In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Stranger’s Scroll
In Vaysechvoos, simchas didn’t happen every day. There were too few weddings and too many funerals. Yet the townspeople found ways to make up for this by celebrations. One such occasion was approaching quickly, the bar mitzvah of Nahum. This would certainly be a time for rejoicing. After all, who couldn’t rejoice in the achievements of a young boy who would now be taking on the responsibilities of a man?
Hershel the Tailor stood a little taller than everyone else in Vaysechvoos these days and everyone paid him due respect; Nahum was his only son and a very fine boy.” But no one was as happy or excited as Nahum’s mother Ruchel (not even all the people of Vaysechvoos together!). She smiled as she kneaded the dough vigorously for one of her famous challahs, and sighed, “He’s such a bright boy, one day he’ll be a scholar, and soon he can be part of the minyan too. Only three days, then I hear his beautiful voice reading from the holy scrolls. Oh my Nahum…. Must get working now, Ruchel. There will be many to feed after the ceremony!”
Yes, Ruchel was bustling with joy. She dreamt of all the tantalizing smells that her modest little cooking space would produce. After all, she would be preparing for one of the biggest celebrations of her life, at least until her only son Nahum would be married one day! She wanted all of the shtetl to come to shul and hear Nahum on his special day, and making a proper kiddush couldn’t hurt. She saw herself preparing the food with two of her friends by her side and treating them to childhood stories of Nahum while they cooked. And would they ever cook! Carrot tzimmes, kugel, tender brisket, seasoned soups, meats and herring and delicious desserts and…. Well, Hershel would have to alter quite a few suits in remembrance of Nahum’s bar mitzvah!
Ruchel pictured herself chattering to her patient cooking crew, “Ah yes, I remember when my little Nahum was only four years old and he wanted to know why the sky was blue and where did his hair come from and what the stars were made of and if the czar’s mama was Jewish too. So full of questions, so smart, my little one, even then.” Even as Mama was daydreaming, Nahum, outside, was pondering over some very serious thoughts. Continually, he tried peoples’ patience with his many questions, but that didn’t stop the questions from coming into his head. What else could he do with a question but ask it? So Nahum wondered much and asked much.
Nahum was now laying tefillin and reciting shacharis daily. His bar mitzvah was so close and he needed to practice the ritual; what a voice he had when he recited his prayers! Though his voice hadn’t changed in pitch yet, he had the timbre of maturity when he spoke and beautiful melody when he sang. People told him he should be a chazzen but Nahum didn’t know….
He was having an especially difficult time understanding some of the reasoning behind tefillin; the details bothered him most. Since he felt a need to know all the “whys and hows” in life (and he was never shy) he asked questions about this tradition. He knew that wearing tefillin symbolized that he was to follow the Law of God and keep it in his heart and mind, but he wanted to know why tefillin were donned by day and never at night and why the parchments were stored in square and not round compartments and why must tefillin be black and why must there be twelve stitches of gut thread to seal the leather flap inside the box and why were there only four passages in the Torah that suggested this ritual and why … ?!
Laban, the melamed of Vaysechvoos, encouraged questions from most of his students. He even taught them to persevere until their questions were satisfied. But he was somewhat annoyed with Nahum’s inquiries concerning tefillin. Nahum didn’t accept Laban’s response to his questions; Laban explained that there could be many answers to the same question and it is impossible to know the right answer immediately. The truth of the matter was that Laban was getting up in years. His mind did not work quite as sharply and he forgot things. The sages propose, “At 60 agedness commences, at 70 grey age, at 80 advanced old age, at 90 bowed down, at 100 as if he were dead and gone and taken from this world.” And anyone might say that this teacher was advancing and well into his grey old age. Besides, eight other less-inquisitive boys were going to be bar mitzvah this year, and Laban was not as patient as he used to be.
A frustrated and somewhat confused Nahum turned to his father for assistance. “Papa, tell me why we don’t lay tefillin at night and why….” Hershel listened to his son as he asked one question, then another and still another.
“Tell me Nahum, you want to be a tailor like me in a few years? Marry a good girl? Have a healthy family? Why must you ask these questions? Does this make such a difference, tefillin being square not round? Enough with the questions!”
“Papa, I wonder and questions disturb me. I can’t help it! I just want to know. I love you Papa,” replied Nahum softly.
“Go! Go study! You should make your mother very happy on Shabbos. Mmmm… the smells from that stove could make the czar’s cook crawl all the way here and steal her recipes. Let’s help Mama taste the lentil soup.”
