Saturday, February 27, 2016

Into the Woods

The magid of Chelm - famous for his rambling and pointless parables - was a great tzadik, or righteous man. Every now and then he would dissapear for a few days. When he returned to Chelm he was always missing arm, or a leg, or a few fingers, or a portion of his small and shapely nose. Miraculously, after a few days these missing body parts seemed to grow back, and the next time the magid dissapeared he once again had all his wits - and all his limbs - about him. Rumour and speculation were rife about these unearthly haopenings. Some said he ascended to haven and studied Talmud with the Rabeynu shel Olam, the Lord of the World, and the study was so intense it called forth the supernal fire, which burnt this or the other limb off. Others said the tzadik was probably disguing himsel as a peasant, and was secretly attending to the sick and the poor in the nearest large town, Tinitius, which lay some 100 furlongs to the south of Chelm.
Now amongst his chasidim - his devotees - was a man called shmeel, and Shmeel had three sons, the youngest of whom was called Daniel. Daniel was known in the shtetl as being a wild child. He had long curly hair like a burning bush, and eyes greener than the pools of Solomon in the ancient city of Jerusalem. In cheder he would play tricks on the old melamed ( teacher ) who was half blind and suffered from extreme flatulence, particularly on Sundays, when the beans from the shabbos tsholent had not fully worked their way out of his system. Daniel would climb on rooftops and pelt passers by. He would tie the legs of chickens together so that the birds ended up pecking at each other, so frustated were they by their joint inability to reach concensud on which way to move. And no matter how many times Shmeel thrashed Daniel, the high spirited child never seemed to learn the error of his ways. But there was one rule, as far as Shmeel knew, that Daniel had not broken. And that was the rule to never ever venture into the swampy forests that surrounded Chelm. "There are wolves there" he warned his sons, "and murderers abd impure spirits that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, has banished to places where darkness and foulness reign. Better you be conscripted into the Tsars army then step ino the woods."

One day, as Daniel was trudging unwillingly to chayder, he noticed the magid shuffling along a litte way ahead of him, on the muddy street that ran through Chelm. He assumed the magid was going to the talmud torah, to teach the older boys some words of wisdom, He walked on, but to his surprise, when the magid got to the talmud torah he did not stop there but carried on down the muddy street, past the shochet's house and past the small apple orchard of Mr Puleravitz, the wealthiest man in Chelm. On impulse Daniel decided to follow the tzaddik, to see who was sick. His mother loved to be in on the latest shtetl news, and when he bought her a piece of infomation she sometimes rewarded him with a little piece of kichel, or some salted herring which was normally reserved for supper. No doubt the magid was performing the mitzva of visiting the sick, and would soon turn into one of the small wooden shacks that lay on the outskirts of the village, sagging structures that housed the poorest of the Chelmites: the woodcutter and his seven children, the cripple with two stumps instead of legs, and the meshugener spinster Gittel, who talked to herself and who,if she ventured forth from her rickety house,soon attracted a crowd of small boys (led by Daniel it must be said) who took great delight in taunting and jeering at her, until some adult of sound mind and body, such as the shochet or the shamas, chased them away.

But to Daniel's surprise the magid did not enter any of thse houses, but continued past them until the muddy road dwindled into a muddy wagon track, and then dwindled further into a muddy foot track. Daniel stood in a field of beetroot, and watched the magid getting smaller and smaller in the distance. Daniel realised the tzadik was heading straight for the forest, where none of the village children dared enter, and which he too had sworn, on the holy Torah, that he would not go. Reluctantly Daniel turned around and started back towards the cheyder. He knew that he was already late, and that when he stepped into class the old melamed would pick him up by his ears and give him a good shaking, or otherwise make him put out his hand to receive several stinging lashes from the thin birchwood cane that never left the melamed's grip. the thought was not encouraging, and he stopped, and turned round again. He could still see a small dot that was the magid crosing the last open field before the forest.

