Chapter 9
R. Avraham the Malach

The "Golden Chain"

The Maggid once effected an unprecedented spiritual unification, which caused such joy in Heaven that he was asked to name his reward. "I didn't do it for a reward," he replied. But when pressed, he asked for a "golden chain" - that is, that all his descendants should be Tzaddikim. His wish was granted.

Through many years of marriage, the Maggid remained childless. After he met the Baal Shem Tov, his master declared that despite his frailty, he would live long and father a son so pure and holy that people would hardly think him human.

Born in 1741, that son was known as R. Avraham the Malach (angel), because an angel appeared to his mother to herald his birth, and because he was as angelically free of temptation as his sainted father.


A Tzaddik's Youth

The only accounts of his youth tell us that R. Avraham learned Kabbalah from the Maggid and the revealed Torah from R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the teacher chosen by the boy's father.

R. Shneur Zalman once complained to the Maggid that even during their study sessions, R. Avraham insisted on explaining the halachah and aggadah kabbalistically.

"Don't worry," the Maggid reassured him. "You learn your way and he'll learn his. Just show him the outward cloak of the Torah, and he'll show you what lies within."

Indeed, according to a tradition passed down by R. Yisrael of Rizhin, R. Avraham's grandson, the Chabad school of Chassidic thought derives primarily from the Malach.

From his earliest youth, R. Avraham led an other-worldly existence. He would remain in his room the entire day, crowned with Tefillin and engrossed in study. Enveloped in his Tallis, he could neither see nor be seen. Thus he shielded himself from the material world and anything entrenched within it.

R. Yisrael of Rizhin recalled: "When R. Zusia of Onipol uttered HaShem's Name, he was seized with such fear that his limbs trembled, and his blood ran cold. He had to ask HaShem to insulate him against such awe. But my grandfather was an angel who subsisted on nothing more than a pigeon skin a day. His fear of HaShem never left him for a moment."

The Malach's other-worldliness was so extraordinary that when his father sought to find him a wife, he exclaimed, "How can one descend to such physicality?" Only because of the sanctity of the mitzvah did he agree to marry.

A Match Made in Heaven

When R. Avraham's first wife passed away, the Maggid sent two distinguished men of Mezritch to the town of Kremenitz to arrange for his son to wed the daughter of R. Feivel, author of Mishnas Chachomim.

R. Feivel's wife was quite amused by this notion, for she had never heard of the Maggid, and her daughter was only twelve years old. But R. Feivel agreed to the match.

As they wrote the t'naim (engagement agreement), the Maggid's emissaries stressed that the wedding mustn't be delayed. The wedding and week of sheva brachos abounded in rejoicing, festivity and divrei Torah. The bride's mother returned to Kremenitz filled with joy, for she had never seen anything like it.

R. Avraham's new wife was not a simple woman. Twice, she dreamed that a tribunal of distinguished-looking sages wanted to take away her husband, but she screamed and pleaded his case. In the third occurrence of this dream, the court decreed, "Your defenses are so strong that we will allow him to remain with you for another twelve years." The next morning, the Maggid thanked her profusely for her efforts, which had granted his son another twelve years of life.

After his death, the Maggid appeared to his daughter-in-law in a dream whenever necessary. One night he told her, "Tell your husband to change rooms, or at least to move his books into your room." Her husband, however, dismissed the matter. The next night, a fire broke out in R. Avraham's room, burning his entire library.

A Successor to the Maggid

Prior to his passing, the Maggid privately instructed R. Shneur Zalman to see to it that R. Avraham succeed him. If his son refused, he continued, R. Menacham Mendel of Vitebsk should be the successor. During Chanuka of 1772, after the week of mourning for R. Dov Ber, R. Yehudah Leib HaCohen, R. Zusia, and R. Shneur Zalman accepted the Malach's authority.

Yet R. Avraham did not succeed his father as the leader of the Chassidic movement. Instead, he settled in Fastov, far from the center of Chassidus, where he lived in isolation. He himself said, "A certain type of Tzaddik cannot lead his generation, for they cannot relate to him. Due to his great intellect, he cannot sink low enough to uplift them."

The Inheritance

The Maggid often warned his son about the dangers of self-affliction. Even after death, he appeared to his son with his strictures, stressing the obligation to honor one's father, even posthumously.

"What do I have to do with you," R. Avraham replied, "my father of flesh and blood? My soul yearns for my exalted Father!"

"My son," inquired R. Dov Ber, "if I am not your father, why did you accept your inheritance?"

"I hereby renounce it," declared the Malach. That moment, fire engulfed his house, consuming everything the Maggid had bequeathed him.

