Sermon Kol Nidre- September 25, 2012
We are all in this Together: The Stories of Yosef Weber,
Delivered at Rollins Chapel
The prophetic reading for Yom Kippur morning is Isaiah Chapter 57:14 through 58:4. There are two sections that I wish to read. The first is as follows:
This is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to offer clothing, and not to ignore your kin.
If you banish the yoke from your midst, the menacing hand, the evil speech, and you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature – then shall your light shine in darkness and your gloom shall be like noonday.
I want to read a short story of an aspiring young author by the name of Yosef Weber. He has won literary prizes for his depiction of shtetl life. He is described as Hasidic, a pious individual who is grounded in Torah and well respected in his community, yet knowledgeable and engaged in the real world. His story-writing capability is every bit as good as Safron’s, Chabon’s, Singer’s, or Wiesel’s.
In Order to Fully Appreciate His Work
The setting is a shtetl and centers on the role of the kehilla, the Jewish community’s elected leadership and a wheat merchant by the name of Reb Chaim. Everyone in the Shtetl(s) had a vote, but some more than others based on the extent of taxes they had paid the year before. If you paid more, then you had more votes.
The Kehillah’s primary functions were to levy and collect taxes then use these funds to provide for the poor, for burial in appropriate cases, and to secure the services of both a Rabbi and a Shochet – a kosher butcher. Another important duty was to secure wheat for Passover in order to make Matzah, and that is the subject of matter of Yosef Weber’s short story.
The Kehilah would do this once a year at the beginning of Adar, about 45 prior to Passover. They would call a town meeting. All the area wheat merchants would be invited. There would be an auction for this contract. The wheat merchant would speculate on the true cost of the wheat against the bid that they would wager. The lower the bid, the better it would be for the Kehillah so as to make it affordable for everyone, for the poor must also have Matzah.
For those of you that might have difficulty with this concept because it involves math, the wheat merchant might bid the contract at say 1 zloty (Polish currency akin to a dollar) or so many groshen (pennies) per bushel. Let us say, he would bid 1 zloty ($1.00) per bushel and that the order would be for 50 bushels. He would then go to his own vendors or markets and try to purchase the wheat for less money; an example might be $.50 groshen (half a zloty). Their profit would be 50 groshen, or 100% profit.
Let us begin.
The Shtetl waited with impatience. With kindness, the first bird of spring announced better or brighter days ahead. The long winter was already on its way out. Odors mixing winter and spring filled the rooms of the house. Ceilings were torn, spider webs everywhere, and water mixed with dust would stream from the walls.
The floor was covered with a thick coat of wet mud where planks disappeared. The small windows sealed with earth after the holiday of Succoth accumulated moisture and turned to a green slime. Through these windows, the mud-covered rays of the outside tried to enter the house.
The mist and the melting snow added a depressive feeling. The old worn clothes itched and scraped the body. The hay of the mattresses was already rotten and spilled from the beds. The air in the room was stifling. Filth surrounded us and the youth was like all youth. How could we escape a bit from the room? However, the holiday of Pesach knocking at the door.
The first day of the month of Adar, between the Mincha and Maariv service, the Shamash of the shul banged his bony hand on the table and announced in the name of the community that after the services there would be an auction for the Pesach flour. The announcement evoked a great deal of joy from the membership; a sort of holiday feeling swept through the air and warmed the entire shul. Happiness was written on all the faces. The hope for spring, flowers, grass and promenades was on everybody’s mind. People started talking. It took a while until the congregation finished the Maariv service and quieted down for business. The various shul activities like the Mishnayot study group that met every evening, was suspended due to the Auction. Their tables emptied and orphaned for this evening. The lamps in the area gleamed a bit weaker than other days. Here (in the Bet Midrash, House of Study) sat people in winter evenings who studied and frequently day dreamt. Young boys would spend entire evenings studying the Talmud and often think of their future. Suddenly, the area was deserted.
The services finished, clusters of congregates formed to discuss the matter on hand. Next to the door and near the stove stood a few sacks of flour to show and their owners, the wheat merchants. These merchants discussed all kinds of possibilities and deals in order to form a cartel that would set the price and so they would bid as a unit. However, all efforts to form a cartel failed and the merchants rushed home to bring money for the deposit that would be needed if they won the
auction. In another area of the Shul stood the jokers of the crowd who made fun of the way the business session was conducted.
