Weekly Chasidic Story #1140 (s5780-03/ 11 Tishrei, 5780)

A Sukkah Present from the Angel of Death

The chassid was devastated. No one was willing to lend him even a single plank of wood to build his sukkah.

: Seasonal -- SUKKOT


Story in PDF format for more convenient printing.

A Happy Hassid Helps the Angel of Death

A pious follower of the great spiritual master Rabbi Aharon of Karlin lived in a small Belarus village, not so distant from his Rebbe. Also living there was a Jew who deeply apposed chasidim and Chasidut and everything they represented. The misnaged (opponent) was tremendously wealthy while the chasid was a desolate pauper, yet it happened somehow that they were neighbors, living across the street from each other.

In addition to his wealth, the misnaged had almost everything a man desires. He had fine children, a dedicated wife, and was in excellent health since the day he was born. All he lacked was one thing: happiness. He was a bitter and miserable soul, never having a pleasant moment, always tense and suppressed. He would be quicker to pay full price for something than to smile. He was a religious person, but his mitzvah observance had no laughter, no joy; no soul. It was only about rigid law.

Friday evenings in this man's home were solemn and glum. He would sit at the head of his ornate mahogany table with a stern face, tense shoulders and eyes that bespoke tension. Even the Shabbos melodies were depressing, sung just to fulfill his duty, without warmth.

Truth be told, this man was most comfortable and content with Tisha b'Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. By contrast, Simchas Torah was a day he dreaded-too much good cheer.

Across the street, at the corner, was a shack, the wretched excuse for a home, where the chasid lived. He barely had money to buy nutritious meals for his family. He lived on the edge, somehow surviving. Yet, around him was never lacking joy, exuberance and warmth.

Shabbos evenings at the chasid's home were other worldly. Joyful and lively tunes reverberated throughout and the house was filled with a heavenly euphoria and ecstatic elation. He hugged each of his children and made them feel like princesses and princes. He laughed, he sang and he danced. He loved Shabbos and he loved people. He was in love with life.

And so it was week in, week out; the misnaged's home made the North Pole seem like Miami, and the chasid's home was a haven of warmth and light, pulsating with joy and excitement.

The chasid's good natured happy personality irked his wealthy neighbor to no end. "How can it be," he would often wonder "that I, who posses all a man can want, am so bitter and angry, while this penniless Chassid is so joyful and upbeat?"

Sukkot was his worst holiday. The holiday of joy was something he could not bear. He would sit outside in his sukkah upset and distraught. His poor wife and children sat with him somber and hard faced. A gloomy atmosphere always filled their Sukkah.

Across the street was the chasid's sukkah, full of family and guests, and reverberating with dancing and singing. Many l'chayims were shared and beautiful stories told. The sukkah walls were bursting with positive energy.

One Sukkot, the joy and positivity was more than the misnaged could handle. He decided he must put a stop to the chasidic lunatic who was driving him mad. Being by far the wealthiest Jew in the shtetl, and directly or indirectly providing nearly everyone's livelihood, he used his status to devise a nasty plan.

How would the poor chasid manage to find the materials to build his sukkah every year? He would approach Yankel and ask him for a piece of wood or two, then go to Chatzkel and request a piece or two, then he would go to another few friends and borrow for the week a plank or two, until eventually he was able to put together his little sukkah. So the next year, as Sukkot approached, the wealthy Jew warned one and all not to help the chasid with his sukkah.

"Under no circumstances is anyone allowed to lend him lumber," he warned. "Anyone that does can look for a job somewhere else."

His word was heeded. This year, the poor chasid got the same response from everyone he approached. "I would love to help you but your neighbor forbade us to do so and threatened us with loss of our jobs if we did. I have young mouths to feed; I'm sorry but I can't afford to lose my job."

Every person he went to rejected him. The chasid was devastated. It was the night before his most cherished holiday and he still had no sukkah. He had no money to purchase his own lumber, nor would anyone lend him even a single plank of wood. "What shall I do?" He thought to himself.

Suddenly he had an idea; he would go to the cemetery.

The custom back then when a poor person who passed away whose family could not afford a marble tomb was that the Jewish community would provide a wooden plank for his tomb. The cemetery had hundreds of such planks with the inscription Po Nitmann ("Here is buried"). They would carve the poor person's name on the plank of wood, and stuck it into the ground. This would constitute the tombstone on his grave.

"Well," thought the chasid to himself, "let me go borrow the planks of wood from the cemetery to build my sukkah. Why not? No one is going to die on Sukkos, and if someone does, how many will die already. There are hundreds of planks in the cemetery. I will borrow some of them for my sukkah and return them after the holiday! Certainly, the community would allow me to do so."

So off he went with dozens of wooden planks and built himself a huge sukkah, much larger than he ever built before.

