Literary and Classical Culture
Or How the Rav of Pumpian Tried To Solve A Social Problem
writer: REUBEN ASHER BRAUDES
Pumpian is a little town in Lithuania, a Jewish town. It lies far away from the highway, among villages reached by the Polish Road. The inhabitants of Pumpian are poor people, who get a scanty living from the peasants that come into the town to make purchases, or else the Jews go out to them with great bundles on their shoulders and sell them every sort of small ware, in return for a little corn, or potatoes, etc. Strangers, passing through, are seldom seen there, and if by any chance a strange person arrives, it is a great wonder and rarity. People peep at him through all the little windows, elderly men venture out to bid him welcome, while boys and youths hang about in the street and stare at him. The women and girls blush and glance at him sideways, and he is the one subject of conversation: "Who can that be? People don't just set off and come like that—there must be something behind it." And in the house-of-study, between Afternoon and Evening Prayer, they gather closely round the elder men, who have been to greet the stranger, to find out who and what the latter may be.
Fifty or sixty years ago, when what I am about to tell you happened, communication between Pumpian and the rest of the world was very restricted indeed: there were as yet no railways, there was no telegraph, the postal service was slow and intermittent. People came and went less often, a journey was a great undertaking, and there were not many outsiders to be found even in the larger towns. Every town was a town to itself, apart, and Pumpian constituted a little world of its own, which had nothing to do with the world at large, and lived its own life.
Neither were there so many newspapers then, anywhere, to muddle people's heads every day of the week, stirring up questions, so that people should have something to talk about, and the Jews had no papers of their own at all, and only heard "news" and "what was going on in the world" in the house-of-study or (lehavdil!) in the bath-house. And what sort of news was it then? What sort could it be? World-stirring questions hardly existed (certainly Pumpian was ignorant of them): politics, economics, statistics, capital, social problems, all these words, now on the lips of every boy and girl, were then all but unknown even in the great world, let alone among us Jews, and let alone to Reb Nochumtzi, the Pumpian Rav!
And yet Reb Nochumtzi had a certain amount of worldly wisdom of his own.
Reb Nochumtzi was a native of Pumpian, and had inherited his position there from his father. He had been an only son, made much of by his parents (hence the pet name Nochumtzi clinging to him even in his old age), and never let out of their sight. When he had grown up, they connected him by marriage with the tenant of an estate not far from the town, but his father would not hear of his going there "auf Köst," as the custom is. "I cannot be parted from my Nochumtzi even for a minute," explained the old Rav, "I cannot bear him out of my sight. Besides, we study together." And, in point of fact, they did study together day and night. It was evident that the Rav was determined his Nochumtzi should become Rav in Pumpian after his death—and so he became.
He had been Rav some years in the little town, receiving the same five Polish gulden a week salary as his father (on whom be peace!), and he sat and studied and thought. He had nothing much to do in the way of exercising authority: the town was very quiet, the people orderly, there were no quarrels, and it was seldom that parties went "to law" with one another before the Rav; still less often was there a ritual question to settle: the folk were poor, there was no meat cooked in a Jewish house from one Friday to another, when one must have a bit of meat in honor of Sabbath. Fish was a rarity, and in summer time people often had a "milky Sabbath," as well as a milky week. How should there be "questions"? So he sat and studied and thought, and he was very fond indeed of thinking about the world!
It is true that he sat all day in his room, that he had never in all his life been so much as "four ells" outside the town, that it had never so much as occurred to him to drive about a little in any direction, for, after all, whither should he drive? And why drive anywhither? And yet he knew the world, like any other learned man, a disciple of the wise. Everything is in the Torah, and out of the Torah, out of the Gemoreh, and out of all the other sacred books, Reb Nochumtzi had learned to know the world also. He knew that "Reuben's ox gores Simeon's cow," that "a spark from a smith's hammer can burn a wagon-load of hay," that "Reb Eliezer ben Charsum had a thousand towns on land and a thousand ships on the sea." Ha, that was a fortune! He must have been nearly as rich as Rothschild (they knew about Rothschild even in Pumpian!). "Yes, he was a rich Tano and no mistake!" he reflected, and was straightway sunk in the consideration of the subject of rich and poor.
