REB SHMGEGGI, THE SAGE OF YUMA
“Paradise” © 2009 by Michael Anatole
“Rabbi, what is the reward for those who perform mitzvot, and who lead blameless lives?” asked the disciple. “The reward,” answered Reb Shmgeggi, “is to enter Gan Eden, Paradise.” “So you have said, Rabbi,” stated the disciple, in a tone slightly more irritating that a good dose of poison oak. “That is understood. ‘The righteous shall enter Paradise.’ But you have not yet told us . . . what is Paradise?” Shmgeggi resisted responding, “Paradise is a life of teaching that does not involve shmendricks like you.” Instead, he stroked his beard and said, “My student, no one can know what lies beyond until the time has come. That is axiomatic.” Reb Shmgeggi paused, to see if anyone would ask if “axiomatic” was Hebrew or Aramaic. No one did, probably because none save the inquiring student paid any attention, choosing, instead, to regard the plethora of beautiful butterflies which painted the sky under the gentle Yuma summer sun. The student persisted. “Rabbi, what awaits those who do not perform mitzvot, and whom allow themselves to be guided by the yester hara, the evil inclination?” “Indeed,” responded Shmgeggi, “For such wretches, Gehinnom awaits. Is it not said, “For thou who watcheth butterflies rather than attending thy teacher, weave for thyself a hand basket?” 1 He awaited a guilty reaction from the dozen other students, who were entranced by a chipmunk chewing on a nut, and were otherwise oblivious. Shmgeggi fixed a meaningful stare upon the chipmunk, who chirped, “What? Don’t judge me!” “Gan Eden, Gehinnom,” the student was saying. “Reb Shmgeggi, my teacher, I do not now know more than I did than when I came before you.” 1
It is, in fact, not said.
Reb Shmgeggi ground his teeth. He turned his head toward the inquiring student, transforming his expression into the strained caricature of a smile. “It is true that, if the student does not learn, it is the fault of the teacher. So, I will strive yet again for clarity. Attend, my student!” Reb Shmgeggi struck what he hoped would appear to be a pedagogic pose. “Tradition teaches us that, after this life is the Olam Habah, the world to come. In Mishnah, it is said, ‘This world is like a lobby before the Olam Habah. Prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall.’ 2 So, does it not stand to reason that there is an elevator in the lobby, by which a person may ascend to Gan Eden or descend to Gehinnom?” “An elevator!” the student snorted. “There is no elevator in the Mishnah!” “Jacob dreamt of the holy ladder,” retorted Reb Shmgeggi. “Is the Holy One immune to progress? Do you think it is a coincidence that “Otis” is identical with ot ish (‘a sign to man’)? I think not!” Shmgeggi admitted to himself that he had pushed it a bit with the “Otis/ ot ish” reference, but truly, he was frustrated. And, in a moment of veritas, Shmgeggi acknowledged that his frustration was due not to the questions of the student, but rather, to his own inability to answer. Reb Shmgeggi excused his class, and hung back as the students exited his study, slightly ashamed to confront the questioner, with whom he knew he had been disingenuous. “What, indeed, awaits in the Olam Habah,” he pondered. On one hand, he thought, Rabbi Ya’akov taught: ‘”Better one hour in repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life in the world to come. And better one hour of tranquility of 2
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spirit in the world to come than all the life of this world.” 3 On the other hand . . . that is just not an answer! How ironic, it is, Shmgeggi mused, that our faith encourages questions, but makes the answers as elusive as fine wine at Pesach! Troubled, Shmgeggi prepared for bed, and was asleep before his payot had time to spread over the pillow. He dreamed. . . He sat in the dirt, in the alley of a sprawling city. Next to him was a man who slept on a filthy twin mattress, with newspaper piled upon him, leaving bare his head and his dirty feet. Men, women, and even children lay nearby in small groups. Shmgeggi arose, and slowly walked the length of the alley. The alley terminated at a street, which was a jumble of cars and busses. The stink of exhaust permeated the morning air. Retreating to the alley, he felt a hand pull on his jacket. “Mister,” said a voice, “Can you spare some change?” Shmgeggi’s impulse was to pull back, but he resisted the urge. He looked down at the man, whose dirty face and disheveled hair marked him as a resident of that alley. Next to him sat a woman, who may have been young and may once have been pretty. Her grimy face was imploring. Shmgeggi reached into his right pocket, and found two twenty-dollar bills. Without a word, he handed one each to the woman and the man. This action was not lost upon the other alley dwellers. “Mister!” they called in a crude unison. Shmgeggi walked among them, distributing the money in his pocket, and no matter how many times he reached into his pocket, there was always something there to give. Shmgeggi could only vaguely think this odd, as he was far from wealthy, and was not accustomed to carrying much money. As he pressed the bills into eager palms,
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the recipients gathered their belongings into shopping bags and carts, and ambled purposelessly to the street, where they dispersed like dust before a fan Not everyone left the alley. An older woman sat against a large garbage bin. Her possessions were few, and scattered over a blanket, neatly laid out next to her over the oily concrete. She stared straight forward, and did not appear to notice Shmgeggi. He walked slowly toward the woman, and drew close enough to see that her right leg was bound with a soiled rag. The rag was crusted with dried, black blood. “Pardon me,” Shmgeggi said. “Excuse me, are you alright.” The woman turned dull eyes to Shmgeggi. “Why do you want to know?” she asked. Shmgeggi was nonplussed. “I apologize,” he stammered. “I saw you sitting here and . . . well, I see the rag, and it looks . . . it looks like maybe you need a doctor?” The woman laughed, and then coughed spasmodically. “A doctor! Do I look like I can afford a doctor? And, by the way, Mister, how many doctors do you know who would come into this alley, and soil their pretty white jackets?” “I’m no doctor,” said Shmgeggi, “but I know something about first aid. May I look at your leg?” Why did I say that, wondered Shmgeggi. I don’t have any knowledge of such things! The woman stared at him. “You’re gonna get your hands dirty.” Without a word, Shmgeggi unwound the rag, revealing an angry, weeping wound. He impulsively reached into his left pocket, and upon withdrawing his hand, found it filled with ointments, bandages and scissors. Shmgeggi cut away the old dressing as if he had performed similar services all of his life. He dressed the wound with medicines and ointments, all drawn from the left pocket, and covered it with a fresh, clean cloth.
He gave the woman some antibiotic pills, courtesy of the cornucopian pocket. Seeing her settled, he ran over to a little store, just left of the alley, and purchased fruit, meat, cheese and bread for the woman. She stared at him. “Who are you, Mister?” she asked. “Shmgeggi,” he responded. “Well, Shmgeggi,” she said, “I thank you. I can’t remember the last time somebody has helped me. Her words filled his heart. “It was nothing,” he said. Then he looked around him. All along the alley, people appeared. As Shmgeggi approached each in turn, each exhibited some illness, some wound, and for each, Shmgeggi found a remedy in his pocket. As he became more comfortable dispensing aid, he fell into a pattern, and began to chat with his patients. He learned of their heartaches, their disappointments, and bad luck. He sympathized with them, offered them kind words, and made sure that they had good food to eat. At once, the alley dissolved, and Reb Shmgeggi awoke in his bed. The dream, which had seemed so real, replayed in his mind. He slowly smiled. After he had breakfasted, he entered his study, where his students had assembled. The inquisitor of the prior day sat at the front table, preparing to renew his attack. “Rabbi!” he announced. “I feel that you did not answer my question of yesterday. Tell me, Rabbi, what is in Paradise?” Reb Shmgeggi smiled. “Paradise, my young friend, is like this. There is an alley. . .”
© 2009 by Michael Anatole