Bechukotai: ‘The Final Lesson’

Rabbi Elisha had been studying in his yeshiva for many years.  He had always looked forward to the time when he would be ready to learn the mystical writings of the Kabbalah, and he now felt that the right time had come.  There was a well known mekubal, master of Kabbalah, who lived only three days’ journey from Rabbi Elisha’s home town, and he had hoped for a long time that this famous tzaddik would agree to be his teacher.

Three days passed very quickly for Rabbi Elisha;  so occupied was his mind with Torah thoughts he hardly noticed the changing scenery or the passing of day and night as his feet took him without a moment’s rest to the home of the holy Rabbi Yosef Bar Yosef.  As he arrived at the door of Bar Yosef’s humble little cottage, Rabbi Elisha was surprised to hear his name being called from inside.  “Please, Reb Elisha, come in.  I have been expecting you, how was your journey?”  There was no way Bar Yosef could have known to expect his visitor, and Elisha realised immediately that all the fantastic stories he had heard about the mekubal must have been true.

Rabbi Bar Yosef agreed to teach Elisha the holy Kabbalistic writings. Caring little for food or sleep the couple sat in the little dusty study of Bar Yosef’s cottage and devoted themselves to discovering the Torah’s mysteries.  Through learning together almost all day and all night for twenty years the two became very close.  However, they always knew that the time would come when they would have to part and one day Bar Yosef took Elisha aside to prepare him for his final lesson.

With his small blue eyes piercing through a morning shadow Bar Yosef adjusted his tefilin on his forehead and began to describe a strange mission which Elisha was to carry out in order to complete his training.

“You have learnt well,” began Rabbi Bar Yosef, “but there is one more very important lesson you must learn before I send you out to teach others.  You have sat for many years with books so you know and understand books very well.  It is now time for you to learn about people.  If I had all eternity there would not be enough time to teach you everything there is to know about the ways of men, and most of it you need to discover for yourself.  Nevertheless, I am sending you on a journey, a mission, which will prepare you a little for the life you must soon face for yourself in the hustle bustle world outside my four walls.”

“Tomorrow,” continued the mekubal, “immediately after you have finished your morning prayers, you are to mount the driver’s seat of my carriage and take hold of the horses’ reins,  I shall instruct the horses as to their destination and you should hold the reins only loosely, allowing them to gallop freely.  Do not worry if you lose track of time, for the journey will be long yet the horses know the way and you need have no fear.  The horses will slow to a gentle trot once they reach a certain town and you should then grip the reins more firmly as you pass along the main high street.  Upon reaching the farthest outskirts of the town you must turn the carriage around and allow the horses to gallop freely again as they return swiftly to my cottage.”

The next morning, once they had completed their shacharit prayers, both men walked quietly and deep in thought towards Rabbi Bar Yosef’s small stable, the home of his three trusty mares.  In a short time the horses had been strapped securely to their carriage. Elisha climbed up and sat in the driver’s seat.  Rabbi Yosef  Bar Yosef whispered some strange sounding words into the ears of each horse in turn, then wished Rabbi Elisha a safe journey as the carriage lunged forward and twelve stampeding hooves shot away in unison.  Bar Yosef stood and watched until there was nothing to be seen but a swirling brown cloud of dust on the distant horizon, then he walked back into his cottage to resume his studies.

Elisha allowed the horses to gallop fiercely for thirty days.  They took him over grassy hills, through chalky valleys and across wide open plains, Elisha found the journey very exciting and although quite puzzled by the whole adventure he nevertheless remained calm, always remembering his teacher’s words, “…the journey will be long yet the horses know the way and you need have no fear.”

The thundering gallop eventually slowed to a rhythmic canter then finally a relaxed trot.  Elisha rubbed his tired eyes as he gazed around him at luscious golden fields which lay on the outskirts of the approaching town.  In and around the fields there were many people working and busying themselves in various ways, and all along the roadside ware small, meek houses.  Elisha could tell from the people’s shaggy clothes and weather beaten skin that this must be the poor end of town.  Yet all the faces he could see were bright and happy and every voice he heard had a sparkle of laughter.  “What a delightful place this must be,” thought Elisha as his master’s horses took him towards the centre of the town.

A little further along this road, which appeared to be becoming the main high street of which Rabbi Bar Yosef had spoken, Elisha noticed that the homes were larger and more substantial.  People were wearing better clothes and appeared to be quite wealthy. However, they did not look particularly cheerful.  An obvious cause for this unhappiness, thought Elisha, was the fact that for some reason the streets in this part of town were completely waterlogged.  The drains were overflowing and muddied rainwater was ankle high, forcing many people to abandon their flooded homes.  Elisha was quite upset by this unfortunate sight but became positively distressed as he came to what must once have been the richest and most splendid part of the town.