Shortly thereafter, on the eve of Yom Kippur, R. Avraham donned the white, silken bekeshe his father had worn on the High Holidays. But when he entered the synagogue, the flame of a lit candle leaped onto the robe and incinerated it.

Thus were severed his ties to his forebears and to all flesh and blood.

Words of Rebuke

When R. Avraham once visited his father-in-law in Kremenitz the whole town came out to greet the wondrous man known to everyone as the Malach. But R. Avraham ignored them and merely stared at a tall mountain. The people anxiously awaited a word from the Malach, but he remained lost in thought.

Among those present was a young misnaggid who was very impressed with his own learning and lineage, and very unimpressed by R. Avraham's strange behavior. Unable to restrain himself, he demanded, "Why are you staring at that mountain for so long? It's only a clump of earth!"

"I am staring in amazement," the Malach replied, "How could such a simple clump of earth be haughty enough to become a tall mountain?"

The young man trembled and squirmed as these words penetrated his heart.

To Mourn a Loss

Eager to meet the Malach, R. Yitzchak of Radwill, son of R. Yechiel Michel of Zlatachov, went to R. Avraham's synagogue on erev Tishah B'Av. Everyone sat on the floor, and the chazan began his lamentful reading. Suddenly, the Malach uttered a bitter, painful cry: "Eicha!" He then placed his head between his knees and fell silent. After Eicha and kinos, the congregation went home. But R. Avraham remained bent over. R. Yitzchak waited for him until midnight, when he too, left.

To his astonishment, when R. Yitzchak returned to synagogue the next morning, he found the Malach in the same position, absorbed in mourning the Beis HaMikdash. Every so often he lifted his head from the tear-stained floor to wail, "Hasn't the Moshiach come yet?" R. Yitzchak then understood why he was known as an angel.

A Very Special Matzo

Every Pesach, R. Avraham baked shmurah matzos for his father, who trusted no one else. One year the Malach sent his father three matzos with one of the Maggid's students, Dr. Gordia. Intrigued by these holy matzos, which he knew were baked with lofty intent, Dr. Gordia couldn't resist taking one for himself and replacing it with one of his own.

At the seder that night, after tasting only a small piece of matzo, Dr. Gordia suddenly felt as if his entire body were burning. "The Rebbe!" he gasped.

The members of his household rushed to the Maggid, who prescribed a remedy. The next day, R. Dov Ber said that only because Dr. Gordia was his doctor had he been allowed to remain alive. Otherwise, the intense kedushah of the matzo would have consumed him.

The Appearance of a Tzaddik

The Malach's appearance struck awe in all who beheld him, even other Tzaddikim. One Tzaddik prepared himself for a month before visiting him. The minute he saw R. Avraham putting on Tefillin, he shuddered and fled without even greeting him.

The Baal Shem Tov's grandchildren, R. Moshe Chaim Ephraim and R. Baruch, once came to gaze upon the Malach. Afraid to enter his room, they peeked through a window instead. When R. Avraham arose and R. Baruch looked into his face, he became so frightened that he grabbed his brother and ran, leaving behind his seforim and his coat in his haste.

R. Nachum of Chernobyl once performed a bris milah, and R. Avraham served as the sandek. A large crowd gathered in the synagogue, eager to see the reclusive Malach. But when he arrived, all but twenty of the people bolted, and the shamash was afraid to speak to him. When the Malach approached the bimah, R. Nachum became so startled that he dropped the mohel's knife, and forgot whether he had pronounced the blessing over the milah.

When he returned home, R. Nachum sat down, silent and bewildered. His attendant brought him coffee, and twice he refused, saying: "How can we drink when we know that there is a man who serves HaShem with such loftiness?"

The Malach's Avodas HaShem was very intense. Once, as he davened, his soul began to depart from his body. R. Shneur Zalman instructed those near him to replace his Rashi Tefillin with those of Rabbenu Tam. Only then did he return to his normal self.

The Malach's Passing

On his final Yom Kippur, the Malach became very weak. By the time of the Neilah service, he could no longer speak. Asked if a message should be sent to R. Nachum, the Malach nodded his agreement. Two days later, on the twelfth of Tishrei, 1776, the Malach passed away.

R. Nachum learned of R. Avraham's death a few days later, on Sukkos. Banging his head against the wall, he cried continuously for two hours. Finally, his chassidim carried him into the Sukkah and said, "Rebbe, remember that today in Yom Tov!" Only then did he regain his composure and recount the Malach's greatness.

R. Avraham lived only thirty-six years, just long enough - chassidim say in the name of R. Meir of Premishlan - to liberate the soul of the pious R. Yisrael of Rizhin from the "treasure house of souls."

