Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Miracle of the Mahn - Then and Now

The Midrash tells us:

דבר יום ביומו מי שברא יום ברא פרנסתו מכאן היה ר' אלעזר המודעי אומר כל מי שיש לו מה יאכל היום ואומר מה אוכל למחר הרי זה מחוסרי אמנה שנאמר למען אנסנו הילך בתורתי אם לא

Dvar yom b'yomo - He who created "day" likewise created [each man's] livelihood. From here Rabi Eliezer HaModai would say, "Any one who has what to eat today and asks 'What will I eat tomorrow?' is from those who lack belief, as it is written, 'So that I may test them to see if they go in the way of my Torah or not.'"
ר' יהושע אומר שונה אדם שתי הלכות בשחרית ושתים בערבית ועוסק במלאכתו כל היום מעלין עליו כאלו קיים כל התורה כולה מכאן היה ר' שמעון בן יוחאי אומר לא נתנה תורה לדרוש אלא לאוכלי המן הא כיצד היה יושב ודורש ולא היה יודע מהיכן אוכל ושותה ומהיכן היה לובש ומכסה לא נתנה תורה לדרוש אלא לאוכלי המן

Rabi Yehoshua says, "A person can merely review two Halachot each morning and two each evening and engage in his crafts all day long and it can be considered as if he sustained the entire Torah."

From here Rabi Shimon ben Yochai would say, "The Torah was only allowed to be expounded by those who subsist on the mahn (i.e., those who do not need to be distracted by their personal necessities). How is this applied? Can one sit and expound while he [is concerned that he] does not know from where he will he will eat and drink and from where he will dress and cover? (I.e., such a person cannot have a clear mind to expound in Torah.) [But, in truth,] the Torah was only allowed to be expounded by those who subsist on the mahn."

Who are the אוכלי המן of today?

To answer this question, I am going to post the story of Perl the Peanut-Woman.

This story comes from a book that I found laying around my house when I was a kid. I say that it was found laying around the house meaning that I had no idea it was there until I chanced across it. Nobody ever read to me or my siblings out of the book and nobody ever mentioned that the book exists or referred to anything that it says. My siblings did not know about it, either. I have no idea how it even got into our house as it certainly was not bought new. I just happened to come across it sitting on some shelf one day and I opened it up and couldn't close it. And I have saved it as a treasure.

The book is a collection of very inspiring childrens' stories about G-d fearing Jews who were quite ordinary and quite extraordinary at the same time. Each story bespoke how these people displayed enormous courage and strength of character in the most adverse of circumstances. I have never stopped wondering if these stories are based on actual people but, as Moshe Yess says about his Zaidy character, it is certainly "partly about my bubby and zaidy and partly about yours".

The title of the book is Kasriel the Watchman and Other Stories. It was written in English in the early part of the 20th century by a man who called himself Rufus Learsi. Rufus Learsi is backward for Israel Sufur (Sofer?) but I discovered that his real name was Israel Goldberg. He was a historian and an ardent Zionist. It is difficult to determine from his later writings to what extent he was observant of Torah and Mitzvos but one thing is certain - he had a full-scale "chareidi" education.

The book tells tales about a number of characters including Kasriel the Watchman, Feivel the Fiddler, Jakie and Ruby, and Perl the Peanut-Woman. Perl was an elderly widow who had immigrated to America after the death of her husband and was spending her waning years living alone in a boarding house on the Lower East Side. She supported herself by selling peanuts at a local park and so she was known as Perl the Peanut-Woman. Despite her infirmities and her loneliness she was always in high spirits and a most selfless and G-d fearing woman. She would look after the sick and stand up for the orphans. She was the"'official" sounding board for anybody's troubles and she would always delight the neighborhood children with her stories. And all her stories were about "hers" - her late husband, her "Talmid Chacham".

Her sole comfort in life was to reminisce over her early years of glory. And what was her glory? To earn the necessities and keep home so that her husband could be free to do nothing but learn Torah.

This book was first published in the United states in 1925!!

1925! And in in all my 40 some odd years I have not seen a children's book in English that so aptly characterizes genuine Yiddishkeit. I was just so fascinated to see that in 1920s America, Jewish childrens' books, of which there were not many (in English, for certain) were promoting Torah values that only became popular decades later. And this, written by a renown Zionist activist! Incidentally, the author, who published the book in 1925, calls the book A medley of childhood memories as he dedicates it to his mother.

So now I present one chapter from the Perl the Peanut-Woman section of this book. It tells over the Rabi Shimon ben Yochai's message of the opening Midrash:

The ability to expound the Torah was only given to those who subsist on mahn.

And it tells a second message:

The ability to subsist on mahn was only given to those who expound the Torah.

A MANNA SABBATH MEAL

ON FRIDAY night, when, after the lighting and blessing of the candles, Perl the Peanut-Woman sits down in the new-cleaned parlor of the house where she boards and waits for the return of the men-folk from synagogue, her appearance is so changed that she might be taken for a different woman. The red bandanna kerchief has made way for a bright black wig; in place of the red waist and green skirt she has put on a glossy brown dress; but above all, her face seems to have grown fresher, smoother, younger. The other women-folk sit in the parlor with her, the children crowd and chatter around her. That hour between the completion of the Sabbath preparations and the home-coming of the men from synagogue has such wonderful power and peace that it alone seems sufficient to bring rest from all the fatigues of the week's labors.

That hour, especially, brings to Perl hosts of memories of her toilsome past, memories made holy by the figure of him, her pious and learned husband whom she used to maintain in the study of the Law. A stranger in a strange house and strange land, she nevertheless loves to beguile herself by making all the Sabbath preparations every Friday, and waiting expectantly for the men to come back from synagogue, just as though her own would be among them.

