In 1797, the richest and most ornate of Chasidic rebbes was born: Rebbe Yisroel of Rizhin, known as the Rizhiner. Unlike other rebbes, who lived in outright poverty, he loved wealth and to be surrounded by beautiful objects. His Chasidim, who were mostly poor, did their best to satisfy his wants, since the Rizhiner claimed direct descent from King David, and believed that he ought to imitate the lifestyle of his notable ancestor—not in personal behavior, but in his surroundings.
The Rizhiner lived in a palace complete with servants, musicians, and stables of horses. His synagogue could hold three thousand worshipers. He never traveled without an entourage of aides, cooks, coachmen, musicians, and intimates. Every Shabbat attempted to imagine the lost glories of David’s life in Jerusalem in 1,000 BCE. The musicians played and sang as the Levite orchestra and chorus had done.
And because the Rizhiner was not only extravagant but also learned and charitable, making a point of meeting with his Chasidim round-the-clock, no one ever accused him of malpractice or wrongdoing. He himself was charming and modest in his mannerisms, and counted all other rebbeim among his colleagues and close friends.
There truly had never been a Chasidic rebbe like the Rizhiner, before or since. He was generous to all, giving of both his time and his wealth. In particular, his banquets were famous, being reminiscent of the High Priest’s sacrificial feasts in the days when the Holy Temple yet stood. It followed, therefore, that Passover was his favorite holiday, when his cooks gave forth their best efforts, and his banqueting table in the royal hall groaned beneath the bounty of meat, fish, kugels, vegetable stews, soups delicately seasoned, and, of course, all manner of matzo-based concoctions, sweet and savory, and tempting to both eye and palate. Chasidim and townspeople alike, as well as travelers from all over Poland, Russia, and Eastern Europe would journey thousands of miles to tap humbly at the door of the Rizhiner’s palace, and be invited to partake.
Now, it happened that, in those days, one of the Rizhiner’s balagoolahs, his coachmen, was a humble, fellow named Mottke. This Mottke was neither learned nor clever. He was not the chief of the coachmen; indeed, he was always the last of the entourage, and on more than one occasion missed driving his coach altogether, for he was a drinker, and something of a ne’er-do-well, besides. Still, although the chief coachman, Avrum, had approached the Rizhiner more than once about firing Mottke, the Rizhiner refused.
When Avrum pressed the Rebbe, saying, “But Rebbe, he is useless to us!”
The Rizhiner smiled, and replied, “He may have the spark. We shall see.”
And Avrum would say nothing more.
On the first night of Pesach, when the Royal Hall gleamed with the light of a thousand candles, and brass mirrors placed behind them doubled their light to a thousand more, the Rizhiner sat on a golden throne before his Chasidim. He looked out upon the assembled multitude and smiled, for he loved to see people happy, there amid the holiness of the holiday. But then, he frowned, and asked:
“Where is Mottke?”
No one could answer. In the crowd, Avrum shook his head, sadly….
Well, Rebbe, he thought, you may believe that rascal has the spark. I do not.
The Seder went on, and all was perfect, it seemed: the children recited the Four Questions; the Rebbe and his Chasidim debated the finer points of the Haggadah, including its Kabbalistic undertones; the people sang the old songs. The wine was delicious, and there were silver goblets for all. All the dipping and sprinkling and making of matzo sandwiches went off as it had in years past.
In the Great Hall of the Palace, the Rebbe’s Grandfather Clock ticked away, and tolled the nighttime hours: BOOM-BOOM-BOOM….
Morning dawned. As the earliest rays of the sun touched the table and its leavings, one by one, the Chasidim dropped off to sleep. They had fulfilled the mitzvah, the commandment of the Seder: to celebrate, eat, and sing “from twilight to dawn.”
But the Rebbe did not sleep. He sipped from a pewter cup of water, and looked at the palace doors, there, great and forbidding, built of mahogany, with brass handles and locks. He saw the doors open, and he smiled. For there entered, shabby and humble, and more than a little embarrassed at having missed his Rebbe’s Seder, Mottke the Balagoolah, the Coachman.
The Rebbe gestured to him: “Mottke, come here,” and he indicated the seat right next to him. Mottke came, and sat down. “Eat something—you have eaten almost nothing, all night.” Mottke nodded, and nibbled at some matzo and leftover chicken. He drank no wine.
When Mottke was done, the Rebbe asked, “Now, Mottke. We missed you last night. What kind of Seder did you have?”
“Oy, Rebbe,” said Mottke, “I got home very late—I was helping my friend Chaim load some wood onto his wagon, and I didn’t notice that the sun had gone down. And, of course, I had no food for Pesach. Nor did I remember what kind of food we’re supposed to eat, anyway. But I remembered that, in shul last Shabbos, you spoke for a long time about chametz, and that we are not supposed to eat chametz. I had turned to Chaim, and asked, ‘Chaim, what is chametz?’ And he said to me, a bit crossly, because he was trying to listen to you, ‘Chametz? Chametz? For you, Mottke—that is brandy! You drink a lot of brandy, don’t you? Chametz is brandy.’
“Now, it happens that I had a half-bottle of cherry brandy in my house, along with a couple of hard-boiled eggs. And it was dark, and I was hungry. And I did not know how to make a Seder. But I knew I should get rid of the chametz, so I drank the brandy. And I ate the eggs. And then, the brandy made me fall asleep.
“When I woke up, it was midnight—at least, I think so. And I was alone, in the dark, and afraid. I knew that all Jews everywhere were doing their seders, but I was alone. So I spoke to God:
“Sovereign of the Universe! I am Mottke, the Coachman. I am not very important, or wise, or rich. I do not know Your Torah; I never learned in a Hebrew School. But this I can remember. I know that the Jews were in the Land of the Egyptians, and that You and Rebbe Moishe rescued them.
“And I tell You this, God. If You do not come now, or soon—to rescue us Jews from the Czar, who hates us and taxes us, and who puts our young boys into his army and tries to kill them there—and more! If You do not make peace in the world, and make people to stop hating each other, then why call this Your Passover, Your holiday of rescue? God! Do You hear me? It is Mottke, the Coachman, who asks this of you.”
And the Rizhiner, who was listening, along with most of his Chasidim, said, “Oy, Mottke! Your Seder was so much, much better than ours! God bless you, Mottke! God bless you!”
Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.