By S.Y. Agnon
(Explanatory notes are at the end)
A Chassid of the Maggid of Zlotchov used to travel to Zlotchov every year on the Saturday night that was the first night of selichot. He would go to be near his rebbe in Zlotchov, arrive in time for the recitation of selichot, and stay through Yom Kippur. His journeys there and back were generally peaceful. One year, he set off on his way just as he did every year, anticipating that he would arrive in time for selichot just as he did every year. This anticipation was, in fact, fulfilled–he did arrive in time for selichot. His journey to Zlotchov, however, was not a smooth one. When he left his village, the sky was full of stars, the earth radiated joy, and he too was joyful, with the joy of a chassid who goes to greet the rebbe from whom he has learned Torah and the fear of Heaven. On his way, he exercised his voice by repeating the stern rebukes he had heard during the days of Elul from itinerant pietists and preachers.
The Chassid sweetened the journey for himself with a mournful melody, like a preacher who stands at a podium and delivers a sermon to the congregation. Sometimes he endears himself to the members of the congregation by calling them “dear brothers,” and sometimes he frightens them by calling them “strayers and fools.” This chassid did not notice that when he stretched out his right hand imposingly, the bag containing his prayer shawl and phylacteries slipped and fell.
Meanwhile, the sky had knotted over with thick clouds, the stars had hidden, and the road had disappeared. He found himself knocking about blindly until he ended up in a forest which he had never seen or even heard of before. While he was attempting to leave the forest, rain began to fall, and it increased in severity until it had the force of a rushing river.
A great black fear fell upon him. The rain fell, and his fear grew as he stood there in the forest being slapped in the face and hammered on the head by tree branches and rain. The rain also undermined his footing, until he couldn’t tell whether he was floating or sinking into the ground. The forest stretched on beyond measure and without end–and the night was still young. And such a night–a long, cold night at the year’s end.
There the chassid stood in the forest, in the rain and penetrating darkness. His clothes were saturated with water, and his very soul folded from grief within him. Each time he forcefully extricated himself from one entanglement, he found himself in a place that presented an even more difficult one.
A bolt of lightning illuminated the entire forest. The chassid looked around and saw a cottage with light coming out of it. He gathered his strength, extricated his legs from where they were, and made his way to the cottage. He found an open doorway and went in.
Inside, he saw creatures who looked like men. Their long ears stretched down below their feet to the floor, and even beneath it. Each one held a clerk’s quill in his hand and sat before thick notebooks. The pages of the notebooks were made of skins which had never been cured by a tanner. Strange voices rumbled and rose up from beneath the floor and came to sit on the tips of the quills, from whence the voices would shriek, while the crying, agitated quills would hasten all over the notebooks.
The chassid understood that he had come to a place that was not good. He stood with failing knees and silently prayed that that which could happen would not happen. When he reached out to touch the bag containing his prayer shawl and phylacteries, he couldn’t find it, and he realized that it had been lost on the road. He reflected to himself that when a man’s way is destroyed by sin, he has nothing left to hold onto in his time of need. For what sin he was being punished he did not know.
One of the strange creatures lifted his head from his notebook and flailed his arms about, like a person who is trying not to drown. If the chassid’s eyes did not deceive him, both of this creature’s hands–like both hands of each of his companions–were left hands, but they worked so quickly it was as if they were each seventy seven hands. As they worked, the creatures cursed and imprecated, saying “The souls of preachers should blow out. I have seen an end of all perfection, but vain words have no end.” To what words they were referring the chassid could not guess. The chassid shrank away so that the demons would not notice him. He continued to shrink himself until there was nothing left of him but terror.
The chassid realized that it would do him no good just to stand there, immobilized by fear, so he gathered what strength he had and transmuted it into words: “I was walking on the road when it began to rain, and I came to your house to shelter from the downpour. Now that the rain has stopped I shall go on my way.” When he turned around to leave, he saw that all of the walls were completely opaque–there was no door. How had he come in, then? He was too disoriented to remember. Though he continued to look around, he could not find the doorway.
The chassid forced himself to tell them that it was his custom to travel to Zlotchov on the first night of selichot every year to stay near his rebbe for the Days of Awe. He also told them about what had happened to him after he set out on that night’s journey. But those long ears which heard what was underground were deaf to words of truth.
After the chassid had banged on all of the walls without finding the opening, the chief demon said to his minions, “Open up for him.” When the chassid was about to go, the chief demon said to him, “We are allowing you to go on the condition that you come back to us after thirty-one days. If you do not return, we will come and take you ourselves, even if we have to drag you from under the prayer shawl of your rebbe.”
What could the wretch say in reply? He nodded his head. The chief demon responded, “You think that it is a nod of your head that we want; it is you that we want. If you swear that you will return to us, we will show you to the doorway so that you can leave.” The poor man thought that if they didn’t show him the way out, he was destined to run around in circles until the breath of the enemies of Israel should expire. He swore that he would return to them after thirty-one days. They opened the door for him and he left. Outside, he found himself in the place in which he had been standing before he entered the forest that was not a forest. He found his prayer shawl and phylacteries waiting for him there. He wondered at his own failure to get out of that cottage himself–if only he had tried harder, he would have found the doorway. True, the walls had seemed opaque, but surely he could have opened whichever part of the wall the demons had opened, and he would have avoided the necessity of acquiescing to their demand that he return to them. The chassid sighed in his heart, hugged his prayer shawl and phylacteries, and began to walk. After about an hour he arrived in time for the recitation of “O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto Thee” in the Maggid’s house of prayer.
