Baruch Hashem

Please print these Stories before Yom Tov, so you can read them on Shabbos!

An Etrog from the Garden of Eden

It was the first day of Sukkot, and all the congregants in the shul (synagogue) of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk were in a festive mood. One could feel the "Yom-Tov" spirit in the atmosphere.

As Rabbi Elimelech stood at the lectern and began reciting Hallel, all eyes turned upon him. There was something unusual in his manner this Sukkot. Why did he stop so suddenly in the middle of his swaying as he held the etrog and lulav in his hands to sniff the air? And why did he not go through the Service in his usual leisurely manner? It was evident that something was on his mind, something rather exciting by the look on his radiant countenance.

The minute the davening (praying) was over, Rabbi Elimelech hurried to where his brother Rabbi Zusha (who had come to spend the festival with him) was standing, and said to him eagerly: "Come and help me find the etrog which is permeating the whole shul with the fragrance of the Garden of Eden!"

And so together they went from person to person until they reached the far corner of the shul where a quiet looking individual was standing, obviously engrossed in his own thoughts.

"This is the one," called out Rabbi Elimelech delightedly. "Please, dear friend, tell me who are you and where you obtained this wonderful etrog?"

The man, looking somewhat startled and bewildered at this unexpected question, replied rather slowly, carefully choosing his words:

"With all due respect to you, Rabbi, it is quite a story. Do you wish to sit down and listen to it all?"

"Most certainly I do," answered Rabbi Elimelech emphatically, "I am sure it will be a story worth hearing!"

"My name," began the quiet-looking man, "is Uri, and I come from Strelisk. I have always regarded taking the "four kinds" on Sukkot as one of my favorite mitzvot, and so, although I am a poor man and could normally not afford to buy an etrog according to my desire, my young wife, who agrees with me as to its importance, helps me by hiring herself out as cook. Thus she is independent of any financial help from me, and I can use my own earnings for spiritual matters. I am employed as melamed (teacher) in the village of Yanev, which is not far from my native town. One half of my earnings I use for our needs and with the other half I buy an etrog in Lemberg. But in order not to spend any money on the journey I usually go on foot.

"This year, during the Ten Days of Repentance, I was making my way on foot as usual, with fifty gulden in my purse with which to buy an etrog, when on the road to Lemberg I passed through a forest and stopped at a wayside inn to have a rest. It was time for 'minchah' so I stood in a corner and davened minchah.

"I was in the middle of my prayers when I heard a terrible sound of moaning and groaning, as of one in great anguish. I hurriedly finished my davening so that I could find out what was the trouble, and if I could help in any way.

"As I turned towards the man who was in obvious distress, I beheld a most unusual and rough looking person, dressed in peasant garb with a whip in his hands, pouring out his troubles to the inn-keeper at the bar.

"From the somewhat confused story, between his sobs, I managed to gather that the man with the whip was a poor Jew who earned his living as a baal agallah (owner of a horse and cart for carting purposes). He had a wife and several children and he barely managed to earn enough to make ends meet. And now, a terrible calamity had be fallen him. His horse, without which he could do nothing, had suddenly collapsed in the forest not far from the inn, and just lay there unable to get up.

"I could not bear to see the man's despair and tried to encourage him, by telling him that he must not forget that there is a G‑d above us who could help him in his trouble, however serious it seemed to him.

" 'I'll sell you another horse for fifty gulden, although I assure you he is worth at least eighty, but just to help you out in your difficulty!' " The inn-keeper was saying to the wagon driver.

" 'I haven't even fifty cents, and he tells me I can buy a horse for fifty gulden!' the man said bitterly.

"I felt I could not keep the money I had with me for an etrog when here was a man in such desperate plight that his very life and that of his family depended upon his getting a horse. So I said to the inn-keeper:

"'Tell me what is the lowest price you would take for your horse?'

"The inn-keeper turned to me in surprise. If you pay me on the spot, I will take forty-five gulden, but absolutely not a cent less. I am selling my horse at a loss as it is!'

