In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Letter
Lebye Bialok squinted at the envelope for the hundredth time since it had arrived in Vaysechvoos. He squinted till his eyes watered, but he still could not make out who had sent the mysterious letter.
Indeed, the letter was a mystery, even to Lebye the Sage. The ink on the envelope seemed oddly faded. And the script, while surprisingly easy to read, was difficult to interpret. You see, it was to be delivered to, the wisest person in Vaysechvoos.” No name, no occupation, just “the wisest person in Vaysechvoos.”
How did a letter addressed to “the wisest person in Vaysechvoos” find its way into the hands of Reb Bialok? You must remember that he was the Sage of Vaysechvoos, so it is not unreasonable that he should be considered wise. But the wisest? Ah, that was the question. Was the Sage the wisest? Motl-Ber, the station house owner, thought so. That is why, when the wagon driver had come with the unexpected letter, Motl-Ber kept silent about it until the Sage came by, which was promptly after the morning minyan.
“I’ll take a sack of salt, two kopeks’ worth of lentil beans, a dozen eggs, and oh, did your dear wife Esher make any of those delicious rugalach this morning?”
The Sage licked his lips in anticipation.
“Rugalach, I got plenty. Salt, yes. Lentils, yes. But the eggs, you’ll have to wait a little. Reb Heschel’s daughter, I’m surprised you didn’t hear yet, had her baby, a boy, last night. His wife, the new bubbe, hasn’t had a free moment to breathe, much less deliver my eggs.”
Lebye smiled. “For such an occasion,” he said, “the eggs can wait.” Motl was the first to know everything because people would come to his station house to gossip, even if they couldn’t afford to buy much. Motl would pour them a glass of tea and listen to their troubles, and if times were very bad, well, a few extra rolls were discreetly placed in their satchel. This dipped into his profits and some said Motl was a “foolish man” for it, but those who benefitted by his kind heart thought differently.
The station house owner put the groceries into the Sage’s satchel, then leaned over the counter. “Reb Bialok,” he whispered hoarsely, “The driver brought a letter yesterday; I thought you should know.”
Now Reb Ber was a kind man, a gentle man, but not particularly a soft-spoken man. His whisper caught the ear of everyone in the station house. And, of course, the news of a letter was far too interesting to be ignored by the curious people of Vaysechvoos. They quickly crowded around the counter.
“A letter? What letter?” asked Zelda, the butcher’s wife.
“Oy, it’s bad news, I can feel it,” Feivel the Tanner lamented. “There’s been nothing but bad news since my sister Channah married that good-for-nothing musician, may his fiddle strings wrap themselves around his lazy neck….”
“Shah, all of you!” commanded Golda the Matchmaker. “Let Reb Ber tell us. Well, Reb Ber? So tell us already. What letter? Good news? Bad news? What?”
“I don’t know.” Motl-Ber answered. “It wasn’t addressed to me. After all, I’m certainly not a learned man. Here.” And he pushed the strange, foreign envelope into Reb Lebye Bialok’s hands.
Zelda peered over the Sage’s shoulder and read the address slowly. “‘To the wisest person in Vaysechvoos.’ Reb Motl-Ber, this envelope has no name on it. Why do you assume it should go to Reb Bialok?”
Motl shrugged. “Well, he is the Sage, is he not?”
Lebye Bialok agreed. “I am the Sage, am I not?”
Zelda tossed her head, “Wisdom is not found only between the pages of books, you know.”
“Thank you, Zelda,” the Matchmaker chimed in. “I’m glad you realize how much wisdom is required in the proper making of a match.” She snatched the letter from the Sage’s hands. The others looked at her in amazement. “Well don’t worry,” she reassured. “I’ll tell you all what the letter says after I have my Chaim read it to me. My eyes aren’t what they used to be you know.”
