Erev Rosh HaShanah Story: The Search by Shalom Aleichem

On Erev Rosh HaShanah, I shared The Search, a powerful story by Sholem Aleichem, the famous Eastern European, Jewish author.  The story teaches us a very important lesson about appearances, assumptions and accusations.  Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are supposed to reflect upon how we treat other people.  If you missed hearing Sholem Aleichem’s story the other night, I encourage you to read it and think about what the experiences of the Lithuanian, Reb Yosefel, Laizer Yosl and the narrator have to teach us.  Let their experiences inspire you to change and grow this year.  If you don’t get to read the story before Yom Kippur, remember that “Gates of Repentance” do not close until the end of Sukkot!  You’ve got time.

 

THE SEARCH

 

“Now, listen to me,” said a man who had been sitting in a corner by the window, smoking and taking in stories of thefts, holdups, and expropriations. “I’ll tell you a good one, also about a theft, which happened in my town, in the synagogue of all places, and on Yom Kippur too! You’ll like it.

Our Kasrilevke—that’s where I come from—is a small town and a poor one. We have no thieves and no stealing, for there is nobody to steal from and nothing to steal. And aside from all that, a Jew just isn’t a thief. I mean to say, even if a Jew is a thief, he is not the kind of thief who sneaks in through a window or goes at you with a knife. He may twist you and turn you, outtalk you and outsmart you—granted; but he won’t crawl into your pockets, he won’t be caught red-handed and led down the street in disgrace. That may happen to a thieving Ivan but not to a Jew. Imagine, then, someone stealing in Kasrilevke, and quite a bit of money too—eighteen hundred rubles at one stroke!

One day a stranger arrived in our town, a Jew, some sort of contractor from Lithuania. He appeared on the evening of Yom Kippur, just before the time for prayer. He left his bundle at the inn and hurried out to look for a place to pray and found the old synagogue. He arrived in time to attend the evening prayer and ran into the trustees with their collection box.

“Sholom aleichem!”

“Aleichem sholom!”

“Where are you from?”

“From Lithuania.”

“And what’s your name?”

“What difference does that make to your grandmother?”

“Well, after all, you’ve come to our synagogue!”

“Where else do you want me to go?”

“You surely want to pray here?”

“Have I any choice?”

“Then put something in the box.”

“Of course. Did you think I was going to pray for nothing?”

Our stranger took three silver rubles out of his pocket and put them in the box. Then he put a ruble in the cantor’s plate, gave a ruble for the rabbi, another for the school, and threw half a ruble into the poor box; in addition, he handed out coins to the beggars standing at the door—we have so many poor people in our town, God bless them, that if you really went at it you could distribute Rothschild’s fortune among them.

When we saw the kind of stranger he was we gave him a place right at the eastern wall of the synagogue, the holiest spot. You will ask how one could be found for him when all the places were occupied. Some question! Where does one find a place at a celebration—a wedding, say, or a circumcision feast—after all the guests have been seated at the table and suddenly there is a commotion—the rich guest has arrived! Well, all the others squeeze together until a place is made for the rich man. Jews have a habit of squeezing—when no one else squeezes us, we squeeze one another.

In short, the stranger occupied a place of honor. He asked for a prayer stand and, donning his cloak and prayer shawl, began to pray. Bending over his stand, he prayed and prayed, always on his feet, never sitting down, let alone lying down. He did not leave his stand for a minute, that Litvak, except when the Eighteen Blessings were recited and everyone had to face the ark, and during the kneeling periods. To stand on one’s feet on a day of fasting without ever sitting down—only a Litvak can do that.

After the shofar was blown for the last time, marking the end of services, we suddenly heard a cry, “Help, help, help!” We looked around and saw the stranger lying on the floor in a faint. We poured water on him to bring him to, but he fainted again.

What had happened? A fine thing! He had on him—the Litvak, that is—eighteen hundred rubles; and he had been afraid, so he said, to leave his money at the inn. You think it’s a trifle, eighteen hundred rubles? To whom could he entrust such a sum in a strange town? Nor did it seem right to keep it in his pocket on Yom Kippur as money is forbidden on the holiest day. So, after thinking the matter over, he decided quietly to slip the money into his prayer stand.  Now do you understand why he did not leave his stand for a minute? Someone had apparently snatched his money during the Eighteen Blessings or one of the kneeling periods.

He screamed, he wept, he lamented—what would he do now without the money? It was, he said, someone else’s money, not his.  He was only an employee in some office, a poor man, burdened with many children. All he could do now, he said, was to jump into the river or hang himself right here in the synagogue in front of everybody.

On hearing such talk the whole congregation stood paralyzed, forgetting that they had been fasting for twenty—four hours and were about to go home to eat. It was a disgrace before a stranger, a shameful thing to witness. Eighteen hundred rubles stolen, and where? In a place of worship, in the old synagogue of Kasrilevke! And when? On Yom Kippur! Such a thing was unheard of.

Lock the door!” our rabbi ordered. We have our rabbi—his name is Reb Yosefel—a true and pious Jew, not oversubtle but a kindly soul, a man without gall, and sometimes he has brilliant ideas, such as wouldn’t occur even to a man with eighteen heads! When the door was locked the rabbi addressed the congregation. His face was white as the wall, his hands were trembling and his eyes burning.

