When a handyman was doing work in the home of the Rebbe and Rebbetzin, he seized the opportunity to ask the Rebbe to share a vort [Jewish thought], so the Rebbe shared the story of a man who received an item that once graced the table of a king, and how it relates to our praise of G-d.
by Rabbi Sholom D. Avtzon
In the early years of the Rebbe’s Nesius (leadership), one evening, a handyman was called to install (or repair) an air conditioner in the Rebbe’s house. This individual, although not a Chossid, felt it was a honor and in fact a zechus to be able to do something for a tzaddik. So although as a rule he did not work after hours, he discussed it with his wife and then replied that he will leave his house in Flatbush and should be there in around a half hour.
Driving to Crown Heights he was wondering how should he conduct himself, if the Lubavitcher Rebbe walks into the room while he is working. He decided, if the Lubavitcher Rebbe enters, I will stop whatever I am doing and ask him to teach me something.
Indeed, as he was almost finished, the Rebbe entered the room and the individual stood up and said, “Lubavitcher Rebbe, can you please tell me a vort (a thought)?
The Rebbe asked him, [What do you want to hear] a vort for the table, for your children, or for your chavrusa (study partner)?
The person replied, whatever the Rebbe wishes to say, is fine, I will repeat this vort to all.
The Rebbe said:
We say in Nishmas [on Shabbos and Yom Tov],
“Even if our mouth was filled with song, as the sea [is filled with water],
our tongue [is full of] melody, as the roar of its waves
and our lips [are full] with praise [of You], as the breadth of the sky
and our eyes were radiant like the sun and moon
our hands spread out as the [wings of the] eagles of the sky
and our feet as swift as the deer
We would still be unable to thank You [adequately], Hashem our G-d and the G-d of our ancestors and bless Your name for even one of the infinite myriads of favors, miracles and wonders which you have performed for us and for our ancestors before us.”
So in essence we are declaring to Hashem, that we are lacking the capacity to express our gratitude for Your tremendous kindness. [Or whatever we say won’t be doing justice, it is as if we describe a multi billionaire as if they are about to make their first million. It is almost like an insult.]
But then just a few short lines later we declare;
Therefore, the limbs which You have arranged within us,
the spirit and soul which You have breathed into our nostrils,
and the tongue which You have placed in our mouth –
they all shall thank, bless, praise and glorify, exalt and adore, hallow and proclaim the sovereignty of
Your Name, our King. For every mouth shall offer thanks to You…
So the question is, how can we exclaim that our praise is doing justice and is adequate, immediately after our disclaimer that we are inadequate and possibly inept?!
The Rebbe continued, I will explain it with a parable.
There was a kind and just king who would invite his nephew who was a governor in one of the main provinces to discuss the matters of state on a regular basis.
One time on his return trip to his home, the prince was caught in a tremendous downpour, the heavens opened up and he became drenched. Being that it was also quite cold, the prince realized that he must find shelter or he can suffer from hyperthermia and freeze. Seeing an inn in the not too distant way, he made his way there.
The innkeeper was pleased to have a customer, but seeing his clothing were that of the nobility, he went to extreme lengths to serve him properly. He served him with the greatest honor, gave him the best room, lent him some clothing so he can hang his soaked garments next to the fire to dry, etc..
The following morning, after eating breakfast the prince thanked him for his exceptional hospitality and asked how much does he owe?
The innkeeper replied, “It was my greatest honor to be able to serve someone who is a servant to our gracious and wonderful king. I will not accept any payment!”
The prince replied, “You know that his majesty the king is fair and honest, and he has instructed us to deal honestly with the people, I cannot accept your service for free. I must pay. If you don’t accept any payment, it can create a terrible precedent and example.
Their argument continued for some time, the innkeeper saying that he received payment by the honor of serving a servant of the king, while the prince insisted on paying.
Finally the innkeeper relented and said, “Ok, if you insist that I accept something as payment, I will obey your command. I will accept anything that was on his majesty the kings’ table. Do you have something, even if it be a crumpled napkin that graced the kings table. That will be the best and most precious payment I can receive! My greatest desire is to have something that belonged to his majesty!”
The prince didn’t feel this was adequate payment, but he realized that the innkeeper gave in to accept something and he had to honor his request. So he said, “Indeed I happen to have something that graced his majesty the kings table. I just finished the small amount of whiskey from a bottle that his majesty used, if you want the empty bottle, which I was going to dispose of, you can have it.” Saying that, he took out an empty bottle from his bag, and handed it to the innkeeper.
The innkeeper took hold of the bottle with both hands and asked deliriously, “Was this on his majesty the kings table?”
Hearing an affirmative reply, the innkeeper face shined from pure pleasure and he carefully placed it on his table. He then rushed over to the mantle over his fireplace and removed all of his pictures and items there. He then reverently placed the bottle on the mantle and thanked the prince profusely.
Years passed and the prince once again stopped off at that inn and he noticed, the bottle was covered by a glass box and in front of it was an ornate sign that stated, “This bottle adorned the table of our majesty the king!!”
When the king passed away, being that he had no children, the nobility gathered to choose a successor. After a short discussion they unanimously declared his beloved nephew as the proper successor. After all he was the kings’ closest advisor.
As the custom was the new king travelled through the country and in every major city there was a reception, where the people can present the new king with their presents. When he arrived at a city near this inn, our innkeeper stood at the end of the line with a bag, waiting to present the new king with his present.
When his turn came, the guard asked what do you have for the king and he replied, something that is extremely precious to me, and I want to give it to his highness the king, myself!
The guards looked at his simple clothing and weren’t thrilled about allowing him to enter, but the order was that all were allowed to give something, so they let him in.
The innkeeper bowed in respect and then said, I would like to give this to his majesty. Saying that, he opened up his bag, took out the old empty whiskey bottle, and presented it to the king.
The guards stared incredulously at him. They couldn’t believe their eyes, this man gave the king an empty bottle, this was such an act of disrespect! He deserves to be punished and severely so.
But to their bewilderment the king happily accepted it, and instructed that it be placed with the most precious treasures of the kingdom and then instructed a servant to take the individual to the treasure house and he shall be given a measure full of golden coins.
Seeing the shock and bewilderment on their faces, the king said, “Let me explain; I saw with my own eyes how this individual honored and respected this bottle. He removed everything that was precious and valuable to him and placed this on the mantle place; just because it adorned my uncle the kings table. To him this was the most meaningful thing he owned, and he gave that to me; that is meaningful.
The artist on the other hand, indeed gave me a masterpiece, but is that his only one? Perhaps he has other ones just as equal? The same thing is with the other wonderful gifts I received. But this person has nothing comparable to what he gave and that is indeed the beauty of it.”
So too the Rebbe concluded; “Yes our ability is limited and indeed inadequate. However we state, “With the limbs, spirit and tongue which You Hashem have given and implanted in us, that is what You have given us and with them we shall praise you to the utmost of our ability. Since it is the most and indeed all we have, it is most meaningful to Hashem.”
Author’s note: I posted this story as an answer to my dear friend Shlomo who asked me to explain the Tanya of these days (chapter 13 in Likkutei Amarim). In the beginning of the chapter, the Alter Rebbe states that the service of a Beinoini is not truthful, and then he says, but at his level it is. So he asked, either it is or isn’t. I believe the above clarifies this.
This thought is not limited to our praise to Hashem, but it is in everything we do. We have to do the best of our ability and that is what counts.
Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran mechanech and the author of numerous books on the Rebbeim and their chassidim and is available to farbreng in your community. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org