Reb Meyer sighed. All day long he had been dreading the annual visit from the people of Kozmir.
They came, this sober delegation from Kozmir; they came in fancy clothes with horses and carriages, for they were much wealthier than the people of Vaysechvoos. They camped outside the shtetl preferring to pay to put up tents on gentile fields rather than accept the hospitality of the Jews of Vaysechvoos. For yes, even though the people of Kozmir were as mean as a miser at tax time, one year the people of Vaysechvoos had decided to invite them into their homes. After all,” the Sage had advised, “A Yid is a Yid, and we should uphold Kol Yisrael even if they are angry at us. Besides, if they stay in our homes, how can they hate us?”
But the Kozmirians only used the invitation to perpetuate their hatred. “Stay in the dirty, smelly hovels of Vaysechvoos? You just want to steal from us while we sleep,” one of them had sneered. After that there had been no offers of hospitality or pretenses of friendliness from the people of Vaysechvoos.
The Kozmirians would camp for three days outside of Vaysechvoos, then sneak into the village early in the morning, opening all the gates so the livestock ran loose. Then, to defile the villagers, they would dump pig droppings purchased from the gentile farmers. They dumped them at the gathering place, where stalls would be set up for market day. When the people awoke to the stench and came out to the marketplace, the Kozmirians would chant: “Feh, feh, foo, our rabbi’s curse on you. Take care, Vaysechvoos, beware, Vaysechvoos. Droppings from Gehenna, to Gehenna return.”
Meyer grimaced at the memory of last year’s demonstration. His son, Perchik, was a welcome interruption. “Papa, why do people from Kozmir come to Vaysechvoos every year if they don’t like us?”
“They come because of Chaim ben Duvid.”
So who was Chaim ben Duvid? He was, while living, the esteemed rabbi of Kozmir. He was truly a tzaddik, maybe even one of the Lamed Vav Tzaddikim, or 36 righteous ones. For according to tradition, there are at least 36 holy men in each generation. These are privileged to see the Divine Presence, and it is because of their merit, some say, that the world continues to exist. What a godly life Chaim ben Duvid must have led, to have been considered one of the 36!
Since his death, however, he was mainly a grudge that the people of Kozmir were holding. He was the case of ill will between the Kozmirians and the people of Vaysechvoos–at least, in the minds of the people of Kozmir and Vaysechvoos. As for the mind of Chaim ben Duvid? He’d been dead for 70 years, so who knew?
But as far as anyone knew, it was the way Reb Meyer explained to Perchik: “Chaim ben Duvid was once the rabbi of Kozmir. He was an unusual rabbi inasmuch as he was wealthy. An inheritance from his father, a landowner, enabled him to travel as he pleased. Toward the end of his life Chaim ben Duvid took to wandering. He cared for and blessed everyone he encountered.
“One day he wandered into Vaysechvoos. He asked to meet the melamed, and he also asked to be shown the synagogue. Well, in those days our shtetl had neither. An itinerant teacher would come through now and then to hold classes, and for worship we used an old barn with a Torah scroll. When Chaim ben Duvid heard that Vaysechvoos had no melamed and no proper facility, he muttered that it was a shanda, and that the children deserved better. Then he left with sorrow.
“Had he returned a year later, he would have rejoiced. By then your great grandfather had helped to build our synagogue. Not only that, we hired our very own melamed and have had one ever since. That, however, is a story in itself. A stranger brought holy books and a large sum of money, along with a letter, to our sage. He instructed that the books and money be used for the study of Torah and the worship of the Almighty. The letter was to be given to the new melamed. BaruchHa Shem, what a miracle! With the money we created a synagogue fund and even a special purse from which your melamed is paid.
“Chaim ben Duvid never returned. Instead, soon after the synagogue was built and the melamed hired, we began receiving these strange visits from his followers, visits on the anniversary of his death. All the way from Kozmir, his followers come to harass and harangue us. No one knows why, but they view their hatred of us as a sign of loyalty to their departed rabbi.”
“But Papa,” Perchik interrupted, “if he was a righteous and wise rabbi, then he wouldn’t think it was very loyal for his followers to hate us, would he? No rabbi teaches Jews to hate other Jews.”
“That’s right, Perchik. If he taught people to hate us, he wasn’t much of a rabbi, was he? But now you know why the people of Kozmir come every year.”
