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The Wisest Men of Chelm: A Fable For Our Time

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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

''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

''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.''

Following Rebbe Shimon

The villagers followed the lead of the
learned Rebbe Shimon. They gathered up
bundles of dry straw from neighboring shacks
and shanties. They tossed them onto the flames
of the fire in the barn. It seemed to work, for the
flames could no longer be seen below the
bundles of dry straw, merely smoldering smoke.

''Hurrah,'' shouted the bocherim from the
Rebbe Shimon's cheder. ''We have succeeded!
We must run to the shul and say the birkat
hagomel blessing at once.''

But before they took their leave, new
flames suddenly sprung up from the piles of
straw they had brought and tossed in to the

''Gevalt,'' moaned the learned Rebbe
Shimon. ''You see? We did not act quickly and
decisively enough. More straw!!''

''Are you entirely meshugana? Are you
completely shikkered ad lo yada?'' objected
Sheriff Arik. ''Did you not just see that your
idea failed? It just made the inferno worse! The
fire now is even more dangerous!''

''What do you know from fighting fires,
Mister Know-It-All,'' Rebbe Shimon asked
mockingly. ''You already admitted you do not
have a better solution, one that would work and
save the barn.''

So Rebbe Shimon ordered the villagers to
double their efforts. They quickly raced to
nearby homes and stables and brought out more
bundles of straw. They doubled their efforts and
redoubled the size of the straw piled into the

The flames disappeared beneath the new
fresh straw and Rebbe Shimon ordered a special
celebration, with kiddush wine from the shul's

But before the bottles could be opened,
new flames shot up from the ruins of the barn
and the neighboring inn and cottages burst into
flames from the flying sparks.

''Faster, you lazy ones,'' screamed Rebbe
Shimon. ''You are not working hard enough to
bring straw. We need to try something new

But the villagers had grown angry and
restless and grumbled when Rebbe Shimon
walked down the cobble-stoned streets.

''Ok, I give up,'' said Rebbe Shimon. ''I
still believe my solution is the only one that can
work, but I am now stepping aside. It is time for
a new chief rabbi to carry the flame, if you
excuse the expression.''

Rebbe Shimon then nominated a student
and follower from his own yeshiva to take over
as chief rabbi.

Enter Rebbe Ehud

As the new chief rabbi and head of the
yeshiva previously led by Rebbe Shimon, Rebbe
Ehud ordered the villagers to take shibboleths
of straw and light their ends from the flames
and to toss them into alleys and buildings
several streets away from the barn.

''This will spread the heat around,
lowering the temperatures and will result in the
fire diminishing and cooling off. Trust me, I
understand the nature of fires and have a
longstanding close relationship with them.''

''A complete madman,'' groaned Arik the
Constable. ''Can't you see that everything you
and your deranged yeshiva friends did until now
just made things worse? Now you will create
even greater destruction!''

''Shah shtil,'' replied Rebbe Ehud. ''We
are still waiting to hear your solution for saving
the barn and putting out the fires.''

''But there is no solution,? Sheriff Arik
insisted. ''I explained this to Rebbe Shimon
before and I am repeating it to you. The only
thing to be done is to prevent the catastrophe
from growing larger.''

''Idiot,'' said the students of Rebbe Ehud,
agreeing with their master. ''Can't you see the
current situation is unbearable? The barn is
demolished and more buildings are now in
flames. We cannot simply sit back and tolerate
the intolerable.

?If you cannot offer a real solution, then
hold your tongue. If you don't shut up, we will
have you and your friends imprisoned by the
Cossacks for criminal incitement and sedition.''

New piles of straw were brought in now
from every part of the village and tossed upon
the flames, which leapt from rooftop to rooftop,
burning all of the unfortunate fiddlers and
chickens up there.

Fire crept toward the village square and
now threatened to burn the shul and the sacred

The villagers saw the damage and broke
into collective lamentation, as if it were the
Ninth Day of Av.

New Hope

Finally Rebbe Ehud was also forced to step
down from his revered post. But the yeshiva of
Rebbe Shimon and Rebbe Ehud was not about
to give up.

The yeshiva decided to replace Rebbe
Ehud with a new chief rabbi, a shifty character
who was serving as the moshgiach of the
northern quarter of the village, where he had
allowed a number of shochtim to get rich selling
non-kosher chickens in exchange for their
endorsements should he ever be considered for
the post of chief rabbi.

News of the appointment of the new chief
rabbi spread almost as quickly as the out-of-
control fire. The yeshiva of Rebbe Shimon and
Rebbe Ehud was filled with new hope and glee.

?Our cause is still alive, our banner high,?
the bocherim sang as they danced around the
leaping flames.

And so it was that Rebbe Amram stepped
forward before the yeshiva students and laid out
his plan for fighting the fire, with courage and

''There is still one last chance to save the
town from destruction,'' said Rebbe Amram.
''All is not yet lost if we just fight this
catastrophe with all of our beings and all of our
souls and all of our strength. We must do this
together now, all of us, with every fiber of our
being. And you too this time, Tevye the
Milkman. I beseech every one of you:


Steven Plaut is a professor at the Graduate
School of Business at Haifa University. He is
the author of ''The Scout,'' published by Gefen.

Steven Plaut

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

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