He knew from the holy books that to be rich is a pure misfortune. King Solomon, who was certainly a great sage, prayed to God: Resh wo-Osher al-titten li!—"Give me neither poverty nor riches!" He said that "riches are stored to the hurt of their owner," and in the holy Gemoreh there is a passage which says, "Poverty becomes a Jew as scarlet reins become a white horse," and once a sage had been in Heaven for a short time and had come back again, and he said that he had seen poor people there occupying the principal seats in the Garden of Eden, and the rich pushed right away, back into a corner by the door. And as for the books of exhortation, there are things written that make you shudder in every limb. The punishments meted out to the rich by God in that world, the world of truth, are no joke. For what bit of merit they have, God rewards them in this poor world, the world of vanity, while yonder, in the world of truth, they arrive stript and naked, without so much as a taste of Kingdom-come!
"Consequently, the question is," thought Reb Nochumtzi, "why should they, the rich, want to keep this misfortune? Of what use is this misfortune to them? Who so mad as to take such a piece of misfortune into his house and keep it there? How can anyone take the world-to-come in both hands and lose it for the sake of such vanities?"
He thought and thought, and thought it over again:
"What is a poor creature to do when God sends him the misfortune of riches? He would certainly wish to get rid of them, only who would take his misfortune to please him? Who would free another from a curse and take it upon himself?
"But, after all ... ha?" the Evil Spirit muttered inside him.
"What a fool you are!" thought Reb Nochumtzi again. "If" (and he described a half-circle downward in the air with his thumb), "if troubles come to us, such as an illness (may the Merciful protect us!), or some other misfortune of the kind, it is expressly stated in the Sacred Writings that it is an expiation for sin, a torment sent into the world, so that we may be purified by it, and made fit to go straight to Paradise. And because it is God who afflicts men with these things, we cannot give them away to anyone else, but have to bear with them. Now, such a misfortune as being rich, which is also a visitation of God, must certainly be borne with like the rest.
"And, besides," he reflected further, "the fool who would take the misfortune to himself, doesn't exist! What healthy man in his senses would get into a sick-bed?"
He began to feel very sorry for Reb Eliezer ben Charsum with his thousand towns and his thousand ships. "To think that such a saint, such a Tano, one of the authors of the holy Mishnah, should incur such a severe punishment!
"But he stood the trial! Despite this great misfortune, he remained a saint and a Tano to the end, and the holy Gemoreh says particularly that he thereby put to shame all the rich people, who go straight to Gehenna."
Thus Reb Nochumtzi, the Pumpian Rav, sat over the Talmud and reflected continually on the problem of great riches. He knew the world through the Holy Scriptures, and was persuaded that riches were a terrible misfortune, which had to be borne, because no one would consent to taking it from another, and bearing it for him.
Again many years passed, and Reb Nochumtzi gradually came to see that poverty also is a misfortune, and out of his own experience.
His Sabbath cloak began to look threadbare (the weekday one was already patched on every side), he had six little children living, one or two of the girls were grown up, and it was time to think of settling them, and they hadn't a frock fit to put on. The five Polish gulden a week salary was not enough to keep them in bread, and the wife, poor thing, wept the whole day through: "Well, there, ich wie ich, it isn't for myself—but the poor children are naked and barefoot."
At last they were even short of bread.
"Nochumtzi! Why don't you speak?" exclaimed his wife with tears in her eyes. "Nochumtzi, can't you hear me? I tell you, we're starving! The children are skin and bone, they haven't a shirt to their back, they can hardly keep body and soul together. Think of a way out of it, invent something to help us!"
And Reb Nochumtzi sat and considered.
He was considering the other misfortune—poverty.
"It is equally a misfortune to be really very poor."
And this also he found stated in the Holy Scriptures.
It was King Solomon, the famous sage, who prayed as well: Resh wo-Osher al-titten li, that is, "Give me neither poverty nor riches." Aha! poverty is no advantage, either, and what does the holy Gemoreh say but "Poverty diverts a man from the way of God"? In fact, there is a second misfortune in the world, and one he knows very well, one with which he has a practical, working acquaintance, he and his wife and his children.
And Reb Nochum pursued his train of thought:
"So there are two contrary misfortunes in the world: this way it's bad, and that way it's bitter! Is there really no remedy? Can no one suggest any help?"
