The Learning Play of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhok, Son of Sara, of Berditchev
THE LEARNING PLAY OF RABBI LEVI-YITZHOK, SON OF SARA, OF BERDITCHEV
BY DAN FRIEDMAN
(in order of appearance)
(Aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic around the turn of the twentieth century. Three religious Jews sit together. Nearby, but not part of the group, sits the secular Jew, SAMUEL. The religious Jews will be referred to as ONE, TWO and THREE in the text.)
ONE: (As though telling a story) Rabbi Dovidl of Talna, may his merit protect us, had a golden chair and on it was carved: “David, King of Israel, lives forever.”
TWO: (In the same tone) Rabbi Israel of Ruzin, of blessed memory, bore himself like a king. An orchestra of twenty-four musicians always played at his table, and when he traveled, it was never with less than six horses in tandem.
THREE: (With enthusiasm) Rabbi Shmuel of Kaminka, they say, used to walk about in golden slippers. (With wonder) Golden slippers!
SAMUEL: So what?
THREE: (Shocked) So what?
SAMUEL: When Rabbi Dovidl of Talna sat on his golden chair, where did your grandfather sit?
ONE: (Matter of factly) My grandfather, blessed be his memory, was a shoemaker. He sat on his bench.
SAMUEL: And when Rabbi Israel of Ruzin danced to his twenty-four musicians, what music did your father dance to?
TWO: When my father was a young man he bought a fiddle. He took two lessons, but they cut his pay and he had to sell the fiddle.
SAMUEL: Rabbi Shmuel of Kaminka used to walk about in golden slippers. (Pointing to THREE’s bare feet) But what do you walk about in?
ONE: Please don’t be offended, but you really don’t know what we’re talking about, and yet you intrude. When they speak of the greatness of the Talner or the Ruziner, are they talking about wealth?
THREE: Of course not.
ONE: After all, one must realize that in the golden chair, and in the orchestra, and in the golden slippers lay a deep secret, a profound meaning.
THREE: That goes without saying. Who doesn’t know that?
SAMUEL: A chair is for sitting, an orchestra for dancing, and slippers for walking.
TWO: No, no, no. You have it backwards. It is said that when Rabbi Hennakh of Opt met Rabbi Israel of Ruzin on the road, he ran to kiss the very wheels of his carriage. And when they asked him the meaning of his act, he cried out: “Fools! Don’t you see that this is the very Chariot of the Lord?”
THREE: (Amazed) Imagine that!
SAMUEL: The fool! Kissing the wheels of a wagon!
TWO: Rabbi Hennakh a fool!
SAMUEL: Where did Rabbi Israel get the money to buy such a wagon?
TWO: From his congregation, of course.
SAMUEL: Then the profound meaning of the wagon is that it was created from the sweat of tailors and housewives and shoemakers. Rabbi Israel of Ruzin should have kissed the feet of the poor Jews of Ruzin for it is they who provided his orchestra, his wagon and his horses in tandem.
ONE: You are obviously not a believer and so you have missed the point completely. The heart of the matter is this: the golden chair was no chair, the orchestra was no orchestra, and the horses were no horses.
SAMUEL: No? And if a thing is not what it is, what is it?
ONE: The outward sign of holiness.
TWO: It is the cloak, the outer garment, which drapes the secret.
THREE: And the greater the holiness, the greater the outer sign must be.
SAMUEL: And the Czar, is he a great holy man?
THREE: The Czar! (He spits) He is the Evil One himself.
SAMUEL: Yet his outer garments far outshine those of any rabbi.
ONE: No. He wears only rags in the eyes of the pious. You see, friend, you take everything too literally. We are speaking of two different worlds.
SAMUEL: (To THREE, pointing to his bare feet) Which world are your feet in?
THREE: Right now they are between two worlds; the old and the new, in the middle of the Atlantic.
SAMUEL: And on either side of the Atlantic the fact remains that the greatness of a person is determined by what they do, not by what they wear.
TWO: (To SAMUEL) You are mistaken. True greatness must have its proper raiment.
SAMUEL: Why then did the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name, a great holy man if there ever was one, dress like a peasant and work in a tavern?
TWO: The Baal Shem Tov cannot be judged by our logic. He existed on a higher spiritual level.
SAMUEL: What spiritual level was he referring to when he said: “To pull another out of the mud, man must step in the mud himself.”?
TWO: Surely you don’t think he actually meant the mud?
THREE: Such ignorance!
ONE: No, it is not an ignorant question. Our friend is an atheist and he asks what must be asked.
TWO: He asks what should not be asked.
ONE: All questions should be asked. And the question here is not if the Baal Shem’s mud was real mud, but the relationship between Essence and appearance.
SAMUEL: You’ve all heard the story of the two travelers lost in the forest. It’s night, there’s no moon, wolves are howling, the two travelers are afraid. Suddenly a storm begins and there is a great flash of lightning. The foolish traveler looks at the lightning, the wise traveler looks at the road before him.
TWO: How can you know the light if you don’t look at the lightning?
SAMUEL: How can you find your way back to the world if you don’t look at the road?
ONE: The golden chair of Rabbi Dovidl of Talna was a Form given to Essence just as ritual is a Form given to Essence. It is a way of understanding and controlling what otherwise could not be understood or controlled.
SAMUEL: As far as you go I agree. But what has happened is that your Form has blinded you to your path. It has become an obstacle to understanding. A barefoot man now wonders at the golden slippers of Rabbi Shmuel of Kaminka and never wonders why he has no shoes.
