In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: Kleiner Moishe
It was said of Kleiner Moishe by the people of Vaysechvoos that he had eighty-year-old eyes in a six-year-old face. It was not that his eyes were surrounded by wrinkles or rheumy or clouded–not at all. Actually, his eyes were very large on his small face and always seemed to be asking, thinking, knowing. They were the windows of a wondrous mind that never stopped working.
It was as though Kleiner Moishe were a miracle child, and the whole village knew it. His mother, Hannah, was advanced in years when she conceived him. She had married her Amram at an age when many women were already grandmothers. Amram had come to Vaysechvoos to marry Hannah, a cousin of his cousin, and sadly, soon after that, to die. Taking care of Amram for the last few months of his life had given Hannah many smiles and satisfactions, and then there had come a particular settled joy when she discovered that she was with child. Unfortunately, Kleiner Moishe never laid eyes on his father, but Amram had left his widow and son well provided for. As the child grew, the people of Vaysechvoos felt that they had been made beneficiaries of a treasured son. By the time Kleiner Moishe was five, his ability to expound Scripture was far beyond that of most bar mitzvah boys, and the Sage of Vaysechvoos had become his teacher.
Virtually every man and most women in Vaysechvoos could read and write, but only one who could be called a scholar was the Sage. The Sage had no children to inherit this title so Kleiner Moishe, bright beyond his years, was already acclaimed by many of the villagers as the Sage-to-be.
One would think that a child who had such a contemplative mind would be… well, more like an old man than a boy. But when Kleiner Moishe joined the other children in play, he ran, frolicked and laughed–and yes, at times he even got into mischief.
Indeed, Kleiner Moishe seemed in many ways to be like the other young boys of Vaysechvoos, except that every morning he rose early to meet with the Sage, the rabbi, and the other learned elders to pray and to study Talmud. It was not that Kleiner Moishe was old enough to count for the minyan. Yet in his boy-sized tallis and tefillin, he seemed to be able to pray and enter into the discussion like any of the pious adults who comprised the combination Talmud studies, elders’ meeting and village court.
Kleiner Moishe didn’t seem to need as much sleep or as much food as other growing boys. And with Hannah’s encouragement, he spent as much time as possible in the Sage’s household, poring over books, some of which were almost as big as he was. He asked difficult questions, since he had learned all the easy answers long before.
One day Kleiner Moishe respectfully, almost haltingly, asked one of those difficult questions of the Sage. I don’t want to trouble you, my teacher, but perhaps I misunderstand,” he said, opening the Hebrew Scriptures to the eighteenth chapter of Bereshis. “Verse one says that the Lord appeared to Avraham Avinu. How, then, can we understand verse two which says that Avraham saw three men?”
With a kind smile the Sage reminded Kleiner Moishe that God could appear in whatever form he chose. “As you well know, the Almighty appeared to your namesake Moshe Rabeynu in a burning bush. Does that mean that God is clothed with leaves and twigs?”
The Sage was like that. All of his answers seemed to end in a question.
“But, but…there is more,” said the boy. “According to verses six, seven and eight, Avraham fed God or the three men milchiks and flaishiks in the same meal.”
“Hmm,” said the Sage, tugging thoughtfully at his beard. “I’ll have to think about that.” He did not tell the boy that the text troubled him also, and that he could not accept the traditional explanations of how God himself could accept what the rabbis had forbidden, namely to eat milk and meat products at the same meal.
“So?” said Kleiner Moishe.
“So, what?” said the Sage.
“So, when are you going to tell me?”
The Sage said, “As old as I am, my young scholar, I must keep on learning, and sometimes the Almighty teaches me and sometimes he doesn’t. What he has taught me, I can teach you. What he has shown me I can show you. But you find more problems than I find solutions. You ask more questions than the Sage of Sages could answer.” The Sage concluded: “Questions are good, Moishele, but some answers must come from the King of heaven when you are ready to understand them.”
With a grave smile, the boy nodded. He understood.
Almost every week, this “miracle” child gave the villagers something new to talk about–something more for which they could adore him. Shimmon the Butcher, who admired every scholar, always seemed in awe of Kleiner Moishe. Often, as he wrapped the meat for Hannah’s weekly cholent, he would comment, “Your boy’s father, Amram, must be looking down from the heavens with a mighty smile on his face as he sees how his son grows.” Hannah was pleased–she was not jealous of her son’s fame, but happily shared him with all of the other villagers.
Hannah barely noticed it when Kleiner Moishe first began to spend fewer hours at the Sage’s house and with the books and more time playing with the other children. He also spent a little more time helping Hannah around the house–but then he always was such a good boy. Yet the change in Kleiner Moishe’s behavior was noticed when he stopped attending the early morning Talmud studies with the elders.
The Sage reassured Hannah and the elders. He said, “Sometimes a scholar must grow this way, at other times he must grow that way. I am the boy’s teacher, and I can tell you that his piety is even deeper now than it has been in the past.” But in his heart the Sage himself felt somewhat puzzled by Kleiner Moishe’s behavior.
After a few weeks, however, the Sage was relieved to see the boy once again attending the morning class with the “other” men. In time, he approached him and said, “So Moishele, maybe now it is my time to ask you a question.”
“Yes?” said the boy.
“Tell me about your absence. We didn’t see you for weeks. I know you were not ill because you came for your regular lessons every day and I saw you playing with the other boys. I know that you have a heart inclined toward the Almighty. So tell me, what kept you away?”
“Well,” said the boy, “I had a problem. I know that everybody calls me Kleiner Moishe because they expect me to be like Yocheved’s son, Moshe Rabeynu. And I have accepted this as my burden, knowing that no one could be like Moses; yet I would strive to do my best. Then, I came to the passage we studied in Devarim….”
The Sage interrupted, “Are you saying that you thought you could never be like Moshe Rabeynu because you could not endure the kind of rebellion he experienced when our people sinned while he was on the mount receiving the Torah?”
“No,” said Kleiner Moishe. “That passage has shown me that patience comes from above, for I see that Moshe Rabeynu fasted forty days and nights to bring the heavy tablets down from Mount Horeb. Then, without eating a meal, he admonished and exhorted our people for their great sin, destroyed the tablets of stone and climbed back upon the mountain for another forty days and nights to fast again.
“Now, my teacher,” Kleiner Moishe continued, “you and I know that it is barely possible for a man to fast forty days and nights without dying. But eighty days and nights? I knew that I could never do such a thing and I realized that I could never be another Moshe.”
“So,” said the Sage, “you think you have the answer now?”
“Maybe,” said Kleiner Moishe.
“And what is that?”
“Not an answer, but a question,” the boy responded.
“So, what is your question?”
“The question is this,” said Kleiner Moishe. “Cannot God who designed and built the human body sustain it without food for eighty days, one hundred and sixty days or even one hundred and sixty years if he so chooses?”
And the Sage and Kleiner Moishe smiled at each other, knowing that this is the kind of question the Almighty himself loves to answer.
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.