Wednesday, Jul 6, 2022

The Broken Bottle

This story, as told by the great Yerushalmi maggid Rav Shabsi Yudelevitz, goes back many years ago. The old yishuv of Yerushalayim was suffering from hunger. They desperately needed aid from their brethren overseas. The community leaders convened to see what could be done to ease their plight. They decided to send an emissary abroad to appeal to fellow Yidden for help. It would have to be someone dignified, a man of stature capable of articulating clearly just how hard the situation was. It was decided that a certain Yid, Rav Avrohom, should make the journey on behalf of his community.

The voyage was fraught with great danger, as the ships of old were not well-equipped to handle the raging ocean waves. But Rav Avrohom, who was so dedicated to his people, was more than willing to be moser nefesh for them. After a few days of preparation, he was off with the blessings of the gedolei Yerushalayim. The journey itself passed without incident, but much to his chagrin, the ship arrived at port right before Shabbos. There he was, a lone Jew with his suitcase, having nowhere to go, no place to stay, and the holy Shabbos was soon arriving.

With a heart full of emotion, he cried out to heaven, “Ribono Shel Olam, please help me! If not for my merit, then for the merit of Your beloved children of the Holy City who are starving. For the sake of the dear people of Yerushalayim who sent me on this difficult mission and are depending on me. I don’t know where to turn for help, so my eyes turn to You, Hakadosh Boruch Hu. Please, please help me!”

Suddenly, a most elegant wagon drawn by two mighty horses pulled up right in front of him. Its door opened and a man looking obviously Jewish and wealthy stepped out. He asked Rav Avrohom about his whereabouts and quickly used this opportunity for chesed to invite him as his guest for Shabbos. He also promised to do everything in his power to make sure that the emissary from Yerushalayim would be successful in his mission.

With a heart full of gratitude to Hashem and his mouth showering blessings on his savior, he climbed into the wagon. It wasn’t long before he found himself in a palatial residence. The furnishings were ornate, the designs on the walls and ceilings exquisite. Rav Avrohom, who had never before left the city of Yerushalayim, was never exposed to such opulence before. Strangely enough, one area of the house, centrally located, gave the impression that the designers of the house had totally neglected it. Perhaps more accurately, it looked like it was transplanted from a dilapidated house belonging to paupers, so far removed from the lifestyle of this family.

There was a beautiful table in that forsaken area. On top of it was an old broken glass bottle, with jagged edges. It was dusty and filthy, and, with old age, had turned green. What in the world was this strange object doing sitting prominently in a house filled with such luxury? Today, we might call it “modern art,” but that wasn’t existent in those days. Rav Avrohom wondered about this strange artifact, but he was hesitant to ask about it at the seudah with so many guests there.

It was a beautiful seudah, with savory delicacies, zemiros and divrei Torah. The table was adorned with gold and silver dishes and sparkling silverware. During the seudah, the host could not help but notice Rav Avrohom eying the table with the broken bottle on the other side of the dining room. He thought that his curiosity about the broken vessel was distracting him from the marvelous seudah, so he decided to explain to his guest what it was all about.

“Listen, my friend, I see that you are wondering about the broken bottle and cannot understand what it is doing in this house at all, let alone in such a prominent place. I want you to know that it serves a very important purpose. I put it there to constantly remind me of something that I never want to forget, a story that changed my entire life.” Now the curiosity of the guest was really piqued. The host continued and addressed all of his guests.

“My friends, at this moment, you see me sitting at the top of the world, surrounded by wealth, owning an estate worth millions. But it wasn’t always like this. My life in this country started with meager earnings. I was sent here as a young lad by my father to help out my aging grandfather, who was trying to maintain his small family business. My family lived in Amsterdam, Holland, and I was sent here to Rome away from my parents, my siblings, and my friends. It was so lonely here for me, so difficult, but I had to listen to my father’s request and my grandfather needed me.”

At first, running the business was difficult. My grandfather, who was aging and becoming weaker, couldn’t keep it going properly. As I got involved, I learned about running the enterprise. Pretty soon, it began to flourish. After about a year, the business had expanded and I was totally in charge. A few years later, grandfather passed away, a wealthy man, with the satisfaction of knowing that his grandson would own his business.

“After his death, everything continued as usual – everything regarding the business that is. My own personal life changed drastically. As long as my grandfather was alive, I remained a religious Jew. Despite the hard work of running a business, I davened three tefillos a day in shul, learned some Torah, and kept all the mitzvos. After my grandfather’s passing, I started to slacken off in my observance of Torah. It began with missing Minchah with a minyan. I reasoned that it’s not so bad, because running a business by myself is difficult and missing tefillah was an oneis. But then it morphed into missing a Shacharis and a Maariv and finally, with the passing of time, not davening at all during the week and on Shabbos.