After morning prayers, the chassid went to get the “shalom” greeting from his rebbe–but his rebbe did not give him shalom. The chassid stood behind the door of the maggid. Men were going in and out–some of them were wealthy householders, some of them were chassidim, and some of them were regular Jews who happened to live in that city. The Maggid greeted and spoke with everyone. To him alone the Maggid would not give a greeting or even a look. The chassid stood with a broken and contrite heart, and wondered, “What is my sin and what is my transgression: why does the Maggid shun me like this?” He still expected that the Maggid would tell him to enter after everyone else had left. However, when they were all gone, the Maggid closed the door. The chassid dragged himself away, went to the Maggid’s study hall, sat down in a corner, and made an accounting of his actions in order to determine what was the cause of the Maggid’s refusal to return his shalom. The chassid fasted that day and the following night. When it was time to recite selichot again, he roused himself from his place and stood with the rest of the congregation, swimming in tears, and it need not be said that he remained in this state for the prayer of “Answer Us.” Although this chassid was not the only one who recited selichot in this manner, all of the others found some resting place within their hearts, while his heart was torn and boiled. His manner while praying the morning prayer was the same as it had been during selichot.
After he had removed his phylacteries and taken off his prayer shawl, he gathered his strength and went to his rebbe. The Rebbe saw him and locked the door in his face. As it was that day, so it was on the morrow, and the day after that, and so on the eve of Rosh Hashanah–when all are blessed by their rebbes–and so on the two days of Rosh Hashanah. Even on the day before Yom Kippur, when the Maggid’s hand was extended to all and sundry, he did not return shalom to this chassid.
The Sacred Day passed and the holiday of Sukkot arrived. All were elated as defendants who had been absolved by the court. The followers of the Maggid, who had prayed with their rebbe and seen his service–which resembled the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, when he stood in the Holy of Holies to plead for mercy for his people, Israel– were especially joyful. Everyone was joyful–but our chassid was heartsick. Then too, his rebbe had locked the door in his face and had not allowed him to pour out what he had to say.
Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret passed, and Simchat Torah came. We rejoice on all other days of the year in the commandment of Torah study; on Simchat Torah, we rejoice in the Torah itself. There was joy on every face, but our chassid mourned in his heart, for the day on which he must return to that cottage drew nigh, and his rebbe, who had the power to help him, would not allow him to approach. The chassid threw all of his hopes upon the Almighty.
Thirty days after the chassid’s encounter with the demons, the Maggid called him to his chamber. The chassid came and stood with a broken and contrite heart. The Maggid rested his head upon the column which was in front of him, and stood that way for an hour or so. Afterwards, he raised his head and said
“Do you know what kind of a place that is? It is not a good place. It is a house where impurity dwells, for the demons sit there and write down each and every sermon that the preachers preach for the sake of advertising their cleverness and erudition, to preen before the crowd, and become great in the eyes of God’s creatures. Similarly, the demons write there all of the words of those who rebuke others without rebuking themselves first. What brought you to that place are the sermons of which you are so enamored. Even on the very first night of selichot–when a Jew must prepare his heart for repentance–you enjoyed them. You promised those creatures that you would return, and a Jew must keep whatever commitment passes his lips: you must return to them as you told them you would. But do not be afraid of them; tell them that you are one of the men of the Maggid of Zlotchov. They will certainly mock both you and me, but do not be troubled by their laughter–say to them, ‘if you can find one word that has come from the mouth of the Maggid of Zlotchov that was not for the sake of the Almighty, you have a right to do with me what you will. If not, you must leave me alone and let me go on my way.'”
And the Maggid of Zlotchov said,
“I am certain that–thanks to the Blessed One’s kindness–they will not find in their notebooks a word that has left my mouth that was not for the sake of Heaven, for every sermon that I give and every word that I speak is uttered for the sake of God alone. Go to life and peace, and may God help us to serve Him with whole hearts, and without any alien intentions.”
The chassid took leave of his rebbe and went on his way, and God helped him–for no inappropriate thoughts came into his head, and he thought only of the ways of divine service and fear which he had witnessed by observing his holy rebbe, whose study, prayer, speech, and even necessary actions–without which no one born of woman can endure–were all for the sake of Heaven.
At midnight, the chassid returned to the spot. He entered and saw the creatures sitting in their places, with their ears inserted into the ground, holding their quills in their left hands, while unsavory voices floated up from the ground and latched on to the tips of the quills, and the agitated quills rushed over the foul-smelling notebooks. Not a single one of the creatures looked up at the chassid or asked him anything.
The chassid did not want to stay any longer than was necessary in that house of impurity. He said to them, “I am the man who was here on the first night of selichot.”