To the children of the house and of the neighbors she has deeply endeared herself, and they come and make her tell stories of her past glory. Without knowing it, she often tells them the same ones over again, but they all listen with attentive faces and make believe it is all new and wonderful. And if any there are inclined to smile secretly or openly, little Jakie the newsboy threatens heavy punishment. For Jakie is Perl's most ardent friend, and often plays hooky from synagogue in order to sit with her.

"The `apikorsim', the unbelievers, these days, make fun of everything", says Perl but that is because mine, peace unto him, is no longer living. In his day he did things which would make them stop laughing fast enough."

Then all the children know they may expect a story of the wonderful powers of "hers", peace unto him.

"I am an ignorant woman," begins Perl; “but he, mine, taught me one chapter in the Scriptures, the one you will hear the men say when they return in a little while. It begins like this: ‘A woman of valor who can find her? For her price is far above rubies.' That chapter he made me learn because, he used to say, the great King Solomon had written it in my honor! And on Friday nights when he returned from synagogue and sang that chapter after his Sabbath greeting, he kept looking at me all the time, and my heart melted with happiness and pride.

"But, one Friday night—do you hear, kinderlach?—instead of pleasure I felt only pain and shame. What the trouble was? The trouble was a very great trouble. There was nothing to eat. I had worked and slaved like a horse that week, but the peasants had asked unheard-of prices, the mistresses refused to buy, competition was plentiful, and even old debts I was unable to collect. So all I could prepare for that Sabbath was some white bread and a soup seasoned with a piece of fat I had gotten from one of the cooks. You can imagine what kind of soup it must have been! Very bad, no? Well, just wait and see.

"Mine, peace unto him, enters with his Sabbath greetings as usual and begins the 'Woman of Valor,' walking up and down and stopping often to look at me and smile. I sat like a stone and would have liked the earth to open under me and swallow me. Mind you, I understood everything he was saying in the Holy Tongue. Finally, when he came to the verse `She is like the merchant-ships; she bringeth her food from afar', I could bear it no longer. The shame came up to my very heart and I began to cry bitterly.

"He, my Talmid-Chochem,—be the memory of the righteous for a blessing—just looked at me once—no more—and he knew everything at once. But he went right on and finished the 'Woman of Valor' right up to the end, just as though I deserved all the praise that was in it. But something there came into his face, I noticed, as if an angel from God had touched it. And I felt in my heart that something great, some miracle, was going to happen.

"He made Kiddush over the two white loaves, and when he tasted the first morsel his face just beamed with wonder.

“‘A taste like Paradise!' he said and smacked his lips. I took some after him, and I couldn't understand how the white bread, which I had made without even one egg, could taste like the best egg-cake I had ever eaten.

"'Perele,' says he to me again, 'tonight you will stay in your seat and I will do the serving.'
"Of course, I was going to protest, but, as I said before, he looked so strange, so serious, that I obeyed without a word.

"Then he takes one of the loaves, cuts off two slices, puts them into plates, keeps one for himself, gives me the other, and says:
“`Fish! Gefillte fish!'

“`Ah, you are laughing? Laugh, laugh! You wouldn't have laughed if you had tasted it. To tell you it tasted like fish is nothing! It tasted like the best fish that was ever cooked!

"Mine, may his favor shield us, was no more the same man. I looked at him and I had to turn away my eyes. His face was shining. The Presence itself seemed to be resting on it.

"After fish comes meat. He cut off two more slices of white bread and says: `Meat, chicken meat.'

"You can laugh as much as you like. But it had the taste of real chicken. Mine tasted like the drumstick. After the meat be served the soup I had made,—and what was that I said before about the soup? Never mind, but that soup was no soup; it was the richest and sweetest broth ever set on table. The taste of it is even now in my mouth.

"He filled the plates again—I had made plenty of it—and took some of the white bread and broke it into the soup.

"' Tzimmes,' says he. `Turnip tzimmes!'

"Well, you think it's a joke, hey? But the tzimmes was like all the things that came before. It was sweet and well-seasoned and of the freshest turnips.

"That night, kinderlach, I was in such a state that I did not dare ask him any questions. And for weeks afterwards I felt too great an awe to speak to him about the wonders he brought about that Friday night. But there came a time when he explained it all to me. And now I shall see how you will laugh!

"Do you know, my wise ones, what the children of Israel ate in the desert? Manna, no? Well, and do you know what the taste of the manna was? Yes, it was like wafers made with honey, as the Holy Book tells us. But it was more, and you can ask any scholar about it. The taste of the Manna was like the taste of any kind of food that the one who ate it was longing for. There! Now will you laugh? Could not he, my Talmid-Chochem, bring to pass what the Children of Israel could pass in the desert?"

And the face of Perl the Peanut-Woman beams upon her audience with triumph and exultation.


3 comments:

G said...

"From here Rabi Shimon ben Yochai would say..."

This is simply RSB'Y l'shitaso, much like the discussion in Berachos w/ Rav Yishmael (who quite possibly, l'shitaso, would argue on how to learn that medrash).

That doesn't mean it is the last word on how the world works.

Susan said...

Yishar koach. The story is beautiful, and brought tears to my eyes - it manages to strike just the right note - perfect hashkafa, emotional and inspiring, but without schmaltz or smug patronizing.
I'm memorizing it to tell over to my kids and grandkids.
Are the other stories in the book as inspiring?
(If so,maybe you could have the book translated into Hebrew,)
Anyway, I think it would be a great idea to post a different story from the book every week!

Emily Kariel said...

I am very interested in the book. My name is Emily Kasriel and I live in London. My family came from Czechslovakia in 1938 to the UK. I would be very interested in getting hold of the book and if that is not possible, to read at least the first chapter about Kasriel the watchman. Do you still have a copy of the book? Many thanks indeed