And Reb Nochumtzi began to pace the room up and down, lost in thought, bending his whole mind to the subject. A whole flight of Bible texts went through his head, a quantity of quotations from the Gemoreh, hundreds of stories and anecdotes from the "Fountain of Jacob," the Midrash, and other books, telling of rich and poor, fortunate and unfortunate people, till his head went round with them all as he thought. Suddenly he stood still in the middle of the room, and began talking to himself:
"Aha! Perhaps I've discovered a plan after all! And a good plan, too, upon my word it is! Once more: it is quite certain that there will always be more poor than rich—lots more! Well, and it's quite certain that every rich man would like to be rid of his misfortune, only that there is no one willing to take it from him—no one, not any one, of course not. Nobody would be so mad. But we have to find out a way by which lots and lots of people should rid him of his misfortune little by little. What do you say to that? Once more: that means that we must take his unfortunate riches and divide them among a quantity of poor! That will be a good thing for both parties: he will be easily rid of his great misfortune, and they would be helped, too, and the petition of King Solomon would be established, when he said, 'Give me neither poverty nor riches.' It would come true of them all, there would be no riches and no poverty. Ha? What do you think of it? Isn't it really and truly an excellent idea?"
Reb Nochumtzi was quite astonished himself at the plan he had invented, cold perspiration ran down his face, his eyes shone brighter, a happy smile played on his lips. "That's the thing to do!" he explained aloud, sat down by the table, blew his nose, wiped his face, and felt very glad.
"There is only one difficulty about it," occurred to him, when he had quieted down a little from his excitement, "one thing that doesn't fit in. It says particularly in the Torah that there will always be poor people among the Jews, 'the poor shall not cease out of the land.' There must always be poor, and this would make an end of them altogether! Besides, the precept concerning charity would, Heaven forbid, be annulled, the precept which God, blessed is He, wrote in the Torah, and which the holy Gemoreh and all the other holy books make so much of. What is to become of the whole treatise on charity in the Shulchan Aruch? How can we continue to fulfil it?"
But a good head is never at a loss! Reb Nochumtzi soon found a way out of the difficulty.
"Never mind!" and he wrinkled his forehead, and pondered on. "There is no fear! Who said that even the whole of the money in the possession of a few unfortunate rich men will be enough to go round? That there will be just enough to help all the Jewish poor? No fear, there will be enough poor left for the exercise of charity. Ai wos? There is another thing: to whom shall be given and to whom not? Ha, that's a detail, too. Of course, one would begin with the learned and the poor scholars and sages, who have to live on the Torah and on Divine Service. The people can just be left to go on as it is. No fear, but it will be all right!"
At last the plan was ready. Reb Nochumtzi thought it over once more, very carefully, found it complete from every point of view, and gave himself up to a feeling of satisfaction and delight.
"Dvoireh!" he called to his wife, "Dvoireh, don't cry! Please God, it will be all right, quite all right. I've thought out a plan.... A little patience, and it will all come right!"
"Whatever? What sort of plan?"
"There, there, wait and see and hold your tongue! No woman's brain could take it in. You leave it to me, it will be all right!"
And Reb Nochumtzi reflected further:
"Yes, the plan is a good one. Only, how is it to be carried out? With whom am I to begin?"
And he thought of all the householders in Pumpian, but—there was not one single unfortunate man among them! That is, not one of them had money, a real lot of money; there was nobody with whom to discuss his invention to any purpose.
"If so, I shall have to drive to one of the large towns!"
And one Sabbath the beadle gave out in the house-of-study that the Rav begged them all to be present that evening at a convocation.
At the said convocation the Rav unfolded his whole plan to the people, and placed before them the happiness that would result for the whole world, if it were to be realized. But first of all he must journey to a large town, in which there were a great many unfortunate rich people, preferably Wilna, and he demanded of his flock that they should furnish him with the necessary means for getting there.
The audience did not take long to reflect, they agreed to the Rav's proposal, collected a few rubles (for who would not give their last farthing for such an important object?), and on Sunday morning early they hired him a peasant's cart and horse—and the Rav drove away to Wilna.
