Rabbi Yosi and the student from Great Snoring (based on Bereshit Rabbah 34:15, read the original by clicking here)
Rabbi Yosi was an excellent teacher. There was no child he could not inspire. No child he could not make love the Torah. No child he could not make see the greatness of the Jewish tradition and instill pride and desire to learn more. No child that is, until Natan came along.
Natan was the worse student in the academy. His mind seemed coated in a fact-repellant oil. He wasn’t a bad kid, he was quiet and compliant. But he had no friends, and simply wasn’t there. He was always looking through the window. The other teachers in the academy had tried their best, but with no success whatsoever.
Rabbi Yosi was patient. He explained the same verse once, twice, three times, ten times. Nothing. Natan simply couldn’t absorb anything.
Rabbi Yosi asked: “Natan, why can’t you learn? Why do you look at the window so much? Where are you from?
Natan answered: “Me? Rabbi, I’m from Great Snoring. I miss it deeply and can’t think of anything but how much I’m not from here”
Rabbi Yosi contained his desire to laugh. Great Snoring was like Chelm, you know, the place where people make jokes about. They said that it was so far away that you would grow old before reaching it. They said it was so hot that even the camels couldn’t stand it. They said it was so dry that they marked Great Snoring with a mount of sand on the map. They said that in Great Snoring you had to speak with your mouth closed so that the flies wouldn’t get in. And that, of course, even the babies snored in Great Snoring.
“Oh”, said Rabbi Yosi, “tell me, why do you like Great Snoring so much?”
“Great Snoring is the grandest of places! It is warm and sandy. I never need to wear so many layers as I do here! The dorm is so cold and damp. Great Snoring is warm. People there care for each other and help each other in the dry season. My people are smart too! They even figured out that if you smear the heads of the newborns with paste of dried red figs, the flies don’t bother the newborns. Here, when others talk to me, it is just to make jokes about my town. There I had real friends. Here, everyone is buzzing talking about each other, there the only buzzing was the flies.”
This was more than Natan had said in the entire year. So Rabbi Yosi started asking Natan, every day, for stories about Great Snoring, and did he have stories! And bit by bit Natan began improving. He stopped looking at the window so much, and even made a few friends. And that is how rabbi Yosi said: “Blessed is the One who makes any place be loved by those born there.”
Natan became a good student. Eventually he returned to Great Snoring and became a teacher himself. And he never forgot Rabbi Yosi.
As I read the Torah text, I’d ask you to pay attention to verses 8:5 to 8:15 [click here], which bring the birds that Noach sends out, just before coming out of the ark. What do you make of which birds are sent, and how the text describes them? If they are symbols, what do they symbolize?
How do you understand the end of Noach?
So let’s just pay attention to the fact that the distinction between the dove and the raven could not be greater. The raven is always black – with the exception of albinism – and the dove is multicolor, in most people’s minds it is white. What the Western tradition does with the image of the dove coming back with a leaf branch is amazing – it becomes almost a universal symbol of peace. In the text it is not so clear that that is the case. The raven, thanks to Edgar Alan Poe, becomes a symbol for all that is mysterious and spooky. In the text this is also not clear.
What is pretty clear is that the raven merits just one verse:
וַיְשַׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־הָֽעֹרֵ֑ב Noach sends the raven and it goes back and forth until the waters dry up.
Now if you read the Hebrew carefully, regarding the dove there is an added word: וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מֵאִתּ֑וֹ
He sent the dove from himself, me-ito. And there is more, there is a mission given to the dove: to see whether the water had decreased from the earth. And then we have a much longer description of a relationship, really: the dove goes back and forth, since it can’t find a resting place. So Noach waits another 7 days, and sends the dove again. And the dove brings the famous olive branch. And the text is very clear, repeating on both occasions a word that does not get translated: elav, the dove returns to him. And Noach waits yet another seven days, sends the dove again, and when the dove does not come back, and Noach knows it is time for himself to look – and the ground is drying. But he waits another month and 27 days inside, until God tells Noach to get out.
I find quite interesting that Noach is so scared that he does not really want to look. Then I think we can understand a bit this sending of the raven and then the dove. The raven, apparently, is going back and forth on its own, while the dove needs to be sent out every time.
