The Feast of Ingathering
By Mendele Mokher Seforim
Translated from Hebrew by Herbert J. Levine and Reena Spicehandler
In general, Jews suffer many bodily afflictions – especially diseases of the intestines and lower parts – and need healing; for this, the Jews of my place need even more. What did the Holy Blessed One do? He set up a settlement for them near the beach, Sheba by name, where there are gardens and vineyards; its produce feeds them and its grapes heal them. This settlement does not really belong to us Jews; it is theirs, the Gentiles. The Holy Blessed One had only to hint to the vintners of Germany and the farmers of Switzerland: ‘Come inherit the goodly land on the shores of the Black Sea; build houses for yourself and plant vineyards, and my Jews, the people of my covenant, will come to you each year at the time of the grape harvest, eat their fill of grapes and enjoy your plenty.’ So these Gentiles came, did the will of the Almighty and established a settlement, planted fields and vineyard and now they have the fruits of the land’s produce and much new wine. However, they don’t give away their grapes to the Jews for free, but rather for money. It turns out that Jews too are human beings and were not created to enjoy the world without paying for it. And what’s more, since Jews are a holy people, they must pay double. So the Jews, who are by nature idle, come and pay the price asked by the owners of the vineyards.
But what should the poor do, who also need healing, but have not even one coin to pay for it? The Holy Blessed One gave his suffering beggars the wisdom to sit and wait in secret until those with full purses migrate to Sheba for their annual feasting on grapes. As soon as they set out, the poor pick up their feet and follow. Sometimes they swarm and descend like locusts, until there are seven beggars for every one with a full pocket. Most of the year, quiet reigns in the settlement. The inhabitants are absorbed in their work, this one in his home and that one in his vineyard and field, no one idle, no one begging at doors, no sound of crying in the streets. When the grapes are ripe, the Children of Israel arrive in their hosts -- the rich with his purse and the poor with his knapsack -- and the settlement hums.
It has all the framework of a regular Jewish city. Stewards are appointed to manage the charity, even including youths and maidens, who come up to every Jew they pass in the market and claim their due. A house is rented to serve as a synagogue during the High Holy Days, and it fills up with Jews, some shoved and pushed together, like herrings in a barrel, stewing and oozing there in love, while others escape outside, stroll in the public street wearing their prayer shawls to meditate and pray, more or less. But when the cantor begins to say the prayer on the holiness of God, a signal is given and those on the outside rock on their heels and answer, “Holy!”
That year, I too was among those who came to Sheba at the beginning of the grape harvest, not only for the sake of eating grapes, but even more so for the sake of rest after an exhausting year of trying to earn a living. Every day I would get up early and go out to the vineyards to stroll by myself, breathing in and smelling the fragrance of the fields, listening to the song of the birds and feasting my eyes on the splendor of the Creator’s world. I would say in my heart, ‘How beautiful is this tree, how lovely is this field,’ trusting in God’s goodness that, at this time of vacation, this would not be held against me as a mortal sin, God forbid.
One time I was walking alongside the vineyards, immersed in my own thoughts, and heard a voice coughing lightly. When I looked up, I saw a bent-over man standing in front of me, quietly coughing, stretching out a hand whose thumb was rolling over the tips of his fingers. He was shaking his head, gesturing with his eyes, strangely contorting his face – submissively requesting compassion. The signs were immediately apparent, even to one who has not mastered the language of faces, that here stood a Jew requesting a donation. I looked at his face and was taken aback, calling out in my surprise, “Reb Ya’akov Pinchas!”
The Jew likewise looked at me. His face fell, he lowered his head and said, “Indeed, I am Ya’akov Pinchas. Reb Mendel, greetings.”
“Likewise, my greetings to you.”
This Reb Yaakov Pinchas (or, as he was known in his own place, Sheindel Mirel’s Reb Yaakov Pinchas, by the name of his wife), I had known for many years. I knew him for a cultured man, a person of good conduct and one who was socially adept, despite his having always been a teacher of children. Because of his qualities, his fellow teachers envied and maligned him, casting aspersions on his manners and conduct in order to make him seem unfit for his work. They said that in secret he read Christian commentaries and newspapers and ”buried his head in Hebrew grammars.” Fools believed all these rumors, while intelligent people knew that they were false and laughed them away. I knew with certainty that his colleagues suspected him with no cause, for in my childhood, when I saw how Reb Yaakov Pinchas explained the thinking behind Rashi’s commentary on the Chumash, using various voices and gesturing with his hands and feet, always with reverence and enthusiasm, I knew that he was a pious man and that his interpretations were true. Even so, there was a hint of some defect in him, which caused the other teachers to closely monitor him. In his letters, for instance, he used strange and difficult words, with lots of alliteration and onomatopoeia. Concerning great matters, he used a high style, full of biblical phrases and synonyms, so that the subject itself disappeared from view (which was the manner of Hebraists of his day and ours). Once he got so carried away that he used both a question mark and an exclamation point in the same sentence! The other teachers were appalled and said whatever they said about him.
