In Leipnik there lived a Jew by the name of Yossel who earned a meager livelihood by peddling merchandise among the surrounding villages. As he was preparing one day to set out with his humble wares, he saw how downcast his wife looked and asked her what was bothering her.
“Look Yossel,” she said, “our home situation is pretty grim. Even the most basic necessities are missing. This is why I am feeling so dejected.”
“Don’t worry,” he reassured her. “The Prophet Eliyahu who has blessed so many people can bless us too!”
Yossel completed his preparations and then left. On the way out of town he met the mail coach on its way towards Leipnik and just as it passed him he saw that two envelopes fell out of it. Picking them up, he saw that one of them was marked with the information that it contained thirty thousand Mark in cash, and it was to be delivered to some squire whose address was written there. The other was a perfectly ordinary envelope. Without thinking much Yossel popped the fat envelope into his coat pocket and at the top of his voice shouted out to the coach driver that he had dropped something. The mailman heard him and returned, thanked Yossel for the plain envelope, and continued on his way.
Not so Yossel. Instead of continuing toward the villages he turned around and headed for home. By way of answer to his wife’s wide-eyed surprise at seeing him so soon he said: “Well, what did I tell you? Blessings have already been sent our way!” And he blithely told her the whole story.
The good woman was flabbergasted. “How could you ever have come to do such a thing? Don’t you realize that it’s plain and simple robbery? Are we suddenly going to become common thieves?!”
“Look here, Yossel,” she persisted. “I’m just a plain ordinary woman, and I don’t know from clever words and fancy talk. All I know is that the money isn’t ours and we’re not allowed to use somebody else’s! What will our children say when they wake up tomorrow morning and find out all of a sudden that their parents are thieves, G-d forbid?”
But when she saw that all her words made no impact whatever on her husband, who was listening to all her rebukes in relaxed tranquility and obviously was not even considering the possibility of returning his find, she tried another tactic: “The people from the government will come and search through our house, for sure, because the mailman knows that you found one letter, and he’ll guess that you found the other one, too.”
Now this was an argument of a more convincing kind. Yossel got up quickly, moved the wardrobe from its corner, tore up one of the floorboards, hid the envelope under it, returned the plank, and pushed the wardrobe safely back into place. Sure enough, only a few hours later they had two callers – a police officer and the mailman.
They cross-examined Yossel as thoroughly as they could, and he stoutly denied having seen any envelope apart from the one which he had so faithfully returned. His wife sat in silence. She was certainly bitterly disappointed with this husband of hers – but that was hardly any affair of their visitors. After an unsuccessful search of the house the policeman renewed his cross examination until the mailman spoke up: “Look the letter which he found he passed on to me at once, which surely means that he found nothing else. Just because he’s an honest man, and returned the letter that he found does that mean that we should suspect him without cause?”
Unexpectedly, the policeman flared up at these words, and turned on the mailman: “So you’re putting in a good word for him, are you? It’s obvious that this is a carefully planned inside job. I’ll have to arrest the two of you!”
And so Yossel was hauled off to jail. Word spread fast enough and since his townsfolk all knew him as a simple honest peddler, they assumed that he was the innocent victim of a vicious libel and vied with each other in expressing their sympathy to his sorely embarrassed wife. Day by day they brought her food and drink and delicacies in plenty for her defenseless little ones who had been so cruelly separated from their sinless breadwinner.
In the meantime, the postal authorities plastered the city with notices: Whoever returned the lost envelope to the post office would receive a reward of five hundred rubles. Not surprisingly the reward remained without claimant.
One day, the resourceful woman thought up a plan. She would take the bundle of notes to the local rav and he in his wisdom would devise some means of returning it to the post office. In this way the whole matter would be dropped and her Yossel would be freed. No sooner thought than done. She dragged the wardrobe from its corner, pulled up the floorboard, and took out the envelope. She walked quickly to the home of the local rav who was the celebrated Reb Baruch Frenkel-Teomim*, the father in law of Reb Chaim of Sanz. As she approached the rabbis house, however, she saw through the window that he was in the midst of teaching a group of Talmud scholars. She could hardly bring herself to walk in and confess the whole truth in the presence of a number of people, so she saved the situation simply. She threw the envelope through the open window in the rabbi’s study and promptly and anonymously left the scene.
The rabbi picked up the flying object and to his amazement identified it as a fat envelope with, “30,000 Marks” written on it. This must clearly be the lost item that poor innocent Yossel was imprisoned over – but who was the individual who had thrown it incognito through the window, and why had he not returned it to its proper address – the post office?
“Now this is a tricky business,” thought the rabbi. “I’ll have to consider my steps very carefully, indeed.”
His students had fortunately not seen what was written on the envelope that he had picked up as soon as it had fallen near his chair. He cut the lesson short and walked up and down his room deep in thought.
“If I go straight to the post office and return the money,” he told himself, “that will only cause a chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name). Who would ever believe such an alibi that an anonymous stranger threw the object through the open window of the local rabbi’s study? The Name of Heaven would be disgraced, G-d forbid. They will assume that the rabbi together with his community originally planned to lay hands on the government’s money but later changed their minds for some reason.”
