The sage in the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos tells many stories. But none seems to fascinate or perplex the people more than the tale he tells about Rabbi Josiah Ben Farfel:
Rabbi Josiah, a gaon and a revered scholar descended from 42 distinguished rabbis, was never perplexed by questions on religion. He always had a profound reply for even the toughest inquiry specially for problems other rabbis could not solve. He also didn’t live in Vaysechvoos because if he had, like everyone else in Vaysechvoos including the sage, he, too, would be perplexed about many things, including this story. But Rabbi Josiah lived far, far away.
Rabbi Josiah had many wealthy and devoted followers in his distant land. They provided him with everything he needed. Among his possessions were an ornate carriage and a strong team of horses. He had a faithful driver who would take him on long excursions to the most beautiful and interesting spots in the country. And he had a scribe, Pelte, who would record his every word.
Rabbi Josiah enjoyed a daily carriage ride. It seemed to soothe him. And it was during these trips that he could reflect and solve the great mysteries that were put before him. But Rabbi Josiah also strictly observed the Sabbath. This presented his good coachman with a dilemma: It was improper for the rabbi to ride on the Sabbath.
So at midday one Friday when the rabbi seemed to have a particularly large number of perplexing problems to solve, the driver hurriedly prepared a trip. He wanted the rabbi to enjoy enough of a ride in the country that it would carry over to the Sabbath.
The good coachman took Rabbi Josiah and Pelte the Scribe down an unknown path. They came upon a small river, really only a stream, where they stopped for a drink to cool them from the heat of the day. From the oasis, the path began to climb. Soon it took them to the top of a hill. When they reached the summit, Rabbi Josiah had the coachman stop the carriage. He stepped out along with Pelte the Scribe so that they might survey the vast scenic landscape in this territory where they had never been before. The oasis below, where they had stopped for water, was now only the size of a pinhead in their sight. In that moment a dark cloud as big as a man’s hand appeared on the horizon. Quickly it filled the entire sky, and a strong wind pushed it near the top of the hill where the rabbi and his two servants stood transfixed, unable to move for the curious thing that was happening. Then came a storm and a downpour, but only on them! They marveled at the unpredictable course of the cloud, the wind and the rain. Suddenly a single bolt of lightning struck, and their carriage was vaporized. The frightened horses ran wildly down the other side of the hill and disappeared. Just as quickly as they had come, the dark cloud, the stiff wind and the heavy rain also vanished.
Now, standing on the hill beneath a clear blue sky, Pelte the Scribe looked quizzically at the good rabbi. So,” Pelte said, “what is the meaning of this? Why did the Almighty send a storm with one bolt of lightning? Now we have no coach and our horses have fled. We’re soaked with rain and the road is mud. The way home is too long to return for the Sabbath. What a beautiful ride in the country this has turned out to be! So tell me, Rabbi Josiah, why did the Almighty allow this to happen?”
Lifting his eyes heavenward to a sky that was showing the first signs of sunset, Rabbi Josiah said, “He might as well ask me, ‘Who is the Son of God?'”
Now the followers of Rabbi Josiah Ben Farfel gave many different interpretations of this event. Some said that he was cursing the lightning of the sky that prevented him from keeping the Sabbath. Others said it was a lesson from the Almighty as to how important honoring the Sabbath is. Each, thinking himself to be wise, had his own explanation. The sage of Vaysechvoos just squinted his eyes, frowned and became doubly perplexed. But the coachman always wondered why, on the long walk home, the good rabbi kept muttering what sounded like a dark saying, “The Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath.”