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!
Onceit was nothingI gave to a starving man a carrot, and he
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
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
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 herfear 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
* * * * *
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
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
* * * * *
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.