In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: 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?”
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.