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Vaysechvoos

There were many theories about the demise of Chaika that were bantered about in Vaysechvoos. Chaika the Wise was very old. How old, no one knew. But there was no one living who could remember her as a young person, even those who were now in their eighties and nineties.

She knew she was dying," remarked Zlata the Dyer, "and being the private person she was, she decided to leave town so as not to make herself the center of attention."

"No, that could not be true," exclaimed Malkah the Tailor's wife. "Chaika had no one apart from our little community here in Vaysechvoos. She would have had no place to go. I think she is lying dead in a field nearby waiting to be discovered."

And on and on went the speculation, for Chaika was nowhere to be found. She had never absented herself from the women's mikvah or the Shabbos festivities, yet this week she was present for neither.

The rabbi's wife went to Chaika's modest home to see if perhaps she was ill and needed help. To her surprise, the door was unlocked and as she pressed against it to knock, it swung open.

The rebbetzin shouted out the name of the elderly Chaika. Everyone knew that the woman was nearly deaf. But Chaika was not there to hear the shout. The house was neat and clean. The bed was properly made, the dishes were all put away in the cupboard and the floors had been swept. So where was Chaika? There was no note and no indication of where she might have gone.

The rebbetzin rushed home to talk things over with her husband. She told him that the gossip reporting Chaika's demise must be true. There was no other possibility. "Wouldn't it be right to sit shiva?" she inquired.

The rabbi thought it through and said, " We can't sit shiva until a Beth Din declares Chaika to be dead." But the rebbetzin and the other women who loved Chaika grieved. No kaddish. No shiva. No Chaika.

"Will she pass away like a small cloud in a breeze?" they wondered.

All the town seemed to be grieving the loss, so the rebbe magnanimously called five other village rabbis to form a court of inquiry. They sat at the table in Chaika's house and one villager after another came to give testimony.

"If Chaika were not dead, she would not have done this," declared Rivkah, who considered herself to be one of Chaika's friends.

Several of the young wives recounted the same story, "She always came to the mikvah to pray with us younger women, to urge us on to godliness. If there is no Chaika in Vaysechvoos, she must be dead."

When the rabbis heard of her good works, her piety, her generosity, how she always visited the poor and the needy despite her tired and old bones, tears came to their eyes.

When the children of Vaysechvoos showed the court of inquiry the clothes she had made for them as well as what she had mended, there were more tears.

Chaika was a master of healing with herbs and poultices and when the people of the village imagined themselves afflicted and ill without Chaika, their tears were like a flood.

So you can imagine what a scene there was when Chaika arrived. No one saw the bal agolah drop her off. She quietly opened the door and saw all the visitors around her table. "It's so wonderful that you all came to welcome me home, but who are these pious gentlemen here in my house?"

Still sobbing, Rivkah from the mikvah said "Chaika, Chaika, they came to declare you dead so that we could all grieve properly."

Chaika grimaced. "Sooooo."

"They just pronounced you dead and we were listening to the eulogies," Rivkah explained.

"But Rivkah, friends, I'm not dead. I'm old, but I'm not dead."

"Shah. Still," the rabbi's wife shook her finger at the saintly woman.

"If such august rabbis have declared you dead, who are you to contradict them?"

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Vaysechvoos

The sage in the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos tells many stories. But none seems to fascinate or perplex the people more than the tale he tells about Rabbi Josiah Ben Farfel:

Rabbi Josiah, a gaon and a revered scholar descended from 42 distinguished rabbis, was never perplexed by questions on religion. He always had a profound reply for even the toughest inquiry specially for problems other rabbis could not solve. He also didn't live in Vaysechvoos because if he had, like everyone else in Vaysechvoos including the sage, he, too, would be perplexed about many things, including this story. But Rabbi Josiah lived far, far away.

Rabbi Josiah had many wealthy and devoted followers in his distant land. They provided him with everything he needed. Among his possessions were an ornate carriage and a strong team of horses. He had a faithful driver who would take him on long excursions to the most beautiful and interesting spots in the country. And he had a scribe, Pelte, who would record his every word.

Rabbi Josiah enjoyed a daily carriage ride. It seemed to soothe him. And it was during these trips that he could reflect and solve the great mysteries that were put before him. But Rabbi Josiah also strictly observed the Sabbath. This presented his good coachman with a dilemma: It was improper for the rabbi to ride on the Sabbath.

So at midday one Friday when the rabbi seemed to have a particularly large number of perplexing problems to solve, the driver hurriedly prepared a trip. He wanted the rabbi to enjoy enough of a ride in the country that it would carry over to the Sabbath.

The good coachman took Rabbi Josiah and Pelte the Scribe down an unknown path. They came upon a small river, really only a stream, where they stopped for a drink to cool them from the heat of the day. From the oasis, the path began to climb. Soon it took them to the top of a hill. When they reached the summit, Rabbi Josiah had the coachman stop the carriage. He stepped out along with Pelte the Scribe so that they might survey the vast scenic landscape in this territory where they had never been before. The oasis below, where they had stopped for water, was now only the size of a pinhead in their sight. In that moment a dark cloud as big as a man's hand appeared on the horizon. Quickly it filled the entire sky, and a strong wind pushed it near the top of the hill where the rabbi and his two servants stood transfixed, unable to move for the curious thing that was happening. Then came a storm and a downpour, but only on them! They marveled at the unpredictable course of the cloud, the wind and the rain. Suddenly a single bolt of lightning struck, and their carriage was vaporized. The frightened horses ran wildly down the other side of the hill and disappeared. Just as quickly as they had come, the dark cloud, the stiff wind and the heavy rain also vanished.

Now, standing on the hill beneath a clear blue sky, Pelte the Scribe looked quizzically at the good rabbi. So," Pelte said, "what is the meaning of this? Why did the Almighty send a storm with one bolt of lightning? Now we have no coach and our horses have fled. We're soaked with rain and the road is mud. The way home is too long to return for the Sabbath. What a beautiful ride in the country this has turned out to be! So tell me, Rabbi Josiah, why did the Almighty allow this to happen?"

Lifting his eyes heavenward to a sky that was showing the first signs of sunset, Rabbi Josiah said, "He might as well ask me, 'Who is the Son of God?'"

Now the followers of Rabbi Josiah Ben Farfel gave many different interpretations of this event. Some said that he was cursing the lightning of the sky that prevented him from keeping the Sabbath. Others said it was a lesson from the Almighty as to how important honoring the Sabbath is. Each, thinking himself to be wise, had his own explanation. The sage of Vaysechvoos just squinted his eyes, frowned and became doubly perplexed. But the coachman always wondered why, on the long walk home, the good rabbi kept muttering what sounded like a dark saying, "The Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath."

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Strange Things

Mysterious things always seemed to be happening in Vaysechvoos: a cow might stop giving milk or a bird might plummet from the sky for no apparent reason. Can you imagine, a seemingly healthy bird dropping dead in front of you. Stranger things yet were known to have happened--like the time the three thousand finely crafted tiles arranged in neat stacks presented themselves right next to the rabbi's house. Or the time that all of the cobbler's leather was found spread out on the synagogue floor. Of course, such things did not happen every day, just often enough to remind people that there are demons, dibbuks, evil spirits and specters of all sorts, lurking about unseen, but not unknown.

If the comings of such things were strange, the goings were even stranger. Where did the 3,000 tiles go? Who knows. They disappeared just like they came. No one in Vaysechvoos would have taken them. Maybe such tiles were proper for a nobleman or for a gentile synagogue, or whatever you call one of their places, but no Jew had use for such fine building materials. But that's another story for another day.

One thing that was strange, was the fact that there were a lot of bees in Vaysechvoos. They were there to stay whether the people wanted them or not. And to tell you the truth, they were not entirely bothersome. From the bees one got honey. However, the people of Vaysechvoos used little honey, except, of course, for Rosh Hashanah. How else could one usher in a year of sweetness? Then the people would take big juicy apples, cut them up and dip them into the honey and, aah, it would be like heaven. But that too is another story.