"I immediately took out my purse and banded him forty-five gulden, the wagon driver looking on, his eyes nearly bulging out of their sockets in astonishment. He was just speechless with relief, and his joy was absolutely indescribable.

"'Now you see that the Almighty can help you, even when the situation appears to you to be entirely hopeless!' I said to him as he hurried off with the innkeeper to harness the newly-bought horse to his forsaken cart tied to the stricken horse in the forest.

"As soon as they went off, I hurriedly got my few things together and disappeared, as I did not want to be embarrassed by the thanks of the grateful wagon driver.

"I eventually reached Lemberg with the remaining five gulden in my pocket, and naturally had to content myself with buying a very ordinary looking but kosher etrog. Usually my etrog is the best in Yanev, and everyone used to come and make a blessing over it , but this year I was ashamed to return home with such a poor-looking specimen, so my wife agreed that I could come here to Lizensk, where nobody knew me."

"But my dear Rabbi Uri," cried out Rabbi Elimelech, now that the former had finished his story, "Yours is indeed an exceptional etrog. Now I realize why your etrog has the fragrance of the Garden of Eden in its perfume! Let me tell you the sequel to your story."

"When the wagon driver whom you saved thought about his unexpected good fortune, he decided that you must have been none other than the Prophet Elijah whom the Almighty had sent down to earth in the form of a man, in order to help him in his desperation. Having come to this conclusion the happy wagon driver looked for a way of expressing his gratitude to the Almighty, but the poor man knew not a Hebrew word, nor could he say any prayers. He racked his simple brain for the best way of thanksgiving.

"Suddenly his face lit up. He took his whip and lashed it into the air with all his might, crying out with all his being: 'Dear Father in Heaven, I love you very much! What can I do to convince you of my love for you? Let me crack my whip for you as a sign that I love you!' Saying which, the wagon driver cracked his whip into the air three times.

"On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Almighty up above was seated on His 'Seat of judgment,' listening to the first prayers of the Day of Atonement.

"Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who was acting as the Counsel for Defense on behalf of his fellow Jews, was pushing a wagon full of Jewish mitzvot to the Gates of Heaven, when Satan appeared and obstructed his path with piles of Jewish sins, so that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak just got stuck there. My brother Rabbi Zusha and I added our strength to help him move his wagon forward, but all in vain; even our combined efforts proved fruitless.

"Suddenly there came the sound of the cracking of a whip which rent the air, causing a blinding ray of light to appear, lighting up the whole universe, right up to the very heavens! There we saw the angels and all the righteous seated in a circle, singing G‑d’s praise. On hearing the wagon driver's words as he cracked his whip in ecstasy, they responded: 'Happy is the King who is thus praised!'

"All at once, the Angel Michael appeared, leading a horse, followed by the wagon driver with whip in hand.

"The Angel Michael harnessed this horse to the wagon of mitzvot, and the wagon driver cracked his whip. Suddenly the wagon gave a lurch forward, flattening the piles of sins that had been obstructing the way, and drove it smoothly and easily right up to the Throne of Honor. There the King of Kings received it most graciously and, rising from the Seat of judgment, went over and seated Himself on the Seat of Mercy. A happy New Year was assured."

"And now dear Rabbi Uri" concluded Rabbi Elimelech, "you see that all this came about through your noble action. Go home, and be a leader in Israel! For you have proved your worthiness, and you shall carry with you the approval of the Heavenly Court. But before you go, permit me to hold this wonderful etrog of yours, and praise G‑d with it."


Bubble Gum

Class is in progress. Talk all you want. The kids won't listen; they have gum stuck in their minds.

Children are very perceptive. And when my students notice the colorful jars of chewing gum in the synagogue, they know it isn't for the rabbi. Why would the rabbi need three jars full of gum? They figure the gum to be kosher, and they are right. But who is the bubble gum for?

I dont know if it's Karl Marx and Russian culture, or maybe it's the age, but whatever it is, it makes giving a present to some of these kids extremely difficult. Because after all, you have three big jars of gum; he or she has none. It is only justice for you to give.