Jewish tradition does not take kindly to the raven. The raven is not a kosher species, and so the rabbis in the Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 108b will judge it in relation to the dove: kosher birds want to stay with the tzadikim, the righteous, and that is why the dove needs to be sent every time. The raven, on the other hand, is the one species that does not accept the ban on reproduction in the ark, according to that same piece in the Talmud. And how do we know there was a ban? Because when they get in Noach family is separated by gender, and when they get out they are not.
The raven is the only one that reproduces in the ark, according to the rabbis. If you are going to count every instance of how long the ordeal of the flood took, you might be surprised: the total time Noach spends in there sums 444 days. And this is without Netflix, internet and cellphones. So the raven opposes the reproduction ban, and again according to the rabbis in Sanhedrin accuses Noach of wanting Mrs. Raven for himself.
Many species of doves are monogamous. But all species of ravens and corvids are monogamous as well [click here to know more], and will defend their mate no matter the cost. In that sense we can understand the worry – and even jealousy – of the raven.
So let’s go back to the question of symbols: the dove represents repentance, teshuvah, hope, goodness, calm love and peace. It is the symbol of repentance due to the Book of Yonah, which we read on Yom Kippur, and also because of its flight, that goes up and down. No wonder Noach want it back to him every time.
Imagine that the raven is up for grabs, despite Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, which clouds a lot of American sensitivities towards this very intelligent animal [click here to see what ravens are capable of! And here too].
The Chasidic master Itzchak Leyner of Itzbicza, or Mei HaShiloach, affirms that the raven is the symbol of anger. He understands that Noach sends out the raven as a symbol of sending out the anger from the remaining existence. The idea is that the world had gone through a purification process, and that Noach understood that anger and violence were the causes of the destruction. The raven, as a symbol of anger, is sent out. But it does not disappear, it comes back and forth.
The Mei HaShiloach believes that this is because anger is still needed in the world. When an individual feels the desire to do something wrong, he says, that person can get angry at herself or himself, and then put the desire away, conquering that impulse. Anger, the Mei haShiloach says, can be very useful.
It is in that usefulness that the raven shows up in another story. The main character that is going to be helped by a raven is the prophet Elijah, beloved of the seder table and the brit milah. You might not know this, but Queen Jezebel wanted to kill Elijah the prophet, and so he hides in a cave. Ravens bring bread to him. And that is the other symbol of the raven – the raven, according to a midrash, knew that God needed it for this much more important errand, and so wanted to be ready. So ravens can be the symbol of readiness, preparedness, the desire of being consequential in the world.
Anger, in that sense, is a hint to our base desires – just like the raven. Because of our desire to be consequential, to live meaningful lives, is also important. Anger can get out of control, and Noach himself experiences that at the end of his story.
The end of Noach is painful to watch. He drinks himself to stupor. If you understand Noach as a survivor of trauma, it is not so surprising that he drinks to forget. He and his family have been inside the ark for so long that Noach has to send the birds first – he cannot bear to look for himself at the destruction, which he probably imagines is great. And he refuses to get out of the ark. God has to call him out. And even when he is out, just imagine what he saw. Sure, most flesh was decomposed after 444 days in water, but the bones are certainly still there. Just imagine the vision.
It is with no surprise that he becomes drunk. Survivors of trauma that did not do the work to transcend and conquer the scars of trauma are in a very likely to become drug and alcohol abusers. And I want to say that his son, that does something to his father of obviously sexual nature, is also reacting as survivors of trauma might – not using alcohol or drugs to dull the pain, but using sex instead. And the end, in which Noach curses his own grandchild, not even the son who did the thing to him, but his own grandson, shows to us how destructive anger can become and spill out through generations, perpetuating the cycle of trauma.
So part of the sending of the raven, which is Noach’s desire for a world without anger, according to the Mei Hashiloach, is beautiful – but Noach did not send anger away from himself. He did not work on his own trauma, and so becomes a victim of it.
And so here is the lesson I see in this story this week: it is not enough to want to make the world a better place. We have to make ourselves better people too. It is not enough to want to send anger away from the world, we have to work on our anger as well. Then maybe we will be able to both become better people and make this world a better place, and not become victims of it.
The portion of this week, Noach, carries a hint about prayer:
“make an ark for yourself” (Genesis 6:14) – which is understood as make a word for yourself. In Hebrew, TEIVAH is both “word” and “ark”. How we construct our words is then a quest of everyone – what do you say to people, how we say those words, what we say to God and how we pray.
