Yom Kippur eve in the Berditchev synagogue. Darkness has just fallen. The elders have completed the preliminary prayers and returned to their places. Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok stands at the pulpit. It is time for him to recite the Kol Nidrey, but he is silent.
All eyes focus on his back. The women’s gallery is hushed — the silence of the sea before a storm. He is about to begin, and perhaps, as is sometimes his custom, he will begin with a preface. He may want to have a few things out with the Lord, as friend to friend, in plain Yiddish.
But Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok, wrapped in his holiday robe, and prayer shawl, stands silently before the pulpit. What can it mean?
Are the gates of prayer still locked at this late hour? And has not Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok the power to seek admittance? He stands with his head cocked somewhat to one side, as if he were listening for the sound of the gates opening?
Suddenly Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok turns to the congregation and calls: Shames!
The shames hurries to him, and the Rabbi asks:
“Is Berl the tailor here yet?”
The congregation is stunned. The shammes begins to look around, and with a stammer answers that he does not know. Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok looks around, too.
“No, he’s not here. He stayed home,” he says. Then he turns once more to the shammes.
“Run over to Berl the tailor’s house and tell him to some here. Tell him that I, Levi Yitzkhok, the Chief Rabbi, have sent for him.”
And the shammes departs.
Berl the tailor lived in the synagogue street, close by, so it wasn’t long before he arrived in the synagogue — without his robe and prayer shawl, in his everyday coat, with a clouded face and eyes in which anger was mixed with apprehension. He walked up to Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok. “You called me, Rebbe, and I have come at your summons.”
He stressed the ”your”.
Rabbi Yitzkhok smiles.
“Tell me, Berele,” he says, why there is so much interest in you on high? The heavenly host talks of nothing else. You’ve really caused a commotion. Beryl the tailor is on everyones lips.”
“Aha!” says Beryl triumphantly.
“Do you have a complaint?”
“I certainly do!”
Against God Himself!”
The congregation would have torn the impudent tailor to bits. But Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok only smiled more broadly.
“Maybe you’d like to tell us what it’s all about, Berl?”
“Why not?” says Berl the tailor. “I”ll be glad to. I’m not even afraid to submit it to judgement. Shall I state my case?”
So Berl the tailor made his presentation:
“All summer (may you be spared the like, Rebbe) I didn’t have a stitch of work, neither from Jew nor gentile. I might as well have stretched out and died.”
Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok could scarcely believe it. “The seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the compassionate and the sons of the compassionate. You should have confided in someone.”
“Not me, Rebbe! I tell no one, and I accept charity from no one!”
He isn’t looking for gifts he says. He has as large a share in the Lord as anyone else.
What did he do, then? He has a daughter, and he sent her off to be a servant, somewhere else, in some bigger town. And then he sat at home and waited to see what God’s will would be.
One day, when sukkes was approaching, the door opened. His waiting had been rewarded ! It was a messenger from the landowner. He was summoned to sew a fur lining into a coat.
Very good! God was providing sustenance. He went to the manor and was led into a private room. They gave him the outer shell and a bundle of pelts. “You ought to have seen those fox pelts, Rebbe, the genuine article!”
It was by now high time for Kol Nidrey, and Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok tried to prompt him:
“So you lined the coat. What happened then?”
“Nothing much. There were three pelts leftover.”
“You took them?”
“That’s not as easy as it sounds, Rebbe. When you leave the manor there’s a guard at the gate. If he’s suspicious, he searches you. He even looks in your boots. And if he found any furs on me, God forbid, he’d turn his dogs loose on me, or use his whip.”
“Well, what did you do?”
“Don’t forget, you’re dealing with Berl the tailor! I went into the kitchen and begged for a loaf of bread to take home with me.”
“The bread of the gentile, Berl!”
“Not to eat, Rebbe! They gave me a large loaf of bread. I took it back to the room, cut it open, and hollowed it out. I kneaded the soft part until it was all full of sweat, and threw it to the dog that was lying in the room. Dogs like human sweat. The I stuffed the three pelts into the hollow loaf and left.
”At the gate : What have you got there, little zhid?” I show them the bread.
“I got by without any trouble, and after I’d gone a bit further I really began to hurry. I didn’t use the regular road. I jumped the hedge and took a short cut over the fields.
“As I went along I couldn’t help skipping for joy. I would have my own citron and palm frond. I wouldn’t have to share the communal ones or borrow them from neighbors. Oh, those wonderful pelts!