During the year, most of the honey was sold to gentiles; they used a lot of it. And as for the people of Vaysechvoos, the women used the leftover beeswax, to make holiday candles.

They did not use paraffin because who could be sure it was kosher. And they did not use oil because they were poor and oil was very scarce and very expensive. But beeswax--they had plenty. Apart from their own use of candles, once a year the women would send their candles to the marketplace for use at Hanukkah. In return, they would get some remnants of fabric and a little money; enough to have some midwinter festivities.

When the Bal Agolah said that he could get more money for beeswax candles if they were red or green, it didn't occur to the women that he might be selling them to some other people to celebrate some other holiday than Hanukkah. They preferred bluish candles or variegated colors and those were the ones they kept for themselves...to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

Nevertheless, if it could be said that Vaysechvoos did have an industry, it was the industry of the older women and their candle-making. The process was as follows: first, they would roll the beeswax out on the marble slabs that they used for pounding their bread dough. Then they'd sprinkle dye to give it color, not that there were so many choices; a little bit of beet juice for a reddish color, a little yellow saved from the carrots, and so on. All year long they looked to this and to that to make bright colors. Then, after they sprinkled, they would with the sharpest of knives, carefully scrape the wax off into a very thin, yet soft layer. Next, they would place a linen wick on one edge and slowly roll up the beeswax. By cutting the beeswax in a triangle, they were able to create a spiral, tapered appearance to the candles. The ladies would then take three of these narrow spiral candles and braid them into one. The final product was nothing less than a fine work of art, a masterpiece!

But just a few days before Hanukkah, there was another strange happening in Vaysechvoos--all of the newly made holiday candles disappeared. A rumor spread that the teamster stole them to sell to gentiles. No one believed anything like that. Only a demon could work so fast. The people were more inclined to believe in all sorts of dibbuks and things that whistle and laugh at night than in dishonest Bal Agolahs. And besides, what would gentiles do with Hanukkah candles?

At any rate, whatever demon, spirit, specter, or for that matter, angel, took the finely made, lovingly crafted Hanukkah candles--they were gone for good! And like the tiles that appeared and disappeared, they never came back.

Oh horrors! Of all the tragic things that could befall a town: drought and plagues and pogroms and pounding hail stones, nothing could draw as much moaning and groaning and despair and disappointment as the mysterious disappearance of what made Hanukkah so bright. Where could they get beeswax to make even a few candles in midwinter? Where could they get paraffin? It did not seem that this Hanukkah would be a very joyous one for the people of Vaysechvoos.

To make matters worse, a fast and frantic rider came to tell them that a band of Cossack raiders might be coming near Vaysechvoos. At this point, you might find it interesting to hear about this particular band of Cossacks.

As peace loving and as placid as the Jews were, so the Cossacks were easily agitated and fierce. Or, at least they wanted to seem fierce. But so many years had passed since these particular Cossacks had gone out for raiding that their excitement over war had not only become dulled, but they had become very poor.

And in the camp where Ermak was hetman (which means he was the elected general, ruler of the band), they were poorer than the Jews of Vaysechvoos. Their holiday was coming and without money one could not buy presents from the peddlers. And Ermak had a young wife, Natasha, who complained that she was dressed in rags more properly worn by a goatherd than a could-be attractive wife of an important Cossack ruler.

Please, Ermak" she said, "I need something to wear. Couldn't we sell your sabre? After all, no one has ever attacked us."

Ermak explained, "A sabre for a Cossack is not to defend oneself, but to gain honor in the field of battle and to use in a raid on the faraway statue worshippers and Jews. With this sabre, we get what we need! The money, the clothes, the jewelry!!"

"But when?" Natasha shouted, "...when shall we have these things?"

"Before the feast of our Savior's nativity," he said so solemnly that it could only be taken as an oath. He then realized what he had said, but it was too late. Natasha had already run out the door shouting, "The men are going on a raid. The men are going on a raid!"

Soon the men were gathered planning how they would travel west to the land of the false church with the beardless priests who never marry. They would teach those false Christians a lesson, carry off their goods and be back in time to buy presents and liquor and have a merry holiday. Every man of the camp, who was a man, was determined to go, even the one legged Vladimir.

And thus they commenced their adventure. Ermak was proud to see that each remembered his horsemanship. After all, they were all in the Czar's militia as auxiliary cavalry men. For days on end they marched, avoiding the towns, crossing the rivers, not on the Czar's bridges, but on God's own bridge of ice that could have held a whole battalion of Cossacks.

They spent their evening hours in the villages where many Russian peasants reluctantly hosted them. They did not have the heart to protest the Cossacks' consumption of fantastic amounts of food, provender for the horses and harmless flirtation with the women of the household.

Ermak's strategy for a raid was to pick a village not too well defended. If he could frighten the villagers with a show of terrifying fierceness, perhaps he might be able to minimize the bloodshed. Frankly, in his heart, Ermak was secretly terrified, not of getting killed, but of seeing blood. The thought of it made him sick and started his stomach wrenching violently. So he prayed and he hoped that there wouldn't be any violence, or if there had to be violence, that he wouldn't see it. Or if he did see it, that he would be among the first killed so that his men would never learn of his distaste for violence.

After they came to the country of churches with statues, it took several days of scouting to find the right village. But the wisdom of warfare and raiding started to come back to Ermak and he remembered what he'd been taught as a boy. He found a small village at a crossroads where there was a small market and a small contingent of constables who didn't belong to the Czar and thus were fair game for the raid. The village had an inn and barns for storage and freight wagons would stop at the inn. Teamsters would unload the goods there until the customs collectors would inspect the cargo.

Ermak's strategy was simple. The attack would be noisy and boisterous with much shouting and screaming. But the Cossacks would not ride as swiftly as they knew they could, thus giving the villagers, the constables and the able-bodied teamsters a chance to "escape." Along the journey those without swords had carved wooden ones from birch trees. The swords looked almost authentic unless one got too close. So, just before the raid, they killed a farmer's pig and completely bloodied the wooden swords.

And Ermak and his men charged into the village at what could hardly be called a gallop.

With swords held high they screamed and yelled, "Yowie, Zowie, Bowie." The dogs barked and the cattle lowed and the horses and goats all protested as if they knew they too would be slaughtered just like the poor pig who gave his life to camouflage the swords. The townspeople were terrified. So were the constables and teamsters. Everyone ran for their lives.

Not a soul was left in the village except one defiant rooster who shouted back at the Cossacks, "Cockadoodle-doo on you and you and you!!"

Ermak and all the Cossacks drew up short; so complete was their victory they didn't know what to do next.

"Let's go through the houses and take what we will," the one legged Vladimir said to Ermak.

"And" he added, "could I have a freight wagon? That way, I could sleep on it and wouldn't need anyone to help me in or out of the saddle." And his two sons who customarily did that task emphatically added their assent to that petition.

Now these Cossacks didn't know a lot more about looting than they did about fighting, but if they had too little fighting for their self-respect as Cossacks, they were going to make up for it by showing their prowess and looting everything in sight.

"Hooray!" shouted a 15 year-old, as he came out of the home of one of the villagers holding up a brand new sabre with a gold hilt and a leather scabbard. That was enough to get everything started.

Each of the Cossacks began building his pile of personal loot, swords and knives, clothes and coins, dishes and harnesses, farm implements and furniture. And in the storehouse inn, they found many barrels.

Now every Cossack, whether or not he'd been on a raid, knew what is kept in barrels--whiskey and wine!! And with one barrel open and a spigot found, they tasted some spirits that were as smooth as wine and as potent as brandy. It was unanimously decided that they would take every single barrel of this wonderful stuff with them. That meant that they'd have to use all the freight wagons to cart their booty.

