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By Tom ShaferYankel was a young man who lived in Poland many years ago. As we meet him, he had become a very bitter man.
He had finished years of apprenticeship as a tailor, and he was very talented at his trade. Pants, dresses and coats; he could make them all. And he had a special talent for using just enough cloth to make a beautiful piece with hardly anything left over so his customers got an excellent price.
But hard times had fallen. The nobles had fought one of their usual wars and all the peasants and tradesmen were not only left poor, they were left hungry. There was no money for anyone to buy new cloth for Yankel to sew. He found himself repairing torn pants and darning socks, when he could get any work at all. And there had been no work for the past week.
Yankel was especially bitter because of Rivka. What a beautiful and gentle girl and almost the age to marry. He father was a well to do scholar. Yankel had, after much persistence, almost sealed a deal with him for a betrothal. But everything had fallen through. There was no room in Rivka's life for a starving tailor, her father had said.
Cold and hungry, he walked across a plowed field. He was going to the woods by the river to sleep with the other hungry men.
He stubbed his foot. A big rock and another. Two sore toes. He stifled a curse. Then he stared at Heavens and shouted, "Why God, why? It's not enough that I have no business and never will have a wife. Now you have to break my toes, too?" He stopped, embarrassed. He had promised himself he would not pray until the famine ended.
Furious, he reached down to grab the first rock and throw it into the air. But, it wasn't a rock. It was a potato. And the second rock was a potato too. Not just any potatoes mind you, the biggest he had ever seen. And they were both fresh and firm, unusual for this late in the year.
Puzzled, Yankel quickly stuffed one of the huge potatoes into each pocket of his coat. He looked around hurriedly and saw two men, one very small and one very large, about to enter the field. The large man seemed to smile at him.
"Oh no, they saw me," he thought. He scurried toward the woods. Then he looked around and saw no one. The men must have taken another way. He crept to the river bank and washed the potato. He was about ready to cut it up and eat the first bite when he heard someone behind him. He winced, caught red handed.
"Hello my friend," the man said, his Polish was heavily accented with the lilt of some strange land. "Nice Potato you have there."
"It's mine," said Yankel. "I came by it honestly."
"I'm sure you did," said the man. "You appear to be an honest fellow. I have lived many years and been many places. I can tell such things."
Yankel looked at the man. He was very old. His dress was peculiar and much too light for a Polish winter. His skin was a medium brown.
"You are not from here?" asked Yankel.
"No," said the man. I come from far south of here in Arabia. I worked with a noble's horses. Until he got killed in the war. Now I have no work."
"Nor I," said Yankel.
"Oh well," said the man. "Join me for some warm water? Perhaps we can find some herbs to make a tea?"
Yankel followed the man around a curve in the river bank. There was an iron pot simmering away over a fire. The man gestured Yankel to sit and threw more wood on the fire. Then he told Yankel he must take a few moments to say his evening prayers. He spread out a small rug and bowed on it, resting on his hands and knees with his forehead to the ground. The man prayed for several minutes in a language Yankel did not understand.
When he was finished, he sat up and rolled up his rug. He looked at Yankel. "I had a thought during my prayers," he said. "As you can see, I am a follower of the Prophet and I was taught from an early age to always give charity. You have no need to eat that magnificent potato raw. Why don't you boil it in my water."
Yankel looked troubled. "Do not worry, my new friend," the old man said. "I know you are young and very hungry. I am old and require little food. I must offer the charity of my humble abode so I would be honored if you would use my water. Of course, I don't think I would be breaking any rules if I drank some of the broth afterwards. If you don't mind, that is." (The rumbling of the man's stomach belied his calm expression.)
Yankel cut the potato into pieces and put them in the water. He watched them boil. The man smiled and sat down. Then tears formed in Yankel's eyes.
"But I must share with you," he said to the man.
"Absolutely not," said the man. "Then it wouldn't be charity."
"But I am a Jew," Yankel said. "I am commanded to give charity too. We call that a Mitzvah. It is our law, too."
"But," said the old man, "If I give you charity and you give me charity back, then how have I given charity? Charity must be given without hope of return."
Yankel was getting exasperated. "Then how am I do to do a Mitzvah? What about my commandments."
"It would be enough for me to watch you enjoy your meal" the man said. "And a little broth would warm me up nicely for the night ahead. You have only enough for one meal for a strapping young lad like yourself."
Yankel stirred the pot. Then he began to cry again. "I must confess," he said. And he pulled the second potato out of his other pocket. "I have not been honest with you. I have enough to share."
"Absolutely not," said the old man. "Charity is charity. Use my water later for the other potato."
"But how am I supposed to do a Mitzvah," Yankel shouted. The old man sat straight and looked very firm.
Then Yankel smiled. "I had a thought," he said. "What if the Holy one, Blessed be He, gave me this second potato because he knew I would meet you?"
The old man's posture softened. "I wish I had a Koran to consult on this point of law," he said. He thought for another moment. "But, then again... Who am I to argue with the Creator of such magnificent potatoes?" Yankel cut up the second potato and they put it in the pot. The he said to the old man, "You people of the Prophet sure make it hard to do a Mitzvah."
The old man replied, "But I've always heard you Jews argue well." Both men laughed.