Meanwhile the Shamash was very busy carrying messages back and forth, while merchants grew more and more moody. Next to us stood a group of cheder boys listed all the items that their parents would purchase for them for the Pesach holiday: new suits, shoes and hats. Their mouths salivated when they described the taste of the matzos and potato latkes. Profusion of words and noises and above us scattered the smoke of cigarettes and pipes away.
Suddenly, a loud noise was heard. The Shamash banged the wooden hammer on a table and stood up on a bench in the corner of the eastern wall, so as to be closest to Jerusalem, and so that he would tower above the congregation. His glazed eyes looked toward the ceiling and his head tilted to a side that gave him a saintly look. The yellow goat beard completed the picture. He announced that the auction has officially begun. The anticipation of the meeting grew by the minute. Haim, the biggest wheat merchant, moved to the big table covered with a green tablecloth. The movement was difficult and slow since the shul was packed with so many people. The people were jealous as well as respectful of the position of Haim.
Two candelabras stood on top of the table with burning candles. At the head of the table sat the rabbi and next to him the head of the Kehillah. A pen, paper, ink, and the seal of the Kehillah were placed on the table. Alongside of it sat the members of the kehilla board, their faces stern and serious. Haim reached the table and counted his deposit money. Meanwhile two other groups were formed who sent their representatives to the table. The rabbi then spoke at length about the laws of kashrut for Passover, the duties of the mashgichim or religious supervisors to oversee the safekeeping and use of the flour for Passover. The speech was followed by the leader of the kehilla who discussed the financial aspect of the purchase of the flour, the financial situation of the kehilla and so on.
Haim the wheat merchant looked askance at all the other merchants and chewed one wheat kernel after the other. He paced back and forth and seemed to talk to himself in an angry tone; his heavy gray black moustache prevented others from hearing. His eyes half closed and his forehead deep in thought he seemed determined to move ahead. Indeed, he took several steps to the table and announced in his loud and husky voice ninety-four groshen. The audience began to murmur, the faces of the leaders indicated discomfort.
Haim noticed the situation and stated that he could not do it cheaper. The leader of the community signaled to the Shamash to start the auction. The latter immediately began in his melodious tone, ninety-four groshen for the first time and ninety-four groshen for the next time. Suddenly the audience protested vociferously, screams and shouts – a robbery, murder, so expensive, stop the auction! Do not sell to the thief. He will make a fortune. Let the kehilla buy flour. We will bring flour from distant places! This community belongs in Chelm screamed a troublemaker. All other interested merchants added fuel to the incitement of the audience. No one should deal with this dishonest merchant; in all likelihood, we will never get fine flour.
Haim was mad and stormed out of the shul, bunch of beggars, I will show you, he said to himself.
The hammer banged again, the congregational outbursts stopped, silence in the shul. The Shamash voice intoned again, ninety groshen for the first time and the next time and the suddenly – a stern look from the leader of the kehilla stopped the Shamash in mid-air. The latter read the message and pointed to his nose as if to say, I understand and his hand signaled that the bid would fail. The Shamash started again the bid, ninety groshen for the first time and ninety groshen for the next time and sei gesund – to your health, he added. The latter remark appealed to the religious people and the atmosphere of the shul calmed down. The audience loosened up and jokes and wisecracks started to make the rounds.
The tension disappeared and joviality returned to the shul. Shlome, a happy Jew with a red nose and a potbelly rubbed his hands and slapped his nearby neighbors saying that happy days were here again. The Shamash’s voice thundered again, eighty-five groshen for the first time and eighty-five groshen for the next time and eighty-five groshen for the first time. The audience that protested earlier so vociferously did so not out of stinginess. However, it did not want to be made a fool. The people knew that Haim was going to make money but they wanted it to be fair.
Haim was full of anger, a plague on you he said to himself, even if I have to add to the deal, I will add but the deal will be mine. He ran to the table and shouted eighty-three. The kehilla leader winked to the Shamash to end the auction. The latter started, eighty-three groshen for the first time, eighty-three groshen for the next time and eighty three groshen for the third time. Mazal Tov to Reb Haim!
This is a story about spring and renewal. Despite the poverty of the Shtetl, the mud-floors, the dirt, the rotting hay, there is the smell of spring and Passover.
This festival symbolizes the best – a desire for new clothing that no longer scrapes the body, shoes, hats, and most of all ensuring that everyone has Matzah for Passover. The people of Weber’s Shtetl see beyond this mud, dirt, rotting hay, and the slimy green oozing from the windows. It is a story about making real the message of Isaiah that we read on Yom Kippur in ways yet to be revealed.
