Just days before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev received a letter from his friend Rabbi Baruch of Mezhibuzh, penned in an urgent stroke:

Heaven disclosed to me that the coming year looms grievously over the Jewish people. Their sins are many and are being put to use by the heavenly prosecutors. We must work together to mitigate them at the earliest opportunity.

Immediately after Selichot the next morning, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak began strolling the streets and alleyways of Berditchev, in search of a virtuous deed, unique enough to be presented to the Heavenly Court to perhaps tip the scales in favor of the Jewish people.

A faint veil of spiritual light shrouding the decrepit panels of a small wooden house stopped him in his tracks. Its exterior was dilapidated, but Rabbi Levi Yitzchak felt certain something holy rested there. He knocked.

A young woman who seemed to carry an air of distressed melancholy opened the door. Not even the sight of the city’s beloved rabbi seemed to dispel it.

“May I come inside?” he asked.

She nodded and stepped aside. With Rosh Hashanah inching ever closer, it was not uncommon to receive a visit from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak as he did his annual rounds, attempting to rouse the townspeople’s spiritual sensitivity toward the imminent holy days.

“Tell me what’s wrong, my child.”

“I’ve already repented…” she stammered.

Delicately, with reassuring words, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak asked her to share her troubles. Still visibly emotional, the young woman began her story:

“My family and I used to live in a village not far from Berditchev. My father worked on a dairy farm, which he leased from a local duke. My father passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, closely followed by my mother, who had become overwhelmed with misery. I was left to confront the world alone, lost and isolated.

“Once I managed to regain my bearings, I realized I could continue running the farm. After watching my father countless times, I was certain it would be no trouble for me to take over the business, and I decided to appeal to the duke for an extension of my father’s concession.”

The young woman paused to take a deep breath, steadying herself for what came next.

“He welcomed me into his office like an old friend and listened intently as I spoke. Everything I said was met with an encouraging smile or nod. When the duke responded with a showering of compliments, I hardly believed my good fortune. Though his compliments concluded with confessions of love, I naively ascribed them to his enthusiasm about my idea.

“But it soon became clear that the duke was more interested in me than anything I had to say about employment or the dairy farm. He tried to pluck at my heartstrings with syrupy promises. I would know no more hardship, he declared, if I only agreed to live with him.

“The more I expressed my stubborn disgust at the prospect, the more he intensified his advances, eventually replacing any pretense of subtlety with explicit persuasions of lust. Beside myself, I turned him down flatly.

“The duke then did the unthinkable. Seizing my hair in his fist, he tugged at my beautiful tresses and kissed them. Mind reeling and heart pounding, I fled his office, running blindly through my tears.”

Tears pooled in the young woman’s eyes as she spoke, and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak gently encouraged her to continue.

“I knew I should not blame myself, but the exchange nauseated me. I found some scissors and snipped off the hair he had defiled.

“I left the village the next day and never looked back. I worked as a maid for several years until I met my husband. He passed away a year ago, leaving me to wonder what I did to deserve such a bitter fate.”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak wiped his eyes and stood up. He blessed the young woman, showering her with good wishes before he left.

The Rosh Hashanah that followed was quite different from the usual. Closely observed by his congregants, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak appeared to be deeply absorbed in prayer for some time. When it came time for shofar blowing, the rabbi waited in silence, sighing deeply.

Then, pulling the tallit over his head, he faced heavenward and declared:

“Master of the Universe! If we are no longer worthy, and our sins have outweighed our merits, place the young woman’s locks of hair on the other side of the scale and I’m certain they will tip in our favor!”

His plea faded and the synagogue filled with hushed anticipation. For several long moments, silence reigned. Then, relief washing over his face, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak relaxed and moved on to the blowing of the shofar.

What resulted was a year brimming with blessings and joy for all.

Adapted and translated from Sichat Hashavua #717