Vayechi: The Horse Thief

"The Horse Thief"

They called him a horse thief. That was the worst possible epithet that one could hurl at a young man in the early 19th-century shtetl, or village, of Czernovitz. Back then, a horse was a very necessary item, and many of the townspeople spent all of their hard-earned savings to procure one. Losing one's horse often meant losing one's livelihood.

Truth to tell, he really was a horse thief, and he had other "virtues" as well. He desecrated the Sabbath regularly in a community where such desecration evoked horror. He was also a womanizer, a drunkard, and a gambler to boot.

The townspeople regularly attempted to have him expelled from the shtetl. But he had a powerful ally who blocked every attempt that the townspeople made to rid their community of this rascal. That ally was his father.

You might wonder why his father had such an influence in the small town. The answer is quite simple. His father was the Rabbi of Czernovitz, and no ordinary rabbi at that. He was Reb Chaim, one of the earliest Chassidic masters, who came to be known in later generations by the title of his commentary on the Pentateuch, Be'er Mayim Chaim.

One year, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the townspeople had had enough. They approached the three most influential citizens of the town: Yankel, the Chief of the City Council; Berel, the Sexton of the synagogue; and Moshe, the Cantor.

The entire town clamored around the three and insisted that they must confront the Rabbi and demand that he banish his son from the shtetl. The Councilman, the Sexton, and the Cantor had no choice but to proceed to the Rabbi's home and tell the Rebbetzin that they must have an appointment with her husband, even if it meant intruding upon his Yom Kippur spiritual preparations.

The Rebbetzin politely requested that they be seated in the anteroom of the Rabbi's modest study. "The Rabbi is praying to the Creator," she explained. "He will certainly come out to see you when he is through."

The wall between the anteroom and the Rabbi's study was paper thin. Yankel, Berel, and Moshe could not help but overhear every word of the Rabbi's conversation with the Master of the Universe. At first, they were unperturbed and remained adamantly committed to demanding that the Rabbi send his son away.

Then they heard the specifics of the Rabbi's prayer: "Oy, dear Father in Heaven," he cried. "Yom Kippur, the day You sit in judgment, is almost here. I beseech You to have mercy upon the leaders of our little community. First of all, there is Yankel. He is in a position where he is tempted daily to take bribes, and he frequently submits to these temptations. Secondly, there is Berel, who regularly dips into the tzedakah pusha, the charity box, thereby stealing alms from the poor. There is also Moshe. I can't even bring myself to speak about his many misdeeds, any one of which would disqualify him from serving as our cantor. I know that You, dear God, have good reason to expel them from this world and could justifiably punish them severely."

At this point the three gentlemen felt thoroughly ashamed and prepared to retreat from the Rabbi's ramshackle abode one by one.

But then they heard the Rabbi conclude his entreaty: "But remember, dear God, that I, too, have a son who has failed me in so many ways. I have good reason to disown him and chase him from my home. I have not done so because I am a merciful father. Yankel, Berel, and Moshe are Your children, and if I can show mercy to my child, then surely You, the most Merciful One, must pardon them."

You know the rest of the story. The horse thief remained in the shtetl with no further protest from Yankel, or Berel, or Moshe, or anyone else.

I have often felt that Reb Chaim of Czernovitz learned the proper behavior of a good father from the patriarch Jacob in this week's Torah portion, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26).

In this parsha, the Torah narrates the story of Jacob's final words of blessing to his sons.

Jacob had sufficient cause to withhold his blessing from quite a few of them. Besides Benjamin, they had all participated in the sale of Joseph, deceiving their father and causing him many years of grief and worry. Reuben was far from perfect—just turn back the pages to Genesis 35:22 to recall how he interfered with his father's marital relationships. And Simon and Levi disappointed him greatly with the violent act that they committed, an act he never completely forgave.

Jacob does indeed rebuke them in his words of farewell. But he never rejects them totally. He sends none of them away.

He criticizes Reuben for being as "stable as water" and tells him explicitly, "When you mounted your father's bed, you brought him disgrace."

To Simon and Levi, he directs these words: "Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless."

But the Bible ends the poignant episode of Jacob's parting words to his sons with this assertion: "All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve in number, this is what their father said to them as he blessed them, giving each one his own particular blessing."

He blessed all twelve. He disowned no one. He offered fair words of criticism, but uttered no words of rejection.

Jacob taught a lesson to all parents for all time. Never close the door, no matter what faults you find in your child.

Reb Chaim of Czernovitz learned that lesson, as we saw in the story of that Yom Kippur Eve approximately two hundred years ago.

He also recorded it so touchingly in his masterwork, Be'er Mayim Chaim, commenting near the end of this week's Torah portion: "Jacob began his blessings with the words, 'Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob. Hearken to Israel your father.' He wanted them to listen well and feel assured that each of them, individually, had the spiritual vigor necessary to absorb and put to good use the blessed rays of light that he conveyed to them from the blessed lights of the Living God."