeded in understanding it.

Now, when my fellow students of the yeshivah discovered that I had been summoned to our master and Rebbe’s private office, they thought it quite remarkable, for a new student was never summoned to his chamber. But several students who were older than I told me that — though it was exceedingly rare — in fact this did sometimes occur. As far as they knew, such a thing had happened only a few times before, under exceptional circumstances.

One such occasion occurred when a new student arrived who was very bashful, and avoided the company of other people. Even before this student could take his place among his fellow yeshivah students, he was summoned to our master’s private office. When he emerged, he had become a completely different person; this caused much wonder.

It was later discovered that he was an orphan, whose father and mother were no longer living. However, his father had been a great tzaddik. Within two years’ time, this student rose through the ranks of scholarship, and became one of the foremost scholars.

Another occasion was when a new student arrived who was a glutton, a habitual liar, ill-mannered, arrogant, and bad-tempered. Whenever he heard a remark that displeased him, he would offer a haughty retort, accompanied by dreadful curses. Nonetheless, he possessed outstanding intellectual abilities, which no other yeshivah student could match.

After a few weeks, he was summoned to our master and Rebbe’s private chamber. When he emerged, he too had become a completely different person. Within a few months’ time he was among the foremost students at the first table.

Before my colleagues could digest these stories, Reb Avraham Shaul the shammes came and summoned me again to our master’s private office. When I emerged from our master and Rebbe’s presence, I was in very cheerful spirits.

Following the custom, my comrades stood in line to wish me mazel tov! and they demanded that I repeat to them what I had heard from our master and Rebbe. This presented a great dilemma, and I was at a loss for how to respond. I could not, of course, tell them the truth. On the other hand, it is forbidden to tell a lie.

After a moment’s reflection, I said, “When I first arrived at this yeshivah, and I observed the awesome fear of Heaven that our master and Rebbe possessed, and the manner in which he worshiped the Creator, I was inspired to do teshuvah. Now, when I was privileged to stand before our master and Rebbe, he spoke some words of mussar to me, discussing the traits of humility and truthfulness. He pointed out that these traits are prerequisites for worshiping the Creator.”

In my account, I included a few things that I had studied in the sefer Reishis Chochmah, and a few collected remarks that I had seen in the sefer Avodas HaKodesh, concerning worshiping the Creator. All this made a great impression on them, and roused them to do good things.

Later, I hurried to the shul in the market street where I lived. There, I repeated to myself several dozen times my master and Rebbe’s words, cautioning me to adopt the traits of truthfulness and humility. All this made a great impression upon me, and convinced me that he must certainly possess ruach hakodesh. Otherwise, how could he have discerned that my desire for perfection in worshiping the Creator was a false desire, stemming from arrogance?

I reproached myself the same way that one person usually admonishes another, calling myself “liar, arrogant, filthy, and detestable.” I beat my head against the wall and wept profusely. Then, I sat on the floor and recited Tikkun Chatzos with great bitterness of heart, lamenting the exile of the Divine Presence, and the exile of my soul within my coarse and detestable body. I covered my eyes with my hands as I wept, collecting the tears. With these, I rinsed my forehead, to dislodge the traces of sin that had become etched upon my forehead and my face.

I had often heard from my older brother, the Torah scholar Zalman Leib, that baalei teshuvah rinse their forehead and face with their tears. This washes away the stain of their sins. My brother told me that there once was a baal teshuvah who fasted each weekday until after Tikkun Chatzos. Only then would he wash his hands and dip his bread in tears. This was his regular diet on weekdays, and he lived to a ripe old age.

I myself had known one of the pious old men of our city, who was named Reb Zalman Chayim Shraga Porush. It was said of him that he had spent the last seventy years sitting in the large beis hamedrash, in chastity and holiness. My grandfather, the tzaddik Reb Yisrael Eliyah (of blessed memory) related to me that when he was still a young man, Reb Zalman Chayim Shraga Porush was already sitting in the large beis hamedrash, and all the residents of the town already assumed him to be a holy man. He would not speak to a soul, nor would he look at anything outside his immediate vicinity.

This Reb Zalman Chayim Shraga Porush was exceedingly old, but his face had the glow of a man of only sixty. People said that it was his holy custom to weep profusely, and then to wash his face with the tears. He did this following Tikkun Chatzos, and on Yom Kippur Katan during Minchah. My grandfather explained to me that when the stain of one’s sins has been washed away, the face begins to glow, so that a person of a hundred resembles a person of only sixty.

Though I was very exhausted after Tikkun Chatzos, I fortified myself and continued studying. About four hours after the davening, my seventy-two-hour period expired (including an allowance for the hours when I had been unavoidably distracted). Since that day was Friday, I resolved to continue fasting for the remainder of the day (the previous Tuesday at Minchah, I had only resolved to fast during the two days Wednesday and Thursday).20

That Friday was Erev Shabbos of Bechukosai, and I reviewed the parshah of the week — twice in the original Hebrew, and once in Aramaic — with great enthusiasm, but with profound bitterness of heart.21 I was in very cheerful spirits that whole Shabbos, but not a soul was aware of any of this.