Ermak and his men now headed toward the steppes, tired but happy. Ermak wouldn't have been nearly as self-satisfied if he knew what he was to discover many days later, namely, Cossacks moving cross country on their horses travel four times as fast as slow freight wagons. And by Ermak's reckoning, at this pace they would reach their camp on the steppes early in the month of February, at least a month after the holiday over which he made his promises to Natasha He tried to urge his men to lighten the load, but with little success.

So Ermak reluctantly planned the first act of violence that he would ever commit in his life. The freight wagons would catch fire along with their cargos. From the top of the hills, he would personally see columns of cavalry pursuing them. And they would have to ride like lightning to escape those troops. It was all to happen early in the morning, after one good night of drinking and sleeping. And little did he know that he chose the sight for this violence near the little Jewish village of Vaysechvoos.

A watchman from Vaysechvoos was posted up in a tree at the outskirts of the town. Sure enough, he spotted a huge band of strangers coming with pack horses and wagons. He hastened back to warn the people. Those few who had root cellars, hid in them. Most of the people did what they had done before and huddled in the synagogue waiting for the worst to happen.

However, instead of entering Vaysechvoos, Ermak and his Cossacks stopped for the night at a stream by the leafless trees outside of the village. It came time to open another barrel of the liquor that they'd stolen but when they put it to their lips it tasted horrible. It was some sort of oily wine, nothing they had ever tasted before. The hetman examined all of the barrels and found that four of them out of the dozen were, in fact, this oily wine that was not fit to drink. As a prank, they decided to roll the barrels into the Jewish village and leave them standing there. They laughed as they envisioned the Jews getting sick from drinking the "oily wine."

Meanwhile, they consumed what was left of the good liquor and in a drunken stupor made their way to the little huts in the village where they fell soundly asleep. When they awoke the next day, everyone had terrible headaches. Ermak changed his strategy as he saw his men stumble over one another, with heads that were clouded from the drink the night before. Ermak shouted orders to his men to pack up the booty because soldiers were coming. Meanwhile, he had taken the most valuable of the small pieces of booty during the wee hours of the morning. The heads of the men were pounding. They were confused as they abandoned the freight wagons and rode off on their own ponies with as much as they could pack. Ermak's plan worked. He and his men headed eastward toward the steppes, their mood slightly improving as they thought of the stomach aches the Jews would have when they drank the awful "oily wine."

As for Vaysechvoos, the Jews came out the next morning to see the Cossacks gone. They breathed a sigh of relief that the huts were still standing and they gasped in amazement, for instead of the expected destruction, they found a small fortune: some livestock, well crafted furniture, bolts of fabric, crates of anvils and hammers and nails, freight wagons, a solid silver time piece and spices.

"All these treasures before us!" Zlata the Widow exclaimed.

"What spirit was this which seemed to bring ill tidings, but brought instead, good holiday cheer?" Feivel the Tanner asked of no one in particular. And in addition to the gifts, the villagers quickly gathered up, there were the four huge barrels.

Now Jews knew the difference between wine and olive oil. Olive oil was indeed a very expensive commodity! While they couldn't use it for cooking since it might have been contaminated by the gentiles, the Sage of Vaysechvoos reasoned, "It's true that we cannot use the olive oil for food, but it might be mixed with the animal provender or we could use it for illumination."

"Illumination?" asked the cobbler.

Yes, illumination!" replied the Sage. Have you forgotten the miracle of the oil at Hanukkah?"

A gasp came from the crowd. And then a smile appeared on each and every face for light would come to Vaysechvoos this Hanukkah. Every vessel in the village was needed, cups, bowls, even chards were equipped with a wick for the gentile oil.

And it was the brightest that Vaysechvoos had ever been. The huts and the homes were so warmed by the many brightly burning lights, there was no need for afire inside to take away the chill. Yes, there was laughter and singing that Hanukkah. And Jews from surrounding villages were invited to come and witness the miracle and share in the blessing! (The Cossacks and other strangers probably had a merry something else, somewhere else.)

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The Blessed Scarf

It was a little too big for a babushka and a little too small for a waist sash. The dark brown, ancient pattern against the lighter background seemed like something the Turks might have designed. The repeated lines and angular letters looked, at first glance, like the heathenish language. Yet upon closer inspection, the word Baruch" appeared to be woven into the pattern, again and again. The scarf commanded a certain respect from all of the villagers. They called it "the scarf of blessing."

It was not like any other. The scarf was made of fine wool, and years of wear had given it a shine so that at first glance, one might mistake it for silk. But when the rains came, the smell was the smell of wool. Still, it was so soft and shiny, some wondered if perhaps it contained mixture. Of course, the rabbi proclaimed that a scarf of miracles certainly could not contain mixture!

The people of Vaysechvoos rarely spoke of the blessed scarf, yet everyone in the shtetl was more than a little aware of its presence. It belonged to no one, yet in a sense, it belonged to everyone...but let me explain.

The scarf was indeed a blessing when the person who wore it at the time of the Rosh Hodesh was pure of heart. When such a person would recite the prayers, the desires of their heart would be granted...provided that they did not speak that desire to another living soul.

There are stories told of the most marvelous miracles--of barren women who became mothers. And of spinsters who became brides, and of those with prolonged grief who could smile. As for the impoverished, well, it would be an exaggeration to say they had become prosperous. After all, who in Vaysechvoos prospers? But they found there was a little more bread on the table and a little more wine in the kiddush cup.

Now the scarf was passed on from one person to another as a gift. It was not given to help celebrate a birthday or a shidduch. It was passed along rather unceremoniously, sometimes even surreptitiously from one to the next, lest any pure in heart be tempted into evil speculations and greed.

According to tradition, the blessed scarf could be in one person's possession for only one New Moon. After that, it had to be given to another. The story is told of a man who forgot to pass it on at the appointed time. His house burned own, his wife ran away with the merchant from Kiev and six of his eight milk cows dried up. No one in Vaysechvoos cared to test the potency for "unblessing." Everyone took great pains to make the scarf a blessing to someone else at the appointed time.

When Perele the Widow was seen wearing the scarf of blessing, the townspeople smiled. Here was a woman who was truly pure of heart. For though she had little of this world's gods, she was always ready to put an extra table setting out for a stranger who might be passing through town. When a child was confined to bed with a head cold, it was the widow who offered to come and cheer up the kind with a little something sweet. And when the rabbi of Vaysechvoos appealed for alms for the poor, it was the widow who was the first to give and give generously from what seemed to be nothing. She would do anything to help the poor, not realizing that she herself was impoverished. The Almighty knew that if ever a woman deserved to have her prayers answered, Perele the Widow did. Everyone in Vaysechvoos would have concurred with the Almighty, until the strangest things began to take place.

At first there were "little" things that one might call troublesome. The widow lamented that her hen laid only three eggs a week instead of the customary seven. All of Vaysechvoos clucked their tongues sympathetically, but felt that the blessed scarf would more than compensate the widow. But when her son wrote from Kiev and said that he and his bride could not afford to come home for the holidays as planned, there were some eyebrows raised. Surely if Perele the Widow was truly pure of heart, a prayer to have her son and daughter-in-law home for Pesach would not go unanswered?

One mishap after another continued to befall the poor widow. People who had at one time praised her to the heavens now wondered what evil things she had been hiding all these years, that would account for the punishment the Almighty was meting out.

Strangers who passed through town were warned not to accept her meager hospitality for she was a woman of "mysterious" ways and perhaps not to be trusted. Mothers accepted sweets for their children from the Widow. But after she had left, they would say a prayer to guard against the evil eye and then proceed to bury the treats behind their houses.

Perele was not bitter over all this. Mostly she was puzzled. Daily she asked the Almighty's forgiveness. For what sin, she did not know, but she did not see it as unreasonable to think that she might well have done something to warrant the Almighty's anger. She prayed that her evil fortune would be turned to good.

