Where Rabbi Akiva Saw Joy
When the great Rabbi Eliezer fell ill, his devoted disciples came to visit him. He said to them, “There is a fierce wrath in the world,” implying that God was punishing him.
The students broke into tears.
Looking up, they noticed that Rabbi Akiva was laughing.
“How can you laugh at a time like this?” they inquired.
“Tell me,” countered Rabbi Akiva, “why do you weep?”
They answered, “Shall we witness a veritable Torah scroll lie in pain, and not cry?”
“That’s exactly why I am laughing,” replied Rabbi Akiva. “As long as I saw that our master’s wine did not turn sour, his flax did not go bad, his oil did not spoil and his preserves did not become rancid, I thought, God forbid, that he might have received all his reward in this world, leaving nothing for the next. Now that I see suffering, I rejoice, knowing that his reward will be given to him in the world to come.”
Hearing this, Rabbi Eliezer said to his prized student, “Akiva, have I neglected anything of the whole Torah? Why should I deserve even this suffering?”
Said Rabbi Akiva: “My master, you yourself have quoted the verse to us, ‘For there is not a just man upon earth who does good and does not sin.’ ”
Who’s the Thief?
Three angry men presented themselves in King Solomon’s court.
“Your Majesty,” said the first, “the three of us are business partners. We went together on a business trip with a large sum of money.”
The second picked up the story. “Shortly before Shabbat, we hid the money in a pit we’d dug, planning to dig it up right after Shabbat.” King Solomon listened attentively.It was gone!
“But when we went for it, it was gone!” said the third. “No one knew about it but us. One of us is a thief! My lord, I’d like for you to have each of us swear that he didn’t steal the money. That way we’ll find out which of us is the thief!”
But King Solomon was in no hurry to do that. He knew that the man who stole the money would also lie and swear falsely. How could he find out which of them was guilty?
“Return to me tomorrow,” he told the three.
When the partners presented themselves the next day, King Solomon said, “I can see that you three are wise men. Before we discuss your case, I would like your opinion about a different matter.”
King Solomon’s flattery worked like magic, and they waited eagerly to hear his problem.
“A boy and a girl grew up together, and swore to each other that when they were old enough, they would become husband and wife. At very least, they decided, they’d ask the other’s permission before marrying anyone else.
“Years passed. The girl, forgetting her oath, married someone else. Immediately after the wedding, she remembered her earlier commitment and told her husband about it. He said, ‘We can’t live as husband and wife until we find that boy and ask him to annul the oath that you swore to each other!’
“They took a large sum of money and set out to find her childhood friend. They found him and offered to pay him to annul the oath, but he was a good man, so he wished them a hearty mazal tov and refused the money.
“On their way home, the happy new couple was robbed. ‘Please give us back the money,’ the woman pleaded. She told the robber about how good her husband was, being so patient as to let her take care of her oath before they moved in together, and how good the boy she’d grown up with was for refusing to take the money. The robber was touched, and returned the purse.”
King Solomon looked at the three men, who couldn’t understand where all this was leading.
“My question is, which of the people in this story was the most praiseworthy?” asked the king.
One of the partners said, “The wife is the most admirable. She kept an oath she made when she was just a girl!”
The second partner said, “Her husband is the most praiseworthy. Although he loved his wife, he left home right after his wedding to find that boy, and allowed himself to act as a husband to her only after she was released from her oath.”
The last partner said, “It’s true, both of them behaved in an exemplary fashion. But the boy was a fool! Why didn’t he take the money when they offered it to him?”
“You are the thief!” “You are the thief!”King Solomon bellowed, pointing to the last partner. “When you talk that way about the boy, you show that you have an appetite for money even if you have no right to it. I’m convinced that you stole the money from your partners.”
The last partner admitted his guilt, and the other two went home satisfied and impressed by the wisdom of King Solomon.
Challahs from Heaven
Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was so poor that he and his wife often had nothing to cook for Shabbat. Every Friday, before Shabbat, she would throw a burning coal into the oven, so that smoke would drift out of her chimney and the neighbors would assume that she had what to cook.
A nasty neighbor said, “I know that they don’t have anything. Let me go and see what all that smoke is about.”
When she knocked on their door, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s wife was mortified and went to hide in an inner room. The nosy neighbor entered anyway. A miracle occurred, and she found the oven full of loaves of bread and a mixing bowl full of dough. She called, “Come! Come! Bring the spatula. Your bread is starting to burn, and you need to get it out quick!”
Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s wife said, “That’s what I went into the inner room for.”
Indeed, the sages say, she was telling the truth. She was so accustomed to miracles that she wasn’t surprised that coals had turned into bread.