Only two days until Nahum would stand at the bimah and read from the scrolls and face the whole congregation, yet he still had so many unanswered questions. After cheder, he wandered out to a field by the crossroad taking his tefillin with him. Nahum wondered if he should approach the sage of Vaysechvoos for answers. Would he be an appropriate teacher? He pondered as he stared at the tefillin that were presenting so much difficulty. Pondering and not getting anywhere, Nahum was about to leave the field when he saw a bearded, dark-haired stranger with a bag over his shoulder walking toward the village. Before a noise left Nahum’s mouth, the stranger turned toward him and queried, “Child, what are you doing under that tree all by yourself?”
“I-I-I was thinking,” Nahum stammered. “I mean, I was preparing for my bar mitzvah this coming…” his voice trailed off.
The stranger smiled at Nahum sitting all alone, and with a strange twinkle and a knowing look he softly asked, “You have some questions, don’t you? Perhaps I can help you. Every question is a good question to ask. It’s good to ask … yet it’s even better to know.”
Nahum’s eyes widened and he excitedly blurted out in one big breath, “I have questions and Laban and Papa and, well, Mama’s busy with the preparations and … no one thinks my questions are very important but some questions won’t go away. I know how to lay tefillin but I want to know why everything has to be a certain way. Must I pray every morning even when I have questions, without understanding the way I’m praying? I think I want to, but I want to know even more. Does this take so many years?”
Slowly but confidently, the stranger loosed the sack over his shoulder and pulled out his well-worn tefillin. He held them for Nahum to see as he stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Who can know what treasure lies in these dark boxes? As big as the heavens and as tiny as a baby’s finger, but without seeing, can one find out?” asked the stranger.
The man showed Nahum how to lay tefillin properly and how to recite the prayers, but he knew that Nahum didn’t have questions about these things. The stranger seemed to know what Nahum wanted without asking, even as if Almighty himself put him on the path to Vaysechvoos for this very encounter. The stranger pulled from his bag a special scroll, tied with a multi-colored silk thread, and gently slid it into Nahum’s eager hand. The stranger then added some special instructions. “Take this scroll home with you and, although you may be curious, please do not read it until after you recite the haftorah. If you will do this, Nahum, you will find what you need to know. There are answers for those who sincerely ask.”
The stranger seemed to leave as quickly as he had arrived, and Nahum closed his eyes wondering if what had transpired was just a dream. But when he rubbed his eyes open, he was still in the familiar field, not his bed, and the special scroll was in his hands. He slipped the scroll into his pocket and hurried home.
Shabbos came, bringing the bar mitzvah simcha. Nahum’s voice resonated throughout the shul, but it sounded especially sweet in his mother’s ears. Papa stood proud and tall as the melamed bent intently over the boy’s shoulder while he read. Nahum was so involved with his reading that he forgot that nearly all of Vaysechvoos was listening to him! Something unusual occurred to him near the end of his haftorah portion; he was not reading these words only from his memory, but they were coming alive in him. H e couldn’t be sure of the strange feeling he had, but felt somehow he would know what it meant.
The kiddush was especially joyful for all who came. Ruchel’s cakes were the finest; she bought the most delicately cured cheese and preserves from the market in Kiev and excitedly welcomed every guest in the shul to taste. This was a notable celebration and the buzz of conversation proved it. Sounds of laughter and exclamations of praise filled the room; “BaruchHa Shem” and “Such a smart child” seemed to echo off the walls.
“He read so beautifully,” commented Feivel the Tanner.
“Especially as he neared the end of the haftorah portion,” added Hershel the Milkman.
Tamar the Seamstress chimed in, “He spoke with such deep understanding for a young boy, definitely beyond his years; yes, beyond his years!”
Laban accepted the commendations of several parents who knew he had trained Nahum and many others in the intricacies of Talmud. But he protested saying, “That boy had such a thirst for knowledge, that he made my teaching duties light.” Inwardly, he felt a bit guilty for not having satisfied Nahum’s energetic quest.
Meanwhile, leaving all the clucking behind, Nahum stole away to the closet where the siddurs were kept, a place where he could be alone. He took out of his pocket the special scroll the stranger had given him, and carefully untied the cord. The writing was small and the light was dim, but he was very familiar with the words, for he had been practicing them for months, the last two verses of Haftorah Yithro:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Prince.
Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
Isaiah IX 6, 7
It all began to make sense to him. It seemed so difficult before and so simple now. This Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, would be the source for the answers he needed. Instead of asking his parents or his teacher or even the sage of Vaysechvoos, he needed to turn his gaze toward the One who created him. He needed to ask his questions of the One who is the true reason for laying tefillin; Nahum had forgotten to ask his real teacher.
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.