* * *

The first night of Sukkos arrives. The magnate is sitting in his sukkah, rubbing his hands in glee. "Finally," he says to himself, as he settles in his palatial sukkah, "it's about time I taught that chasidic dance box a lesson! At last I will enjoy one Sukkos holiday without those loud lively tunes, festive celebrations, and ecstatic dancing. Finally I will be able to pass the holiday without anyone reminding me how miserable I am."

Imagine his shock and horror when he hears his neighbor singing like never before. Not only that, the voices from the other sukkah are significantly more jubilant than any other year! And without a sukkah -- how can that be? He decided to go see for himself.

"Oy!" was his first distressed reaction. The chasid was sitting in a massive Sukkah, nearly as large as his own, surrounded by his wife and children and a few guests, all of them dancing and singing, and enjoying immensely.

The wealthy Jew never had a worse holiday meal in his life.

The next night, he could contain himself no longer. He ran over to the chasid's sukkah, his face burning red with anger. His veins looked like they would burst any second.
"Who gave you this wood?" he roared at the poor chasid. Who defied my orders? Tell me right now, from whom did you obtain the materials for such a massive, beautiful sukkah?"

The chasid, who was a clever individual and quick on his feet, looked at his neighbor and smiled. "First of all, Gut Yom Tov, my dear neighbor. Please sit down and relax and I will explain everything to you."

The chasid then proceeded to tell him the following story:

As you know, I'm sure, I don't have the funds to purchase the materials to build a sukkah. And due to your decree, I was unable to borrow them either. Nor do I have a steady job. So with no sukkah to build and no work to do, I was left with a lot of time on my hands.

Came the night before Sukkos, and I had nothing to do. So I decided to go for a stroll. It was after midnight.

As I was walking along, I had a startling encounter. Standing nearby was the angel of death.

"Shalom Aleichem," I called out to him. "What brings you to our neighborhood on the night before Sukkos?"

He answered me that he came to do his job. Someone's time was up and he has to seize the man's soul.

"Who are you coming to take?" I asked.

"Ah," the angel of death said, "I am on my way to slay your rich neighbor. His time is up."

I quickly said back, "You don't have to bother with him. You can leave him alone."

"Why?" asked the angel of death. "He hates you with a passion. Why do you not want me to finish him off?"

"Because," I told him, "It would be a waste of your energy and time. This person has long been dead. Trust me, there is no need to kill him; he has not been alive for probably 50 years."

The angel of death thanked me profusely for giving him the night off. Then he asked me how he can repay me for the favor I did him. "I need to build a sukkah," I replied simply.

So the angel of death told me: "Go to the cemetery and build your sukkah with all the wooden tombstones that are there. I promise to make sure no one around here will die in the next eight days, so you have no reason to worry about those planks of wood. You can take them all!"

The chasid pointed to the walls of his Sukkah and said: If you don't believe me, I can prove it. Pointing at the "Po Nitman { Here is buried") inscription that was on all the boards, he said, "You see, they are all from the cemetery."

The misnaged could no longer contain himself. Years of ignoring and suppressing his emotions and feelings, stifling his crying soul, suddenly gave way, and the dam crumbled. Rivers of tears flowed freely, as he wept like a baby. He cried for the decades of lost time; he cried for his soul, for a life lived so meagerly and miserably.

"How is it that I have everything yet I have nothing, while you have nothing yet you have everything?" From where do you get it? From where?" cried the welathy man in agony.

"For this," replied the chasid, "you need a Rebbe." He explained:

A Rebbe lifts you up in a moment of hardship, and empowers you during challenging times. A Rebbe allows you to remain connected to your own deepest soul, reminding you of your essential connection to G-d. A Rebbe is always there for you, pushing you up the mountain of life, telling you that you can climb yet higher. And when you are connected to a Rebbe, you realize that there are things larger than your own ego, you don't take yourself so seriously. You can laugh at yourself.

"Go to Karlin, go to my Rebbe, R. Aharon of Karlin. There you will begin to live."

Tradition has it that this wealthy Jew turned out to become one of Reb Aharon's greatest disciples.

Source: I first heard this story from Shulie Rand* in a rousing dramatic and humorous performance, during a large Chabad-sponsored Sukkot celebration around a decade ago. Of course Chabad's most popular speaker-video star, Rabbi Yosef-Yitzchak Jacobson, is no slouch in the drama and humor department either. I 'borrowed' his written version on //TheYeshiva.net as the basis for the above, but I don't know if YY will approve of my extensive editing, especially where I toned it down a bit. I hope we are still friends!

[Shulie Rand is a famous actor and musician in Israel. In 1995, Rand turned back to observant Judaism, and decided to use theater as a means of sharing his religious devotion. The hugely successful movie, Ushpizin, which he wrote and starred in with his wife Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, represents the cinematic culmination of this mission. After Ushpizin, Rand embarked on a music career, performing mostly for secular audiences. (Extracted from //aicf.org/artist/shuli-rand)]


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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