The stranger walked with the limp of Malkah the Widow and he saw the world through the clouded eyes of Nahum, whose cataracts had kept him from seeing much of anything these past twelve years. The stranger had a scar on his arm where Yitzhak had been slashed by a Cossack in a drunken rage. And no one in Vaysechvoos knew his name.
Everyone knew that Yente would have remembered the stranger’s name if she had heard it…and everyone knew that Yente heard everything! So no one knew how his name had escaped them, but when they referred to the stranger, which was not very often, they simply called him Shmuel the Sufferer. Why Shmuel? Why not? It sounded good with Sufferer.
Shmuel the Sufferer, while plain looking, was in good health when he came to Vaysechvoos. So why when he left, did he walk with the limp of Malkah, see dimly as with the eyes of Nahum and have an injured right arm like Yitzhak? It is one of those mysteries that left people wondering if what happened was terrible or wonderful.
It began one autumn day when this stranger, who did not seem to have much of a purpose in this world, strolled into the town square. He stood and watched everyone who passed by until the day was done and the people had gone home to their supper. Then the stranger began making his way from house to house. He was not a beggar, although he did not decline a meal when one was offered. But at each house he said the same thing and asked the same question.
Soon it will be Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. I am curious–what would you petition the Almighty to change, that this coming year might be better than the last?”
The stranger was not an especially attractive man, yet he did have a certain appeal, namely, he would listen to whatever a person wanted to tell. And he had an honest face. So one by one, the people of Vaysechvoos told him of their troubles and their ailments, and how they wished the Almighty would cure them of this or that tsuris so they could start the New Year right.
Shmuel the Sufferer listened patiently to each one. He seemed a little sad, as if something he hoped to hear was not forthcoming.
By the time he got to the home of Yitzhak and his wife Leah, the stranger was exhausted. Still, he made his simple statement about the coming year, and asked his question. Naturally, Yitzhak told Shmuel all about the Cossack, and said he could think of no better way to begin the New Year than to regain the use of his right arm. Shmuel listened and nodded and asked if there might be a corner of the house where he might sleep.
The couple felt badly that they had so little to offer the stranger. But they gave him their only feather pillow and said that at least he would have a soft place to rest his head, since a comfortable bed they didn’t have. The stranger smiled, said he’d fared worse in other villages, and went to sleep without another word.
The next morning, the stranger went back to the town square. As the villagers passed by, he asked each one to stop and hear him once more. “I must ask you something,” he said, “but first the whole town must gather.”
Why anyone should have paid attention, who knows? But they did.
There was something about the stranger that made it seem perfectly logical for them to stop and wait. Maybe it was that he was plain, like they were. Or it could have been because he had listened to each of their troubles before. Maybe it was that he only used a few words, but what he said to them sounded important and true. Whatever the reason, soon all the villagers were standing in the square, waiting to hear what Shmuel the Sufferer had to say.
“Dear people of Vaysechvoos,” he began. “I have asked each of you how you wish to begin the New Year. I know of your suffering and your ailments. My question is this: would you have me place all your burdens on one person, one man or woman who is not known to you, if by doing so I could effect a cure for each person in the whole shtetl?”
For a moment, there was a stunned silence. Then Beryl the Baker called out, “Narishkeit. Why should we answer your question? A person would have to agonize and struggle to make such a choice. Why should we strive for imaginary decisions?”
Then Shmuel the Sufferer said, “You truly think I cannot do as I have just said, but I have authority over things you could not know.” He looked into the crowd and said, “You, Shimmon, last night you said you wished to be cured of the headaches which seem to afflict you for no reason. But I know that when you went to Kiev to see your cousin’s daughter married, you also saw a doctor. And I know that the cure you desire is not just for the headaches, but for the thing growing inside you which is causing the headaches.” Shimmon swallowed hard. He had gone to a physician far from Vaysechvoos for he hadn’t wanted the whole village to know that he was dying. His eyes were full of anger as he searched the stranger’s face for a clue, a way he could have known. But he found no deceit there, and no malice.