His wife, Sheindel Mirel, was a loud talker, such that when she was speaking in her home, one could hear her outside. A hundred times a day she became easily angered and just as easily pacified. She honored Reb Yaakov Pinchas, always careful to prepare his food and drink at mealtimes. Reb Yaakov Pinchas loved her as part of himself, submitting to her and doing her will, like other scholars who revere their wives. His enemies said that she ruled over him with an iron hand; once, when his face was somewhat swollen, they said that his wife had hit him.
We stood for a bit, Reb Yaakov Pinchas and I, silent and shaken: he, shaken and embarrassed, that he had asked me for a contribution and I, downcast that I saw him reduced to this. Eventually I opened my mouth and mumbled, “That’s the way it is, the way of the world. Here, when you would never think of it, Reb Yaakov Pinchas happens to come upon me today.”
Reb Yaakov Pinchas sighed deeply from his heart, saying nothing.
“Why do you sigh, Reb Yaakov Pinchas?” I said compassionately, trying to comfort him. “A new year has come, let it be for good, and in a little while, it will be the holiday of Sukkot, the time of our rejoicing.”
“These special times are not special and our rejoicing is not rejoicing. That’s what I’m sighing about: the sukkah, the sukkah,” he said, shaking his hand and pursing his lips, with force and anger.
As Reb Yaakov Pinchas now appeared to me as someone who scorns the festivals, I wondered if his fellow teachers were not wrong to suspect him because of his knowledge of grammar and his supposed study of Christian books. While I was pondering this and thinking of harsh words to say to him, Reb Yaakov Pinchas added:
“You speak of the time of our rejoicing. This is the source of the damage; on its account, came all the trouble...”
“Begging your pardon,” I said, interrupting him and confronting him with my furious face.
But Reb Yaakov Pinchas stopped me. “Begging your pardon, Reb Mendel! I see that my words have confused you. You’re probably suspecting me either of heresy or madness. But one shouldn’t judge a person until hearing his full story.”
“Please, tell, Yaakov Pinchas,” I said to him with feeling. “Let us walk together along the side of the vineyard. You speak and I will concentrate on listening. Please tell me, I beg you.”
”This is the story of what happened,” Reb Yaakov Pinchas began, after thoroughly clearing his throat and wiping his hand on his face and beard with all five of its fingers. As our sages said so well, ‘If the ignoramus is pious, don’t live in his neighborhood.’ Are you listening? If only I had not transgressed their command, I would still be living with four other neighbors in the house of Itzik Ber, the banker. Didn’t you know this Itzik Ber, a man who is both ignorant and strangely pious, appearing benevolent to the poor man in his time of need, kindly loaning him money with interest by means of an oath, yet writing down on the certificate of debt twice the amount he had actually loaned? May his bones rot and become like a sick man who wastes away. Things that are not to be done, he did to me, and I will speak of them. But when I mention his name, it is as if a spirit attacks me and I cannot refer to him without a curse. He should die and go to hell, and I will return to my story.
“In short, I and four other neighbors lived in the house of Itzik Ber, may his name and memory be blotted out. When Sukkot arrived, all the families got busy building the sukkah, and I too participated with counsel and with action: they, with what they had, such as rotting logs, broken stakes, rusty nails, and I, with a kugel pan, an old mat, strings and cut ropes – each bringing according to his means. Itsik Ber, may his spirit be blasted, set aside for the sukkah the corner of his courtyard where his cow grazed the rest of the year, to all of our detriment. He aggrandized himself before us at the time of our work, saying, ‘Greater is the mitzvah of the sukkah than that of not causing distress to animals. This cow won’t suffer if she wanders in public spaces for a week, and if she gives me less milk because of that or if she dies, God will compensate me for my losses.’
“Are you listening? In saying this, he hinted that the sukkah was all his, because he was likely to lose a great amount because of it. To make a long story short, the sukkah was made according to all the particulars of the law. Two boards, stretched across two thin, bent columns, standing as if by miracle, were used as benches. The person using them had to sit without moving at all, as if imprisoned by nails, lest the boards fall and cause the sukkah to break apart at its joints. A pan placed over a barrel (which had been rotted out by pickles) served, when needed, as a table, at which only three neighbors could sit. So we divided into three watches, one watch coming in while the other went out. At mealtimes, one had to be careful not to touch the table at all, lest it shake and the pan fall off, God forbid. In short, this was the sukkah and its furnishings. Everything as it was supposed to be.