As the time approached for her to think about passing the scarf along to another villager, she went out to the field and recited this Tehinnah:

"Lord of the world, Almighty God! In Your great mercy, You have created heaven and earth and all their creatures in six days. You have also given us New Moons. On the Sabbath before the New Moon we say the blessing and we pray that You bring us back to Jerusalem and renew our days of old. For now we have no Temple, and no altar, and no High Priest who can make atonement for us. We were called the children of our Father Abraham; how is it that today we are so desolate? Wash me thoroughly of my sins. Renew and bring about for us this New Month for joy and may all be turned around for us for good. You are truly our great King."

She wondered if God would hear her prayer, or if he would turn his face from her as he had seemed to do from the moment she received the scarf of blessing. As she pondered these things she caught the scent of something in the air. It was the smell of burning timber. Turning toward her little dwelling, she saw bright orange flames through the black smoke and she knew the worst had happened. Her tiny home had become an inferno!

She sobbed and trudged toward the holocaust that was formerly a hovel. "Oh God Almighty," she wailed, "what terrible thing have I done? Maybe I should just throw myself into the flames and perish!"

She didn't see through her tears that the rest of Vaysechvoos was alerted to the fire and many had already arrived to put out the blaze. By the time she arrived, Yonkel the Butcher organized a line of people passing tubs of water from one to the next and finally onto the flames. Others were stamping and yelling. There was such a hub-bub like you've never heard. Who knows, perhaps the fire left of its own accord to avoid the noise everyone was making!

In any case, the fire was doused, but not before it had completely destroyed the dwelling with Perele's few belongings inside. The widow hoped her neighbors would think it was simply smoke which caused her reddened eyes to water, instead of her suspicions that they had only come to her aid so that the fire would be contained and not damage their property. She quickly chided herself for having such unkind thoughts.

Actually, half the people of Vaysechvoos did shake their heads and say it was God's final judgment on the widow and they only hoped the fire would not spread. But the other half remembered her many mitzvot and they were ashamed. These neighbors attempted to comfort her.

The widow accepted their condolences with a nod as she roamed aimlessly through the ruins.

"Widow Perele!" the butcher exclaimed, "You're not wearing the blessed scarf!" Someone gasped. Another shrieked. Everyone was thinking the same thing.

"No," the widow responded, too shocked and bewildered to really care. "The blessings seemed to have turned to curses, so I left it home as I went out to pray. It must have been destroyed in the fire."

The townspeople shuddered for they all knew that it had to have been destroyed. How could a piece of cloth, no matter how well made, survive the flames that licked through the widow's home that day?

The widow looked down at the ground. "If only I had perished in the flames!" she mumbled quietly. As she surveyed the smoldering remains of what had once been a wooden floor, the only luxury she'd ever had in her entire life, she saw it. The familiar angular pattern on that special piece of cloth. She cried out, "The scarf of blessing!"

She had to dig a little to salvage it from the smoky, sooty mess. As she dug, she felt something beneath it that was hard and round and warm to the touch. What could have possibly survived the fire? Setting the scarf aside, she pulled a gold piece from out of the ground. There were oohs and aahs from her neighbors. Not many in Vaysechvoos had seen a gold coin before. And where one gold piece is hidden, there are likely to be more, true? True.

The widow continued to dig through the rubble and found, to her utter amazement, one coin after another. Actually, there were seventy gold coins! A small fortune!

And so the Widow Perele was not only able to rebuild her home and restore her possessions, she was able to purchase three new hens, a rooster and a milk cow.

Furthermore, she sent for her son and daughter-in-law from Kiev, and they arrived just in time for Pesach. She forgave those in Vaysechvoos who had treated her poorly, and for the others she prepared her most delicious tzimmis which everyone thoroughly enjoyed at their seder tables.

And you might be wondering what happened to the scarf of blessing. The widow passed it along to Feival the Tanner. She winked as she warned him--" May God grant you the desire of your heart--if your heart is strong enough to take it!"

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The Holy Orator

The great, great, great grandson of the famous Maggid of Dubnow, Baruch, was making a trip to Vaysechvoos. It was said of this holy orator that what he had to say was so wise, so brilliant, that even the gentiles came to hear him and quoted him in their books.

Why he was coming to Vaysechvoos, no one knew. It seemed impossible that he should even know of the existence of Vaysechvoos since the village did not even appear on any of the maps made by the government. And not many people moved away...so who knows how he knew of the existence of this place. He knew. It was impossible to know how many hundreds, no thousands, of kilometers Baruch the Maggid would travel on his journey to Vaysechvoos.

The townspeople seldom had the opportunity to hear preachers. The rabbi would, of course, comment on the Holy Scriptures and answer questions. But most of the questions he was asked had to do with whether or not the blemish on a particular chicken made it to be kosher or if the chicken was not kosher, then could it be sold to a gentile?

Yet an honest to goodness maggid, a real darshon was coming! And it wasn't even anyone's wedding! Oh what an event to hear an orator speak; someone who had enough words to put in a book. Someone who could say those words well!!

Of course a dispute immediately broke out as to whose place Baruch the Maggid should stay in. You see, no one slept in a room by themselves in Vaysechvoos. Even the widows would have to take in another widow to make ends meet. And only three households in the entire village had a wooden floor.

The Sage of Vaysechvoos suggested the synagogue, which also had a wooden floor, and so it was that the maggid and his entourage would be housed in the shul. Everyone involved themselves in the cleaning and the plastering and the painting. No one knew how many would be in the group that travelled with this living saint, but everyone had an opinion. Some said hundreds." Others said "thousands." Even the most conservative said "dozens."

So you can imagine how disappointed they all were when the day came and Baruch the Maggid, great, great, great, grandson of the Maggid of Dubnow, arrived in an ordinary cart with an ordinary driver and an ordinary friend. At the very least they had expected a fancy carriage. And instead of being dressed in finery, the preacher was wearing clothes not unlike those worn by the men of Vaysechvoos, only not quite so shabby. The driver and the friend had just as many patches on their clothes as any villager. Now in the cart was a tent which they set about erecting in a not-as-muddy-as-usual field.

"What was Baruch the Maggid like?" Yetta the butcher's wife asked her husband who had just returned from the "grand" arrival.

"Did he say anything intelligent? A pearl of wisdom? Anything??"

"Well," answered the butcher, "he did say that 'if it wouldn't cause you any trouble, could you tell me if there is a well from which I can draw a pail of water?'"

He then went about describing the cart, its passengers and the tent.

His wife interrupted, "What about the inside of the tent? Is it lined with jewels? Fine furs?"

"No, not at all. It's made of not-so-new goat skins and sheep skins sewn together. It was done quite neatly, but not much better than Feivel the Tanner could do."

The whole encounter was quite bewildering to the butcher, his wife and the rest of the villagers of Vaysechvoos. But the next day, everyone got up and went out into the not-as-muddy-as-usual field for Baruch the Maggid was to address them.

He began by looking heavenward, heaving a heavy sigh and fixing his gaze upon the whole crowd. The maggid was eloquent. He cited proverbs in Russian and Polish as well as in the mother tongue of Yiddish. Yet, one hour after his drasha, not a person in all of Vaysechvoos could repeat even a single sentence he had spoken because of what had happened.

They knew that he spoke about sin and repentance. He exhorted them about gossip and pettiness. He spoke to the women about being better wives to their husbands. And to the husbands, he admonished them to pay more attention to their children. But most of all he told the people that they should have God in their hearts and, instead, they had become too full of themselves. He told them that it wasn't enough to say their prayers and keep kosher because they were Jews but that this should be done out of love for God. Yet no one can exactly remember a story, or even a saying told them by Baruch the Maggid, the darshon, that day, because of what had happened.

