Weekly Chasidic Story #855 (s5774-33 / 13 Nisan 5774)

From Berditchov to Japan

"Our numerous encounters with hundreds of Jews residing in that part of the Far East remains etched in my heart."

Connection: Seasonal -- PESACH FESTIVAL


From Berditchov to Japan

From Berditchov to Japan
Yosef-Yitzchak Jacobson

A Young Man's Mission

A few weeks before Passover 1997. Rabbi Moshe Katlarsky of Chabad World Headquarters in Brooklyn requested of a colleague and myself to travel to the Far East and conduct public Passover Seders for the Jewish community living in the remote city of Kobe. Our journey to Japan and the numerous encounters with hundreds of Jews residing in that part of the world remains etched in my heart.

My friend, Moshe Leiberman (today a Rabbi in Boston), supervised the meticulous procedures of koshering the Synagogue kitchen for Passover and preparing the food for the Seder. We did not know how many people to expect; there are wandering Jews to be found in every corner of Japan. To our astonishment, our first public Seder attracted close to two hundred Jews, most of them from very secular backgrounds. Some have not attended a Passover Seder in decades.

The energy was great. We sang, danced, ate the crunchy matzah and drank the tasty wine. The guests were into it, eating up the discussions as much as the delicious meal.

In the middle of the Seder I was searching for words to describe my sentiments. My memory brought forth a moving Chassidic tale -- one of my personal favorites -- about the holy Rebbe (spiritual master) of Berditchov.

Here goes.

A Drunkard's Seder

Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak of Berditchov was one of the great spiritual masters of his generation. One Passover, following an emotionally charged Seder, the Rebbe was told from heaven, much to his surprise, that this year, "Mosheleh, the water carrier of Berditchov, fulfilled the mitzvah of telling his children about the Exodus better than you even, and that G-d took pleasure from his recital more than anyone else's."

The next day after services, the Rebbe instructed several of his disciples to request of Mosheleh to come see the Rebbe. Mosheleh came and began to cry bitterly before Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. "Rebbe, I'll never do it again. I'm so sorry; I don't know what came over me." The poor man was devastated.

The Rebbe responded gently, "Listen, my dear Jew, don't worry so much; just tell us what you did last night."

Now, Mosheleh essentially was a good and innocent man, a G-d fearing individual and a pure heart. But he had a difficult life. He was orphaned at a young age and was always miserably poor. Sadly, he succumbed to the temptation of alcohol as a way to deal with his agony and stress.

The "problem" is that on Passover you can't drink whisky. So Mosheleh had a tremendous idea: He'll stay up the whole night before Passover and drink an amount of whisky that would keep him "high" for eight days straight, throughout the entire Passover holiday.

This Moshe did: When the night before Passover arrived he drank and drank, until the minute when you must stop eating Chametz (leaven) on the morning before Passover. When the clock struck twenty minutes after nine, he took a final "L'chayim" and he was out cold.

Seder night arrived. His wife came to wake him and said, "Mosheleh, it's really not fair. Every Jewish home has a Seder. We have little children, and we are the only ones who don't have a Seder." Mosheleh gazed at the Rebbe of Barditchov and continued relating his tale: "By then, did I regret that I drank so much the night before! Did I regret it! I would have done anything not to be drunk. But I couldn't help it. So I said to my wife: 'Please wake me up in an hour. I just can't get it together yet.'

My wife kept waking me every hour, and then every half-hour. Then, suddenly, she came to me and said, 'Moshe, in twenty minutes the Seder night is gone and the children are all sleeping. Shame on you. You are a disgraceful father and husband!'

" I was so devastated!" Mosheleh told the Rebbe. "My children are precious beyond words, and I didn't even give them a Seder. I realized how low I have fallen, that I am a lousy alcoholic father. So, with my last strength I got out of bed and sat down at the Seder table. I said to my wife, 'Please, call our dear children.'

"She called the children and I said to them, 'Please sit down very close to me, I have to talk to you.

"'I want you to know, children, that I am so sorry that I drank and that I am a drunkard. But, right now, it's still Seder night, so let me just tell you the Passover story in a nutshell.'"

Mosheleh said to the Rebbe, "I barely know how to read Hebrew and I was still drunk, but I tried my best. I said, 'Children, I want you to know that G-d created heaven and earth in seven days. Then Adam and Eve ate from the Tree and were thrown out of Paradise. Since then everything went downhill: There was a flood, there was a tower of Babel'-that was as much as I knew. So I continued. 'Then came Abraham and Sarah. They began fixing the world again. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah and their twelve holy sons. Then Pharaoh made slaves out of us, and tonight, G-d took us out from Egypt.

"'Now we are also in exile. And I want you to know, dear children, that the same G-d who took us out from Egypt is still alive and present and very soon He will liberate us from this exile too.'"

"Then I looked upward and said: 'Father in heaven, thank you so much for taking us out of Egypt. And I beg you, dear Father, please take us out of our present exile very soon!'
"Rebbe, I'm so sorry. I couldn't say anything more because I was still drunk. I just took the Matzah, Maror and Charoses situated on the table and ate them. I filled four cups and drank them one after another, I turned over and I fell asleep again."

The holy master Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Barditchov was crying bitter tears. He said to his disciples, "Did you hear that? Did you hear that? I wish that one time in my life I should communicate the spirit of Judaism to my children the way Mosheleh did for his children. I wish that once in my life I should converse with G-d like Mosheleh did last night."

A Women's Tale

Thus I concluded the story. Then I said, "I want you to know that I celebrated many a Seder-night in a very observant Jewish community in New York. Yet I get the feeling that G-d's favorite Seder was the one done right here, in Kobe, Japan! So many of us here this evening may be unaware of the detailed Seder rituals and customs, and many of us may not even know how to read the Haggadah in Hebrew. But, my dearest brothers and sisters, the sincerity and the passion of so many Jews thirsty to reconnect with their inner soul -- this I've never seen before during a Passover Seder and I thank you for allowing me this special opportunity."

I felt that the story has stirred up deep emotion in the audience. I could see tears dropping from some people's eyes. There was even one woman sitting at the other end of the room who was weeping profusely. She later approached me and related her personal tale:

"I grew up in a very assimilated home. I know almost nothing about Judaism. I'm living here in Japan for more than twenty years, working as a school teacher and involved in the mystical disciplines of the Far-East."

She related to me that she was uninterested in attending the Seder, as she felt completely alienated from Judaism, yet a friend persuaded her to come.

"The only thing I remember about Judaism," she continued, "was that my grandmother would always tell me, that I have a special spiritual connection. Why? "Because you are the tenth generation of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov."

"Who is Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov? That my grandmother never knew. She just knew that he was some great man who lived in Eastern Europe. And she insisted that I always retain this piece of history in my memory.

"So thank you Rabbi for serving as the messenger of my holy grandfather to bring me to come back home this Passover night," the women said to me.

I wiped a tear from my eye and thanked the Almighty for sending me to Japan for Passover.

Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from an emailing of Rabbi Y. Y. Jacobson (//The Yeshiva.net), who is an internationally acclaimed educator and lecturer in great demand, and an annual summer guest teacher at Ascent here in Tsfat.

Biographical note:
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak (Deberamdiger) of Berditchev of blessed memory: 5500 - 25 Tishrei 5571 (1740 - October 1810) is one of the most popular rebbes in chasidic history. He was a close disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch. He is best known for his love for every Jew and his active efforts to intercede for them against (seemingly) adverse heavenly decrees. Many of his teachings are contained in the posthumously published, Kedushat Levi.


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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