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As Told by the Rabbi by Jacob A. Riis

 

Three stories have come to me out of the past for which I would make friends in the present. The first I have from a rabbi of our own day whom I met last winter in the far Southwest. The other two were drawn from the wisdom of the old rabbis that is as replete with human contradiction as the strange people of whose life it was, and is, a part. If they help us to understand how near we live to one another, after all, it is well. Without other comment, I shall leave each reader to make his own application of them.

       * * * * *

This was the story my friend the Arkansas rabbi told. It is from the folk-lore of Russia:

A woman who had lain in torment a thousand years lifted her face toward heaven and cried to the Lord to set her free, for she could endure it no longer. And he looked down and said: “Can you remember one thing you did for a human being without reward in your earth life?”

The woman groaned in bitter anguish, for she had lived in selfish ease; the neighbor had been nothing to her.

“Was there not one? Think well!”

“Once—it was nothing—I gave to a starving man a carrot, and he thanked me.”

“Bring, then, the carrot. Where is it?”

“It is long since, Lord,” she sobbed, “and it is lost.”

“Not so; witness of the one unselfish deed of your life, it could not perish. Go,” said the Lord to an angel, “find the carrot and bring it here.”

The angel brought the carrot and held it over the bottomless pit, letting it down till it was within reach of the woman. “Cling to it,” he said. She did as she was bidden, and found herself rising out of her misery.

Now, when the other souls in torment saw her drawn upward, they seized her hands, her waist, her feet, her garments, and clung to them with despairing cries, so that there rose out of the pit an ever-lengthening chain of writhing, wailing humanity clinging to the frail root. Higher and higher it rose till it was half-way to heaven, and still its burden grew. The woman looked down, and fear and anger seized her—fear that the carrot would break, and anger at the meddling of those strangers who put her in peril. She struggled, and beat with hands and feet upon those below her.

“Let go,” she cried; “it is my carrot.”

The words were hardly out of her mouth before the carrot broke, and she fell, with them all, back into torment, and the pit swallowed them up.

       * * * * *

In a little German town the pious Rabbi Jisroel Isserlheim is deep in the study of the sacred writings, when of a sudden the Messiah stands before him. The time of trial of his people is past, so runs his message; that very evening he will come, and their sufferings will be over. He prays that his host will summon a carriage in which he may make his entry into town. Trembling with pride and joy, the rabbi falls at his feet and worships. But in the very act of rising doubts assail him.

“Thou temptest me, Master!” he exclaims; “it is written that the Messiah shall come riding upon an ass.”

“Be it so. Send thou for the ass.” But in all the countryside far and near no ass is to be found; the rabbi knows it. The Messiah waits.

“Do you not see that you are barring the way with your scruples to the salvation you long for? The sun is far in the west; do not let it set, for if this day pass, the Jews must suffer for untold ages to come. Would you set an ass between me and the salvation of my people?”

The man stands irresolute. “Ten minutes, and I must go,” urges his visitor. But at last the rabbi has seen his duty clear.

“No Messiah without the ass,” he cries; and the Messiah goes on his way.

       * * * * *

Once, so runs the legend, there lived in far Judean hills two affectionate brothers, tilling a common field together. One had a wife and a houseful of children; the other was a lonely man. One night in the harvest time the older brother said to his wife: “My brother is a lonely man. I will go out and move some of the sheaves from my side of the field over on his, so that when he sees them in the morning his heart will be cheered by the abundance.” And he did.

That same night the other brother said to his workmen: “My brother has a houseful and many mouths to fill. I am alone, and do not need all this wealth. I will go and move some of my sheaves over on his field, so that he shall rejoice in the morning when he sees how great is his store.” And he did. They did it that night and the next, in the sheltering dark. But on the third night the moon came out as they met face to face, each with his arms filled with sheaves. On that spot, says the legend, was built the Temple of Jerusalem, for it was esteemed that there earth came nearest heaven.

 
 
 

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