Here is a version of a story I first heard from Rabbi Jonathan Omer-man many years ago. I have changed a number of the details but never forgotten the essence of the story because it felt like a knife going into my heart. It has come back to me now as I contemplate what it means to be a Wise Elder.
Once, in a tiny village in Eastern Europe, there lived a woman named Rose. She spent her days as a baker of breads with fragrances that wafted invitingly from her open window. Every morning, Rose and her husband Abe would wake in the earliest hours to prepare the yeast and knead and bake sourdough rye breads and grainy black breads and dark molassesy pumpernickels and, on Fridays, sweet egg challahs that were the talk of the village.
Each day when she awoke, Rose would lean over, kiss her husband, and swinging her feet to the floor, hum a little tune for the pure enjoyment of waking and being a baker of breads. And so it was day after day until the year she turned 50. On the morning of her birthday, instead of waking with a little song and a kiss for her husband, she lay in bed quietly, her brows knit in a small frown. After several weeks of waking this way, she said to Abe, “There’s a question that won’t go away. Every morning it’s there, the same question. And I can’t think of an answer.” She told Abe her question and asked if he knew what the answer was, but he said, no, he had no idea.
Next Rose asked her mother, and then each of her four sisters, and then her father and her neighbors on either side. None of them had an answer either. So Rose put on her good shawl and wrapped up a big loaf of double braided raisin challah as a gift and went to visit the Rebbe who lived across the river. She told the Rebbe about her question that wouldn’t go away and how it was waking her every morning and disturbing her. The Rebbe couldn’t answer her question either but he had an idea. “There is a wise elder who lives in Chelm ,” he said, naming a town seven days distant. “Maybe she can answer your question.”
So Rose prepared a pack with some blankets and food for the long journey, kissed her husband goodbye and set out for Chelm to ask her question of the elder. She walked south by the river’s edge and then east along the edge of the forest. At night she slept in farmers’ barns when she could, and by the side of the road, under thickets, when there was no other shelter. Some days it rained and some evenings around dusk Rose saw the shadows of brown bears moving across the hills. At night the howling of wolves frightened her so she could not sleep. But never once did she think of turning back and every morning, when the sun rose, she remembered the question that would not go away.
Finally, on the morning of the eighth day, Rose reached the marshy lands at the edge of the town of Chelm and found her way to the market square. She approached a cheerful looking fellow selling potatoes and cabbages from a stall and asked where she might find the wise elder. “Oh my dear woman, you cannot see the elder this year,” he said. “She is in retreat, contemplating the mysteries of the universe.”
Several others gathered around, curious about the dusty traveler, and a woman at that, who was asking to meet the elder. They all nodded in agreement with the potato seller. “Return to your home,” they advised. “Come back next year.”
But Rose, as well as being determined, was canny. “Oh dear,” she said, “ I suppose I will have to give up my quest. But before I leave, I’m curious to know where the elder lives.”
Someone pointed up the hill. “Just at half way up, where the road bends, you’ll see a wooden cottage set back among the gooseberry bushes.”
“And does she really see no one?”
“No one at all.
Even the boy who brings her dinner at noon every day has to knock on the door and leave the basket at her doorstep.”
Rose said she might just walk up the hill to see for herself where the elder lived before she started her journey home. And, thanking the market people, she turned and slowly climbed the hill, her pack on her back. Where the path curved out of sight of the town, she saw a cottage flanked by straggly bushes. Just then, she noticed a young boy bending to leave a large covered basket on the stoop. Rose ducked into the bushes and slipped off her pack. She watched as the boy rapped on the door sharply three times and, without waiting, turned and skipped away.
After a few minutes, the cottage door opened and a hand darted out, pulling the basket inside. At the very next moment, Rose hurled herself after the basket, landing on the floor at the feet of an astonished elderly woman. “Oh, I’m so grateful to be here,” Rose exclaimed, hurrying to stand and brush herself off. “I’ve traveled so far to meet you.“ As fast as she could, she explained about her year of waking every day to the question that would not go away and asked the elder kindly to answer her question.
The old woman opened her right hand, pulled it back quickly and smacked Rose hard across the left cheek.
Shocked into tears, Rose tried again. “Oh my, I can see that you must not have understood me clearly.” So she spoke louder and slower this time. “I have walked seven days to reach you and slept on the ground for seven nights,” she said, articulating each word in case the elder had trouble hearing. “I have come to ask you my question that will not go away.” And again she told the elder her question, and asked for an answer.
This time the old woman opened her left hand, pulled it back sharply, smacked Rose hard across her right cheek, and with a forceful push, shoved her out the open door and slammed it shut.
Rose sat on the ground, red welts rising on each cheek, furious enough to spit. Which she did, several times to either side. Eventually, standing and brushing herself off, she gathered up her pack from the bushes and began to make her way down the hill. Head down, Rose was talking to herself —“Who says that woman is a wise elder? She’s stupid. Stupid and cruel! Didn’t I tell her how far I’ve travelled”—when she nearly bumped into a tall young woman descending the hill ahead of her. The woman smiled and said good day and asked if there was something wrong. In a rush, Rose poured out her whole story, ending with the words, “The famous elder of Chelm is stupid. An entirely stupid elder! “
The young woman invited Rose to her home to discuss the matter further. As she sympathetically poured some schnapps into Rose’s tea, the woman confided that she was a student of the elder’s. “ I think I know why she slapped you,” she offered.
Rose waited, still angry but curious too.
“I think she slapped you the first time because you assumed that questions had to have answers,” the woman said. “And I think she slapped you the second time because you were willing to trade your precious question for somebody else’s answer.”
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