Everyone in Chelm knew about their tzadik's disappearance, but no one knew where he dissapeard too. Daniel had often heard this discussed by the adults at the shabbos table, through the floorboards, while he was hiding in the cellar, together with the jars of pickled cucumbers and cabbage, in order to escape the wrath of his father. Even the boys at cheyder talked about it and out did each other in their fantastical conjectures about how the magid returned a cripple, and then regained his health and limbs overnight. Now was his chance to be the first to know where the magid went, and what he did there. He would follow him for a while, just a little way, and then turn back to tll everyone that it was not to Tinitius the tzadik went, or to heaven, but to the woods.

Daniel follwed the magid at a safe distance. the magid was no longer shuffling, but walking purposefully and energetically, like a young man, with a long striding gate. So much so that Daniel had to break into a run so as not to lose sight of him. By the time Daniel reached the first trees he had lost sight of the tzadik, but there was a thin path, barely visible, almost hidden by long grass and weeds, that ran between the trees. The forest was not so thick here, and the trees were young and slender, and pale sunlight managed to easily pierce the leafy canopy, flecking the forest floor with parallel bars of light that iluminated leaf litter and small twigs that the trees had scattered around their trunks. Daniel broke into a run, following the path, telling himself if he did not see the magid in the next 500 steps he would turn around and head home, to face whatever punishment was awaiting him. But he had only counted to 370 when he caught side of the magid, still walking quickly, flitting like a black shadow from tree to tree, a short distance in front of him. By now Daniel was panting, both from the exertion and from something that had settled upon his chest - a certain tightness that Daniel would not have liked to call panic - making it a little more difficult to breathe. He slowed slightly, and tried to settle his breathing, so that the magid would not hear him. It was hard to keep the magid in sight, but not get so close that he revealed himself. He did not think the magid would harm him, but he knew he was witnessing something that the magid did not wish other eyes to see. The fanciful stories that he and his friends had told their baby brothers and sisters in order to frighten them did not seem so fanciful, here in the forest. The trees were bigger now, with trunks thicker than Daniel's body, and a light wind had sprung up, so that the leaves murmured and the tops of the trees moved slightly. The bars of light were less frequent now, and Daniel had to keep on shifting his gaze from the magid's back to the forest floor, to make sure he did not trip over the gnarled roots that now frequently crossed the almost invisible path. Suddenly Daniel stood on a dry branch, which snapped with a loud crack, which reverberated in the forest like a musket shot, much louder than the rustling leaves. Daniel froze, certain the magid would turn and see him. But the magid made no indication he had heard anything, and continued through the trees. Daniel hesitated, and then began moving again. They continud like this for what might have been ten minutes or an hour - Daniel was not sure, but what he did realise was that he was slowly getting closer and closer to the tzaddik, until only some thirty feet seperated them. Whether this was because there was no longer a path, and Daniel dared not loose sight of the adult, or because the magid seemed to have slowed a little, he could not say.

Daniel was practised in the art of creative excuses, or what the old melamed called 'sheker vecozov' - 'lies and deceipt'. He was busy rehearsing an elaborate tale of how he had got lost in the woods to tell the magid, because by now his fear of being discovered was much smaller than his fear of being alone in the forest and not knowing the way bck to the path. He had got to within fifteen feet of the magid, and was about to pretend to fall and call out in pain, so that the magid would turn and discover him, when the magid stopped, near a large oak tree, and stood silently, head slightly cocked to on side, as if listening. In the stillness, Daniel became aware that besides the swishing of the branches, there was a quite gurgling of water. The tzadik walked several paces to his right, and then crouched down. Daniel heard the sound of splashing, and then the tzadik stood up and pronounced." baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech haoylam, asher kidshanu bemitvosav vitzivanu al netilas yodayim". Blessed are you, our Lord, master of the Universe, that has commanded us regarding the washing of the hands". Automatically Danil answered amen, as he had been taught to do ten thousand time, and the word was out before he could bite his lip, but again the magid made no movement, and gave not the slightes indication, that he was the only human bing in that part of the forest.