Sure enough, the next morning the people of Kozmir were at the marketplace. They dumped their nefarious pig dung and chanted their chant. Chickens squawked and donkeys brayed as if to mock the villagers.
When it was all over, brave Perchik stepped forward to face the Kozmirians. “We never did anything to you,” he said stoutly. “Why do you hate us?”
One of the older men from Kozmir practically growled at the boy, “As if you didn’t know.”
But Perchik was not daunted. “Well, I don’t. Maybe you don’t know, either. Maybe you just like to hate people for no reason.”
The man seemed a bit taken aback, but he rose to the challenge. “Perhaps your village has forgotten, but we of Kozmir will never forget.” His gruff voice took on a bit of softness as he recalled the story. “Our dear rabbi, Chaim ben Duvid, was a righteous man. He taught the people of Kozmir wisely and well, as one would teach his own children. He was a widower with no children of his own, so in a sense our people were his children. But as he got older, he became restless. Often he would leave us for weeks at a time, wandering through the countryside.
“After one such trip he called for a notary from a neighboring village, had some papers drawn, up and a few days later he became terribly ill. Before he died, he said, ‘Take care . . . Vaysechvoos.’
“When the beloved rabbi’s will was read, our people could hardly believe it. He left nothing whatever of his wealth to Kozmir. Instead, he left instructions to sell everything and donate all the money to Vaysechvoos.” Once again, the Kozmirian’s voice became hard, and his eyes narrowed. “He had left everything, everything to this miserable shtetl of yours, where the people are barely Jews. Pig droppings to pig people!” he shouted, and the rest of the Kozmirians echoed the insult.
“We immediately discerned what had happened,” their spokesman continued. “Our rabbi had been bewitched. In his travels he happened across this God forsaken village of yours. We knew it could only be that he, a lonely old widower, fell prey to the devices of one of your town Jezebels. Why else would he bestow his entire estate on such stupid strangers?
“And how is it that our dear rabbi died within days of changing his will? Slow poison, I tell you! Murder! He must have realized what had happened to him as he drew his last breath and uttered his warning, ‘Take care … Vaysechvoos.’ By then, he could do nothing. But we can do something. Every year, we will make you ashamed of the terrible thing you must have done to our rabbi. We will keep alive his memory and fulfill his curse upon this village. We won’t let you forget how you took him from us and cheated us of his wealth.”
The rest of the Kozmirians growled their agreement. Perchik’s eyes widened and he saw the facts come together as pieces of a picture puzzle. Silently and fervently Perchik prayed for the Almighty to complete the picture in his mind. Suddenly he went running toward the classroom where his cheder met.
Breathless, he arrived and opened the drawer where the old melamed’s own books were kept. He pulled out the drawer and there, between the slats behind the drawer, was a small envelope containing a piece of paper. Perchik made haste to read the paper, than ran back to the village square, stopping right in front of the Kozmirian who had told the story of Chaim ben Duvid.
“Here, read this,” Perchik insisted, and he handed the man the yellowed sheet.
Too astonished to do anything else, the man began to read the spidery script aloud.
“An old man wants to depart from a better world than he entered. I hope I have made my beloved followers in Kozmir richer through teaching them Torah these many years. For months I sought those for whom I might provide such teaching after my death. My journey ended in Vaysechvoos, for I have never seen a poorer, more pitiable shtetl in my life. These are the people who can benefit most from that which I cannot take to the world beyond. I shall bequeath to them a synagogue, holy books and a melamed for the children. And may Almighty God himself take care of Vaysechvoos.”
It was signed “C.B.D.” The Kozmirian man immediately recognized the signature of the long departed rabbi.
One might think that the people of Vaysechvoos would be humiliated to learn they had benefited from Chaim ben Duvid simply because they were the poorest, most pitiable people he had ever met . . . but humble people are not easily humiliated. The people from Kozmir, however, were deeply ashamed. They had not only interpreted their rabbi’s dying prayer as a curse (he’d meant “Take care of Vaysechvoos”), but they had squandered their own inheritance. They had lightly esteemed the wealth of Torah knowledge their rabbi had sought to instill. They had spurned the commandment, “Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.”
As to whether the shame of the people of Kozmir led them to befriend the people of Vaysechvoos, or whether it caused them to turn away from the shtetl altogether, I leave it for you to decide.