Eliezer ben Mordecai was the way that he introduced himself at the erev Shabbos service. All of the men of Vaysechvoos were delighted when any visitor came to their synagogue or, for that matter, to the town. After all, many people living in the same district only a few kilometers away didn’t even know that Vaysechvoos existed. So when Eliezer presented himself in his rather elegant clothes, his well-shined boots and ornate sash such as gentile notaries wore, the villagers huddled around him.
They were eager to hear the news or teaching or story that a stranger might bring. Anything or anyone new was to be enjoyed–or, if necessary, endured.
Using language befitting a high rabbi, Eliezer greeted the town’s rabbi by name: Rabbi Shmuel, greetings and felicitations. May your household be blessed. May the people of this town prosper through your teaching. These are the words of my teacher who well remembers your righteousness.”
Rabbi Shmuel was thunderstruck that anyone should even know of him. “Who, sir, is your teacher?” he inquired.
“Most esteemed rabbi,” Eliezer began. He drew himself up to full height and paused to speak in measured tones that were sure to bring astonishment. “My teacher is the Gaon of Bratislava.”
The people oohed and aahed and their eyes opened wide at the thought that the disciple of such a great teacher should come to Vaysechvoos. Rabbi Shmuel felt almost sorry that he had chosen to bring a drasha that Friday night. It was a sermon on repentance and hell. But Eliezer commended Rabbi Shmuel on his sermon and said, “This was just like a drasha that my teacher would bring. Don’t forget, it was he who said, ‘Der gehenem iz nit azzoy shlekht, vi dos kumen tsu im.'” Then he translated the Yiddish into Russian, “Hell is not so bad as the road to it.”
There were more oohs and aahs. What Jew had not heard that axiom before? “Oh yes,” said the butcher. “Now I remember. It was the Gaon of Bratislava who first said that.” To which Eliezer smiled.
Many townspeople extended invitations to the disciple Eliezer to stay in their homes and enjoy their hospitality. But he went home with Mendel the Shoemaker, who was the first to invite him. Upon his arrival at the house, Eliezer raised his hands and blessed the home. As he was introduced to Mendel’s wife, Sarah, and their children, he laid hands on each and bespoke a blessing to them. For each of the daughters he prayed that she might make a good match and find a husband who would be a scholar as well as a wealthy man. For the Mendel’s sons he prayed that they might grow in righteousness and stay healthy and not get drafted by the tzar and that all their days might be peaceful. He told Sarah how beautiful she was and commented on the sweet aroma of the cholent. When the family sat at the table, Mendel let Eliezer preside, and he didn’t just say brachas or recite prayers. Each prayer was a song that rattled the doors of heaven, that opened the gates of eternity, that lifted the whole family on high. “What a marvelous guest, what an adornment to my household,” thought Mendel.
Then Eliezer addressed the shoemaker’s family: “I don’t wish to trouble you, but the Gaon of Bratislava always taught that when one is a guest in another’s home, it brings increased blessing on the household if the family provides the guest with the most comfortable sleeping arrangements.”
Well, if that was what the Gaon taught, then who wouldn’t want such a blessing? Sarah laid out the best of the quilts and the featherbed from her wedding chest. Of course there was only one bed in the house, so Mendel and Sarah set blankets by the hearth and lay on the floor with their children. But they found the circumstances so exciting that they spent their rest time whispering about their honored guest.
The next morning, Eliezer arose early. With a flourish, he put on his phylacteries and prayer shawl and went back to the synagogue where he gathered with those who met after prayer for discourse on the Law. He taught in an offhand way and told stories to illustrate points of Torah. He was witty and profound but said little to satisfy the growing curiosity of those men. They wanted to know more, but all he would say was that he was on a secret mission for the Gaon.
“A secret mission?” gasped Nahum the Blacksmith.
Zeidel the Tanner asked, “Does that mean you can’t tell us?”
Somehow the men found the idea of a secret mission even more remarkable than they found Eliezer himself. They were so eager to know the nature of the mission that finally Eliezer consented to tell them, but only, he said, because he knew that his master, the Gaon of Bratislava, would approve.