Reb Naftali of Ropshitz met a watchman making his rounds and asked him, “For whom are you working?” After answering, the man turned to the rabbi and inquired, “And you, for whom are you working?” The Ropshitzer was thunderstruck. He walked alongside the man for a bit and then asked him, “Will you work for me?” “Yes,” the man responded, “I should like to, but what would be my duties?” “To remind me,” responded Reb Naphtali, “to remind me.”
~ the question contained in this story is: how do you remind yourself to be connected to God? What will you do?
A Little Milk
Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz walked into his kitchen one morning before prayers, and complained to the womenfolk who were busy there:” “For all my efforts don’t I deserve a little bit of milk?”
At that time Reb Asher, his son-in-law, had not yet learned to plumb the profundity of the rebbe’s words, and it bothered him that his father-in-law should become so irritated with other people. “This is no way to talk to people in the house! I’ll have to rebuke him about this” he thought to himself.
Just at that moment a woman came along to the tzaddik and sobbed out her plaint: “Rebbe, please help me, I haven’t enough milk with which to nurse my twin babies!”
“Go back to your home, my good woman,” he answered, “and the Almighty will help you.” And he gave her a blessing and comforting words.
Reb Asher was distracted from the little incident, and forgot the idea of rebuke.
A few weeks later Rabbi Naftali entered the kitchen, slammed the table and screamed another angry complaint: “So I’m already given a bit of milk, it’s all watery. Haven’t I earned some good nourishing milk for all my work?”
“This time,” thought Reb Asher, “I will not keep silent. In fact I will rebuke him twice, a holy man like himself losing his temper over such trifles!”
Again his thoughts were interrupted by the bitter weeping of the same woman, who had just entered.
“Rebbe!” she cried to Rabbi Naftali. “Thank God I now have milk to give my little ones – but it’s like water, and the babies are as skinny as sticks! Won’t you pray and ask the Holy One to bless me with good milk?”
“My good woman,” said the tzaddik, “return home to your babies. God will help you and you will have good milk.” And he gave her a blessing and comforting words.
A few weeks later, the twins, strong and healthy, were the happiness of the neighborhood. And Reb Asher began to understand how reb Naftali worked, and Reb Naftali’s relationship to God: a Friend.
~ This story asks us not to judge others harshly, and to remember that prayer is about others – relieving them of suffering and pain, offering a hand when we’re able and a blessing if we’re capable.
Rabbi Naftali of Rofshitz (1760-1827) became known for his sharp wit and humor and his elusive shining aphorisms. Some of his teachings are collected in his works, Zera Kodesh, Ayalah Sheluchah, and Imrei Shefer. Many stories about him appear in the book, Ohel Naftali.
The last three gifts
When God sent Adam and Chava from the garden, God gave them three gifts.
The first one, as you probably know, was clothes. The Torah text says:
And the LORD God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them. (3:21)
It took them a little to see the second gift.
They were now o
utside the garden. They were afraid. According to the midrash, they had five children with them: Kayin and his twin sister, and Hevel and his two twin sisters <you can read this midrash by clicking here>.
They were afraid for the first time. They had never experienced fear in the garden. They were sad for the first time. They had never experienced sadness in the garden. They were anxious for the first time. They had never experienced anxiety in the garden. With all those feelings swirling around and inside them, they felt terribly alone and confused, too. They also felt guilty. It was such an oppressive amount of negative feelings, and the only thing they could do was to
hug each other and cry together. It was the first time they cried, too.
And suddenly, they felt better. A little lighter. That’s when they learned of the second gift – the power of tears. After the tears, they held their hands together and began walking away from the only home they had known so far, the garden.
And as they looked back, they saw the third gift, even though it would take them a very long time to comprehend that it was a gift. They saw the tree of life – if you remember, they had only taken from the tree of knowledge, but the tree of life was left untouched. God did not want them to take the fruit from the tree of life because that would mean they could live forever. Notice – they were going to die inside the garden, they just didn’t know it.
So God had decided that the best way to prevent this was to put angels guarding the tree and the way back:
the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen. 3:24)
Now imagine what Adam and Chava and their children saw: a tree with fire all around, and not being burnt.