In the meantime, he deposited the envelope in his drawer and locked it and went out for a stroll. That way he would have a clear mind and be able to think his way out of his dilemma. When he was only a short distance from his home, he checked himself: “Now that wasn’t very clever of me, locking the envelope up in the drawer. Who knows – perhaps it was thrown into my house by some anti-Semite as the first step in a trumped-up libel? The money has got to be found right on the floor where it first landed. Any gendarme who comes to search the house will realize that no thief leaves his loot lying around on the floor.”
With that he went back, took the envelope out of the drawer, put it on the floor, and resumed his stroll. On and on he walked turning over all the possibilities in his mind until he found that he was on the outskirts of the city. There he was suddenly greeted by the bishop of Leipnick who was out on his daily constitutional. The bishop had always respected the rabbi as a learned and holy man and now asked him what made him look so preoccupied. A novel idea flickered in the rabbi’s mind.
“Could you please tell me,” he asked, “whether you are obliged to keep in strict confidence whatever you are told in confession?”
“Most certainly,” intoned the cleric. “Secrets from such a source are divulged to no man.”
“Another question,” continued the rabbi. “Are you permitted to receive confessions from persons who are not of your faith?”
“I am indeed,” returned the other.
“In that case,” said the rabbi, “I would like to make confession to you, on condition that this take place in your home and not in your place of worship.”
The bishop was dumbstruck: the rabbi was coming to him for confession?! But when he saw that this was no joking matter and the rabbi was speaking in perfect seriousness, he answered that at home too he kept a special chair for confessions.
“I’m afraid not, “said the rabbi. “I could really do without a special chair. What I had in mind was that we should both sit together on ordinary chairs next to the table and there I would give you my confession.”
The bishop was a t a loss for a moment. “Reverend sir” he said, “I must point out that ecclesiastical statues are ecclesiastical statues.”
Then he thought the better of it and decided that out of deference for the rabbi he could allow an episcopal dispensation in this case and suspend the conventional forms. He would receive the rabbi’s confession without any of the trappings of churchly ceremonial.
“Very well,” said the rabbi, “let us go home and in about an hour I will call on you at your residence.”
He went home to collect the envelope and took it to the bishop who received him with all the politest marks of respect. It was now time to tell the bishop the whole story. When he had concluded, he explained his dilemma and apprehensions and requested that the cleric take the money from his hands and pass it on to the postal authorities and tell them that someone had given it to him during confession. Under these circumstances no questions would be asked. The bishop listened carefully and consented.
The next day the whole of Leipnick was agog with the exciting news. The money had been found and Yossel was free! The innocent little man had been arrested for nothing.
Overjoyed at his unexplained good fortune, Yossel yet had to face a tribunal of a different sort. As soon as he came home, his wife told him how she had thrown the envelope into the house of the rav who, being such a righteous and holy man, had immediately passed it on to the postal authorities in order that he Yossel be freed.
“In which case,” she concluded, “the right thing for you to do now is to go along to the rav to thank him and to tell him the whole truth.”
He had no option but to agree. Off he went to do his duty. As soon as the rav laid eyes on him he uttered the benediction – matir asurim – which praises Him Who frees the bound. His heart swelling with honest sentiments expressed his joy that one so innocent and so righteous as Yossel had at last been saved from such a foul miscarriage of justice.
“No, rabbi, no!” Yossel insisted. “I am neither innocent nor righteous. I am a sinner!” And the unwilling martyr told his whole story expressing, as well, his profound regret at what he had done. The rav, for his part, did his best to console him with the thought that the wrong had at last been rectified.
At this point they were joined by the bishop, who had come to pass on to the rabbi the reward of five hundred gold rubles that he had received from the postal authorities. The rabbi refused to accept the money.
“You are the one who deserves it,” he said, “for your trouble in conveying the envelope to its rightful owner. Moreover, I am deeply indebted to you for getting me out of a fix.”
The bishop was not readily convinced. “No,” he said, “the reward is not due to me, because I did not find the money. And if indeed you refuse to accept the five hundred rubles for yourself, you might perhaps like to distribute it instead among the poor.”
“Even that,” said the rav,”is your prerogative, for it is you who did the good deed.”
In the course of this discussion the rav suddenly recalled – Yossel.
“Look here, my friend,” he said to the bishop. “here before us stand Yossel. He is the innocent victim of this whole unpleasant affair and he is poor into the bargain. Wouldn’t it be proper to give him the reward?”
The bishop was much impressed with the rabbi’s ingenuity. “How is it that this didn’t’ occur to me until now?” he mused.
Yossel was at first unwilling not seeing himself as exactly deserving of a reward. But the rav insisted that he accept it and use it to open a shop. He even undertook to send him customers. And so it was, that Yossel took the reward, opened a business, prospered exceedingly, and gave charity with an open hand to all comers until the end of his days.
With slight edits from A Treasury of Chassidic Tales on the Torah by Rabbi S.Y. Zevin translated by Uri Kaploun pgs. 238-244 (story title: All’s Well that Ends Well – Parshat Yitro)
*Rabbi Baruch Frankel-Teomim: 1760-1828 a great scholar of renown, author of many works, best known for his sefer, Baruch Taam. His daughter married Rabbi Chaim Halberstam the Sanzer Rebbe.
Leipnik, a city in Czechoslovakia, ravaged during WWII, today there are no Jews living there.