You all know the story of Levi-Yitzhok of Berditchev and the teamster?
TWO: Of course.
THREE: A very good story.
SAMUEL: Then you act it out and we will be the audience.
TWO: Act it out?
SAMUEL: Yes. By re-telling it, we can re-think it.
TWO: Act it out! We are pious Jews, not actors.
ONE: There is nothing inherently profane in acting. We have all been in Purim pageants.
THREE: Yes, but is it a thing for grown men to do?
SAMUEL: If it helps us to understand more clearly, why not?
ONE: It is an intriguing idea. The continuation of argument by other means.
THREE: I would feel foolish.
SAMUEL: There is no one here in the hold just now but us.
ONE: And it will help us pass the time.
THREE: That’s true. There’s nothing to do on this boat.
TWO: Assuming that we agree, what does the story of Levi-Yitzhok of Berditchev and the teamster have to do with this question?
SAMUEL: That’s what we’ll learn by re-telling it.
THREE: Alright. As long as no one else comes down, although I am no actor, I will be Levi-Yitzhok.
TWO: You? I, being a man of more learning, should be the rabbi.
THREE: More learning? You never graduated school either!
TWO: At least I can read Hebrew.
THREE: Was not Levi-Yitzhok of Berditchev known as the “poor man’s rabbi”? And who is more poor, you or I?
TWO: Precisely. Because you are so poor you should be the teamster. You will be an effective teamster.
THREE: In Bialystok I was a textile worker, not a teamster. I’ve never even ridden a horse.
TWO: You’ve never been a rabbi.
THREE: Neither have you.
TWO: No. But in my shop many of my customers were rabbis.
SAMUEL: This is the teamster’s story. It is he who learns. And is not learning the duty of every Jew?
TWO: Of course.
THREE: It will be an honor to be the teamster.
TWO: I would be glad to be the teamster.
ONE: There is also great honor in being Levi-Yitzhok.
TWO: Fine. I will be the rabbi. Where do we start?
THREE: We start at teamster’s cottage after the Sabbath meal.
TWO: And where is Levi-Yitzhok?
THREE: He is in his own house. He’s not in the story yet.
TWO: Why not?
THREE: The teamster has a problem. We must examine his problem before we can understand its solution.
THREE: So he is at home after the Sabbath meal. He’s talking to his wife. We need a wife.
SAMUEL: I’ll be the wife.
THREE: Good. Pull up a chair.
(SAMUEL and THREE pull up crates and sit on them. An imaginary table between them. They finish a modest but satisfying meal. The actors should take their time with this. THREE heaves a big sigh.)
THREE: Mirl, what am I to do? I want to be a good Jew. I want to serve the Lord through study and worship. But how can I? I work from six in the morning until eight or nine every night. Except Sabbath. But even then, as you know, if the roads are bad, or I have too many deliveries, I don’t always make it home by sundown.
SAMUEL: The Lord understands. He created the world in seven days but to keep it running takes constant work. He created wheat in the time it takes to take a breath, but it takes me all day to bake the bread.
THREE: And then on Saturday, after the service, I am so tired that when I sit down to study I fall asleep.
SAMUEL: Not everyone can be a scholar. Someone must drive wagons.
THREE: Yes. But where is the service to God in that?
SAMUEL: There is great service to Berditchev and to Sasov and to all the towns around here.
THREE: It’s not enough. I have no way to show God my love and it torments me.
SAMUEL: If you leave your job in order to study and worship all the time we will go hungry. That is no way to show your love for me or yourself.
THREE: God should not force such a dilemma on a man!
SAMUEL: Hush. God knows what He’s doing. It’s we who are ignorant.
THREE: That’s the problem.
SAMUEL: Go to our great rabbi Levi-Yitzhok, son of Sara. His opinion is to be listened to. If he says you can serve God as a teamster, then a teamster remain. If he says it is best for you to study, then study and I will beg if necessary.
(THREE stands and kisses his wife on the forehead. He turns and “leaves” by walking upstage. SAMUEL sits and covers his face with his hands to show his character’s fear. Beat. SAMUEL gets up, joins ONE as “audience.” TWO sits on the same crate. THREE begins to circle the playing area on his way to the rabbi’s house. TWO is lost in study of an imaginary book on his lap. Perhaps he gets up and paces some. Actors should take their time with this.)
Excuse me, Rabbi…
THREE: I am Nathan the Teamster.
TWO: Yes, I know. Many is the time you have driven me to Sasov to visit with Rabbi Moshe Leib. And every Friday you deliver the Sabbath candles from Buczacz.
THREE: Yes, rabbi, that is me.
TWO: You are a very good driver. You handle the horses so well. And you avoid the holes in the road. (Very brief reflection.) Well, at least most of them.
THREE: Thank you.
TWO: No. It is I who should thank you. For so many good rides. And for bringing me such joy.
THREE: I, rabbi, how have I brought you joy?
TWO: A few months ago, very early in the morning, I came across you wearing your prayer shawl and phylacteries and greasing the wheels of your wagon.
THREE: Forgive me rabbi, please, I had to make an early delivery and although I tried to make morning services, I just couldn’t.
TWO: There is nothing to forgive. When I saw you my soul was lifted upward and I said to God: “Behold this man. Behold the devoutness of your people. Even when they grease the wheels of a wagon, they are still mindful of your name!”
THREE: Rabbi, I come to you with a problem and it has to do with the Lord and my wagon.
