Tale 2 from David-Horodok by Kathryn T. Winston

The Beggar and the Rabbi


With great reluctance Itzik the Beggar opened his eyes, may others be spared such a new day. He suffered from an aching head, a complaining belly, and eyelids so swollen it was a wonder they opened at all. "I drank too much last night," thought Itzik and felt guilty as well as sick, but only for a moment. He could outwit his conscience as easily as he did the rest of the world.

"'Ah, Itzik, such is the result of sin,' the good rabbi would sadly admonish me," mused Itzik, in his weakened condition conjuring up a rather weak opponent.

"Not the result of sin!" Itzik parried heatedly, "The wages of poverty! The difficulty of finding a parnosseh, of earning a living. Look what it drives a man to!" And because there was justice in what the beggar said, the Slonimer rov-the David-Horodok rabbi who came from the town of Slonim-left the matter.

Itzik smiled to himself. He always won battles with the rabbi, even when the good man was allowed to speak for himself. Sometimes, but not often, it bothered Itzik how easily he could coax a kopke from this man's pocket, a piece of bread from his table. There were many ways into a purse, and Itzik knew them all, but when the path led through a compassionate heart, to Itzik the contest wasn't fair. "I'm cursed with a sense of justice," the beggar mumbled as he raised himself from the bed he rented in Shlaima the Tailor's house. If the rest of David-Horodok had heard that remark, they would have died from astonishment, to a person. In Itzik, who was no stupid man, you had the prince of shnorrers, and few had the ability to resist his personality when he decided it was a family's turn to support him. None of his victims had ever associated him with justice.

Friday had just dawned, always Itzik's most lucrative day. We might have thought tzdaka would be more forthcoming on Shabbes, with God looking directly over a Jew's shoulder, but trust a beggar to know his trade. On Shabbes no one could carry money, which made shnorring even a groshchen impossible. And food was scarcer what with family and friends visiting family and friends. No-the time to ask for a little something was when things were in abundance, when preparations were underway. Itzik washed out his mouth, said his prayers-Itzik always obeyed the rituals because a respectable beggar was harder to turn down-and left to call on his regulars. He liked to be up before the competition; that way he made sure he was the one to help his favorites pile up their mitzvahs before God by giving food to the needy.

First on his list was the Slonimer rov. Considering how badly Itzik had bested him in the argument this morning, the least he could do was give the man pride of place. The Rebbizin, as usual, was up early baking challeh. Less gentle than her husband, she had no trouble screaming at Itzik the minute he stepped into the kitchen. "Why do you come here? Don't you know you shouldn't ask a rabbi for charity? We have little enough ourselves to eat!"

The commotion drew her saintly husband into the kitchen. When he saw Itzik, he sighed.

"I think you would beg food from us even on the Fast of Gedaliah." the rabbi said.

"I see no reason to fast extra for Gedaliah. I have honored him enough as it is."

"What honor have you paid this martyr?" The rabbi asked cautiously, anticipating some impiety. He was not disappointed.

"I have fasted several times a week all my life. That is more than enough honor for all the Jewish martyrs in history. Soon I will have honored them so much, God will ask them to fast in honor of me. But today I have come to help you look good in the eyes of the Lord, not me." So saying, he took one of the Rebbizin's challehs, bowed to them both and left.

Hode turned to her husband with fury in her eyes. "How can you let that man treat you so badly, may he be bitten by a thousand flies, …God forbid!" The trouble with being a good person was that Hode, although she wanted Itzik punished, didn't really want to be responsible for it. That made her doubly angry. "Of all the beggars in David-Horodok, he alone shows no respect. The others would never bother us; he badgers us EVERY Friday, and YOU LET HIM!" Hode was flying into a rage, but without doubt, Itzik had that effect on people.

"My dear, you must realize that Itzik comes here because he believes in me. The others don't." The rov shook his head yes in spite of the incredulity on her face. "He believes that because I have a kind heart I will always give him something. And that is all he believes in-my kindness-and nothing else: not God, not man, not justice. The Tsar himself does not get such honor from his whole court. Itzik is sure I won't turn him down because I'm so compassionate, but the truth is, I don't turn him down because I'm so flattered."

"You're crazy!" Hode could hardly believe what she was hearing. "That man is using you, and you are too good to know better. You make up reasons to be good. You're not safe in this world, husband! Well, Itzik will not have it all his own way as long as I am here." So saying, Hode turned her back and went on with her baking.

"I never want you to behave otherwise, Hode," the Slonimer rov replied mildly. "If Itzik ever realized that it was not goodness but vanity which motivates me, he would never come again, and he would have lost his way for good. If only he can believe in me long enough, he may find his way back to a belief in God, who made me. That would indeed be the greatest mitzvah I could do on earth, and Itzik would have made it possible."

So saying, the rabbi turned and went back to his study.


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