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Soul on Fire: Chapter 1

“It’s not an easy life we have, is it?” Tzvi said as they began to travel. “Work, work, work… And then what?”


17th century Eastern Europe, the town of Sharayeh

It was a freezing cold morning in the town of Shareyeh in Eastern Europe. The sky was still dark outside as Yankel the merchant arose from his bed and began preparations for his weekly travels. He ignored the aching in his weary bones, the protests of his tired limbs as he quickly dressed, and tried to ignore the cold winds and small stream of snowflakes blowing in from the cracked windows. This was life — the work was hard, the weather harsher, and if one did not exert tremendous energies to make money, there would be no food to bring home to his family.

Yankel packed up his pots and pans and the random assortment of items he sold and tied them into a large sack. Satisfied that he was packed for the road, he quickly donned his tallis and tefillin and began praying. Outside his window he could see some people trudging through the snow toward the shul as the sun rose over the bleak horizon. A pang of guilt and shame flared in Yankel’s heart. It sure would be nice to daven with a minyan… and even to learn a bit in the beis medrash afterward. Wouldn’t that be something!

Yankel pushed these thoughts away and hastily wrapped up his tallis and tefillin. The luxury of learning properly and davening properly belonged to the elite of Europe, those who were on higher levels than himself. After all, what was he? A simple merchant, unlearned, and forced to spend the bulk of his years under the burden of a massive burlap sack of merchandise, walking through the worst neighborhoods among the coarsest of gentiles. Perhaps in another lifetime Yankel would be a talmid chacham. One could always dream….

Yankel grabbed his sack and pushed his way out of the house, carving a space through the snow piled high against the house. He trudged to the edge of town where a wagon full of merchants was waiting for him.

“Where have you been, Yankel?” his friend Tzvi demanded. “Nu? We’re late for the trade show!”

“I’m sorry, Tzvi. I’m not getting any younger, you know….”

“Nu, neither are we. What can we do? We keep plowing on.”

Yankel took out a coin from his coat pocket and dropped it into the hand of the gentile wagon driver.

“Your bag is too big for the front, throw it in the back!” the wagon driver commanded, his breath crystallizing in the icy air. “And hurry up!”

Yankel grunted as he swung his sack upward, but he missed the wagon and the knot he made earlier became undone. All of his merchandise spilled across the snow.

“Ach! Pick it up!” the wagon driver screamed. “Now you’re going to make us wait even longer!”

The other merchants looked away, staring angrily and anxiously into the distance as Yankel scrambled to pick up his belongings. The cold snow stung his already freezing fingers. Tzvi slid off the wagon and bent down to help his friend.

“It’s going to be one of those days, eh, Yankel?”

Yankel just shook his head.

Scrambling to finish the cleanup as fast as possible, the two friends worked in tandem, their long gray beards scraping the snow. Finally they had collected everything and loaded the bag onto the wagon.

“It’s not an easy life we have, is it?” Tzvi said as they began to travel. “Work, work, work… And then what?” He pointed to the frozen ground they were traveling over. “We end up down there, six feet under….”

“Olam Haba…” Yankel said.

“Yes…” Tzvi nodded. “But how many mitzvos will I have to take with me? I’m working all day, all night… But you? You’re a tzaddik, Yankel. You’ll have a good Olam Haba, my friend. I see what you do every time we come back into town. You take a portion of your profit and give it to the town charity collector.”

“I’m not a tzaddik, Tzvi. We’re all obligated to give tzedakah!”

“But you and I both know you qualify as an ani, a pauper! You really can’t afford to give even a penny away. You and your righteous wife always look to do for others, even when G-d has not given you so much….”

Yankel did not respond and just closed his weary eyes. Perhaps he could sleep a bit before they arrived at the marketplace. He noticed the wagon driver slipping a bottle of vodka out of his coat pocket and taking a swig from it.

“Careful with that,” Tzvi tsked. “You’re going to run us off the road if you get drunk.”

“I know exactly what I’m doing, Jew! Just be quiet and settle down!”

Yankel and Tzvi looked at each other and shrugged. What could they do, anyway?


A half hour later, as the empty vodka bottle rolled at the wagon driver’s feet, the outskirts of the city they were traveling toward became visible. At that moment, the wagon driver gave an enormous sneeze and to the astonishment of everyone onboard, his head fell onto his chest and he began to sleep soundly.

Several passengers leaped to grasp the reins, but it was too late. The wagon driver snored loudly as he shifted position, steering the horse wagon straight into a thicket of trees. There was an enormous boom as the wagon slammed into the trees, flipping over together with the horse and all of the passengers and their merchandise.

The passengers picked themselves up, shocked and shaken. They screamed and ranted at the wagon driver, but he continued snoring peacefully, even as he lay in the freezing snow next to his shrieking horse.

“Nu, let’s not waste more time, Tzvi. The wagon ride is over. We’re going to have to shlep our stuff on foot the rest of the way.”

They gathered their belongings and began the slow, treacherous trek toward the city.

“You’re right, Tzvi.” Yankel wheezed as they inched their way through the deep snow. “It’s going to be one of those days….”

Yankel had no idea just how right he was.


to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 882)

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