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The Cigarette Beggar

The Cigarette Beggar

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Everyone in Jerusalem knew old Berl Zlodowitz. Poor old Berl, a lonely soul who lived in an old-age home in one of the new neighborhoods outside the city walls. It was rumored that back in Russia, before the Revolution, Berl had been a wealthy man, with a chain of textile factories in Minsk and philanthropic projects all over the world. Some said that he had built the very institution whose charity now housed and fed him.

If these rumors were true, nothing remained of his former glory. Berl was a shadow of a man, destitute and friendless, whose eccentricities bordered on the pathological. Take, for example, his compulsive habit of begging cigarettes. If you passed Berl on the street, he would inevitably stretch out his hand and humbly request, "Please, may I have a cigarette?" No one ever saw him smoke these cigarettes, nor could he possibly have smoked them all--he must have begged a hundred cigarettes each day.

But then, one day, old Berl underwent a transformation. There was a smile in his eyes, a lightness in his step, even his bent old back seemed to have somewhat straightened. He began speaking to people and even stopped begging cigarettes. Suddenly he was revealed as a lively old man, with a lucid mind and a healthy spirit.

One man knew the story behind Berl's metamorphosis. His name was Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tikochinsky, and he headed the "Etz Chaim" institutions in Jerusalem which included the old-age home where Berl resided. Only years later, after Berl had passed on to his eternal rest, did Rabbi Yechiel reveal what he knew about Berl Zlodowitz.

Rabbi Yechiel's acquaintance with Berl went back many years. They met when Rabbi Yechiel was in Minsk raising funds for his charitable works. Berl had received Rabbi Yechiel in his luxurious office and agreed to sponsor the building and maintenance of a home for the old and destitute of Jerusalem. Berl continued to correspond with Rabbi Yechiel and send his annual pledge until all contact between them was disrupted by the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

The next time Rabbi Yechiel saw Berl, the latter was a penniless refugee knocking on his door in Jerusalem. Needless to say, the former patron was given a room at the old-age home, and all his needs were provided for as best as the institution was able in those lean years. Rabbi Yechiel would drop by each day to sit for a few minutes with Berl, and his heart would ache at the sight of his old friend, whose troubles had left him broken in body and spirit.

One morning, when Rabbi Yechiel knocked on Berl's door, he was greeted with a broad smile, something he hadn't seen on his friend's face in twenty years. "Reb Yechiel," said Berl, noticing the Rabbi's surprise, "today I have been granted a new lease on life. This is the happiest day of my life!

"Sit down, Reb Yechiel," continued the old man, "and let me tell you a little about myself. You know what I was and what I am today, but you don't know how it happened. I do. I have only myself to blame. G‑d had blessed me with wealth and good fortune, and I failed to make proper use of His blessings. Yes, I gave generously to charity; yes, my factories provided a livelihood to hundreds of Jewish families; but I was blind to the true significance of my wealth, blind to my responsibilities toward G‑d and man.

"I thought that my wealth was mine, my due for my genius and toil. I thought that my workers owed me their lives for the few pennies I gave them to feed their families. I was a tyrant who used his power to crush those who failed to please him. If a worker was late to work or lax in fulfilling my expectations of him, I lashed out at him, deducted from his wages, and threatened to fire him--a threat I often carried out, for there was no shortage of able-bodied men crowding the cities and begging for work. I shudder to think of how many lives I made miserable with my heartlessness. Almost all the factories in Russia operated in this way--but does that excuse my behavior?

"One incident would haunt me for many years to come. A worker had come to work ten minutes late. I summoned him to my office. When the man mumbled something about a sick wife, I said coldly, So your wife is sick. What concern is that of mine? and sent him back to work after deducting half a day's pay, as clearly stipulated in the rules posted on the factory gate.

"In my mind, this incident marks the turning point of my life. Shortly thereafter, the Bolsheviks stripped me of all my possessions. Somehow, I managed to avoid arrest when the industrialists of Minsk were rounded up. I escaped across the border into Poland and made my way to Jerusalem.

"Here I found shelter and respite, but no tranquillity. I was haunted--not by memories of my lost wealth, but of the type of person it had made me. I kept thinking of the worker who had tended all night to his sick wife cowering before me in my office, pleading for his job. How did it feel to be at the mercy of another human being, to be humiliated by his callous indifference to your fate? I had to know. I felt that until I had experienced what I had made that man experience, I would not find atonement for my soul.

"So I decided to become a beggar. I didn't want to collect money--I was loathe to handle the vile stuff--and all my needs were generously provided by your institution. So I begged cigarettes. For hours each day I stood on the street, asking passersby for cigarettes. But everyone treated me kindly, perhaps because they had heard of who I was or out of pity for an old man somewhat soft in the head.

"This morning, I approached an elegantly-dressed gentleman and asked for a cigarette. The man eyed me coldly and said: So you want a cigarette. What concern is that of mine? His words, and especially the tone in which they were said, cut to the quick of my soul. Never had I been so humiliated. For a moment, I felt that I was nothing, that my existence was utterly without worth. And then an icy shudder passed through me. Why, these were exactly the words I had said to that worker in my factory more than twenty years ago! Suddenly I was filled with an incredible joy. The circle had been closed. Now I can die in peace, knowing that G‑d has accepted my repentance...."

Originally published in the Hebrew weekly Sichat Hashavuah; translation/adaptation by Yanki Tauber.
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Anonymous Manhattan Beach, CA March 7, 2014

Funny I pick up pennies on the ground and tip coffee baristas with all the loose change I pick up. Reply

G Ramos Murrieta, Ca January 25, 2014

Not "like reincarnation" To anonymous above:

The lesson above cannot be compared to reincarnation simply. It is not teaching us that we can be born and reborn into a better status or higher form of life by doing something good, which is what reincarnation basically teaches. Torah and the story here teaches us about humbleness, being sorrowful for our evil behavior, repentance and G-d's loving kindness and readiness to forgive. All these are lacking in reincarnationism. There's no likeness whatsoever. Reply

Anonymous July 25, 2013

Beautiful Hassidic tale, but ... Another beautiful Hassidic tale, but is the cycle from one's top-to-bottom-back-to-top a Torah concept or Eastern concept adopted by Hassidim? Just like reincarnation, there are many ideas adopted by Hassidim from the East, all good, but not Biblical in origin. Reply

alan texas July 20, 2013

arrogance haughtiness or arrogance are a sign of a person who believes he does not measure up to his expectations, or an inferiority complex. There is no one to tell that person that he is great, because, he is really not. Thus, he assumes arrogance to tell himself that he is great. A great and accomplished person is usually humble because he knows what he has accomplished. It is like the charity box with two pennies un it. It is very light. Shake it and it makes a lot of noise. Completely fill that box with coins and it becomes heavy. Shake it and it makes little or no noise, but it is now valuable. Reply

dbla1155 Murfreesboro, tn August 19, 2010

stories I often read these stories and they bring tears to my eyes.

Thank you. Reply

Linda August 18, 2010

Made me pray for my previous boss. Reply

ROSA SLATON, TX August 18, 2010

"THANK YOU!!!!!" Reply

Bentzion Elisha Brooklyn August 4, 2010

Wow!! What an amazing story!!! Reply

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