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The Wisest Men of Chelm: A Fable For Our Time

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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
barn.

''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
barn.

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

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
now.''

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
scrolls.

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.

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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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