A Strange Seder

A Strange Seder

It was shortly before Passover. The court of Rabbi Baruch was quickly filling with his faithful disciples and admirers who came from afar to spend the holiday of Passover with their beloved Rebbe.

Rabbi Baruch himself was restless. The house was perfectly ready. He himself had spent weeks not only clearing away the outer chametz, leaven, in every nook and cranny of the home, but searching within himself too for the "leaven" of possible sin or wrongdoing in his soul.

But something else was amiss, he could feel it, though he was cheered by the arrival of his good friends and followers.

There was hardly a minute when he did not have to greet one or another of his chasidim who had come from afar, leaving their families behind to be with him at the seder. For the seder nights were a thrilling experience of learning for Rabbi Baruch's followers.

Suddenly, only two nights before Passover, the call came to him to leave the security and peace of his home and go forth on a mission.

Somewhere, near or far, he had something to accomplish. And there was no stopping Rabbi Baruch. His family and chassidim knew that there was no use in trying to argue with him. The next morning Rabbi Baruch rose early and packed wine, matzot and other necessities for the seder.

He set out on a journey into the unknown while his stunned and disappointed chassidim sadly watched him depart.

Somehow, they hoped, and Rabbi Baruch hoped with them, that his mission would be a brief one that would allow him to return in time for the first seder.

But the day passed. The wind was strong, and snow kept piling up on the road as the coach covered mile after mile of slippery road. As they travelled eastward, the horse itself chose the way when they came to a crossroads.

When night fell, a house was nowhere in sight. The weather became unbearable; ice and snow lashed at horse and men. Rabbi Baruch, immersed in thought and prayer, did not feel a thing.

But finally the coachman turned to him and said, "I am afraid, Rebbe, we cannot go on. We'll have to stay here in the midst of the forest. The icy winds and snow are too strong, and my horse cannot hold out much longer. Let's try to spend the remainder of the night here."

Rabbi Baruch and the coachman bedded down in the wagon as best they could. They threw a heavy blanket over the horse and prepared to spend the night in this lonely spot, far from the comforts of Rabbi Baruch's court. The storm became increasingly strong.

The winds howled and the very earth seemed to shake and rumble under the onslaught of the elements. Suddenly, there was a terrifying roar in the distance. The ground shook, and the horse tore itself loose and ran away in terror.

"We must follow him and catch him, or else we shall have to spend the Yom Tov here in this terrible wilderness!" The coachman shouted. He took the wagon, lamp and whip and Rabbi Baruch put the small bundles of seder provisions in his coat pockets, and they set out to find the horse.

The storm did not let up. Snow, ice and howling winds made their attempt to follow the horse ever more difficult, until they were ready to give up and turn back to the wagon. But that, too, now seemed impossible.

Suddenly, the coachman pointed in the direction in which the horse had run. A small light seemed visible from afar, shaking wildly to and fro. And then there was more wild rumbling underground, and the light was gone. To Rabbi Baruch it seemed as if he had heard human voices crying.

And even though it came from the far distance and was only a thin sound, it seemed more terrible than any cries he had ever heard.

"We must go there to see what happened," he said. Despite the protests of the coachman, who was frightened by the unusual events and worn out by the struggle against the elements, they pushed through the snow, step by step. Suddenly they heard the cry again, stronger than before and still terrifying.

"Faster, faster," urged Rabbi Baruch. "Someone over there needs our help."

After a long and painful struggle over every inch of the way, they finally came close enough to see that a whole piece of ground seemed broken off as if by a giant's hand and thrown into the depths. "There must have been a quake in the mines that end below the forest." This time even the coachman heard the voice, full of horror, that came from the depth.

"We must try to get down there, regardless of the risk."

In vain the coachman pointed out the impossibility of climbing down the steep, jagged edge. Sliding, rolling from rock to rock, clinging desperately to roots of trees that were broken off like matches, they scrambled down the incline.

What they saw made them shudder. The quake had crushed a small settlement of several houses that now lay on the ground all split apart, with walls, roofs and beams sticking out at crazy angles. Worst of all, from the midst of the rubble heap came the moaning and occasional wild cries that had brought them here.

Quickly now, disregarding all danger to themselves, they made their way down to the remnant of the settlement.