“When everything was ready and we went into the sukkah to say the blessing over the wine on the first night of the holiday, a great wind arose, as can happen during our holiday season, and blew out the candles, which caused great commotion, confusion and shouting among the neighbors. After an hour or two, we relit the candles, and the first watch went in, which included the landlord, may his name be blotted out, and myself. Before we could bring in my noodle kugel, it began to rain and to drip into the pan. Itzik Ber, may the darkness take him, who was both ignorant and pious, made a stringency for himself not to take account of the rain, but to continue sitting in the sukkah. So what could I do, a teacher whose colleagues were seeking to discredit him in the eyes of all the householders through their slanderous accusations? He, may his death atone for all our sins, was dressed for the cold in a fox fur and was warm, while my overcoat was still in a pawn shop waiting to be redeemed since last Passover, so I was sitting in my ordinary coat and trembling. That day I had not eaten at all, because my wife was busy getting the holiday meal ready. You know the way of women -- when they are in the middle of cooking and baking, they are easily angered, so it is better for a man to stay hungry, rather than be endangered by opening his mouth to hint about needing something to eat. So you can understand how hungry I was. And now that I was ready to end my fast with the holiday meal, it began to rain on me and the cooked food was freezing, so I shivered and ate in haste, separated from my wife and son. I was in the sukkah as lonely as a widower and my wife was inside the house, like a widow.
“You could say it’s simple. What has Yaakov Pinchas come to teach us? All of these inconveniences we Jews accept with love. Every year they dwell in their sukkahs and rejoice. That’s true. For this reason, I will shorten my account and not gossip about all the other incidents that occurred during the holiday, for example what happened to the sukkah’s floor when it was turned into a puddle by rain water; or the deluge that was released by a slight jarring of the barrel, causing all of the bowls and utensils that were on it to fall and break; or Itzik Bar, may he receive many blows, whose cow, in her wisdom, knocked into the sukkah’s wall, causing its leafy roof to rustle and its benches and those sitting upon them to fall; or the women who, in order to impress others, diverted almost all the meat and cooked dishes to their husbands sitting in the sukkah, while they and their children went hungry. Even their husbands were troubled by this and ate with bad conscience. Since such events are transitory and do not diminish the holiday’s joy, the holiday passed and so did other incidents, both remembered and unremembered, without leaving any impression. So I’ll skip over all of that and tell you only about one incident that had a lasting effect on me and on my family, leaving us destitute.”
Rabbi Ya’akov Pinchas said these last words tearfully and remained silent. Then he wiped the tears from his face and continued: “I’ll never forget the fifth day of Sukkot. It was a dark day, the start of my subsequent great troubles. As I recount them, I am overcome by emotion and become confused, so that the order of events is scrambled. On that day, I arrived home hungry and tired from overwork, expecting to eat to my heart’s content and then return to work. As you know the ‘season of our joy’ is also a special season for Jewish studies’ tutors, who work hard to enroll students in their classes. The labor pains of enrolling students are as painful for a tutor as those of a woman giving birth. In this fallow period, the tutors vie with one another. There is hatred, envy and competition among them. Each one plots both secretly and openly to acquire students for his classes and to undermine the competition. At that time, sins between one human being and another proliferate—gossip, pettiness, lies and every disgraceful method—to the point that it suffices to transform ‘the season of our joy’ to sorrow, and our holiday to horror.
“I rushed into the house, greeting my wife and entreating in the same breath: ‘Bring me food! I have no time!’ My wife gathered the basics for a meal: a tablecloth, a spoon, a fork, salt, water, and a towel, placing a bowl of piping hot food in my hands. We left the house and hurried across the courtyard, but when we arrived at the sukkah, the door was locked! What could we do? My wife gave me the pitcher of water, throwing the tablecloth and towel over my shoulders while she herself ran to the neighbors to ask for the key. While she went back and forth to the neighbors, I stood in the courtyard wrapped in the tablecloth as if in a tallit, the water pitcher in my left hand and the bowl in my right, unable to move from the spot, like an orangutan attached to the ground by its umbilical cord. It was a cloudy day and thin drops dribbled into the cooked food. I stood there in anguish over the affairs of my school. For if others reached the householders first, they would steal away the students I had counted on enrolling. Every minute seemed like an hour and if it were not for fear of my wife, I would have flung down the bowl and the utensils and taken off. My wife went around to all the neighbors but the key was nowhere to be found. Finally she went to Itzik Ber’s, may he die a terrible death. His accursed wife said that her husband had the key. My wife said, ‘Go get it from him!’ His wife replied, ‘My husband is sleeping.’ ‘Your husband is sleeping and my husband is hungry!’ ‘Your husband can wait.’ ‘Your husband can get up!’ His wife began to curse mine with harsh and abusive words. My wife gave back as good as she got. Itzik Ber, may he not be revived at the final resurrection, woke up and came in. He cursed my wife, grabbed her by the back of the neck and shoved her outside. My wife let out a loud and bitter cry. All the courtyard’s residents, from the youngest to the oldest, came running. They all began shouting, as the quarrel grew and the squabble erupted in blows continuing into the late afternoon.
