Weekly Chasidic Story #1037 (s5778-06/ 3 Cheshvan 5778)

The Coachman's Second Profession

"Tell me," asked the Tzemach Tzedek unexpectedly, "What was the name of the wagon-driver who brought you here?"

Connection: Weekly Reading (end) -- Circumcision

The Coachman's Second Profession


Reb Asher leaned back on the cushions inside the carriage and contemplated the countryside rolling past the window. G-d willing, it would be another pleasant, predictable trip.

A wealthy chassid successful in business, and adept in the art of spiritual acquisition as well, he made several visits a year to his Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek. When he felt the urge, he'd rent a fine carriage and driver, and travel in ease to Lubavitch.

His trip to the Tzemach Tzedek passed smoothly, and he entered the Rebbe's study to receive his parting blessing. "Tell me," asked the Rebbe unexpectedly, "what was the name of the wagon-driver who brought you here?" Asher, eyebrows slightly lifted in surprise, answered; the Rebbe reflected on his words. A moment passed; then he spoke:

"I have a request of you: on your next trip here, I'd like you to take again this Yermiyahu ('Jeremiah'), for your wagon-driver."

The wealthy man's body language, though subtle, hinted at his amazement; his mind raced to grasp the Rebbe's intention.

This request, it was clear, lay behind his decision to return to Lubavitch after only a few weeks had passed. He sent a messenger to locate Yermiyahu the wagon-driver, and made the offer: "A trip to Lubavitch, a few days' sojourn in the Rebbe's court, and the return home." Yermiyahu agreed.

The two soon reached Lubavitch and Asher rushed toward the Rebbe's room. "I've merited to fulfill the Rebbe's holy request," he said proudly, "Yermiyahu the wagon-driver brought me; he's here in town."

"If that's the case," answered the Rebbe, obviously pleased by the news, "please ask him to come here. I'd like very much to see him."

Now Yermiyahu was a simple, down-to-earth wagon-driver-and stubborn. His employer's suggestion to visit the Rebbe was met with disinterest: "Look: I don't know the Rebbe; what do I have to talk about with a Rebbe?"

The Rebbe's will - his desire, come from Heaven, Asher thought. It seems there's no option other than to force him.

"If you're not interested," he told Yermiyahu gently, "then you're free to go back alone. What's there for you to do here? I'm staying a while longer; I can easily hire another wagon to return home."

Yermiyahu blinked; his handsome profits were going up in smoke. Balancing his admittedly strong preferences against his market instinct, he quickly agreed to see the Rebbe.

"Shalom Aleichem, Reb Yermiyahu!" The Rebbe, smiling, greeted him, and talked about various topics. The meeting lasted awhile, and at its close the Tzemach Tzedek said, "I'd like to invite you to join me for a Yom-Tov [holiday] style festive meal tomorrow evening."

Yermiyahu turned down this offer as well. His wealthy employer caught wind of the refusal, and again dangled his threat; Yermiyahu sent word that he accepted the Rebbe's offer.

The Tzemach Tzedek asked the Rebbitzin to prepare a festive meal for the whole family - plus Yermiyahu the wagon-driver - for the following evening.

It didn't take long for this unusual bit of news to spread among the chasidim, and their wonderment knew no end. First, the Rebbe makes a special request to bring the wagon-driver to Lubavitch. And then, if that weren't enough, he asks him to come for yechidus (private meeting)! Now, to top everything off, a festive meal on an ordinary weekday?!

Savoros and speculations flew in every direction; pundits of all stripes had a field day. The conclusion? Yermiyahu - now: Reb Yermiyahu - must be a lamed-vavnik, a member of the elite brotherhood of the hidden 36 righteous whose merit sustains the world! He was followed everywhere. Long dialogs were initiated with him to uncover his spiritual greatness.

Being Chabad chasidim, analytical types, they soon ascertained that despite his startling closeness to the Rebbe, at the end of the day he was exactly as he claimed: a simple wagon-driver. Presumed mystical connections were discarded in favor of the direct approach: "Nu?" someone abruptly asked, "You must know the reason why the Rebbe invited you to come and join him for a special meal, events like these just don't happen here!"

All eyes were directed now on Yermiyahu. He responded: a shrug. What do they want from me? I have no idea, myself!

But shrugs were unacceptable for this group, and the interrogation continued.

Then, a flashback.

* * *

As you know," Yermiyahu began, "I drive a wagon, and it's often the case that my work takes me to distant villages and small towns. It's hard to believe, but there are Jews living in many of these far-off places. Sometimes only two or three isolated families.

"Traveling around in these areas you can feel the misery they endure: no minyan to pray with and no shul; no Torah schools for their little ones to learn in. Worst of all, though, and the most painful, is that when a baby boy is born, there's no one to perform the mitzvah of brit milah ['Covenant of Circumcision'] on the eighth day. Plenty of times weeks or even months go by before a mohel - someone who can do a proper circumcision - happens to come along. That's rougher than all their other problems together.

"Now like I said before, I'm a simple guy. Not at all a Torah scholar or a big-shot. But I've got enough brains to learn the laws of milah, circumcision, and that's what I decided to do. I wanted that the next time I'd get into a situation where there was a baby with no one to circumcise it, I'd be able to do it myself.

"And that's what I did. I learned all the laws and all their details, and became qualified. From then on whenever I went on a long trip, I took along my 'tools of the trade.' If I passed through a village where there was a newborn boy but no mohel, I'd do the circumcision myself.

"A few months ago I was hired to make a trip that took me through an enormous forest. I was driving along on a good paved road, and suddenly I heard someone crying bitterly. Where was it coming from, I wondered; who was it whose life was so miserable?

