This classic Chassidic Sukkot story is told in Rabbi Zevin’s “Chassidic Stories for the Festivals.” This story dates back to Eastern Europe before UPS and FedEx, when shipping was costly and unreliable, and Jewish communities were quite poor with limited resources. So it was especially difficult to get an Etrog for the Sukkot holiday.
One year the town of Berditchev had no Etrog for the holiday. Not a single Etrog. Then a business traveler came through with a full Lulav and Etrog set on his way home to a larger city. The people implored him to stay for the holiday so they too, could make the blessing on the Four Kinds, but he wasn’t interested. But then Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the Rabbi of the town and a beloved Chassidic Rebbe, made him an offer he could not refuse: Stay in Berditchev to share your Etrog and I guarantee you a share in the world to come! The man stayed.
On the first night of the holiday he waited around in the synagogue to be invited for a meal in someone’s Sukkah. But no one made such a gesture. Having no choice he walked down the street and knocked at the first Sukkah he saw. The family was eating and celebrating within, but they told him he wasn’t welcome. Whoa!? He was taken aback, but determined to eat in a Sukkah he tried the next house and the next, but he wasn’t welcome anywhere. He was shocked and surprised, and hurt. After all, he stayed in Berditchev only to share his Etrog with the townspeople. Couldn’t they share the Mitzvah of the Sukkah with him?
He went off to find the Rabbi. Reb Levi Yitzchak heard him complaint, and told him that he would be welcome to eat in his Sukkah or in the Sukkah of any of the townsfolk on one condition. He had to relinquish his claim on the world to come he’d been promised. The man hesitated, he thought a bit, but the quickly agreed. How can a Jew not eat in a Sukkah on Sukkot!?
As soon as Reb Levi Yitzchak heard his response, he lifted his hands to heaven, addressing G-d, as was his style: “Father in Heaven! Look at your people Israel! More than any reward or benefit, they desire your Mitzvot!”
Reb Levi Yitzchak forbade all the townsfolk from welcoming this guest into their Sukkot, as part of a strategic ruse to bring about this desired effect, the expressed earnest desire of a Jew to eat in a Sukkah and fulfill a Mitzvah, regardless of reward or benefit.
Seeing so many college students filling the Sukkah on a Monday night, is a testament to the same. You are not here for credit or benefit (aside for the delicious food and camaraderie) but simply to be in the Sukkah. Reb Levi Yitzchak would be proud!
And in the same vein, a very special appreciation to those dedicated sponsors of Shabbos House who give generously because they believe in it, and value and appreciate what it is about, beyond the recognition and other rewards of generous giving.