In the small town of Gzybow, somewhere in Poland,
unlike the widespread custom, the honor of reciting the Maftir Yonah,
on Yom Kippur, was not “sold.” This most desired honor was
accorded -- of all people -- neither
to the rich parnass, leader of the community, nor to the gabbaim,
the trustees, but to the poor woodchopper, Berel, who occupied the
farthest corner of the Shul and hardly ever opened his mouth to speak to
anyone! Only on Yom Kippur, did this timid man brush past the tailor’s
assistant and the baker’s helper who shared the bench with him. He walked
past the rows of tradesmen and peddlers until he reached the middle of the
large shul where the rich businessmen had their seats. He walked up
the three steps leading to the bimahr and said the blessing in a
firm voice. He did the same, too, after the baal koreh
finished reading the Torah portion. After the holy scroll had been lifted
from the shulchan, Berel read the story of the Prophet Yonah with
its deep lesson on the power of repentance. His strong, firm voice
pronounced every word clearly and slowly, so that its meaning became clear
to everyone who listened. When he concluded, he would walk over to the
parnass, shake his hand, and thank him for the privilege of “Maftir
Yonah.” He would then returned to his corner of the Shul, never to be
heard or seen again until the minchah prayers of the following Day
of Atonement. Undoubtedly, Yom Kippur was the day of Berel the
woodchopper, the poorest member of the Jewish community of Gzybow.
Do you wish to know why Berel deserved such an honor?
Let me tell you.
Once, two days after Rosh Hashanah, Berel the
woodchopper was sitting on a tree trunk, his sharply ground ax lying idly by his
side. In his hand he held the crust of the black bread that served him as lunch.
Yet Berel did not eat. He was thinking of the services in shul, and his
appetite was gone. Every time the High Holidays came around and the aliyot
were sold, he felt deeply ashamed of his poverty. To step before the Torah
on one of these sacred days was a religious duty. Yet he had never been given
the opportunity to fulfill it. The aliyot of Rosh Hashanah and Yom
Kippur were reserved for the more fortunate Jews who could afford to outbid each
other. Not that Berel was sorry for himself. He knew that G‑d gave every man his
proper lot, so he never grumbled, and was satisfied to live by the honest work
of his hands, even though it involved much hardship. But this was something
else. If the parnass had a more beautiful etrog and lulov,
well and good. Or if his, Berel’s, own seat in shul was the last of the
last row, he could understand and bear it cheerfully. There must, after all, be
differences of wealth and position.
Yet, on the High Holidays, Berel felt there should be
equality among rich and poor. For then, every Jew regardless of his wealth,
stands before his G‑d, “naked and wanting everything,” to pass before His Divine
judgment. Why then, he asked himself time and again, should only the rich have
the privilege of being called to the Torah at such momentous occasions. You see,
it was not a matter of personal jealousy with Berel the woodchopper, but it was
his conscience that made him feel the lack of fairness in the order of things in
the shul of Gzybow.
“Why so sad, my good friend,” a pleasant, deep voice
interrupted Berel’s pondering over social justice. The woodchopper looked up and
saw an old man standing before him dressed in black rabbinical garb against
which his long, white beard showed like a broad strip of precious ermine. “Peace
be with you, reverend Rabbi,” said Berel politely. “May G‑d give you, too, peace
of mind,” was the gentle reply.
“It surely must be something serious that troubles you, my
friend. Don’t you know that all worries and anxiety come to naught before G‑d?
Even evil has its place in G‑d’s grand scheme of good.”
“I have no doubts as to that, worthy Rabbi,” Berel replied
respectfully. “Yet I try to understand why Divine justice permits certain things
to happen.” Seeing the interest of the Rabbi, Berel told him what had spoiled
“My friend,” said the wise, old man after Berel had finished
his story, “I fully appreciate the seriousness of your sorrow. Yet it seems to
me that a Jew should never lose faith in G‑d’s justice. More often than not, we
realize later what was good or bad for us, and we grasp the limitation of our
narrow view. Perhaps the small joys of your hard life are bigger, and mean more,
than all the honors and treasures which the wealthy can buy with their money.
Look at the birds in the air and the animals in the fields. G‑d gives each one
what he needs, and every being serves at the job which G‑d has assigned to him.
So do not worry. Pray seriously and search your heart. The doors of repentance
and atonement are open to poor and rich alike.” The Rabbi’s words had made Berel
happy, and he firmly resolved never to doubt G‑d’s justice again.
“Shabbat Shuvah” (the Shabbat between
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) is a traditional date for maggidim,
preachers, to stir the conscience of the community and prepare them for the
approaching Yom Kippur. Such a traveling maggid came to Gzybow, and the
parnass announced that he would speak to the congregation right after the
minchah service. Berel was not a very learned man, but in his simple way
he was able to grasp the meaning and purpose of most sermons. He therefore
stayed on in the afternoon to listen to the maggid. He was pleasantly
surprised to find that the famous “stirrer of souls” was none other than the
wise old Rabbi who had consoled him in the forest. He was even more proud when
the old man walked up to the bimah and turned to greet him with a
friendly nod before he got ready to address the congregation. After a few
seconds of expectant silence, the warm voice that had comforted Berel began a
singsong discourse that cast a magic spell on the large crowd gathered in the
synagogue. Speaking like a father to his children, the Maggid entreated his
listeners to open their hearts and souls to the thoughts of penitence that would
save them from punishment. He begged and scolded, he whispered and he exclaimed,
as he tried to bring home his lesson to the Jews in Gzybow.
And then, in the midst of his stirring call to teshuvah
came the words that carried Berel the woodchopper into another, higher sphere.
“Do you want to know whether your hearts are truly sincere, and whether you mean
what your lips say?” the Maggid exclaimed to the deeply moved audience. “Do you
want to know the truth? Search yourselves and see whether you can stand up to
this test. Tell me, to whom do you accord all the honors on the High Holidays?
To the poor and downtrodden or to the rich and the honored? Do you take
advantage of this last opportunity to turn the tide, before it swallows you, and
break through to the Divine sea of mercy? Would you ever think of giving
Maftir Yonah to the poor man there in the last seat of the last bench
of your shul, or do you sell it for a few pieces of gold?” And with these
words the maggid pointed straight at Berel the woodchopper.
Berel thought he was dreaming when every person in shul
turned to look at him respectfully.
And thus, ever since that speech of the great maggid,
Maftir Yonah was the exclusive right of Berel the woodchopper, the
poorest man in the community of Gzybow. And not only he, but everyone in the
crowded shul, felt the holiness of the moment when he stepped up to the
bimah, and after the reading of the portion of the Torah, recited the
moving tale of the sincere return and salvation of the mighty city of Nineveh.