Abolishing the Line

Many years ago when the Temple in Jerusalem still stood in its glory, there was a great shortage of rain in the Holy Land. The rabbis asked various pious men to pray for rain, because the prayers of the pious are often effective, but their earnest prayers went unanswered. Eventually, in their distress, the rabbis turned to a man who, from time to time, had visitations from the prophet Elijah, and asked him to ask the prophet, when he next appeared, if he would be kind enough to tell them how they might find someone who could pray for rain and be answered. Eventually the prophet gave instructions, and when the rabbis got the message, they trembled, because they were instructed to go to a certain street in a red-light district. And the rabbis were very concerned about their reputations, and even the fabled wealth of the land of Cush would not, under normal circumstances, persuade them to enter that district, let alone that street. But the rabbis loved their people, and had compassion on them, and so three of them decided to go there quietly, for there is safety in numbers, and this would protect them from temptation.

When they arrived they found the little shop that they had been instructed to enter. A little Jewish shoemaker was sitting cross-legged on the floor, cobbling shoes on his last. When he saw The Rabbis and the Cobbler these distinguished gentlemen enter, he immediately arose and said: "Gentlemen, what can I do for you?" The rabbis did not answer his question, but, as Jews are sometimes wont to do, they asked questions of him themselves. They quickly ascertained that he knew little of Jewish practice, and even less of Jewish doctrine, and they could not understand why they had been sent to this dreary place in this dreadful street. "What are your deeds?" demanded one of the rabbis. "My deeds?" said the cobbler. "I sit here all day long and make new shoes, and repair old ones. People come in and buy shoes, or bring them for repair. And thus I provide for myself and my wife, because my children are grown and able now to look after themselves." "Nothing else?" "Once or twice a day, I take a walk in the street, because I get cramped sitting in front of my last." "Does anyone speak to you there?" asked one of the rabbis sharply. "Sometimes a woman will stop me, but before she can say a word, I say to her: 'My daughter, why do you not give up this terrible thing that you do? Return to your Father in Heaven, and get another job, even if you make much less money.'" "Do they respond?" asked one of the rabbis. "Generally they laugh at me, or even curse me, but I pay no heed. And once in a while the face of one will change, and then I know that a holy spirit has descended on her, for she turns and runs without mincing. And after that, I do not see her on the street any more."

There was a moment of silence as the rabbis digested what they had heard. And then the chief among them spoke gently to the cobbler, addressing him with a term of respect which he was much more accustomed to hearing than to using. "My honored one," he said, "You asked us earlier what you could do for us. We are come here humbly to ask you to pray for rain." "Me? Pray for rain?" said the cobbler. "Well, since you ask me, yes, I would be glad to do that, although I do not know why you are asking me." The rabbis did not thank the cobbler, for it is not appropriate to thank someone for doing a good deed, since the good deed itself says thanks to the doer, and there is no need to pre-empt it. Instead, they turned on their heels, and left the street and the district as fast as their legs would carry them without attracting attention, washed their hands, and returned to the House of Study.

And one hour later, the rains came.


Now I could finish the story at this point, but today we have a two-for-one special, and, as is usually the case, there is a certain similarity between the two items that are on sale.

When I was quite little, I developed problems with my eyesight, and by the age of three I was already wearing spectacles. However, the problem got worse, and my mother was told that I needed regular treatment. Since my family was not well-to-do, my mother took me to a building where it was possible to get medical services without charge, since in those days there was no national insurance to cover the cost. In order to point out to the patients the graciousness of those wealthy, generous people who helped to provide this valuable service, the patients were required to wait in line on the street for several hours. If you came late, you might not get treated, so people began the queue long before the building opened. I did not mind the treatment at all. I had to sit behind a machine and look through binoculars, and there I would see a soldier, just like the one who stood outside Buckingham Palace and guarded King George from harm. And by moving levers it was my duty to put the soldier in the sentry-box, next to which he was standing. Now I knew that the real soldier who stood outside Buckingham Palace in his smashing uniform did not move a single muscle, unless the safety of the King was at issue. Even if a man fell down in a fit in front of him would he not move, because it was his sole duty to protect his Britannic Majesty, and not to mitigate the effects of his loyal subjects' epilepsy. And here was I, able to move the soldier as much as I wanted until I positioned him safely in his sentry-box! Sometimes for a change they would show me a mouse, which I had to position in a trap, but I felt sorry for the mouse, and generally asked to see the soldier, and the technician would smile and accede to my request.

While we were waiting in line, before I got to see the soldier, I saw ladies walking up and down carrying large handbags. I wondered why they were so scantily dressed, even in November when the cold, grey, London fogs came rolling down on the city. If a man passed by they would boldly stop him, and speak to him, and sometimes he would walk on, and sometimes he would walk in the same direction as the lady who had spoken to him. From time to time people in the line would make remarks which I did not understand, in their cockney accents, and the people who heard them would roar with laughter. One day I said to my mother as we waited in line: "Why do these ladies walk up and down all the time? And why do they stop men and talk to them?" My mother answered: "They are taking a walk to get exercise, and sometimes they see someone whom they know." I was not truly satisfied, but my mother did not seem disposed to discuss the subject, and so I kept quiet.

Many, many years later I went to see an oculist for a routine examination. Of course, I did not have to wait in line outside the building. He examined my eyes and said: "Your eyes are perfectly healthy and you have excellent corrected vision. But I can tell you one thing. You must have had very good eye treatment when you were a child." He went on to explain to me that if I had not been treated I would by now be a borgne. And here I must resort to the precise, melodious French language, because the English language lacks a word for a person who may indeed have two eyes, but can only see through one. I said to the oculist: "That was on account of a mother's love, because she took me, week in and week out, to a street, which, under normal circumstances, she would never even have thought about visiting."

Our sages, of blessed memory, have a comment about what those old rabbis, as well as my own mother, did. They said in such instances: Ha'ahaba mekalkelet shura – "Love abolishes the line."


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Alan D. Corré
corre@uwm.edu