"Saturday Night, Full Moon"
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18 century (2nd half) Eastern Europe

Beginner's Luck

Biographical note for this story:

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810) is one of the more popular rebbes in chassidic history. He was a close disciple of the second leader of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch, successor to the Baal Shem Tov. He is best known for his love for every Jew and his perpetual intercession before Heaven on their behalf. Many of his teachings are contained in the posthumously published Kedushat Levi.

This story can be related to:

Weekly Readings: Shoftim – Deut. 16:18-20 (“Appoint yourselves judges…in all your cities….They shall not pervert justice; nor show favoritism…. Justice, justice shall you pursue….”)

Holidays:

Jewish Calendar date: Tishrei 25 (a few days after Simchat Torah) - yahrzeit of the Berditchever.

Main Themes: court: rabbinical, orphans; Other Topics: judges, buying-selling-divine justice


Beginner's Luck

LESS THAN A WEEK after the tzaddik Rabbi Levi Yitzchak moved to Berdichev in 5745 (1785 C.E.) to serve as chief rabbi there, three men knocked on his door to ask him to judge a question of Jewish law for them. It would be his very first case as a rabbinical judge in his new position.

A wealthy merchant from the nearby town of Hemelnick had brought several barrels filled with honey to sell at the big fair in Berdichev. Unfortunately, just then, the price of honey dropped sharply. Not wanting to suffer a loss on his investment, he asked an acquaintance to store the honey for him until the price would rise again.

The two were old friends, and the local man was happy to oblige. Knowing each other to be completely honest, they didn't write down anything of their arrangement or call in witnesses.

Time went by. The price of honey remained low, so the barrels remained in their Berdichev cellar, untouched and unnoticed.

More time went by. The man on whose property the honey was stored contracted a fatal disease and passed away. Everything happened so quickly, he never had a chance to explain to his family anything about the state of his affairs.

More time passed. The price of honey finally began to slowly climb. When the increase became significant, the owner of the barrels showed up at his deceased friend's house and claimed his honey from the sons who had inherited and taken over their father's business. They, however, having heard nothing about it from their father, refused to honor the Hemelnicker merchant's claim. After some discussion, they decided to proceed to the bet-din (rabbinical court) to present the case before the new rabbi.

RABBI LEVI YITZCHAK listened to the litigants carefully, even though the law in such a case was clear. Of course he would have to rule against the out-of-town merchant. Even if there had been witnesses or a signed document, Torah law stipulates that claims against "orphans" (i.e., heirs who are disadvantaged by the fact that they have no way of knowing what transpired between the deceased and their litigant) cannot be collected without first swearing an oath as to the validity of one's claim; and here there were neither documents nor witnesses.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak hesitated to pronounce his verdict and resolve the case. Two nagging thoughts disturbed him. Why, in his first days in his new position, did the Almighty arrange for his inaugural judgment to be something so straightforward and clear-cut, with no room to maneuver left or right to attempt to arrive at any sort of compromise? Could it be a hint from Heaven that his practice to always pursue accommodation and compromise was not correct? That only adhering strictly to the letter of the law can be considered the way of truth?

The other thought that made him uncomfortable, perhaps even more than the first, was: Why did the Supernal Judge arrange it so that his very first ruling in this town would be considered bizarre by the entire populace? After all, the merchant from Hemelnick was well-known to everyone in town as a scrupulously honest man, as someone who was already wealthy and as such immune to monetary pressure, and as far from theft as east is from west. Furthermore, everyone knew that the merchant and the deceased were old friends who trusted each other explicitly, never resorting to documents or witnesses in their transactions.

Surely, the entire town would be paying attention to the first ruling handed down by their new rabbi. Everyone was sure to wonder: Why should the law of the Torah be so opposite to common sense? "Why me and why now?" thought Rabbi Levi Yitzchak to himself.

He couldn't bring himself to issue the verdict just yet. The contradiction between the natural sense of what was right and the law of the Torah was too great. Even though the claimant and defendants anxiously awaited his decision, he asked them to excuse him for a few more minutes.

TURNING ASIDE to a corner of the room, he poured forth in silent prayer his frustration, beseeching G-d to enlighten him with understanding.

Suddenly, the owner of the honey jumped off his seat as if struck by a bolt of lightning, and exclaimed: "I remember! I remember!" So struck was he by his recollection, and so convinced of its importance and relevance, that he didn't hesitate to interrupt the rabbi, who was standing in the corner, absorbed in his personal prayer.

"Honored Rabbi, please forgive me," he called out excitedly. "While waiting here I had the most amazing realization! An old memory, which I haven't thought about in many years, just flashed through my mind. Rescued from oblivion! I'm talking about something that happened fifty-three years ago, when I was just a lad of 14.

"Our father died suddenly, leaving us a large inheritance in cash and possessions. Included in this was a storage room filled with casks of wine and oil.

"One day, the grandfather of these two young men, may his rest be peaceful, came to our home in Hemelnick. He claimed that the wine and oil were his, that he had stored them with our father for safekeeping. My brothers and I were still quite young then, and had never been involved in any of our father's business affairs. We had no idea what we were supposed to do, but we were reluctant to give up the merchandise just like that.

"We all went to the rabbi of the town and presented our case. He ruled in our favor, explaining that nothing can be taken from the inheritance of orphans without absolute proof and an oath. The wine and oil remained in our possession. After a while, we sold the entire lot for a good price.

"What I just realized is that the money we received for that wine and oil is exactly equal to the value of my honey, which is now in the possession of the sons of my departed friend!"

RABBI LEVI YITZCHAK's face shone with inner happiness. With his apt comparison of the two parallel events fifty plus years apart, the merchant had conceded his own present case. For the same reason that, as an orphan, he was entitled to keep the wine and oil from before, he had to relinquish his claim on these orphans for his honey that day.

Now, all was clear to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. Divine Providence had presented him this case so early in his new tenure, to teach him an important lesson. What seems obvious and true to human eyes is not necessarily the truth, or even fair. Absolute truth resides only with the laws of the Torah. G-d's ledger is always open, and all accounts are forever being reckoned and balanced. Some may take fifty years for resolution, some more, and others less. What is guaranteed is that the Master of the Universe constantly oversees all to be sure that justice is done.

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[Source: Translated-adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the Hebrew weekly Sichat HaShavua, #593 and #1170. (First published on chabad.org, in 5762/2002.)]