The story is told of a simple, unlettered Jew who kept a tavern on a distant crossroads many weeks’ journey from the nearest Jewish community, who one year decided to make the trip to the Jewish town for Rosh Hashanah.
When he entered the shul on Rosh Hashanah morning, it was already packed with worshippers and the service was well underway. Scarcely knowing which way to hold the prayer book, he draped his tallit over his head and took an inconspicuous place against the back wall.
Hours passed. Hunger was beginning to gnaw at his insides, but impassioned sounds of prayer around him showed no signs of abating. Visions of the sumptuous holiday meal awaiting him at his lodgings made his eyes water in pain. What was taking so long? Haven’t we prayed enough? Still the service stretched on.
Suddenly, as the cantor reached a particularly stirring passage, the entire congregation burst into tears. Why is everyone weeping? wondered the tavernkeeper. Then it dawned on him. Of course! They, too, are hungry. They, too, are thinking of the elusive meal and endless service. With a new surge of self-pity he gave vent to his anguish; a new wail joined the others as he, too, bawled his heart out.
But after a while the weeping let up, finally quieting to a sprinkling of exceptionally pious worshippers. Our hungry tavernkeeper’s hopes soared, but the prayers went on. And on. Why have they stopped crying? he wondered. Are they no longer hungry?
Then he remembered the cholent. What a cholent he had waiting for him! Everything else his wife had prepared for the holiday meal paled in comparison to that cholent. He distinctly remembered the juicy chunk of meat she had put into the cholent when she set it on the fire the previous afternoon. And our tavernkeeper knew one thing about cholent: the longer it cooks, the more sumptuous your cholent. He’d looked under the lid on his way to shul this morning, when the cholent had already been going for some eighteen hours; Good, he’d sniffed approvingly, but give it another few hours, and ahhhh… A few hours of aching feet and a hollow stomach are a small price to pay considering what was developing under that lid with each passing minute.
Obviously, that’s what his fellow worshippers are thinking, as well. They, too, have a cholent simmering on their stovetop. No wonder they’ve stopped crying. Let the service go on, he consoled himself, the longer the better.
And on the service went. His stomach felt like raw leather, his knees grew weak with hunger, his head throbbed in pain, his throat burned with suppressed tears. But whenever he felt that he simply could not hold out a moment longer, he thought of his cholent, envisioning what was happening to that piece of meat at that very moment: the steady crisping on the outside, the softening on the inside, the blending of flavors with the potatoes, beans, kishkeh and spices in the pot. Every minute longer, he kept telling himself, is another minute on the fire for my cholent.
An hour later, the cantor launched into another exceptionally moving piece. As his tremulous voice painted the awesome scene of Divine judgment unfolding in the heavens, the entire shul broke down weeping once again. At this point, the dam burst in this simple Jew’s heart, for he well understood what was on his fellow worshippers’ minds. “Enough is enough!” he sobbed. “Never mind the cholent! It’s been cooking long enough! I’m hungry! I want to go home…!”
Jewish history is a cholent.
The Talmud states that “The people of Israel were exiled amongst the nations only so that converts may be added to them.” On the most basic level, this is a reference to those non-Jews who, in the centuries of our dispersion, have come in contact with the Jewish people and decided to convert to Judaism. But Chassidic teaching explains that the Talmud is also referring to the many other “souls” which we have transformed and elevated in the course of our exile — the “sparks of holiness” contained within the physical creation.
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (the “Ari”) taught that every created entity has a spark of G-dliness within it, a pinpoint of divinity that constitutes its soul — i.e., its spiritual function and design. And when we utilize something to serve the Creator, we penetrate its shell of mundanity, revealing and realizing its Divine essence.
It is to this end that we have been scattered across the six continents — so that we may come in contact with the sparks of holiness which await redemption in every corner of the globe. So that a printing press in Boston should print a work of Torah learning on paper manufactured by a Pennsylvania mill from a tree which grew in Oregon. So that a forest clearing in Poland should serve as the site for a traveling Jew’s prayers and that a scientific theory developed in a British university should aid a Jew in his appreciation of the Divine wisdom inherent in the natural world.
And the holier the spark, the deeper it lies buried. The Kabbalistic masters employ the analogy of a collapsed wall — the highest stones are the ones which fall the farthest. By the same token, when G-d invested His will in His creation, He caused its loftiest elements to descend to the most distant and spiritually desolate corners of the earth. Hence our galut — our exile from the Holy Land, our subjugation to alien governments and cultures, the cessation of G-d’s open and direct involvement in our lives and our seeming abandonment to chance and fate. All this is a “descent for the sake of ascent,” a mission to the most forsaken points of earth — spiritually as well as geographically — to extract the exceptionally lofty sparks they contain.
Thus, the more painful the galut, the more challenging its trials, the lowlier the elements it confronts us with — the greater its rewards. Every additional minute of galut represents more sparks of holiness redeemed, and its every further descent brings a deeper dimension of the Divine purpose to fruition.
But there comes a point at which every Jew must cry out from the very depths of his being: “Enough already! The cholent has been cooking long enough! We want to come home!”