The magid raised the tails of his long kapota, so that they were above his waist, and then sat down, with a small sigh, his back leaning against the large oak. He lifted his hat of his head, and carefully placed it on the forest floor. Then from the hat he withdrew a smallish loaf of, what looked to the hungry Daniel like very delicious, bread. He lifted the bread in the air with both hands. Baruch oto Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, he recited, hamotzi lechem min haaretz. Blessed are You, our Lord, Master of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the ground. This time Daniel, who was behind the trunk of a tree less than ten feet from where the tzadik sat, did not answer amayn, but watched as the man broke off a piece of bread with his right hand, and then slowly and thoughtfully chewed upon it. Daniel could not see the magid's face, but he could see his long beard rising and falling as he chewed on the bread. After a lot of chewing, the tzadik broke off another piece, and again began to slowly eat it. When he had eaten a kazayis, the amount that according to the halachah constitued a meal, he began to sing, in a very sweet and melodious voice, birkat hamazon, grace after meals. Adonai oz leamo yiteyn, Adonai yevarech es amo beshaloym...the Lord will give strength to his people, the Lord will bless his people with peace." As the concluding words faded away into the rustling leaves and the faint gurgle of water, the tzadik broke off two large chunks of bread, got up, walked across to the stream, and placed them there. then he returned to his tree, raised his kapota, and sat down again. After a short while he put his hat back on his head. And then sat. And then sat some more. So still was he it looked like he had become a back rock with a grey beard that had rolled to the base of a tree and then stopped there. After another few minutes another sound rose and joined with the forest noises: a loud rasping snore.

Daniel could stand it no longer. he stepped out from behind his tree, and on tiptoes walked past the rebbe. he held one hand over his eyes, adhering to the ancient fiction that if he could not see, then he could not be seen. But he spread his fingers enough to guide him to the stream and not stand on any dry branches. At the stream he bent, snatched up the pieces of bread (were they for the birds? or for the magids supper? then why put them here by the stream where some animal was sure to grab them...?) and shoved them in his pockets. He was about to tiptoe back to his hiding place when he decided to steal a quick glance at the magid. was it his imagination or did he see the magid's eyes snap quickly shut? inadverently Daniel gasped, but the gasp was smothered by another large snore which emerged from the tzaddik. Daniel dared to take another look. The tzaddik's eye were tightly shut, and his head had fallen slightly forward, so that his hat leaned rakishly, exposing the black skullcap underneath it. Daniel paused, then crouched down, as the tzaddik had done, and washed his hands in the stream. he said the blessing in a whisper, then tiptoed back to his tree. There he sat down, said the blessing on the bread and ate the two large pieces. Much much more rapidly, it must be said, then the magid had eaten his. They were delicious, with a sweet and eggy taste that reminded him of shabbos challah. Then Daniel said grace after meals as best he could, although he could not remember all of it. Whenhe had finished he sat listening to the forest noises, wondering what he should do next. He estmated it would be dark in about two hours time, and his parents might begin to worry that he had not returned home. Perhaps he should wake the magid up and confess that he had followed him. A bird squawked somewhere, and the grass a few feet from his foot rustled as something small slithered its ay through it. daniel did not feel very safe. he stood up and moved to the tzaddiks tree. but he could not quite summon up the courage to wake the magid, whose head was now almost touching his chest. So he sat on the other side of the same oak tree that the tzaddik leaned against, and promised himself that whne the tzaddik awoke, he would call out and ask for help. The leaves rustled, th stream gurgled, Daniel's stomach was full, and he was, after all, only an 11 year old child who had walked and run for several miles. His eyes drooped and he fell asleep. For ho long hecould not say, but when he awoke he was not sure where he was. For a few seconds. Then he stood, whimpering, and moved to the other side of the tree. The magid was gone. He was alone.

