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One Last Try: The Passover Vagrant and Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz

At our Pico Shul Passover Finale we continued the beautiful tradition started by the Baal Shem Tov to make a festive meal of matzah and wine in honor of the coming of the Messiah. This Passover meal encapsulates all the spiritual teachings of the holiday and integrates them into our spiritual lives for the year to come. I told the following story about the saintly Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz, known as the Ropshizter, and the vagrant who came for Passover. (1)

When Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz was still a teenager he spent Purim with one of his Rebbes. After Purim, his Rebbe told him, “Do me one favor Naftali, please don’t come back for Passover.” Not come back? Naftali so badly wanted to spend Passover with his Holy Rebbe. So he thought up a plan to get invited back for Passover.

A few days before Passover, Naftali shows up at the Rebbe’s kitchen offering to help his wife, the Rebbitzen, for Passover preparations. There is an enormous amount of work to do, and Naftali makes himself indispensable. Then just before Passover he asks his Rebbe’s wife for a favor. “Could you ask the Rebbe to let me stay for Passover?”

She consents, and goes to her husband telling him how helpful Naftali is in the Passover preparations. He replies, “Okay, he can stay. But I’m telling you that he’s going to make a lot of trouble.”

The morning leading into Passover is the busiest morning of the entire Jewish year. You have to finish all the Passover preparations, burn the leavened items that are left, get to the mikvah, set up the house and Seder table. On a deeper spiritual level, you have to negate all that is corrosive in yourself and mentally prepare for spiritual heights of the Passover seder.

When Naftali completes all that he can to help prepare for Passover he walks walk over to the Beis Medrash, the study hall, to do some learning before the Seder. Now it is well known that Naftali, the future Ropshitzer Rebbe, has an acute sense of smell. As you or I can smell what is good and bad, he smells what is spiritually good or bad in this world.

Suddenly the door to the study hall swings open and standing there is a stinking, filthy, eyesore of a vagrant. He is disgusting. Not only has he not showered in ages, but his hair and beard are matted into dreads. His clothes are rags. His shoes are held together with rope and tape. And he just doesn’t smell dirty, Naftali realizes, but he also smells spiritually. Naftali realizes that there must not be a sin in the entire world that this man has not committed.

The vagrant approaches Naftali and says, “May I see the Rebbe?”

“Imagine, that on the eve of Passover,” Naftali thinks, “after my Rebbe and I have so scrupulously prepared for Passover, wiping away everything that could possible compromise or corrupt Passover, this vagrant wants to see the Rebbe? This disgusting, filthy, low-life will destroy my holiday, and certainly the Rebbe’s!”

“Is that all you need to do, to see the Rebbe?” Naftali replies. “Why don’t you go home, clean-up a bit, put on some new clothes. You know maybe cut off those dreadlocks and trim your beard. While you are at it, do some repentance over all the sins you have committed! Because there is no way I am going to disturb the Rebbe on the eve of Passover for a scrap heap like you!”

The vagrant walks straight out of the study hall without saying a word, and Naftali gets back to his learning.

Not more than five minutes later, the Rebbe runs into the study hall and asks Naftali, “Was anyone here?”

“No, no one that I know” says Naftali.

“Are you sure there was no one?”

“Well, now I remember… There was this vagrant who waltzed in here asking to see you, so I sent him home to get clean-up and…”

“What did you say to him?” the yells his Rebbe.

“What do you think Rebbe, I threw him out of the study hall!”

The Rebbe turns to Naftali, and grabs him by the collar. “If you don’t bring that vagrant back to me be right away, I don’t want to see you ever again. I mean it!” And storms from the room.

Naftali is totally confused. But he starts running all over town looking for this guy. He checks alleys and dumpsters, places where people panhandle. Then finally makes it to the most disgusting dive bar in the city, and there sits the vagrant, drunk as a dog.

“Kind sir,” he says in the most polite way that he can possibly muster. “Can you come with me to the Rebbe?” After having treated him like filth, Naftali starts pleading with him to come to the Rebbe. “Please, please, I am begging you! I am so, so sorry about how I threw you out. I am so sorry. Please come with me to see the Rebbe. If you don’t he will never speak to me again!”

The vagrant is completely drunk. The last person on earth that he wants to see was this pompous guy who had driven him away before. He just wants to left in peace with his drink. But Naftali is a large man, and he grabs the vagrant by the arm, and pulls him out onto the street. He practically drags the man kicking and shouting, all the way back to the Rebbe’s house.

The minute that the Rebbe sees the vagrant, he runs up and gives him a huge hug kiss. “Where have you been? I am so happy to see you!” The Rebbe is overjoyed and beaming. Naftali shrinks away, and the Rebbe brings the vagrant into his house. There he gives the man a private suite, fresh towels, clothes for the holiday, a long coat and shtreimel. The vagrant comes out of the suite some time later shining and glowing from one end of the world to the other. He spends the entire holiday at the side of the Rebbe.

After Passover, Naftali gets up the courage to ask his Rebbe what had transpired. “I want you to know that this vagrant was not always a vagrant. At one time my greatest student. He was the holiest, most saintly student, engrossed in Torah study day and night. His head was in the heavens and his feet were planted here on Earth. But the saddest thing happened. You know he is just human, and he made a mistake. Since he knew that I knew about it, he left town in the middle of the night. He was ashamed to see me or ever come back. And since he was so ashamed things just spiraled down, down and down.

“On Purim I remembered him and wondered how he was. I prayed so hard to God asking Him to bring my student back. Then I saw in a dream that he would return right before Passover. And in this dream, you were there too. Since you have such a fine sense of smell, you drove him away from us. That is why I didn’t want you here on Passover!

“That Passover eve, sure enough, he decided to return to see me. He wanted to see if his teacher would take him back. He thought, if the Rebbe will take me back without saying anything about what happened, then I will stay. I will put my life back in order. But if I get chased away, I’ll never come back again!

The story has so many levels.

There may be people that you meet and for them, this is the very last try.

There may be people in our lives that we have exiled because of mistakes they made. We never want to see them again and don’t give them the opportunity to make amends. But these were people close to us, dear to us, and eventually we miss them. But getting them back is so hard. It requires that we humble ourselves, and swallow our pride.

But on a deeper level this story is about us and our relationship with God. Sometimes we do something wrong. We totally mess up. Of course we are embarrassed. And so we flee from God. We run far away. And once we are far away from God, we figure that since we are already so far away, what does it matter if we go further. After all, we have already messed up our lives, what does it matter if we mess up even more?

As we take the spiritual awakenings of this Passover into the coming year, we can remember this lesson. God is a kind teacher. God wants us to come back. God doesn’t care what we look like or what we smell like. God doesn’t want to judge us for every transgression. God wants to be back in our lives and back in our hearts. God is there waiting for us to come back.


(1) This story is based on a story told by my teacher of blessed memory Reb Shlomo Carlebach. In the story the Rebbe is named Rabbi Mordechai “Mottele” Neshchzeer.