"I got down from the wagon, tied the horse to a tree, and started walking in the direction of the crying. It was coming from a rundown hut not far away, wedged between some trees.

"It's not easy to tell you what I saw next - inside was a Jewish woman sitting on a low wobbly stool next to the wall, crying; next to her, an infant wrapped in rags. A man, the baby's father, was lying across from them groaning, and dying.

"It was a sad situation. I asked her why she was crying. She didn't act surprised to see me. She'd given birth to a boy, she said in a voice of exhaustion and grief, and today was the infant's eighth day. Her husband was in critical condition; there was no one to travel to the city and arrange for a mohel to come.

"I tried to comfort her. 'I'm a mohel,' I told her, 'Everything I need to conduct a bris milah is in my wagon. I'll arrange it all; you can stop worrying.'

"She looked at me as though I was a heavenly angel (which certainly I am not!), and began to calm down. For my part, I was already hurrying to arrange everything for the circumcision. It took a few minutes to set up: the infant was healthy; my instruments were ready. Only a sandek was missing to hold the baby during the milah. The baby's father certainly couldn't manage: to lift himself from the bed was out of the question; how would he ever hold the baby properly?

"I trotted out to where the roads intersected in the forests' depths. There had to be a Jew - any Jew - who would hold the baby. "But it was getting late; the sun was already casting long shadows through the forest's haze. The sounds of the forest surrounded me as I stood there waiting, rotating my gaze between the four directions, Not a single soul in sight.

"I was frustrated: everything I could do, I had done. But a sandek? - How do you make a sandek?

"All of a sudden, I hear something crashing through the underbrush. My heart skips a beat.

"A man bursts into the clearing. I stared--he looked different. Very tall. Lean. A long white beard. I looked at his noble face and could see he was very focused.

"'There's an eight-day-old baby boy in the hut over there,' I ran to tell him, 'and I'm prepared to do the milah. But there's no sandek to hold him.'

"As I said: this guy was a little unusual. I'm standing there, talking to him; and he doesn't even stop walking! No words; nothing - as though I wasn't there!

"What am I supposed to do? A Jew walks out of the middle of nowhere. He can be sandek yet he won't even listen to me?! - It was too much!

"I jump into action and block him. Almost absent-mindedly he gives a shove that sends me spinning. It's a miracle my bones weren't broken!

"Everything hit me then: bitterness, humiliation; my throat was choked with tears. I didn't give up. Begging, I tried a second time. 'Please... Hold the baby. Just a few seconds...'

"He stops abruptly and stares at me for some long drawn-out seconds. It feels like he's looking through me! Then, barely, he nods his head in agreement.

"I don't think I ever felt such joy. In the last moments of the day I managed to complete the milah.

"Figuring this fellow was in a big rush to go somewhere, I told him he could now leave. Then, for the first time, he opens his mouth: 'The circumcision was done properly,' he says, 'Now we have to sit down to a festive meal, as Jews everywhere do at a bris milah.'

"His words took me aback. I looked at him again. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps he is an itinerant panhandler, and this was his chance for a free meal.

"I remembered that in my satchel on the wagon I still had some bread and cheese I had taken for the trip. So, when I finished bandaging the infant I went to bring back the food. This seemed to please my sandek, who nodded.

"The woman threw a ragged cloth over the table, and we were about to wash our hands [before eating bread] when the sandek says: 'We're making a festive in honor of a new Jewish male entering the Covenant. Shouldn't the little boy's father join us?'

"This old guy must have a couple of loose screws, I thought, pointing to the almost lifeless father. 'Can't you see? - He's practically dead! What do you want from him?!'

"But he's not fazed. He gets up, walks over to the father, and pulls him out of bed. I'm still trying to believe what I just saw, when - I realize the father is standing up alone, on his two feet, looking like a healthy person!

"Everyone ate their fill, and with happy hearts we sang the traditional song in honor of Eliyahu HaNavi [Elijah the prophet-who is said to be present at every bris mila ceremony]. At the end the three of us recited the Blessings After A Meal together, and I exited the house, as did the sandek.

"The fact that the boy's father stood up, fully recovered, was mind-boggling. I wanted to ask the panhandler about that, as well as thank him for his effort; but when I turned toward him, he was gone, as though the ground swallowed him up! I never ran into him again after that; but, you know, in my mind's eye I can still see those striking features.

"It was surely the strangest event that ever happened in my life; I've never been able to make any sense out of it.

* * *

Toward evening the next day, Yermiyahu was accompanied to the Tzemach Tzedek's house. A beautiful seudah had been prepared with fish and meat, accompanied by all sorts of delicacies.

The Rebbe sat at the head of the table, the wagon-driver at his side, with the rest of the household arranged in their places, struggling to control their wonder at what lay behind a festive meal on an ordinary weekday - and with such a guest of honor.

When they had finished eating and Yermiyahu had already left, one of the Rebbe's sons could no longer restrain himself: "Excuse me, Father, but what's this all about?!

"A Jew who merits eating together with our patriarch Avraham- and from the same plate! - such a person I also want the merit to eat with," was the astonishing reply of the Tzemach Tzedek.

Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the translation by Tuvia Natkin from the original Hebrew of Menachem Ziegelbaum in Kfar Chabad Magazine.

Biographical note:
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn [of blessed memory: 29 Elul 5549 - 13 Nissan 5626 (Sept. 1789 - April 1866)], the third Rebbe of Chabad, was known as the Tzemach Tzedek, after his books of Jewish Law responsa and Talmudic commentary called by that name. He was renowned not only as a Rebbe, but also as a leading scholar in his generation in both the revealed and hidden aspects of Torah. (Photo from chabad.org)
Connection: Weekly Reading (end) -- Circumcision


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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