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A simple disciple of the famous Rebbe Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov (founder of the Hassidic movement) once asked his master two questions during the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, known as the Ten Days of Repentance. First, he asked what is the most fitting request to make of the Almighty during this period, since we are taught to "seek out God when He is most available," and it seems superfluous to ask for Divine forgiveness, since the Bible promises that "on this day [of Yom Kippur] you shall be forgiven of all your sin." So shall we ask for another year of life? Shall we ask for a year of good health? Shall we ask for a job which will pay a good salary? Or shall we ask for joy and blessings from our children? After all, we don't want to bombard the Almighty with too many requests lest He see us as spoiled children who don't deserve anything.
Secondly, he asked, why does Succot come only four days after Yom Kippur? It hardly seems fair that when all of us are exhausted from fasting we must begin to build a substitute house and decorate it. Why doesn't God leave us a little breathing space?
The Ba'al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) sent his hassid to the neighboring town of Yampol to seek out Rav Yehiel Mikhal. "Send him my regards, stay with him a short while, and you will receive the answer to your questions without even having to ask them."
The disciple arrived at Yampol and inquired as to the whereabouts of Rav Yehiel Mikhal, but was greeted only with strange looks. One kindly resident explained: "Yehiel Mikhal? He is a very peculiar kind of Jew. He studies the Holy Zohar all day, never looking up from the text except when he prays. He prays vehemently and even violently, hitting his head against the wall until blood flows. But despite his prayers, he is very poor; there is generally no food in his house, and he never shops for himself. But his door is always open, there is a chair ready for wayfarers, and after a visitor has been in his room for about an hour, Reb Yehiel Mikhal manages to scrape up a meal for him. When he feeds a guest, he also remembers to eat something himselfâ€¦"
The perplexed hassid was directed to the hovel of Yehiel Mikhal, opened the door and found a chair waiting. After about an hour, Reb Yehiel motioned for him to wait, took a few books from the bookcase which seemed to be the only furniture, and went out. He returned without the books, which he had apparently sold, but with a few pieces of herring and a loaf of bread, inviting his guest to eat and even taking a morsel himself.
The hassid brought the greetings from his master, but couldn't keep himself from asking his host - whom he had seen engaged in fervent prayer - why he didn't pray for food, for a more fitting home, or for a family.
Yehiel Mikhal smiled a faraway smile.
"Such prayers are meaningless, even arrogant. Let me give you an analogy. You are invited to the wedding of the year, the wedding of the century; the king is about to marry his beloved, and the entire populace is celebrating. The invitation even includes the menu - course after delectable course.
"But alas, the young bride falls ill and dies barely an hour before the ceremony is scheduled to take place. Most of the guests have already arrived at the palace, and so they tearfully return to their homes. One remains, however. He goes to the royal chef, points to the invitation in his hand, and requests each of the courses he had been promised.
"Can you imagine what the king must think of that individual, even if he instructs his chef to fulfill the requests?
"And so it is with us," concluded Yehiel Mikhal. "We are in exile, our King is in exile, the Sacred Marriage between God and Israel has been put off. Shall we request to partake of the wedding feast? We can only pray for the wedding to take place as soon as possibleâ€¦"
When the disciple returned with his report to Rebbe Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov, the master added:
"On Rosh Hashana we pray that God be proclaimed King over the entire world, that the Sacred Marriage which will bring unity to the world come about immediately. On Yom Kippur we are transported to the Holy Temple, the nuptial canopy; the High Priest proclaims everyone purified. We hear the triumphant shofar of the Almighty. We cry out: "Hear O, Israel, the Lord our God, The Lord is One, Blessed be the Name of His glorious Kingdom forever, the Lord [of Israel] he is God [of the world.]"
"But alas, this is all a glorious dream, not yet reality. And so immediately after we awaken, to the blast of the shofar, we must build our modest succa, move into that succa with our family, and pray that the "Merciful One establish for us the fallen tabernacle of King David" and erect the Eternal Temple to which all nations will flock to attend the Sacred Marriage and the redemption of all humanity."
The hassid received the answers to all his questions.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.