As a successful merchant in adulthood, he kept up his affluent lifestyle while his natural gregariousness led to a jovial wheeling 'n' dealing attitude. Known as the wittiest leitzan among all the other leitzanim, Reb Sander once confronted a base character who came into Reb Sander's fabric factory looking to buy salt.
(Salt...in a fabric factory.)
"If you want salt," quipped Reb Sander, "then stand on the table and dance, and the salt will come out..."
[Note: I don't understand why Rav Bender brought this as an example of Reb Sander's previous low level because it doesn't seem that bad to me. Likely, there are nuances in the original Yiddish that go over my head, but this is the example used in the book, this is the example used in this post.]
Anyway, the others described Reb Sander as a flippant comedian (a leitzan, a vertlich zuger) focused on making profitable deals.
Though shomer Shabbos himself, Friday afternoons proved to be the best time for business as Reb Sander engaged in wheeling and dealing at this time, rather than preparing for the holy day -- and encouraged the other merchants to do the same.
But then what happened?
Rav Nachman Chazan* of Tultchin showed up in Reb Sander's town. (Okay, he didn't just show up; he was sent there by Rav Naftali, one of the original intimate chassidim of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.)
Anyway, Rav Nachman Chazan started speaking compelling words of Torah that captivated the hearts of the people, including Reb Sander. Though initially scheduled to stay for one week, the people there kept insisting that Rav Nachman Chazan extend his visit until he ended up speaking there for 3 weeks straight.
The people finally asked Rav Nachman Chazan, "From where do you draw all of these treasures?"
And he answered, "All of this wealth is from my great teacher Rebbe Nosson, whose holy writings are resting on the shelf, collecting dust because we don't have the funds to take them out of burial, to print and spread them among Yisrael."
At that point, Reb Sander whipped out 100 rubles and said to Rav Nachman Chazan, "Take a down payment of 100 rubles. When you begin to print, another 100 rubles will follow. When you finish, another 100 rubles will be added."
Then finally, the people allowed Rav Nachman Chazan to return home.
And this was the beginning of an awe-inspiring change in Reb Sander.
Na'afochu -- A Spiritual Somersault
He was able to maintain his new priorities even when his business associates spoke of him behind his back: "What happened to Reb Sander? Where did he go? He was our buddy, just like one of us. What happened to him...?"
When they saw Reb Sander Erev Shabbat afternoon, already dressed for Shabbat and fervently reciting Shir Hashirim in the beis hamidrash, they exclaimed to each other, "Behold, this is the best time for business! He used to be the invigorating spirit by us at this time. What happened to him...?!"
With Hashem still enabling Reb Sander to make money hand over fist, Reb Sander upended his wealth distribution in accordance with his new priorities. Impoverished Jews now received clothes and food and didn't need to worry any longer about lacking their basic necessities. He funded the building of Rebbe Nosson's new Kloiz in 5626/1866.
Despite all his physical exertions (toiveling in freezing mikveh waters & 12 hours of passionate prayer at Rebbe Nachman's graveside) and his formerly sensitive constitution, this same man now made do with just a bit of bread and a cheap Russian beverage called kavus: water flavored with beet juice.
Reb Sander started coming to Uman twice a month to pour out his soul at the kever of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, even spending 12 hours in outpouring at Rebbe Nachman's kever.
The same mouth that used to shoot out barbs and witticisms turned into the source of some of today's classic Breslov melodies, including Breslov's Yedid Nefesh and the prayer for dew.
Renewed spiritual longing so filled Reb Sander that when Rav Avraham Chazan (the son of Rav Nachman Chazan) once walked along Pushkina Street, Rav Avraham heard strange and terrible screams. Thinking that perhaps someone had fallen into the hands of a murderer, Rav Avraham tentatively hurried toward the kever to see if he could help.
But it was only Reb Sander, begging Hashem with all his might for the merit to come even closer to Him.
From Rich Man to Rich Soul
He applied his business acumen toward the poor Jews of that time, as attentive to their needs as he used to be of his own.
The barbs Reb Sander once aimed at others were now re-directed to spur himself into the spiritual activities he found particularly challenging: "Clump of dust -- throw yourself in and immerse!" he yelled at himself several times before he managed to dunk himself in the icy waters of the mikveh.
Reb Sander didn't just transfer himself from one world to another.
Using the same keilim he had inside him all along, Reb Sander revolutionized himself from within.
May we all merit a similar transformation l'tovah.
2 Examples of Unforeseeable Personality Transformation