Tale 7 from David-Horodok by Kathryn T. Winston

The Sweater


Chaim Goldberg, the Nogid, sat contentedly in his stuffed armchair and watched his family bustle around him. They were making final preparations for the pidyan haben of his first grandson, the first child of his eldest son. Everything was perfect: the child, the food, the schnapps, the musicians. Even the bustling was perfect. Chaim glowed in the warmth of a life well-lived-his own.

People had been talking for weeks, saying this was more like a wedding than the usual simple ceremony. And for Chaim this occasion actually meant more than a wedding. A wedding held only promise. This was fulfillment, the continuation of his line. Chaim patted his gold watch chain, then looked at the time. He expected congratulations but hoped for a little more-maybe, in addition, a little envy. Compliments he didn't need; they would only tempt the Angel of Death to get even. But a little envy was different, and was perhaps the greatest compliment of all.

Chaim stroked his beard and grinned to himself. Today he would make an announcement that would awe his guests. Even though there had been no Jewish priests for two thousand years, Chaim would honor the custom of buying a family's first son back from priestly service to the temple, and honor it royally. There would of course be the small gift of five or ten rubles-ten rubles he thought-that he would present to the Slominer rov, a righteous Kohen descended from the tribe of priests, as was required. But then he would present a Great Gift to the Great Synagogue, a gift of lasting significance, a gift worthy of the blessings God had given to him.

The Sheyneh Yidn, the important Jews, began arriving to celebrate his triumph. First came the Slonimer rov, who had been fetched from across the river in the family's droshky. Chaim quickly sent two footmen outside to carry the holy man in so that his feet would not touch the mud, each of his legs draped over a servant's arm. Others arrived on foot or in wagons, as they could manage, but manage they did. For who would have missed today? Just seeing the house would be a treat since Chaim Goldberg was the richest man in David-Horodok. He owned the whole eastern shore of the Horin River, where he built ships that carried goods all over the Pale. And gossip about special preparations had kept the town busy for two weeks.

As the ceremony started, the chanting rose and fell. With the instincts of a born showman, Chaim let the tension build. He had dropped enough hints to seed the room with expectation beforehand. At the ceremony's conclusion, his moment arrived. He announced to the gathering that he, Chaim Goldberg, would present a new Torah to the congregation in honor of the birth of his grandson! Breathing stopped-it would cost a fortune! But what more worthy enterprise? ... a tribute for all time ... a blessing to the town ... a great and mighty mitzvah ...

"Do you agree," Chaim asked the rabbi after the other guests had left, "that such a Torah will make our synagogue the envy even of Pinsk!"

"A very worthy gift, I'm sure. But one thing puzzles me. You give this extravagant present to the shul, yet when we approach you for charity to the poor, we cannot pry so much as a groshchen out of you. Why do you think God appreciates only Torahs?"

"It has been clear to me for some time that the poor lack God's favor," Chaim shot back without a hint of apology. "If God chooses to back a man, who can stand against him? God has obviously not backed the poor; if He had they would not be poor. And if they have not earned His favor, why should they have mine?" Quibbling at this supreme moment with the rabbi about charity cases rankled Chaim. "I have no intention of discussing this further. I have never considered poverty my concern. My views on the subject are well known." The rabbi simply nodded in speculative silence.

The next week, the shtetl was abuzz with the latest news-the Slonimer rov had given Itzik the Beggar his only sweater just because the man had complained about the cold! Now the rabbi was cold instead of Itzik, yet the good rov refused a replacement. "Others need the warmth more than I do," were all the words the town could get out of him.

What were they going to do? With winter coming, the town worried endlessly about the good man's health and besieged Itzik with demands that he return the sweater. How could Itzik take advantage of the rabbi's generosity? How could Itzik endanger the life of such a holy man? How would Itzik feel if the rov died?

Itzik was unmoved. He wore the sweater everywhere, almost deliberately needling the town. The Slonimer rov remained oblivious to the commotion he was causing and went on with his studying, frequently putting his coat on as he sat inside. The sight of the rabbi through his study window, wearing a coat, inflamed the townsfolk even more. Finally they appealed to their most illustrious citizen, Chaim Goldberg. After all, a man who had so generously donated a copy of the Torah to the community could hardly watch it be deprived of its most beloved rabbi.

Chaim went to the beggar straightway and made a bargain: he bought the sweater back for two rubles and sent it to the rebbizin. However, only two weeks later the rabbi gave the sweater away again, this time to Moishe the Carpenter. Chaim was again forced to retrieve it. The third time this happened the women of the town got together and proposed to the rabbi that they knit a sweater for any needy person he spotted suffering from the cold. That way his generous instincts would not force him to give away his own clothing.

"I'm grateful for your concern," the Slonimer rov thanked them. "But before you organize this project, you had better ask Reb Goldberg whether he thinks this will solve my problem." Reb Goldberg was completely stumped. It seemed a perfect solution to him, yet the answer was so obvious, he did not like to say it. He would be mortified to make a fool of himself in front of such a learned man, but what could be wrong with knitting sweaters? To give himself time, he told the women he would think about their problem and talk to the rabbi.

The next day as he was walking to the nagid's bes midrash to study, pondering his dilemma, Chaim was accosted by Itzik the Beggar asking for a donation to Itzik's personal health and welfare fund. "You know I would never give you money, that I never have given you money. Never in the last twenty years have you begged a groschen from me. Why are you bothering me now?"

Itzik gleefully hopped from one foot to the other, laughing mischievously. "But you have so given me money, and just recently-two rubles in fact. And you gave Moshele the Carpenter two rubles and Shlaima the Tailor two. Our good rabbi has turned you into a regular benefactor of the poor, and I only wanted to help you do something more for the world." Itzik began laughing at his own wit, then started coughing, spun around, and finally danced off to a corner of the studyhouse to warm up.

Chaim remained outside, furious. A beggar, a man with no yichus at all, had just taunted him, had even implied he had become a joke. With cold anger Chaim calculated. Had the rabbi meant to make him ridiculous because he so strongly opposed charity to the poor? Had the Slonimer rov been mocking him? He could not believe it; the man was so gentle and unworldly. He had never even argued the subject.

On the other hand, Chaim's being hoodwinked by the rabbi was a credible interpretation, and Chaim knew the whole town would soon embrace it. The poor never enjoyed a joke so much as when it was at the expense of the rich. Chaim's life would become a misery. He decided grimly that he had no choice but to appear to have changed his mind. That alone would stop the tongues from wagging.

The next night in the rabbi's study Chaim trumpeted to him, "I have thought about your comments on charity, and decided I was wrong to overlook the poor. Helping them is indeed a mitzvah. I not only approve of the women's project to help the poor, but will buy the yarn myself."

For a long time the rabbi stared at the nervous man. Finally the rov commented, "It is good to learn that mitzvahs come in many sizes, Reb Goldberg, if you have indeed learned this. In Hebrew, our sacred tongue, we call God's house here in David-Horodok the Great Synagogue because we wish greatly to honor God. But the people long ago dubbed it in Yiddish di kalte shul, the cold synagogue, because we cannot heat it. A few weeks ago you honored God by making the Great Synagogue greater. Today you honor Him no less by making di kalte shul less cold for those who worship there."

Chaim Goldberg bowed himself out and said good-bye. Then he sulked the entire distance home in his droshky, trying to understand how his perfect life had suddenly become so disrupted.



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