It was the day before Rosh Hashanah in Berditchev. The spirit of holiness hovered in the air. Each heart was throbbing with the thought of the imminent Yom HaDin; each mind was occupied with thoughts of repentance. The “balance sheet” of good deeds and misdeeds in the passing year did not quite tally —every one found himself “in the red.”
Too much time was wasted which could have been spent in the study of the Torah; perhaps more help should have been given to the poor —and how much of it was given from the pureness of the heart? And what about all that loose, and sometimes even mischievous, gossip? Only Hashem knows how many misdeeds, large and small, have accumulated during the year.
It’s high time to get wise… Well, Baruch Hashem for selichos. Here is a chance to pour out one’s heart to G‑d, the last opportunity to turn to Hashem with real supplication, before the year is over. And the All-Merciful One will surely understand and forgive, for the new year will most definitely be a better one…
Such were the thoughts uppermost in everybody’s mind, as the Jews of Berditchev hastily rose from their warm beds to go to the synagogue for the selichos of Zechor Bris. It was still very dark outside, for sunrise was hours away. They did not wait for the shamash to wake them up on this last day of the year.
As they hastened to the shul, the fresh autumn air drove the last vestiges of sleepiness from their eyes. They now met the shamash, going on his beat, knocking with his long staff at the dark shutters of the stragglers who had overslept, and calling out, “Arise to the service of Hashem!” And soon enough the cracks in the shutters filled with light, for no one —but no one— was going to stay in bed on this solemn morning.
The narrow streets were soon filled with old and young men, and boys of all ages. Many went to the mikvah for immersion, and came out feeling purified and inspired. There were many visitors in Berditchev, who had come to spend the Yamim Noraim in the nearness of the saintly Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. They now made their way to the Rabbe’s house, in order to accompany him to shul.
As they approached the Rebbe’s home, they saw him at the door, on his way out. They were amazed to see that he was holding a basket, from which the slim neck of a vodka bottle was sticking out invitingly. The tantalizing smell of freshly baked kichlech and fresh herring could not be ignored.
“What on earth is the Rebbe going to do with the refreshments at this hour?” they wondered, as they followed him in silence at a respectful distance. They approached the shul. The windows blazed with light, and one could see through the windows that it was already crowded with worshipers from wall to wall, waiting for the Reb Levi Yitzchok.
But the Rebbe went past the shul! The wonder of his chassidim grew with every step. “Where is the Rebbe going? Is he so engrossed in meditation that he did not notice the shul…?”
On and on Reb Levi Yitzchok strode, until almost to the outskirts of the town. He was heading for the large inn, and the chassidim were close on his heels. Now he entered the inn.
The large hall of the inn was filled with the smell of stale tobacco, and empty vodka bottles were strewn all over the place. On the floor of the dimly lit hall lay sleeping men, crowded like sardines —farmers, traders, wayfarers and beggars— many snoring in a medley of sonorous tones and whistles.
The Rebbe bent over a sleeping man, whose tzitzis were showing from under his caftan, with his skullcap hinging precariously on his head. He was a lean man, a bundle of bones held together by a pale skin which seemed ready to break at several points.
Gently, the Rebbe woke him, whispering: “Reb Yid, your throat is dry… you must have been snoring too long. Wake up and take a gulp at this schnapps! I have a chaser too… fresh herring and kichlech, a treat…!” The Jew opened his eyes wide with amazement, threw a glance at the refreshments, but recoiled in horror.
“I don’t know you, my friend, but have you no G‑d in your heart? Would I drink mashke before I’ve washed my hands? Would I eat before I have davened shacharis? You must be joking…!”
The Rebbe moved on to the next sleeping Jew. Gently he shook him by his shoulders and repeated his offer in a most enticing way, but the reply was the same. He fared no better with the third and fourth. Then the Rebbe bent over a sleeping, corpulent, country yokel.
“Ivan, do you want a schnapps and some refreshments?”
Ivan rose quickly. The word “schnapps” acted like magic. “Give it here!” he said, and he gulped down the glass of vodka in one shot. Eagerly he swallowed the piece of herring, and a kichel, which he ate with relish and licked his lips. “Thanks, pal…” he murmured, and when no more was coming, he turned over on his other side and was soon snoring merrily again.
The Rebbe moved on to the next sleeping farmer. “Stephan, do you want a drink?” The story repeated itself, and once again the Rebbe was offering refreshments to other customers, until the basket was empty.
All was quiet, as the Berditchever Rebbe lifted his eyes to heaven and said, “Master of the Universe! Look at your children! Yaakov gets up in the morning, and his first thought is of You! He would not let anything pass his lips until he has sung Your praises! But Esav’s first thought is of food and drink… “
His face beaming with satisfaction as his mission was accomplished, the Rebbe turned to his followers. “And now, let’s go to the house of Hashem. We can now face our Maker with confidence, and pray for a happy new year…!”
Excerpted from The Complete Story of Tishrei, published and copyright by Kehot Publication Society, Brooklyn NY