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Sukkot 5761-2000

“A Sukkot Story: Devotion to a Festival”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The famed Rabbi Shlomo Zevin, records the unusual story concerning Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810), the legendary O’heiv Yisrael, the Hassidic leader who could never find fault with another Jew.

It was only a short time before Sukkot, and in all of Berditchev there could not be found a single etrog. The Tzaddik, Reb Levi Yitzchak, and the entire congregation, were concerned how they would be able to fulfill the important mitzvah of Lulav and Etrog. They waited, but no etrog arrived in Berditchev. Finally, the Tzaddik instructed his followers to go to the closest main highway – perhaps there they would find some Jew who had an etrog. And so they found a Jew, on his way home after a long journey, who had in his possession a very beautiful etrog. But his home was not Berditchev. He lived in another city, far from Berditchev; he was only passing through on his way home.

The followers of Reb Levi Yitzchak persuaded the traveling Jew to meet with the great Tzaddik, Reb Levi Yitzchak. The great Tzaddik tried to convince the Jew to spend Sukkot in Berditchev which would result in so many Jews having the merit of properly performing the mitzvah of Lulav and Etrog, and of course, Reb Levi Yitzchak too would also have the privilege of performing the mitzvah. The Jew would not agree. After all, he was traveling home to his family, whom he hadn’t seen for so long. How could he deprive them and himself of the simcha of Yom Tov, the joy of the Sukkot holiday?

In order to further persuade the traveler, the Tzaddik, Reb Levi Yitzchak, promised the Jew wealth and great nachat (pleasure) from his children. The Jew responded that he had, thank G-d, both wealth and wonderful children, and was not in need of anything more. Finally, in desperation, Reb Levi Yitzchak told the Jew that if he would fulfill the rabbi’s request, the rabbi would promise him that after 120 years, he would spend eternity together with the rabbi, in the rabbi’s four cubits in the World to Come.

When the Jew who owned the etrog heard this incredible offer from the great Tzaddik, he immediately acceded to the Tzaddik’s request and agreed to remain in Berditchev for the Sukkot holiday. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and the entire community were delighted, and the Jew with the etrog was ecstatic.

Unbeknownst to the Jewish traveler, a secret command had been issued by the Tzaddik to all the people of Berditchev, that under no circumstances should they allow this Jew who brought the etrog to Berditchev to enter any of their sukkot during the holiday. No one knew why, but the decree of the Tzaddik, was an unalterable decree.

On the first night of Sukkot, after services, the traveling Jew returned from synagogue to the inn where he was staying, and found in his room wine for kiddush, candles, challahs, and a table covered with food. The guest was perplexed…Doesn’t the innkeeper have a sukkah? A righteous Jew like he, no sukkah? He went out to the yard and found a sukkah, beautifully built and arrayed, the owner and all the members of his household sitting around the table. The guest sought to enter, but he was not permitted. Why, why? How could this be? No response. So he went to the neighbors on the street and found them, each one in their own sukkah. He begged them to allow him to enter, to sit in their sukkah – for just a moment. No one answered. Finally, he learned that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had decreed that he should not be allowed into a single sukkah in the entire city of Berditchev.

In panic, he ran to the Tzaddik’s home. “What is this?” he cried. “What is my trespass? What is my sin?” Said the Tzaddik: “If you will nullify the promise I made to you that you would sit with me in the World to Come, I will immediately instruct my followers to allow you to enter their sukkot.” The guest was astonished – outraged – but was silent. “What can I do?” he thought to himself. “After all, is it an insignificant thing to sit together with this great Tzaddik in the World to Come? On the other hand, in my entire life I have never missed performing the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah. How can I fail now, on the first night of the holiday, to fulfill this wonderful mitzvah?” Finally, the guest came to a conclusion — in favor of the sukkah. He said to himself: “Is it possible that all of Israel will sit in a sukkah and I will eat in a house, like a non-Jew? G-d forbid!” He then renounced the promise that Tzaddik had made to him, and at the demand of Reb Levi Yitzchak, extended his hand to confirm the agreement, and proceeded to sit in a sukkah.

When the festival concluded, Reb Levi Yitzchak summoned the Jew to his home. “Now,” said the Tzaddik: “I am returning to you my promise. You see, I did this to teach you, to inform you, that I didn’t want you to merit the World to Come for no reason, as if it were a business deal or bargain. I wanted you to truly earn a place in the World to Come because you were deserving, because of your deeds, and so I caused you to be tested in the mitzvah of sukkah. Now that you have passed the test, and have shown true devotion to the sukkah, you truly deserve to be my partner in the World to Come.”

May you be blessed.