Later, Rabbi Chanina’s wife asked him, “How long will we have to suffer like this?”
“What should we do?” he replied.
She said, “Pray that we be given something of value.”
He prayed, and a hand-like apparition stretched down from the heavens and gave him a golden table leg.
He later dreamed that he saw all the righteous people in the world to come eating at three-legged tables, while he and his wife were eating at a table with just two legs.
He asked his wife, “Will it be okay with you if all the other righteous people are eating at three-legged tables, while you and I are eating at a table that’s missing one of its legs?”
“What should we do?” she asked. “Pray that it should be taken from you.”
He prayed, and it was taken from him.
The sages remarked that the second miracle was greater than the first, because tradition says that the heavens give but they don’t take back.
A group of people were travelling in a boat. One of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath himself.
His companions said to him: "Why are you doing this?" Replied the man: "What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under my own place?"
Said they to him: "But you will flood the boat for us all!" (Quoted in Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6).
A man was travelling through the desert, hungry, thirsty and tired, when he came upon a tree bearing luscious fruit and affording plenty of shade, underneath which ran a spring of water. He ate of the fruit, drank of the water and rested beneath the shade.
When he was about to leave, he turned to the tree and said: “Tree, O tree, with what should I bless you?
“Should I bless you that your fruit be sweet? Your fruit is already sweet.
“Should I bless you that your shade be plentiful? Your shade is plentiful. That a spring of water should run beneath you? A spring of water runs beneath you.
“There is one thing with which I can bless you: May it be G‑d’s will that all the trees planted from your seeds should be like you . . .”
The Artist’s Quest
The citizens of Venice stood silently, waiting.
They had crammed into the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace, bodies pressed tightly together in a crude circle. Every so often they would try to shuffle closer to the people in front of them, craning their necks eagerly for a glimpse of the show to come. Far above them, the rich and the powerful leaned on banisters, gazing down in smug comfort.
In the middle of the circle was a large open space. The performers stood in its center.
Looking at them, one might be forgiven for believing them to be something unearthly, some race of flawless beings transcending the clumsy shackles of mortal form. Surely no human could ever be so graceful? Even the way they waited seemed effortlessly elegant. Some of the onlookers would later describe them like a majestic panther, poised before a leap; others would compare them to figures frozen in an artistic masterpiece. Here, a drummer slowly rubbed a cloth over his priceless African drum; there, a dancer stretched a leg, another watched his breath turn to mist in the wintry air. They moved in slow, careful motions, bodies tense with coiled energy, eyes fixed upwards.
“Up there!” The hoarse cry echoed through the courtyard.
The crowd looked up in unison to see a door open in the palace’s second floor. Jacopo Tiepolo, Doge of Venice, stepped out onto his balcony. Cheers erupted, shattering the terse silence. The Doge bore the applause patiently for a few moments, smiling benevolently down at his subjects, before he raised a gloved hand for silence.
Once again, a hush fell over the crowd.
Still, they waited. And then, from behind the Doge, the Artist stepped out.
He wasn’t much to look at, this artist. Dressed in a nondescript brown robe, frayed at the edges from dirt and lack of care, his close-cropped black beard was curiously unkempt, as if he had started grooming himself and then lost interest, and his immaculately cut finger nails were stained with ink and grime. He was of average height, his back straight with an arrogance born from indifference to those around him, and, for those close enough to see, there were heavy bags under his eyes.
Those eyes, though—those eyes burned. The Artist stepped forward, coming to stand next to the Doge. He looked straight to the performers, seeming not to even see the ever-growing crowd. His face, as he gazed down, was devoid of emotion, as if the event happening beneath him was a meaningless routine. In a passionless, imperial voice he spoke, his voice somehow carrying through the crowd.
“Begin.” A gong sounded, echoing through the courtyard. The performance began slowly, the musicians falling into a slow, haunting tune as the dancers twisted in the air like weightless feathers. The dance flowed effortlessly, merging seamlessly with the music, achingly graceful, hauntingly profound. The dancers and musicians became one, a soft flowing river that sped into a raging whirlwind, the slow dance becoming an impossibly frenetic flurry of motion, spinning, whirling, the dancer’s bodies defying gravity as they seemed to fly on strings of music. The crowd wept, cheered, offered heartfelt prayers of thanks that they had been blessed to witness such a display of grace and beauty.
Through it all, the Artist watched, impassive. At last, the performance came to a close, the dancers landing on their feet and falling seamlessly into a bow as the musicians played their final note. As the last echoes resounded through the Piazza, the crowd looked up at the Artist. The Artist stared back, expressionless. “Keep going.”
