Thursday, February 21, 2008

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The Novice and the Miser

When Rabbi David Schochet of Toronto picked up the envelope from Buffalo and read the letter inside, he was taken aback. He was used to being asked to address Jewish audiences all over the continent, but this invitation was something different. This organization wanted him to speak before an "inter-faith" audience of both Jewish and non-Jewish students. He felt uncomfortable about it. How was he to speak about practical mitzvos such as Shabbos and kashrus to large numbers of non-Jews? His Buffalo contacts shrugged off his doubts. They insisted that lots of Jews would be in attendance and much could be accomplished.

Feeling unclear about how to respond, Rabbi Schochet decided to consult with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zs'kl. He telephoned to Chabad world headquarters in Brooklyn and explained his dilemma to one of the Rebbe's secretaries. An answer was soon forthcoming. The Rebbe recommended that he accept the invitation, and prepare to speak on a topic applicable to non-Jews also, such as tzedakah, for the Torah portion of that week, Re'ey, included the verse [Deut. 15:8], "You shall surely open your hands to him...."

When the date came, Rabbi Schochet crossed the border. Since it was a night engagement, his hosts provided him with a hotel room. He checked in, rested for awhile, and reviewed his notes. When he entered the auditorium, two sights immediately surprised him: the audience was much larger than he expected, and among the people gathered there was a group of young novice priests, easily distinguishable by their collars. Again, Rabbi Schochet felt apprehensive but, recalling the Rebbe's advice and blessing, his confidence returned. During his lecture, he related a now-famous incident that had occurred in the mid 1600's in Cracow. In brief:

A certain wealthy man was scorned by the Jewish community because of his notorious stinginess. They called him "Shiya the miser." He never contributed to any charitable appeal. When he died, it was decided to bury him in an unprestigious corner of the cemetery and inscribe on his tombstone, "Shiya the miser."

In the ensuing weeks, the esteemed rabbi of the city, R. Yomtov Lippman Heller, author of "Tosefos Yomtov," noticed a dramatic increase in the number of poor Jews seeking his help to purchase their Shabbos needs. He referred them to various funds for needy families, but they told him that the treasurers of those funds insisted no money was available. How could it be that so many different funds had simultaneously become depleted? He investigated. It turned out the so-called miser had been single-handedly supporting every one of those funds- secretly-and for years!

Shocked, the rabbi immediately instructed that all Cracow Jewry gather the next evening at the central synagogue to ask forgiveness of Reb Shiya for their disrespectful treatment of him. He also gave instructions that when he himself passed away, he should be buried next to Shiya. In this way, when people came to visit his gravesite they would also be paying respect to the person who had made the great mitzvah of giving charity anonymously for so many years, at the expense of his own reputation and social life. He also had the tombstone inscription changed to read, "Shiya the holy miser."

The talk was very well received. One of the young priests even came up to talk to him afterwards. He thanked the Rabbi profusely for his lecture, and then asked him to please repeat the story. Rabbi Schochet didn't feel so comfortable speaking at length with a priest in public, so he invited him to drop by his hotel room.

Later that evening, the rabbi answered the quiet knock at the door. He welcomed the priest in, offered him a comfortable seat, and repeated the story that so interested the young man. His listener concentrated intensely. After, he sat quietly for a moment and then asked the rabbi to please do him the kindness of telling the story just one more time; he wanted to be sure that he was retaining all the details.

Rabbi Schochet was startled by this unexpected request. The whole situation was becoming bizarre. Perhaps his 'guest' wasn't quite normal?

Nevertheless, he told the story for a third time, and again noticed that the young man was listening with rapt attention and great concentration. This time, he asked the rabbi a number of questions about the Tosefos YomTov: who was he, when was he, what other books did he write, and so forth. Some of his questions Rabbi Schochet was able to answer, and some not.

Finally, the novice thanked him profusely, mumbling several times about how important it was to him to have heard this story. By now the rabbi was more than half convinced that the man in the room with him was out of his mind. And yet, he also felt somewhat drawn to him. A light shone in his eyes, as well as a sadness that bespoke some sort of inner conflict, but not abnormality.

He escorted his guest to the door, still wondering. For a long time the unsolved riddle of this strange encounter gnawed at him, but eventually he let the memory slide away.

* * *
Fifteen years later, Rabbi Schochet had the opportunity to go to the Holy Land for a visit. One day, when he was at the Western Wall, a man came up to him and said "Sholom Aleichem." Rabbi Schochet wasn't sure how to react. It wasn't anyone he knew. Was he seeking tzedakah? As he reached towards his pocket the man suddenly grabbed his hand and shook it heartily, insisting that they knew each other. The rabbi stared at him and racked his memory, but still had no idea who he was. Perhaps he had mistaken him for someone else?

When Rabbi Schochet suggested that to him, he laughed. "Do you remember that time in Buffalo fifteen years ago that you spoke to an audience of Jews and non-Jews about tzedakah?"

"Yes," he replied. "So?"

"And you told a story about a miserly rich man in Cracow, remember?"

The rabbi nodded affirmatively, flashing back to that strange episode in the hotel room.

"Well," the man said with a huge smile, "I am that young priest who kept asking you to repeat the story!"

Rabbi Schochet couldn't believe it. Standing in front of him at the Western Wall was an obviously observant Jew. He was flabbergasted and virtually speechless. "But, but...."

The man cheerfully related his whole story.

"When my parents migrated to the United States, they concealed their Jewish identity and raised me as a non-Jew. They even sent me to a seminary for priests when I became old enough.
"My mother passed away while I was still in that school. Before she died, she told me the secret of her identity and that therefore I was really Jewish. I can't begin to tell you how shocked I was. She also told me that story about the miser who was buried next to a great rabbi, and said that the "stingy" rich man of the story was her ancestor! She did not, however, remember the name of the rabbi.

"When you told the story that night, it reminded me of what my mother told me on her deathbed. But you knew so many more details. I was fascinated. I felt I needed to know and retain as much as I possibly could. That's why I kept asking you to repeat it.

"Afterwards, thoughts of my lineage allowed me no rest. I started to investigate Judaism and became captivated. Finally I made the decision to return to my people. I came to Israel and studied for a long time in a yeshiva. Now I am married with a wonderful Jewish family and fully committed to the Torah way of life."

Rabbi Schochet listened, spellbound. He thanked his "old friend" for recognizing him and initiating the conversation. He couldn't stop marveling at the intricacies of Divine Providence, and that at last, after all these years, he could begin to understand the profound effect of the Rebbe's unusual advice.

[Adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from Lekket Sipurim.]

Biographical note:
R. Yomtov Lippman Heller, zs'kl, [1579-1654], is known as the "Tosefos Yomtov," after his major commentary on the Mishna, the most famous of his many scholarly works. As a young man, he studied in Prague under the Maharal and subsequently under Rabbi Eliyahu Baal Shem, a predecessor of the Baal Shem Tov. In Cracow, he succeeded Rabbi Yoel Sirkis, the "Bach" as chief rabbi, and Yaakov Yehoshua, the P'nei Yehoshua, as rosh yeshiva.

Editor's note:
This story is sometimes told in the name of other contemporary rabbis. Rabbi Schochet has confirmed the details.

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