The chassid had assumed that as soon as he had spoken they would put down their work, he would tell them what his rebbe had commanded him to say, and they would let him go in peace. But they paid him no heed since–due to the sins of that generation–the sermons had proliferated, and still continued to multiply. Because no person who entered their cottage ever left, it wasn’t worthwhile for them to lose a minute of work on his behalf.
The chassid hardened his face and said, “I promised to come; I did not promise to waste my time here. If you do not release me immediately, I shall show myself out.” They raised their ears from the ground and gazed at him in wonderment. Never before had they encountered a man who was not afraid of them, let alone one who would address them with such impudence. They grabbed him with their ears and pushed him about the room. The chassid pushed back and said, “I am one of the men of the Maggid of Zlotchov.”
The room erupted in laughter. The creatures ridiculed him and his rebbe among themselves: some posed mocking questions, others answered, all laughed. The chassid did not care for them or for their laughter. He stood gazing at them coldly. They began to wonder: the souls of great preachers, whose bellies were equal in size to a prayer quorum of Jews, had expired here from fear, while this dried out man who looked like a schoolteacher’s shovel said that he belonged to the Maggid of Zlotchov, and betrayed no sign of fear.
The chief of these creatures asked his fellows, “Have any of you heard of this Maggid of Zlotchov–the one this dried out fig of a man says he belongs to?” They responded, “We have not heard his name, nor have we seen his sermons.” “Let us look into the notebooks,” he said.
To explain what the notebooks were: men’s actions and thoughts are all written down in notebooks, as are their words. If men’s words are for the sake of Heaven, they are brought up before the Throne of Glory in order to give pleasure to their Creator; if they are for their own sakes–for their own good and pleasure, to increase their own glory and honor–they are sent down to the nether worlds, and demons come and grab them, possess them, and take responsibility for them. The demons charge a labor fee from each man whose words are written in their notebooks.
And why was this chassid punished by being forced into such a place on the first night of selichot? There were many preachers in that generation who would go to the synagogues and study halls, and who would preach sermons consisting of homilies and rebukes so that people would repent. Despite the fact that their words were reproofs of instruction and fear of Heaven, the intention of the preachers’ inner hearts was to show off their homiletic abilities, and because this chassid enjoyed their words he was punished–for enjoyment of something which is not all for Above merits punishment.
They brought their notebooks and searched through them, and did not find the name of the Maggid of Zlotchov–nor did they find any word of his. They checked a second time, and they still could not find his name, nor a word he had said, nor, it goes without saying, could they find any of his sermons. They wondered greatly at this: even those whose actions are all for the sake of Heaven occasionally allow a word that is not entirely for the sake of His blessed name to escape their lips–that is to say, they mix into the utterance of that word a bit of an intention for self-profit.
But we, chassidim the sons of chassidim, who have been taught by our fathers that the words of true tzaddikim are completely for the sake of Heaven, are not surprised that they could not find in their notebooks a single speech of the Maggid of Zlotchov, since it is known that each and every word which came out of his mouth was for the sake of God alone. That is why there was no mention of him in the notebooks.
The chassid went on his way happy and heart-content. He was happy because he had taken leave of the demons, and he was heart-content because he had merited to cleave to a rebbe who was holy and pure, and whose every word was for the sake of God alone.
And we, if we have not merited to know the early tzaddikim, have merited to tell stories of their deeds, stories of truth and faith, that ye may know the way in which ye must go.
Elul – the Hebrew month of repentance in the Autumn which precedes Rosh Hashanah
Maggid – preacher
selichot – penitential prayers that are recited daily (excluding Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur) before sunrise, starting from four days to ten days before Rosh Hashanah (depending on the year) and throughout the Ten Days of Repentance which follow Rosh Hashanah and culminate on Yom Kippur.
“souls…blow out”- cf. Job 31:39
“I have seen an end of all perfection, but vain words have no end.” – humorous juxtaposition of Psalm 119:96 and Job 16:3
from under the prayer shawl of your rebbe – the image evoked is of a father who covers his small children with his prayer shawl in the synagogue while the priests recite their blessing.
if you swear – here and elsewhere, literally “swear on your righteous affirmation.” “Righteous affirmation” is a (once) popular expression derived from a Talmudic play on Leviticus 19:36. Even a commitment without an oath must be treated as binding.
Israel’s enemies – Talmudic euphemism for the people of Israel, used when discussing a negative action or eventuality.
O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto Thee – Daniel 9:7 is the first line of the selichot liturgy.
Jews who happened to live in that city – literally, “the people who were in the city,” evocative of several verses in the Bible, cf. Jeremiah 29:16
broken and contrite heart – Psalm 51:17
Answer Us – part of the selichot liturgy
Sukkot – the Feast of Booths, a holiday which begins four days after Yom Kippur and lasts for seven days.
Shemini Atzeret – a one day holiday immediately following Sukkot
Simchat Torah – a one day holiday immediately following Shemini Atzeret
prayer quorum of Jews – ten men
reproofs of instruction – Proverbs 6:23
tzaddikim – perfectly righteous people
that ye may know the way etc. – Joshua 3:4