Sparing just a second to glance at their comrades in confusion, the performers began again, launching themselves into motion once more. They had barely finished a second time when the Artist impatiently gestured to them to keep going. So they continued, again and again, each time their movements slightly slower, a touch less graceful, as exhaustion began to seep in.
As the performers began to stumble, to make mistakes, emotion finally registered on the Artist's face. He shifted back and forth, jaw clenching and unclenching, muscles moving on his face as he commanded the performers to continue.
By the time the performers finished for the sixth time, their once graceful performance had become a clumsy stumble. The crowd began to shift, to mutter quietly among themselves. From behind the Artist, the Doge watched, face tight with anger.
The Artist seemed to force himself to speak through a clenched jaw. "Keep going.”
The lead dancer lifted himself from his bow, body shaking in protest as he launched himself into the dance again. The others followed suit, stumbling to the barely recognizable music—one step, two, three. Then, with a grunt of pain, the lead dancer landed badly and fell to the floor.
Trembling, the dancer tried to raise himself from the ground. For a moment, it seemed like he might make it, then, with a groan, he slumped back down. The Artist leapt forward, grasping the rail with white hands, his face red, eyes bulging, spittle flying from his mouth as he screamed, “KEEP GOING!”
The performers, exhausted, didn’t respond. The Artist stared down at them, the emotion slowly draining from him he took a deep, shuddering breath, made himself unclench the railing. As his familiar mask of indifference fell over his face, he nodded once to himself and turned to leave. The Doge stepped in his way. “One hour, Artist. You have one hour to leave Venice and never return. If you’re still within my walls after that, I will execute you.”
The Artist stared back, expressionless. He nodded once and walked out. The Artist walked down the hallways of the palace, his few belongings slung in a satchel over his back. As he walked, his gaze snagged on a burning torch in a metal sconce, the fire mesmerizing him, drawing him in…
The fire is everywhere. He can feel it, smell it, see the flickering flames casting shadows on the wall. Footsteps echo through the room; they'd found him, they'd take him, burn him like they did the others ... “Artist?”
Jostled out of his reverie, the Artist turned to see someone approaching. He dimly remembered that he had met the man—a minor noble—at some point. He had given no thought to memorizing his name.
The noble extended his hand. “Good to see you again, sir." The Artist didn't take the hand; the man let it drop. "Antonio, sir. I showed you the palace layout earlier.”
The Artist just waited, not even pretending to care that he had forgotten.
The noble frowned, but continued. “Forgive my bluntness, sir, but I heard that the performance today was not a success. And, well, it’s just that I’ve heard a rumor, about a synagogue of very wise Jewish scholars, in a village in Germany. I thought that maybe, if anyone could help you find your answers, maybe it could be them. Here.” The noble handed him a rolled parchment. “I found a map.”
The Artist frowned down at the map for a moment, then reached out his hand and took it. He looked up at Antonio, nodded—perhaps in thanks, perhaps merely in acknowledgement—and walked away.
The boy cringes, huddles lower in his crawl space. The footsteps come closer—closer, closer. They stop outside his hiding space. He sees feet, legs. The legs bend, a face comes into view...
Father! He leaps forward and hurls himself into his father’s arms.
His father squeezes him tight, buries his head in his hair. Then he pushes him away. “That was very clever, hiding like that. But you need to go back now, crawl deep so they won’t find you.” “Father—” “No. I can’t come with you. I can’t fit in there, and if I try, they’ll find us both. You need to hide. You need to live.”
The boy looks up at his father, not fully understanding. “Please—”
His father grabs him for a final hug. “Listen, my son. I love you, more than anything. And there is something I must tell you. Remember this, my son, always remember ...”
The Artist woke groggily from his sleep, looked up at the wagon driver. Then, nodding his head, he grabbed his pack and stepped down. The village didn’t seem different to any of the countless other ones in this province. A lone dirt path split it in half, a few merchant stalls clustered nearby. Houses were crammed in on either side of the path, huddling close to it as if for warmth. In the distance, the path disappeared over a hill.
The Artist approached a villager. “Where is the synagogue?”
The villager glared at the Artist and walked away.
The Artist stared after him, brow furrowed, before grabbing another villager by the arm and turning him. “The synagogue. Where is it?”
The villager pointed. “Over the hill.”
The Artist followed the path to the hill. As he walked, he found himself unsettled by the eerie quiet, the strange smell that hung low in the air. He crested the hill, , looked down— Charred wood, shattered timbers. Giant planks—once walls—smashed against the earth. Splintered doors.
Rust coated the scene, scattered (splattered?) everywhere.