There is communal concern for the poor. The price of the wheat has to be low enough so that the poor will have dignity by being able to purchase the matzah. [תורה אחת יהיה לכם] – one law for everyone.
In Shtetl life, nothing is more important than learning and prayer. There, older men study Mishnayot, while the younger students. Texts in both provide that if all 612 commandments were on side of the scale and the study of Torah on the other, the two would be evenly balanced. Hence, the significance of suspending the study of Torah in a House of Study so as to take care of the community should not be lost on any of us.
The only thing that is not dispensed with is תפילה – prayer, nothing more than talking to God. When that is finished, a tablecloth is spread, candlesticks are used to provide light, and the town meeting begins. The Rabbi teaches the importance of kashrut, because the Auction must begin with an everyday commitment to kedushah, holiness. There are the merchants who understand the importance. At the end of the day, everyone has to do the right thing. The
hollering, the shouting, calling Chaim a gonif (thief), is the “stuff of communities”; not unlike town meetings or some Board Meetings that I have attended. Haim has to have that contract, for he must do good in the world, he cannot leave the community to its own devices. Profit is neither the motivator nor the leverage in this deal. It is the mitzvah of making sure that every single person will have matzah on Passover. No one is going to “outbid” him.
It is pride, ego, even if for a little less money, to do a public mitzvah for this little Shtetl. Weber wants us to see that life is a celebration when we care for everyone as a community, even if we call someone a gonif or shout and scream at one another.
Weber is teaching us in the Auction that we are all in this world together; rich and poor, healthy and sick, single, married, with children, without children. Weber gives us Haim who has to have that contract because Haim has to be a macher in the community. However, what did that mean? It meant helping the community and the poor so they could have Matzah on Passover. This is the world of Yosef Weber and it has become our world tonight on this Yom Kippur.
Yosef Weber and Kol Nidre
Yosef Weber was born in the first part of the 20th century in a town called Brezower, Poland, not far from Korcyna, Poland, the 2012 site for Project Preservation. We discovered this short story at the end of the Yizkor (A Book of
Remembrance about the Jewish Community of Korcyna) that was published some 20 years after its physical destruction.
In the Yizkor book, he was described as a kind soul, always ready to help. He personified Torah by always showing respect for each person whom he met. He was well read in religious matters and also had a fine general background. He had a gift to describe types of people, scenes, pictures of daily life, and the ability to write stories.
Thus, in 1929, he entered The Auction in a contest sponsored by the Warsaw Yiddish newspaper, Haint (Today). He was awarded 2nd prize for this story and received the sum of 50 zlotys – in today’s currency a little under $16.00.
Twelve years later, in 1941, he and his wife were transferred to the Korcyna Ghetto. There, he was forced to serve in the Judenrat. He remained kind to all under the most horrific of circumstances. One year later, in 1942, he and his wife were executed by the Nazis. They may have been shot or sent to Belzec, the death camp that was located nearby. The record is unclear. It hardly matters.
What Matters Tonight
Yosef Weber’s work lives on. All of you now know who he is and more importantly, how our ancestors focused on the truly important things in Jewish life; community, respect for all, concern for the poor, and hope for a better tomorrow by ensuring that the community have matzah on Passover. Chaim was a wealthy man,
not because he made a good living as a wheat merchant, but because he had to get that contract, at all costs, even if he lost money on the deal.
Tonight, we have performed a mitzvah that is every bit as important as providing Matzah for everyone. Let us read just a bit further from the tomorrow morning’s prophetic reading:
From your midst shall arise rebuilders of ancient ruins, you shall restore foundations laid long ago and you shall be called, “Repairers of broken fences, the restorer of lanes for habitation.
Tonight, by hearing the writings of man who would otherwise have been forgotten, as would his community, you have become the rebuilders of the ancient ruins. You have restored the foundations that were laid long ago. You have repaired one of the many broken fences and have restored a lane of habitation that extends from Sinai to this evening; one that no person or people could ever cut asunder.
I beseech the Heavenly Court on this Kol Nidre to find that the prophetic truth of Isaiah fulfilled by this community this evening. And as such, as its Rabbi and advocate, that you ‘O God grant favor unto your people; that you O’ God set this community astride in the heights of the earth, and allow them to enjoy the heritage of its ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.