Rav Papo's Saintly Life & Heroic Death
Both in his actions and his writings, Rav Papo invested all he could in helping the Jews of the Balkans achieve both their material and their spiritual needs.
Reading his book the Pele Yoetz or reading the prayers he composed (some of which are included in the Pele Yoetz and all of which appear in his book of prayers called Beit Tefillah), one gets the impression of a very wise and caring father, a father full of passion, concern, and hope for even his most errant child.
He yearned for his fellow Jews to fill themselves with Torah wisdom and in this way, achieve true happiness and contentment, both in This World and the Next.
The Pele Yoetz displays Rav Papo's passion to make the Jewish world a wiser, happier, kinder, and more serene world filled with emuna. To these means, he encouraged the education of both men and women, and encouraged everyone to learn Torah with whatever abilities they possessed.
Yet prior to the Sukkot of 1827, he received a devastating message from Heaven:
His community had been sentenced to suffer a horrible plague.
Many would fall ill and many would die.
Needless to say, as the plague would take its toll on the lives, finances, and well-being of the community, the initial suffering would extend on for years.
However, there was a way to cancel out this plague.
If Rav Papo would agree to take on the plague himself -- including the resulting death -- then the entire community would be spared.
Rav Papo agreed.
He suffered the plague for several weeks, knowing he'd never survive it. But Rav Papo never stopped praying to Hashem and expressing his yearning for Hashem that entire time. He kept up a stream of confessionals and supplications, although one wonders what sins could such a tzaddik possibly have to confess? (That right there is a tip for all of us.)
It was an incredible act.
Presumably, Heaven decreed the plague due to the sins of the people. And in Pele Yoetz, you discover the stumbling blocks of that generation at that time. Of course there were many good people (Sarajevo was a Torah center that produced many great Torah sages at that time) and many good deeds, but the encouragement, rebuke, and advice he gives in the Pele Yoetz also spotlights problems that are still familiar.
Some people were envious, contentious, indolent, pompous, bad-tempered, miserly, gossipy, indulged their taavot as much as their situation allowed, wasted their time in eating & drinking & hanging out, and all the rest.
Yet Rav Papo still felt they were worth dying for.
And not only did Rav Papo literally die for the sins of the people (yet no one made a god out of him), but he even sought to provide for us forevermore after his death with the promise that whoever would immerse in a mikveh and pray at his grave with a broken heart, then their prayers would be accepted before the Creator of the Universe.
Even today, Jews still make their way to the place near the Danube where Rav Papo is buried and have apparently seen miracles as a result.
Expanding the Real You
And unfortunately, many people today prefer to dismiss Sagely advice that doesn't suit their emotional level or doesn't make sense to them with ideas like "this doesn't apply to our generation" or "that's for the people who follow him, not my group" or "that's only for tzaddikim" or "you have to be on a very high level to really understand what he's saying" or "but it doesn't tell you HOW to do what it advises" and so on.
And though I'm not proud to admit it, I used to say this stuff too.
But it's mostly not true.
Rav Papo was clearly writing for everybody. He was clearly aware of the different levels on which people stood (whether a tzaddik or a Jew at the 49th gate of tumah) and he also knew what he was talking about.
Yes, it's true that some of the specifics of his advice applied only to his time, a time without electricity or indoor plumbing, a time in which some homes possessed a dirt floor. And some are culturally specific (i.e., Jews living in the 19th-Century Balkans under Muslim rule).
But the general lessons are still valid.
And yes, it's true that this generation needs to grind its mental gears to understand what he means. Even in the English translation (which I recommend), Rav Papo does not use the language or nuance we're used to. So yes, you do need to work harder to understand what he's saying, especially if you hit something that rubs you the wrong way.
(And yes, I'm speaking from personal experience.)
But who says that's bad? Why should that be an insurmountable obstacle?
If you need to ruminate over the advice of a tzaddik, if you need to turn it over in your head a million times, if you need to wrangle with it, then what's wrong with that?
On the contrary, that's exactly what both sharpens your mind and leads to increased emotional maturity.
Furthermore, the very idea that rubs you wrong or seems incomprehensible now often because helpful and clear later on as you grow.
But if you're never exposed to the idea in the first place, how will you know?
And this idea also applies to mussar works by all our tzaddikim.
Having said that, you'll also find many statements in the Pele Yoetz that are appealing and easy to understand. It depends who you are and where you're coming from.
Anyway, I just think it's good to give the old-time original mussar literature a chance as much as you can at whatever pace you can manage at whatever level you're at.
I started out very slow at a very low level, and I still feel that I benefited over time.
And I wish the same for everyone else (including myself because I still have a long ways to go and it hasn't been easy).
May Hashem open our minds & hearts to receive His Truth & Wisdom.
The Pele Yoetz in English online
The printed 2-volume set of the Pele Yoetz in English