Teaching Tales from the Sufi & Hasidic Traditions
by Michael Berman
The tales presented here are examples from the Hasidic tradition and the first three all have something to do with water. Sometimes a stretch of water can act as a barrier or a source of division, especially when the people involved in the matter have tunnel vision and walk around wearing blinkers over their eyes! Khelm in Yiddish folklore is the equivalent of Gotham in British tales – the place where stupid people are supposed to live:
A Bridge In Khelm
A river flowed right through the middle of Khelm. It occurred to several merchants that a bridge over it would be good for business on both sides of the river. But some of the younger people objected. They said: “Of course it would be nice to build a bridge, but let’s not do it because it would be good for business; we should build it solely for aesthetic reasons. We’d be glad to contribute towards the cost for beauty’s sake, but we won’t give a penny for the sake of trade.” Still others, even younger people, said, “A bridge! That’s a good idea, but not for the sake of trade or beauty but to have some place to stroll back and forth. We’d be glad to contribute money to build a bridge for strolling, but not for any other reason.” And so the three groups began to quarrel, and they are quarreling still. And to the present day Khelm still does not have a bridge.
Water Wouldn't Hurt
An exhausted disciple came running to his Holy Man. “Teacher, help. Take pity. My house is burning.”
The Holy Man calmed his disciple. Then, fetching his staff from a corner of the room, he said, “Here, take my staff. Run back to your house. Draw circles around it with my staff, each circle some seven handbreadths from the other. At the seventh circle, step back seven handbreadths, then lay my staff down at the east end of the fire.”
The disciple hurriedly noted the instructions down, grabbed the staff and started off. “Listen,” the Holy Man called after him, “on second thoughts, it wouldn’t hurt also to pour on water. Yes, in God’s name, pour on water. As much water as you bloody well can!”
Blood and Water
Once upon a time there was a King who went to a river to bathe. When he came to its bank, he saw that half of the stream was water but the other half was blood. And there was a man in the middle trying to cross over from the blood to the water.
The King was puzzled by this so he called together all the priests, rabbis, and other holy folk to ask them what it meant. But none of them could see anything in the river but water and they could only come to the conclusion that the King was seeing things and that perhaps he was suffering from stress.
But the King was not convinced. So he sent for the greatest rabbi in the city, and this rabbi saw exactly what the King had seen. And this was his interpretation:
“Half of the river is the blood that has been spilled,” said the rabbi, “And the other half is the tears that Jews have wept.” The man in the middle is your father, who is trying to cross from hell into paradise. But to do this he must wade out of the Jewish blood he has shed, and the river will not let him.”
The next two tales feature elflike creatures from Yiddish folklore – the shretele and the kapelyushniklekh. For magic to work, faith in the process is required. This seems to be a quality we come into the world with but it somehow gets lost along the way. The great-grandfather of the narrator in the following tale had clearly lost his. But what about you?
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