And so I ask you – what do we call the tree of life? What is the Etz Chayim? It’s Torah. You know who saw that entrance again, many generations later? Moshe.
What did Moshe see? He saw a tree, with fire all around, not being consumed. And he did understand how fabulous that vision was.
And this was God’s last parting gift: the entrance of the garden is still there, the signpost for it is our Torah, and the more we study and learn, the more we follow the mitzvot, the greater is the fire within, burning with love for God and the garden. And that is how we make our way back, every day.
The Etrog by S. Y. Agnon, adapted
[By clicking on the links you will see the original story by Agnon and other interesting things]
If you want to know how precious the mitzvah of Etrog is to the Jewish people you just need to go to Meah Shearim before Sukkot. That neighborhood, which is like a withered plant all year long, becomes pleasure garden, with stores full of etrogs, lulavs, and hadasim. Jews from all over Jerusalem crowd into those stores, inspecting the etrogs, lulavs, and hadasim, or sharing learned insights about them.
Shmuel went to purchase an etrog for himself, since you know, the worse thing in the world is a stolen etrog. It has to be yours, even if a richer friend wants to lend it to you, they need to give it as a gift. And then, of course, you gift it back to them. The worse thing in the world is a stolen etrog – because from that mitzvah you acquire riches without end, mostly they say, a son. And so Shmuel pushed his way into the shop of a seller of old books, who abandons book selling during the month or so before Sukkot in order to sell etrogs.
The shop is full of customers, and the book seller, who had become an etrogger (that is, a seller of etrogs), was busy with his merchandise. Very, very busy. He leaped from corner to corner, from shelf to shelf, pulling one etrog out of its wrapping while wrapping another etrog back up.
If a person should say, “There’s a wrinkle in this here etrog,” the book seller transformed into an etrog seller is quick to remind the buyer that this wrinkle is to the praise of the etrog, for the fruit that Eve ate in the Garden of Eden was none other than an etrog, and her teeth marks remain on the fruit in the shape of this wrinkle.
On seeing that the shop was packed, and the storekeeper preoccupied, Shmuel decided to leave. He pulled him back and said, “Wait a moment and I’ll give you an etrog that blesses those who bless on it.” He abandoned all his other customers, jumped about while presenting me with two or three etrogs; about each he asked, “Were you looking for one like this? Is this the one you desire?” Shmuel hadn’t a chance to examine them before he presented a fourth, fifth, and sixth etrog, and then the etrog seller moved to another customer. And despite the differences among the etrogs—in size, quality, and beauty—the storekeeper’s mouth had the same word of praise for each. When Shmuel finally made up his mind – so many choices! – he heard the price and set that etrog aside, to find one, well, more within his budget. You know, in Sukkot we have many other mitzvot, and none of them are free. But then the storekeeper smiled and said, “Rabban Gamliel purchased an etrog for one thousand zuz, and the sages did not even specify whether it was beautiful or not, and you set aside the choicest of etrogs on account of a few dollars?”
In a corner of the shop, away from all the other customers, stood an old man inspecting the etrogs in one of the boxes. Sometimes a person can stand in the thick of a crowd, and only one other person draws attention. This is what happened to Shmuel with that old man at that time.
When he selected an etrog he asked the storekeeper what it cost. He told him the price. Setting the etrog aside, the old man said, “That much money I do not have. Give me one cheaper than this.” The storekeeper said, “Rabbi, if you want a kosher etrog you have to pay such-and-such a price, just as Rabbi Ploni and Gabbai Almoni paid for theirs. Do you know, rabbi, how much they paid?” At that point the storekeeper named an outrageous price, while looking at the etrog and declaring it to be the very embodiment of the Torah’s ideal of beauty, strictly kosher according to all opinions. The old man replied, “Even the money, with which one purchases the etrog, must also be kosher. There is nothing worse than a stolen etrog.” Without saying another word, the store-keeper sidled up to Shmuel and asked: “Have you found one yet?”
“That man you called ‘Rabbi’—who is he?”, asked Shmuel. The storekeeper whispered, “Why, that’s the Rabbi of Teplik. I’m surprised you don’t know him. All of Jerusalem says he’s a true genius.” I told the shopkeeper, “I’ve heard his name but have never seen him face-to-face until now.”
