Reb Nahum, the bookbinder, was enraged. Master of the Universe!” he cried as he stormed through the forest. “Is it right that Your people should suffer so? Is it?!” The only answer was the sound of Reb Nahum’s pacing footsteps crackling the heather and fern on the forest floor.
“Authorities,” Nahum muttered to himself as he spat on the ground, “their ears should fall off! They should be victims of their own hatred! They’re worse than those filthy Cossacks.” He spat again, “Their brains should only rot, along with their decrees! “Reb Nahum spat three more times and stormed on.
He finally came to a clearing in the forest which had a well-tended vegetable garden. Nahum stooped over the rows of vegetables and began to pull out the weeds.
“The authorities aren’t content with our poverty,” he thought out loud, “so they have to make decrees? ‘Death to the Jews!’ Pogroms! In Kishinev, in Odessa, and in the shtetls too?!” He flung a large, ugly weed up into a nearby tree. The tree rustled as the weed landed in its branches, and an old crow squawked.
“Master of the Universe,” he said, “why don’t You just destroy them, strike them all dead! ” He threw a rock at a jackrabbit that was eyeing the lettuce patch. The rabbit scurried off. Nahum sighed deeply and went back to pulling weeds.
Reb Nahum’s garden was his pride and joy. Of course, he didn’t own the land. Such a thing was never allowed! He’d come upon it quite accidentally. One day, he got lost in the forest, delivering books from one shtetl to another. He stumbled into the clearing (which at that time was overgrown with wild beets) and got an idea. “Why not borrow a little piece of ‘Mother Russia’ to help feed my family and friends? No one will know, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt anybody.”
So he planted onions, beans, cabbages, carrots, lettuce, beets, and even potatoes. Nahum had soon become so good at gardening that he was supplying the entire shtetl with vegetables for the whole season! But the garden was more than just a means of sustenance: Reb Nahum would often go tend his little forest retreat when he was in need of peace and solace.
Reb Nahum had been particularly upset lately. A new wave of persecution had broken out against the Jews, first in the cities, then spreading to the villages. Each new pogrom, each successive demonstration seemed to come closer and closer to the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos. Reb Nahum (and everyone else, for that matter) was afraid. “Master of the Universe,” Reb Nahum would cry out when he was alone, “for pity’s sake, why don’t You strike our persecutors dead?”
Nahum was weeding his carrots when he almost uprooted a stray potato plant. At least it looked like a potato plant. “Funny,” he thought, “I don’t remember planting potatoes with the carrots.” He looked at the plant. Was it a weed, or would its roots widen and fill out into potatoes? He decided to let it grow until harvest time.
It was a tense summer in Vaysechvoos. The constable was silent and stayed away from the Jewish part of the village. The gentiles ceased their dealings with the Jews altogether, and occasionally a couple of Cossacks were seen riding through the town. Reb Nahum went to his forest garden often. As Nahum weeded the garden and chased away hungry rabbits, he would cry out to the Almighty and beg Him to destroy the enemies. As the summer went on, Reb Nahum watched the stray potato plant (or was it a weed after all?) spread and spread, until it threatened to choke out the carrots. But still he didn’t want to pull it. “What if it is a potato plant after all?” he thought. “Potatoes are scarce, and this one is certainly doing better than the ones that I planted.”
Something happened in August; nobody knew exactly what it was, but suddenly everyone felt relieved. The constable stopped avoiding the Jewish section of the precinct; he would even whistle as he walked and say “good day” to Yossel, the innkeeper. The marketplace was livelier, more relaxed, and Jew and gentile were doing business with one another again. No Cossacks were seen either. One night, Reb Yossel managed to coerce the constable with a drink. “What became of the Cossacks and the demonstrations and all the rumors?” he wanted to know.
“No need to worry!” the constable said with a laugh. He explained how a certain official, who had been notoriously corrupt and always ready to accept a bribe, had gotten a promotion. “He suddenly had a change of heart and banned the Cossacks from the Jewish villages, along with their little demonstrations. New decrees were written, and it looks like our corrupt official has now become your protector. Isn’t that absurd, a change of heart?” the constable laughed again.
The good news traveled quickly, and the people of Vaysechvoos were overjoyed to have an official protector. When Reb Nahum heard the news, he was also happy but a bit confused. “Our enemies,” he thought, “they aren’t supposed to have a change of heart and become our friends, are they?” He needed to think about this. He decided to go to his garden, to see if the carrots and potatoes were ready for picking.
The potatoes were ripe, but they hadn’t done well at all. Apparently, a weed that looked exactly like a potato plant had choked out a good number of the real potatoes. He went over to the carrots and spotted the other potato weed.” I should have destroyed this long ago,” he muttered sadly. He pulled up the plant (which was really several tiny plants connected by the roots) and found to his surprise and delight large, rust-colored potatoes, a small sackful!” It wasn’t a weed after all!” Reb Nahum thought aloud. “I’m glad I didn’t destroy it.”
Reb Nahum looked at the potato plant, and for some odd reason, he was reminded of the authorities. Reb Nahum paused for a moment. He was glad that the Almighty hadn’t destroyed the authorities either.