“Yes, I felt I had an excuse for all of this and was oblivious to the fact that this was all the work of the yeitzer hara, who little by little was tearing apart my Yiddishkeit. It didn’t take very long for the mitzvos of tefillin, Shabbos and kashrus to fall by the wayside. In the beginning, my conscience bothered me, but eventually I didn’t even give it a thought. The business became my religion and the wealth allowed me to enjoy life in a way that I had never enjoyed it before.

“My grandfather looking down at me from the Olam Ha’emes undoubtedly didn’t get much nachas from my way of life. That’s putting it mildly. He was most definitely terribly agitated. He had many merits, and I believe that he went before the Bais Din Shel Maalah to plead for me to be given an opportunity to turn my life around and to return to Yiddishkeit.

“I was already married to a Jewish woman whose attachment to Yiddishkeit was about the same as mine. We had two children together and were living a life of splendor, but we were spiritually bankrupt. My children went to a secular school together with goyim. They knew that they were Jews, but nothing at all about Yiddishkeit. We all would have continued on this route…but then it happened. An incident that revolutionized our lives occurred.

“One day, I was walking in the street and I saw a little boy crying bitterly. In his hand, he held a broken glass bottle. Jews, by nature, are compassionate, so I stopped to see what was bothering the child. He was inconsolable. It took me a while to get him to stop crying and to tell me what troubled him so. Finally, he was able to talk amidst sobs.

“‘Tonight is a Jewish holiday,’ he said. ‘It’s Chanukah, when we light candles and relive a great miracle that took place with our people a long time ago. My parents are very poor and cannot afford to buy oil for lighting. For a long time now, my father put away penny after penny that he saved for this occasion. Finally, we had enough for a bottle of oil. My father gave me the coins to buy the oil and instructed me to be careful with the bottle and not to let it drop.

“‘I felt so important carrying out this sacred mission. Off I went to the store and proudly paid for the precious commodity. Now all I had to do was bring it home. I held on tightly to the bottle, envisioning the happiness on my father’s face when I brought him this cherished oil. I could already see the simcha in my mother’s eyes and in the eyes of my siblings as we lit the menorah, with the beautiful little flames rising upwards towards the heavens. But then, engrossed in my thoughts, I didn’t notice a little stone in my way. Suddenly, I stumbled and found myself flat on the ground, my precious bottle broken and the oil all over my clothing.

“‘Since then, I have been here crying. I can’t return home. How can I face my father? What can I answer when he asks me why I didn’t follow his instructions? How can I see the sad look on my father’s face when I return empty-handed?’ And then the boy broke out again in sobs.

“When I heard the heartfelt words of the child, feelings that were in my heart years before when I was first leaving the straight path suddenly emerged. I am a Jew just like that child, I thought. Look at where he is and look at where I am. Look at what troubles him as compared to the trivialities on my mind. He is crying bitterly because his father doesn’t have the means to light the Chanukah candles, while I have the wherewithal to easily fulfill all of the mitzvos and I threw them all away. At that moment, I decided to rethink my ways, objectively examine my conduct, and come to the desired conclusions.

“Quickly, I pulled out a hundred dollar bill and gave it to the child. His eyes lit up with a special radiance, a glow that I vaguely remembered from my youth, one that is reserved for those whose souls are enveloped with spirituality. The boy thanked me with heartfelt words and quickly set out for the market to buy more oil. I went back home, taking with me the broken bottle as a memory of this encounter.

“Perhaps this incident alone wasn’t enough to bring me to action. Yes, I had thoughts of doing teshuvah, but I didn’t act immediately to better my ways. A couple of days later, I received another message from heaven. I happened to see a sign posted near my home inviting the Jewish public to attend a drashah to be given by a famous maggid visiting from Yerushalayim. What did I have to lose by going? So I went and listened attentively.

“It was the week of Parshas Vayigash and the drashah centered around the story of Yehudah beseeching Yosef to allow Binyomin to go back home with the brothers to the land of Canaan. Yehudah pleaded with Yosef with great emotion, ‘For how can I go up to my father if the youth is not with me, lest I see the evil that will befall my father’ (44:34).

“The maggid proclaimed these words in a loud voice and said, ‘My dear brothers, precious Yidden, let us say these words to ourselves and contemplate, ‘How will we return to our Father in heaven with the youth no longer with us? We were given a pure, pristine neshamah, young and full of potential, and what did we do with it? We have sullied it with our aveiros. We have stained it. It is filthy with sin. What are we going to answer to the Ribono Shel Olam, who has sent us down to earth on a mission that we have failed? This is a question we must always ask ourselves: ‘How will we go back up to our Father?’

“The entire tzibbur started crying. At that moment, I became a complete baal teshuvah. I swore to immediately change my ways and to bring my family back to the ways of Torah. Boruch Hashem, my wife supported me in going on this new path and today my family is totally steeped in the ways of the Torah. As a commemoration of this miracle of my return, I kept the broken bottle and put it in a prominent place in my home. Whenever I face hardships and nisyonos, whenever the yeitzer hara tempts me to do something contrary to the Will of Hashem, that bottle reminds me, ‘How can I go up to my father…’?”

Yes, it is a question we must always ask ourselves.

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