In honor of the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Bender, zikhrono levrakha (22 Tammuz), we are posting this excerpt from Rabbi Perets Auerbach’s unpublished English translation of Bezalel Friedman’s biography, Ish Chasidekha (Your Devoted One).
Chapter Four: The First Trip to Uman
The Destruction of the Torah and the Yeshivas
One of the serious outcomes of World War I, when the very foundations of the world shook, was the destruction of the Torah and yeshivas. For four full years the war raged, sowing devastation and destruction far and wide. There was no place—city or countryside, to the ends of the earth—that was not affected, whether a little or a lot, directly or indirectly, by those casualties of the terrifying war, which left millions of corpses on the face of the entire world.
The established bastions of Torah were crushed. The yeshivas in Poland were comprised of students who came from various lands and cities to congregate in one place of Torah. Now, with the outbreak of war, they returned home in order to be close to their worried parents. Even though, as the verse states, “and in rooms, terror…” (Devarim 32:25)—the dread penetrated the walls of each house and dwelled within each person’s heart—nevertheless, it was not as awful as in the street. There “the sword consumed” (ibid.), in the simple meaning of the verse. As a result, the yeshivas and centers of Torah were emptied of their inhabitants, and their gates closed until the wrath passed.
The yeshiva of Makov also began to be emptied of its students and soon disassembled. The war began at the end of the summer of 5674 (1914), and already by the High Holidays the yeshiva was desolate of the students that it had once amassed.
Letters from worried parents came one after another to the students of the yeshiva with urgent requests for them to immediately return home in order to be together with their families. Many parents did not rely on letters and came in person to bring their precious children home with them.
R. Levy Yitschak did not set his feet towards his home. Due to the influence of his friend R. Itzik’l, his heart was stirred within him to make the decision to hide in Russia and to travel to Uman for Rosh HaShanah.
R. Itzik’l was duty-bound by his father’s command that he not travel to Uman, but rather first return home. But his good friend, R. Levy Yitschak, he urged not to compromise but to travel at any risk, whatever the price.
So he said, and so he did. R. Levy Yitschak packed his belongings, and with quaking footsteps, he abandoned the walls of his beloved yeshiva; who knew if he would ever merit returning to it?
Travel by Lottery
This journey of R. Levy Yitschak to Uman, which changed the direction of his entire life, served as a bridge between two worlds. It was the “final hammer blow” of his joining the Breslover Chasidim, adopting a Chasidut that with time became a part of his very being and essence; he was conected to it with a strong and powerful bond, until his last breath upon the earth.
He had already tasted something of the new way, but this was only from “the end of the spoon.” R. Itzik’l, the genius of Lodz, had already managed to illuminate him with a glimmer of that light, which began to sparkle in his mind. But it was not yet wedged deep in his heart. He was still straddling two doorposts, as he himself noted in midst of his account of this journey.
He left with a clear decision to forge ahead and to reach his destination—to prevail over all of the difficulties that were bound to obstruct his way. He foresaw where this extremely significant journey would take his life. However, it still wasn’t clear to him why he felt so compelled. But it was as if a hidden voice screamed within him, “Hold on to this, don’t let go!”
At times, R. Levy Yitschak would retell the story of this trip with all of its details and fine points, “like one who counts money.” He encountered barriers from the Evil One, who wanted to disconnect him and distance him at all cost from the precious treasure that was destined for him, and toward which he was traveling and drawing closer. Therefore he took any progress he made in this journey as a special bit of Divine Providence, and as a victory for the side of holiness over the opposition.
Many wondrous and mysterious things happened to R. Levy Yitschak on the road. Even after seventy years and more after that trip, he still did not fully grasp its meaning. “Open miracles happened to me,” R. Levy Yitschak would say, “and I want to tell all of the generations that follow me...”
From Above, Looking Afar
We are not exaggerating if we say that this story, with all of its drama, including events that were actually above nature, may be counted among the great awe-inspiring accounts of disciples and their Masters—due to the various obstructions and barriers that impeded their way. The Evil One well knew what contribution R. Levy Yitschak would make to Breslov Chasidut in the course of time, and that his coming close now would be like an arrow in his eyes. Therefore he wanted to prevent him with all of his power, according to what R. Levy Yitschak himself expressed to those that heard him, “If I would have remained in Poland, what would have been left of me? But from above, they look ahead to the future...”
These expressions which R. Levy Yitschak interjected in the midst of the story shed light on the trip’s deep meaning.
The city Makov was close to the Warsaw metropolis. One who wanted to leave it and go to the great world on the other side was forced to first reach Warsaw.
R. Levy Yitschak was a young, delicate lad, who had no experience with the trials of travel. With the bite of the bloody war, he was suddenly uprooted from the warm spiritual climate in which he had spent his last year. He stood at the beginning of the journey that began from the great Warsaw, through which passed a train that proceeded in the direction of the Russian Ukraine. However, it was impossible to predict the end of the journey.
