Just off an old road through the forest not far from Vaysechvoos stood a little willow tree, and next to the willow was a shack that Yossel called home. Yossel was the Dyer’s assistant. He was an ugly little man with stooped shoulders and a scraggly beard. One of Yossel’s legs was shorter than the other and his hands were always stained with dyes that kept him from looking clean.
The sun was beginning to set and the village was bathed in a golden light. Yossel hurried home to prepare for the Sabbath. Even my little willow looks beautiful today,” he thought. He threw off his rags and put on his all too tattered but only suit that he wore on the Sabbath. The sky was ablaze with shades of red and gold as Yossel limped into the synagogue and took his accustomed seat in the back row, behind a wooden post. Nearly everyone was in the synagogue and the sun was not yet set. “Such a pious folk,” thought Yossel, “coming to synagogue at least a quarter of an hour before the Sabbath.” The people in Yossel’s village, in fact, were renowned for their piety. No village in the region had such zeal for Torah. Every man (save Yossel) was a scholar in his own right.
“Good Sabbath, Yossel,” said Mendel the Dyer.
“Good Sabbath, Mendel” said Yossel. No one ever greeted him except Mendel. Sometimes, Yossel wondered whether anyone else knew his name.
The truth was that everyone knew about Yossel. When he first limped into town the butcher’s wife remarked, “Look at that ugly, little man. He must be illegitimate.” Others disagreed, but even the rabbi said that he must have committed some great sin to be so deformed. Of course, Yossel knew nothing about this. He was quite content to keep to himself in his shack just outside the village.
Just as the service was beginning, a thin man with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes walked into the synagogue and sat right next to Yossel. At the end of the service, the stranger turned to Yossel and greeted him. He introduced himself as Nahum from Krakow and he asked, “If I may be so bold, could I spend the Sabbath with you and your family?”
“I would be delighted and honored,” said Yossel, “but I have no family. I live by myself. But ask around, or I’ll ask for you. These people are a righteous folk. Why, in no time you’ll have half a dozen invitations.” So Nahum asked, but everyone he asked had some sort of excuse. Yossel even got up the courage to ask Mendel. But the Dyer replied, “Haven’t I done enough for you by taking you as my assistant?” And Mendel just walked away muttering about some people’s insolence.
Yossel shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m sorry. You’ll have to spend the Sabbath with me.”
A little fire glowed on the hearth and two candles flickered in Yossel’s shack. “How odd,” thought Yossel, “I don’t remember having bought Sabbath candles this week. I couldn’t have afforded them.” He invited Nahum in and sat him down at the table. Yossel took out a little pot of beans and a small loaf of braided white bread. “This is all I have,” he said. “It’s barely enough, but eat–I’m not very hungry.” But they both ate and were filled and much to Yossel’s surprise, there was nearly half a pot of beans left over.
In the morning they went to synagogue and no one greeted either of them. Afterwards, they had leftover beans and another challah for lunch. And, again, they both ate until they were filled. “How strange,” thought Yossel, “that this little pot is barely enough for my dinner, and yet it provided two meals for my friend and me.” He checked the pot to make sure there were no more beans in it, and this time it was empty.
All afternoon Yossel and Nahum talked. Yossel talked about the villagers and their devotion to the Almighty. But Nahum was unimpressed. “Yossel,” he said, “how is it that they can love the Almighty and despise a brother? True religion is to look after the orphans and the widows. The helpless and the despised ones. To show kindness even to a stranger. Is it not said, ‘He who despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy.”‘
The sun was low in the western sky. Yossel heard the words of the stranger who had now become his friend and Yossel understood. The stranger continued, “You must teach these people true religion. It has been told that the Messiah Himself is the Despised One, a common carpenter.” With that, the stranger vanished; all Yossel could see was three stars glimmering on the horizon.
Yossel began speaking the words of the stranger from that day on. And for some strange reason, the people of the town recognized the authority with which he spoke. His ugly appearance faded in their eyes as his words took root in their hearts. Miracle of miracles, the villagers began to do those things which reflected the faith of their forefathers.
The village became known as a haven for the poor and needy. But as their reputation grew, so too did the hate that was spreading throughout Poland and Russia. The village was overrun by unfriendly strangers one day. Drunken peasants who looted, raped and murdered. Gentiles, who didn’t like Jews, who thought that Jews should be despised.
Why did they meet such a horrible fate? It certainly wasn’t for their sins of days past, for all the people had truly repented. No, the answer, according to a stooped little man who lived by a willow tree, lies somewhere in the message of the stranger who spent the Sabbath in his home. The stranger who spoke of how even the Messiah himself would be despised.