Shlomo and The Hunchback
Retold by Robert Haralick
Shlomo did not just entertain. His music served as an opening and a vehicle for a spiritual uplifting. After some singing, when the audience was prepared, he told a story. The stories he told were not ordinary stories. They were extraordinary. They carried deep messages about the meaningfulness of the spiritual and material worlds and our living connections to God. After the story he would sing and then give a Torah teaching. And then to instill and uplift this teaching into each person's heart, there would be more singing.
And among the stories that he told, what better choice of story than one which happened to him?
Shlomo read and studied and was inspired by all the Chasidic rebbes. When he studied the writings of Reb Kaloinimus Kalman Shapira, the Placezna Rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto, he was particularly inspired. Reb Kaloinimus buried the manuscript of his book The Holy Fire, in the rubble of the Warsaw ghetto before he was taken to Auschwitz. A young Polish boy found the manuscript and sold it for one dollar to an American soldier. The soldier brought the book to the Army chaplain who then arranged for its publication.
At the beginning of the manuscript Reb Kaloinimus Kalman wrote:
When you find this book, there may be no more Jews in Poland. There may be no more Jews in Europe. There may be no more Jews in the world. But in Jerusalem, in Yerushalayim, there will always be Jews because Yerushalayim cannot live without Jews. Please find the first Jew and beg him, in my name, to print this manuscript. And I swear to you that whoever will learn my book, whoever will print this manuscript. I will pray for them before God's holy throne.
When Reb Shlomo read this book, it touched his heart and he began inquiring about the children who had studied with Reb Kaloinimus Kalman. He asked and he asked. He wanted to meet with one and talk to him about what he learned. But he was not able to find anyone who knew anyone that was still alive that had studied with the rebbe.
One year, before Rosh Hashannah, he was walking down the Yarkon, the street where the beach is in Tel Aviv. And there he saw an old man, a hunchback. He looked so broken, so broken. He was sweeping the street. His face was beautiful and so handsome, but his whole body was completely disfigured. Reb Shlomo had an intuition that this person was special.
Reb Shlomo said to him in Hebrew: "Shalom lecha" meaning hello or peace to you. But when Shlomo greeted a person, it was never an ordinary greeting. The words always carried their full meaning. Not just hello. Not just peace. Shalom also carries a meaning of completeness and well being. Shlomo was giving the hunchback a blessing. But more than that. Shalom is also a name of God. And each neshamah is a part of God. Through the name Shalom, Shlomo was sharing some of his neshamah with the hunchback. What Shlomo was saying was:
Some of the holiness of God that is in me I give to you.
With such a greeting, the hunchback could not help but notice. He answered back in a heavy Polish Yiddish Hebrew accent Alaichem shulem. Hearing the Polish accent, Shlomo asked "Are you from Poland?" And he answered, "Yes, from Piecezna." Shlomo could not believe it. A survivor from Piecezna! Shlomo immediately asked, "Have you ever seen the holy Reb Koloinimus Kalman?"
"What do you mean have I ever seen him? I learned in his yeshiva, in his school from the age of five until I was eleven. When I was eleven I was taken to Auschwitz. I was so strong they thought I was seventeen. I was whipped and kicked and hit. I never healed and that's why I look like this now. I have nobody in the world. I am all alone." And he started to sweep the street again.
"My sweetest friend, my whole life I have been waiting to meet a person who studied with Reb Kaloinimus Kalman, a person who was one of his children." And Shlomo pleaded, "Please give me over one of his teachings."
The hunchback looked up at Reb Shlomo and said, "Do you think I can be in Auschwitz for five years and still remember teachings?"
Shlomo immediately replied "Yes, I am sure. The holy Reb Kaloinimus Kalman's teachings? The rebbe's teachings? How could your forget them? He was a real chasidishe yid."
The hunchback saw that Shlomo was serious and said, " Oy, I cannot wait any longer." He walked over to a nearby fountain, washed his hands, tidied himself, and put on his jacket. He asked Shlomo again, "Do you really want to hear?"
Shlomo encouraged him replying: "I swear to you I will give over your teaching all over the world."
At this, the street cleaner began to cry. Shlomo had not seen such big tears in all his life. Finally the hunchback began.
"I want you to know that until the Moshiach is coming, there will never be such a Shabbos again. Can you imagine the heilige rebbe, the holy master, dancing with hundreds, maybe thousands, of children? Can you imagine the holy rebbe singing on Friday night amidst the holy angels, Sholem Aleichem Malachey Hasholem, greeting the holy angels?
I want you to know that the rebbe taught Torah between the fish and the soup, between the soup and the chicken, and then between the chicken and the dessert."
And now the street cleaner paused. He said to Shlomo, "Open your heart." These words, open your heart, the very words that Shlomo always used, now pierced his own soul. Shlomo knew that the hunchback was about to give over the deepest, deepest depths of his soul.
The hunchback continued. "I want you to know, that after each teaching, this is what the rebbe said: Kinderlach, taiereh kinderlach, gedenkshe d'greste zach in der welt iz tzu teen emetzen ah toive. Children, precious, treasured children, remember, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor."
"I came to Auschwitz. I knew my parents were dead. My whole family does not exist anymore. I wanted to commit suicide. But at the last moment, I heard the rebbe's voice saying Kinderlach, taiereh kinderlach, children precious children, the greatest thing in the world is to do someone else a favor."
"Do you know how many favors you can do in Auschwitz at night? People are lying on the floor crying and no one even has the strength to listen to their stories anymore. I would walk from one person to another and ask, 'why are you crying?' They would tell me about their children, about their wives whom they would never see in this life again until Moshiach is coming. I would hold their hands and cry with them. Then I would walk to another person. It would give me strength for a few weeks. When I was at the end, I would hear my rebbe's voice telling us to do somebody a favor."
"Now, here in Tel Aviv, I have nobody in the world. You know, there are moments when I take off my shoes and I start to go to the beach, and walk into the ocean. I am already up to my nose in the water, ready to drown myself, and I cannot but hear my rebbe's voice again saying, Remember precious children, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor."
The chasid looked at Shlomo for a long time. Then he asked. "Do you know how many favors you can do on the streets of the world?" Shlomo gave him a parting hug and asked the hunchback to join him and his family for the Rosh Hashanah holiday. The hunchback was delighted and agreed. Shlomo gave him the information about where he was staying. They hugged each other again and the hunchback went on, sweeping the streets.
Children, precious children, remember the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.