Daniels's leg began trembling. Is there anyone there, he ventured, his voice sounding thin and tiny in the forest gloom.
"Rebbe? Please, anchuldik, its me Daniel Tanenbaum. I’m very sorry. please don’t be angry."
He waited for a reply but there was none, only the rustling of leaves and the slithering of small or big things somewhere just out of sight.
"Rebbe? Rebbeee? Anyone?"
Daniel began to walk, trying to find the path back in the dim light.
"Rabeynoo shel Olam, he whispered, "please take me home. I’ll be a good boy. I’ll daven in shul and I’ll listen in cheder and I’ll study your holy Torah. Please Rabeynoo shel Olam, I’ve learnt my lesson".
He walked and prayed, no longer sure if he was heading in the right direction. The thought came to him he would be here when night fell, all alone, with who knew what monsters that would tear at his flesh. He began to walk more quickly, the panic rising up from his legs to suffuse his whole body. His blood pounding in his ears, his heart throbbing, his mouth dry, trying to get away from the terror that was eating him alive, he broke into a run.
"Mame, tateh, he shrieked, "helfen mir. mein mame, mameh, tateh tateh, rebbe, please."
He dodged between trees, now convinced something was chasing him.
"Gevald yidden", he screamed, tripped over a root and found himelf hurtling forwards with just enough time to bring his hands up to his face to protect it as he hit the earth. He lay there, panting and trembling. Through the grass he saw something brown, and then he heard a voice. It was the magid’s voice.

Slowly Daniel raised his head. He moved forward a little, ‘til, through the dandelions he could see rough wooden chairs arranged in a circle. In some cases it seemed they had been there so long that the tree trunk had grown right through them, the dead wood and the living wood joined together .
The rebee has his sleeve rolled up, of his left arm, the one he laid tefillin on each day. It looked like he had them on now, for there were black bands running down his arm, but when the rebbe suddenly waved his arm in a gesture of invitation, the bands lifted, formed a small cloud, and then settled back on the rebbes arm. Daniel gazed at the rebes arm in horror and fascination, but his eyes did not linger there long for from the trees various beings began to emerge. Two thin and mangy looking wolves slunk out, and, keeping a respectable distance, some grey rabbits hopped into the clearing. The wolves lay down near the rebee, and rested their great heads on his feet. More animals emerged red foxes, weavils and weasels and snakes and toads. They crawled or hopped or walked into the circle, some draping themselves on the chairs, some sheltering beneath them. There were animals that Daniel had never seen…they looked like big rabbits with a deers face and a long tail, and they stood upright, using their small forepaws to clean their faces . There was ‘a river horse’, which Daniel had read about in his chumash Rashi. It was much bigger and much rounder than a horse…it looked like a balloon with short stumpy legs, and when it yawned it displayed a set of huge teeth. And amongst all these animals was a vaguely human figure, that stood upright, but was much larger than any man Daniel had ever seen. It looked as if someone had fashiond a giant out of mud that was too wet to completely hold its form. On the giants face were the suggestion of two eyes, nose, a mouth, but they drooped and dissolved as he stared at them, so that they were eyes one moment and then just muddy lumps the next.
"Come, join us Daniel" said the magid, without turning around.
Daniel was frozen, unable to move.
A black bear padded in, and behind her two cubs, who frolicked amongst the buttercups that grew at the edge of the circle. And a large pair of jaws and two yellow eyes peered out from the shadows at the cubs. The bear mother noticed, growled, and moved towards the jaws, whose owner decided to relocate. Daniel saw a flash of green and a gnarled and knobbly body, that looked like a piece of driftwood with legs.
The magid stood in front of a shtender, with a book open in front of him. Daniel could see from the way the text as arranged, with a block of text in the middle of the page and smaller blocks around it, that it must be a volume of the Talmud. (In fact it was mesechet chayas hakodesh, the tractate on holy animals, winged apparitions, mythical beasts and train timetables. )
"I trust" said the magid to the animals "you are all well and have managed to find a meal or two. Now who can summarise what we studied last week?"
Daniel heard a sort of low moan and turned to see the mud man raise his arm
"Golem, said the Rebbee, would you like to have a go?"
The golem spoke and it sounded like pebbles grating against each other.
I’m sorry to hear that, said the rebbe, but I do expect you to revise. Take some juniper leaves, and if you can find some wild honey, mix the two together and apply it twice a day. That should relieve the itching. Anyone else?
A tortoise stuck its neck out and indicated it was prepared to answer. Daniel could not tell if it spoke because a Lyre bird, proceeded to make a series of noises that included a grandfather clock chiming, tea being poured from a samovar, the flushing of a toilet, and several bars of the tenor line of Lewandowski’s “Todah veZimrah”
"Good, said the magid, does anyone or anything want to add to that?"
It appeared that no one did.
"Right said the rebbee. "we’re 8 lines down in the Gemarah…please follow with your claws or paws or feathers or feelers as best you can. Now “Rabbah” he continued “argues that the leviathan’s skin was very rough and scaly, like glass paper, and that whoever handles it will lose their own skin. That is the reason he says the tent under which the tzadikim will eat in olam haba is not made from leviathan skin, but rather from the same angora goat hair that was used to make the curtains in the tabernacle.” But his bar plugta, Ravina, brings down a verse from Ezekiel which seems to prove exactly the opposite.
This verse indicates that the tzadikim will not have skin, in the sense we know it today, because “their insides will be like their outsides.” And there is, I must mention a braysa, a non –canonised source, which mentions that the angels have 4 wings, and the outer two are tough, to protect the delicate inner two membranes, and that the ohel will be made from these outerwings."
A couple of dragonflies began to fly around in circles, dive bombing the magid’s face and zooming past Daniel’s ear.
"Of course not", the rebbe explained to them, "no angel will be harmed. The wings will come from a gemach where spare wings are kept should any harm befall the angels' original pairs."
The dragonflies settled.
"Come Daniel", said the Magid without missing a beat, and without turning around. "None of our friends will harm you, come sit and learn a shtikkel Torah. When we return to Chelm I will explain to your parents I borrowed you for an important ….…an extremely urgent matter of pikuach nefesh, life or death. No harm will come to you, I promise" ( bli neder).”

