by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon
A few months ago I posted a story about a handyman who while working in the Rebbe’s house, asked the Rebbe to please tell him a vort. The Rebbe proceeded to give an explanation on some of the words in Nishmas Kol Chai. Subsequently I was informed that the person was Reb Kalman Dribin, formerly of certified alarms and he was installing an intercom in the Rebbe’s house. The story was titled “The Most Precious Gift”.
While I had heard it from various people and thought that it was a known story, I was surprised to hear from the feedback (which is always welcomed) that it was not. So I decided to post this week another one of those classical stories connected to davening that I heard many years ago.
At the same time I ask, please share with me some of your vintage stories, as not everyone enjoyed them yet.
Moshe considered himself very fortunate. The local Poritz (squire) had hired him to manage all of his estates. Not only would his personal financial stability improve, but as the manager, he would now be in a position to hire and help many other Jews in the community. They would no longer have to bribe the officials in order to lease an inn or to acquire any other license.
However, at the same time he made sure that the local peasants also had employment, so he hired skilled artisans to teach them various skills. As their income improved they began building bigger houses, bought new clothing and some luxuries, benefitting many other people in the community.
The Poritz was thrilled as he saw these improvements with new families moving in and building new buildings, which all caused more money to be coming into his treasury. Some days he would sit in Moshe’s office to review the books and discuss new projects and he saw how Moshe treated everyone fairly and respectfully.
He also noticed that many people came to Moshe for advice and he marveled at Moshe’s patience and understanding. He gave it to everyone in a friendly manner and often even gave them some food or money for their family.
As the years passed, his town was slowly developing into the center of the area. Moshe had arranged that a large fair take place there twice a year and all the merchants in the nearby towns and villages would spend a week in his town, buying from the wholesalers directly. This not only brought in income to the Poritz, but equally important, it raised his prestige among the other Poritzim (squires).
Now that he became extremely wealthy, the Poritz rebuilt his villa into a beautiful mansion with large gardens and decided to throw a party for the local nobility. His estate was beautifully designed and he wanted to show it off. They were invited for a dinner and concert.
The other noblemen remembered how desperate he used to be just ten years ago and how his well known and respected manager left because there was no money, and now just look at him. They couldn’t believe the transformation that took place. His estate indeed rivaled or even surpassed theirs and he had become the center of commerce.
After the festivities were officially over, some of the nobleman couldn’t restrain their curiosity and asked him, how did you do this? Our estates have more lumber and other natural resources than yours, they stated, yet you have surpassed us manifold.
It is all because of my Moshke, my new manager. He is a miracle worker, he can do anything, stated the Poritz.
Anything, inquired the other poritzim, with envy.
Yes! replied the Poritz boasting confidently.
Seeing that their “friend” was quite drunk, one of the other poritzim quickly thought of a scheme to make a lot of money, so he said; I will make a wager with you. I will prove to you that he can’t do everything and anything. I am willing to wager ten thousand ruble that he can’t.
The Poritz who was half drunk retorted Of course he could and let us write a contract signed and witnessed by the distinguished guests. The contract was duly signed and he sent someone to call Moshe.
When Moshe entered the room, the Poritz greeted him with a smile and said, Moshe you transformed my estate into the pride of the region. Now I have a request for you; you have the opportunity to make me really wealthy. I told my friends that you are the one behind my success and you are a miracle worker and can do anything.
So we made a bet. In thirty days, I am going to have another party and by the party my pet baby bear is going to take one of your Jewish prayer books and pray, just like you do. You will be richly rewarded for teaching it to pray. Now go and focus only on this responsibility and let your helpers run the estate.
I am going to become ten thousand rubles richer because of this! concluded the Poritz.
Moshe couldn’t believe his ears; the Poritz is so drunk; he doesn’t realize that he is going to lose everything he owns. He is asking me to do the impossible. Yet, Moshe realized that he and all the Jews would be blamed for the failure. So he meekly said, Yes your highness and went home.
When he arrived home, his wife noticed immediately that he wasn’t looking good. Nervously she asked, what is bothering you? Is everything ok? Should I call the doctor?
No don’t call the doctor, because there is nothing physically bothering me. It is just that the Poritz said I have to do the impossible. He gave me thirty days to teach his pet bear how to daven. How am I going to do that? No one can teach a bear to daven!
His wife replied, I don’t know, but we will figure it out tomorrow. In the meantime you must be starving as you really couldn’t each too much at the Poritz’s party, so sit down to eat, and tomorrow night we will think of something.
The next morning Moshe got up early as he could barely sleep that night, as he was thinking about the calamity that will befall the community, since he can’t do the impossible. He then went to shul and davened. Not knowing what he could do with the bear, he decided to say some extra Tehillim and then he would surprise his children by eating lunch with them. He bought a fresh loaf of bread and some food to help his wife prepare a hearty meal for the children.
