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Story: Parshat Tazria/Metzora, 4/24/20

04/28/2020 09:32:07 AM


Rabbi Charlie

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion – Tazria/Metzora – focuses on a strange disease that requires isolation whether you have it or not. Out of all the Torah portions, this was one that I never anticipated would have such parallels with real life. When you find yourself in an unexpected situation, when difficulties are all around, it can help to turn to the wisdom of Chelm.

Jews have a long history and tradition of wisdom, but none thought themselves wiser than the fools of Chelm. Chelm is a real town in Poland, but it holds a special place of honor in the world of Jewish folklore and legend. The Chelmites were famous for their foolish wisdom, for in Chelm, wisdom was turned on its head.

For instance, for the Chelmites, nothing represented wisdom as much as a long beard. Once, a clean-faced Chelmite went to the wise and bearded rabbi to ask why he couldn’t grow a beard. The rabbi answered quite simply that it was a matter of heredity. “If your father couldn’t grow a beard, you can’t grow one either.” “But,” said the peach-faced Chelmite, “my father did have a beard!” “Aha,” said the rabbi, “that means you must take after your mother.” The Chelmite walked away, smiling. The rabbi was absolutely right. It was true, his mother didn’t have a beard, and he had been granted a measure of Chelm’s foolish wisdom.

Once, in Chelm, there was a wise fool named Shmuel, who was a great lover of riddles and stories. One day, while visiting the town of Berditchev, he stopped by the shul to visit the shammes, the caretaker, who was always a source of gossip and tales. On this visit, he was not disappointed. The shammes of Berditchev asked him to ponder this riddle: I am my father’s son, but I am not my brother. Who am I?

What a wonderful riddle! Shmuel stroked his long, narrow beard and furrowed his brow. He repeated the question aloud again and again, as if to help it make its way through his ears toward the general direction of his brain: “I am my father’s son, but I am not my brother. I am my father’s son, but I am not my brother. I am my father’s son, but I am not my brother.”

“Can’t you see?” said the shammes of Berditchcv. “It’s me! You see, I am my father’s son, but I am not my brother.”

Even though he hadn’t solved the riddle, Shmuel was very impressed. He hurried back to Chelm, barely able to contain his excitement about telling a new riddle to the wise fools of Chelm. As soon as he was back in town, he hurried to his fellow Chelmites. He asked them: “I am my father’s son, but I am not my brother. Who am I ?”

A chorus of voices repeated the question to one another and themselves. The synagogue was abuzz with puzzlement. “I am my father’s son, but I am not my brother. I am my father’s son, but I am not my brother.

And then, almost in chorus, they looked at Shmuel and said, “We give up. Who is it?”

“Why, of course,” he cried, “it’s the shammes of Berdirchev!”

“The shammes of Berditchev?” they cried. “Why, yes – he told me so himself!” said Shmuel.

The struggles of Jewish life gave birth to a special brand of humor – the sense of humor that created the imaginary fools of Chelm – some say in partnership with God. It’s the kind of sense of humor that reminds us that no matter what we’re dealing with, what we’re going through, it’s always good to laugh. And that laughter can bring it’s own sense of healing and it’s own sense of joy. There may be a lot of anxiety and challenge and difficulty, but don’t forget to laugh a little.

Shabbat Shalom.


The story was adapted from “The Wise Fools of Chelm,” in While Standing on One Foot, by Nina Jaffe and Steve Zeitlin.

Fri, October 30 2020 12 Cheshvan 5781