For it is self-understood that in these days of destruction of the world war, when the streets were teeming with soldiers who have not been inculcated with any “extra love” for the Jewish people—any trip, especially for a Jew, would be extremely dangerous. Especially to cross the borders of countries that were in the center of the storm…
“And so,” R. Levy Yitschak recalled, “after I left the yeshiva which was closed with lock and key, I reached Warsaw, together with all the people of the yeshiva, and from there, each person went on his separate way.”
To Warsaw, R. Levy Yitschak remembered, came the father of his friend and comrade, Itzik’l Otsvotsker. It was Itzik’l intent to travel to Uman for Rosh HaShanah. However, as mentioned, his father prevented him. “Come home with me to Lodz,” his father beseeched him.
“But Rosh HaShanah is coming soon,” the son pleaded, “and I want to spend Rosh HaShanah near the holy gravesite!”
“You want to travel to Uman. I won’t stop you. But for now, come home with me, and from Lodz you can continue on to Uman...”
“Whom You Tested In Travel”
“Stomach pains suddenly attacked me in Warsaw,” R. Levi Yitschak continued, “Pains that took from me the ability to stand on my feet. The suffering got worse and I simply fell on the floor from pain.”
However, his plan to continue the journey was not annulled.
“And He Did Not Recognize His Brother”
Now he found himself in the center of the city of Warsaw, in the glorious backbone of Gelevka Street. “There in Gelevka my brother lived,” he continued his tale. “My brother, my self, my flesh,” R. Levy Yitschak emphasized, as an expression of astonishment and amazement spread across his face. “In my brother’s house I could have rested a bit, until my intense pain passed and I rejuvenated myself. I don’t understand why I acted the way I did. Who pushed me then to keep on traveling, despite all the suffering? At that time, I still wasn’t a fervent chasid…
“Soon, I was passing right by my brother’s house. The pain afflicted me greatly, it almost destroyed me, yet I didn’t so much as think of setting foot in his house, not even for a short visit... WHY???”
Hold On To Yourself!
“I got up and grabbed my heavy bag of belongings and kept going. It is still astonishing in my eyes. Who carried me? Who supported me in those difficult hours? It was as if someone pushed me to continue on my way and not enter, not even for a minute, not to rest in my wealthy brother’s house and catch some sleep under soft blankets...
“And so I turned to the conductor. The pain escalated above my head, but it seemed as if there was no other way.”
He continued on, although he didn’t know why or for what purpose.
Hidden powers supported him. He prevailed and steeled himself and continued—another step, and another step. It was as if he heard the ancient Breslover voice that MoHaRNaT [our master, Rabbi Nasan], may his merits shield us, heard in his dream at the time of his wondrous coming close, when he passed through a chain of pain before he became the “faithful one of the house” and leading disciple of the Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman, may his merits shield us. The more [Rabbi Nasan] tried to go on, the more he was turned back. Then he heard a voice call to him [in his dream]: “Young man, continue to climb—and hold on to yourself!”
The Frantic Crowd
More than a hundred kilometers distance, near the train track, already a long row of crowded people waited to get on the train. A lot of them had been waiting there for many hours, and some for days.
R. Levy Yitschak joined the group of people that gathered at the station, with crowdedness to hard to bear, with commotion dancing in every corner. Pandemonium broke loose because of a report whispered from mouth to ear that this would be the last train to leave Warsaw on its way to the north, in the direction of Russia. No wonder all of the travelers wanted to “grab” a place on that train.
At times the pressure and mounting hysteria were so great that logic demanded that he completely abandon his plan. However, he was strong in his resolve, and by the mercy of Hashem, new energies awakened within him that fortified him and didn’t allow him to give up, but to stand his ground and not falter—in order to reach the holy goal that he had set for himself: the city of Uman. There, he would amass wisdom and Divine knowledge based on the way of our Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman. There, he would begin to become fit, so that one day he would be a worthy vessel and faithful mentor. For upon him rested the burden of passing on the entire spiritual load to the Land of Israel—to establish and build a faithful house to spread the light of the Torah of the great Rebbe whom he was now breaking his feet to reach.
We can imagine the enormous loss to the Breslover Chasidim it would have been if R. Levi Yitschak would have bowed in submission and turned back, due to the awesome pressure that engulfed him as he tried to reach the door of the train which would bring him to Uman... The moment was great and ominous.
Could he withstand it?
“What are You Doing Here and Who are You Here?”
According to the appearance of the mob and the frenzy he had almost already decided that there was no way whatever for him to continue. Would he really be able to push between all of these rough characters, a great portion of whom were soldiers who cast dread on everyone near them?
But he did not give up. He decided to take one step, and another step, and another step further... The pain had still not let up... not only could he not go further, but even standing on his feet was hard for him.
Suddenly a thought occurred to him: “What are you doing here, and who are you here? Who is asking this from you? Turn back and return to the house of your brother who lives close by, who yearns for you. Go and rest your aching bones...”
Thus did R. Levy Yitschak describe his reservations and doubts at that moment. And even though close to seventy-five years already had passed since these events, it was as if he had just experienced it all today.
