A story for Sukkot I | Adath Israel

This is a story about a Rebbe who became famous, but he didn’t really want the fame. He was fine being a complete unknown disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. His name was Reb Pinchas of Koretz. All that Reb Pinchas ever wanted to do was to study, pray and meditate – alone.

But then, the word began to spread, no one knew exactly how, that Reb Pinchas was very, very special. People began to visit him on a regular basis, wanting his guidance, begging for his support, asking for his prayers and his blessings.

Wherever he went, he was surrounded. He would walk to the synagogue early on Shabbat only to have three or four students ask him a question on the way. As he sat in the synagogue praying, children would come and sit in his lap. When he rose to teach, the community showed up en masse. And when he went home, there were a dozen women with a dozen kugels, waiting for him. “Taste this kugel, Rebbe, and give me your blessing!”

What could he do? He carefully tasted all twelve kugels, and dutifully pronounced twelve blessings: “May your life and the lives of your children be as sweet as this wonderful kugel!”

On holidays, even more people came, especially on Sukkot. Sukkot is called zman simchateinu, the season of our joy. They said: If you haven’t celebrated in the Sukkah of Reb Pinchas, you don’t know true joy! So many people, students, children, housewives, followers!

But despite all this, Reb Pinchas was bothered. He wanted to pray, study meditate and maybe even write a great book. But how? He had no time! He was always taking care of someone, answering someone’s question, offering someone a blessing. He was always being the Rebbe. When could he sit alone?

As time went on, this bothered Reb Pinchas more and more. He needed more privacy and less distraction, but how could he turn away all these people who genuinely felt that he could help them? How could he convince them to go elsewhere, to others more willing and qualified than he?

So one Yom Kippur, Reb Pinchas made a request from the Holy One: “Take all these people away from me! Day and night they pester me. Day and night, I listen to their needs. Give me quiet! Give me peace to sit and meditate, and pray and study! Let no one bother me!”

“A tzaddik decrees and Heaven agrees,” – so God heard the prayer, and said “OK.”

When Yom Kippur was over and the shofar sounded, no one invited Reb Pinchas to break the fast. Not only that, one could tell that he was met with averted heads and a chilly atmosphere. There were no crowds of people, no platters of food, no plates of treats to fill Reb Pinchas’ home after Yom Kippur. Instead, Reb Pinchas walked home alone and for the first time in years broke his Yom Kippur fast alone with his wife.

It was the best night of his life, he thought. He was able to meditate and study without being interrupted.

But the next morning, everyone in the town was busy putting up their sukkot for the coming holiday. Reb Pinchas waited for the men of the town to come with their tools and put up his sukkah. But no one came. A second day passed, and then a third. No one showed up.

Not being handy in these matters, the Rebbe didn’t know what to do. Finally, having no choice, he was forced to hire a non-Jew to build the sukkah for him. But the hired man did not possess the tools that were needed, and Reb Pinchas could not get a single neighbor to lend him tools because they disliked him so much. In the end, his wife had to go to borrow them, and even that was difficult because no one liked her husband. With just a few hours remaining until the festival, they finally managed to complete a flimsy minimal structure, ugly and crooked.

As the sun set and the Rebbetzin lit the candles, Reb Pinchas hurried off to shul. He never missed a service on holidays, and besides he didn’t want to miss the opportunity to acquire a guest for the festival meal, something so basic to Sukkot.

In those days the poor people or travelers passing through a community would stand in the back of the shul when services were over, so the townspeople could invite them to their homes. This way everyone was happy: the poor or the travelers were happy to have a warm meal and possibly even a bed, and homeowners were happy to do the mitzvah of hospitality so easily.

But not Reb Pinchas. Even those without a place to eat and desperate for an invitation to a sukkah turned him down. Eventually, everyone who needed a place and everyone who wanted a guest were satisfied, except for Reb Pinchas.

And so the first night of Sukkot arrived, and Reb Pinchas sat in his sukkah, alone with his wife. No one came to celebrate. No one brought treats. No children, no laughter, no song. It was quiet. And Reb Pinchas thought to himself: this is the price of freedom. It is worth it. Right?”

But then came the moment of inviting the Ushpizin, the Holy Guests of Sukkot. And Reb Pinchas was such a great rebbe that he was actually able to see them, their shining presence right there. So he began his meditations to receive the Holy Guests.

But this year, when he opened his eyes and he saw all of them – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David — they would not come into the Reb Pinchas’s sukkah. All of them were standing outside the door of the sukkah, keeping their distance.

Reb Pinchas cried out: “Abraham our Father! Why don’t you enter my sukkah?”

And Abraham said: “How could I? Your sukkah has no guests. I am the embodiment serving God through loving-kindness. Hospitality was my specialty. I will not join a table where there are no guests. In your sukkah my people are not welcome. how could any of us come in?”

Reb Pinchas began to cry. He threw himself down on the ground and wept and prayed aloud.

“I am sorry. I have made a terrible mistake. Bring me back my people. Bring me back my students. Let them come and fill my life again. Please accept my prayer.”

God heard the prayer, and asked Reb Pinchas, “Is that what you really want? You know they will bother and pester you until the day you die, and you might never write a book. You might never have time alone.”

“Yes!” responded Reb Pinchas, “Let them come and bother me, pester me all they’d like! Let them come and fill my life with all their needs! They are my blessing! Just bring them back to me… I need them.”

“A tzaddik decrees and Heaven agrees,” – so God heard the prayer, and said “OK.”

Before Reb Pinchas could even pick himself up, there was knocking at the door of the house. The whole town came to Reb Pinchas’ sukkah. They came to his crooked, ugly sukkah. They brought platters and plate of treats for the feast. They brought learning. They brought questions. They brought laughter and song. They brought life.

And Reb Pinchas enjoyed every minute. Every question, every request for a prayer or a blessing, every child’s song brought him joy. He enjoyed that Sukkot holiday more than all the others put together. And the next year, he enjoyed Sukkot even more.

At the end of the day, Reb Pinchas never did write a great book. We don’t know if he was ever able to meditate again, or pray alone, or serve God in loneliness as before. But he is remembered forever for his joy. They still say: If you haven’t celebrated Sukkot in the sukkah of Reb Pinchas, you don’t know true joy!

This is a story for all of us who are tired emails and texts and calls. Tired of friends who ask for our time, coworkers needing to vent, family demands that are unending. May we all remember that serving people and loving them are ways of serving God and loving God. And in the process, may we accept being loved by them as well.