Maybe it wasn’t such a nice thing to do, but behind her back the other children called her Innocent Ruchele.”
Actually, Ruchele was not so innocent. She was probably not much better nor any worse than the other children of Vaysechvoos. Yet she already had the reputation that she would never, ever, but never accept blame.
Ruchele’s mother looked up from the floor that she was scrubbing. “Ruchele,” she scolded. “You were to bring those eggs back from Reb Perchik’s an hour and a half ago.”
“But Mama,” Ruchele said impatiently, “It’s not my fault! Gitl stopped me, even though she saw that I was carrying the eggs home to you. She should not have insisted that I stop and play with her when I was on such an important errand. I told her, but she ….”
“Ruchele!” Papa scolded. “Were you playing with my pen? The nib is bent and I can’t write.”
“But Papa,” Ruchele explained, “it’s not my fault. Duvid was teasing me! He said that only boys know how to write their names. It is his fault that I had to use your pen to show he was wrong. And when he kept teasing me, I threw it at him and that is how it got bent.”
On and on it went. Ruchele would be taken to task for some wrongdoing and she would always show that it couldn’t be her fault, that it had to be someone else. Try as they might, her mother and father could not get the child to admit that anything was ever her fault.
“Avram, I don’t know what to do with this child,” Leah sighed with a remorseful shaking of her head. “You would think she was dipped in chicken schmaltz, the way the blame seems to slide off her back.”
Her husband agreed. “Ruchele would sooner tell the Almighty himself that Moses must have brought back the wrong commandments, than admit to breaking one of them.”
As for Ruchele, she could only wonder why everyone around her was always faulting her for other people’s mistakes.
And so it went, until one day when a very frightening thing happened at the lake.
Actually it was not really such a lake, it was more like a pond. But who’s debating the matter anyway? When it would freeze over, children used to play sliding games on it, which was dangerous because it was hard to tell how thick the ice might be. One year a terrible thing happened. A little boy fell through the ice and drowned, and the sage of Vaysechvoos gave his words of wisdom to all the parents that no child should go near the “lake” unless with an adult.
But anyway, one winter day Ruchele and her best friend Gitl were playing in the snow, a little closer than they should have been to the lake. Gitl was showing off a new red knit cap that her bubbe and zayde had given her for her birthday.
“It’s so beautiful,” Ruchele said. Red was her favorite color. “Can I try it on?”
“Sure,” said Gitl, with a generous air. The girls exchanged hats, Ruchele donning the pretty red one, and Gitl slipping Ruchele’s well-worn brown one over her dark curls.
“Mmm, yours is so soft and warm,” Ruchele said.
“Yes,” Gitl said, the note of generosity in her voice beginning to fade. “Let’s exchange hats back now, okay?”
“Not yet,” Ruchele said. “Just a few minutes more.”
Storm clouds were forming over Gitl’s brow. “Now!” she insisted, and began to reach for her hat.
“Ha! Catch me first!” Ruchele laughed, then took off. She didn’t notice that she had cut across the corner of the lake until she heard Gitl scream. Fortunately, Reb Laban heard the girl’s screams and was able to pull Gitl out. But she caught a severe chill and a fever and it was feared that that the Malach Ha-Moves might come for Gitl that very night.
The whole village was offering prayers for her recovery. No one even scolded Ruchele for her part n the tragedy because they were all too worried about poor Gitl. Still, Ruchele heard the accusations in her own head. “It’s your fault! It’s your fault that Gitl is sick, and if she dies that will be your fault, too.”
“It’s not my fault; it’s not!” Ruchele answered her invisible accuser. “She didn’t have to be so mean and selfish. She could have let me wear the hat a little longer. She could have looked where she was going! It’s not my fault. It’s not!” And it was with these thoughts that Innocent Ruchele fell asleep.
She dreamed that she was in a long hall with a high ceiling. A beautiful lady whose face was so bright that it seemed to be shining came towards her. “Come child, follow me,” the shining lady told her.
Ruchele followed her into a room. Several of her friends were there, sitting on a bench. “Where are we?” Ruchele asked.
“This is the bais ha-tefiloh,” the shining lady answered. “This is where people come to ask the Almighty to forgive them.”
“Forgive?” Ruchele asked. “For what?”
“For the greedy, selfish things they do and say,” the lady answered.
Ruchele looked at the children on the bench. Yes, she could recognize that each of them had been greedy and selfish. There was Pincus, who ate enough for three children. You could see his greed around his middle. There was Hanni, who always chattered about growing up to marry a rich man. Surely she was a greedy soul. There was Duvid, her brother, who always tried to get attention. He wasn’t satisfied unless everyone knew he was the best and the smartest at everything. Ruchele had never realized it before, but that was a kind of greed as well.
“But what about me?” Ruchele asked the shining lady. “I am not greedy. I don’t eat too much, I don’t care about money, and it doesn’t bother me if no one thinks I am smartest. I don’t belong here!”
“Oh, but you do,” the shining angel told her. And as Ruchele stared, the angel suddenly grew and became eight feet tall, and as she towered over Ruchele, Ruchele realized … it was her friend, Gitl!
“You greedy, greedy, greedy girl!” Gitl accused. “You always have to be the innocent one.” And she added sarcastically, “Nothing is ever your fault, is it?
“And for me, your best friend, when the whole village was praying, you could not whisper one petition to the Almighty for me. Instead, you only thought of yourself and you spent the night thinking of all the reasons why it was my fault, not yours, that I fell into the lake. And now it is too late!”
Ruchele awoke with a start. She cried out, “Oh dear God, please, don’t let it be too late. It was my fault. My fault,” she sobbed. And poor Ruchele fell back to sleep mumbling, “I’m sorry. it was my fault. All my fault … Please let her be well.”
The next morning, she ran to Gitl’s house. Amazingly, the girl was sitting up in bed. “Gitl!” Ruchele cried. “I’m so sorry. It was my fault you fell in the lake–my fault you almost died.”
It’s okay,” Gitl smiled. And she said three beautiful words that Ruchele had never heard before, mostly because she had never given anyone the chance to say them to her.
“I forgive you.”
After that, no one ever called Ruchele “Innocent Ruchele” again. She wasn’t any less innocent than the other children, but she wasn’t any more innocent than they were either . . . and she knew it.