Not houses but mansions now lined the street. Garden walls of emerald marble stood against backdrops of sculpted evergreens and boutiques displayed the kinds of clothes and jewellery that would normally be reserved only for royalty.  However, this part of town was also ankle deep in water.  Worse still, some kind of calamity must have swept through this area for roofs were smashed and battered, people’s fine clothes now hung torn and tattered over broken limbs, and as they walked aimlessly their worn, unhappy faces looked down in order to avoid deep potholes in the ground.

No sooner had Elisha begun to ponder what strange disaster might have struck this grim place than the horses had made a swift about turn.  They passed once again through the high street, except this time at high speeds on their return journey to the house of the great mekubal, Elisha’s teacher Rabbi Yosef Bar Yosef.

Upon arriving back at his master’s cottage Reb Elisha was asked to describe his journey.  Once he had finished his teacher looked up from the large open book in front of him and with his gaze fixed on Elisha inquired:

“Do you understand what you have seen?”

“No, master,” came the immediate response, “and I am greatly troubled by it.”

Rabbi Bar Yosef instructed Reb Elisha to sit down,

“I shall now explain the purpose of your journey and when I have finished your lesson will be complete,” he said.

Bar Yosef explained that he had once been a simple yeshiva bachur, himself. He, too, had studied all the different facets of the Torah for many years. He too had reached a point when he was ready to find someone to teach him Kabbalah, and he too had decided to travel to a famous mekubal, one even greater than Bar Yosef was ever to become himself.  Rabbi Bar Yosef had also studied with his own teacher for twenty years and his teacher too had set him one final task before granting him permission to go and teach others.

“He told me, as I have told you, that I had been away from people for too long.  I was to go and discover the ways of men, to see how people behave and to learn how they think.

“I was instructed to go on a long journey and to stay in the town where my horses would slow to a trot.  If, while I was there, I should be asked to pray for anything at all I was to do so without question and with all my heart and soul.

“The following morning I mounted the front seat of lay teacher’s carriage, my teacher whispered into the two horses’ ears, clapped once and off we went.

“Thirty days later the horses began to slow down after having galloped tirelessly since our departure.  It was Erev Shabbat.   I asked for directions to the shul and upon finding it joined the community in their Kabbalat Shabbat prayers.  Afterwards I accepted an offer of hospitality from a kind gentleman who took me home and introduced men to his family.

“During the meal, I was told that the three parts of the town, Barleyplains, (the poor end – mostly small farms), The Avenue (occupied by slightly more ‘well to do’ residents) and Whitevillas (named after the grand homes in this, the most wealthy area) would all meet together every Shabbos.  One week the whole community would get together for an after supper oneg Shabbat on Friday evening, the next week for a communal Shabbat lunch and the third for seuda shlishit.  Then the cycle would start again.

“This week was to be the cneg Shabbat.  There had been a bad drought for nearly a year.  Much davening and fasting had not seemed to help,  At the oneg Shabbat it was decided that there should be a meeting of the whole town one evening the following week to discuss the problem.  Being Shabbat, the discussion stopped short of setting a day and time for the meeting and everyone joined together in the singing of various Shabbat zemirot and the chanting of favourite chassidic niggunim (tunes).

“At the beginning of the week I moved into a cottage on the outskirts of the town.  The meeting took place on the Wednesday.  It was decided that a delegation of representatives from each of the town’s three areas should come and ask me to pray for rain or their behalf.  They came, I heard their request, and they left.  Remembering the words of my teacher, I stood out in an open field and prayed for two full days without a break and with all my heart and soul until I felt the gentle splat of raindrops, on my forehead.

“The rains descended on the town for two whole weeks.  Rivers rose up again and proudly surged anew between their bobsleigh banks.  Wells and reservoirs filled up too.  Thousands of rivulets danced through the fields and the long unfamiliar sight of fresh, green grass began to reappear in parched gardens.

“When the downpour ceased another meeting was called; however, this time it was attended only by residents of The Avenue and Whitevillas.  No one came from Barleyplains.  All present expressed their pleasure at having been blessed with so much rain and it was decided that I should be asked to pray a little more, except this time it would be for money,

“Representatives from The Avenue and Whitevillas were sent to me to request that I pray to Hashem for money to fall from the sky.  I granted also this request and prayed with all my heart and soul for two full days without a break until I saw the first notes floating down to earth.  No money fell over Barleyplains.

