The people of Berditschev discover just how delicately the world hangs between good and evil…
It was the first day of Rosh Hashanah in the synagogue of the Berditschever Rabbi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. The synagogue was crowded. The Berditschever Rabbi himself was at the amud, leading the congregation in the solemn prayers.
"All declare Your Majesty O’ G‑d, Who sits in judgment…"
The Rabbi's soft, vibrant voice touched the heartstrings of every worshipper. Hardly anybody's eyes were dry. From the women's gallery many a sob burst forth, loud enough to send the tears rolling down every face.
"…to Him, Who searches the hearts in the Day of judgment…"
As the Rabbi pronounced the words, his voice broke, and everybody's heart was filled with remorse. Everybody pictured himself standing before the Seat of Glory, where the judge of the whole Universe presided to dispense justice, and to pronounce the verdict. "Be merciful and gracious to us," was the inaudible plea, coming from the innermost recesses of every heart.
The Rabbi recited line after line of the solemn prayer, which the congregation repeated, until he came to the line: "…to Him, Who acquires His servants in judgment..."
Here the Rabbi suddenly paused, for the words died on his lips. His tallit slid from his head onto his shoulders, revealing his pale face; his eyes were shut, and he seemed to be in a trance.
A shudder passed through the worshippers. Something was amiss. A critical situation must have arisen in the Heavenly Court --things were not going well for the petitioners! The Prosecution was apparently on the verge of triumph! Only increased prayer and repentance could change the ominous verdict...
The congregation of worshippers held its breath, and waited with palpitating hearts.
A few moments later, the Rabbi suddenly came to. The color returned to his face, which now became radiant with joy. His voice shook with ecstasy and triumph as he declared:
"To Him, who acquires His servants in judgment!"
After the service, when the Rabbi was sitting at his festive table, surrounded by his ardent followers, one of the elders plucked up courage to inquire of the Rabbi as to what caused the interruption in his prayer, and why precisely at those words.
The Rabbi began to relate: “ I felt myself lifted up to the gates of heaven, and then I saw Satan carrying a heavy load. The sight filled me with anxiety, for I knew that the Unholy One was carrying a bag full of sins to put onto the Scales of justice before the Heavenly Court. Suddenly Satan put the bag down and hastened in a downward swoop --no doubt to pick up yet another sin, committed by some hapless Jew on this very solemn day.
“ The bag having been left unattended, I went up to it and began to examine its contents. The bag was crammed with all kinds of sins: evil gossip, hatred without reason, jealousies, wasted time which should have been spent in study of the Torah, thoughtless prayers, and ugly creatures of sins, big and small. And while I was wondering what to do, I knew that even at that very moment the One with a Yousand Eyes had spied yet another sin, and would soon bring it gleefully to put into the bag! Dear me, I thought, things don't look too good…
“ I pushed my hand into the bag and began pulling out one sin after another, to look at it more closely. I saw that almost all the sins were committed unwillingly, without pleasure, downright carelessly, or in sheer ignorance! No Jew was really bad, but the circumstances of exile, poverty and hardships, sometimes harden his heart, set his nerves on edge, bring about petty jealousies, and the like… And strangely enough, as I was examining all these sins, and thinking what was really behind them, they seemed to melt away, one by one, until hardly anything was left in the bag. The bag dropped back, limp and empty…
“ The next moment, I heard a terrible cry. Satan was back, and discovering what I had done, he was filled with anger and consternation. You thief! What did you do to my sins? He grabbed at my beard and peyot, yelling, Thief, Robber. All year I labored to gather these precious sins, and now you have stolen them! You shall pay double!
" How can I pay you? I pleaded. My sins may be many, but not so many…
" Well, you know the Law, the Adversary countered, He who steals must pay double, and if he is unable to pay, he shall be sold into servitude. You are my slave now! Come!
“ The thought of being Satan's slave chilled my blood, and I was ready to collapse. My captor brought me before the Seat of Glory, and pleaded his case before the Supreme judge of the Universe. After listening to Satan's complaint, the Holy One, blessed is He, said: I will buy him, for so I promised through my prophet Isaiah: ‘Even to his old age, I will be the same, and when he is gray headed, still will I sustain him. I have made him, I will bear him, I will sustain and save him…’
“ At this point I came to,” concluded the Berditschever Rabbi, “ Now I understand the meaning of the words: To Him, who acquires His servants in judgment! We are the servants of G‑d, and if we are faithful servants, G‑d protects us and is our Merciful Master. Let us remain faithful servants to G‑d, and we'll be spared from being servants of servants, and in the merit of this, the Almighty will surely inscribe us all in the Book of Life, for a happy New Year!”