Not far from the outskirts of Vaysechvoos, surrounded by fields, lived the well-to-do farmer Menachem. At least, that’s what his parents had named him. To the rest of the shtetl he was known as Menachem the Miser. Menachem had done very well for himself, renting out little plots of land to the villagers as his father had done before him, and plowing a bit of it with his two tired, old horses.
Why don’t you buy some better horses?” a child asked him one day. “I have no money for horses,” Menachem chided. But he did. Menachem just didn’t want to spend money on new horses and have the old ones standing around using up pasture without earning their living.
A stranger who saw him might think Menachem was just a poor laborer who could afford only rags, were it not for the fact that Menachem ate very well, which kept his appearance looking fat and sleek and not at all boney, the way most beggars looked. Yet he dressed like a beggar, because he didn’t want to spend money on clothes. Clothes, after all, don’t give anything back once you’ve bought them.
Not surprisingly, Menachem didn’t have any friends. It wasn’t his appearance that offended people, for Menachem had a cherubic face on his short, stout frame. But he charged exorbitant prices for using his land and had no mercy if a peasant couldn’t pay on time. Yet he always pleaded that he didn’t have anything and was infamous for refusing to give charity when needs arose.
Some people thought such a rich man must feel very secure, but the truth was, Menachem was lonely and miserable. He had never married, arguing to himself that a wife would be much too expensive to keep. She would probably spend some of his hoarded coins on dresses and curtains and other nonsense. Besides, what if the unthinkable happened and she didn’t give him sons who could work the land and do something productive? What if the only children she bore him were daughters? Then Menachem would have to put his carefully guarded savings into providing dowries for weddings. “No,” he thought, “it’s best not to marry.”
Yet, when Menachem sat down to a Shabbat meal alone, he wondered what it would have been like to have had brothers and sisters. He was an only child. His father, who was called Yossel the Miser, had made Menachem into what he was. Yossel had been miserly not only with his money, but with his time. He never gave much of it to Menachem, so the boy never knew what it meant not to be lonely. He didn’t have a father to whom he could run and call “Papa” and ask for advice. To Yossel time was money, and there wasn’t enough of either one to be wasting them on foolishness like play and idle chatter.
When Yossel died, the only thing he left his son was a good sum of gold pieces which he had hidden away over the years, and the land that allowed this profit. And since gold pieces were the only things his father had ever given him, Menachem saw them as things of value–in fact, the only things of value in the whole world.
His mother, he was told, had been a kind woman, but Menachem had never known her. She had died in childbirth. It was said by the townspeople that she had had a very difficult labor with her only son. It was the middle of winter when her time had come, and her husband Yossel had been too stingy to burn extra wood in the fireplace and keep her warm. She had caught pneumonia and become feverish and then chilled. She had lingered for a few days and whimpered for warmth. Her last words before the Angel of Death took her were, “Yossel, I’m so cold.” Yossel said she would have died anyway, but the rumors persisted.
In any case, one night Menachem had a very restless sleep. Tossing and turning, he finally drifted off. He dreamed he saw himself standing in the middle of a field. He had his bags of money with him, but that was all; no one else was around. He could tell he was not in Vaysechvoos. It was not one of the fields of his modest estate, but some foreign place. The sky seemed strange, almost green in color, and the grass also had an other-worldly hue about it, appearing almost blue.
Feeling very strange and uncomfortable indeed, Menachem called out, “Is anyone here?” An echo drifted tauntingly back. There was no other response. Menachem picked up his bags of money and started walking. The coins weighed heavily and he tired quickly. But he was sure he could see a figure in the distance, and this kept him going.
At last Menachem reached the figure and found it to be a little beggar man. The beggar smiled warmly. “You look tired,” he said. He opened a little package tucked away in his belt, revealing a loaf of bread, and offered Menachem a piece.
Menachem took it very self-consciously and mumbled an awkward thanks. He devoured the bread hungrily and, feeling a bit better, he ventured, “Tell me, do you know where it is that I am? I don’t recognize this place.”
“Why yes,” the beggar replied. “We’re on the way to the other world, of course.” Menachem looked startled. Beyond them he could see a gaping precipice. “The other world is on the other side of the chasm,” the beggar said.
Menachem knew that it was very important for him to cross the gaping valley, but it seemed to extend in either direction as far as he could see. Suddenly he became aware of a man standing on the other side of the gulf. Somehow Menachem knew that it was Father Abraham.
Just then Father Abraham called out to the beggar, “Come here, Benjamin! Come and join me!”
“But Father Abraham,” the beggar cried out, “there is no way! How will I cross such a pit?”
Father Abraham replied, “That which is left of the loaf of bread that you shared–drop the crumbs from there to the other side, and they will support you, Benjamin.”
The beggar believed Father Abraham. He immediately began to scatter the crumbs in front of himself and walk on them across the precipice until his feet touched the other side. When he came to Father Abraham, his tattered rags were at once transformed into a beautiful white robe, and Menachem saw a glow about him.
Amazed, Menachem called out, “Father Abraham, can I come across? Can I step on the crumbs and make my way to you?”
“It’s possible,” answered Father Abraham, “but you’ll have to leave those heavy bags on the other side. The crumbs can support you, Menachem, but not the extra weight.”
Menachem was torn. He couldn’t move. His father Yossel had collected that money and saved it all his life. Menachem had never spent it, faithfully saving it over the years. Should he now leave the money behind and walk across the pit on the crumbs? Or should he take the money and find some other way across? After all, Father Abraham was just a man. A man might make a mistake. Or maybe he even knew about another way but just wasn’t telling Menachem.
Father Abraham’s voice sliced into the miser’s indecision. “Do not tarry long, Menachem, for the crumbs will not last but a few more moments!”
Panic seized Menachem. Suddenly he found himself awake in bed in his little house, drenched with cold sweat. His heart was thumping frantically. Menachem didn’t know what to do, but he felt this was a message from the Holy One. He tried to gather his thoughts. It was almost morning.
He got up and fixed a small breakfast, pulled on his ragged clothes and then started going from corner to corner in the house, pulling out a book here, reaching behind a shelf, lifting up a floorboard. From each hiding place he retrieved another coin until he had filled a sack with the long-hoarded treasure. This he carefully placed back under the floorboard, covered it with a scrap of rug and stepped out into the morning sun.
Menachem went from house to house in Vaysechvoos that day. Each knock was answered by a very surprised villager, whose look would turn to astonishment when Menachem asked what their needs were.
“Meshugge,” they thought. “This doesn’t sound like Menachem the Miser.” But his strange behavior caught them off guard and most decided to humor him, giving an account of their needs, closing the door and smiling wryly to themselves.
After making sure he had stopped at each home in Vaysechvoos, Menachem went home that night and once more uncovered the secret floorboard hiding his treasure. Carefully he divided the wealth so he could give some to everyone, and for the synagogue he set aside a separate donation, of course.
Soon he became known, instead of as Menachem the Miser, Menachem the Philanthropist. So impressed was the rabbi with this transformation that he arranged for Menachem’s betrothal to one of the rabbi’s seven daughters, who blessed him with six sons.
Menachem was never again a wealthy man, in ways that the world determines wealth. But he was blessed with a long life, good health, a devoted wife and hard-working sons who stood by him faithfully. And most importantly, Menachem was convinced that the riches of this world would not pave a pathway for him to heaven.
“So how does one get to heaven?” you might ask. Ach, that we will leave for other stories out of the lives of the people of Vaysechvoos.