The Artist stared down mutely at the synagogue’s skeleton. For a moment, he could not comprehend what he was seeing.
Then, slowly, a frown furrowed his brow. Stepping forward, he realized that what he had mistaken for rust was dried blood.
“Crusaders.” The Artist turned as a young, clean-shaven man, dressed in fine clothes, sat down beside him. He’d been sitting for hours, staring down at the synagogue’s ruins, and had not even heard him approach. “On their way to some holy crusade. The synagogue wasn’t even in their path—they had to travel two days in the wrong direction. But they heard that there was a Jewish community here and, well”—the man smiled, a hollow, empty mockery of a smile—“I guess we can all spare a little time for murder.”
The man leaned back on his haunches. “You should have seen it when it stood. I mean, it wasn’t that impressive, not really. Always too cold in the winter, always too hot in the summer. The door creaked something awful, and there was a spot in the roof just,” he pointed, “over there that always leaked. Didn’t matter how many times they fixed it; if it rained, it leaked.
“But it was a happy community, warm and welcoming. Everyone loved each other. And the rabbi … oh, you should’ve seen the rabbi. So wise, so generous. The things he knew. Yet so caring too. He cared, you know, really cared about his students. There was one in particular, a young boy that constantly refused to focus. He’d sit by the window, staring out, dreaming of fancy parties and lavish wealth. But the rabbi never gave up on him, never lost his patience. Even when the boy grew up, decided he preferred wealth and privilege to religion—even when he left home and refused to return. The rabbi never gave up. They say he would make a Jewish calendar and send it to him every year, so that he would know when the festivals were. He never responded, that young man, but the rabbi never stopped writing.”
The Artist turned, looked at the man for a moment. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
His companion nodded. “You’re the man they call the Artist, right?”
The Artist turned his gaze back to the synagogue. “Yes, that’s me.”
“I heard you followed the wisest man in Europe for three years, just observing him.”
The man whistled. “What happened to him?”
“He grew old. His mind started to slip. Slowly, at first; he would forget what page to find a specific reference on, or where he’d put his keys. Then faster. In a matter of months, he could barely remember his name.”
“And then there’s the story about the incorruptible judge. What happened with him?”
The Artist smiled, a humorless baring of teeth. “He wasn’t incorruptible after all.”
The man shook his head. “And all this in search of—what was it again? Permanent beauty?”
The Artist sighed. “Beauty that never fades. Beauty that always endures.”
“I take it you haven’t found it?”
The Artist didn’t respond.
The man stared at him, then began to laugh. It started as a snort, a chuckle, and then he was doubled over, clutching his knees, tears streaming from his eyes as he laughed and laughed and laughed.
The Artist turned around, shock registering on his usually implacable face. “What’s so funny?”
“You!” The man thrust a finger at him. “You’re what’s so funny. Look at you, sitting there, so confused that you can’t find permanent beauty. It’s hilarious!” He leaned in, all trace of humor gone. “Let me fill you in on a little secret, Artist.” He spat the word with derision. “Beauty is a lie, a pathetic notion we made up so we could hide from the ugliness of the world. Look down there–look!” He jabbed his finger down at the burnt synagogue, screaming his next words. “This is the real world! A world where men and women are burned alive for daring to be different, a world where those who persecute innocents are lauded as valiant saviors, a world where a selfless rabbi and his kind-hearted wife, who didn’t have a cruel bone in their body, who sacrificed everything for their faith—a world where they are are slaughtered, while their son, who turned his back on them for wealth and fame, LIVES!” He screamed the word, body shaking with emotion. He stared at the Artist, eyes wide, before he leaned back, wiped a trembling hand over his lips. “No, Artist. There is no beauty in this world. Only the lies we tell ourselves so that we can stomach it.”
The Artist listened in silence, then simply nodded, face expressionless once again. “You may very well be right.”
The man blinked. “Why do you care, anyway? Why do you need to find this permanent beauty so much?”
The Artist was silent for a long time, looking at the destruction in front of him. Fire. There had been so much fire that night. “I am Jewish, too. I was only a little boy when they came for us. I was able to hide, but my father ….” He sighed. “They took him. Before they did, he told me something.” Remember this, my son. “He told me that the Jewish soul is eternal, that it could never be quashed. That no matter what, the soul is always connected with God.
“And then they burned him. “I spent my life trying to understand those last words. How could the soul possibly be eternal? How could there exist anything in this world that can last forever? Yet he believed it—they burned him alive and he still believed it. So I set out to try to prove that there existed something, some sort of beauty that never ended. But I never found it. Dancers tire, musicians weaken. Paintings can be burned, diamonds can be crushed.” He gestured towards his companion. “The religious lose their faith. I came here hoping that there existed some wisdom that could answer my questions. But it appears I am too late. So perhaps you’re right. Perhaps there really is no such thing as permanent beauty.”
