RAV BERLAND FOOLED A WHOLE CITY FOR DECADES!
Back in the early 1980s, despite the fact that he was now the head of a flourishing yeshivah — or perhaps specifically because of the great success he was enjoying at Shuvu Banim — Rav Berland continued to go to extraordinary lengths to maintain his humility.
“When Shuvu Banim had already started in Bnei Brak, the Rav still spent some of his evening at the Vizhnitz Yeshivah,” recalls Rav Moshe Yosef Haas. “At Vizhnitz, everyone knew him as ‘Reb Lazer the Meshugganer.’ At that time, I was a Vizhnitzer chassid, and I remember there used to be groups of people standing around him, and he used to let them make fun of him and he’d laugh at himself, too.
“They used to stand there mocking him, and he’d just encourage them. The Rav used to walk around the streets with holy books, and he’d go up to people and enthusiastically say to them, ‘Do you see what’s written here?!’ At the bus stop, on the bus itself, in all different places, he’d start reading sections of Likutei Halachos or some other holy book out loud to the passersby, and they’d start to laugh at him. He did this for many years.
“So I always knew him as someone who wasn’t ‘normal,’ and who hung out with the crazy people.”
SEEKING OUT INSULTS
Rav Haas continues: “After I got married, I started to get into Breslov, and there were a few people from AN”SH who wanted to introduce me to the Rav. As soon as they told me his name, I started telling them that, to my great misfortune, I already knew exactly who he was, and he was not anything like the great Rabbi they were describing.
“A little while later, I read Torah 6 [in Likutei Moharan, where the Rebbe talks about seeking out insults and humiliation] and the thought suddenly occurred to me that maybe the Rav really was normal after all, and he’d just been acting crazy. Shortly after that, I heard a recorded shiur by the Rav, without knowing who had given it, and it really blew me away. I had to find out who’d given it — and they told me it was Rav Berland.”
YOU’LL ONLY CATCH THE RAV WITH PRAYERS
“I was amazed at his breadth of Torah learning and I decided I had to clarify things for myself, so I tried to visit him at the yeshivah 18 times in a row. Every time I got there I was told the Rav had just left. Finally, they told me, ‘You’ll only catch the Rav with prayers.’ So I prayed.
“The day after I prayed to see him, someone from the yeshivah contacted me and told me that there was going to be a bris and the Rav was going to be the sandak. I went over there, and that was my first meeting with the Rav. It was just after the bris had finished, when the Rav was meeting the public. Rav Yosef Assulin was standing outside, and he told me that the Rav had to leave soon and wasn’t seeing anyone else.
“I told him, ‘The Rav can’t leave until I’ve seen him!’ After a few minutes, he said the Rav was going to the Kosel to pray. Someone was going to be talking to the Rav on the way there, but I could accompany him back from the Kosel to his house. At the Kosel, the Rav asked me if my being a Breslover was something I revealed to other people, or something I kept hidden. He immediately hit the nail on the head.
“At that time, I was still hiding the fact that I was into Breslov from my friends. The Rav gave me his hand and started to dance with me. Afterwards, I got into Rav Assulin’s car with him and the Rav told him where to drive. He spoke to me in Yiddish so that Rav Assulin wouldn’t understand what he was telling me.
“The Rav basically spoke about all the different thoughts I had going on in my head for a whole hour, and I really didn’t say anything! I suddenly felt so ashamed: I was so transparent, what what was I trying to hide, anyway? The Rav told me that I should come and visit him from time to time. I used to come to the yeshivah for a few days to recharge my batteries and strength, and that gave me the ability to endure that tough period of time until I was able to move to Jerusalem.”
TURN YOURSELF INTO A FOOL
“Once, I told the Rav about all the persecution I was enduring as a result of my coming closer to Rabbenu,” continues Rav Haas. “I cried as I told him that I couldn’t take it anymore. The Rav told me: ‘Turn yourself into a fool, who doesn’t understand or know anything! That way, people will leave you alone and you’ll save your soul.’ He added that this is what King Dovid did, in the years when he had to flee from his persecutors, and that this is what he himself had also done, all those years in Bnei Brak, so that people would leave him alone.
“That’s when I realized that the Rav had fooled a whole city for decades. It was really a miraculous thing, because he was already a Rosh Yeshivah and also the Steipler’s regular learning partner. Yet despite all that, people in Bnei Brak believed he was a meshugganer.
“In the Shuvu Banim Yeshivah, people had no idea of what was really going on. The Rav would make it seem as though he was going straight to bed after the evening prayers, the same as the students, but then he’d go over to the Vizhnitz Yeshivah and play the fool — and he’d done it so cleverly, for all those years!
“I started to understand that as well as being part of his spiritual work to deliberately seek out humiliation, it had also been a strategy to get people to leave him alone so they wouldn’t argue with him about the new path he’d chosen. Now, when I think about it, it’s truly a wondrous thing: How could someone run his own yeshivah, learn with the Steipler, and still get people to believe he was meshugga? The Rav is simply a genius at hiding his greatness from other people.”
Excerpted from the forthcoming book: One in a Generation: Rabbi Eliezer Berland