Eliyahu turned and gave the speaker of those words an icy stare. He didn’t like it when people shouted to him from across the street, just as he didn’t like it when people whispered in synagogue during the prayer service or when his children laughed too loudly at their games.
In fact, there were plenty of things that he didn’t like about the members of his family and the people of his community. But before he could give the “shouter” a few well-chosen words of rebuke, the man continued to shout, saying, “The Baal Shem Tov is in town! If you want to see him, you’d better hurry.”
That was good news, Eliyahu had to admit, and he knew just what he wanted to discuss. The month of Elul had arrived — the month when pious Jews did a spiritual accounting in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Since Eliyahu considered himself to be a serious and pious Jew, every year he looked forward to the coming of Elul and the opportunity to improve his character and perfect his spiritual service. But every year it was the same old story: he was so busy correcting the improper behavior of others that he had scarcely a minute for himself.
It would have been one thing if his efforts were appreciated. But even his own family received his words of rebuke with sullen looks. And, needless to say, no one ever changed. He therefore felt that the precious days of Elul always went to waste.
“I’ll ask the Baal Shem Tov for advice,” he decided. “He is a wise and holy man. He’ll tell me what I should do.”
When Eliyahu was admitted into the Baal Shem Tov’s room, he got straight to the point. “I want to be a good Jew,” he explained. “I want to learn how to sincerely repent for the things I’ve done wrong in the past and learn how to be a better Jew in the future. But, Rebbe, it’s so difficult to do all that here. You wouldn’t believe what goes on in this community.”
Eliyahu was about to tell the Baal Shem Tov all the community’s problems that needed correcting, when the illustrious visitor motioned for the man to be silent.
“If you really want to learn how to be a pious Jew,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “go to Odessa. There is a longshoreman who lives near the harbor who will teach you how to do teshuvah.”
Eliyahu was surprised. Odessa, a bustling port town, wasn’t particularly renowned for its holiness. But he went.
Within a few minutes of arriving there, he was sorry that he had made the long and arduous journey. The rough and tumble ways of the town—the coarse shouting and the pushing and the shoving—were even worse than the manners of his own community. But since it was too late to go home, he searched out the dwelling place of the longshoreman.
After getting lost in the tangle of small, dark alleyways that made up the harbor district, he finally found the building, and his gloom increased. The windows facing the street were grimy and broken, and garbage was strewn across the entryway. Somewhere inside, a mother was loudly reprimanding her child and the woman’s shouts could be heard up and down the street.
“This longshoreman must be a hidden tzaddik,” Eliyahu muttered, as he climbed a long flight of lopsided steps, although he, personally, could see no reason why even a righteous person like a tzaddik would choose to live in such surroundings. But who could understand the ways of the truly pious? In olden days they had worn hair-shirts and rolled about in the snow. Perhaps living in Odessa near the docks was considered to be an appropriate penance for their own times.
Since the longshoreman’s rooms were not on the first floor, Eliyahu continued to climb. He stopped only when he reached the top floor of the building.
“The Baal Shem Tov sent me,” he told the dockworker, who didn’t seem surprised to hear this news.
“You’ll sleep over there,” the longshoreman replied, pointing to a corner of the room where a straw mattress sat on the floor.
The next morning the dockworker rose early, since he had to go to work. The man said his morning prayers quickly and gobbled down a hasty breakfast. When he was done eating, he rattled off the “Grace after Meals” prayer at lightning speed. The last thing he did, before leaving for the docks, was to put some food on the table for Eliyahu. Then he was gone.
Eliyahu was not happy. He strongly disapproved of the way that the dockworker prayed, ate, and lived. He couldn’t understand why the Baal Shem Tov had sent him to this man. Then it occurred to him that perhaps there was another reason why he had been sent to Odessa. He therefore went out to explore the neighborhood, all the while keeping his eyes open for a sign of some exalted-looking person or pious company.
Alas, his search ended in disappointment. In one shop the store owner was too curt, while in another the shopkeeper was too familiar. In one synagogue the prayer leader was too arrogant, while in another the beadle was clearly an ignoramus. Everywhere he went Eliyahu saw a need for improvement, which only made him more perplexed by the Baal Shem Tov’s instructions.
After several hours of this wandering, he returned to the dockworker’s room. He decided to make a list of all the shops and synagogues that he had visited and to write done what was wrong with each person and place. He was already well into this work when his concentration was interrupted by the sounds of very loud talking and even louder laughter, which seemed to come from the building behind him.
“Who is making this ruckus?” he muttered angrily.
Since the only window in the room was the window of a skylight, one might be excused for assuming that the identity of the people making the noise would have to remain a mystery. That assumption, however, does not take into account the personality of Eliyahu. He was so determined to add this latest transgression to his list that he took his chair and set it upon the table. He then climbed on the chair and, by standing on tiptoe, managed to hoist his body through the window and on to the roof. He was very pleased with himself for accomplishing that acrobatic feat because from his perch he had an excellent view of the sorry sight that was taking place below.
Down on the ground was an inner courtyard, which stood in between the longshoreman’s building and the other surrounding buildings. Some enterprising person had turned this courtyard into a tavern where the Jewish dockworkers gathered to drink and talk and play cards.
“So this is how the community of Odessa prepares for Rosh Hashanah!” Eliyahu muttered, with a heart filled with contempt and rage.
He returned to the dockworker’s room and took up his pen. He was glad he had left space on his page of Odessa transgressions, since he wanted this tavern to have “pride of place” at the top of his list. When he finished writing, he looked at his work with pride. This was a list of offensives worth compiling! This must have been why the Baal Shem Tov sent him to Odessa. The tzaddik must have needed an able assistant to apprize him of all that needed repairing in this miserable town.
But before he left Odessa Eliyahu decided to confront the dockworker with his findings, which he did when the man returned from his work that evening.
“I am amazed that you choose to live in this community,” he said to the longshoreman, presenting to him the long list. “Have you no concern for your soul?”
“I am very concerned about my soul,” the longshoreman replied. “But I’ve lived in this community for twenty years, and it’s never once occurred to me to look into my neighbors’ backyards to see what they’re doing wrong. You, on the other hand, have been in Odessa for only one day and you’re so anxious to find fault with others that you’ve already been climbing on tables and rooftops to do so.”
Eliyahu was so taken aback by the truth of these words that he couldn’t speak. When he recovered, he tore up his list into little pieces.
“Now I understand why the Baal Shem Tov sent me to you,” he said to the longshoreman. “With Hashem’s help, from now on there will be only one person that I will find fault with—myself.”