(Courtesy: Yosef Jacobson)
Last year I celebrated Passover in the remote city of Kobe, Japan with Jews from secular backgrounds who hadn’t seen a Seder in decades. The exciting energy, melodies and discussion inspired me.
Searching for words to express my sentiments, I related the “Drunkard’s Seder” story of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Barditchev. (1740-1810). Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was among the greatest spiritual masters. One Passover after his Seder, Heaven informed him that the quality of Yankel the water carrier’s Seder surpassed his.
The Rebbe sent for Yankel the water carrier. Yankel came and cried bitterly, “Rebbe, I’ll never do it again. I’m so sorry; I’m ashamed of myself.” The Rebbe said, “Dear Yankel, please tell us what you did so special last night.”
Passover, when beer and whisky are forbidden, was a major problem for Yankel. So to get rid of any trace of the forbidden Chametz beverages, he drank it all up before the Chametz deadline. Twenty minutes after nine the morning before Passover, Yankel took his last “L’chayim” and was out cold.
Night came, and Yankel’s wife tried to awaken him, pleading, “Yankel, every Jewish home has a Seder. Our kids are the only ones without a Seder.”
Yankel gazed at the Rebbe and continued his tale: “By then, I deeply regretted drinking. I would’ve done anything not to be drunk.
I said to my wife: ‘Please wake me up in an hour. I can’t do it yet.’ My wife kept waking me every hour, and then every half-hour. Finally, she gave me the ultimatum, ‘Yankel, the night is over in twenty minutes. Shame on you!’
“Gevald! I’m such a lousy father, I didn’t give my precious children a Seder. So I pulled myself out of bed and sat down at the table.’
“I said, ‘Sit close to me, dear children, I’m so sorry. If drinking stops me from having the Seder with you, then it’s not worth it. Please, let me tell you the Pesach story in a nutshell.'”
Yankel said to the Rebbe: “I can hardly read Hebrew but I tried my best. I said, ‘Dear children, G-d created heaven and earth. Adam and Eve ate from the Tree and were thrown out of Paradise. Since then all went downhill: The Flood, The Tower of Babel – that’s all I know. Then came our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah and their twelve holy sons. Pharaoh enslaved us, and tonight, G-d freed us.
“Sweet children, the same G-d who redeemed us from Egypt will liberate us from our exile too.”
“I turned to G-d, saying: ‘Father in Heaven, thanks for taking us out of Egypt. I beg you, sweetest father, take us out of our present exile’! Rebbe, I’m so sorry. I couldn’t say anything more.
“I took the Matzah, Maror and Charoses on the table and stuffed it all down. I filled four cups of wine and drank them all, turned over and fell back asleep.”
Hearing this, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Barditchev exclaimed, “I wish that one time in my life I could communicate with my children and with G-d, with the heartfelt truth and conviction as Yankel the water carrier.”
Concluding the story I said:
“I had celebrated many a Seder in very observant communities. Yet my most inspiring Seder was right here, in Kobe, Japan! Many of us here are not very familiar with the Seder rituals; many can’t read the Haggadah in Hebrew. But, my dear brothers and sisters, I’ve never felt such sincerity and passion of Jews thirsty to connect with their inner soul. Thank you for allowing me this special opportunity.”
The audience was stirred, and one woman at the end of the room wept profusely. She later approached me and related her personal tale:
“I grew up in an assimilated home,” the woman said. “I know nothing about Judaism. I work here in Japan for twenty years as a school teacher, and am involved in eastern mystical disciplines.”
She was initially uninterested in a Seder, but a friend persuaded her to come.
“The only thing I know of Judaism,” she said, “was that my grandmother told me that I have a special spiritual connection. “You are the tenth generation of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Barditchev.”
“Who was Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Barditchev? My grandmother never knew. She just knew that he was great, and insisted that I retain this piece of history.
“Thank you, Rabbi Jacobson for bringing me home,” the woman said to me.
I wiped a tear, and thanked G-d for bringing me to Japan for Passover.