#125 (s5760-25/24Adar I)
THE PRECIOUS COIN
The Ktav Sofer was visibly upset, his face white as frost
THE PRECIOUS COIN
The Ktav Sofer was elated. So much of his time and energy in the recent years had been involved in the fight to protect the traditional way of life, and now the government decision was finally official; the right of the religious community to their own educational system would be securely ensconced in law.
Feeling boundless joy and relief, he decided to sponsor an enormous celebration of thanksgiving, to which he invited the leading rabbis, Torah scholars and community leaders of Austria-Hungary, all those who had shared in and would benefit from the struggle.
Perhaps there had never been a comparable gathering in Pressburg throughout its glorious history as a great center of Jewish scholarship. The evening was filled with new and exciting Torah interpretations as one distinguished Rabbi after another offered his presentation. Hours passed, unnoticed. The food and drink were secondary, barely registering in the lofty consciousness of this rarefied assembly.
The excitement heightened when the Ktav Sofer rose from his seat and began to speak vibrantly. Without preamble, he announced that in honor of the occasion he wished to share something unique and thrilling with all those present; not only was it something they had never seen before, it was something they had never even imagined they would see.
With all eyes and ears continuing to focus upon him, he took out his wallet and withdrew from it a small object wrapped in silk. When he carefully removed the cover, they could see it was a small, ancient silver coin.
"Gentlemen," he said, "my elders, my mentors, my peers. You are looking at a genuine machtzit hashekel [half-shekel coin], such as was donated to the Holy Temple two thousand years ago for the various holy purposes that all of you know well. I inherited it from my holy father of blessed memory; it has been a prized secret possession in our family for many many generations. I don't think there is another one in the world today. I never thought to display it publicly until this evening."
The listeners all stared in amazement. An actual silver half-shekel from Temple times! Everyone wanted to touch it, feel it, examine it closely. The coin passed from hand to hand. Spirited discussions erupted throughout the room as to its weight, its shape, and the manner of its use. Voices rose louder and louder.
A soft voice penetrated the din of scholarly argument. A rabbi who had yet to see the coin up close inquired as to its whereabouts. No one could answer him. The coin had disappeared!
Everyone began searching frantically. They felt all over the floor and probed under whatever food and utensils remained on the table. The priceless coin, the artifact of inestimable value, was nowhere to be found.
Silence descended upon the crowded room. All eyes turned to their illustrious host. The Ktav Sofer was visibly upset, his face white as frost, at the loss of the unique coin which had been treasured in his family for so many generations.
He stood at his place. Casting his eyes around the room, he addressed them again. "Gentleman, G-d forbid to think that I suspect any of the honorable people in this room of transgressing an explicit commandment of the Torah. However, we were all so engrossed in analyzing the half-shekel and its significance; it could be that by mistake someone got it mixed up with a current coin of his own and slipped it into his pocket by mistake. We have no choice: with all due respect, I must ask everyone to empty their pockets, wallets, and change-purses so that we can determine if such an accident has taken place."
Everyone quickly agreed. They well understood the delicacy of the situation. But then a voice was heard from the side of the room. It was one of the oldest, most respected Torah scholars present, who had been an important rabbinical leader in Hungary for over forty years. "I oppose such a search," he called out. "Better to wait a quarter hour or so, and perhaps in that time the coin will turn up."
The Ktav Sofer had great respect for the venerable sage. He agreed to his suggestion. The quarter hour passed, with noticeable tension, but without a trace of the coin.
"Alright," said the Ktav Sofer, "let's empty our pockets in front of each other, as we already agreed."
To everyone's surprise, the elderly rabbi again objected, and requested another fifteen-minute delay. The Ktav Sofer agreed, so again everyone sat impatiently, waiting for the second quarter hour to pass. The tension increased, became palpable. Several of the guests stared bitterly at the old rabbi who had caused the delay, suspecting that he had indeed pocketed the coin, and had asked for extra time in order to come up with a way to return it without being detected.
At last the time was up. As before, there was no sign of the coin. The Ktav Sofer rose again. Sorrow and impatience could be heard in his voice. "Gentlemen, I have the greatest respect for our venerable, illustrious colleague. But we cannot postpone it anymore. The search must begin."