At this point such loud bickering broke out, you would have thought the Cossacks were coming. Half of Vaysechvoos tried to crowd into poor Motl’s station house to see what was causing such a stir. The letter was being plucked from one person’s hand to the next and the station house owner feared that soon there would be no letter left to read at all.
“Stop!” he cried out. “Since I am the only person here who is not interested in reading another man’s letter, you should excuse me for yelling, and since the driver entrusted the letter to me, please give it back until we can agree on its rightful owner.” You see, there was no doubt in his mind that the letter belonged to the Sage.
Feivel the Tanner reluctantly handed the letter to Motl. “And how will we determine who the rightful owner is?” he inquired.
Fortunately, it was then that the rabbi arrived. Everyone stepped aside as he made his way to the counter. Golda the Matchmaker explained the situation, which started the argument afresh.
The rabbi appealed for some calm among the villagers. “How can we make a plan if we keep carping at one another?” And so, after two hours of vigorous discussion, the letter was left with the Sage, to be kept sealed until the wisest person in Vaysechvoos could be determined. A committee was designated to decide the ten most likely candidates. The whole town was to vote and thereby reach a proper decision.
The committee selected the ten wisest candidates, including themselves, naturally, and the list was posted. The ballot was scheduled for the following week, and everyone was to cast their vote on a slip of paper, then drop it into the pushka in the cheder room.
Well, everyone in Vaysechvoos voted, or rather, almost everyone. Motl-Ber abstained. He shook his head sadly and thought how foolish it was to think wisdom could be determined by such a vote. And everyone else? They all wrote in their own names rather than one of the official 10. Motl-Ber was chosen to count the ballots. Having done so, he announced that no one person had received more than a single vote.
The townspeople were dismayed. Everyone but Motl-Ber, who had wanted to give the letter to the Sage without all this mishegoss. He pulled aside the rabbi, along with the Sage.
“Rabbi, the people respect you. If you pronounce our Sage the wisest person in Vaysechvoos, the others will listen.”
The rabbi looked at Motl in astonishment. All the other townspeople had been vying for him to speak on their behalf. He stroked his beard.
“Reb Ber,” he said softly. “The letter was delivered to your station house. Are you so certain it was not intended for you?”
Motl laughed. “Rabbi,” he said, “you are making sport of me. You know everything that comes to Vaysechvoos passes first through my station house. Besides, I am just a seller of beans and salt, a common person.”
In the end, the rabbi agreed with Motl-Ber. He made a speech in the town square and handed the letter to the Sage. That was four days ago.
Reb Bialok’s hands had trembled when the rabbi first handed him the letter, and now they trembled once again. You might be wondering why Reb Bialok was still holding the letter, unopened. It was because of what the rabbi had said to Motl-Ber. More than that, it was the look in the rabbi’s eye as he gazed somberly, first at Motl, and then at the Sage when he finally handed him the letter. Could the letter actually be meant for Motl? That was the question the Sage had been wrestling with for the past four days.
Now there was talk amongst the people of Vaysechvoos. “Why hasn’t our Sage told us the contents of the letter?” inquired Feivel the Tanner. “Perhaps he’s unable to interpret it properly,” offered Zelda, the butcher’s wife.
Lebye did not know what to do. But his position as the town Sage was very important to him. He reassured himself that the owner of a station house could not be wiser than a sage. And after all, hadn’t Motl-Ber been the one to insist the letter belonged to the Sage of Vaysechvoos?
The Sage glanced at the letter once again and quickly tore open the envelope. There were several pages covered with the same strange script he had seen on the envelope. But as he began to look closely at the letter, the eeriest thing happened. The already faded ink began to disappear. Line after line, the writing faded, until the Sage was left holding several blank pages. He stared at the last page in disbelief, for it was the only one that had not completely faded. There were but two lines at the bottom of the page. And as he stared at them, he was able to make out the following words:
“A man is wise while he is seeking wisdom, but when he thinks he has reached it, he is a fool.”
The Sage bowed his head in shame and wept.
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.