The Tisch: Seeking penance with a broken heart

Zev knew precious little of the holy books, but his fidelity to Jewish tradition could never be questioned, as he fastidiously kept the commandments.

hanukkah candles good pic 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
hanukkah candles good pic 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was Friday afternoon, and Zev the wagon driver looked toward the west and winced at the sun. He turned to his horse: “Come on, my dear horse,” he urged, “Don’t you realize that Shabbat is fast approaching?” But even Zev knew that he could not really have any complaints against his old, weak horse.
Zev was a simple Jew, a poor wagon driver who barely managed to eke out a living. He knew precious little of the holy books, but his fidelity to Jewish tradition could never be questioned, as he fastidiously kept the commandments.
And now Shabbat was upon him, and for the first time in his life he was faced with the possibility of not keeping it.
For a moment he considered stopping right where he was and spending the holy Shabbat in the middle of the forest amid the trees. He immediately banished this idea: What would Shabbat be without kiddush, without family, without community? Would this really be Shabbat? More importantly, the wild animals and bandits of the forest hardly made appropriate Shabbat company, and staying there alone was truly life-threatening.
Zev continued along the road as the sun dipped below the horizon.
When he reached the village, everyone was already in the synagogue. Surreptitiously he led his wagon to the back of his house, and as he walked inside, he broke out in bitter tears. With a broken voice he told his wife what had happened: “I violated Shabbat! How could I do such a thing?!” His wife empathized with him and tried valiantly to comfort him: “A Jew should not be sad on Shabbat, so wipe away your tears. Anyway, you didn’t break Shabbat intentionally; you were in an untenable situation and had no choice. I have no doubt that you can you can rectify the situation. Straight after Shabbat, you should go to the local rabbi, tell him what happened and he will surely suggest an appropriate penance.”
Zev heeded his wife’s counsel, washed his face and changed his work clothes for his Shabbat attire and hurried to the synagogue to catch the end of the service.
Straight after Shabbat, the wagon driver appeared at the rabbi’s home. As tears welled in his eyes, he told his tale. The rabbi listened to the story and responded in a soft, calm voice: “My dear friend, indeed Shabbat violation is a serious crime. But the Almighty is forgiving, and since your act was inadvertent, repentance is easy. To atone for your Shabbat infraction, you must enhance the Shabbat in some way. I suggest that you purchase two nice candles and light them in the synagogue on the eve of the next Shabbat.”
Zev eagerly accepted the penance, and on Friday afternoon he appeared in the synagogue bearing two lovely candles. Everyone was busy preparing for Shabbat, so the synagogue was deserted except for one of the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, or Besht (ca. 1700-1760). The hassid watched the wagon driver come in and joyfully put the candles in their place. As Zev turned to leave, the hassid looked at him quizzically, and Zev told him the tale.
The Besht’s disciple was shocked: “What, you broke Shabbat and you think you can atone for that with a couple of candles?!” In disgust, the hassid turned away from the wagon driver, and Zev was left standing there with the disciple’s words ringing in his ears.
Suddenly a strong gust of wind blew the windows open and extinguished the candles, as if to ratify the stinging remarks.
Zev was bewildered and wandered back to the rabbi’s home. The encouragement and comfort of the rabbi were of no use, as the words of the Besht’s hassid kept ringing in Zev’s ears. The rabbi finally suggested that Zev travel to the Besht to seek his counsel.
After Shabbat, he set out for Medzhybizh.
When he told his story, the Besht confirmed the rabbi’s instruction: “Your rabbi’s suggestion was an appropriate penance. I can only reinforce what he said. Fear not, the candles will burn brightly and will be accepted by the Almighty.”
As Zev turned to leave, the Besht asked him to deliver a letter to the same disciple who sat in the back of the synagogue.
Zev returned home and delivered the letter.
The disciple opened it with trembling hands...
An invitation to spend Shabbat with the Besht! The hassid was overjoyed. What an honor, to be invited by the Besht! The next Thursday, he set out for Medzhybizh, a journey of only a few hours. It was a blustery day; the wind whipped the trees as a storm began to brew. As the hassid battled the wind, he made a wrong turn. Night fell, and the hassid was forced to spend the night in the forest. When morning finally arrived, the wrath of the storm increased, and the disciple had trouble making headway through the muddied ground. As the day wore on, he began to wonder to himself: “Shabbat in the forest…?” The houses of Medzhybizh could be seen in the distance. The hassid urged his horse to battle on through the driving rain and against the raging wind, racing against the setting sun.
He reached the village moments before Shabbat.
With no time to prepare for Shabbat, he went straight to the synagogue. With a heavy heart he thought to himself: “This is how I come to the Besht? No time to organize my thoughts, no time to change my clothes, no time to go to the mikve...” He dared not approach the Besht in his disheveled state.
After Shabbat, the Besht sent for the disciple.
“You almost violated Shabbat. The Heavenly court wanted you to feel the pain of the simple wagon driver.”
The shocked hassid now understood.
Hassidic lore does not record the name of that disciple who learned how to talk to someone seeking penance with a broken heart.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.