In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Benefactor
In the village of Vaysechvoos, a rich man was one who had a house with an upstairs. He was the man whose wife could purchase her garments from the peddlers who passed from village to village. Henekh, the wool merchant, was one of those wealthier men. He even had a kerosene stove in the kitchen and each of his six daughters had her own bed in her own room.
Now Henekh was not particularly known for his generosity. Each year, he would bring half a dozen students of Rabbi Akiba ben Yakov to help in the shearing season. He treated them with more generous fare than they knew existed, while the poor people of Vaysechvoos went completely ignored. I’m not hoping to gain sons-in-law from among the poor!” he would say.
The yeshivaniks, not deceived into thinking that Henekh was a benefactor, came upon a scheme to benefit the soul of their host. When shearing time came, the students arrived with their bundles of books. The very first morning, they rose early before Henekh, put on their phylacteries and gathered around a seemingly ancient book, loudly exclaiming “oohs” and “ahs.” When Henekh walked into the room, the students quickly slammed the book shut.
Now Henekh was more superstitious than religious: so much so, that his superstition even exceeded his greed. So, although he’d never been known to exhibit much curiosity in religious matters, he inquired as to the nature of the book.
The students were silent.
“Is that any way to treat a benefactor, with such rude silence?” he bellowed. “Would you keep secrets from one such as me who has shown you and your rabbi so much kindness?”
The students hung their heads so low that it concealed their mischievous grins. One of them ventured, “But, but, but…we were told that we must allow no one else to see the Book of Riches.”
“I’m not just ‘someone else!’ This is my house, and I demand to know what this Book is!”
“Don’t… don’t… don’t you know? Have you never heard of the marvelous manuscript that brought the Rothschild family to its riches? Miracle… miracle… miracle of miracles,” stammered the student. “It’s only been in our possession for three days, and already we all have new shoes; money is growing in our pockets!” whereupon each of the students withdrew a handful of silver coins as evidence.
The wool merchant asked in a voice that was more confused than suspicious, “You say, money growing in your pockets?”
“Yes, not only in our pockets, but everywhere our money was kept; it grew as we fulfilled the precept and began reading.”
“I must see this Book!” demanded Henekh.
“It does no good just to read this Book, for an ordinary person can see nothing written on its pages. But when one has followed the precept of doing the work of alms, as did our fellow Jew, Rothschild, then the writing appears from a blank page and one grows wealthy as he reads.”
Henekh could no longer contain himself. He grabbed the Book from the yeshivanik and opened it up, trying to conceal his astonishment at the blank pages. He even ran his fingers along an invisible line saying, “Hmmm, I see,” but of course, he didn’t.
Nothing more was said of the wondrous Book of Riches. Everyone in the household, including the six not-too-pretty daughters, worked in shearing the sheep and making the wool into balls. That is, all worked except Henekh, who mysteriously disappeared with saddlebags heavy with gold and silver coins. He searched out every beggar, widow, and orphan in Vaysechvoos, and proceeded to give to each a magnificent sum.
The next morning he was up even before the yeshivaniks. He greeted them with a smile as they wound their phylacteries and began the morning prayers. The students, anticipating his involvement in the morning rites, had already pooled all their coins. When the wool merchant reminded them that it was time to begin their reading from the Book of Riches, they produced the Book and all gathered around, with Henekh pushing in closer. “Ooh … ahh … ooh …” sighed the students, appearing to concentrate, moving their eyes line by line to read what was totally invisible to the perplexed wool merchant. “It’s working, it’s working!” exclaimed the boy with the pocketful of coins, as a little pressure from his hand ripped his pocket entirely and coins fell all over the floor.
“It’s working for all of us!” shouted the students as they scrambled to pick up the coins. Heaps of coins were handed to Henekh, while he strained his eyes to read the blank page.
“It worked very well for you, indeed. Now when do you suppose it will be working for me?” he said.
“Well,” exclaimed a youngster, “it didn’t work for me at all. I gained no riches until I gave more alms than I kept for myself.” With that, the students took their coins and went on to their work, “forgetfully” leaving the Book behind.
Poor Henekh sat down and turned each page, slowly at first, but then more frantically, until he realized that he simply was not going to see any writing, or gain even a little riches. Again, he filled his bags with gold and silver, but the orphans, widows and beggars of Vaysechvoos were now not numerous enough. This time, he went to the rabbi saying, “This is for the poor, for the synagogue, for the burial society.” The rabbi opened the bag and gasped, seeing the glint of gold. He tried to speak, but all that came out was an astounded silence.
As he returned home, Henekh whipped his horse into a gallop, for he wanted to see if the blank pages had become any more visible. He hurried into the room and found the Book. The binding was unmistakable. He opened it and saw the script, but it was small and his eyes were not accustomed to reading. He ran for the magnifying glass he used to examine the wool fibers. Raising it over the pages, he began to read in his not-too-educated Hebrew:
I love them that love me and those that seek me early shall find me. Riches and honor are with me, yea, durable riches and righteousness.
Somehow, the words seemed familiar to the wool dealer; something out of his own childhood. Haltingly, he examined the Book and discovered what was apparent to even a non-scholar: this was a Tanach–old, indeed, but this was the Jewish Bible.
Mystified, he kept his silence. The Yeshiva boys continued to read it every morning, as Henekh listened and learned.
Shearing season was gone; the wool bundled and shipped. The students returned to the academy of Rabbi Akiba ben Yakov, but they left behind the old manuscript which Henekh could now read remarkably well. And read he did, and richer he grew.
And that’s how the wool merchant became the benefactor of Vaysechvoos. His daughters married and his grandchildren heard everyone in the town praise their zayde as being slightly less rich, but much more righteous than Rothschild.
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.