And what was it that happened, you might ask? Well, first you must understand that he gave his oration outdoors in the not-as-muddy-as-usual field. Everyone from Vaysechvoos was there. To his right were some birch trees and a few poplars. Things were tranquil apart from a gentle breeze. He began speaking of repentance. And the wind became much harsher. The trees to his right were now swaying forcefully. Baruch the Maggid hurried the pace in his drasha. He spoke louder but he wasn't shouting. He compared Vaysechvoos to Sodom and Gomorrah; to Tyre and Sidon. The wind was howling now and it seemed to have its own eerie scream.

Then it happened. A bolt of lightening came down touching the top of the tallest birch tree and piercing all the way to the deepest roots so that it was flayed in four different directions. One-fourth of the tree went to the north, another to the south, a third to the west and the last to the east, towards the holy city of Jerusalem. At the same time it exploded into fire; a fire that burned and burned and would not be consumed.

Baruch the Maggid did not stop preaching during the episode. He roared above the wind, telling of the destruction to come. Then, hail stones the size of plums began to fall and people started covering their heads with coats. It was quite a display. Yet as quickly as the hail came down, it stopped. And when the villagers looked up at Baruch, his face was shining. The preacher looked to his right and everyone's eyes followed him. The sun shone brightly on the birch tree that had been split by the lightening bolt and miracle of miracles it was still burning! This was all the more remarkable given the time of year for it was already late spring and all the wood was quite moist.

There was silence until one heard a single sob. Then another sound of sorrow joined in until there was a chorus of weeping and wailing.

"O God Almighty, forgive us," they cried. Old men and children huddled together with the strong, all praying to the Lord and renouncing their sin, blubbering out promises to do better.

It looked as though things would never be quite the same in Vaysechvoos after that day. But they were.

Baruch the Maggid left and the ruts of the wheels of his cart were soon obliterated by the melting hailstones on the path. Soon the not-so-muddy-as-usual field was just as muddy as the other fields. Undoubtedly, some of the promises made by the villagers were kept. Some more prayers did go up. Some debtors did better by their creditors. Some of the men were more deliberate in putting on their tefillin to pray. Some of the wives were more mindful of their tongues. Some of the children were more respectful to their parents.

But no one spoke of Baruch the Maggid, the great, great, great grandson of the Maggid of Dubnow. No one spoke of the fire and the hail and the repentance. It was just too awesome.

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The Letter

Lebye Bialok squinted at the envelope for the hundredth time since it had arrived in Vaysechvoos. He squinted till his eyes watered, but he still could not make out who had sent the mysterious letter.

Indeed, the letter was a mystery, even to Lebye the Sage. The ink on the envelope seemed oddly faded. And the script, while surprisingly easy to read, was difficult to interpret. You see, it was to be delivered to, the wisest person in Vaysechvoos." No name, no occupation, just "the wisest person in Vaysechvoos."

How did a letter addressed to "the wisest person in Vaysechvoos" find its way into the hands of Reb Bialok? You must remember that he was the Sage of Vaysechvoos, so it is not unreasonable that he should be considered wise. But the wisest? Ah, that was the question. Was the Sage the wisest? Motl-Ber, the station house owner, thought so. That is why, when the wagon driver had come with the unexpected letter, Motl-Ber kept silent about it until the Sage came by, which was promptly after the morning minyan.

"I'll take a sack of salt, two kopeks' worth of lentil beans, a dozen eggs, and oh, did your dear wife Esher make any of those delicious rugalach this morning?"

The Sage licked his lips in anticipation.

"Rugalach, I got plenty. Salt, yes. Lentils, yes. But the eggs, you'll have to wait a little. Reb Heschel's daughter, I'm surprised you didn't hear yet, had her baby, a boy, last night. His wife, the new bubbe, hasn't had a free moment to breathe, much less deliver my eggs."

Lebye smiled. "For such an occasion," he said, "the eggs can wait." Motl was the first to know everything because people would come to his station house to gossip, even if they couldn't afford to buy much. Motl would pour them a glass of tea and listen to their troubles, and if times were very bad, well, a few extra rolls were discreetly placed in their satchel. This dipped into his profits and some said Motl was a "foolish man" for it, but those who benefitted by his kind heart thought differently.

The station house owner put the groceries into the Sage's satchel, then leaned over the counter. "Reb Bialok," he whispered hoarsely, "The driver brought a letter yesterday; I thought you should know."

Now Reb Ber was a kind man, a gentle man, but not particularly a soft-spoken man. His whisper caught the ear of everyone in the station house. And, of course, the news of a letter was far too interesting to be ignored by the curious people of Vaysechvoos. They quickly crowded around the counter.

"A letter? What letter?" asked Zelda, the butcher's wife.

"Oy, it's bad news, I can feel it," Feivel the Tanner lamented. "There's been nothing but bad news since my sister Channah married that good-for-nothing musician, may his fiddle strings wrap themselves around his lazy neck...."

"Shah, all of you!" commanded Golda the Matchmaker. "Let Reb Ber tell us. Well, Reb Ber? So tell us already. What letter? Good news? Bad news? What?"

"I don't know." Motl-Ber answered. "It wasn't addressed to me. After all, I'm certainly not a learned man. Here." And he pushed the strange, foreign envelope into Reb Lebye Bialok's hands.

Zelda peered over the Sage's shoulder and read the address slowly. "'To the wisest person in Vaysechvoos.' Reb Motl-Ber, this envelope has no name on it. Why do you assume it should go to Reb Bialok?"

Motl shrugged. "Well, he is the Sage, is he not?"

Lebye Bialok agreed. "I am the Sage, am I not?"

Zelda tossed her head, "Wisdom is not found only between the pages of books, you know."

"Thank you, Zelda," the Matchmaker chimed in. "I'm glad you realize how much wisdom is required in the proper making of a match." She snatched the letter from the Sage's hands. The others looked at her in amazement. "Well don't worry," she reassured. "I'll tell you all what the letter says after I have my Chaim read it to me. My eyes aren't what they used to be you know."

At this point such loud bickering broke out, you would have thought the Cossacks were coming. Half of Vaysechvoos tried to crowd into poor Motl's station house to see what was causing such a stir. The letter was being plucked from one person's hand to the next and the station house owner feared that soon there would be no letter left to read at all.

"Stop!" he cried out. "Since I am the only person here who is not interested in reading another man's letter, you should excuse me for yelling, and since the driver entrusted the letter to me, please give it back until we can agree on its rightful owner." You see, there was no doubt in his mind that the letter belonged to the Sage.

Feivel the Tanner reluctantly handed the letter to Motl. "And how will we determine who the rightful owner is?" he inquired.

Fortunately, it was then that the rabbi arrived. Everyone stepped aside as he made his way to the counter. Golda the Matchmaker explained the situation, which started the argument afresh.

The rabbi appealed for some calm among the villagers. "How can we make a plan if we keep carping at one another?" And so, after two hours of vigorous discussion, the letter was left with the Sage, to be kept sealed until the wisest person in Vaysechvoos could be determined. A committee was designated to decide the ten most likely candidates. The whole town was to vote and thereby reach a proper decision.

The committee selected the ten wisest candidates, including themselves, naturally, and the list was posted. The ballot was scheduled for the following week, and everyone was to cast their vote on a slip of paper, then drop it into the pushka in the cheder room.

Well, everyone in Vaysechvoos voted, or rather, almost everyone. Motl-Ber abstained. He shook his head sadly and thought how foolish it was to think wisdom could be determined by such a vote. And everyone else? They all wrote in their own names rather than one of the official 10. Motl-Ber was chosen to count the ballots. Having done so, he announced that no one person had received more than a single vote.

The townspeople were dismayed. Everyone but Motl-Ber, who had wanted to give the letter to the Sage without all this mishegoss. He pulled aside the rabbi, along with the Sage.

"Rabbi, the people respect you. If you pronounce our Sage the wisest person in Vaysechvoos, the others will listen."

The rabbi looked at Motl in astonishment. All the other townspeople had been vying for him to speak on their behalf. He stroked his beard.