“The notes fell for five days.  People were dancing in the streets and stuffing their clothes with more money than they had ever seen.  A problem arose, however, in that all this paper was beginning to block the drains.  Dirty water sat ankle high all through the streets of The Avenue and Whitevillas.  Pipes were forever having to be cleared in order for people to be able to fill their sinks and baths with water before their taps became clogged again, and lavatories were continually breaking down.

 “Then a third meeting was arranged.  This one was only attended by residents of Whitevillas.  Although they were more than happy with the great success of my prayers the people of Whitevillas thought it would be a shame to spend so much of their new found wealth on goods which could be acquired in another way.

“At the meeting ideas passed to and fro until it was decided that a representative should be sent to me with one more request – that I pray for items if furniture to fall from the heavens!  Upon receiving the request I granted it and began to pray immediately.  For three days and nights this time I prayed with all the energy I could muster.  Finally, the skies opened over Whitevillas and many kinds of furniture came hurtling furiously to earth.

“Tables, chairs, wardrobes and chests of drawers of all sizes and designs came crashing through the large roofs of Whitevillas homes, often smashing through several floors at a time.  Beds, writing desks, bookcases and pianos tumbled haphazardly onto the unsuspecting streets and sat in the deep craters they had made.  Worse still, many injuries were caused by the falling furniture as well as by the wild panic that followed.

“Once the last of the furniture had fallen and the wind was beginning to carry cries of anguish and confusion, my carriage arrived at the door of the cottage, pulled by the two horses which had taken me there.  I mounted the front seat and allowed the horses to gallop freely back to my teacher’s home.  When I arrived my teacher welcomed me with food and drink.  As I began to eat he started to inquire about my trip.

“Tell me,” he began, “how are the residents of Barleyplains?”

“I told him that they were well, and happy.  Barleyplains had been content with the rainfalls and had not returned to me with any more requests.

“My teacher then asked about The Avenue and Whitevillas.  The greed of those in The Avenue, I explained, had led to blocked drains and flooding.  Nevertheless, their new found wealth satisfied them and they asked for nothing more after the money.

“The residents of Whitevillas, however, possessed such greed that they could not even be satisfied with this abundance of money.  Moreover their greed led them along a path of pure stupidity and their final request led to many people becoming injured and homeless.

“Now you understand the nature of men,” my teacher continued,  ” . . , and the stupidity of greed.  Know that the poor man who is satisfied with what he has is truly rich, while the rich man who always seeks more will always be poor.”

“He then mentioned the saying of Ben Zoma from Pirkei Avot (chapter 4, Mishna 1):  ” . . . Who is rich?  He who is happy with his lot, as it is said: ‘When you eat of the labour of your hands you are praiseworthy and all is well with you.’ (Tehillin 128, 2)”

“The people of Barleyplains,” he continued, “are content to live by the work of their hands, tilling the soil and eating the fruits of their labour.  They prayed only for the blessing of rain, the natural sustenance without which nothing can survive.  Once this blessing had been granted the fields would yield ample produce and the farmers would be happy. Happiness is true wealth and no other manner of wealth is of any real value if it does not bring happiness.”

Rabbi Yosef Bar Yosef told his talmid, Reb Elisha, that since he too had now witnessed the results of the ways of men he was ready to go out and teach, “…but always remember,” Rabbi Bar Yosef concluded, “the greatest bracha you can ever give is that a person should be happy with his lot.”

At the beginning of Parashat Bechukotai we read of the blessings Hashem will give us if we keep His mitzvot.  One of these is, “va’achaltem lachmechem-lasova…” which means, “you shall eat your bread to the full.” (Vayikra 26, 5)  Rashi explains these words to mean that a person will be satisfied by eating only a little.  Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, in his sefer ‘Daas Torah’, asks the following question:  has the Torah not just said ‘…and your threshing shall reach to the vintage and the vintage shall reach to the sowing time’?  If there will in any case be a great abundance of crops what extra bracha will there be in being able to satisfy yourself with only a little food – after all, there will be more than enough for everyone!  He answers that to be satisfied with a certain amount is a bracha in itself.

Some people always want more, whilst others are happy with only a little. When we pray for our needs, therefore, it is important to remember that the Almi-ghty not only provides us with our daily requirements but also with the blessing of satisfaction, without which no amount of sustenance would ever be enough.

© J. Richards 2004

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