Rabbi Asa Yitzhak was the cause of much consternation in the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos. Not that he was a fool, nor was he unjust in his treatment of the little congregation. No, he was known to be quite loving and compassionate–a fine young man. It was his brilliance that confused the townspeople.
They remembered the Asa who had grown up just like the other young boys. As a lad running through the streets of Vaysechvoos, he had looked the same, talked the same and dressed in the same way as the others. Who could have ever guessed what would become of him?
For this simple boy did not become an ordinary man. Instead, he presided over the cheder and was a maggid in the shul. Reb Yitzhak’s sermons were so brilliant as he expostulated on the fine points of the law, that the townspeople couldn’t understand most of his teachings. Furthermore, they were puzzled, for the words this Asa spoke made him seem so different from the ordinary boy they had known.
The only answer they agreed on was that the transformation must have begun when Asa’s parents, Shmuel and Eshke, sent him away to study with Rabbi Shlomovitz in Lodz. For when Asa returned to Vaysechvoos six years later with a wife and daughter, he was a transformed man. He still looked the same, but no longer did he talk the same way as the others. The more he preached with brilliance, the more puzzled Vaysechvoos became. And if it wasn’t for his humble manner, they would have accused him of conceit.
Yetta, the shoemaker’s wife, thought she knew the answer. A wife is a good thing,” Yetta proclaimed to anyone who would listen. “A good wife makes a husband wise.”
Chaya, the butcher’s wife, agreed–almost. “Responsibility; that’s what it is. Any young man who takes on the responsibility of fatherhood becomes stronger.”
But the rest of the people were not convinced. “My wife didn’t turn me into a rabbi,” grumbles Zeidel the Tanner. (Of course, he said it only when there were men present.)
“Ah, truly, a wife is a good thing!” exclaimed Menachem the Philanthropist. “A gift from the Almighty, that’s my wife. But even such a lovely gift cannot add more brains where brains are not.”
And so the puzzle remained unsolved.
So how did Asa acquire such brilliance, you may ask? For that we must go back to Lodz. While studying at the yeshiva there, Asa was an ordinary student. Not only was he ordinary, but his funds were very limited, and it didn’t look likely that he would be able to support himself through all the years of yeshiva.
His parents, Shmuel and Eshke, bless them, supported their son as best they could; but what they could give wouldn’t be enough to buy his books and feed him kashe. Shmuel put in as many extra hours as he could assisting Feivel the Carpenter, and Eshke sometimes sewed buttons and buttonholes for Berish the Tailor. (His eyes were getting worse, poor man.)
Ah, but even this sacrificial effort could not pay the price. Asa was beginning to despair of ever finishing his studies, and thoughts of spending the rest of his life as a carpenter’s assistant did not please him. For the ordinary lad had tasted the heady wine of a new world, a world of the intellect and of the soul, a world inhabited by the smells of books, paper and ink, the hushed sounds of studying and the excited tones of men arguing theology. He couldn’t bear to think of losing it.
But as the Almighty would have it, Asa would get all his necessary training. It was Rabbi Shlomovitz who approached Asa one cloudy day with a very attractive offer regarding his somewhat unattractive daughter.
“I have a daughter who is of marriageable age, and should we come to an arrangement between you and my Perel, I can see you through your yeshiva training until you get semichoh.”
Asa thought it over and readily–no eagerly–accepted the offer. But had he not been such a simple man, he might have looked more closely at the daughter. For he then would have realized that Perel was five years older than he, and though pleasant, she seemed to have no great beauty nor outstanding characteristics that would make her attractive.
However, as it turned out, Perel was a very good wife to Asa. Not only was she kind and loving, she was very, very bright. Being the daughter of a rabbi, she had learned Hebrew at an early age. And she had always listened intently to the disputations between her father and his students as she served them their meals. A quick learner, Perel soon could expostulate on a fine point of law as well as, or even better than, her father’s most brilliant students.
Of course, this was not a matter of public knowledge. Women were meant to keep house and bear children. There was certainly no time for scholarly pursuits, nor was such a proper way for a woman to behave. Knowing this, Perel had wanted a simple, ordinary man like Asa for a husband–one who would appreciate her abilities.
The great Rabbi Shlomovitz was better than his word. And Asa moved into the manse where servants took care of the chores. He learned to delight in his wife, whose goodness brought him comforts he never imagined. And best of all, he had leisure to study and pray.
But perhaps it was not best of all. Truly what was best of all was that Perel had not only inherited the intellect of her father and his knowledge of rabbinics, but she was a superb tutor. In her hands, a tractate of Talmud became a treasure chest of wisdom.
Furthermore, she taught her husband with such humility that he couldn’t help but love her all the more. His esteemed father-in-law, knowing the situation, expressed his concern and made the young couple promise that they would keep Perel’s sagacity in confidence.
And furthermore, he, Rabbi Shlomovitz, joined in the discussions. As Asa listened to father and daughter discourse over the minutes” points of law, he found that he was able to repeat what was said verbatim–even if he couldn’t yet quite grasp all of the deeper implications father and daughter seemed to understand.
Asa was bright, but not that bright. And he showed his appreciation to the rabbi by his great kindness toward his precious Perel, and by fathering a delightful granddaughter who, from birth, had the promise of being prettier than her mother but just as brilliant. In fact, she was so beautiful that they called her Shayna.
Several years passed and Asa received the award of semichoh. Where they would go was not a matter of long deliberation. It was apparent to Asa and to Perel that they must return to Vaysechvoos. Asa’s father, Shmuel, had succumbed to the years of hard work and had gone to be with his fathers. Eshke was a widow who truly needed the comfort of her only child. And so they returned, and Asa grew in stature as a maggid of great ability.
It was a warm summer night in Vaysechvoos, when one of the busybody villagers was walking by Reb Yitzhak’s home. He heard the declamation of the Talmud and thought, “Brilliant!” And then he froze. “It is a woman’s voice I hear uttering the words of our sages!!!” It was then that the busybody could contain his curiosity no longer, and since there was no such word as privacy in the Vaysechvoos vocabulary, he looked up into the window and saw that it was the rabbi’s wife teaching her husband.
Rabbi Yitzhak was confronted by the members of the congregation that very next Shabbos, and he admitted that it was true. It was indeed his wife who was the scholar in the family. “She came by her knowledge honestly,” Asa pleaded. “What’s wrong with gaining wisdom from one’s wife? She is a godly woman.”
But the town of Vaysechvoos was not quite ready to have a woman sage. And so it was that Asa, with Perel and their young daughter, left the town of his birth. One day it might be possible for there to be women sages, if machines could fly and pictures could talk.
It is rumored that they journeyed all the way to America, where it is said that things are more progressive. And though Perel never had the hope of being able to expound Scriptures and give others the benefit of learning, she would personally teach Shayna. And perhaps someday Shayna would….