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.