Tzipah recently told me the following story, which she heard at the International Conference of Shluchos (Chabad emissaries). The story was told by Rabbi Shais Taub.
Rabbi Yaakov Meshulam Orenstein (d. 1839) was the rabbi of Lvov for over 30 years. Often referred to by the title of one of his works of scholarship, Yeshuos Yaakov, this is the story of how he got that prestigious position.
Before Lvov, the Yeshuos Yaakov was the rabbi in a small hamlet. One Shabbat, a question arose in the synagogue whether it was necessary to say the prayer Av Harachamim (literally, “the All-Merciful Father”). There are certain Shabbats of the year when this prayer is omitted, and the congregants were uncertain if perhaps this was one of those days. They asked the Yeshuos Yaakov, and he responded that he needs to look it up in the works of Jewish law.
The congregants were not impressed. They had previously thought that he was quite the erudite scholar, but now they weren’t so sure. In the end, they decided to fire him.
The Yeshuos Yaakov wasn’t sure what to do. Now jobless, he had no way to support his family. The town was very small and there were not many employment opportunities. The situation looked bleak.
He ultimately made his way to Lvov, and was appointed rabbi of the entire city.
A few years later, one of his former congregants visited Lvov. Not knowing that the Yeshuos Yaakov now held the prominent position of rabbi of the entire city, he attended synagogue. The custom was that after Shabbat services were over, everyone would wait in line to greet the rabbi. When it was his turn, he realized that it was his former rabbi standing in front of him!
Not one to mince words (and apparently not having been humbled by years), he said to the Yeshuos Yaakov, “It’s you?! How did you become rabbi here?!”
Hearkening back to the very reason that he was fired from his previous position, the Yeshuos Yaakov replied by quoting the name of the prayer that the congregants had questioned years ago and said, “Av Harachamim” — the All-Merciful Father.
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Perhaps a message from this story is that sometimes, a bleak situation is actually the opening to a much greater opportunity. Being turned away from a small hamlet was the Yeshuos Yaakov’s first step towards the prestigious position of chief Rabbi in the town of Lvov.