“But then the earth began to rumble beneath me. I was being chased! My blood turned to ice. Most likely they had counted the pelts. There was no sense in running. You know the landowner’s horses. So I threw the loaf of bread into the bushes. But I marked the spot very carefully. By the time I turned around they were calling my name: ‘Berko! Hey Berko!’
It was the landowner’s Cossack servant. I recognized his voice. Inside, Rebbe, I was shivering. My heart was in my mouth. But I turned and went toward him as if nothing was the matter. And it turned out that I was scared for no reason! I had forgotten to sew in a hanger loop, and that’s why they sent the rider after me. He dragged me up unto the horse with him, and off we went.
“In my heart I thanked God for my narrow escape. I sewed on the loop and started home again.
“When I came to the spot I had marked — the bread was gone! It was long after harvest. Not a soul ever passed that way. No bird in the world could lift such a weight. So I knew who had taken it.”
“Who?” asked Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok?
“He!” answered Berl, pointing to the heavens, “God, Himself. It was his doing! And I know why: God, that mighty Lord, doesn’t like it that I, his servant, Berl the Tailor, keep remnants for my self!”
“Well, of course,” said Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok, “according to the Law …”
“The Law,” Berl answered scornfully. “He knows that a custom takes precedence over a law. And I didn’t invent the custom of keeping remnants. It’s been a custom since earliest times.
“And then again,” he argued, “if God is such a great and proud Lord and it doesn’t suit Him that the lowliest of his servants, his servant Berl the tailor, keeps remnants, then let Him guarantee support; let him provide maintenance the way lords do for their retainers.
“But not to be allowed the one or the other; that I can’t accept. So I’m not going to serve God anymore. I made a vow: I’‘m through!”
The congregation growled like a bear. Hands were raised and they were about to advance on him. But Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok says:
The congregation was still as Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok asked in a kindly voice” And the what, Berl?”
“That’s all! When I came home I didn’t wash; and I ate that way. When my wife started to say something...smack! I went to bed without saying the prayers. My lips wanted to recite them in spite of me … but I clamped them shut with my teeth. In the morning...no prayers, no tallis and tefiln. ‘ I want food!’ My old lady took off; back to her father in the village. So I was left without a wife. And I was glad. I, after all, am Berl the tailor. But women are weak. Why should she get mixed up in this? I kept it up. No sukke, no citron, no palm frond. I started to take a drink from time to time. I stopped saying the holiday blessings. Instead of celebrating on Simkhas Toyre, I put sackcloth on my head the way Mordecai did when Jews were condemned. All for spite!
“When the penitential arrived, I began to get gloomy. The shammes would pound, calling us to the synagogue and my heart would pound in answer. I was drawn … But I am Berl the tailor! I keep my word! I pulled the cover over my head. I wouldn’t yield! I wouldn’t look … Rosh Hashonah came. I didn’t budge. The time came to blow the shofar … I stuffed my ears with cotton. My heart strained toward the services. I was torn. It was awful, Rebbe...And besides, I disgust myself. I go around unwashed, a walking abomination. There’s a little mirror in my house; I turned it to the wall. I can’t stand to look at my own ugly face. I could hear people going toward the river for tashlikh …”
He was quiet for a while and then said forcefully:
“But I am in the right, Rebbe! I won’t settle for nothing!”
And now Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok thought for a while:
“Well, what is it you want, Berl Tailor? Are you demanding a living?”
Berl was insulted.
“A living! That won’t do! He should have provided me with a living before! Everyone is entitled to a living! Even the birds in the air and the worm in the ground. That’s the least one can expect. Now I insist on more!
“Name it, Berele.”
“Is it true, Rebbe, that on Yom Kippur only the sins of man against God are absolved?”
“That is true.”
“And the sins of man against his fellow man are not forgiven?”
Berl straightened himself like a ramrod and announced loudly and firmly:
“Then I, Berl the tailor, will not submit, and I will not re-enter the service of the Lord unless this year, for my sake, God forgives these sins as well!”
“Am I right, Rebbe?”
“You are right, Rabbi Levi Yitzkhok answered, stand your ground and you’re bound to win …”
Then he turned toward the pulpit, looked upward for a while, listening carefully, and soon announced:
“You’ve won, Berl! Run home and get your robe and prayer shawl!”