Written by: Rabbi Yosef Rosen
Rabbi Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl, a member of the Baal Shem Tov’s inner circle, was once travelling through the Ukraine and lodged at an inn owned by “yishuvniks” – sweet, simple Jews who lived in the middle of nowhere, and ran a small farm and an inn for a non-Jewish landlord on a desolate stretch of a busy road. Following a time-honored Jewish practice popularized by Kabbalists, Reb Nachum woke at midnight to pray tearful midnight prayers for our ruined Jewish Temple and our exiled people.
The innkeeper, ever a simple yishuvnik, was concerned when he heard Reb Nachum crying in the middle of the night. The innkeeper came to his room and saw Reb Nachum on the floor, with a prayer book in his hand, ashes on his head, and his eyes full of tears. The surprised innkeeper ignorantly asked, “Are you hurt?? What happened?”
Reb Nachum explained, “I am saying the Jewish midnight prayers and begging the Master of the Universe end our bitter exile. I’m praying that the Messiah should quickly come so that we can all go to the Land of Israel and rebuild our Temple, so that our world can better receive holiness.”
The innkeeper seemed to understand, but said, “Ok, Rabbi, but you still don’t have to disturb the other guests at the inn with your midnight weeping. Why do you want the Messiah to come, anyway?”
Reb Nachum responded, “What?! And you don’t want the Messiah??”
“I don’t know,” said the innkeeper, “but I consult with my wife on all matters. I’ll run to our apartment and ask her if your prayers warrant such noise at this wee hour.”
The innkeeper came back a few minutes later and explained to Reb Nachum that he spoke to his wife and said that she wants more information about this “Messiah” for whom he’s praying. Reb Nachum explained to the simple yishuvnik that the Jewish People will arise and the Jewish Diaspora will end and that we will all go to the Land of Israel.
The innkeeper expressed concern about the need to move and left to again consult with his wife. He returned quickly, telling Reb Nachum to stop praying immediately, “My wife reminded me that we just bought a new cow and spent a lot of time and money fixing the barn door. Now you come here and pray that we should leave it all behind and run away to Israel?! She does not accept this. Please, cease praying for Redemption.”
Reb Nachum explained that God cannot fully give holiness to the world without the world’s correction, which requires Jewish freedom and the teaching of holiness too all people. He went on, telling the innkeeper that all of this requires our Temple and the Divine Presence, etc., etc.
However, the hour was too late and the concepts too abstract for this yishuvnik innkeeper. Reb Nachum saw he wasn’t making headway and changed his argument; “Right now, in this part of Ukraine, there are terrible massacres and robberies perpetrated by Tartar raiders. We live in constant danger. The Messiah will subdue Jewish enemies and take us to a Jewish kingdom!”
The innkeeper then left to speak with his wife about this aspect of the Messianic era.
The innkeeper came back with the final word from his wife: “This Rabbi wants us to go to Israel!? Leave the brand new cow? We have a new barn door that we can finally use, and now we must simply walk away?? Go tell the Rabbi to ask God to take all of the Tartars to Israel and we’ll stay here with the barn and the cow.”
This time of the summer, the three weeks between the two summer fast days which mourn the destruction of the two ancient Jewish Temples in Jerusalem, is a period of Jewish national sadness. However, this period is also a time when every Jew must take personal responsibility for the state of his or her nation.
Reb Nachum’s story teaches us that the essence of Jewish Exile is neither the destruction of a Temple, nor massacre, nor intermarriage, but rather confusion. Exile, in its truest form, is the degree to which a Jew is alienated from a clear perspective on what it means to possess a Jewish soul and for what purpose Hashem created our Holy Nation.
When enough Jews have this clarity, then rebuilding our Temple with our Messiah will easily follow. The holy Baal Shem Tov taught that the personal redemption of every Jew as an individual is a prerequisite for the national Jewish Redemption. At first blush, a sense of responsibility for the Messiah and big eschatological events seems way above our current spiritual pay grade. Therefore, we must first attempt to recall our sublime personal visions of redemption and to have better perspective on the smallness of our very own cows and barn doors.
If we can achieve that, then God just might meet us halfway to take us beyond our limited horizons.