What had Shmuel heard of him? He was a genius, very pious, but above all the rabbi of Teplik was renowned for his charitable works with the poor. The rabbi struggles with those hard-hearted and uncharitable, making them give tzedakah even when they don’t really want. The rabbi also deals with those appointed to administer the funds that are supposed to go to the poor. On account of the mitzvah of tzedakah he thinks nothing of his own honor, nor of the trouble he exerts on behalf of the needy. There are rabbis who are praised for their Torah knowledge, for their piety, their cleverness, or worldly knowledge — the rabbi of Teplik also had all these things. He was worthy to be crowned with gold and reside in splendor, but he lived in a poor neighborhood, in a small apartment, in worn-out garments, like most of the folks in Jerusalem who do not possess enough money to purchase fancy clothes. Most of his salary earned from the rabbinate was distributed to orphans and widows.
The rabbi of Teplik finally found a kosher etrog that was within his budget. He took out his wallet and paid the storekeeper. From the way he opened the wallet and counted out the money, it was clear he didn’t have much to spare.
Shmuel, too, found an etrog. He ended up splurging on that etrog, its price having been driven up by the competition for a beautiful etrog. Weary and worn, Shmuel left the etrog shop. The day before had been Yom Kippur, and despite the fact that he had spent 26 hours or more fasting and praying barefoot he hadn’t felt tired — not in body neither in spirit, but he had felt a great joy. But in those three or four hours spent in the pursuit of a kosher etrog, there was no joy and all the haggling over prices, even when it involves a mitzvah, brings one to exhaustion.
Shmuel had always been troubled by this: Mitzvot that are given to the whole of the Jewish people should be affordable to all Jews, yet some mitzvot are within reach of the rich but not the poor. Yet Torah and mitzvot were given to all Jews.
While Shmuel was still thinking about this, a certain fellow approached him, “You should wish me Mazal Tov — my wife, she should live and be well, gave birth to a son.” After Shmuel had finished with all the possible blessings for the father and the mother and the son, he asked when the brit milah would take place. He told Shmuel, “On the first day of Sukkot, following the services at the small shul of my neighborhood.”
So on the first day of Sukkot Shmuel rose extra early, washed his hands and face, entered his sukkah, recited the blessing over the lulav and etrog, had some coffee, took his tallit, his siddur, and his lulav and etrog, and headed off for the little shul of that man making a brit for his son. He rose early because of the honking of the cars, truth be told. But he set on his way.
It was a nice day, neither too hot nor too chilly. The sukkot and the lulavs he saw in his way perfumed the air of his journey. After a bit more than an hour walk he arrived in the neighborhood where the brit would take place.
That neighborhood was quite impoverished, with neither nice homes nor maintained streets, gardens, or orchards to please the eye. Yet it was quiet. No cars at all, and from a few sukkot could be heard the sound of Torah study. Out of love for the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah, some of the people sat learning Torah outside. The sukkot, with their leafy green roofs, made the neighborhood look like a beautiful garden, while etrogs and hadasim gave off a pleasant fragrance, and the decorated cloth sukkah walls added beauty to the scene.
Shmuel entered the little shul, set his lulav down on the windowsill, took a book from the shelf, and sat down to learn. The shul was empty but for one old man, who stood bent over at the bookcase looking at a book. After a moment old man returned the book to its place and began pacing about like one troubled by a difficult matter.
As he was pacing he passed the windowsill where Shmuel’s lulav and etrog rested. He looked and asked permission to see the etrog. Upon examining it he declared, “Kosher, kosher.”
Shmuel then remembered who the old man was. It was the rabbi of Teplik! Shmuel also remembered what he had said about the officials who waste communal funds to acquire beautiful etrogs for themselves. His exact words were: “Even the money used to buy the etrog needs to be kosher, that is, ‘kosher money’ is more important than adding to the beauty of the mitzvah. There is nothing worse than a stolen etrog.”
While Shmuel was thinking about the meaning of those words, the rabbi of Teplik said to him: “I would like to perform the mitzvah with your etrog.” Shmuel said to him, “It is given to you as a gift.” After he recited the blessing, the rabbi also gave the etrog back, as a gift.
Shmuel then asked: “Rabbi, where is your etrog? You bought a lovely etrog, and with kosher money too, I saw when purchased it.”