Yefim says its not Marxism or anything like that. We simply did it to ourselves, the first Lubavitch pioneers, the ones who came before Coca Cola, when heaven still cost only one dollar.

One worker who remembers them won't budge without a promise of vodka. He knows the capabilities of the American. But he doesn't know that seven years ago vodka cost ten cents, and today its ten times that amount.

You can't blame them. Who dreamed that things would change? But times have changed. Six years ago the kids here went nuts for cheap video games; today the kids want Sega Genesis, and if it's not Sony, its not worth it.

My classroom is subject to intruders all the time. This is due to its location in the middle of the shul. Visitors or beggars don't disturb; only those truly worth it are a distraction.

On that day when the two Ukrainian officials walk in, all heads turn. Big Dima, the shul manager, walks them to the office. Senya, the driver, is also in on this. Something is going on, and we know somehow that it is linked with the bubble gum.

In accordance with Kharkov tradition, things are kept quiet. Knowledge is power, and that's what separates the men from the boys. The men know what's going on, and the boys have to wait and see. And that's what we do. We watch Senya take the jars and walk out with Dima and the two officers.

The two men are from the Ukrainian Health Department. The chewing gum had come on a Humanitarian Aid container, and the department of health wants to make sure everything is okay. Things are tested and found to be okay, except for three jars of gum. The government cannot see the gum as humanitarian. The gum is to be burned, and the two officers are to witness the death of the bubble gum.

Lunch break comes, and it is too cold to play outside. My students gather by the window. They too will witness the burning, the mass murder, of hundreds of colorful gum balls.

Keeping kosher to these kids means no gum balls. Now, finally, someone who cares, someone named Yefim, has gotten them kosher gum from America. And now this? Where is justice? Where is G‑d? My students have their faces up to the glass. Why? Why are they burning our gum balls?

Do they know that the kids are watching? Probably not, but that's only because the execution does not go as well as planned.

Senya places a brown cardboard box on the snow near the metal trash bin. The gum balls are poured in, then the gasoline. You don't have to be a scientist to know that the box will burn before the gum balls even get hot. And that's what happens.

The sides of the brown box curl in pain and quickly turns to ash. The gum balls roll out in a victorious march. Red, green, yellow, blue. The gum balls roll around the parking lot, leaving colored traces in the snow. The officers turn their heads; they have seen enough.

The kids are all laughing, and I tell them to get away from the window. The break is over. Class is in progress.

The Case of the Missing Esrog

It was the second day of Sukkot and my husband came home and cheerfully informed me that his lulav and esrog were nowhere to be found. He had given his set to a yeshiva student who was making rounds to hospitals and nursing homes, to give patients the opportunity to fulfill this important mitzvah. The young man, in turn, had passed in on to someone else who promised that he would personally return it. The chain broke down at that point but it was clear that someone had my husband's set of Four Species, and it was not he.

Unfortunately, I was unable to digest this news with the same equanimity that my husband displayed. A lulav-and-etrog set is not cheap—somewhere between $100 and $200 for a nicely grown, plump, unblemished citron and a firm, straight-backed lulav branch. This is on top of all the additional holiday expenses—new clothing and shoes for all the children, festive meals nearly every night.

Before I reacted, though, I recalled a story that I heard in childhood, of a poor rabbi who sold an heirloom set of tefillin, his only valuable possession, in order to afford a beautiful etrog. His wife was so incensed at what he had done that she grabbed the etrog and bit off its tip, rendering it unfit for a blessing.

My sympathies at that moment were completely with the rebbetzin, and I probably would have done worse things to the etrog, had it been in my possession. But our precious set of Four Species was currently in the hands of a well-meaning yeshiva student, who at the moment was trudging around Brooklyn to find Jews who had not managed to acquire their own set. This image calmed me down somewhat, at least enough to ask through clenched teeth: "And if you must lend out your lulav and etrog, why can't you at least buy a cheap set just for lending?"