TWO: A problem between the Lord and your wagon? Well, sit my friend and speak.
(They both sit on the crates.)
THREE: My problem is this: my occupation, my need to earn a living, gets in the way of my service to God. I work twelve and fourteen hours a day and have no time to devote to services or study.
TWO: Tell me, Nathan, if a poor traveler comes to you in need of a ride, what do you charge him?
THREE: I don’t charge him anything. If a traveler has no money he rides free.
TWO: Then you serve the Lord with your wagon just as faithfully as you would in studying the Talmud or frequenting the synagogue.
(THREE stands and raises his arms in joy. Both actors freeze for a beat. TWO and THREE break character.)
THREE: A profound story.
SAMUEL: And what is its profound meaning?
ONE: It teaches that there are many ways to serve God.
SAMUEL: It teaches that there is no service to God separate from the service to man.
ONE: The story does not make such an extreme statement. It says there is service in the wagon and in study and in worship.
SAMUEL: If that is all it says then how do you explain the words of the Baal Shem Tov that: “The teamster who kisses the holy scrolls of the Torah pleases God more than the angels who praise Him and do nothing else.”
ONE: It means that God loves the humble more than the great.
SAMUEL: It means that the teamster who serves man and helps to change the world by laboring in it, is holier than the angel who sits for all eternity on his fat rump.
TWO: Be careful. It isn’t right to laugh at an angel.
THREE: It may not be right to laugh at an angel, but there is a song by Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin that says much the same thing.
SAMUEL: Sing it.
(THREE looks at ONE and TWO for confirmation.)
ONE: By all means. If there is such a song, sing it.
Angel, my angel,
You’re an angel,
Be it so.
But is it really remarkable
To be an angel?
You’re in heavenly heights.
You don’t have to eat,
You don’t have to drink,
Children you don’t have,
Income doesn’t worry you.
Contrawise, angel, my angel,
Come down to earth to us,
Be also in need of food,
Be also in need of drink,
And be a parent of children,
Then we will see
Whether you’re really an angel.
(Brief silence after song.)
SAMUEL: All your golden thrones and slippers and horses in tandem pale before the wonder of a poor man surviving in this world.
THREE: Again, he has a point. Did not Rabbi Yaakov-Yitzhak say: “Miracles are not difficult to perform; it is more difficult to be a Jew.”
ONE: Yes, but to be a Jew one must observe God’s laws.
TWO: Of course. That’s what makes us Jews.
THREE: Who said no?
SAMUEL: The story we just acted says no.
ONE: How can you find such a meaning?
SAMUEL: The teamster is no less a Jew for working after sunset on Friday. In fact, if he is helping those in need of help, he is more of a Jew.
ONE: It is true that the Essence of the Jew is his love of God and that it is impossible to love God without loving man, for every human being contains a holy spark, contains God, within him. But you are trying to separate love of man from love of God. The love of man is meaningless if not connected to God and our connection to God is in the Law handed down at Sinai and the forms of worship developed by our holy men over the ages. There is no way the Essence can survive without the proper Form. How can there be Passover without a Seder?
SAMUEL: Another story of Levi-Yitzhok contradicts you.
SAMUEL: The story of Levi-Yitzhok and God’s Drunkard.
ONE: That story does not contradict me.
SAMUEL: Let’s act it out and decide.
TWO: Who shall be who?
SAMUEL: (To ONE) You, since you don’t believe Levi-Yitzhok capable of contradicting you, shall be the rabbi. I, since I am Godless, shall be the drunkard. (To TWO) You be the rabbi’s disciple. (To THREE) And you, the drunkard’s wife.
ONE: The story starts, I recall, after Levi-Yitzhok’s Seder.
ONE: But it starts with the rabbi’s thoughts. How can I act his thoughts?
SAMUEL: Since we are making a story into a play, speak them.
ONE: They will sound vain if they are spoken.
SAMUEL: We will remember they are the rabbi’s thoughts, not his words.
TWO: What else?
THREE: I’ve been to the theatre, I understand such things.
ONE: Alright then. I am Levi-Yitzhok the Compassionate. (He paces intensely, becoming the rabbi, filling himself with spiritual fervor. The actor should take his time with this.) Oh Lord, it was a wonderful ceremony, was it not? Never have I worshipped You with such love and rapture. Never have I conducted such a Seder. (Breaking character, annoyed) A voice, we need a voice!
THREE: I will be the voice. (Sarcastic and rude) Levi-Yitzhok! You are boasting because of the way you conducted the Seder. You think yourself so pious. Know then that the Seder of Chaim the Water Carrier was infinitely more beautiful than yours.
ONE: (Begins to tremble) Aaron! Aaron!
(TWO runs on.)
TWO: Yes rabbi, what is it?
ONE: (Still trembling) Aaron.
TWO: Please, rabbi, I’m frightened. What is it?
ONE: Have you ever heard of Chaim of Water Carrier?
TWO: Chaim the Water Carrier?
ONE: Yes. A holy man known as Chaim the Water Carrier.
TWO: A holy man, no. There is a Chaim the Water Carrier. But he’s a drunkard. He lives in a shack near the edge of town. That is the only Chaim the Water Carrier in Berditchev.
ONE: That must be him.
TWO: I doubt it, rabbi, as I said…
ONE: Go and fetch him.
TWO: But, rabbi…
ONE: Go and fetch Chaim the Water Carrier. I have much to learn from him.
(ONE turns and sits on the side of the playing area, lost in thought.)