He gazed at Shmuel with large and lovely eyes, in which you could see wisdom and innocence, and he said, “You were there when I bought my etrog? Indeed, a kosher etrog it was, but something happened to it. But why are you standing?” Shmuel said to him, “If the rabbi doesn’t sit, I don’t sit either.” He said, “I am used to standing, but so that you need not stand, I will sit.”
The rabbi sat, Shmuel sat, and the rabbi told the story: “In my neighborhood there resides a certain baal-ha-bait, a certain houseowner. A tough, angry, irritable man, but careful about mitzvot. He bought an etrog for at least 80 dollars, maybe more. He bragged about it in front of his neighbors, that there was none finer. I’m not sure how beautiful it really was, but there’s no one in this neighborhood who can afford to buy an etrog for 80 dollars. This morning I heard a sound of crying coming from his house. I told my wife ‘I hear the neighbor’s child crying, go see why she is crying, please.’ My wife returned and said: ‘The girl was playing with the etrog her stepfather bought for eighty dollars, the etrog fell from her hand, broke its pitom and became invalid for the mitzvah. Her mother smacked her. That poor woman knows what’s in store for her from her husband on account of her daughter from her first marriage.’ I asked my wife: ‘Where is he now?’ She said: ‘He ran to the mikveh to immerse prior to taking the lulav. If he’s come out of the mikveh, he must be sitting in the sukkah of the Rebbe of Zvhil, to watch and learn as he waves the lulav, for his waving is like that of his father, who received the tradition from his father, and his father from his father back to the Maggid.’ I then ran and took my etrog to the girl and said to her: ‘Don’t cry. Here is my etrog, give it to your mother. If your father asks, have your mother tell him: The rabbi was here and saw that your etrog was not kosher. To enable you to perform the mitzvah properly, he gave you his etrog as an unconditional gift.’ It was because of that trouble that I didn’t have time to recite the blessing on my own etrog.”
The rabbi added, “You know, there’s nothing worse than a stolen etrog. The etrog must be kosher, but the money that purchases the etrog must be kosher also!”
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.
This is a poem of all the laws of Sukkot, Dr. Seuss style! If you have any doubts, check the footnotes.
1. Maimonides (RaMBaM) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sukkah, Chapter 4, Section 1. The minimum height of a Sukkah is 10 tefachim. A tefach is a measure of the width of the four fingers of one’s hand. My hand is 3 1/4 inches wide for a minimum Sukkah height of 32 1/2 inches. The minimum allowable width is 7 tepachim by 7 tepachim. This would result in a Sukkah of 22 3/4 inches by 22 3/4 inches.
2. The maximum height is 20 Amot. An Amah is the length from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. My Amah is 15 1/2 inches for a maximum height of 25 feet. Others say that 30 feet is the maximum.
3. According to RaMBaM the Sukkah can be built to a width of several miles. Shulchan Aruch also says there is no limit on the size of the width.
4. RaMBaM Hilchot Sukkah Chapter 4, Section 6.
5. RaMBaM Hilchot Sukkah Chapter 4, Section 11. RaMBaM states that one may construct a Sukkah by wedging poles in the four corners of the roof and suspending scakh from the poles. The walls of the building underneath are considered to reach upward to the edge of the scakh.
6. RaMBaM Hilchot Sukkah Chapter 4, Section 8-10 discusses the ins and outs of building your Sukkah in an alley or passageway
7. There is a location referred to in the Talmud called Ashtarot Karnayim. According to the discussion there are two hills, with a valley in between where the Sun does not reach. Talmud Bavli, Sukkot 2a. The halacha is that you can build your Sukkah in Ashtarot Karnayim, or other places where the sun does not reach the Sukkah because of artificial impediments, provided that if the impediment were removed, shade from the sun would now come through the scakh.
8. RaMBaM Hilchot Sukkah Chapter 4, Section 6. You can go into a Sukkah built on a wagon or a ship even on Yom Tov.
9. RaMBaM Hilchot Sukkah Chapter 4, Section 6. OK, RaMBaM says a camel but dragon rhymes with wagon a lot better, don’t you agree. Anyway, RaMBaM says you can build your Sukkah on a wagon or in the crown of a tree, but you can’t go into it on Yom Tov. There is a general rule against riding a beast or ascending into the crown of a tree on Yom Tov.
