from The Maharal of Prague (author).
CHAPTER TWENTY: RUMORS
Black clouds ranged above the massed steeples and crowded roofs of Prague. Thunder clapped, lightning flashed madly and the rain lashed downward in sheets that the wind drove against the sodden houses and the passers-by fighting their way home.
The rain drummed against the latched shutters of the Maharal's home. Sorrow filled his heart now. Had this not been a time of joy? Passover had been followed by Lag B'omer, and, scant weeks after that, by the joyous celebration of Shavuos, the giving of the Torah.
But mere days after that joyous time, stark and sorrowful news had come to the Maharal. Just as Moshe Rabbeinu had gone up to heaven to receive the Torah on Shavuos, so had the Maharal's older brother, Rabbi Chaim, gone up to heaven on Shavuos--but he had not returned.
The Maharal's grief was bitter indeed, and he felt keenly the loss of his brilliant, pious brother.
That year, 1588, the Maharal published his third volume and, using his brother's name in its title, he called it Derech Hachaim--The Way of Life, or, as it could be read, The Way of Chaim.
Derech Hachaim, a long commentary on Pirkei Avos, went deeply into the Maharal's views on Kabbalah, as well as expressing his mussar (ethical teachings), and other teachings.
In Derech Hachaim, the Maharal differentiated between philosophy and Kabbalah. These two, said the Maharal, were very different descriptions of the world. Some years earlier, the Rema had published Toras Ha-olah, in which he had claimed that the wisdom of the Kabbalah and the wisdom of philosophy were in essence identical, except that each used a different language. Now, without mentioning either the Rema or Toras Ha-olah by name, the Maharal took issue with this view. He replied that Kabbalah and philosophy were in fact completely different, and that, faced with a choice between the two, he based his writings on the words of the Zohar and the other seforim of Kabbalah.
The Maharal used many Kabbalistic terms in his works. But more than that, and despite his philosophical language, the Maharal clearly showed that he had a Kabbalistic and not a philosophical point of view.
For instance, philosophy said that the names that describe G-d (such as "Compassionate," "Mighty" and so on) are based on things that we see in the world around us, and are borrowed to try to describe G-d in a way that we can understand. But the Maharal disagreed and, arguing in the spirit of the Kabbalah, said that "such names are more than analogies." Rather, they "do not refer to the physical but to the abstract of the physical." Such names are actually describing traits that are in essence rooted in the upper world and only afterwards come down to the physical world.
At times, the Maharal explicated the secrets that the Ramban would only hint at. At other times, he showed that the words of our sages were not as easily understandable as they appeared to be, but hinted at deep secrets.
The Maharal did not insist that the words of the Talmud always be understood literally. Our sages said that the ram of Yitzchak has various parts: its horn was made into the shofar that blew at Mt. Sinai at the giving of the Torah; its hide was made into a loincloth for Eliyahu Hanavi; and its gut will make the strings of the ten-stringed harp that the Moshiach will play. The Maharal pointed out that this statement is not meant to be understood simply at face value; it was rather, he said, emblematic (a dugma).
Even as the Maharal endeavored to assuage his grief for his brother's passing in the comforting waters of Torah, the roaring stream of controversy again caught him up in its foaming rapids.
"Now, our master, why do you not answer us and led us?" read the Maharal from the letter that had arrived from Moravia. "Where is your zeal and might? Your great compassion, and your awe over us have been held back."
Years before, Yisroel had been a student of the Maharal. He had been young, but sharp and brilliant. The Maharal had guided and molded him until he had become an independent Torah scholar.
Then he had been called to fill a post as community rabbi in Moravia. He had gone there some time ago, and fulfilled his post admirably.
Now he and the Jews of Moravia turned their eyes to the Maharal. Why did he not reply? Was he oblivious to their pain? Was he tired of the constant fighting? Did he see no advantage in healing wounds that were promptly torn open again? Or was he merely resting before his next entry into the fray of small-mindedness?
Rumors were swirling through Moravia about a noted family, wealthy and with a good name. Perhaps this alone was enough to encourage and attract the evil eye of those afflicted by jealousy and an inner sense of poverty, those who, feeling empty inside, begrudge others their happiness.
Rumors spread of a strange and shocking history in this family's background. Years earlier, the great-grandparents of this family had lost their beloved, first-born child, an infant, in the confusion of a terrible pogrom, when each Jew fled in a separate direction to save his own life. The young, teen-age parents had suffered further misadventures. The mother, Shaina, was struck on the side of the head and disfigured, and the father too was mercilessly pummeled. For many years, the couple lived in poverty, childless, the father constantly ill, the mother weak and pale.
Finally, the father passed away. His widow, now thirty years old, apparently unable to bear children and poverty-stricken, remained alone for several years, for whom would she find to marry her?
Yet, she finally did find someone, a destitute orphan named Feivel many years her junior, in a marriage of two sad and broken people.