"Reb Ber," he said softly. "The letter was delivered to your station house. Are you so certain it was not intended for you?"

Motl laughed. "Rabbi," he said, "you are making sport of me. You know everything that comes to Vaysechvoos passes first through my station house. Besides, I am just a seller of beans and salt, a common person."

In the end, the rabbi agreed with Motl-Ber. He made a speech in the town square and handed the letter to the Sage. That was four days ago.

Reb Bialok's hands had trembled when the rabbi first handed him the letter, and now they trembled once again. You might be wondering why Reb Bialok was still holding the letter, unopened. It was because of what the rabbi had said to Motl-Ber. More than that, it was the look in the rabbi's eye as he gazed somberly, first at Motl, and then at the Sage when he finally handed him the letter. Could the letter actually be meant for Motl? That was the question the Sage had been wrestling with for the past four days.

Now there was talk amongst the people of Vaysechvoos. "Why hasn't our Sage told us the contents of the letter?" inquired Feivel the Tanner. "Perhaps he's unable to interpret it properly," offered Zelda, the butcher's wife.

Lebye did not know what to do. But his position as the town Sage was very important to him. He reassured himself that the owner of a station house could not be wiser than a sage. And after all, hadn't Motl-Ber been the one to insist the letter belonged to the Sage of Vaysechvoos?

The Sage glanced at the letter once again and quickly tore open the envelope. There were several pages covered with the same strange script he had seen on the envelope. But as he began to look closely at the letter, the eeriest thing happened. The already faded ink began to disappear. Line after line, the writing faded, until the Sage was left holding several blank pages. He stared at the last page in disbelief, for it was the only one that had not completely faded. There were but two lines at the bottom of the page. And as he stared at them, he was able to make out the following words:

"A man is wise while he is seeking wisdom, but when he thinks he has reached it, he is a fool."

The Sage bowed his head in shame and wept.

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The Hankukkah Play

Hanukkah, the feast of dedication, was approaching and all the children of Vaysechvoos were excited. All, that is, but one.

Heshie was upset. Very upset. All the children were rehearsing for the Hanukkah play that was to be presented in the synagogue. Yes, there would be a play, and then a meal of delicious latkes, potato pancakes, with plenty of garlic and onions fried in oil for all to eat. And of course, dreydl games for the children.

Now, one would think that there was little cause for Heshie to be sad. But he had his reasons. The play was very important to him.

Yonkel had the part of Mattathais and Yitzhak was to be the mean Syrian king, Antiochus. But the real honor went to Mendel in the role of Judah Maccabee.

That's what upset Heshie so much!

Mendel's a rotten actor and he gets to be the hero? Just because I'm short and heroes are supposed to be tall, I didn't get the part," he wailed to his parents.

"Shhh!" his father responded, impatient with the child's lament.

"But Papa, I know I could do it, and much better than Mendel."

"Enough, son!" His father's voice was louder and his tone scolding.

Heshie's father, Ezra ben Yosef, was a pious man. Though a carpenter by trade, he spent long hours studying the holy books. He so wanted to see his son share his love of the Torah and the scholarly works of the ancient rabbis. Yet, Heshie did not meet those expectations. Instead, the boy would find ways to excuse himself from study.

"I need to be out in the fresh air, Papa! That way I'll grow tall and strong! Reading and studying the holy books will only distract from what is important."

Ezra was pulled away from his thoughts as Heshie's high-pitched voice pierced through.

"Please, Papa, try to understand. Judah Maccabee and 1, well, we're the same kind of people. I'm more like Judah than Mendel. It is an injustice that I didn't receive the part."

This time, Eshka, his mother, said, "Shhh! Be quiet Heshie. Your whining will only upset your father. He has little patience for worldly matters like plays and festivals."

Getting no sympathy from his parents, Heshie retreated to the loft. "They don't understand," he moaned to himself. He sobbed and sighed until he was overtaken by merciful sleep.

Meanwhile, his mother bustled to prepare the evening meal. The stew was simmering nicely and the bread was cooling by the window. The woman pondered, "If only Heshie would be content with what God's given him. Oh, what am I going to do with that boy?"

Heshie's father was thinking too. Sitting on the chair with the only goose feathered cushion they owned, he told himself that it must be his fault that their only child, his son, was so peculiar. "Of course, I wanted a son," he reasoned. "But I never wanted him to turn out like this. I thought for a while it was just a stage he was going through like when Rivka, the wife of Shimmon the butcher decided that God wanted her to be a vegetarian.

"For weeks, she didn't eat meat or chicken. She wouldn't even cook it up for her family. Oh, did Shimmon suffer. Until that day when he figured out how to induce her to abandon her insanity. He told her how he read in a book that in India the people didn't eat certain meat because they believed that after a person died, they came back to earth in the form of animals. He told her that everyone in Vaysechvoos will believe that she's become a follower of the gods of India. Shame would be brought to the whole family. Her blessed mother in heaven would spit down on her from above. Frightened, Rivka started eating meat again. Not only that, but she concluded that it wasn't God who told her to be a vegetarian, but a dibbuk. And she thanked the Almighty that Shimmon was so discerning and repented that she was only a foolish woman."

The distraught father sighed, "If only I could be as wise as Shimmon to bring my Heshie out of his desire for frivolous play-acting."

Dinner was ready and Eshka climbed to the boy's loft to let him know. She found Heshie asleep and gently shook him. He didn't stir. Eshka shook him with some force the second time. But still, the boy would not wake. "Ezra!" screamed the frightened woman. "Heshie, I think he's dead!!!" Her husband moved quickly. He rushed up the wooden ladder and grabbed the child, "Wake up, wake up!" he pleaded. Eshka was weeping uncontrollably now.

Ezra sighed with relief. "Dear, he's not dead. His body is warm and he's breathing."

"Then why won't he awaken?"

"I don't know. We'll ask the sage of Vaysechvoos. He'll know how to help our Heshie."

The wise man arrived shortly, but after examining the child, he could offer no explanation of what had happened to him other than saying, "He is living, but he seems to be in a trance, like he was in the presence of angels. I don't know how to waken him. Or even if I should try."

The pious carpenter and his wife were bewildered. Their son lay still before them. Yet, he wasn't in Vaysechvoos; it seemed that he was thousands of miles and thousands of years away.

Indeed, Heshie was in another time and land. He was on the rocky hills of Judea and he was a man, not a mere boy. And tall! Why, he stood half a length higher than his father! Another young man approached him. "Why are you not with the others?" he asked with some authority. "Well, I er, um..." "Come with me now. We will never prevail in ridding our land of the foreigners if we are not moving as one unit, one army, one force, under the one true God!"

Heshie was bewildered. "One army? Judea? Could it be? Could I be transported to the days of old? And this fellow none other than the Maccabee, Judah?"

His eyes and his heart knew beyond any doubt.

The two men approached a cave where a hundred others stood. The Syrian patrol could be seen coming and though they were distant their emblems clearly identified the destroyers.

The man who had led him to the others began to speak.

"This is one more battle we must fight to force the oppressors out of the land, that we might cleanse it from wickedness and recover Jerusalem, the holy Temple and all that is the Lord's."

"This is not a play," thought Heshie. "I'm really here. And while I'm not Judah, the Hammer of God, I am one of his band of guerilla fighters. If only Mendel and my parents could see me now."

Heshie was handed a large bow and a quiver full of arrows. He'd never handled a weapon before. He managed to extend the bow string a bit, but it took all of his strength. He was hoping that the others weren't watching. They weren't. Instead the men began chanting in unison psalms of protection.

"Guard my soul and deliver me... Redeem Israel, O God, out of his troubles."

The voices were strong and melodious. And indeed, the psalms of protection seemed to impart protection -- an invisible armor, that was much sturdier than that worn by the Syrian patrol. Heshie had paid so little attention in cheder that he did not know the psalms by heart as these valiant soldiers did.

