An Inspirational Tale for the New Year

Across the former Soviet Union, the Hesed network provides loving care for elderly impoverished Jews.
Across the former Soviet Union, the Hesed network provides loving care for elderly impoverished Jews. photo: Sarah Levin

One of the neat things about our Jewish heritage is how the charitable actions of a rabbi in nineteenth century Ukraine—and the telling of his tale at the turn of the twentieth century by one of our greatest Yiddish writers—can have resonance in the hi-tech and highly uncertain world we live and work in today.

As Jews around the globe prepare for Rosh Hashanah, we hope you’ll find inspiration in this summary of I. L. Peretz’ classic account,  “If Not Higher,” and in the lives we continue to impact today across the former Soviet Union.

[Translated from the original Yiddish in 1900 by Marie Syrkin, the full “If Not Higher” story is included in Yale University Press’ 2002 publication, The I. L. Peretz Reader, edited and with an introductory essay by Harvard University Professor Ruth R. Wisse.]

With their rabbi nowhere to be found during the morning Penitential Prayers that are recited in the solemn days that precede the High Holidays, the good people of Nemirov were convinced he was using that time to ascend to heaven—there to petition the Almighty to grant a blessed New Year to his people.

A skeptical visitor to the town laughed at that thought, pointing out that not even Moses had ascended to heaven during his lifetime. So where could the rabbi be? The skeptic was determined to find out.

Sneaking into the rabbi’s house late one evening to hide beneath the rabbi’s bed, the skeptic kept awake by reciting an entire tractate of the Talmud. Finally, morning came and the rabbi, to his visitor’s great surprise, got dressed in rough, peasant clothes, with a heavy rope dangling from his coat pocket and an ax tucked into his belt.

Hugging the sides of the silent streets, both rabbi and skeptic made their way to a small wood on the outskirts of town. The skeptic watched, amazed, as the rabbi felled a small tree, chopping the wood into kindling that he bundled onto his back.  Knocking on the window of a small, broken-down shack and adopting a peasant’s accent, he told the elderly Jewish woman within that his name was Vassil and he had wood to sell her, “very cheap.”

Stealing in behind the rabbi, the skeptic saw a bedridden woman, wrapped in rags, in a room bare of all but a few miserable furnishings. “Where will a poor widow get money to buy wood?” she complained.

“It’s only six cents, said ‘Vassil’, who quickly offered to lend it to her.

“But how will I ever pay you back,” she groaned.

Now the rabbi reproached her, saying that he—a ‘peasant’— was ready to trust her—a poor sick Jew—with a little wood, “while you have such a great and mighty God and you don’t trust him for six cents?”

“But who will kindle the fire?” the woman continued.  Saying that he himself would do it, the rabbi proceeded to fill the stove and light the fire, reciting the Penitential Prayers with increasing fervor as he worked.

Seeing all this, the skeptic soon became a disciple of the rabbi. And when someone would later describe how the rabbi of Nemirov ascended to heaven in the days before Rosh Hashanah, he no longer laughed or scoffed. He only added quietly, “If not higher.”

The deeds that Peretz attributed to the rabbi of this figurative 19th century Ukrainian shtetl (small town) find their echo today in the real life work of staff members and volunteers at the Jewish welfare centers that JDC helped to establish and support throughout the former Soviet Union. In the words of our forthcoming annual report, they too have been “Going Above and Beyond” to deliver assistance to some of the world’s poorest Jews—and doing so with Hesed, “loving kindness.”

Shanah tova u’metuka!

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