"And why," my husband inquired patiently, "should a Jew in the street make a blessing over a lulav and etrog less beautiful than the one I choose for myself?"

I found it difficult to argue with his logic. People who spend over $100 on a set of fruit and branches will fall for a mystical argument anytime.

I reminded myself of another childhood story, of a different rabbi (or maybe it was the same one?) who set out with the precious rubles he had hoarded all year, to purchase a truly outstanding set of Four Species. Along the way, he passed a poor coachman whose horse had just keeled over and died. The poor man was now left without any means of support. Without hesitation, the rabbi handed over the entire sum to the coachman to purchase a new horse. After all, he reasoned, blessing the Four Species is a mitzvah, and charity is a mitzvah, too. When everyone else in the synagogue blesses the Four Species, he will say his blessing over a horse.

Applying the rabbi's logic to my own situation, on the cosmic mitzvah scale there really is no difference if my husband makes a blessing over his set, or if that same set is used by hundreds of other Jews on the streets of Brooklyn. Mitzvah = mitzvah, right? Especially since the mitzvah is compounded many times over, by all the people using it.

I remembered one year when my husband's etrog had been returned to him covered with brown splotches, testimony to the dozens of hands that had gripped it. I had looked distastefully at the bruised etrog, thinking of the many hours he had spent browsing the etrog market, trying to find the most perfect, unblemished fruit. But my husband had seen it differently: "All the hand-marks make the etrog more beautiful."

Putting the missing-etrog saga into perspective, I couldn't be too angry. As the rabbi in the story had remarked to his etrog-chomping wife, family harmony is also a mitzvah, and if G‑d had seen fit to deprive them of one mitzvah there was no reason not to have the other. The rabbi kept his peace, and so did I. My husband mentally relinquished all claim to his lulav and etrog, and gifted it with a full heart to the student who had borrowed it.

We made do with borrowed etrogim for the duration of the holiday, as my husband's set never was returned. I still wish he had found a more reliable agent, but mess-ups do happen. As we say in Yiddish, zol es zain a kapparah--"let it be an atonement," and let our forgiving attitude in this instance stand us in good stead the next time we inadvertently lose or damage someone else's property.

I am writing this story nearly a year later. Looking back, I have to say that G‑d amply repaid us for the cost of the missing etrog. In fact, we were able to set aside enough money to easily meet all of this year's holiday expenses, including the most beautiful lulav and etrog that we can find.



Love of a Jew Melts Iron Curtain

The year 1935; Yaktrinoslov Russia.  Stalin, may his name be cursed forever, had total control of the bodies, minds and hearts of hundreds of millions of Russians.

He was revered by them as well as Communists the world over as 'The Luminary of the Nations'. 'Leftist, Kibutzes in Israel actually displayed his picture on their lunchroom walls as the living example of good and progress.

So it was no wonder that the Jew who had been the sexton of the 'Great Synagogue of Yaktrinoslov' got swept up in the Communist fervor, changed his Jewish sounding name from 'Gershon' to Grisha and got a new job - as an outside informer for the secret police (N.K.V.D).

The Party even had him appointed as manager of the apartment building he lived in and he fulfilled his job faithfully; to spy on one of the tenants in his apartment building; the chief Rabbi of the city, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Shneerson.

Every suspicious move, every visitor, even every phone call (the Rabbi's phone was tapped) he reported. He couldn't wait to catch him in some 'sin' and even took to occasionally following him when he left the apartment.

In fact, as time passed and Grisha read more and more 'party' literature he came to detest anything that reminded him of his 'dark, past' and it was all rolled up into this Rabbi.

Communism was young, fresh, enlightening the world!!  Soon it would free all mankind from the bonds of 'religion' and 'bourgeois oppression'.  And the Rabbi was trying to stop it!

But for some reason he didn't just make up a story about him and have him taken away, as he could easily do.  In fact he still found it hard to atually stop observing the Torah like the Sabbath and a few other commandments.