Next, the Maccabees began chanting the battle psalms:

"Oh, give us help against the adversary, for deliverance by man is in vain. Through God we shall do valiantly; and it is He who will tread down our adversaries."

Heshie realized that the strength of the Maccabees was not in their weapons or in their brawny biceps. He began crying because he truly was not one of them. He didn't have their zeal for God, their love of Torah, their sense of prayerful purpose.

In the midst of this devastating realization, Heshie heard a voice. It wasn't the Maccabees chanting nor was it the wind. It was a still and gentle whisper meant only for him: "A wise man is strong; yea, a man of knowledge increaseth strength."

The words pierced him in a way that was both painful and sweet. He opened his eyes to see his loving parents beside him.

"He's awake, he's back!" they simultaneously exclaimed.

Heshie gazed into the old and wise eyes of his father. "Here is a man who has tasted, no, devoured the holy words of God all his life. What strength such devotion to the things of God produces." It was the same strength and confidence he had seen in Judah and his men.

"Papa," the boy lifted his head. "After supper, can we read together from the psalms of David?"

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Yakov's Dream

Everyone who lived in the little town of Vaysechvoos would agree that Yakov the shammes was a simple man, a man of few words. A widower for over twenty years, he lived in a humble one room dwelling behind the synagogue. His little room contained a bed with high wooden posts and a chair which wobbled and squeaked whenever Yakov sat down on it. The walls of his room were bare except for a shelf which held a few well worn books on the Holy Land--the place most Jews in Vaysechvoos only dreamed of seeing. The books were Yakov's only possession, apart from the portrait of his deceased wife which sat in a frame on the table at his bedside.

The townspeople of Vaysechvoos thought well of Yakov. He was most diligent in the upkeep of the house of study and prayer. He dusted the seats in shul every day and showed an extra measure of care with the ones near the eastern wall. He cleaned and he scrubbed the old wooden shul with the energy of a man half his age. Yakov never failed to open the shul promptly for those who were participating in the morning minyan. Nor did he forget to lock it tightly after the evening prayers, should a band of drunken Cossacks decide to vandalize the house of worship. Yes, everyone agreed that Yakov did his job well.

Yakov felt very honored to be the shammes. It allowed him to be near the learned men of Vaysechvoos, to guard the holy books, to be close to those who revered their words and the One who gave them.

Being content in his duties and the life God had given him, Yakov never had the problems that plague most men. He ate simply and never suffered from stomach ills. There was no wife to complain to him about his lack of wealth or status, so he didn't have headaches or any sort of nervous condition. And when his daily chores were completed and he'd read a little from the psalms of King David, he would sleep through the night like a well-fed baby. Yakov never stirred or tossed in his sleep. Actually, he slept so soundly that his snoring could be heard by anyone who happened to pass by the synagogue late in the evening.

Yakov didn't even dream. Sometimes he wished he would have a dream, for the people of Vaysechvoos loved to interpret dreams. But Yakov did his work, slept all night, and got up with the sun to begin his work all over again. He didn't think his tasks monotonous, and in this, his humility and righteousness were apparent to the villagers.

But one icy night in the middle of a terrible winter, Yakov stirred and shifted violently in his sleep. He stopped snoring and he began perspiring. Yakov saw himself in the midst of a blazing fire, an all-consuming fire. His feet were like red hot coals and yet his head was as if it were buried deep in the icy snow outside. He cried out in this restless state, but to no avail. Surely this isn't real," he thought. It was the first dream he'd ever had.

Oh, how he wanted to wake up! But there was more for him to see. Before his eyes was the Holy Ark where the precious Torah scrolls were kept. The curtain was aflame. He wanted to rush to it and extinguish the fire, but he was frozen to his bed. Then flames made their way to the scrolls themselves. He watched in anguish as the edges of the ancient vellum curled up in ashes as the evil fire consumed them.

Just when he felt he could take no more, Yakov wrestled out of the bonds of sleep. He sat up in his bed, beads of perspiration dripping onto the cool bedsheets. And then he saw the man standing at the foot of his bed. A gentle face with pleading eyes greeted him with the words,

"Yakov, Yakov, your beloved synagogue will be destroyed this night. Heed the warning of your dream for only you can save it from an all-consuming fire."

With that the man disappeared. "Am I still dreaming?" Yakov wondered. But the urgency of the dream hadn't left him. He hurried into his old clothes and scrambled to find the big iron key to the door of the synagogue, but the key was nowhere to be found.

"I must get the key! I must get the key!! I must save the synagogue!! !" he thought as he hurried outside without his coat on a fixed course for the rabbi's house. With his fists clenched, Yakov pounded hard on the rabbi's door. It was so loud that dogs all around the village began their howling and yelping. Candles began to flicker behind the windows of all the townspeople's houses.

"Rebbe, rebbe," Yakov shouted as he pounded away at the door. But the rabbi slept almost as soundly as Yakov. Virtually the whole town of Vaysechvoos was roused before the holy man came to the door with a candle in his hand and his eyes half closed by sleep.

"I don't have a key. I don't have a key! We must save the synagogue. A fire!! A FIRE!!"

The rabbi looked across the way at the synagogue which was as still and dark as the night had been only a few minutes before. By now, a few of the villagers, roused by the alarm, were leaving their homes and trudging toward an animated Yakov who stammered to find the words to explain to the rabbi. The rabbi reached for an iron key hanging on a peg on the inside of the door. He handed it to Yakov and went back to get his shoes and clothing. By the time Yakov crossed the street, there were a handful of villagers waiting as he fumbled with the lock on the door which finally yielded to his efforts.

Rushing inside, the villagers saw everything just as it had always been--neat, orderly. They were willing to forgive Yakov for the distress and alarm caused by his dream. After all, when one never dreams . . . But Yakov ran from room to room. Everything seemed in order, yet when he came to the storage room he stopped. Throwing the door open he saw a few wisps of smoke, almost less than from a candle, coming from the wooden bin where he kept the rags used for washing and cleaning windows.

He grabbed the wooden bin, ran outside and turned it upside down. Then it became apparent to all that there was a glowing, smoldering mass in the middle. The insides of the bin were charred. Fire would have been inevitable and the destruction of the synagogue and the precious scrolls a certainty.

By then the rabbi emerged from his house to see almost the entire village present in front of the synagogue. A now composed Yakov told of his dream. He articulated the event using words that had never passed his lips before. He told of the warning from the man who appeared at his bedside. Then Yakov was silent. All were silent with awe, and not all the shivers were due to the cold weather.

The rabbi broke the silence by saying,

"Baruch Ha Shem. Blessed be His Holy Name for He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. This night the Holy One, blessed be He, has sent an angel to protect our village and His Holy Torah."

And as the villagers disassembled and made their way to their own homes, they felt a little warmer as if dressed in the finest woolen clothing: they were warmed by the knowledge that they lived beneath the watchful eye of their Father in Heaven. And that night everyone snored with the sleep of those who don't have to worry.

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The Gambler

The Klauvitch family had, for as long as many could remember, been the principal milk dispensers in the shtetl of Vaysechvoos. Menachem Klauvitch owned a nice dairy herd, and each day he would take the milk cans and go to the homes of the villagers. It was a hard life and Menachem was not a well man. One day, his health got the better of him and he took very ill. As Fruma Klauvitch tended to her ailing husband, their son Yaacov began taking the wagon out himself.

Now Yaacov was no boy. He was long past marriageable age, yet he would not consider marriage. It seemed he had a passion for wagers that far outweighed any passion that he could feel for a woman. Yaacov, unbeknownst to his family, had a terrible gambling habit. What little money he had, he would squander on games of chance, card playing and dice.

