Rescuing Souls from Hell

Rabbi Levi Yiztchak, one of the most beloved rebbes of the Hassidic tradition, relates the story of how the soul of Reb Moshe Yehudah Leib once rescued souls that were lingering in Hell. This was not so unusual, for when Reb Moshe Yehudah Leib was alive he rescued thousands of Jews who were languishing in prison. Reb Levi Yitzchak recounts that after his friend died, the soul of Reb Moshe Yehudah Leib went up to Paradise. As he was greeted he heard a distant moaning. He followed the cry until he came to the entrance of Gehinom (Hell). The angel expected Rabbi Moshe Yehudah Leib to take his place in Paradise, but he refused to leave, since he came to rescue ransomed souls. Such an incident had never occurred before. Confused, the angel at the gate did not know what to do so he allowed Moshe Yehudah Leib to make his case before the Heavenly Court:

All my days in the “World of Vanity,” he answered the messenger, ‘I have tried to fulfill one mitzvah with all my heart and all my might, no matter what the sacrifice. Now that I have come to the World of Truth, should I do less? I shall not move from this place until I have done that mitzvah. If the Heavenly Court wishes to hear my complaint, then I am prepared to tell them, but only here, in this place.

The messenger brought his words before the Throne of Glory and it was decided to grant him his request. He began, ‘Master of the Universe, You know how great the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyeem—redeeming those who have been taken captive. Because of its primacy, You yourself have fulfilled it—and not by means of an angel or by any messenger. For when the Children of Israel were captive in Egypt, and Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let them out from the house of slavery, You Yourself, in all of Your glory, went down to redeem them.  And I have sought to hold fast to Your qualities, as our rabbis, of blessed memory, have taught in explaining the verse: “This is my God and I shall glorify Him” [Exod. 15:2]. They asked, ‘How shall a man glorify God?’ He replied, “By following His ways:  Just as He is merciful, so should we be merciful; just as He redeems captives, so should we do likewise” [Shabbat 133b].

I have labored hard in this mitzvah all my days; I have never distinguished between the wicked captives and the righteous ones, between those that obeyed the Lord’s commandments and those that didn’t. All of them were equally beloved to me, and whenever I learned where they were and who held them captive, I tried to redeem them, for there was no peace in my heart until I succeeded in freeing them. Such is our lot in the World of Vanity. But lo! I entered the World of Truth, here too, I found many captives. Therefore I wish to fulfill this mitzvah, which depends upon neither place nor time.

And if You say that the mitzvot are given to us only in the World of Vanity so that we might purify our lives and the lives of those around us, but in the World of Truth those who are righteous return to the original state of man’s perfection and we are no longer required to fulfill the mitzvot, then by life I say NO! I will not stir from this place until I shall fulfill this mitzvah here, for, behold, it was well known to You that I was never like the servants who served their master only in order to receive a reward. To the contrary, so dear are Your commandments to me that I have done them no matter what the place or time or penalty might be. If it is possible for me to bring these miserable captives out unto freedom let me do so; if not, it were better to remain with them in the fires of Gehinnom [Hell] and suffer with them than with the Tsadikkim [saints] and bask in the light of the Shekhinah![1]

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak concludes his remarkable story by telling his listeners that Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib actually won his case, and was allowed to redeem the same number of people he had redeemed while he was alive in this world. He concludes his story with:

“Happy are the righteous who bear blessings and work kindness (hesed) in this world and in the World to Come, who turn Heaven’s decrees of justice to mercy, and redeem not only themselves but others, too, not only in their lifetime but even in their death. May their merits be a protecting shield for us and all Israel forever.  Amen.[2]

[1] Samuel Dressner, The World of A Hasidic Master ‑ Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, (New York:  Shapolsky Press), 56‑58.

[2] Ibid., 58.