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The Wisest Men of Chelm: A Fable For Our Time

In the back country south of Warsaw, there
stood a small shtetl, a little Jewish village,
named Chelm. Renowned across the Pale, the
villagers of Chelm were famous for their sharp
wits, their inventive brains, and their capacity
for resolving difficult problems.

Of the many wise men of Chelm, the
wisest of all was the young Rebbe Shimon, who
took over after the tragic murder of his
predecessor Rebbe Yitzhak by a deranged
yeshiva bocher. Reb Shimon was an ambitious
man. He sought to be elected and remain the
permanent chief rebbe of all of Chelm.

The villagers of Chelm were all very
happy, if impoverished, and spent their simple
lives in quiet contemplation and meditation.
The town was structured around a central
square, next to which stood the shul, a small
library, a mikvah, the blacksmith, and the home
of Rebbe Shimon himself, with his many wise
and learned followers and sons.

Behind these structures stood alleys in
which the simple menschen of Chelm lived: the
tailors, tinkers, chimney sweeps, peddlers and
cobblers, together with their chickens, horses,
and milk cows. And at the very edge of the
village stood the barn in which visitors could
have their carriage horses housed and tended to.

The Fire Approaches

One day, back when Rebbe Yitzhak was
still serving as chief rebbe, a small cloud of
smoke could be seen from the village square,
rising above this very same barn. The Shabbas
shiksa ran into the cheder and grabbed the bell
sometimes used by the rebbe to call the tardy
bocherim to study.

She rang it as loud as she could and
screamed ''Fire in the barn, Fire in the barn.''

All of the wise villagers of Chelm
immediately congregated in the town square.

''Quickly, to the barn,'' called Rebbe
Shimon. ''Let us put out this fire before it
threatens the whole town.''

Everyone raced to the edge of town, and
there they saw that the entire barn was ablaze.
The walls were already collapsing inwards on
the handful of poor animals lodged therein. The
entire barn floor was covered with dry straw,
which caught fire rapidly. A long sigh arose
from the assembled.

?No doubt the fire was started by a careless
stable boy, smoking a pipe,? opined Mendel the
cobbler. Rebbe Shimon agreed.

''Yes,'' agreed Motke the butcher, ''and it
was careless to have left so much dry straw
lying around. The entire tragedy might have
been avoided had we earlier used better
judgment.''

''Never mind that now,'' said Tevye the
foolish milkman. ''That is all spilt milk, a
matter about which I know a great deal. We still
need to do something lest the entire town be
engulfed in these flames. They are getting hotter
by the minute and will spread destruction.?

''You are right,'' said Rebbe Shimon, who
liked to tell all people they were right even
when they disagreed with one another. ''What
we need to do is to cover these flames quickly
with new straw. This will dampen the
temperatures in the barn, hide the flames behind
new secure cover, and protect the rest of the
town from destruction.''

''You are making a Purim shpiel, right?''
objected Arik the village constable. ''That is no
solution at all. It will just make things hotter
and more destructive.''

''Oh you think so, Mister Smarty Gotkas?''
said Rebbe Shimon. ''So you do not like my
solution? All right then, you tell us all how to
make the flames disappear and make the barn
rematerialize.''

''I am afraid there is nothing that can save
the barn at this point,'' answered Sheriff Arik
reluctantly. ''We simply have to write it off as
lost. Maybe we were foolish to allow conditions
that lead to its catching fire in the first place.''

''You are dodging the issue,'' objected
Rebbe Shimon. ''I am waiting to hear how you
plan to save the barn from destruction.''

''I am afraid there is no such solution,''
sighed Arik. ''The village has been kept so poor
by the Overseas Noblemen and the Aristocrats
that we have insufficient fire fighting
equipment, and we can not use what we have to
its full capacity without angering them.

?Besides, there are no hoses in the town
that could reach the barn from the well. We
could set up a bucket brigade but will not be
able to do so in time to prevent the demolition
of the barn.

''The best we can do is to make sure the
situation does not get any worse. There are
other structures in the town in danger of
catching fire from these sparks. We need to
exert all our efforts in making sure the damage
is contained.''

''You see,'' said Rebbe Shimon derisively.
''The big yenta constable does not have a
solution to the problem after all. So we must
stop all this pilpul and pursue my solution at
once. The current situation is intolerable.''

About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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