TWO: Since in this play thought can be heard, I will speak the thoughts of Levi-Yitzhok’s disciple on his way to Chaim’s shack.
(As TWO speaks, SAMUEL curls up on the floor or on some crates in a drunken stupor. THREE becomes Chaim’s wife and begins washing imaginary dishes or doing some other household chore while looking worriedly at her husband.)
TWO: I know he’s a great holy man. But sometimes I wonder. This is the strangest thing he’s ever done. To send me out on Passover night to fetch him a water carrier. What could he possibly learn from this man?
(TWO arrives at Chaim’s shack, knocks.)
TWO: This is Chaim the Water Carrier’s house?
THREE: It is.
TWO: Rabbi Levi-Yitzhok would like to talk with Chaim the Water Carrier.
(THREE opens the door.)
THREE: He does?
TWO: Yes. I am to take him to the rabbi’s house.
TWO: He has something to learn from him.
THREE: From my husband?
TWO: Yes, and he wants to talk with him tonight.
THREE: This is terrible. My husband can’t talk with the rabbi; he’s passed out on the cot.
TWO: Then I must wake him.
THREE: You don’t understand. He’s dead drunk. Even if you manage to wake him, he won’t be able to stand.
TWO: It is the rabbi’s orders.
THREE: Then let me try to wake him first.
(THREE goes to SAMUEL, shakes him. SAMUEL blinks his eyes)
Chaim, quick, get up, the rabbi wants to talk with you.
(SAMUEL closes his eyes, rolls over, and goes back to sleep.)
Chaim, please wake up. The rabbi is waiting.
(SAMUEL lifts his head. Looks at her. Holds his index finger to his lips, says “Shhh” and drops his head again.)
TWO: Let me try. (In a loud, authoritarian voice) I am Aaron, disciple of Levi-Yitzhok the Compassionate. The great rabbi wishes to speak with you.
(SAMUEL snores loudly. THREE throws up his hands in despair. TWO gets down to his knees and shakes SAMUEL roughly.)
Chaim, wake up. The rabbi wants to talk with you.
(SAMUEL stares uncomprehendingly. TWO tries to pull SAMUEL to his feet.)
Come on, up.
(SAMUEL’s legs are like rubber. THREE holds up SAMUEL’s other side.)
THREE: Please, God, sober him up so he can talk to the rabbi.
SAMUEL: The rabbi wants to talk with me? Then I will talk with the rabbi. Let’s go!
(SAMUEL straightens himself up. The others let go of him. He takes a step forward and falls on his face.)
THREE: We’ll have to carry him.
(TWO and THREE lift SAMUEL on their shoulders, walk around the stage, dump him on a crate facing ONE. SAMUEL is conscious now, but bewildered.)
ONE: Chaim, I will get you some strong tea.
(ONE gets up and fetches an imaginary glass of tea.)
THREE: (In SAMUEL’s ear) Please try to listen to what the rabbi says.
(SAMUEL nods yes. ONE brings him the glass of tea.)
ONE: Drink. (SAMUEL drinks. Works hard on sobering up. Actor should take his time with this.) Chaim, dear heart, did you recite “Slaves were we in Egypt” last Sabbath?
SAMUEL: (Embarrassed) No, rabbi.
ONE: Then let me ask, what intention was in your mind when you gathered what is leavened?
SAMUEL: Rabbi, I just looked in every corner and gathered it together.
ONE: And what consecration did you think upon in the burning of it?
SAMUEL: (Knots his brow, has a hard time remembering, then suddenly) May the Good God have mercy on me! I forgot to burn the leavened bread. I left it lying on the windowsill.
ONE: And tell me, Chaim, how did you celebrate the Seder?
SAMUEL: Rabbi, I’ll tell you the truth. I know that it is forbidden to drink brandy during the eight days of Passover, so this afternoon, before the sun went down, I drank enough to last me all eight days. Before I knew it I had fallen asleep.
When my wife woke me, it was already dark. She is a good woman, rabbi, a very good Jew. And she said to me, “You sot, why don’t you celebrate a Seder like all the other Jews in the world?” And I said to her, rabbi: “What do you want from me? I’m only an ignorant man, the son of an ignorant man. I don’t understand anything about all that stuff. I can’t read Hebrew and I don’t know the four questions or the prayers or when to drink the wine or eat the radish. All I know is this: That the Jews of old, our fathers and mothers, were once held captive in the land of the Gypsies, but we have a God and He led us out of slavery. And now, may the Lord pardon me for saying it, but it’s true, we are slaves again. But I know that God will lead us to freedom again.” And then I felt tired and went back to sleep.
ONE: (Embracing SAMUEL) Oh, Rabbi Chaim, God was just in preferring your Seder to mine!
(Actors freeze for a beat. Break character.)
THREE: Rabbi Chaim! Amazing.
TWO: A transformation. A mysterious transformation.
SAMUEL: It’s not mysterious. It’s very logical.
TWO: Levi-Yitzhok calls a drunkard his rabbi, this is logical?
SAMUEL: That is why Levi-Yitzhok was such a great teacher. He learned not only from the Talmud, but from people.
TWO: From a bum!
SAMUEL: Even from a bum there is much to learn. Did not Rabbi Menahem-Mendl of Vitebsk say, “Man is the language of God.”
THREE: Yes, but what was God teaching us through Rabbi Chaim the Water Carrier?
ONE: Through this incident Levi-Yitzhok learns that God prefers honesty, even crude and unlearned honesty, to piety. That ritual without Essence is not enough.
