What is goodness? What kind of culture produces good people? Who knows?
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The Litvak noticed just before dawn the rabbi, who seems to have had little rest all night as he tossed and worried about things, getting up. He did what Jews do when they awaken, then pulled from his closet old rough clothes, the kind Russian peasants wore, with a thick belt. The Litvak was astonished but kept his nerve and stayed quiet. He was even more astonished when he saw the rabbi take an axe out of a kitchen cupboard and put it on his belt, but still he kept his excitement under control. He followed the rabbi out of the house and the two crept out of the village quietly, the rabbi careful, as the Litvak noticed, whenever he came to a corner or crossed a street.
They walked almost a mile out of the village, the Litvak keeping his distance, until they came to a clearing where there stood some tree stumps, broken branches, and to the Litvak’s ever-heightening stupefaction, the rabbi immediately set to chopping wood and did not stop until he had a large amount. He tied two hefty bundles with lengths of cord that he extracted from his rough peasant’s blouse and, balancing them on his shoulders, he headed back toward town. The Litvak followed.
Light was breaking and the Litvak heard, or imagined he heard, the rhythms of the selichot coming from the direction of the house of prayer. The rabbi went to a little house in one of the less prosperous parts of town, which made it poor indeed since prosperity was a very relative term in that town, and knocked at the door. When there was no answer knocked a little harder and a voice answered, Who is it?
The Litvak strained to hear from around the corner of the house where he was hiding. It was a feeble voice, woman’s voice.
It is I, said the rabbi. I? Who? It is I, Vassil, your friend.
Come in Vassil, you know the door is open. It always is. Who would steal from a sick old widow who has nothing? So the rabbi entered the little house. The Litvak waited a few moments and quietly followed, then hid behind a battered closet and observed the scene.
I have brought you some wood, Mrs. Rosen, to make a fire and warm up your home, said the rabbi.
That is kind of you, Vassil, but who has money to pay you?
Not to worry, it is only a few kopeks and you can pay me whenever you have them. And he began to busy himself in the preparation of a fire in the stove.
But my son is away trying to find work and I do not know when I will have even a few kopeks with which to pay you, Vassil, said the old woman, the widow Rosen.
By way of answer the rabbi lit the fire, swept up around the stove, stacked up the rest of the wood in a neat pile in a corner of the kitchen, and brought a loaf of bread out of the large pocket in his blouse and put it on the kitchen table. He filled a samovar with water and placed it on the stove, told the old woman to watch it carefully and make herself a cup of tea as soon as it whistled, and, with a kind smile, said he would be back soon but he must go now for he had other things to attend to. I always enjoy seeing you, Mrs. Rosen, he said, and may you feel better. He said, you believe in your powerful god, and you do not trust him to help you pay me back? Come now!
The Litvak became a disciple of the rabbi. Sometimes, in later years, when people asked him if it was true that the rabbi, in his younger years, had had the privilege of ascending to heaven during the penitential days, as legend claimed, the Litvak smiled. “If not higher,” he always said.
So, shona tova, happy new year, and mind you remember this story was written by I. L. Peretz a great writer, a Jewish writer, a Polish Jew! He lived in the 19th century. He tells it much better than I can with my lousy memory. My mother did, too.
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In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
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It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
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