The elder Klauvitch followed the beckoning of the Angel of Death. This left Yaacov in the position of supporting his widowed mother. With Yaacov tending to the milk route and his mother milking the cows, the income that was generated seemed sufficient for the needs of the family. However, one after another, Yaacov sold the calves off. Then came the milkcows themselves. He kept saying to his mother that he was going to get new cattle but she noticed that the money from the cows wasn't being put in the sugar bowl. For as Yaacov went along the milk route, he would entice one of the other villagers to partake in a wager. For example, one day he met up with Shmuel the cobbler.

My dear friend Shmuel, wouldn't you like to be twenty rubles richer?"

"Yes, my friend Yaacov, but if it involves gambling, I'll have no part in it. My Sarah would shame me in front of the children if she even caught the slightest hint of my doing something like that."

Yaacov assuringly responded, "No need to worry, my good friend. You can make this little sum of money without wagering a kopek. All you have to do is guess how full this milk can is, and I will give you twenty rubles. If you don't, you will have to do my deliveries for me today and make me a fine pair of boots! So you see, you wouldn't be wagering any money, just your time and a bit of leather."

Shmuel thought on the matter.

Meanwhile Yaacov went on, "Because I like you, Shmuel, you can even lift the can and get an idea of how heavy or light it is. Your chances are very good that you will guess how much is in it."

"Alright, I'll try," said Shmuel. And at that he lifted the milk can.

"Hmm," pondered Shmuel. "The weight seems great, but if I know you, Yaacov, you've placed a heavy item at the bottom of the can to throw me off. Therefore, I would guess that the can is only one quarter full."

Yaacov's face paled as he handed over the twenty rubles (a fortune for a man of his mean circumstances). Yet, since wagering was a sickness with Yaacov, this incident did not deter him from making similar wagers over and over again. Before long, Yaacov had made so many wagers and lost, that he resorted to selling off his father's entire herd. Yaacov had to buy his milk from neighboring farmers. Yet, he would muse to his mother, "At least being a milkman, we can always eat cheese." Fruma Klauvitch was not consoled by her son's words. She felt that something was wrong, very wrong.

Then one Saturday night, Yaacov left the house, not telling his mother where he was going or when he'd be back. She waited and waited as the hours passed. Knowing that her son was not the type to go drinking or to take up with a woman, she began to worry of an even worse fate for her son. "Perhaps he was robbed, beaten up and left for dead on the road somewhere?" she dreaded. The night was long and Fruma Klauvitch grew weary, but she could not sleep. Then at dawn, she heard the sound of cow bells. A few minutes later, Yaacov came into the house.

"Come with me, mother, and see what I have done!" he said with excitement in his voice. Yaacov led his mother outside where she saw five young, healthy, prime milk cows, the most beautiful milk cows she'd ever seen.

"My dear mother, look what I have brought you," he exclaimed. "Here are five beautiful milk cows that we may prosper in our business again. There is no farmer in this village with milk cows that have such full udders," he continued to brag.

Fruma Klauvitch stared at her son. There was grief in her voice as she exclaimed, "You are a thief. You stole these cows. You have disgraced your father's name. You have dishonored our household and shamed the Holy One, blessed be He!" Then she began to weep.

This caught Yaacov off guard. "How do you know that, Mama?" he stammered, his voice trembling.

"Someone saw you and he told me," she said between sobs.

Overcome with his mother's statement, Yaacov blurted out the whole story. "It's impossible that anyone saw me. First of all, I went over twenty-five kilometers away to the gentile village beyond the hill. And while all the peasants were at church, not a soul in the village, I took the cows. I was so certain no one saw me. I went to each door of each house to make sure no one was at home. I lay out in the fields for hours until each villager had left for church. I planned what I did so carefully, how could anyone have seen me? I checked in the barn, I checked everywhere!"

He looked into his mother's eyes: "Not everywhere, you didn't look up," she said with her finger pointed toward heaven.

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In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos

Gittel, everyone in Vaysechvoos agreed, was a true beauty. Besides this she was bright, vivacious and as innocent as freshly fallen snow. Why, one glance from her deep, smiling brown eyes was enough to melt the heart of any yeshiva bocher. But that was not to be.

One day Gittel disappeared. Her mother, Frumah-Ruchel, had sent her to Shimmon the butcher for a Shabbos chicken, and she had never returned. Reb Peretz was frantic with worry. What if his daughter had been killed, or even worse, kidnapped by a Cossack? After a thorough search, the grieving parents learned the shameful truth: Gittel had run off and married a goy—a gentile. And not just a gentile, but Gregori (Grisha) Ivanovich Petrushin.

Dark rumors surrounded the name Petrushin. First of all, Grisha was a man of great wealth, and such wealth, no doubt, came from doing no good. He was a bald, stout, middle-aged widower whose first wife had met an untimely demise. As the story went, during one of Grisha's not-so-infrequent drinking bouts, he had threatened to do his wife harm. She died that night of a stroke—a young girl of nineteen! Perhaps the rumors were unfounded. But who knows?

Gittel's parents wept at the news of their daughter's betrothal. Master of the Universe," cried Reb Peretz, "has such a thing ever happened in Israel that my daughter should run off with a goy, a stranger of the likes of Grisha Petrushin?" So grieved were Reb Peretz and Frumah-Ruchel that they sat shiva, not for one, but two weeks!

Now one would certainly think that with such bad news, a little pleasantness could come to Vaysechvoos to balance things out, right? Wrong. With bad news comes more bad news. Rumors were spreading that a demonstration was to come to the shtetl like the one that had come to Kishinev. This made the townspeople shudder, for the brutal massacre at Kishinev was all too well known.

A town meeting was called by the sage of Vaysechvoos that evening. Everyone was there and all were asking, "What are we to do and where are we to run?"

The sage stroked his beard and with calm assurance in his voice addressed the agitated flock: "I, too, was troubled, but I have found a solution. I have come to the conclusion that we must employ the influence of a high-ranking official to intercede for us. But you will say, 'We are Jews. What high-ranking officials would hear our case?' And then I will say, 'Count Petrushin can put a stop to the demonstration!'"

The sage's eyes lit up as he unfolded his plan. The fact that Grisha Petrushin was not only of noble birth but a blood relative of the Czar himself was a well-kept secret in the district. However, the sage knew all such secrets. With the town's blessing, he left the next morning for the Petrushin estate. It was only a half day's journey from Vaysechvoos, and when the sage arrived, Gittel was alone, for it was Friday. You see on Fridays, she would send the servants away and prepare a dinner for Grisha herself. The sage was gratified to see that Gittel was looking well. She told him that Grisha was a devoted husband and that apart from missing her family, she was very happy. The sage could see from her smiling eyes that what she had said was so. But his thoughts then shifted to the reason for his visit.

The sage told Gittel of the planned demonstration and the danger for all the Jews in Vaysechvoos, for all the Jews in the district! "Now Gitteleh," he whispered, "your husband can put a stop to this madness. You'll persuade him to stop it?"

That night Gittel prepared a lavish dinner. She roasted a goose and made a noodle kugel with raisins and almonds and a feather-light sponge cake for dessert. Grisha enjoyed the feast set before him, but he could sense that his bride was troubled. He begged her to tell him what was bothering her so.

Gittel took a deep breath and began. She told her husband what had happened at Kishinev and of the plans for a similar demonstration in her home village of Vaysechvoos. Grisha listened and became enraged. All his life he had lived in ignorance of the plight of the Jews. Now he had a Jewish wife and seeing through her eyes he felt compassion for her people. The count secured an edict the next day saying that none of the Jews in the district were to be harmed. 

It wasn't until after Shabbos that the news reached Vaysechvoos. All were safe. It was a miracle! Even Reb Peretz and Fruma-Rachel rejoiced, knowing that, in a way, their Gitteleh had a part in bringing safety to the little shtetl.

Glossary

  • yeshiva bochur:young man who studies at a Talmudic academy
  • Shabbos: Sabbath
  • shiva:  seven days of mourning
  • Megillah: scroll of the Book of Esther
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