SAMUEL: Ah, but it says even more.
SAMUEL: Although you many attempt to avoid it, this story answers your question, “How can there be Passover without a Seder?” For Chaim’s Passover, though lacking all the traditional ritual, was more profound than the great Levi-Yitzhok’s.
ONE: I agree only that the story teaches Essence is above Form. Not that Form is useless. How would it be if every Jew celebrated the Seder like Chaim?
TWO: Ridiculous! What are we, a nation of drunkards?
SAMUEL: If we agree, as you have said, that Form is secondary to Essence, then we come to a deeper question: What is Essence?
ONE: God is the Essence.
TWO: From the beginning and forever.
SAMUEL: When Chaim the Water Carrier, Levi-Yitzhok’s teacher, cut through the floss to the Essence of Passover, what did he speak of?
THREE: Of slavery and freedom.
SAMUEL: Of slavery and freedom. “The Jews of old, our fathers and mothers, were once held captive…and now we are slaves again.” Therein lies the essence of Passover, of Hanukkah, of Purim, of Tisha B’Av, of our whole history.
TWO: Such words!
ONE: You reduce a holy day full of miracles and wonders, indeed a whole history based on the covenant, to a political slogan.
TWO: (Shaking his head) So empty is your secularism.
SAMUEL: The miracles and wonders are only dressing; the flesh and blood of Passover is that living people were freed from slavery. The flesh and blood of our history was and is the struggle for freedom.
TWO: With the help of God.
THREE: Always with the help of God.
SAMUEL: With or without Him, the Essence remains the same.
ONE: You change the meaning of the words. The Essence is God.
SAMUEL: That is what we are disputing.
TWO: Without our God, what is to distinguish our struggle for freedom from that of the Russian peasant against the Czar, or the Black in America against his plantation owner?
SAMUEL: Except history. Every people has its history which shapes its soul. We have five thousand years of oppression, torture, exile, wandering and slaughter. This makes us Jews. It also puts us in harmony with the aspirations of all other oppressed peoples for freedom. In fact, do we not sing just that at the close of every Sabbath?
TWO: We do not. We sing the Sabbath Song of Levi-Yitzhok.
SAMUEL: Exactly. Sing it and listen to the voice of our people cry out for freedom for themselves and the whole world.
(TWO looks questioningly to ONE.)
ONE: Sing it and we shall hear what we shall hear.
Dear God, may it go well with us,
That we may have our bread and salt,
That we may not, heaven forbid, know of hunger and want,
That we may have tea to drink and clothes to wear,
Amen, amen, amen.
Elijah the prophet comes into our house,
And tells us good news, and brings us glad tidings:
All the hungry shall be fed,
All the poor shall become rich,
All the sick shall be healed,
All those in chains shall be freed,
All the heavy, bitter hearts
Shall be uplifted, dear God.
(Brief silence after song.)
THREE: (In wonder) Slavery and freedom!
ONE: The song does speak of freedom. It petitions for freedom from want and freedom from chains. But to whom does it petition? It petitions the Almighty.
TWO: It is God who grants everything.
SAMUEL: How then do you explain the words of the Maggid of Kozhenitz that, “Every man must free himself of Egypt everyday”?
ONE: Again your literalness blinds you. It means that each person must work to free himself of sin.
TWO: Did you think it meant picking up a gun and shooting a nobleman everyday?
SAMUEL: I think it means that everyone has a responsibility to fight for their own freedom. Each one of us is doing that right now or we wouldn’t be on our way to America.
THREE: Do you think so?
SAMUEL: Of course.
TWO: (Sarcastically) So you are fleeing Egypt are you?
SAMUEL: I’m fleeing the Czar’s army.
ONE: The draft?
THREE: Ah, may the Red Sea part for you!
SAMUEL: May the Atlantic, at least, not swallow me up.
TWO: I, for one, am doing nothing so glorious. God is the only glory I need.
SAMUEL: Yes, so why are you going to America?
TWO: I am going to America because they burnt down my shop in a pogrom. Twice. First five years ago, which I rebuilt, and then again this year. So this time I sent my wife and children to her brother’s in New York while I took care of some business. Now I follow and we’ll open a third store. In America there is less chance of them burning it down. I hope.
THREE: I’m looking for a job.
TWO: There are no jobs in Poland?
THREE: There was a strike. I struck. We lost. Now I am on a blacklist.
SAMUEL: A job is freedom when you haven’t one.
ONE: That explains your bare feet.
THREE: (Wiggling his toes) These feet wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for my sister’s savings. I’m going to America on borrowed money.
SAMUEL: Me too. I gave all my savings to the merchant who smuggled me into Germany at the bottom of his wagon. In Germany I found the offices of an American labor contractor. A big rancher in Arizona is paying my way. In exchange, I will work on his ranch for two years.
THREE: This you call freedom?
SAMUEL: No. I’m exchanging one slavery for another. But this new slavery may lead me out of Egypt.
ONE: True. Look where Joseph’s slavery led him.
SAMUEL: And you? What are you doing on this ship?
ONE: In the new world I will be doing what I did in the old: bake bread. That is what I have been trained to do.
SAMUEL: You are very learned for a baker.
THREE: That’s because he studied for the rabbinate.
ONE: Once. Long ago. But a poor man’s son must help the family live. So I apprenticed to a baker.
TWO: And now you have left your family behind?
ONE: They have left me. God has taken them all, either through epidemic or pogrom. And I have grown weary of such a sad place. So I will go to America to bake bread and maybe, if I can save some money, return to my studies.