The man let out a breath. “I wish I could help you, Artist. But I’m beginning to think I know nothing about beauty.”
The Artist nodded. They sat in silence for a while, watching the sun set behind the synagogue’s remains. As the sky grew dark, the Artist’s companion frowned. “Is it Wednesday or Thursday?” The Artist blinked. “Thursday.”
“Before I left, I looked at one of the calendars the rab—” he sighed, “my father sent me. I haven’t glanced at them for years, but something compelled me to pick up this year’s calendar. I guess I felt that I should honor my last memory of him. If it’s Thursday, then that means that tonight is Simchat Torah.” He stood up.
The Artist looked up at him. “Where are you going?”
“It’s Simchat Torah; a Jew is supposed to dance tonight. I’m going to dance.”
And dance he did, a slow, clumsy swaying of limbs. And as he danced, he haltingly began to sing.
The Artist stared at him, began to laugh. “Stop that. You look ridiculous! You turned your back on your faith. You have nothing to dance for.”
The man continued dancing. “Perhaps not. But I’m still a Jew.”
“You’re a Jew? What does that even mean? Your religion means nothing to you, your G‑d means nothing to you. What importance does your birth have?” Still the man danced. “I don’t know. I just know that this feels right.” The Artist shook his head violently, almost as if to himself. “No. No! It makes no sense. You turned away. The beauty’s gone! There’s nothing left to compel you to dance!”
The man didn’t respond, just kept dancing. And, as the Artist watched the dance, he slowly began to weep.
Remember this, my son.
Tears streaming down his face, the Artist leapt up and joined the dance, voice raised in song. They danced for hours, the two of them, one in finery and one in rags, the burned synagogue casting a backdrop beside them. They danced to a nameless tune, driven by something they barely comprehended. They danced to all they had lost, they danced to all they had yet to discover.
They danced to the eternal beauty of the Jewish soul.
The Dancing Jews
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of the Chassidic movement, was once asked: "Why is it that Chassidim burst into song and dance at the slightest provocation? Is this the behavior of a healthy, sane individual?"
The Baal Shem Tov responded with a story:
Once, a musician came to town -- a musician of great but unknown talent. He stood on a street corner and began to play.
Those who stopped to listen could not tear themselves away, and soon a large crowd stood enthralled by the glorious music whose equal they had never heard. Before long they were moving to its rhythm, and the entire street was transformed into a dancing mass of humanity.
A deaf man walking by wondered: Has the world gone mad? Why are the townspeople jumping up and down, waving their arms and turning in circles in the middle of the street?
"Chassidim," concluded the Baal Shem Tov, "are moved by the melody that issues forth from every creature in God's creation. If this makes them appear mad to those with less sensitive ears, should they therefore cease to dance?"
Why must everything be so difficult? Couldn't God have designed our lives so that we wouldn't need to encounter disappointments, challenges and toil every step of the way?
This must be one of the oldest questions ever asked. The answer--that an "easy" life would also be a meaningless life--is probably just as old. And so is the parable told to illustrate the point:
A wealthy nobleman was once touring his estate and came upon a peasant pitching hay. The nobleman was fascinated by the sight: flowing motions of the peasant's arms and shoulders and the graceful sweep of the pitchfork through the air. He so greatly enjoyed the spectacle that he struck a deal with the peasant: he would give him a gold coin every day if the peasant agreed to come to the mansion and display his hay-pitching technique in the nobleman's drawing room.
The next day, the peasant arrived at the mansion, hardly concealing his glee at his new line of "work." After swinging his empty pitchfork for an hour, he collected his gold coin--many times his usual reward for a week of backbreaking labor. But by the following day, his enthusiasm had somewhat waned. Before the week was out, he announced that he was quitting his commission.
"I don't understand," puzzled the nobleman. "Why would you rather swing heavy loads outdoors in the winter cold and the summer heat, when you can perform an effortless task in the comfort of my home and earn many times your usual wages?"
"But master," said the man, "I'm not doing anything..."
The Secret of the Innkeeper’s Blessings
The illustrious Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was the leader of the vibrant Jewish community of Opatów, Poland. In a nearby village lived an innkeeper, a simple Jew famous for his warm hospitality. His name was Psachya. He worked very hard to please his guests and earn an honest living.
Rumors began to circulate that whenever Psachya gave aPeople began frequenting his inn just to receive a blessing blessing, it would materialize. People began frequenting his inn just to receive a blessing for whatever they needed.