R. Yisrael of Rizhin himself believed that his grandfather, R. Avraham, was that rare Tzaddik capable of clinging to his Creator constantly.

When R. Moshe of Savran noted that R. Avraham didn't live very long, R. Yisrael retorted, "Irrelevant! One only comes into this world to accomplish what is good for his soul. Once he finishes, he returns to the Source, whence his soul was hewn."

R. Pinchas of Koretz once remarked that had R. Avraham lived longer, all the Tzaddikim would have accepted his authority.

Messages in a Dream

After the week of Shivah, R. Avraham's wife came to Fastov to receive her husband's bequest. R. Avraham's followers tried to comfort her, but she was inconsolable. That night she dreamed that she entered a great, beautiful palace, where she beheld her husband, his face radiant with joy, and several distinguished-looking elders.

"My wife always complained that I was overly abstemious," he told them, "and she was justified. I therefore beg her forgiveness in your presence."

"You are forgiven wholeheartedly," she replied.

"The Torah allows her to remarry," R. Avraham continued, "especially since she is only twenty-four years old. I will not prevent her. But if she agrees not to marry another, I will cover all her expenses, and those of her children. And when she comes home, each child will already have an appropriate match."

When she returned home, her children immediately found good shidduchim (matches), and her business improved and provided for all her needs. The Malach continued to appear in her dreams whenever necessary.

When the wife of R. Nachum of Chernobyl passed away, R. Nachum considered taking R. Avraham's widow as his wife. He sent the Malach's son, R. Shalom Shachna, to discuss it with her.

One night, on the way to his mother's home, R. Shalom Shachna dreamed that his father was standing at the entrance to a magnificent palace, his hands reaching its ceiling. "Who dares to enter my palace?!" the Malach shouted. When he awoke, R. Shalom Shachna realized that he and R. Nachum had overstepped their bounds.

Friends Reunited

After praying at the grave of his friend R. Avraham, R. Yisrael of Politzk, a disciple of the Maggid, returned home and informed the Chevrah Kadishah: "I am about to die. The Malach has summoned me because he is alone. Bury me next to him." He then climbed into bed, closed his eyes, and expired. The Chevrah Kadishah honored his wishes.

Years later, R. Shneur Zalman passed Fastov but did not enter the town, lest R. Avraham summon him as well.

His Teachings and Writings

Some of R. Avraham's teachings appeared in his work Chessed L'Avraham (Chernowitz, 1851, Jerusalem 1997). In line with his departure from the ways of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid with his self-mortification, he hardly mentions them in this work. He aspired to strip away the physical outer layers and reach the highest level of Chassidus, "nothingness," by crushing desires and vices and cultivated an extraordinary humility. He vehemently protested against cultivating concrete discussions of lofty concepts derived from the Upper Worlds, for this he saw as a physical embodiment of the spiritual. Thus, the introduction to Chessed L'Avraham railed against those who taught Kabbalah publicly and reduced it to comprehensible terms. Similarly, he viewed attempts to explain the Divine in human terms as a violation of Jewish belief in an incorporeal God.

R. Avraham attributed the decline of the Chassidic idea through the generations to the terrible sufferings of exile, which, ironically, should have propelled the nation towards its Tzaddikim, through whom goodness and perfection reach the Lower Worlds.

The Malach perceived the Tzaddik as central to redemption. The Jews could rise spiritually only by rallying around him, while he in turn would encompass them all and cleave to HaShem.

Despite this image of the Tzaddik as a man of the people who provides for everyone, he himself withdrew from the world allowing no one into his domain. The foundation of Chassidus is the Rebbe, the Tzaddik of the generation; R. Avraham was the Tzaddik without the generation.

The essence of R. Avraham's teachings lies perhaps in two famous sayings. Quoting a prayer recited on Shabbos, "And all who stand erect shall bow before You," he explained, "Only after reaching his full stature can one completely nullify and subjugate himself, and bow to the Eternal."

Elsewhere in the Shabbos liturgy, we proclaim: "There is none comparable to You, HaShem, our God, in this world; and none beside You, our King, in the World to Come...." Said the Malach: "If, Heaven forbid, there were a split-second without Your inspiration and providence, what could this world give me? What pleasure would I derive from the coming of Moshiach or the resurrection of the dead? But if You are here, everything is here; for nothing can compare to You and the great delight and pleasure of Your influence. There is no satisfaction like that which we gain from You."

Forever seeking the satisfaction to be gained from HaShem - this was the way of the Malach, the way of an angel in human form.