SAMUEL: Ah, a future rabbi.
TWO: And what had been the point of all this?
SAMUEL: The point is that we are on this boat because we are seeking freedom, as our people have always done. And that quest involves more than each of us alone. For as the Kabbalah says, “In every man there is something of the Messiah.”
ONE: There is nothing of the Messiah in looking for a job or setting up a shop or studying to be a rabbi. All that that saying means is that in every human being there is a divine spark.
SAMUEL: It means that every human being is responsible not only for themselves, but for the redemption of the world.
ONE: God is responsible for everything. He decides if there is to be an American labor contractor, and whether a shop will succeed in New York, and whether I will be a baker all my life. He decides if we are slave or free. All we can do is obey His laws and attempt to atone for our sins.
SAMUEL: The story of Levi-Yitzhok and the Doubting Student argues against you.
TWO: (In disgust) Another story!
THREE: I like them.
TWO: You would!
THREE: What does that mean?
SAMUEL: It means you like clarity. Stories change obscure thoughts into clear actions. Our friend prefers to keep everything fuzzy.
TWO: You always have a twisted interpretation for every story.
ONE: True. But let us proceed.
TWO: Why? He will only use it to attack our beliefs.
ONE: We should not be afraid of his attacks. In the words of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav: “I need people to take issue with me. It allows me to raise myself moment by moment — at every moment I change being. If I thought that I am now where I was before, I wouldn’t want to live in this world.”
SAMUEL: On those words, future rabbi, we agree completely.
THREE: (Humorously) A miracle! You two agree on something.
TWO: They agree to disagree.
THREE: Still, an agreement.
TWO: Well, if we are to act another story, let’s do it, and stop this small talk. As Rabbi Menahem-Mendal of Riminov said: “To pronounce useless words is to commit murder.”
THREE: Who speaks useless words?
TWO: Never mind. (To SAMUEL) Since the student of this story is a doubter, you must be him.
THREE: I haven’t been the rabbi yet.
TWO: Alright. In this story you will be Levi-Yitzhok.
THREE: This story is set in my study, is it not?
SAMUEL: Yes, and I, the rabbinical student, come to you for guidance.
THREE: Good. I will be drinking tea and eating halva.
TWO: Halva? I doubt that Rabbi Levi-Yitzhok ate halva.
THREE: Why not? He didn’t like sweets?
ONE: It doesn’t matter what he’s eating.
THREE: Because I haven’t had a piece of halva since I was a little child, I would like to have some now. After all, if Levi-Yitzhok thought the deepest thoughts, why wouldn’t he eat the finest food?
TWO: Alright, eat what you want.
THREE: Quiet. I prepare for the arrival of my guest. Levi-Yitzhok always served his own guests, he never hired a servant.
(THREE moves crates to create Levi-Yitzhok’s study. He prepares two imaginary glasses of tea and puts a big piece of imaginary halva on an imaginary plate and lays it out. Meanwhile, SAMUEL becomes the nervous and anxious student. Both actors should take their time with this. SAMUEL knocks.)
THREE: Welcome. (SAMUEL enters.) Ah, my young friend!
SAMUEL: Good morning, rabbi.
THREE: (Handing him tea) A glass of tea?
SAMUEL: Uh, thank you.
(They sit. The student doesn’t speak or drink his tea.)
THREE: (Drinking) Warm tea on a cold afternoon has a special meaning. Would you like a piece of halva?
THREE: Surely you know what halva is.
SAMUEL: Yes. It’s just that I haven’t had it in many years. Not since I entered the Yeshiva.
THREE: (Handing the student the halva.) That’s good. If you have halva too often, you lose the appreciation of its sweetness.
SAMUEL: (Not eating the halva) I really can’t eat now. I haven’t been able to eat for days. Rabbi, I am plagued by great doubts!
THREE: That too is good. Without great doubts you cannot develop deep faith.
SAMUEL: It’s not God I doubt, Rabbi. It’s myself. I want to burn with the fervor of faith, with the joy of life, with hope for our people. But I can’t. I see our poverty, I mourn our ignorance, I stand in the blood of the pogroms, I drown in the sea of hate that surrounds us. And I ask, what can I do against it? What can any man do against it?
THREE: These are good questions.
SAMUEL: I want to be a rabbi, but how can I be a leader of people when I feel hopeless and without power?
THREE: My young friend, for whom do our teachers say the world was created?
SAMUEL: For me, Rabbi.
THREE: For you and me and for every human being. If that is true how can you feel powerless? Now, eat your halva.
(SAMUEL, understanding, eats his halva with deep appreciation.)
SAMUEL: Rabbi, nothing has ever tasted so good.
(Actors freeze for a beat.)
TWO: Halva! I ask again: What does halva have to do with this story?
THREE: Halva symbolizes the sweetness of life.
TWO: I never heard of halva in this story before.
THREE: It just came to me.
TWO: Do you consider yourself so holy a man that you can change stories?
THREE: No. But I do feel it adds something.
SAMUEL: At least there can be no argument about this story. Its meaning is clear.
ONE: The meaning of this story is that since there is God there is hope.
SAMUEL: The meaning is that since there are human beings there is hope.
TWO: Without God there are no human beings.
SAMUEL: Without human beings there is no God. “It is written that Just Men obey the word of God. This should be read differently,” said Rabbi Nachman, “Just Men make the word of God.”
THREE: Make the word of God? How is that possible?