Yet to everyone's surprise, their union blossomed into happiness. The couple was deeply happy with one another. Shaina had a number of children and her young husband began to succeed in his business. Year after year, the children grew and the business improved. Finally, they had a house full of noisy, happy children, and they were able to move out of their bedraggled shanty into a decent house. Still, Feivel grew wealthier, and they moved into a small mansion.
By now it was time for their children to get married, and their father was so well-respected that they made very good matches.
And so, generation after generation, they had grown and had become a very honored family in Moravia, known for their charity and kindliness. But perhaps it was this very reputation that attracted the attention of destructive and malevolent rumor-mongers. One of the offspring of the present family, Yerachmiel, was a dealer in wheat. He was not stern, and when faced with a customer who could not pay, was always willing to make terms.
In recent years, he had begun dealing with a man named Alexander, a man who always complained of the troubles he was having, of his expenses, of family troubles that were eating up his income; and Yerachmiel always extended special credit and easy terms to him.
Slowly, precisely because Yerachmiel was so good and pleasant, Alexander began to resent him. How was it that he, Alexander, always seemed to be struggling, yet Yerachmiel was always doing so well that he could afford to extend a loan or reduce his profit? If Yerachmiel was so well-off, why didn't he make even better terms? Why didn't he completely overlook certain debts when Alexander had hinted so broadly that he was so hard-pressed?
One autumn, Alexander's daughter got engaged. While the rest of the family rejoiced, Alexander was filled with worry. After all, his family's only concern was to eat and dance at the wedding! His wife, Miriam, was already speaking of the beautiful, grand affair they would have that would put all their neighbors to shame and of the wedding gowns that they would have made with fur trimmings. But it was he who had to pay for it. And how deep did they think his pocket was?
Alexander went over to Yerachmiel and asked if he could take a loan on the collateral of a shipment of logs that he was planning to sell that spring. Yerachmiel advanced Alexander the money, and Alexander went off, glad to be able to pay for his daughter's wedding after Passover.
But in the spring, the market value of logs fell, and Alexander received much less than he had expected. Yet now, although Alexander had explained this all to Yerachmiel, Yerachmiel still insisted that Alexander honor his commitment and pay him back the money he had borrowed.
Alexander came out of their meeting fuming. It did not occur to him that Yerachmiel himself might be in need of the money. All he could think about was that now that he was being eaten up by debts and hounded by wedding bills, this cheap, selfish miser, Yerachmiel, wouldn't give him a measly few more months to pay off his debt, when after all, it wasn't his fault, was it, if the market for logs had suddenly lost its bottom?
When Yerachmiel began pressing Alexander, Alexander lost all patience. "That low-class cheapskate!" he muttered to himself. "People think he comes from such a high-class family. Well, I know one thing for sure. If his great-grandmother married some orphan who was hardly half her age, there had to be some funny business going on. I bet she accidentally married her own son, and that's why his family is so lousy cheap!"
From fevered muttering to himself, Alexander began bitterly reviling Yerachmiel and his family to all his friends and acquaintances. Within a matter of weeks, the rumor had spread throughout the community and been accepted as fact: the many tens of offspring of Feivel and Shaina were all the unnatural products of a tragic, repulsive union. They were outcasts from Israel, and no kosher family should have anything to do with them, nor anyone ever marry their tainted lineage.
When the members of this noble family heard these evil reports, they immediately protested and sought the authority of the greatest rabbis of their communities to put an end to the vicious slanders.
These rabbis swiftly issued public letters protesting the libel and denouncing those who engaged in it. But still, the rumors did not cease.
Rabbi Yisroel gathered these many responses together and mailed them to the Maharal. Perhaps he would be moved to act on behalf of this family and, by extension, on behalf of all those liable to be besmirched.
The Maharal read these letters. It seemed that all these protests from such great community rabbis did not suffice to end this pestilence. It seemed that he himself would have to enter the fray.
He wrote swiftly, remembering earlier controversies, sick at heart that such continued fights were keeping all Jews in the agony of exile and estranged from their Father in heaven and from the coming of the Moshiach.
Days after this letter came to Rabbi Yisroel in Moravia, it was being read from the pulpit by rabbi after rabbi in every affected community, and copies were widely distributed.
The Maharal repeated the condemnation of the other rabbis of this vicious slander, but he went even further than they in his explicit and forceful denunciation. "What an incredible thing," he wrote, "to create such a baseless falsehood that has no kernel of truth at all, a falsehood that is built on nothing more than anger, rivalry and a desire to ridicule others." The Maharal declared that he had "investigated [this matter] thoroughly, and found the accusation to be a wicked lie based on manifestly false charges leveled by enemies."
Such was the charisma and moral authority of the Maharal that his epistle succeeded where previous protests had failed. Soon, the poisonous rumors died down. It was rather Alexander and those who had taken up his malicious tale-bearing who were now viewed with distaste and distrust.