A little way in the woods, the two men Yankel had seen before were listening. There was a smallish man with quick and greedy eyes. A thief by trade. His companion was a giant of a man but with the simple face of one who had the mind of a child. The small man gestured for silence as he listened. He motioned his companion to stand with him. He felt the two large carrots in his pocket. "No need to eat them tonight." he thought. "Potatoes are waiting." And there was no longer any need to figure out how to get away from his companion to wash and eat the carrots.
The small man came out of the woods and called to Yankel and the Arabian. "Hello my friends," He shouted. "Oh, do not worry. My friends, we ask for nothing more than a few minutes by your fire. Then we shall be moving on." Craftily he added, "We have no need to disturb your meal."
He and the quiet giant sat by the fire and warmed their hands. The crafty one chatted about the weather, dropping sly hints that he and his friend had not eaten for three days but hoped to find some grain the next day. "Don't worry about us," he said again. "Just a few minutes and we will be on our way. I wish I had time to enjoy watching you two eat your soup, but time is pressing and it is almost dark."
Yankel hesitated. Then he shrugged and said. "You two may share some of my potato." The old man added, "And mine."
"Wouldn't hear of it," the sly one said.
"But we must share." Yankel said. "Its commanded by our religions. For me it is called a Mitzvah."
"Only in that case," the sly one said. "Far be it from me to come between a man and his Maker."
All four men watched the soup boil. The quiet giant took a small packet from his pocket and leaned to pour it into the soup.
"What is that?" shouted Yankel.
"Salt," said the giant.
"But you can't do that." Yankel said. If you give me anything in return, you'll ruin my Mitzvah."
"And mine" said the old man. "We cannot give you charity if you give in return." (The sly one suppressed a giggle at such foolishness.)
The giant sat back looking disappointed. "I am not gifted with wits," he said. "I cannot understand such things. I will do what you say."
Then he thought intently for a minute. "I heard a Priest last week say we all had to be like salt," he said. "He said a little salt makes everything taste better. I don't understand such things so much. But that is why I wanted to share my salt."
"There is nothing wrong with your wits my friend." the old man said. "That is a very wise saying."
The sly one said, "I guess this must be a commandment of his religion." The old man shrugged and the giant one leaned forward again.
"But what about my Mitzvah?," Yankel complained.
The old man looked at Yankel. "He is a simple but honest man," he said to Yankel. "My Prophet teaches kindness to such people."
Yankel relented. "So do mine." Both men smiled at the giant as he seasoned the soup.
The small man shifted uncomfortably. He had watched and listened. Memories of a long ignored Catechism entered his mind as he remembered the Priest talking about salt. Why had he let that big oaf drag him into that church?
He stood up and said, "I must go now."
"But not before you eat," Yankel said.
"I do not deserve to share food with you three. Look, I have been holding out on you." He dropped the two large carrots on the ground by the pot and backed up a step. Tears were in his eyes.
"I meant to eat your food and share nothing. And steal from you when you slept. I could have gotten a lot of money for that rug."
Then he looked at his large and gentle companion. "Stay with them. They will take better care of you than I."
"But," Yankel said. "We asked for nothing but to share. Please stay."
The old man nodded his assent. "And keep your carrots."
"But you must take them. It's the only way I'll stay," the small man said.
"You'll ruin my Mitzvah." Yankel said.
"I wish I had a Koran to look this up," the old man said. Then he thought for a moment and looked at Yankel. "I believe this man is offering these carrots as a token of his return to his faith."
Yankel said, "We call that Teshuvah (repentance)."
"That is a nice way to say it," the old man said. "And is it not one of your Mitzvahs to help a man return to his faith?"
"Yes," said Yankel. There was a little pout in his voice. The he brightened. "That is even a greater Mitzvah for me," he said.
"Me also," said the old man. He looked at the small man. "We will accept your gift of carrots. But only if you eat with us. It is commanded by my Prophet."
"And all of my prophets," Yankel added.
The man washed the carrots, cut them up and dropped them into the pot. The giant one peeled the bark off a small broken limb and washed it. "I'll add some more salt," he said and he began to stir the soup.
And so it went for the next hour. The soup simmered and more men showed up. Each was offered a meal. Each had a little something for the pot, a mushroom, some pepper. One man even had a chicken. All gifts were offered and arguments flared each time. Each time, Yankel said, "What about my Mitzvah?," then the gifts were accepted one by one.
Finally a man came with a lute. He had no food or spices but offered a gift of song. More arguments and his gift was accepted too. Soon the men all listened to beautiful music. Some sang along when they recognized a tune.
All the men except the simple giant, that is. He said and sang nothing but simply sat and stirred the soup. And, as he stirred ever so gently, something strange occurred. The whole of all the men's gifts became greater than the sum of all of the parts. And, when the soup was done, they all ate their fill, many with seconds.
When all had eaten their fill, the lute player began to play, livelier now. Many of the men sang, some of them danced. Yankel and the Arab and the gentle giant sat by the fire and watched them by the firelight and the moonlight.
Then Yankel excused himself and walked along the bank around the bend. Tired, he laid down with his coat for a blanket and a large clump of soft grass for a pillow. He listened to the men and placed his hands on his full belly.
There was an awkward silence, then he haltingly prayed the Grace After Meals....
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