10. Chapter 5 deals with the rules for the skhakh. Basically, you can use that which has grown from the ground, and is completely detached from the ground. So, for example, you cannot bend the branches of a tree over the Sukkah to form the skhakh. But you can cut the branches from a tree and use them as skhakh.
11. This would be a violation of the rule cited in the prior footnote.
12. Shulchan Aruch, Hilchot Sukkah, Perek 636, Section 1 The Sukkah should not be built sooner than 30 days before the Hag. However, if the structure is built prior to 30 days, as long as something new is added within the 30 days, the Sukkah is kosher.
13. Of course it’s a well known rule that you must sit in the shade from the roof of the Sukkah and not in the shade that may be cast by the walls. It seems that this might affect the height of the walls, depending on the longitude of the location where you are building your Sukkah.
14. Traditionally, women, servants and minors are patur (exempt) from the Mitzvah of Sukkah. In our day we hope we know better than to read out half the Jewish people from the observance of Mitzvot. Of course, that’s just a personal opinion of the author.
15. RaMBaM ibid Chapter 6, Section 6 explains that you should eat, drink and live in the Sukkah for the 7 days as you live in your own home. One should not even take a nap outside of the Sukkah.
16. RaMBaM ibid, Section 10 If it rains one should go into the house. How does one know if it is raining hard enough? If sufficient raindrops fall through the skhakh and into the food so that the food is spoiled – go inside!
Credits: Rules of the Sukkah by Rabbi Arthur E. Gould
Main idea: teshuvah is a dual process, looking inward and outward; getting rid of the things we detest
Franz Kafka has a two-sentence short story. It goes like this:
“One day, a leopard stalked into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail. Three weeks later, it had become part of the liturgy.” The story tells the tragic tale – the lashing, roaring tale – of all organized religion, not just Judaism. It is the tale of how we cage revelation into a recitation, and think we have done our job, that we are religious people. Even when we practice we do it by rote, taking our heart out of it. The leopard is locked into the cage of liturgy.
I say this to prepare ourselves. In a moment, Isaiah will be speaking moved by God’s command: raise your voice like a shofar, shout the transgression of My people and their sin!
Isaiah’s words are the leopard.
And Isaiah has crashed into our fast, at this very moment in our fast, when our stomachs actually growl with hunger and our mouths begin feeling dry, when we feel faint and have headaches of caffeine withdraw, Isaiah tells us that focusing on our hunger, our thirst and our headache is completely and absolutely missing the point.
Who are we kidding, asks Isaiah, by pretending that we are a nation that does what is right, by pretending we have not abandoned the ways of justice, given by God? That we should stand here, at this moment, and say to God: look at me! I’m fasting!
Isaiah wants to move us from our self-absorption. He sounds outraged, full of righteous indignation and sad, all at once.
Who are you kidding, the prophet asks! The fast that is desired is the fast of oppression, of greed, of indifference!
Isaiah continues: God will only answer us if we banish violence from our midst, expel the menacing hand and evil speech, give food to all hungry.
This is basic teshuvah, collectively and individually, spelled out by Isaiah, even though he does not use that word. Why should he? This is Yom Kippur, the day for teshuvah, return! Isaiah, walking into a Yom Kippur sneers at people “drooping their heads like bullrushes.” He demanded that they pay attention to the poor, to those in prison, and also to their own scrabbling for wealth.
Have we changed that much in 2,820 years?
Look at the prophet in the eyes: can you say we banished violence from our midst? Who are we kidding, we, who live in a country where every day, more than 100 people are killed with guns and 200 more are shot and wounded?
Look at the prophet in the eyes: can you say we banished evil speech from our midst? Who are we kidding, we, who live in a reality where from every screen and every speaker words demonizing others, falsehoods, lies come to meet us.
Look at the prophet in the eyes: can you say we have clothed the naked? That we fed the hungry? Who are we kidding, we, living in a country with 140 million poor and low-income people, with 38.5 million of them being children? A country in which 1.5 million public school students experienced homelessness this year alone?
Look at the prophet in the eyes: can you say we have unlocked the fetters of wickedness? Who are we kidding, we, living in a country with around 52,000 immigrants confined in jails, prisons, tents and other forms of detention – most of them for profit. 13,000 of those are children. We, who have the biggest incarcerated population in the world, around 2 million people.