“Is he one of the hidden tzaddikim, the hidden righteous, whose merit sustains the world?” mused the rabbi.
The rabbi decided to investigate, and unbeknown to his assistants, he disguised himself and went to the inn, where he was received graciously by Psachya. Discreetly, he began observing the practices of the innkeeper.
He noticed how Psachya worked to keep his guests happy. He also witnessed people coming to see Psachya. They’d pour out their hearts to him, he’d bless them and they’d leave. Oddly, he also noticed that upon receiving payment, Psachya would put the money in a crack in the wall.
On the day the rabbi was to depart, the secret of Psachya’s blessings was still a mystery. And so the rabbi decided to disclose his identity. Upon hearing who his guest was and the reason for his visit, the innkeeper was stunned.
“Please tell me what you have done to merit that your blessings materialize?”
“I don’t know, Rabbi.”
“Did anything out of the ordinary occur in your life?” the rabbi asked.
“No. I chuckle at the people who come to ask for blessings, and I admire their simple faith. Since they are distressed, I humor them with a blessing, and they are happy.” “When did you notice that people began coming to you for blessings?” the rabbi persisted. Psachya thought for a while and then began recounting the history of his inn. “The inn was not always so pleasant, and my income was scant. My financial state left a lot to be desired. With every new child, my poverty grew. But my faith was unwavering. I’d pray, and with G‑d’s help, we always managed.
“About a year ago my prayers went unanswered. My finances were in shambles. My wife suggested that I find a partner who could invest some money to freshen up the inn.
“I left the village for the town in search of a partner.If I am looking for a partner, I may as well partner with G‑d Halfway there an idea flashed in my mind. ‘If I am looking for a partner, I may as well partner with G‑d Himself.’ I laid out the details of the partnership in my mind. G‑d will give me His blessings, and in return, He would have half of the profits.
“I returned home and built this safe behind the wall. After receiving payment, I put the money into this bin with two sections. One section belongs to G‑d, the other belongs to me.”
The rabbi looked smilingly at Psachya and said, “Indeed, your faith is enough of a reason that G‑d should honor your blessings.”
(Translated from Sichat Hashavuah 491, 5.31.96.)
The Kind Noble and the Charlatans
A pauper was walking along the road, dejected and sad. It had been years since his wife had smiled. G‑d had blessed them with a houseful of girls, beautiful, wise and resourceful—each one a gem. From the moment his eldest had come of age, matchmakers began knocking on their door with suggestions of fine young men, Torah scholars.
But alas, when they heard that there was no money for a dowry, they turned away. “Your daughters are wonderful,” they would say, “but how can we expect a young man to join a family that cannot even contribute a few coins toward the wedding celebration and settling the young couple in a new home?” As a last resort, he set out to beg, hopeful that his fellow Jews—“merciful ones, the children of merciful ones”—would have pity on his family and help him in his time of need.
But he was mistaken. It wasn’t that they were stingy or uncaring. It was just that they too were poverty-stricken and had barely enough to support their own families. And those who had more were overextended, fielding requests from far and near for assistance. Now, on his way home, his mind was on his empty pocket and his wife’s impending disappointment. Barely noticing his surroundings, he leaned against a large tree, massaging his back against its ample trunk. “Hey, you!” he heard. “What are you doing here? Don’t you know that you’re trespassing?”
Looking up, he suddenly realized that he had apparently wandered onto the grounds of a grand manor, and that he was face to face with the poritz, the feudal lord who had almost unlimited power in his realm. “Oh, I am so sorry, Your Lordship,” he was quick to say. “I was simply wandering around, feeling so alone and dejected about my sorry state of affairs, and I stopped to comfort my aching back against your tree. Please forgive me for taking that simple pleasure, and I will be on my way.”
“Wait a moment,” said the poritz, not unkindly. “You look like a man who has suffered in life. Please tell me more. Perhaps I can help you . . .” “Oh, Your Lordship is too kind,” said the down-and-out man. “I was feeling so alone. I am a father of daughters, and I desperately seek means with which to help them get married, but why should you care about a poor old Jew and his problems?”
“Dear man,” said the poritz, “please take this purse of coins, and marry your daughters in gladness. I am an old man and have all the money I can ever need—it’s the joy of giving that I could use in life. Now go in peace.”