Then, one winter night about half past midnight when Grisha was sound asleep he was awakened by a knocking at his door.

'Who could it be at this time of the night?' he thought to himself. Certainly it wasn't the police; when they paid midnight visits they would almost break the door down so as to petrify their prospective 'victims'.
This was a quiet steady knocking. He peeked through the peep hole in the door and thought he saw....His enemy! The Rabbi!  What did he want at this hour of the night?!

He opened the door a bit and began to say something, but something about the Rabbi's face and eyes did something to him.

"May I come in?" The Rabbi asked and Grisha opened wider. The Rabbi entered, closed the door after him but for some reason Grisha had trouble turning and looking him directly in the face.   "Listen Grisha" said the Rabbi putting his hands on Grisha's shoulders "I trust you.  I believe you are a friend and I trust you."

Grisha wanted to protest. He even began to say that he was an informer, but he couldn't say the word.

'Not only that', the thought crossed his mind like a fleeting black crow, 'maybe now I'll get the incriminating evidence!' But he looked at the Rabbi's eyes and felt ashamed.

The Rabbi continued speaking softly, he was aware of the danger. "Tonight about an hour ago an old woman knocked at my door. Are you listening Grisha?" he shook his head yes.

The Rabbi continued, "I let her in and she began weeping. She explained that her daughter found someone to marry.  A Jewish fellow that works in the Communist headquarters with her but they were going to make a civil wedding, not according to Jewish law.  But this lady decided that her daughter had to get a proper Jewish wedding and, despite the fact that they are sworn atheists, she actually convinced them to do it.

"Of course this is a great risk on their part. If they get caught they will be fired from their work and possibly jailed and murdered. But they too showed up at my door about five minutes later because they didn't want to attract attention.

"The situation was dangerous. I had to work quickly but also cautiously. they had to be Jews that wouldn't breathe a word of what happened. I left my house to find nine other Jews (A Jewish wedding requires the presence of ten observant Jews).

"But why.." Grisha tried to protest. He was being spiritually dwarfed in the presence of this old Rabbi.

Why didn't he just sit and learn Torah like the other Rabbis. Why were he and these other people, the bride and groom and her mother risking their lives. for what?" Grisha was deep in thought.

The Rabbi voice broke through, "I could only find eight other Jews, with me it makes nine.  We need you."

Grisha realized that the Rabbi was no fool and knew full well what that he was a spy. But now he needed him and he trusted him with his life and the lives of others.

It was in his hands.  He motioned for the Rabbi to wait, slipped on a pair of pants and a shirt over his pajamas, put on his shoes and followed the Rabbi up the stairs to his apartment.

There were several other Jews, a young man and woman and an older woman as the Rabbi said and eight others.  They glanced at Grisha and then at the Rav with confusion. But the Rav wasted no time. 

He sat the couple down, asked them a few questions, wrote a marriage document, produced a bottle of wine and then told everyone to stand and spread a large prayer shawl (Tallit) high over the bride and groom as a wedding canopy. Then he began the short ceremony. Everything was silent except for the Rabbis voice. It was as though they had entered a time tunnel. He read the marriage document, the groom put a ring on the bride's finger, the Rabbi made several blessings... And that was it. Everyone smiled and whispered 'Mazal Tov!!

The Bride and her mother were crying with joy. The groom was crying with joy, the men around were shaking hands and kissing each other in joy.  Only the Rabbi was still .his eyes were afire with love of the Creator.

They didn't dare sing or dance lest they attract attention. which would mean death for them all but their hearts spoke louder than words. 

Then something happened to Grisha that he had only experienced as a child.

He felt happy

In moments, one by one they silently exited the Rabbi's house and descended the stairs into the darkness.

Until only Grisha was left.

He took out his wallet and handed the Rebbe a card.

"What is this?" he asked.

"This, Rebbe, is my Party Membership card. I don't need it anymore. From now on I'm loyal to you and your G‑d. I'm a Jew, Rebbe. I'm a Jew! And no one can take that from me. You were right, you can trust me.