ONE: It is possible only in the sense that Just Men give material form to the word of God. Make it active in this world.
SAMUEL: Which, like the story Levi-Yitzhok and the Doubting Student, denies the passive role you had assigned to man.
ONE: Not passive, but secondary. It is said: “To man belongs free will. Everything else belongs to God.”
SAMUEL: Can a human being by his actions do wrong and spoil things?
THREE: Of course.
TWO: It happens all the time.
ONE: It is called sin.
SAMUEL: Then it follows, does it not, that a human being by his actions can do good and correct things?
THREE: It follows as day follows night.
SAMUEL: And therein lies the power and glory of man.
SAMUEL: In our ability to transform the world.
TWO: Transform the world! Such vanity.
SAMUEL: If we accept the world as it is, what makes us different from the animals?
THREE: There is a song by Rabbi Nachman that says much of what you are saying. Except for the atheism.
SAMUEL: I know it well.
THREE: Sing it then.
TWO: If it says what this nonbeliever says it cannot be a good song.
ONE: If it is by the Bratzlaver it cannot be bad. It must have a holy meaning that is silent to his deaf ears.
THREE: It’s very holy. My grandfather, blessed be his memory, sang it all the time.
TWO: Yes, no one is so deaf as he who will not hear.
ONE: Sing and we will dispute.
“The world was created for my sake.”
Do not declare:
“Of what concern is this to me?”
It is all of concern to you.
It is your world.
Praise be to God.
Do not complain of emptiness:
Supply something that is missing.
Do not sit idle:
Add some improvement.
It is not enough to be good:
You must leave a better world.
“The world was created for my sake.”
Praise be to God.
THREE: Praise be to God.
ONE: This is a song in praise of God, and in praise of the partnership between God and man.
SAMUEL: Now you admit to a partnership?
TWO: Of course. A two-way street, as it is said. Who said no?
ONE: As Rabbi Bunim of Pshyshka said: “The Lord created the world in a state of beginning. The universe is always in an uncompleted state. It is not like a vessel at which the master works and he finishes it; it requires continuous labor and unceasing renewal by the creative forces of human beings.”
SAMUEL: Then you concede my point?
ONE: Not at all. I am speaking of a spiritual partnership. God makes the laws and we do our part by obeying them and enriching the world through our labor and good deeds. (Referring to THREE) He weaves and there is cloth where before there was none. I bake and there is bread to eat that did not exist before. That is a partnership with God. It is not challenging the laws of God or the physical world as you advocate.
TWO: What you advocate is not partnership but revolution. Satan’s work.
SAMUEL: Then Levi-Yitzhok must have been in league with the devil.
TWO: This is too much! I will listen to this no more. (He covers his ears.)
ONE: There is no way you can back up such a statement. You say it only to anger us.
SAMUEL: I say only what the story of Levi-Yitzhok and the Tailor’s Prayer says.
THREE: The story of the Tailor’s Prayer says that Levi-Yitzhok worked with the devil?
SAMUEL: It says that he challenged God and tried to change the physical world, which to our friends’ thinking is the same thing.
THREE: This story I must see.
TWO: Not I. (He covers his eyes.)
ONE: The story does not teach rebellion.
TWO: Even so, I will not act in it. (He covers his mouth.)
ONE: Yes, you will. We must show this unbeliever the truth in the tale. (To TWO) You will be the tailor. (To SAMUEL) And you will be the rabbi.
ONE: Yes. Let him learn by doing that Levi-Yitzhok does not rebel against God.
TWO: He will pervert the rabbi’s words.
ONE: (To SAMUEL) You will remain faithful to the story?
SAMUEL: Haven’t I always?
ONE: Then let us begin. (To THREE) We will be the other members of the congregation.
(The actors become the characters in the story.)
Thank you rabbi, it was a wonderful service.
THREE: Yes. I now face the new year with a clean slate and new hope.
SAMUEL: And you, Mendel, how do you feel?
TWO: Me? Well enough.
SAMUEL: What did you pray today? What did you say to God?
TWO: I asked forgiveness of my sins, as we all did, rabbi.
SAMUEL: There was something special in it, Mendel. I don’t know what. But I could feel something special in your prayer.
ONE: (To THREE) Something special in the tailor’s prayer?
THREE: (To ONE) He makes a good pair of trousers, but…?
SAMUEL: Tell us exactly what you prayed.
TWO: Are you sure, rabbi? Maybe it was someone else’s prayer you felt.
SAMUEL: It was yours.
TWO: I said to God, “Dear God, You want me to repent my sins. But my sins are small. I confess: there have been times when I failed to return to customers the pieces of left-over cloth. When I couldn’t help it, I ate food that was not kosher. And I have spent the little spare time I have in the tavern listening to music, instead of studying. Are these sins so terrible?
Now take a look at yourself, God. You too have sinned. You have caused villages to be burned, tens of thousands to be raped and mutilated. You have denied people their livelihood and sent the pangs of hunger into millions of bellies. You have robbed mothers of their babies, and left helpless children orphans.
So you see. Your sins are much more serious then mine. I’ll tell you what, God. Let’s strike a bargain. You forgive me and I’ll forgive you.”
SAMUEL: Ah, you foolish man! You let God off too easy. Just think! You were in an excellent position to make him redeem the world and send the Messiah.
(TWO pounds his fists against his head and shrieks in despair. Actors freeze for a beat.)
SAMUEL: So? Is Levi-Yitzhok not a rebel?
THREE: It would seem so.