“I Myself Don’t Know”
“And indeed, why didn’t you go to your brother?” One of the group of listeners couldn’t contain himself, and he threw into the air the obvious question.
“I don’t know myself” answered R. Levy Yitschak without hesitation. And this not-knowing accompanied him throughout his entire life. But he concluded, “You should know, if I had only entered and taken a little rest by my brother, I wouldn’t have made it—he wouldn’t have let me travel.” In his exact words, “If I would have gone to him, I would not have been in Uman.”
And all the listeners well understood the implication of the words: he never would have survived.
R. Levy Yitschak stood and hesitated, thoughts flooded his mind: “What are you doing here, a young lad, alone by himself among myriads of gentiles? How can you push into a crowded, overfull train? Go back! This is not for you, it is not for your abilities!”
But in spite of being drawn after these forlorn thoughts, his mind began to cook up a plan as to how to travel despite all of this. After deeply pondering, it occurred to him that he could circumvent this crowded stop by traveling by trolley to Otvotsk, one stop before Warsaw. There, he thought, it should be possible to catch the train before it entered into the city; there, it would be less packed, the crowd would be lighter, and it would be easier to board the train.
However, when he reached the next stop, more difficulties arose. Many others did the same thing as him, wanting to precede the train. There was a further line of thousands of people by the station. Here too, the chances of getting on the train when it arrived were next to nothing.
On the Last Train
The train arrived. As we have said, this was the last train that ran from Warsaw to the north, in the direction of Russia. It is easy to imagine the great frenzy during those moments when the train entered the station. Into this complex web, we place our young traveler: beside from the holy books in the shtiebl in the city and life in the yeshiva in a group of refined students, his eyes had never seen anything like this.
At times, R. Levy Yitschak would begin to list the succession of miracles that were brought about for him throughout life—including this incredible story of how in the end, he caught the last vehicle before the all of the highways were closed. Had he not caught this train, he would have been left in Warsaw, and it is doubtful if he would have ever reached Uman, since the war was protracted for a number of years.
Inside the train, conditions were worse than outside. It was overfull with people and packed until there was no space. People also snuck onto the roof, it didn’t matter where. When the train stopped, the conductors found no reason to open its doors. Only its windows were fully open, while the mass of travelers pushed to let in some of the fresh air that came through them.
R. Levy Yitschak nonetheless pushed among the multitude that swarmed outside on the windows of the train, not knowing where his feet would take him to.
And the agony... the torment didn’t ease up for a minute... a fearful war raged inside of him... these were the critical moments of decision-making: whether to travel, or to return.
Amidst the pressure, stress and suffering, his thoughts further began to taunt him: “Levy Yitschak, what are you doing here, and who are you here?”
He prayed, “Master of the World! What shall I do now, where shall I travel?”
Twenty million Russian soldiers were sent to the battlefront! Great danger lurked for every Jew. And here a small lad, seventeen years old, tormented in his suffering, filled with as many reservations as the seeds of a pomegranate, all alone among this throng of humanity—how could this one insignificant person manage to get a ticket? How could he possibly prevail?
“From on high, they see far away---” R. Levi Yitschak repeated.
“She gazes at the goings of her household” (Mishlei 31:27).
“Our Rebbe says that when he wants to take someone to himself…”—these words R. Levy Yitschak uttered seventy years after that incident of the train station—“…and indeed, our Rebbe took to himself.”
The Hidden Hand
Suddenly he found himself near the window. Without hesitation, he grabbed his luggage and set it on the other side of the window—without knowing why he was doing so. Then something unbelievable happened: Someone inside grabbed his luggage and took it inside.
R. Levy Yitschak described those astounding, decisive moments: “I pushed among masses of people, until somehow I reached the window of the train. It was open wide. I stuck my hand in... and while my hands were inside, and all of me was outside, I was pulled inside the train!”
To R. Levy Yitschak’s astonishment, his suitcase was swallowed up inside the train, and in its aftermath, he too was brought inside. Someone was holding him with powerful hands. That person didn’t loosen his grip, but dragged him inside the train, right through the open window.
In a moment, he was in.
When he told this part of the story, R. Levy Yitschak would emotionally emphasize that until today he couldn’t conceive or fathom the great miracles that were done with him, already at the beginning of his trip. Out of all of those waiting for the train, among them physically aggressive, strong men, no one but him succeeded in ascending and getting inside through his own efforts, while he stood in his place without force, without doing anything—and he alone, from among all of that great mass, for some reason was dragged into the train.
Similarly, he didn’t know the identity of that wondrous hidden person who reached out his hands to him twice: First, he took his suitcase, and afterward he brought him inside of the train. And the story is especially amazing in that before that person finished pulling his whole body inside, the train already started to move from its place, as if it were waiting only for him to go inside in order to start moving.
“From Heaven, they pulled me in,” concluded R. Levy Yitschak.
 Devarim 33:8
 Ibid 33:9