My wife and I returned to our home anguished and ashamed. She poured out her soul in justifications and tears while I prayed the evening prayer, said ‘Shema’ and fell into bed without eating or drinking a thing. The next day my limbs were like lead and I couldn’t rise from my bed. The doctor said I had taken ill because of the cold. I had been devoured by the chill of Sukkot to say nothing of the cold and filth of the previous day, when I had been tethered like a donkey beneath heaven’s dome. To make a long story short, I was confined to my bed for two weeks and during that time the other tutors destroyed my school and I lost my livelihood.
“As if one misfortune were not enough, another followed. Not long afterwards, I received a summons from a judge in regard to a promissory note of two hundred rubles owed to Itsik Ber, may his name be blotted out. My wife and I were stunned and shattered and could not figure out the meaning of this summons. There must be some mistake! I consoled my wife with a forced smile saying, ‘Don’t worry, Sheindel Mirel, I’ll go and straighten it out.’ While I was still speaking, my wife let out a piercing shriek and wailed, ‘Oy! It must be the hundred rubles that we borrowed from that scoundrel to marry off our daughter!’ ‘What are you talking about? Haven’t we paid that off a little each week, including interest?’ ‘And where is the promissory note for two hundred rubles?’ my wife asked. ‘The promissory note,’ I stammered, ‘he has it, may his name be blotted out!’ ‘We’re lost! We’re lost,’ shouted my wife, beating her breast, crying and hitting me angrily with her hands. ‘You idiot! Why did you leave the note in that murderer’s hands?’ ‘The note has been paid in full and the sin is on him alone, since he kept a paid off note.’ ‘Scholar!’ my wife shouted and fell into a faint.
“Do you want to hear how things ended, Reb Mendel? That cursed Itsik-Bar should come to such an end as should all the evil ones who, like him, engage in predatory lending! Not many days later a bailiff came and sold all our moveable property and household goods at public auction -- the pillows, the featherbeds, even the cloak off my back. We were left destitute and bereft.”
Here, Reb Ya’akov Pinchas paused and passed his hand across his face, groaning and wiping his eyes. After a short while he turned to me and said,
“I’ll tell you the ending in brief, for I have no strength to dwell on such terrible things. The final sorrow was greater than the earlier ones. My wife fell ill and died of grief and anguish. My world turned dark. I am poor and in pain – you shouldn’t know from this. Oy, oy.’ No sooner had he finished speaking than Reb Ya’akov Pinchas began to cough and bring up blood, like one who has tuberculosis.
At that moment I thought about the sukkah. What does this commandment, linked to the Land of Israel and her season of harvest from the fields, the threshing floor and the winepress, have to do with life in the Diaspora, where we have none of these things and nothing to gather? While I was still ruminating and philosophizing, I saw a long line of men and women in tattered clothing walking barefoot ahead of me on the path, with sticks in their hands and bundles on their shoulders. When they reached me they stretched out their hands and asked for charity.
“Where are you from?” I asked this ragtag group.
“We are from Akaramon. We are poor people who are going to Sheba to collect alms from guests and newcomers who come to Sheba to eat grapes.”
“And why did you delay your arrival and not come earlier?”
“We cannot change the rhythm of the world. These are the harvest days for poor people. During Elul, we gather in the cemeteries, and on the eve of Yom Kippur in the synagogues and study houses. Once we exhaust the resources in our city, we come to collect near Sheba. Give, give, good Jew, hurry and ensure us a good start to the New Year,” they said, stretching out their hands and entreating.
I stood for a moment looking around and considering. To my right and left the local people were harvesting their vineyards and gathering the crops from their fields; before me Jewish beggars were collecting charity in the cemeteries, homes and synagogues, in the markets and on the roads. I stood there thinking:
Now I understand. What we have here are harvest days—the harvest days of exile!