Even though they were half expecting it, everyone was nevertheless astonished when the elderly sage once again stood up to halt the process. This time his voice shook, and tears streamed down his cheeks. "Please, Rebbe," he addressed the Ktav Sofer, "please remember the great love of your father of blessed memory and I for each other, and let's wait another fifteen minutes. If the coin hasn't been found by then, I agree that we shall do however you see fit."
The Ktav Sofer hesitated briefly, then nodded his head in acquiescence. The tension in the room heightened again. The old Rabbi stood in a corner of the room, his lips moving rapidly in silent prayer. The Ktav Sofer sat at the other end, his face extremely pale and etched with worry. It appeared that he might soon faint. The guests nervously awaited the next turn of events. Many expected that the old rabbi would confess to the theft.
Suddenly, all eyes turned toward the door. Running steps could be heard in the vestibule leading to the great hall where they now sat. The door burst open and the attendant of the Ktav Sofer charged in. "Good news!" he cried out. "The coin has been found."
The emotional crowd stormed toward the attendant. Each one wanted to verify the half-shekel's presence with his own eyes. The thick tension dissolved instantaneously. Instead, voices loudly proclaimed, "Thank G-d," "Boruch HaShem," "Yashar koach," and so forth. Above all the noise could be heard the ringing voice of the Ktav Sofer, demanding of his attendant that he relate to everyone how he had found the precious coin.
The crowd fell silent. Everyone turned towards the attendant in expectancy, eager to hear his reply.
He smiled. "When I saw that everyone was so deeply involved in discussing the half-shekel, I decided to utilize the opportunity to begin cleaning up. I removed the tablecloths, and shook them out over the garbage to get read of all the crumbs and other food remains. When I heard that the coin was missing, I worried that it might have been put down on one of the tables and that I had inadvertently thrown it out along with the rest of the garbage. I went to the trash pile and began to sift through a veritable mountain of refuse. Finally, something sparkling caught my eye. Here is the treasure I found in the trash," and he handed his precious find over to its owner.
Slowly the crowd quieted down and order was restored. Most of the guests returned to their seats. The elderly sage requested permission to speak. Everyone turned towards him in eager anticipation, realizing that now they had not the slightest idea why he and acted as he did to delay the Ktav Sofer's reasonable request for a search.
"Dear friends," he began, "I'm sure you are all waiting for an explanation of my three requests for postponements. I suspect you will find it wondrous. You see, in one respect our esteemed host is mistaken; his coin is not unique! I also have in my possession a genuine half-shekel coin from Temple times! - passed down from generation to generation in my family, just like in his. Today, in honor of this momentous festive gathering, I decided to surprise you by displaying it. But then the illustrious Rosh Yeshiva preceded me and showed his coin, along with the statement that it was unique in the world. I didn't want to weaken the power of his presentation, so I left my half-shekel in my pocket.
"Now, imagine to yourselves, honorable colleagues, if the search had been conducted according to the instructions of our host. The coin in my pocket would have been immediately identified, and I certainly would have come under suspicion as having stolen it. That is why I tried everything I could to delay the process, the whole time praying that in the merit of the great Chatam Sofer of blessed memory I wouldn't be subjected to such a terrible embarrassment. Thank G-d, my prayers were accepted."
Concluding his words, the venerable sage slipped his half-shekel coin from his pocket, and passed it to his enchanted audience. As it mde the rounds, they were astounded to perceive that it was an identical twin to the one of the Ktav Sofer.
The exciting evening finally drew to a close. Before the concluding blessings, the Ktav Sofer rose to speak one last time. Once again, his words surprised his listeners.
"Gentlemen, I truly believe that the inner purpose of this great gathering was that we should all gain a deeper perspective of the true meaning of the Mishna, 'Judge every man favorably.' If the search had been conducted and the coin discovered in our venerable associate's pocket, is there anyone in this room who can honestly say he wouldn't have presumed that he has stolen my coin? - especially after I had influenced you by saying there wasn't another one like it in the world.
"No, this teaching is not so simple as its wording makes it seem. The lesson of tonight is that even if all indications point to a person's guilt, we still have to presume his innocence until proven otherwise. That is the Divine Providence of the unforgettable events of this thanksgiving feast."
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed,
and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org
websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.