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What Stories Should a Hasid Tell?

adapted by Doug Lipman

The traveller knocked on the door of the house of study of Rabbi Simcha Bunam. After a long while, the door opened. Inside stood a young, red-bearded Hasid - bleary-eyed and still straightening his clothing. "Shalom, welcome," the Hasid said distractedly. "Good to see you. It's been a while since you've joined us. But we shouldn't talk loud; the others are still sleeping."

The traveller pulled out his pocket watch. "It's late! Why are you all still asleep?"

The red-bearded Hasid said, "The stories kept us up."

The traveller's face fell. "I knew I should have come yesterday. I missed it? I missed Rabbi Bunam telling stories?"

"Not exactly," said the Hasid.

The traveller said, "Then the Hasidim were telling stories all night?"

The Hasid shrugged. "Well, not exactly."

By now, the traveller sounded frustrated. "So who was telling stories?"

The red-bearded Hasid sat down on a bench and motioned the traveller to sit next to him. "Well," he said, "Sit down. I might as well tell you what happened. No one else is up yet, anyway." He rubbed his eyes, then began.

"You see, it STARTED with us telling stories. But not holy stories. I don't know what came over us. But there we were, waiting for the rabbi to come in, and someone told a funny story about a mule. Then someone else told another story like it, and before we knew what was happening, we were laughing so hard we had tears in our eyes."

The traveller interrupted. "Even Yitzchak?"

"Well, no," the Hasid said. "You know how serious Yitzchak is about everything - especially about what he thinks a Hasid is NOT supposed to do. There he was, the youngest of us, sitting there scowling while we howled and slapped our sides. But we ignored him - at least until the rabbi came in."

The traveller leaned forward to hear more, and the red-bearded Hasid went on with his story:

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As soon as the door opened and we saw Rabbi Bunam standing there looking at us, we got silent really fast. And, without meaning to, we all looked at Yitzchak. Suddenly, we felt like school children who were going to be reported for bad behavior.

Rabbi Bunam looked only at Yitzchak. He said, "Yitzchak, do you have something you'd like to tell me?"

Piously, Yitzchak cast down his eyes. He said, "Well, Rabbi, I don't want to say anything bad about anyone."

The rabbi said, "Don't mention any names. But tell me what happened!"

Yitzchak began, "Well, some people were telling stories that weren't from the Talmud. They weren't about the rabbis and righteous ones of long ago. They weren't even holy! Hasidim shouldn't be telling stories like those. Right, rabbi?"

We expected the rabbi to reprimand us, or at least to give us a disapproving look. But he ignored us completely. He sat down - not at his usual place, but next to Yitzchak. He said, "Thank you, Yitzchak, for being so concerned about what stories you tell. It's important to be thoughtful about the words that come out of your mouth."

Then the rabbi said, "Would you like to hear another idea about stories?"

This wasn't what the rest of us expected! We exchanged glances with each other. Perhaps we weren't in trouble!

Meanwhile, Yitzchak narrowed his eyes. But what could he do? "Please tell, me, Rabbi," he said, with just the tiniest hint of petulance.

The rabbi ignored Yitzchak's tone. "Once, they say," the rabbi said, "after the Baal Shem Tov himself had told a common tale, one of his Hasidim complained. The Hasid asked the Baal Shem Tov why he would tell such a tale. The Baal Shem Tov said, "To answer that, I have to tell you a story."

"Here's the story that the holy Baal Shem Tov told:"

There was once a king who sent his son, the prince, to command a palace that was on the frontiers of his kingdom. He said, "Son, this palace is so far from me, that it is in constant danger of attack. As a result, it has seven enormous storerooms. Please stock them all with food. You won't be able to procure enough excellent food to fill them all, so stock them with whatever food you can find. There may come a time when you need every morsel."

The prince saw little point in gathering poor food, but he did what his father told him.

As it happened, the prince's palace was laid siege by an invading army. Soon, the prince's subjects had exhausted the supply of good food. Still, thanks to the full storehouses, the palace's inhabitants outlasted the invaders, who eventually grew hungry themselves and left. The poor food had made the difference between victory and surrender.

"And so," continued the Baal Shem Tov, "what seems like an un-nourishing story to you now, may prove to be exactly what you need later."

As Rabbi Bunam ended his little story, he turned to look Yitzchak in the eye. And he waited.

Yitzchak looked away, clenching and unclenching his fists - almost as though he wasn't willing to give up his moral superiority so easily. He said, "But you say there are more views than one, Rabbi. What do YOU think?"

The rabbi leaned back. "That's a good question, too. To answer it, I have to tell you a story about myself."

Naturally, we Hasidim perked up our ears. We weren't sure if this was a private story, meant just for Yitzchak, or if it was for all of us. But since the rabbi didn't tell us NOT to listen, we strained to hear every word.

Once, when I was just a young rabbi, I was travelling to Warsaw. I stopped at an inn beside the road. When I entered, I saw a table of Jews about to eat dinner. There was an empty seat, so I asked if I could join them. They let me, but I heard snickers as I removed my coat to sit down. Looking at their faces, I understood that these Jews had a low opinion of Hasidim. To them, I was a buffoon, an object of ridicule. In fact, as I tried to make conversation with them, I saw them rolling their eyes at each other. I even heard muttered insults.

What was I to do? I wanted them to know that we Hasidim are not clowns, even though we sometimes move and even cry as we pray. I wanted to tell them that Hasidic rabbis aren't impious, even though we sometimes pray when we feel able, which may be later than the prescribed times. How could I gain their respect? After all, I was a rabbi!

As I pondered what to say next, I was seized with the desire to tell a certain story. This desire horrified me! Surely, I thought, I couldn't tell THAT story to these men! It was a worldly story. And it was humorous, too. I said to myself, "If I tell this story, they will lose all respect for me as a rabbi!"

At that moment, I remembered Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz. He had taught that ALL joy comes from Paradise. Even jests are from heaven - provided that they are uttered in pure joy. I thought to myself, "For me, this story that I want to tell is joyful. Do I have to choose between being a rabbi and being joyful? Well, if I am forced to choose, I will choose joy." So at that moment, in my heart of hearts, I renounced being a rabbi. Then I told the story to those Jews at the table.

When I finished the story, they all laughed heartily. Looking at their faces, I saw that they were no longer hardened against me. For the rest of that evening, though we talked of many things, we touched each others' hearts.

His story over, Rabbi Bunam turned, straddling the bench to face Yitzchak full on. He said, "So, do you know what I think, Yitzchak?" The rabbi put his hand on Yitzchak's shoulder. "I think I'd like to hear a story that gives YOU joy."

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The red-bearded Hasid stopped talking. Eventually, the traveller said, "Is that it?"

"Yes," said the Hasid. "That's why we got no sleep last night."

The traveller said incredulously, "Because you stayed up listening to Yitzchak?"

"No," said the Hasid. "We all went to bed, except Yitzchak and the rabbi. But through the night, we were awakened again and again - by their laughter!"



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This page was last updated on Monday, March 10, 2003
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