Interested to know something about the beginnings of the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos?
It all began with a new czar who decided that Jews could no longer be allowed to live in cities. These foreigners corrupt our citizens, disrespect our religion and cause disorder! Let them go into the wilderness and set up their own villages,” said the czar.
And with that decree, a couple dozen Jews left the city where they had lived for generations and trudged toward the land that no one wanted. It was a land not known to bring in a crop; a place that was too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer and too close to the war-like Cossacks.
When the intrepid band of refugees could travel no more, they pitched tents, took the kopeks and rubles they had gotten from selling their household goods and sent Lazar the Merchant to purchase building materials: lumber and nails, a saw and a hammer or two. Lazar struck a good bargain and even got shingles for the roofs. And those who had never held a hammer became home builders–all except for Beryl the Pious. Beryl was a widower who served as a rabbi and he did not start building a house.
Instead, he said he would build a house for God. “We can’t be a community if we have no place to serve the Almighty,” the rabbi-builder explained. Vaysechvoos needed a large building for worship, for teaching the children, for chanting the Yom Kippur prayers. And while most of the people began to put together their little shacks, Beryl spent his time measuring and writing down figures, and searching out large, flat stones for the foundation of the shul. While most of the little houses and cabins were quickly finished, Beryl was still laying out the stones that would become God’s house in what was otherwise called “a God-forsaken place.”
The leaves were beginning to turn and the mornings grew chilly and the villagers came to help Beryl in his noble endeavor. The framing had to be done over many times to get it just right. After all, the walls and roof would be a great weight. They pitched the timbers, sealed the cracks and, while it was chilly, they celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the shul. And then they found out how chillingly cold their place of settling could be. No one noticed that Beryl did not build for himself and only a few noticed that the hearths at each end of the synagogue were incomplete. No one seemed to realize that Beryl had been sleeping in the synagogue and no one thought to invite him to come and sleep in the warmth of their hovels.
The ice storm lasted well into Sukkos and people didn’t dare leave their fires. Services were suspended since leaving one’s home was not possible. Still Sukkos was approaching and Mendel the Tailor wondered how the townspeople would celebrate the holiday in such terrible weather. So he went looking for Beryl, since Beryl would know what to do. He went from house to house, from place to place and no one knew where Beryl was to be found.
The last place they thought to look was in the unfinished shul and that is where he was; in his tallis, frozen, at prayer. He who built a house for God had no home of his own, no hearth at which to warm himself. And each family of the town grieved as they would for their own firstborn child. Beryl was the first buried beside the synagogue building and, in his honor, they finished constructing the most sturdy and warm shul that any village had seen for a hundred miles around.