Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa
Someone once asked Rabbi Simcha Bunim the following question: “Why do Chassidic avrechim normally leave their families to stay for weeks and months with their ‘Rebbe’ to learn the fear of Heaven from him? Is it impossible, therefore, to learn the fear of Heaven at home with books of Mussar?”
He responded with a story:
“For several nights Rabbi Eizik had dreamed that he should go to Prague and begin digging under the royal bridge, for there he would find a great treasure. Eventually, Rabbi Eizik decided to go to Prague. In arriving there, he went directly to the royal bridge, but at that time he noticed that soldiers were guarding the bridge day and night. He went around it several times, yet he was still fearful of getting close and digging underneath.
“One of the soldiers saw him and asked what he was looking for near the bridge. When Rabbi Eizik told him the story of his dream, the soldier began to mock him and said, ‘I too, I also have an often-occurring dream. I dream that in the town of Krakow there’s a Jew named Rabbi Eizik, the son of Rabbi Yekalis, and that there’s a huge treasure buried under the stove in his home. But only an fool would have faith in the words of a dream.’
“Rabbi Eizik understood that Heaven had sent him to Prague so that the soldier could inform him that he had a great treasure in his house, buried beneath his stove. He went back home, dug underneath it, and there he found a great fortune of gold coins. Rabbi Eizik thus became very wealthy and gave a large amount of tzeddakah to the poor. He also built a synagogue that is known as ‘The Synagogue of Rabbi Eizik the son of Rabbi Yekalis.’ ”
Rabbi Simcha Bunim concluded: “When an avrech goes to the Tzaddik, he realizes that in his home – in his soul – there is a great treasure. If he puts a great deal of effort into digging and searching for this treasure, he will find it, as it is written in the Torah: ‘For the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart – to perform it’ [Deuteronomy 30:14]. It is literally with you.” He also taught his students the following: “The World Above, the World to Come, is also found here in this world, with the Rabbi and the Tzaddik.”
Rabbi Simcha Bunim was born in 5525 (1765) in Vadislov, the son of Rabbi Tzvi the Maggid, who was a great speaker. When he was older, his father sent him to study Torah with Rabbi Yirmiyah, the Rosh Yeshiva of Mattersdorf, and in other yeshivas in Hungary and Moravia. He was greatly influenced by Rabbi Mordechai Benet, who was then the head of the Nickelsburg yeshiva.
When he returned to his father in Hungary, Rabbi Simcha Bunim married the daughter of Rabbi Moshe of Bedzin. As was the norm during that time, Rabbi Simcha Bunim was supported by his father-in-law in Bedzin for several years. There he studied Torah and was encouraged by his wife, a woman of valor who was known for her piety and good qualities.
In Bedzin, he began to get closer to Chassidut, and little by little he started to adopt its customs. He prayed with burning zeal, in the manner of the Chassidim, and went to see to Tzaddikim, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov and Rabbi Israel the Maggid of Kozhnitz.
Through the influence of the Maggid of Kozhnitz, he was hired by the wealthy Dov Bergson, who put him in charge of dealing in wood and forest products. He devoted himself entirely to this business, frequently traveling to various towns, especially to Danzig and Leipzig in Germany. After a certain time, he began studying pharmacology and even received a diploma after passing an exam before a board of doctors in Lvov. From there, he went to Pshischa and opened up a pharmacy. During all that time he remained closely attached to Chassidut. He often visited the Tzaddik Rabbi Israel of Kozhnitz, and he was also very close to Rabbi David of Lvov, until finally he found the one in search of his soul – Yaakov Yitzchak, “the holy Jew” of Pshischa. There “the holy Jew” was building a new Chassidut, one of great spirituality, with a number of particularly wise individuals. It is not surprising that Rabbi Simcha Bunim, who himself had a very sharp mind, became attached to him.
In Pshischa, people learned that being a worker of miracles was not as difficult it seems, for all men of a certain level could overturn heaven and earth. What is difficult, however, is truly being a Jew.
The “holy Jew” of Pshischa didn’t live very long. He was 45 years old when he left this world. His disciples assembled to ask Rabbi Simcha Bunim for advice on his succession. He responded with a parable:
“A shepherd fell asleep in a field. At midnight he awoke and remembered his flock, and he was seized with fear lest he find it scattered. He then looked around and was relieved to see the flock grazing peacefully by the edge of a brook. He then got up and cried, ‘Master of the world, how can I thank you for having safeguarded my flock? Put Your flock in my hands, and I will guard it as the pupil of my eye. I will never again fall asleep.’ ”
Rabbi Simcha finished by saying, “If you can find a shepherd as faithful as that, take him as your Rebbe.”
Everyone got up and said, “It is you, Rabbi Simcha Bunim, who is our shepherd – you who are our Rav.”
Rabbi Simcha Bunim was a great Torah Gaon. However, it is not for this that he is best known. He was wise among the righteous and the pious, and he developed an entire world of wisdom for his Chassidim. He taught them how to be true Jews.
On day a man who mortified himself by a daily fast came to see him. He asked Rabbi Simcha if he had already arrived at the level of a Tzaddik and if he would soon see the prophet Eliyahu.
Rabbi Simcha replied, “The main thing is the way in which a man conducts himself after his fast. Does he eat like a man, or does he devour his food like an animal?”
Tens of thousands of people from all walks of life lined up to listen to him. He was esteemed and respected, wise and intelligent. He had among his students the greatest Chassidim of his generation. At the end of his life, he lost his sight and suffered greatly as a result. He then said, “I, Bunim, prayed to the Holy One, blessed be He, that He take the light of my eyes so that they could open and look upon the glory of eternity, and that my mind be sharpened so as to deeply reflect upon eternity.”
He led his Chassidim for only 13 years, from 5574 (1814) to his death in mid-Elul 5587 (1827). However he succeeded in training a generation of great Chassidim during those 13 years.
With the approach of his death on Elul 12, 5587, he heard his wife crying. He told her, “Why are you crying? All the days of my life have only served in teaching me how to die.”