The Polish Jewish writer and playwright I. L. Peretz (1852-1915, died at age 62), who wrote in Yiddish, is considered by many to have been one of the three great classical Yiddish writers with Mendele Mokher Seforim and Sholem Aleichem. I place him as number one because his short tales were well-crafted, enjoyable, dramatic, humorous, satiric, as well as thought-provoking. The name Peretz is Hebrew and means “breakthrough.” It is a perfect name for the man who breaches into and improves our thoughts.

I consider Peretz’s story “If Not Higher” the best of his tales. In it, the Hasidim of the town of Nemirov believe their rabbi is so holy that he ascends to heaven each year during the Penitential Prayers, which are recited in synagogues every Friday morning before the New Year holiday Rosh Hashanah. He approaches God and prays for his congregation. He disappears. He is nowhere to be seen. Jews need help. And their rabbi goes to heaven each year at this time to beg God’s help for fellow Jews.

A Litvak, the name given to anti-Hasidim, seeks to mock the Hasidim and show that their claim is pure nonsense. He schemes to uncover the truth. On Thursday night, he steals into the rabbi’s room, slides under the rabbi’s bed, and waits for morning to discover where the rabbi vanishes and what he does while his congregation is piously reciting the Penitential Prayers.

As the sun rises, he hears the rabbi getting up. He sees him go to his closet, take out peasant clothing, a long leather belt, and heavy rope, and follows him as he goes into his kitchen, takes an ax, puts it in his belt, and leaves his home. Trembling, the Litvak is hidden behind him as he enters the woods at the edge of the town.

The rabbi walks to a small tree, takes his ax from his belt, and strikes it. After many strikes, the tree falls. The rabbi chops the tree into logs and the logs into sticks places the sticks in a bundle that he ties with his rope and carries them as he returns to the town. He stops at a broken-down shack and knocks on the window.

A Jewish woman calls out in a frightened voice, “Who is there?”

The rabbi answers with a peasant accent, “I.”

“Who is I?” asks the woman.

The rabbi answers with the same accent, “Vassil.”

“Who is Vassil,” asks the frightened woman, “and what does he want?”

“I’ve come to sell wood very cheap,” the rabbi replies and enters the shack.

The Litvak steals in after him. He sees a room with broken, miserable furnishings and a sick elderly woman, wrapped in rags, lying in a bed. She complains bitterly, “How can I pay you? Where will a poor widow get money?”

“I’ll lend it to you,” answers the supposed Vassel. “It’s only six cents.”

“How will I ever pay you back?” the poor woman groans.

“Don’t be foolish,” the rabbi scolds her softly. “You are a Jew. I trust you with the wood. I am sure you will pay. You have a great and powerful God. Don’t you trust him for six cents?”

“Who will Light the fire,” the woman asks.

“I will, “the rabbi answers.

As he lit the fire, the rabbi groaned as he recited the first portion of the Penitential Prayers. He said the second part more joyously when the fire began to burn. When the fire was burning bright, he recited the third part and shut the stove.

The Litvak who saw all of this became a disciple of the rabbi. Ever after, when another disciple bragged how the rabbi of Nemirov ascends to heaven at the time of the Penitential Prayers, the Litvak does not mock, nor does he laugh. He only adds quietly, “If not higher.”

 

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Many people are convinced that prayer is a means of gaining help from God. They call this help Divine Providence. Maimonides did not think this was the definition of Divine Providence and thought instead that it is humans’ responsibility to help themselves.

In his Guide for the Perplexed 1:1, Maimonides wrote that when the Bible states in Genesis 1:27 that humans were created in the image of God, it does not mean they looked like God. It tells us that God placed intelligence in humans. Later, in 3:17, he writes, “I hold that Divine Providence is related and closely connected with the intellect.” When humans use their intellect, they are using this divine gift. And humans with greater intellect, have greater Providence and greater success.