The stranger pointed to a few more villagers and mentioned things which could not possibly have been known to him. Before he could say more, Shaindel interrupted. She was afraid lest the stranger reveal to her husband the price their chickens had really brought at the market, and how much she had set aside for a rainy day. “So, stranger,” she called out, “maybe you really can do what you say you can. How much time will you give us to make our decision?”
“Until tomorrow,” the stranger answered. And he walked away.
Immediately, everyone in Vaysechvoos was struggling to be heard. At first, the consensus seemed to be that they could not possibly dream of inflicting their ailments on someone else. But then there was the sound of weeping. It was Shimmon’s wife, who was soon to be widowed.
“I know…it’s…selfish,” she managed to squeeze out between sobs, “but my Shimmon is…only 42 years old. We need him… the children and me. Perhaps this other… person… has no wife… no… children.”
“Yes,” Shaindel added, in a hopeful tone, “perhaps this person is old and frail and about to die.”
Back and forth they argued, all day long and most of the night. Finally, the Sage of Vaysechvoos held up his hands, cleared his throat and said, “Our teachers have written that as a person wishes to be treated, so he should treat others. How do we know where the stranger has been and where he will go? Perhaps he will travel to another village and make them this same offer. Perhaps they would accept and perhaps the person described to them is someone right here, in our midst. Before we burden someone else with our sorrows, is there anyone here who would be willing to bear the afflictions of another shtetl?”
Those who had been against accepting the offer affirmed the Sage’s words, “Hear him” they shouted. “Well spoken!” Those who had leaned toward accepting the offer were shamed into silence. Yitzhak would live with his injury. Nahum would see as best he could. Malkah would still limp and Shimmon, well, this was the way of life.
The next day, the Sage served as spokesman for the shtetl as he told the stranger of the people’s decision. After hearing the Sage’s words the stranger broke into a smile that bespoke joy and relief, but still a trace of sadness.
“Good people of Vaysechvoos, I rejoice in your decision. And I tell you now, the Almighty would not have inflicted your sufferings on an unsuspecting soul. But that you might know the Holy One has heard your petitions, as you dwell on the Almighty and his goodness, your ailments will fade into the newness of the coming year. I shall remain in your shtetl until then.”
And so it was. No one really understood the pronouncement, but they somehow felt honored that the stranger wanted to celebrate the holidays in Vaysechvoos. The High Holidays passed without further incident, but as people began their preparations for Sukkot, strange things began to occur. As Malkah carried her dishes out to the sukkah, she felt strength returning to her legs. Nahum’s eyes became so clear and bright that he could distinguish between a pomegranate and an apple. Yitzhak rolled up his sleeve but could find no trace of a scar, and what’s more, he scooped up his little daughter with one arm–his right arm! And miracle of miracles, Shimmon’s headaches ceased.
Not everyone in Vaysechvoos could claim a miracle, but those who could, remembered Shmuel’s words, and rushed out to find him. He was standing in the town square, waiting. The people had so much to ask and tell him, but when they saw what was happening, they simply gasped instead.
For the stranger’s head began to lean to one side, and his back became bent. Scars and blemishes appeared on his body. He winced as pain upon pain overtook him. The villagers’ eyes grew wide with fear, and some cried out, “We did not wish this suffering on you!” And the stranger managed a smile as he told them, “No, but I took it upon myself.” Then he hobbled away.
Since the people could not remember hearing his name, they spoke of the stranger as Shmuel the Sufferer. But they didn’t speak of him often because they didn’t know if what had happened was wonderful or terrible…and because each person was left with a question that seemed too private to ask out loud. For on the night he had asked each person what they would petition of the Almighty for the New Year, the stranger seemed to be waiting for a petition that never came. And they just could not figure out what that petition was.