To illustrate a mussar concept, Rav Yerucham Levovits once related how a famous Jewish strongman, Zisha Breitbart, became so weak from illness that he could no longer even hold a pen in his hand. At the time, one writer observed, “The same hands that were once able to break metal bars now tremble from a light pen.” Rav Yerucham commented about this, “People tend to think that holding a pen is so simple and natural that no strength is needed for the task. Only extra special strength, they think, is a divine gift. In fact, the strength to hold a pen is also a divine gift, and without that gift a person would be unable to hold anything” (Daas Chochmah Umussar cited by Gateway to Happiness pg. 41).
Born in 1883 in Lodz, Poland, Breitbart was helping in his father’s blacksmith at the age of four, and writes in his autobiography how he dreamt of helping his people like the mighty Shimshon in his time:
“Once I said to my elder brother, ‘You know what? I want to be another Samson.’ My brother looked at me as if I was crazy… ‘Samson lived in the Land of Israel. There can be no Samson today… Where will you get some Phillistines?’ …That stumped me… One day I approached a very old Jew with a flowing grey beard and big eyebrows as he sat learning his Mishnah in the shul. He looked old enough to know. ‘Where can I find the Philistines who put out Samson’s eyes,’ I asked him. ‘What on earth do you need Philistines for?’ he shot back at me, his thick eyebrows quivering with laughter. ‘I need them badly,’ I answered. ‘I am the strong man, Samson, and I want to throw down their temple.’”
“’Oh, I see!’ laughed the old man. ‘So you are Samson! Well, well. Know then that there are no more Philistines in the world. G-d let them perish because they behaved wickedly to the Jews. And G-d will also punish in the same way all those nations that are harming Jews today, rest assured.’ When I heard that there were no more Philistines in the world I grew heavy hearted… Without any Philistines, how could I be Samson?’”
Instead, Breitbart eventually became a strongman, gaining the dubious distinction of becoming known as the “Strongest Man in the World” through feats such as climbing ladders while holding a baby elephant. He reached his sorrowful end while performing his strong man act of driving a spike through five one-inch boards resting on his knees. The spike pierced his knee, which led to blood poisoning and a lingering death. Thus, the strongest man in the world became Rav Yerucham’s symbol of human frailty.