When they saw him enter the house with the food they were surprised to see their father, as he normally was in his office at this time. So they asked, father are you alright, is everything ok? Why aren’t you in the office?
Moshe didn’t want to scare his children, so he replied, Boruch Hashem I am healthy. Just the Poritz said I should take a few days off of work and be home with you after I worked so hard the last few weeks arranging his big party. So I decided to make this meal for my wonderful family.
The family sat down and he spoke with them as if everything was regular and there was no concern on his mind. After the meal they all bentched together. The baby who was barely two began mimicking them as if he too was bentching, by babbling whatever sounds he was able to make.
After sending out the children to do their chores and play, his wife sat down by the table and said, Moshe, I have a solution. I know how you can teach the baby bear how to daven in the siddur.
Moshe didn’t know if he should laugh or cry, it was so absurd, he is going to attempt to teach a bear now to daven. Yet his wife says it can be done. So he said to her, “Yes, how?”
She replied, I was watching how you and the children were bentching. The older ones know the entire bentching, and said it properly and beartifully. But our Zalman doesn’t even know the aleph beis, so he obviously doesn’t know how to bentch. Yet he was sitting in his highchair and babbling the bentching, as if he was bentching with the others. So we will get the bear to do the same.
She then explained to him her plan.
Moshe jumped up in astonishment and exclaimed, you are not just a wonderful wife, you are a genius! Not only did you save us, but you protected the entire Jewish community.
He took a large siddur and gave it to the bookbinder with the request that he covers the first twenty pages with strong plastic and then reinforces the binding. He also hired workers to build in his yard a strong enough cage for the baby bear.
For a few days, he brought the bear its food until the bear felt comfortable with him and began licking the honey off the large spoon he would hold as a treat. Each time the bear tasted the honey, it would make a deep guttural sounds to express its happiness. Then he placed the honey between two pieces of wood and trained the bear to carefully move the top piece away in order to get to the honey on the second piece.
After the bear mastered this, came the big test. He placed the newly bound siddur on a shtender (podium) with the back cover securely attached to the shtender and placed some honey between the cover and the first page.
The bear smelled the honey, but it couldn’t move the cover aside as he had done with the pieces of wood. With the assistance of the trainer, Moshe showed and taught the bear how to flip it open with its left paw. It then eagerly licked up the honey.
At the beginning of the third week, Moshe began placing a little amount of honey on a few more of the plastic covered sheets and sure enough with some coaxing, the bear mastered the art of licking up the honey, and then turning the pages one by one happily licking each and every page, expressing its happiness as it found more and more honey.
At the beginning of the fourth week, Moshe placed honey on each of the twenty pages and looked with bewilderment as the bear masterfully turned the pages after it happily licked up the honey on that page. He immediately sent a message to the Poritz that everything is working out and he will demonstrate how the bear prays at the upcoming party.
The only thing that was bothering Moshe was, that besides for the noises that a bear normally makes when it has honey, the bear wasn’t saying anything, so how can he say it was praying. Won’t they realize that it was just a ruse?!
Once again his wife calmed him down and said, the poritzim (noblemen) don’t understand our language so they won’t realize this “problem”. They think all Jews mumble their words while they pray.
The big party came and all of the poritzim came to see the spectacle. They were positive that their host, the Poritz would plead that he was drunk when he agreed to this wager and ask for their mercy etc. it will be a spectacle to see him squirming in agony as they take away his fortune.
The Poritz greeted them with a smile and invited them to enjoy the banquet. He also mentioned to everyone that they signed as witnesses and they will be the judges. He handed over a bag of ten thousand rubles to the head judge and asked the other poritz to do the same. At the end of the banquet we will have our entertainment and the winner takes both bags, as agreed upon.
After the feast, the judges asked for silence and then instructed the poritz to bring in his bear and they will decide if it is praying just like a Jew prays.
Moshe entered first and showed the judges the special siddur that would be used, swiftly flipping some of the pages, so they see that Hebrew letters were written on it. He then secured the siddur on the shtender and stood to the side.
The bear was brought in and quickly smelled the honey. It went over to the shtender, stood on its back feet and flipped open the cover with its paw and put its head to the paper.
The judges were flabbergasted. The bear indeed opened the prayer book and is slowly turning the pages. Obviously they couldn’t see that the bear was licking the honey. All they saw was that after it made some sounds and shook a little bit, going from the top of the page to the bottom, it turned a page after page, moaning and groaning making mumble jumble sounds the entire time.
In their mind this was just like a Jew davening (since to them the language the Jews speak is also mumble jumble sounds) and they declared the Poritz the victor. The bear hafd indeed prayed like a Jew. He won the wager of the ten thousand rubles!
The Poritz embraced Moshe and rewarded him with five hundred ruble. Moshe went home relieved, but he resolved never again to rush through the davening and mumble some words. He is going to daven like he should, and not like a bear.
Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran mechanech and the author of numerous books on the Rebbeim and their chassidim. He is available to farbreng in your community and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org