Still doubting whether it had all been a dream, the poor man stumbled home. It was not long before word of the miraculous chain of events spread through the village. “What good fortune,” said one man to another. “Here’s our chance to get rich. Let’s go to that same estate and try our luck.” Making their way to the rambling grounds, they promptly located a well-suited tree and began to rub with vigor. Sure enough, the master of the realm soon came to question them. “Oh, Sire,” they said, “Please have pity! We were feeling so sad, so alone and so hopeless that we decided to lean against your tree for a while, taking advantage of the opportunity to massage our backs.” “You’re charlatans, both of you,” thundered the lord, who had once been a general and still knew how to bark an order. “Leave at once!”
As they humbly left the garden, one of them summoned up the temerity to question the poritz. “How is it,” he queried, “that when our friend was here, you greeted him so kindly, but when we came and told you a similar story, you called our bluff?”
“It’s very simple. When a man is truly alone and he needs to scratch his back, he has no choice but to lean against a tree trunk. But there are two of you. You could have rubbed each other’s backs. That told me that you weren’t really as needy as you made yourselves out to be.”
When relating this parable, chassidim would conclude: As long as one has a friend, no situation is ever hopeless.
Save the Orphans
Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, known universally as the Brisker Rav, lived in Jerusalem for the last 20 years of his life, where he devoted himself to the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of thousands. He established Talmudic academies, soup kitchens and other charitable institutions—the most famous of which was the Diskin Orphanage of Jerusalem.
One day, the rabbi summoned a number of reputable sofrim (scribes) to his office and deputized them to fan out through the streets of holy city, knock on local doors and offer the residents the opportunity to have their mezuzahs checked for errors or faded letters. Rabbi Diskin paid the sofrim from the funds of the orphanage.
People trusted the rav and accepted his judgement implicitly. Yet a number of those present were troubled by his seemingly cavalier attitude toward corporate money management. On the face of it, as important as it might be to ensure that people have kosher mezuzahs hanging on each door, it was hard to justify how this could be fulfilling the purpose for which those funds were donated. How could the rabbi claim to be supporting orphans with this money?
Rabbi Yehoshua Leib understood their disquiet and explained: “It’s very simple. We say every day in the Shemah, ‘And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates, in order that your days and the days of your children may increase, in the land which the L‑rd swore to your forefathers to give them.’1 Kosher mezuzahs saves lives!
“Surely prevention is better than a cure. Those generous donors who are moved toHow could the rabbi claim to be supporting orphans with this money? support orphans would surely prefer that there were fewer orphans to support. Rather than wait for tragedy, I am attempting to forestall the deaths of mothers and fathers in this city, in this land which G‑d has given us, and thus spare their innocent children from suffering in the first place.”
G-d gives us an easy prescription for saving lives, and it is it our duty and privilege to follow His instructions to the letter.
We are approaching the month of Elul, when people traditionally have their mezuzahs and tefillin checked. Call your rabbi or arrange for them to be checked directly with the sofer. It could save a life!
Rabbi Shmuel "Shmelke" Horowitz (1726-1778), known as "Rabbi Shmelke of Nicholsburg," was a very remarkable Chassidic Master. He claimed the biblical prophet Shmuel haNavi as his ancestor, and said that the prophet passed his soul on to him. He was not always a Chassid; in fact, he was originally among the early opponents of Chassidism, untill he met the famous Maggid of Mezritch. Later Rabbi Shmelke became the rabbi of Nicholsburg (Mikulov) in Moravia. He is the author of the Torah works Divre Shmuel, Imre Shmuel, and Shemen haTov.
When he was appointed as rabbi in Nicholsburg, the community leaders informed him that they had a special custom: every new rabbi was expected to add a new rule or custom to the chronicles of the community. Rabbi Shmelke smiled and said nothing. As time went by and the new rabbi still had not contributed anything to the rule-book, the officers of the community began to press him about this; but Rabbi Shmelke continued to procrastinate and make all sorts of excuses. Finally, his secretary took the initiative and placed the book in front of him, open on his desk, an inkwell and a pen neatly next to it.
Reb Shmelke sat down, picked up the pen, and wrote the Ten Commandments.
We know them, but they are always new for us.
A Tzaddik in a Fur Coat
Chassidic master Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk once referred to a certain rabbi as ah tzaddik in peltz -- "a righteous person in a fur coat."
The Kotzker explained: When it is winter and it's freezing cold, there are two things one can do. One can build a fire, or one can wrap oneself in a fur coat. In both cases, the person is warm. But when one builds a fire, all who gather round will also be warmed. With the fur coat, the only one who is warmed is the one who wears the coat.
So it is regarding spiritual warmth -- one can be a tzaddik in a fur coat....
Chassidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov (c.1755-1815) was a very special person, an ascetic who was known for his tremendous awe of G-d, his modesty and his passionate prayers, and people came to see him because he was considered a miracle worker as well.
