Joel E. Gimpel
September 29, 2001

Most of us have experienced a lot of Jewishness during the last twelve days: Rosh Hashonah, Shabbat Tschuvah, Yom Kippur, and now, our regular Shabbat services, soon to be followed by Sukkot and Simchat Torah! So, I’ll keep this “brief,” but not in the legal sense where a brief is usually anything but. No, I’ll really be brief.

We’ve just heard a moving reading of Parshat Ha’azinu, the Torah portion comprised primarily of Moses’ “song” about the horrible tragedies and supreme joy that will make up the Jewish people’s future history. Not your classic piece of rhyme and music, Moses’ “song” is nevertheless comparable to a great work of art in that it blends together otherwise disparate ideas into a beautiful symphony of thought. It expresses the recognition that every aspect of creation and everything that Hashem does – past, present, and future – somehow fits together into a perfect harmony, although with our limited human understanding we do not always recognize it to be so. Moses calls heaven and earth, both everlasting witnesses, to bear witness that if the Jewish people sin and display ingratitude to Hashem for the many wonderful favors bestowed upon us, we will be punished, while if we remain loyal to the Torah and Hashem we will receive the greatest blessings. Even though the Jewish people will stray, Hashem guarantees our survival and ultimate redemption. The Torah portion concludes with Hashem’s command to Moses to ascend Mt. Nebo, where he will view the land of Israel and then pass away.

I believe that one of the favors, blessings if you will, bestowed upon us, is the profound sense of humor that we Jews have enjoyed and used throughout the ages to help overcome the many trials and tribulations that have befallen us. So in that spirit, I’ll share several of my favorite stories – stories that demonstrate the wonderful strength and wisdom of our people, and that clearly illustrate our ability to laugh at adversity.

It seems that Rabbi Scharf was in the Budapest railway terminal, waiting in line to buy a return ticket to his remote little village some 60 miles away. In front of him was an imposing, well-dressed gentleman who also purchased a ticket for the same destination. Aboard the train, they both settled themselves in the same compartment.

Ordinarily, the monotonous clickety-clack of steel wheels on rails would have made the good rabbi drowsy, but this time all his senses were alert. “Who is this man?” he wondered, “and what business can such a fine gentleman have in our little village?”

One does not boldly inquire into a stranger’s private affairs, of course, so Rabbi Scharf decided to find out by applying the talmudic process of elimination.

“Judging from his tailored clothes and expensive luggage he must be a professional man. Hmmm. A doctor perhaps? Yes, that might be it! Yoshilov is sick. But then again, Yoshilov is only a poor water carrier. How could he afford a big city specialist? Let me see. There’s Sarah Meyer, the dairyman’s wife. She seems to be filling out of late. She could be pregnant again. But even so, Sarah’s other two children were delivered by Malka, the midwife. Why should Meyer pay out his hard-earned money for an expensive doctor from Budapest?

“Maybe he’s not a doctor after all. What else, then? An engineer? But who needs a fancy engineer in our little village? Nobody! That’s out! It could be he’s a lawyer, but I myself adjudicate all local cases, so that can’t be right either.

“Wait a minute! Perhaps he is coming to visit a relative. Now let me think. Nobody has left our village for thirty years, but … say, didn’t Feivel the waggoner have a brother who went to live with an uncle in Budapest thirty-three years ago? Of course, that’s who he is. Feivel Cohen’s brother, Jacob!

“But why would Jacob be returning after so many years? Feivel seems to be in perfect health – except for an occasional toothache. Aha – now I have it! Jacob is a dentist and he’s coming to fix his brother’s teeth. That means he’s a doctor after all.

“But whoever heard of a big-city dentist named Jacob Cohen? No, he must have changed his name to something similar in Hungarian. Hmmm. Jacob. That would now be John. Yes, John Cohen! No! He would have Hungarianized his last name too. Cohen – Cohen – Cohen -! Ah, I have it – Kovac!”

Now the rabbi smiled and turned to his traveling companion. “Doctor John Kovac, I believe. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Rabbi Scharf.”

The stranger was somewhat taken aback. “How did you know I was Doctor Kovac?”

Replied the rabbi, “It was obvious.”

The second story illustrates Jewish ingenuity.

