“I don’t remember the last time I didn’t sell even a single item,” Yankel sighed
17th-century Eastern Europe, the town of Sharayeh
Yankel didn’t have an easy life. When still a child, he’d been forced to work to help his father, and like many others in his times, had missed out on getting a proper yeshivah education. Only the elite, those whose parents could afford it, had been given the opportunity to learn. As an adult, Yankel’s life was filled with back breaking labor, day in and day out. But the most painful part of his life? The fact that he was an older man and he and his wife had never been blessed with children.
Today was proving to be one of the most difficult days of Yankel’s hard life. Nothing seemed to be working out. From arriving late to the carriage, his sack opening and its contents spilling all over the snow, the drunk wagon driver, and now having to trek through the endless snow with a heavy burden on his back, the day was proving itself to be exceptionally arduous.
“Finally! We made it!” Tzvi wheezed as they entered the town. “Let’s get going so we can still catch some potential customers. Come on!”
The two men trekked their way through the city, knocking on doors, haggling with peasants in the local marketplace, but they saw little success. Tzvi sold a trinket or two, but Yankel — not even that.
“I don’t remember the last time I didn’t sell even a single item,” Yankel sighed, toying with the pot in his hand. All around him merchants shouted at passersby, hawking their merchandise. “Okay, I will accept my fate. It is the Will of Hashem and He knows best.”
“The day’s not over yet, my friend.” Tzvi placed a hand on Yankel’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, you’ll make a few sales before the sun sets. You know what we need? A good hot drink to warm our bones. Let’s stop off at the Jewish-owned tavern and get a hot drink, then we can come back.”
“No, you go.” Yankel shook his head. “I can’t afford to take breaks, Tzvi, my wife is depending on me.”
“Okay, if you say so. I’ll be back soon, Yankel.”
A peasant lady walked up to Yankel and held out her hand.
“You… want to take a closer look at the pot?”
Yankel handed over the pot he was holding and waited as she inspected it closely.
Yankel named his price.
The lady shook her head and tossed the pot back into Yankel’s hands before walking away.
Yankel sighed again and looked around the marketplace. He studied the desperate faces of the Jewish merchants who gazed at potential gentile customers as though they were Mashiach himself coming to redeem them from their troubles. They were all so desperate to make some parnassah, to feed loved ones at home. The hustle to score a sale was so time-consuming and tiring. Yankel thought to himself how Chazal say making a living is as difficult as splitting the Yam Suf.
“It’s so hard…” He whispered under his breath, feeling more forlorn than he had ever felt in a long time. “Ribbono shel Olam, couldn’t you have made me a rich man? Why can’t I just make a few sales so that I can go home already? Surely it isn’t hard for you to make that happen, Master of the Universe!”
Suddenly his ears perked up at the sound of coins jingling against each other and his eyes fell on a wealthy-looking businessman strolling through the marketplace.
“Cooking utensils! Something nice, who has some?”
Immediately the merchants all clamored for the businessman’s attention, yelling and shoving each other to present their wares to the man who had money. Yankel ran forward too, almost stumbling over his feet, waving about his pots and pans.
Through the commotion and din, the businessman laid eyes on the man standing next to Yankel. Yankel felt a lump form in his throat and a wave of frustration and sadness sweep over him as the businessman purchased the merchant’s entire inventory within a few minutes and handed him an entire bag of money.
The fortunate merchant’s eyes shone with happiness. Everyone else looked on in dismay, and the gentile merchants gnashed their teeth angrily and spat on the ground in disgust.
But then, before everyone’s shocked eyes, the just-paid merchant clutched at his chest and stumbled backward. Everyone watched as his face contorted in pain and he abruptly crumpled face-down on the snow, still and stiff as a board of wood.
Yankel rushed forward to help, but the man was already gone from This World. Almost immediately, like hungry vultures, the gentile merchants swooped in and began fighting over the bag filled with coins. Fists flew, boots landed thunderous blows, and screams filled the marketplace.
“Wild animals!” Tzvi said with a horrified expression as he appeared beside Yankel. “Let’s get out of here.”
But Yankel could not move. His eyes were riveted on the scene. Not so much out of shock at the violent merchants’ behavior, but more so by the sudden and profound lesson of seeing someone who in one moment was the envy of all, turn into a lifeless body lying in the cold snow.
The gentile merchants left with their loot, leaving behind a pile of churned up snow and mud, the deceased merchant lying in the same position he’d fallen in, a single coin resting underneath his lifeless, open fist.
“What’s the point of it all, Tzvi?” Yankel looked at his friend with tears in his eyes. “We take nothing with us to the grave anyhow! Not even a single coin.”
“Parnassah!” Tzvi looked at his friend in surprise. “Do you want food to fall from the sky? We’re not on such a level!”
“So parnassah, fine, but for what purpose? To stay alive so that we can come back tomorrow and spend another day like this?”
“That’s life, isn’t it?” Tzvi looked confused. “What more do you want?”
Yankel was silent. But he knew that he indeed wanted more.
Tzvi returned to Sharayeh that night, but Yankel remained in town. He went to a local inn and tried booking a room, but he had made no sales and could not afford the cost.
“Help me out and let me sleep somewhere,” Yankel begged the innkeeper.
“Sorry, but if I break the rules for you, I’ll have every beggar in town in my inn. Go to the back of the inn and try making a fire there. There’s one other person there who also couldn’t afford a room.”
Yankel went to the back of the inn and saw a man lying in the snow, his back to Yankel. There was a small, flimsy fire burning beside him, a small satchel resting under his head in lieu of a pillow.
Yankel lay down quietly, as close to the fire as possible, listening to the howling wolves and snow-filled winds in the distance.
Little did he know his life was about to change forever.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 883)
Oops! We could not locate your form.