Despite all his accomplishments, the Rymanover Rebbe did not have money and he didn't care for money either. He was actually so poor that he often could not feed his children. There is a beautiful story about how he came home one day and found his little son crying, for the poor boy had not eaten in a long time. "I can't bear being hungry anymore!" sobbed the child. With a bleeding heart his father rebuked him: "If your hunger was really as great as you say, God would provide something..."
The boy could not stop crying and he left the room in tears. After a moment his father called him back and said to him: "Please forgive me, my sweet child! I had no idea that your hunger was so overwhelming. I just took one of my books off the table and look what I found next to it's a coin. You see, God always helps when it is needed most. Now go and buy some bread and make a blessing..."
We often think we that can't hold out any longer, be it hunger, grief or some other test, but God is knows what we truly need and at the right moment--which He alone knows--He gives. So trust Him and Him alone.
Dust and Wealth
Chassidic master Rabbi Simchah Bunem of Pszcyscha (1767-1827) started out in life as a pharmacist, but later he became a rebbe (chassidic leader) and loved discussing Torah with his disciples.
One day he was talking about the snake which seduced Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Torah relates that G-d cursed the snake, "On your belly you shall crawl, and dust you shall eat, all the days of your life" (Genesis 3:14).
Wouldn't it be convenient if we could live on dust? Rabbi Bunem pondered: "Is that such a terrible curse? Dust is everywhere, so the snake's table is always full, no matter where he goes. Now look at the people in our shtetl and elsewhere: they earn their bread with difficulty, many families are poor, children go hungry and some never know where their next meal will come from. How convenient it would be for us if we could live on dust!
"But life as a human being," explained the chassidic master, "means that we are constantly crying out to G-d for help: women in childbirth, hungry children, fathers without a job... So mankind has a connection, a very strong connection to G-d which the snake does not have. It needs nothing, it asks for nothing. And that is truly a curse. But we, we are like children with our father. G-d is our father, the one to whom we turn countless times a day to provide for us and protect us...
"A poor man is always aware of this blessing. The wealthy man, too, is so blessed, but it is a little more difficult for him to know this. The challenge of wealth is that one should always keep this in mind, and turn to G‑d every day for help and guidance."
Chassidic master Rabbi Dovid of Lelov was walking down the street when all of a sudden a woman jumped on him and began to beat him and scream at him. After a while she noticed that the rabbi was not the man she thought he was: her husband, who had left her to her fate and abandoned her many years ago. She burst into tears out of shame and remorse.
Rabbi Dovid got back to his feet and consoled her, saying that she had not beaten him but her eloped husband.
Doesn't this happen to us all the time? We get angry -- at a stranger, at a friend, at a loved one -- only to later discover that we were never truly angry at them, but at the person we thought they were...
The prophet Achiah of Shilo used to visit young Israel ben Eliezer -- later known as the Baal Shem Tov, "Master of the Good Name" -- to teach him the secrets of Torah. And one time Israel used the kabbalistic knowledge he had learned to cross the river Dniester: he threw his gartel (belt) on the water, uttered a secret Name, and crossed dry and safe. But all his life he repented for having used the holy Name of God for his own convenience.
After years, the Master of the Name stood in front of a river again. But this time Jew-haters were at his heels, ready to maim and kill him. Again he threw his belt on the water and he crossed safe and dry. But he didn't use a Name, just his absolute trust in God. And that was enough.
Shalom Bayit Kugel
A husband and wife came to Rabbi Israel of Koznitz (the “Koznitzer Maggid,” 1737–1814). They’d had a big fight and wanted a divorce.
“My wife,” complained the man, “every week she makes for Shabbat a delicious kugel. I love that kugel! All week I work and shlep, just for that kugel! When I just think of that kugel, my mouth starts watering . . . But what does this foolish woman do to me? She torments me! After I recite the kiddush, do I get the kugel? No-o-o-o. First she serves the gefilte fish. Then the soup. Then the chicken. And the potatoes. Then a couple of other dishes, and then I’m full, I can’t possibly take one more bite. Then she brings in the kugel! Now shouldn’t I divorce her?” And he said a lot more that people normally don’t say in front of a rabbi.
The wife explained that in her parents’ home it was always done this way. She wouldn’t budge.
So the Koznitzer Maggid decided that from now on she should make two kugels. One to be eaten right after kiddush, and one to serve after the fish and the soup and the chicken and the potatoes. The couple left, reconciled.
From that day on, the Koznitzer Maggid always had two kugels at his Shabbat table—one right after kiddush, and another one after the main course. They called it the Shalom Bayit Kugel (“harmony-in-the-home kugel”).