“You see,” said Eliezer as he lowered his voice to a rather confidential tone which somehow the whole room could hear, “the Gaon, as you know, is benefactor to all kinds of causes in Europe and in the Holy Land. Most people don’t know, but the Gaon supports these causes out of his personal wealth. That is right. My master is a very wealthy man.”
“But– but–,” stammered Zeidel, “where would a holy man get such money?”
“The Gaon is not only a holy man, he is a very wise man,” responded Eliezer. “From grapes he makes vineyards, and from kopeks he makes fortunes. The Gaon has me do his business for him, and he is sending me on a secret mission to acquire a quantity of mokkas, which I will sell for him at a very high price.”
“mokkas?” asked Nahum. “What’s mokkas?”
And the others joined in, “Yes, yes. What is mokkas?”
At first Eliezer’s face showed horror and shock, but then he brought forth a warm, reassuring smile and said, “Of course, how could I expect you to know about mokkas? It is a rare spice grown far beyond the lands in which Jews usually travel. People only knew of it in legends, until a dying Jew told the Gaon where to obtain it. And even where mokkas is grown–beyond India, beyond China–its value is more than rubies.”
“Aaah,” gasped the small crowd.
Eliezer continued. “And the Gaon is the sole supplier to all of the crown heads in Europe.”
“Even the tzar?” asked Nahum.
“Of course the tzar. The king of England. The king of Denmark.” And Eliezer went on and on. “There’s so much money to be made in this that the Gaon personally supports fifteen orphanages in the Holy Land. He personally funds forty-five yeshivas where a student doesn’t have to pay a red cent. He personally provides matzoh for all of the poor in America.”
“So,” began Kamza the Livestock Dealer, who prided himself on his business prowess, “some might say it is an investment and that the Gaon is an investor.”
“One might say that,” nodded Eliezer. “Listen, if only one had a few hundred rubles one could buy and sell enough mokkas (and of course they wouldn’t have to sell very hard since there are more customers than there is mokkas) and they would have tens of thousands of rubles as profit. Then they could be as generous as the Gaon.” And then Eliezer wondered out loud, “A little town like this could probably have a very nice stone building for the shul and also a yeshiva.”
“From mokkas?” gasped Kamza.
“Yes, from mokkas.”
Whereupon the men of the synagogue excused themselves and went into a not-so-holy-huddle. mokkas–it was amazing! They talked about selling this and borrowing that and collecting from relatives, and they found that if really pressed, and if they tried really hard, they could be the fortunate ones who brought forth the necessary few hundred rubles–but it would take a week.
They then undertook to persuade Eliezer that he should make an investment for the town as well. They told of all of the good works they could do with the mokkas profits, and it sounded like they wanted Vaysechvoos to be almost as holy as Jerusalem.
Finally Eliezer allowed himself to be persuaded because, he said he would be coming back that way before the next Sabbath. He asked just one thing-that the townspeople give him gold instead of rubles. The men looked at each other in dismay, until they remembered that the bal agolah was due to return to Vaysechvoos that night. He could take their rubles to the big city and exchange them for gold.
“I shall return for the gold next week just before the Sabbath,” Eliezer told the townspeople. And he departed.
The following night, Beryl the Bal Agolah returned, and the whole town descended on his home. They could hardly wait to tell him about the Gaon’s elegant emissary and the magnificent opportunity he had offered them and how he, the bal agolah, must hurry to help them–after they had mortgaged or sold everything–by exchanging their rubles for gold.
The bal agolah, a patient man, listened to everything. Then he said, “But wait a moment. I’ve just come from Bratislava and there is no Gaon. There’s only a sage, and I know that for a fact because he’s my fourth cousin.”
The people of Vaysechvoos stared at one another as they realized that they had almost been cheated out of everything they owned. They planned how they would greet the treacherous Eliezer with staves and stones instead of gold. But when the next Sabbath came, it didn’t bring Eliezer with it. And the sage of Vaysechvoos, who had not spoken about the issue before that time, offered his piece of wisdom.
“Sometimes,” he said, “mokkas isn’t rare spice–it is only makkos.”