SAMUEL: We Jews have resisted not only Pharaoh, but God Himself.
ONE: This is not rebellion. This is within the Law. This is discourse. Has not the Zlotzover Maggid said: “For he that loveth the Lord shall argue with Him.”
TWO: The Lord has said: “O my people, what have I done unto Thee? And wherein have I wearied Thee? Testify against Me.”
SAMUEL: And often that argument, that testimony, has turned into open rebellion.
TWO: Not by a Jew who truly loves God.
SAMUEL: Levi-Yitzhok loved God, but he loved his people more. Is it not told that he rebelled on a cold winter morning? That at morning prayer he shouted a warning to God: “If You refuse to answer our prayers, I shall refuse to go on saying them!” And that then he remained standing at his pulpit all day and all night without moving his lips?
THREE: And then, the next morning, still standing at the pulpit, he sang his famous Kaddish for the first time.
SAMUEL: (To ONE) Sing it now.
SAMUEL: I want to hear a revolutionary song on your lips.
ONE: It is not a manifesto, it is a prayer to God. And it pleads eloquently for our people. I will sing it. (Sings)
Good morning to You, Lord of the Universe.
I, Levi-Yitzhok, son of Sara, of Berditchev,
Have come for a judgment against You,
Oh behalf of your people Israel.
What do you have against your people Israel?
And why do you oppress your people Israel?
No matter what happens, it is:
“Command the Children of Israel.”
And for the slightest thing, it is:
“Say to the Children of Israel.
”For so many centuries, it is:
“Punish the Children of Israel.”
Father dear! How many other peoples are there in the world?
Persians, Babylonians, Edomites.
The Russians, what do they say?
“Our Czar is Czar.”
The Germans, what do they say?“
Our Kaiser is Kaiser.”
The English, what do they say?“
Our King is King.”
And I, Levi-Yitzhok, son of Sara, of Berditchev, say:
“Magnified and sanctified be the Name of God!”
And I, Levi-Yitzhok, son of Sara, of Berditchev, say:
“From this spot I shall not stir,
I shall not stir from this spot,
An end there must be to this,
All this suffering must stop.
Magnified and sanctified be the Name of God!”
(Brief silence after song.)
THREE: If only God had given in!
ONE: Our people have always longed for the redemption of the world. As Levi-Yitzhok shows, redemption is through God, not through politics. Nor can we all rebel as the Berditcher does for we are not holy men. Our part in bringing the Messiah is to pray and do good deeds.
TWO: This song should not be understood as a call to create Heaven on earth. That can be done only by the Lord.
SAMUEL: To the question, “To what purpose was man created?” Rabbi Mendal of Kotzh replied: “Man was created to lift up the Heavens.”
SAMUEL: It cannot be lifted spiritually if it is not lifted physically. As Rabbi Aharon of Karlin said, “Let man stand erect, his feet solidly planted on the ground and his head will touch the sky.” A human being must have food in his belly, and shoes on his feet, and pride in himself. That is why we are all on this boat. Without that all your talk is frosted air in a cold world.
THREE: (In a tone reminiscent of the beginning) When the Baal Shem Tov died he was determined to force the Messiah to come. But when he arrived in Heaven King David was ordered to play upon his harp, and the sweetness of the music caused the Besht to forget his determination.
Knowing this, Dov Baer of Mezritch, the Great Maggid, said before his death, “I will not be seduced by the sweetness of Heaven. David’s harp will not prevail over me.” On his arrival in Heaven, he too demanded that the Messiah be sent to earth. He was asked to deliver a discourse and was informed that the Messiah would come as soon as he finished it. But since Above there is unlimited time and unlimited wisdom, the discourse still continues and the preacher believes that he has just begun.
When Levi-Yitzhok the Compassionate died he knew what had happened to the Baal Shem Tov and the Great Maggid. When he arrived at the gates of Paradise, David began to play upon his harp. But Levi-Yitzhok covered his ears and said, “There is nothing as beautiful as the redemption of the people on earth.” Then the Angels asked him to debate a question in Talmud, but he said, “There is no wisdom stronger than the suffering of the people on earth.” Then the Angels tried to lead him to meet the Messiah. But Levi-Yitzhok said, “The people on earth need Him far more than I do in Heaven.” And he clung to the gates of Heaven and refused to enter. And to this day, he has not entered Heaven. And his soul is bound up in the bundle of life. He is still among us.
SAMUEL: He is the spirit of resistance in our people.
TWO: It is a long way from yearning for the Messiah to making revolution.
SAMUEL: Not so long. If we clear the road of the old forms blocking the way and recognize that the essence of our history is the struggle for freedom, then with one small step we realize that as Jews it is our duty to create a better world. We stand with the oppressed and against the oppressors everywhere, always, and by whatever means necessary. This is what Levi-Yitzhok has taught us.
TWO: I say it is blasphemous!
THREE: I say it may be blasphemous, but it is very Jewish.
SAMUEL: I say it is Jewish, and it is revolutionary.
ONE: I say it all needs more thought.
(A bell rings offstage.)
THREE: Supper at last!
TWO: Yes, we could all use some food.
THREE: There will be no halva, but… (he shrugs.)
(They start to exit.)
ONE: There will be no other Jews on this ranch?
SAMUEL: Probably not.
ONE: How will you remain a Jew?
SAMUEL: (Touching his head) I have our history inside of me. (Touching his heart) And I have Levi-Yitzhok.
ONE: You’ll give me the address. I’ll send you some challah.
(They all exit.)