“Listen carefully, my friends,” he said. “This is an ugly business, an outrage, unheard of since the creation of the world, that in our town, in Kasrilevke, there should be such an offender, such a renegade from Israel, who would have the impudence to take from a stranger, from a poor man, a supporter of a family, such a large sum of money. And when? On a holy day, on Yom Kippur, and perhaps even during the closing prayer! Such a thing has been truly unheard of since the creation of the world! I can’t believe such a thing is possible, it just can’t be! Nevertheless—who can tell?  Some wretched man was perhaps tempted by this money, particularly since it amounted to such a fortune. The temptation, God have mercy on us, was great enough. So if it was decreed that one of us succumb to the temptation—if one of us has had the misfortune to commit such a sin on a day like this—we must investigate the matter, get to the bottom of it. Heaven and earth have sworn that truth must come to the top like oil on water, so we must search each other, go through each other’s garments, shake out the pockets of everyone here—from the most respectable member of the congregation to the community leaders, sparing no one. Begin with me: here, my friends, go through my pockets!”

Thus spoke our rabbi, Reb Yosefel, and he was the first to open his bag and turn all his pockets inside out. After him, all the members of the congregation loosened their girdles and turned out their pockets, and each of them in turn was searched, and felt all over, and shaken out. But when they came to Laizer Yosl he turned all colors and began to argue. The stranger, he said, was a swindler; the whole thing was a Litvak’s trick, no one had stolen any money from him. “Can’t you see,” he said, “that the whole thing is a lie, a fraud?”

The congregation broke out in loud protests. “What do you mean?” they said. “Respectable citizens have submitted to a search—why should you be excepted?” The whole crowd clamored, “Search him, search him!”

Laizer Yosl saw that things were going badly for him, and he began to plead with tears in his eyes, begging that he be spared. He swore by every oath: may he be as pure of all evil as he was innocent of stealing. And on what grounds was he to be spared? He couldn’t bear the disgrace of being searched, he said, and implored the others to have pity on his youth, not to subject him to such an indignity. Do anything you want, he said, but do not go through my pockets. How do you like such a scoundrel? Do you think anyone listened to him?

But wait a minute, I have forgotten to tell you who this Laizer Yosl was. He was not a native of Kasrilevke; he came from the devil knows where to marry a Kasrilevke girl. Her father, the rich man of our town, had unearthed him somewhere and bragged that he had found a rare gem, a real genius, for his daughter, a man who knew by rote a thousand pages of the Talmud, who was an expert in Scriptures, a Hebraist, and a mathematician who could handle fractions and algebra, and who wielded the pen like nobody’s business—in short, a man with all seventeen talents. When his father—in—law brought him, everyone went to look at this gem, to see what kind of rare bargain the rich man had acquired. Well, if you just looked at him he was nothing special, a young man like many others, fairly good—looking, only the nose a little too long, and a pair of eyes like two glowing coals, and a mouth with a sharp tongue in it. He was examined; they made him explain a page of the Talmud, a chapter from the Bible, a passage from Rambam, this and that, and he passed the test with flying colors—the dog was at home everywhere, he knew all the answers! Reb Yosefel himself said that he could be a rabbi in any Jewish community—not to mention his vast knowledge of worldly things. Just to give you an idea, there is in our town a subtle scholar, Zeidel Reb Shaye’s son, a crazy fellow, and he doesn’t even compare with Laizer Yosl. Moreover no one in the world could equal him as a chess player. Talk about cleverness!

Needless to say, the whole town envied the rich man such a genius, although people said that the gem was not without its flaws. To begin with, he was criticized for being too clever (and what there’s too much of isn’t good), and too modest, too familiar with everyone, mingling too easily with the smallest among the smallest, whether it be a boy or a girl or even a married woman. Then he was disliked because of the way he walked around, always absorbed in thought. He would come to the synagogue after everyone else, put on his prayer shawl, his skullcap on askew—never saying a word of prayer. No one ever saw him doing anything wrong; nevertheless it was whispered that he was not a pious man—after all, no one can have all the virtues!

And so when his turn came to be searched his refusal was at once interpreted as a sign that he had the money on him. “Make me swear an oath on the Bible,” he said. “Cut me, chop me to pieces, roast me, burn me alive, anything, but don’t go through my pockets!”

At this point even our Rabbi Yosefel, though the gentlest of men, lost his temper and began to scold. “You so-and-so,” he cried, “you deserve I don’t know what! What do you think you are? You see what all these men have gone through—all of them have accepted the indignity of a search, and you want to be an exception! One of the two—either confess and give back the money, or show your pockets! Are you playing games with an entire Jewish community? I don’t know what we’ll do to you!”

In short, they took Laizer Yosl, laid him on the floor by sheer force, and began to feel him all over and shake out his pockets. And then they shook out—guess what?  Chicken bones and a dozen plum pits; everything was still fresh, the bones had recently been gnawed, and the pits were moist.  Can you imagine what a pretty sight it was, all this treasure shaken out of our genius’s pockets at the end of our fast day? You can picture for yourselves the look on their faces, he and his father—in—law, the rich man, and our poor rabbi too. Our Reb Yosefel turned away in shame; he could look no one in the face. And later, when the worshipers were on their way home, to eat after the fast, they did not stop talking about the treasure they had discovered in the young man’s pockets, and they shook with laughter. Only Reb Yosefel walked alone, with bowed head, unable to look anyone in the eyes, as though the remains of food had been shaken out of his own pockets.

The man stopped telling the story.  It was over.

“And what about the money?” we all asked in one voice.

“What money?” the man said with an uncomprehending look.

“What do you mean, what money? The eighteen hundred—”

“O—o—o—oh,” he drawled. “The eighteen hundred? Vanished without a trace.”

“Vanished?”

“Without a t—r—a—c—e.”

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