Cautiously Daniel rose from his hiding place. A 100 eyes, some beady , some brown, turned to look at him. He could not walk at first. He had pins and needles in one leg, and had to wait, holding onto a tree for support, while the blood returned – agonizingly slowly – to his calf and foot.
"Come sit here, said the magid, indicating a free chair next to a pig. Some bats hung upside down from the seatback, and the tortoise lay underneath another one, nibbling on something green.
Daniel hesitated.
"You can stand if you like, or hop onto a branch." The Rebeee pointed up to where two owls sat, their big eyes swiveling to look at Daniel as if he were a possibility for supper.
“Take off your shoes. if you'd like.Make yourself comfy”
Daniel noticed the rabbis feet were bare – or rather foot was bare, the other foot was not fully visible, as it was inside the mouth of a wolf, who lay contently on the ground in front of the magid, and chewed on the tzadik’s foot.
Daniel’s voice came back. "Your foot, rebbe", he choaked out, "the wolf’s got your foot."
"My what?" said the rebbe, "come closer, I can’t hear you."
"Your foot", said Daniel weakly, stepping cautiously into the circle, between a donkey and a beaver, neither of whom looked too dangerous
"Ah my foot, yes", said the magid, "the wolf is hungry. And she needs milk for her pups. they have not eaten for a few days. No matter….So what," he continued, "does Rabah do with this verse from Ezekiel. Surely he knew the verse?"
Daniel ws close enough now to realize that the tefillin on the rebbes arm were mosquitoes, who had arranged themselves in a spiral down his arm and onto his hand. The hand appeared almost black, so many mosquitoes were upon it.

To be continued ....

sheker vecozov they said.
bobba mayses


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