Once, during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the Ten Days of Repentance, a simple disciple of the Rebbe Yisrael Baal Shemtov, founder of the Chasidic movement, asked his master two questions.
First, what is the most fitting request to make of the Almighty during this period? Should we ask for another year of life, should we ask for a year of good health, for a job that will pay a good salary, or shall we ask for "nachas" from our children? After all, we don't want to bombard the Almighty with too many requests, lest He see us as spoiled children who don't deserve anything at all.
The disciple's second question was why Sukkot comes four days after Yom Kippur? Was it fair or reasonable that, so soon after we get up, exhausted from our fasting, that we must immediately begin to build a substitute house and decorate it? Why doesn't God leave us a little breathing space?
The Baal Shemtov sent his disciple to the neighboring town of Yampol, to seek out Rav Yehiel Mikhal of Zlotchov. "Send him my regards, stay with him a short while, and you will receive the answer to your questions without even saying a word."
The perplexed disciple was eventually directed to the hovel of Yehiel Mikhal, opened the door and found a chair, as if he were expected. After about an hour Reb Yehiel motioned for him to wait a little while longer. He removed a book from the bookcase, which seemed to be the only furniture in the room, and left. After a while, he returned without the book. Apparently, he had sold it, trading it for some herring and a loaf of bread, inviting his guest to eat, even taking a morsel of food for himself.
As the meager meal progressed, the disciple brought greetings from Rebbe Yisrael Baal Shemtov, but could not restrain himself from asking his host why he didn't pray for such basics as food and a real home instead of a hovel, and for a family. Yehiel Mikhal answered: "Such prayers are meaningless, even arrogant. Let me give you an analogy. You are invited to the wedding of the year; the king is about to marry his beloved bride, and the entire populace is celebrating. The fancy invitation even includes the menu.
"But alas, the young bride falls ill and dies barely an hour before the ceremony was scheduled to take place. One individual remained, however. He went over to the royal chef, pointed to the invitation in his hand, and requested each of the courses he had been promised. Can you imagine how disappointed the king must be in that individual?
"And so it is with us," concluded Yehiel Mikhal. "We are in exile, our King is in exile, the sacred marriage between God and Israel has been, at best, put off, postponed. Shall we request to partake of the wedding feast? We can only pray for the wedding to take place as soon as possible."
When the disciple returned with his report to the Baal Shemtov, the Master added another principle to the words of Yehiel Mikhal of Zlotchov:
"On Rosh Hashanah, we pray that God be proclaimed King over the entire world, that the Sacred Marriage, which will bring unity to the world, shall come about immediately. On Yom Kippur, we are transported to the Holy Temple, the nuptial canopy.
"But, alas, this is all a glorious dream, not yet a reality. And so immediately after we awaken, with the blast of the shofar, we must build our modest sukkah, symbol of the exile of the Divine Presence, move into that sukkah with our entire family, and pray that the 'Merciful One re-establish for us the fallen tabernacle of King David' and transform our small sukkah into the Eternal Temple; at that time, all nations will flock to attend the Sacred Marriage of the Divine and the redemption of all humanity."
And so, the disciple had the answers to all his questions.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.