Ignoring the lifeless bodies of men, women and children beneath the walls, crumbled roofs and tree trunks, they directed all their efforts to helping those whom they found alive, pinned under heavy objects, dazed, blinded, or seriously wounded.

Their weariness seemed to have vanished, and they did not feel their own scratches and wounds as they went from person to person, wiping away blood and tearing their clothes into strips to stop the bleeding.

The coachman managed to make a fire. They melted snow for hot water, and their bottle of whiskey helped to dull the people's pain. They quickly realized that the place had been occupied by yishuvniks, Jewish settlers who lived here far from a town, at the edge of the forest.

Those who were able to speak believed the rabbi and the coachman were angels sent to them by G‑d in their hour of need.

"We are human beings like you, but it was surely the hand of the Almighty who led us here," Rabbi Baruch told them. He kept on speaking in his kind voice, calming the terrified people who were searching about for their loved ones.

Morning dawned by the time they had finished administering first aid. They had found twelve adults and several children still alive.

Slowly, laboriously, they took them all into the cellar of one of the houses that had miraculously remained almost intact, and bedded them down on whatever clothes, rags or covers they could find.

It was almost evening when it occurred to Rabbi Baruch and the coachman that this was the seder night. Trying to help the unfortunate victims of the catastrophe, they had not had time to think of anything else.

But now they hurriedly set up the most primitive seder one can imagine. Together everyone prayed with Rabbi Baruch, who said the evening prayers word for word so that the poor yishuvniks could follow him. Then the small packages of Passover provisions from the deep coat pockets of the Rabbi took their place on the table which had been set up on a large rock in the cellar.

The small, dim wagon lamp provided light. But the genuine brightness of that unforgettable seder flowed from Rabbi Baruch. Although he had not rested a minute during the past thirty six hours, he did not feel his weariness.

All night he went through the ritual of the seder, sharing the matzot, wine and vegetables with the people. He told them the beautiful stories of the Exodus from Egypt as they had never heard them before.

His stories, examples and inspiring thoughts made them forget all their pains, worries and loss. At dawn they all went to sleep as well as they could, in a more festive mood somehow than they had even known in happier times.

The day of Yom Tov and the second seder passed almost as peacefully, although the wounded began to get restless again, as if the daylight made them forget the magic of Rabbi Baruch's beautiful and inspiring stories and prayers.

Suddenly, they heard voices from a distance. The huddled group watched for several hours until finally a group of rescuers made the dangerous climb down the steep edge. As the coachman had suspected, in the wake of the storm an earthquake had dislodged some of the old coal mine walls on which the small settlement was built.

The rescuers had come from a nearby village after finding the terrified horse running wild. They had discovered the catastrophe, and brought everything necessary to help the survivors.

With the help of strong ropes attached to makeshift hoists, the rescuers lifted the wounded on stretchers. Wagons were waiting above to take them away. But, to the surprise of the rescuers, all said they would prefer to wait with Rabbi Baruch until the Yom Tov was over and then follow him to his town.

Only the seriously wounded, at Rabbi Baruch's request, agreed to be taken away at once.

Thus it was that on the first day of Chol Hamoed, the intermediate days of the holiday, a group of wagons pulled up in front of Rabbi Baruch's court. There the chassidim were waiting patiently, praying and enjoying the holiday quietly, hoping for the speedy return of their beloved Rebbe.

Although they knew that whenever Rabbi Baruch went on one of his missions it was because an urgent situation needed his personal attention, the story they heard from the survivors was even stranger than they had anticipated.

To all of the chassidim it seemed indeed a miracle that Rabbi Baruch had been nearby when the earthquake occurred and had noticed the light and the voices from afar.

The stories of the unusual seder nights in the cellar were a source of great satisfaction and a partial reward for their own disappointment at having to spend the Yom Tov without their Rebbe.

Now the rest of Passover was filled with joy and happy celebration, even more than usual, at the court of Rabbi Baruch where every Yom Tov was an unforgettable experience.

By master story teller Gershon Kranzler


The Coachman and Other Stories

Published and copyright by Kehot Publication Society, Brooklyn, NY

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Zalman Brighton, Massachusetts April 15, 2013

Story The story was so interesting Reply

Anonymous london, england via kids.tzivoshashem.org February 3, 2008

the GREAT STORY that was a GREAT STORY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Reply