The Rav passed the drive marshalling his arguments, settling on what he should say, and how he should explain himself, and he was delighted to see how, the more deeply he pondered his plan, the more he thought it out, the more efficient and appropriate it appeared, and the clearer he saw what happiness it would bestow on men all the world over.
The small cart arrived at Wilna.
"Whither are we to drive?" asked the peasant.
"Whither? To a Jew," answered the Rav. "For where is the Jew who will not give me a night's lodging?"
"And I, with my cart and horse?"
The Rav sat perplexed, but a Jew passing by heard the conversation, and explained to him that Wilna is not Pumpian, and that they would have to drive to a post-house, or an inn.
"Be it so!" said the Rav, and the Jew gave him the address of a place to which they should drive.
Wilna! It is certainly not the same thing as Pumpian. Now, for the first time in his life, the Rav saw whole streets of tall houses, of two and three stories, all as it were under one roof, and how fine they are, thought he, with their decorated exteriors!
"Oi, there live the unfortunate people!" said Reb Nochumtzi to himself. "I never saw anything like them before! How can they bear such a misfortune? I shall come to them as an angel of deliverance!"
He had made up his mind to go to the principal Jewish citizen in Wilna, only he must be a good scholar, so as to understand what Reb Nochumtzi had to say to him.
They advised him to go to the president of the Congregation.
Every street along which he passed astonished him separately, the houses, the pavements, the droshkis and carriages, and especially the people, so beautifully got up with gold watch-chains and rings—he was quite bewildered, so that he was afraid he might lose his senses, and forget all his arguments and his reasonings.
At last he arrived at the president's house.
"He lives on the first floor." Another surprise! Reb Nochumtzi was unused to stairs. There was no storied house in all Pumpian! But when you must, you must! One way and another he managed to arrive at the first-floor landing, where he opened the door, and said, all in one breath:
"I am the Pumpian Rav, and have something to say to the president."
The president, a handsome old man, very busy just then with some merchants who had come on business, stood up, greeted him politely, and opening the door of the reception-room said to him:
"Please, Rabbi, come in here and wait a little. I shall soon have finished, and then I will come to you here."
Expensive furniture, large mirrors, pictures, softly upholstered chairs, tables, cupboards with shelves full of great silver candlesticks, cups, knives and forks, a beautiful lamp, and many other small objects, all of solid silver, wardrobes with carving in different designs; then, painted walls, a great silver chandelier decorated with cut glass, fascinating to behold! Reb Nochumtzi actually had tears in his eyes, "To think of anyone's being so unfortunate—and to have to bear it!"
"What can I do for you, Pumpian Rav?" inquired the president.
And Reb Nochumtzi, overcome by amazement and enthusiasm, nearly shouted:
"You are so unfortunate!"
The president stared at him, shrugged his shoulders, and was silent.
Then Reb Nochumtzi laid his whole plan before him, the object of his coming.
"I will be frank with you," he said in concluding his long speech, "I had no idea of the extent of the misfortune! To the rescue, men, save yourselves! Take it to heart, think of what it means to have houses like these, and all these riches—it is a most terrible misfortune! Now I see what a reform of the whole world my plan amounts to, what deliverance it will bring to all men!"
The president looked him straight in the face: he saw the man was not mad, but that he had the limited horizon of one born and bred in a small provincial town and in the atmosphere of the house-of-study.
He also saw that it would be impossible to convince him by proofs that his idea was a mistaken one; for a little while he pitied him in silence, then he hit upon an expedient, and said:
"You are quite right, Rabbi! Your plan is really a very good one. But I am only one of many, Wilna is full of such unfortunate people. Everyone of them must be talked to, and have the thing explained to him. Then, the other party must be spoken to as well, I mean the poor people, so that they shall be willing to take their share of the misfortune. That's not such an easy matter as giving a thing away and getting rid of it."
"Of course, of course...." agreed Reb Nochumtzi.
"Look here, Rav of Pumpian, I will undertake the more difficult part—let us work together! You shall persuade the rich to give away their misfortune, and I will persuade the poor to take it! Your share of the work will be the easier, because, after all, everybody wants to be rid of his misfortune. Do your part, and as soon as you have finished with the rich, I will arrange for you to be met half-way by the poor...."
History does not tell how far the Rav of Pumpian succeeded in Wilna. Only this much is certain, the president never saw him again.