A man came into the Eppes Essen Delicatessen for dinner, and when he was finished, the owner came over to him. “Was everything all right sir?” the owner asked.

“Fine, just fine,” the man said. “But I would have liked a little more bread.”

The owner spoke to the waiter. “How much bread did you give that man?” he asked.

“Two slices,” came the reply.

“Well,” said the owner, “the next time that man comes in, I want you to give him four slices.”

The man returned the next night, and when dinner was over, the owner came over to him. “Was everything all right, sir?”

“Fine, just fine,” the man said, “but I would have liked a little more bread.”

“How much bread did you give that man?” the owner asked the waiter.

“Four slices,” came the reply. “Just like you said.”

“Well,” said the owner, “the next time he comes in, I want you to give him seven slices.”

The next night the man was back again, and after dinner the owner came over and said, “Was everything all right sir?”

“Fine, just fine,” the man said. “But I would have liked a little more bread.”

“How much bread did you give that man?” the owner asked the waiter.

“Seven slices, just like you said,” said the waiter.

“Well,” said the owner, “the next time he comes in, I want you to take a whole loaf of bread, the biggest loaf in the kitchen, and cut it in the middle. Give the man both halves.”

After dinner the next night the owner came over to the man and asked, “Was everything all right, sir?”

“Fine, just fine,” the man said. “But I see you’re back to two slices.”

And finally – I can’t really think of a category for this one. Perhaps, you’ll be able to fit it in an appropriate slot.

It is the afternoon of Yom Kippur. The sun is low in the sky, and only a few prayers remain in the service. As the concluding Ne’illah service is about to begin, the cantor’s voice gives out. The old man can barely utter a whisper, and it is clear to everyone that he won’t be able to conclude the service.

The president of the congregation stands up: “Does anybody here know how to chant the service?” But nobody stands up to volunteer for the task. The president begins to plead with the congregation: “Surely somebody knows the service well enough to lead it”” But nobody steps forward.

Finally, in the back of the room, one man cautiously raises his hand. “Nu,” says the president. “Be so kind as to come up and finish the service.”

“No, it’s not me,” the man replies. “It’s my dog. He’s at home now, but he knows the whole service. We went over it just the other day. I’m telling you that my dog can sing it beautifully.”

After the laughter dies down, the call goes out again. But still there is nobody who can finish the service. Now the sun is sinking further, and unless somebody can be found eo lead the rest of the service, the entire group may have to remain in its place without food or drink until a cantor can be brought from a far-off city to finish the task.

The man in the back stands up and says, once again, “I’m telling you, my dog knows the service!” This time some of the people are not laughing.

As more time passes, the man’s offer is starting to sound more reasonable. An emergency meeting of the board is called, and after a heated discussion, it is decided that if the dog will wear a tallit and a yarmulke, he will be permitted to ascend the pulpit and lead the congregation in the concluding prayers of Yom Kippur.

It is almost dark when a medium-sized white-and-tan shaggy dog, wearing a tallit and a yarmulke, walks up to the podium. Nobody is prepared for what follows. The dog not only knows all the prayers and the melodies, but he sings them better than the chazzan! Never before has anyone in the congregation heard such beautiful melodies – and so piously rendered. One by one even the most skeptical members of the congregation are moved to tears as the dog’s chant ascends to heaven. After a few minutes, after the dog has the feel of the room, he actually closes his prayer book, and many in the congregation will later claim that it was as though he were reading the prayers out of the very heavens.

And still the dog continues to sing. The room is filled with the spirit of repentance that is normally reserved for the sages of old. When the final shofar blast is sounded, and the dog’s work completed, and Yom Kippur is finally brought to a close, nobody in the congregation is able to leave. Everyone is too excited about the dog, and they all gather around the man who had been sitting in the back of the room.

The president speaks for everyone. “Your dog is just wonderful,” he says. “The service has been an inspiration to us all. This is just terrific, hearing such a talented dog. Why don’t you get him to become a chazzan?”

“You talk to him,” replies the owner. “He wants to be a doctor!”

So, as we embark upon this new year, 5762 in our calendar, let us remember our heritage, which includes the ability to laugh at ourselves, at our virtues and at our faults, because I truly believe that such laughter and sense of humor is really a display of gratitude for the favors that Hashem has bestowed upon us, and helps us to remain loyal to Torah and Hashem.

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