Special Report

If Not Higher

What is goodness? What kind of culture produces good people? Who knows?

By 9.17.12

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The story is told of a rabbi who, during the penitential prayers, disappeared. Imagine that! Our rabbi disappeared during Selichot, the penitential prayers recited before Rosh Hashannah and during the 10 Days of Awe. What do I know? I am nothing but a 'am ha-aretz (uneducated) and I am not versed in anything, but follow along, as best I can -- at least they appreciate it when they need an extra man for the minyan, then they do not even bother to remind me to speak the prayers louder and pronounce them a little better! Oh well, I can hardly reproach them, I should have studied more.

So, this rabbi, disappeared. But his congregation, a congregation I am sure full of ignoramuses like me, had an explanation. They loved their rabbi, you understand, and they would not have him doing anything untoward during the penitential prayers so they said, Why, of course we know where he is, he is up in heaven conversing with the Almighty because, man, we need somebody up there for the plea-bargain. These days, these awesome days, when the book of life is opened and everyone is judged, we know we need the plea bargain because none of us, not one, is without sin. Do you think one of us is without sin? And do you think G-d gives us credit for the Cossacks and the czar's tax collectors and the others who make our lives so difficult -- do you think he thinks that's paying enough for our sins? Trifles, gestures -- even 20-year forced conscription for our boys, which most of them never return from, he would say, what makes you think you deserve a better break than anyone else? So the rabbi is up there, interceding, begging to stay the hand that would mete out the really serious punishment.

The really serious punishment. I always wondered about that. I wondered when I first heard the story, my mother told it, and I was too small to know anything about anything. And later, when I was older and knew a little though never enough, I figured that since the serious punishment had come down, what more was there to say? You could ask -- what did we do to deserve this? You could not answer that, so you could ask -- it could not happen again, could it? And as I got older I decided, no it could not. It could not because we had got strong enough to parry. Then as I got older I realized, Wait a moment -- no one is strong enough if it is written that it must happen. I remembered the story then and I thought, older and supposedly wiser though I was, well, maybe we do need a rabbi like that, one who goes upstairs and makes the plea bargain.

Now there was a Litvak visiting the little town in which the rabbi disappeared during the penitential days and Litvaks are curious by nature. Curious scheming more-smart-than-anybody, the Litvaks. Litvaks, you understand, are Lithuanians. And they like to rub it in, too, show you how much more they know than you know and how little you know. The Litvak decided he would find out just what the rabbi was up to and he would expose it, he would show them it was not possible for the rabbi to be in heaven during the penitential days, even Moses had not had such a privilege. He figured he would find out where he really went.

He sneaked into the rabbi's house at nightfall just before he returned after a long day of teaching, and hid under the bed. That way he would know exactly when the rabbi arose, before dawn it had to be, and he could follow him.

Curiosity! Always curiosity. It goes in all directions. Some directions are more interesting, or more valuable, or more valued -- how do we determine which? -- than others. But you do notice this about curiosity, about wanting to know: There is curiosity that is malevolent, and there is curiosity that is beneficial. There are other kinds of curiosity too, I am sure. And it is quite possible sometimes the curious person does not know which is which. To be curious about the likely value of a stock is beneficial. The person's curiosity may be motivated by what we call greed -- which as often as not is the envious or stupid person's way of defining the urge to earn a living and take good care of his family. But even if it were greed, it would be beneficial, to the degree that active participation in the stock market is part of what makes work a system that keeps things going, world-economy wise. This is a very general way of putting things but you know what I mean.

When you have a curious mind, a mind inclined toward making things work (for you personally or for your family or, if you are one of these idealistic types, for all mankind), you generally invest. You put money into -- you know, investments. Because nothing happens unless it is nurtured. You invest in your company. You invest in stocks. You give money, a form of investment, to schools. You know, for example, that it takes a lot of investment, not only money, to make a doctor. You have to invest to become a doctor. Years and years of hard work on your part, and money on the part of those who pay for your training, build hospitals, schools.

A society that invests to makes doctors has an advantage over others. It may or may not put that advantage to good use, that is another issue, but as a broad proposition, I would say it puts it to good uses.

In Israel there is state-of-the-art medicine. Israel was an extremely poor country just 60, even 50 years ago. Even 40 years ago it was still by some definitions a "third world" country. Lod Airport, for example, bush airport, much improved now. Air conditioning, such as it was (or was not). Very few Israelis had any money by first-world standards. It was a society, however, that managed to find ways of investing in doctors. In the facilities that train doctors and, already, in the ways they could make themselves useful not only to their patients at home but wherever they were needed, allowing of course for being able to reach them.

Israeli doctors went everywhere they could to be of assistance to people who needed doctors. Over the years and decades, as Israeli medicine and medical education and education in general got better and better, they went to many downtrodden third world countries, Haiti for example. Places in Africa, even in the first world. (New Orleans, Louisiana, after the hurricane disaster.)

And though it is little known, Israeli doctors take care of their neighbors, notably the Palestinian Arabs, who are Muslim. They take care of them in their hospitals, I mean in Israeli hospitals. These are far superior to Palestinian hospitals, despite the billions of American dollars that over the years, channeled through USAID and the UN High Commissioner, have lifted the wretched Palestinians from poverty. It is inexplicable why some of these vast sums of money have not produced more doctors and more hospitals with state-of-the-art equipment.

That is to say, it is inexplicable in terms readily grasped by the Western mind. Why, from the billions of dollars the Libyan state earned from the sale of hydrocarbons and natural gas, have Libyan schools not produced more doctors? There are scarcely more than five million Libyans, so it is not as if it would be a huge sum to invest, to give every Libyan child a decent education and maybe even the aspiration of becoming a surgeon, pediatrician, you know -- sports medicine or something. So not everyone has a mind for chemistry, biology. How about a violinist? How many violinists have been produced by the lavishly funded Palestinian government (your tax dollars at work) or the Libyan school system?

Cultural generalizations are risky. They can be viewed as mean-spirited. As a new year begins -- 5733 since creation, and counting -- and we enter the Days of Awe, one feels a certain qualm about saying anything that might seem not humble or high-minded, though of course it is difficult to be humble when you are calling attention to how humble you are. Anyway, I will refrain from comparing the number of Nobel Prize winners produced by the state of Israel and the number produced by its combined enemies, and that includes, in these strange times we are living through, a number of countries that would not have the nerve to admit what their policies, their diplomatic, political, cultural, call it what you will, policies, toward Israel amount to.

A culture that produces doctors who do not think twice about letting their neighbors into their hospital wards, though these same neighbors may well be watching programs on TV, reading articles in newspapers, that could have been imagined by the editors of the Nazi state's most hateful anti-Semitic media (newsreel and newspaper, mainly, back then).

And a culture whose young men, instead of aspiring to medical school, kill American diplomats who have been trying to help them. Burn down their consular buildings.

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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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.