I recall times when as I child I lay sick in bed. My mother would gently rub Vick's VapoRub on my chest, and then cover it with a dry wash cloth. So warm, so soothing, so mentholated. Even now I can feel my mother's hand doing its magic. And when I look at my hands, I see
hers - freckled, thin, and yes, aging. If only my hands could pass on comfort as my mother's did.
This story took place in the north of Lebanon in the village of Hamadin. And the happening, as told, goes like this:
In the village lived a widow and her beautiful daughter, an only child. One day the daughter became ill and was ordered to rest. And so she lay on her bed near the window and looked out at the only tree in the yard. Thus, days, weeks, and months passed, and the autumn came. But the girl's condition didn't improve. On the contrary, she grew worse. And so, one day, as she looked at the tree, she said weakly, "You see, Mother, see those leaves. When the last leaf falls, I will die." The mother's heart grieved, and she watched anxiously as the leaves fell.
One cold night the wind howled, and the mother's heart was full of despair, as she saw the wind taking the last leaves. With every leaf her heart sank even deeper. At last there was only one leaf left. What could she do?
So the poor woman ran outside, unaware of the cold, the gusts of wind, and the storm. She approached the wall in front of the tree, and there she painted, on the wall, a picture of the last leaf. So good, so accurate was the drawing, that it looked like the last leaf itself.
When the girl awoke, she looked out the window, and there she saw one lonely leaf. Days and weeks passed. From time to time she looked out, amd always she saw that last leaf, still hanging on the branch of the tree, A new spirit entered the girl. Slowly, slowly she recovered, and at last she got well.
But the mother, by going out on that windy night, had caught cold. She developed tuberculosis, and soon died.
When the girl was able to leave her bed, she went outside to see the miracle that had occured: Why had that leaf not fallen?
And what did she see? The painting, done by her mother, which had cost her her life for her child's sake.
Then the girl realized her mother's great love, and grieved greatly for her mother who, in her own death, had given life to her.
The Mother, a Lebanese Folktale, retold by Barbara Rush,
from The Jewish Spirit: A Celebration in Stories & Art
My late rebbe, R' Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, zt"l, (זכר צדיק לברכה) was a master storyteller. He taught, in the name of Abraham Joshua Heschel zt"l: "a mayse is a story in which the soul surprises the mind". "A Year of Stories" is dedicated to his memory. I invite you to forward the link to these stories so that they find their way into the hearts of other listeners and tellers.
Please consider offering a tax deductible donation to support this project and the work of DC's Jewish Renewal community Minyan Oneg Shabbat.
If you would like to be added to the growing list of
"Year of Stories" followers, let me know at RebMarko@gmail.com,
with "Year of Stories" in the subject line.
My late rebbe, R' Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, zt"l, was a master storyteller. He taught: "a good story is one where the mind surprises the heart". With that in mind I hope to post some stories in the coming months, perhaps even some told by Reb Zalman, in which the mind surprises the heart.
The following story is a folk tale. To the best of my knowledge Reb Zalman did not tell it. I share it with you on in honor of his memory. Make sure you read to the end, to see just how close to home a tale can be.
Long ago in a village in northern China, there lived a man who owned a magnificent horse. So beautiful was this horse that people came from miles around just to admire it. They told him he was blessed to own such a horse.
"Perhaps," he said. "But what seems like a blessing may be a curse."
One day, the horse ran off. It was gone. People came to say how sorry they were for his bad luck.
"Perhaps," he said. "But what seems like a curse may be a blessing."
A few weeks later, the horse returned, and it was not alone. It was followed by 21 wild horses. By the law of the land, they became his property. He was rich with horses.
His neighbors came to congratulate him on his good fortune. "Truly," they said, "you have been blessed."
"Perhaps. But what seems like a blessing may be a curse."
Shortly after that his son-his only son- tried to ride one of the wild horses. He was thrown from it and broke his leg. The man's neighbors came to say how sorry they were. Surely, he had been cursed.
"Perhaps," he said. "But what seems like a curse may be a blessing."
A week later, the king came through that village, drafting every able-bodied young man for a war against the people of the north. It was horrible war. Everyone who went from the village was killed. Only that man's son survived, because of his broken leg.
To this day, in that village, they say, "what seems like a blessing may be a curse. What seems like a curse may be a blessing."
Now the second story, which is eerily similar to this one.
My son Zachary, 28 is an avid mountain climber, as well as a damn good skiier. He earns his living as an Israeli tour guide, shuttling back and forth between the US for his passions and Israel for his parnassa. This past winter he was climbing in Montana when a sudden avalanche swept him and his climbing partner off the mountain, tumbling who knows how many feet below. Zack was buried under the snow, still tethered, luckily, to his partner, who unharmed, managed to keep his wits about him. He dug Zack out of the snow, finding him drifting in and out of consciousness, having suffered a concussion. Two other climbers happened by, and the three of them packed Zack onto a set of skis and for 1 1/2 hours dragged him from the accident site to the car, where they then transported him tot he hospital. Zack spent a few days in recovery with a shattered his heel and damage to his elbow.
For two weeks following, maybe more, my wife Renée and I walked around the house stunned, repeating out loud, "He could have been killed, he could have been killed."
Zack is back in Israel. Three weeks ago we danced together at his brother Aaron's wedding.
A few days ago Zack's phone rang. It was the IDF calling him up as part of the army reserves. Israel is at war. Zack told them, "I can't come. I was in an accident a few months ago, and I wouldn't be able to carry any gear nor move as I would need to." He was told to fax the army written documentation, which he did, and several hours later he received a follow up call - he didn't need to report to duty.
I asked Zack how he felt about what all had transpired. He said to me that his feelings were conflcted, that he wanted to serve his country while at the same time felt relief that he would be out of harm's way.
So, you see what I meant when I said that there were 2 stories with the same ending? Truly, what seems like a curse may indeed turn out to be a blessing.
Note: Thank you Zack for giving me your permission to tell your story. I trust that you will fill me in with any important details that I either left out or got entirely wrong!
Mark Novak is a "free-range" rabbi who lives in Washington DC and works, well, just about everywhere. In 2012 he founded Minyan Oneg Shabbat, home to MOSH (Minyan Oneg Shabbat), MindfulMOSH (Jewish mindfulness gathering), and