Look at the prophet in the eyes: can you say we have broken the yoke of oppression? That we did not work on our holy days, and did not oppress our laborers? Who are we kidding, us, with stuff made by children in India and prisoners in China and in the US? Who are we kidding, us, living in a country where CEO compensation has grown 940% since 1978 whereas the typical worker compensation has risen only 12% during that time?
Teshuvah means return. This is not just a return of the religious type, mitzvot or good deeds, prayer or inspection of actions – but rather, it is supposed to be a return to the place we belong. The return to our home. That is why in the middle of a pandemic we are here, in a sanctuary, we crave to be back home, to feel that we are connected. The return to godliness is like the return to the foundation, to home base of who we really are. Because deep inside of you, of me, of every single human alive, there is a spark of God’s presence, begging, cajoling, nagging you to be better and to make this world better.
According to Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaczeczna rebbe, who was murdered by the Nazis, all your thoughts of teshuvah, of return, of becoming better, of making this world a better place, all of those – that is actually the voice of that spark.
Because G!d’s voice is actively asking to be revealed in this world through you. You are the revelation of G!d, if you allow that to come out.
And he goes on: even your worries, money, job, children, grandchildren, politics, the state of public education, firearm regulation, democracy: all of it, all of it is G!d’s voice begging you to let G!d’s presence come out in this world. And this is precisely because every single one of us perceives that voice through our personality and our particular traits.
Now if you heard anything else from Isaiah, you heard that we are supposed to be a light to the nations. It is a beautiful image. But we have forgotten our call. We have been mired in distractions and accumulation of stuff, completely unaware of our mission to be a light to the nations.
We have separated ourselves from the rest of humanity, even from those whom we share a house with, and have been swallowed up by our screens, our iPods, iPhones, iPads, everything making us believe it is “I” that matters and no one else. Every single one of us walks in a darkness that we ourselves have made. We bought that darkness, that despair, that disconnect.
Teshuvah means return. A life without teshuvah is not really a life, because it is a unexamined life, a unchecked life, a life lived unawares, like the life of an ant on a paper boat in the sea at night, buffeted here and there by winds and waves with nothing to guide or to save. The ant is not even aware of its complete and utter helplessness, doesn’t even know of the lack of direction.
The first step of teshuvah is to decide not to be an ant on a paper boat in the sea at night. It is to decide to be intentional about where your life is going. To examine, check and be aware. Only then you will see the sea, and maybe find yourself in a boat with a helm.
Isaiah knows of evil people. The wicked, he tells us, never rest, like the stormy sea. Haven’t we seen that this very year? It has been hard to keep track of what is the latest cruelty perpetrated, the last corruption and the last power grab, because as soon as one happens, and we turn to try to digest it, we are confronted by three more. The wicked never rest.
But Isaiah has a promise: make those changes and you will be removing the obstacles in your road, in your road to return, to teshuvah.
Teshuvah means return. It is only when we live a life of meaning, a life that sees beyond its immediate desires, a life that is devoted to the community and to the larger American and human communities, that we will be able to see our light burst amid darkness. That is true to all of us, rachok vekarov, those close by and those far away.
When we see arrogance in the news, let’s not just yell but also vow to be more humble.
When we see violence, let’s not just point fingers but also address the causes that make people feel they have nothing to lose.
When we see bullying from politicians, let’s not just get mad but also pledge to be more compassionate.
When we see corruption, let’s not just shake our heads but also apply pressure to get corruption addressed, punished and curbed.
When we see blatant lies, let’s not just shrug our shoulders but also commit ourselves to living a life that honors truth, science, reality and numbers.
When we see greed, let’s not just scream but also locate the greed in us that needs to be addressed.
When we see racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, hate, prejudice and bigotry, let’s not just protest but also work to uproot those evils within ourselves.
Because teshuvah is an inward-looking movement about ensuring we become the opposite of what we detest in the world, and also an outward-looking movement to uproot the evils we see in the world.
Heschel said: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”
This year, look the prophet in the eyes, raise your hand and say “hineni” – here I am. Make your fast meaningful. Make your prayer meaningful. Do not let the end of the day and the recitation of the words tame your leopard. Make this year, through your actions, be a good year.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah, may we all be inscribed in a good year.