It was spring in Vaysechvoos, but you wouldn’t know it from the bleak expressions on the faces of the townspeople. Rumor had it that a pogrom had taken place at a shtetl not too far away and that the Cossacks might be heading in the direction of Vaysechvoos.
What would the czar’s men want with us?” cried Hannah, the tanner’s wife. “We are so poor, there is little to be gained from pillaging our town.” “True,” responded Zeidel, sighing, “but it seems that money is only one of the reasons for carrying out a pogrom.”
The impending persecution was not the only reason for despair and woe among the villagers. For months, life in Vaysechvoos had been growing steadily gloomier. It had been a harsh winter and the harvest that followed was more like a gleaning. Even the cows in Vaysechvoos were giving less milk.
And what shall we say about simchas? There were no simchas to say anything about. No weddings, no bar mitzvahs, no pidyon ha-ben in almost a year.
And when it came to going to shul, there was little enthusiasm. Oh, the people went, but the rabbi of Vaysechvoos seemed to have lost his wit and his passion as he gave his weekly explanations of the parsha reading. He was so dry and boring that some of the older men had to be propped up so as not to fall asleep.
It was in the middle of such a gray time in Vaysechvoos that the Sage came up with the idea for the contest. Since the future of the little shtetl appeared so dreary and the present was not much better, perhaps if they looked to the past, they could find some solace, some reason to want to get out of bed in the morning.
And so a contest was devised in which each citizen of Vaysechvoos was eligible to present some memory or story from the past that would encourage, elate or edify the people. Whoever came up with the best recollection of something good that had happened, would win. The Sage would do the judging and the winner would be named at a special simcha with lots of food and drink and music and dancing.
The contest seemed to be just what Vaysechvoos needed. Everyone wanted to take part. Shimmon the Butcher told the story of the time when he prayed that his somewhat-past-marriageable- age daughter Rivkah would find a husband, and how the very next day Natan came into his shop and wanted to know if he might be considered for an apprenticeship. And how one thing led to another and he now has a son-in-law and an assistant butcher!
Mendel the Tailor told of the time twenty years earlier when there was a drought in Vaysechvoos and the likelihood of any harvest at all was remote at best. Yet, the rains did eventually come and the harvest that year was the most bountiful ever.
The story was also told of the time when the great Maggid came and expounded the Holy Scriptures. And someone vividly recalled the time when Shlomo the blind painter was asked to paint a picture of the shul and how he drew with absolute beauty all of the people of Vaysechvoos entering the house of worship.
And on and on the stories went, so much so that the people forgot how miserable they had been. They even forgot how worried they’d been about the future. And the Sage of Vaysechvoos smiled. He knew that things would be all right.
(Only years later did someone from Vaysechvoos realize that the Sage never actually declared a “winner” of the contest. What did that person do? He laughed, realizing that it hadn’t been necessary after all, and then he did the right thing. He never told another soul.)