The Value of Vignettes

Ron Coleman recently wrote about Gedolim biographies and their place within our “literature”. While some of the stories or vignettes that we read about a tzeddaikus (holy woman), an adam gadol (great person), or a baal mussar (ethical leader) might seem somewhat hard to believe and might even fall under the secular label of an “urban legend”.

One such story, that appears below, has several versions. It’s almost like one of those old “Chose your own Adventure” kids’ books from the early 1980s. The versions I have read sort of follow this pattern and you can pretty much switch around any variable:

Once, while traveling at night with a student
a) Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin, aka Rabbi Yisrael Salanter
b) Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm
c) Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagen, the Chofetz Chaim

stopped at
a) an inn.
b) the home of a former talmud.
c) a local eating establishment.

Since it was evening, he decided it was time to eat and asked for some soup. When the bowl was placed before him and he took his first spoonful, he found that the soup had
a) been undercooked.
b) spoiled.
c) way too much salt in it.

Not wanting to embarrass the cook, he order multiple bowls of the soup, until there was none left in the kitchen for anyone else. Even his companion didn’t get any. After their meal, the two travelers left and the student asked is teacher why he ate up all of the soup? The student knew that his pious teacher wasn’t one to give into excessive cravings for any type of food or drink. The teacher then explained what the soup tasted like and that he decided to the entire supply of it, so that he could save the cook the embarrassment of
serving something inedible to others.

Most will admit that this is a cute store (no matter what version you pick). The idea behind it is threefold. Firstly, it emphasizes the important Jewish value of not embarrassing another person. Secondly, it shows that Jewish leader was willing to put his own hunger, health, and nourishment aside at any given moment. Thirdly, it’s important to sometimes share with others the reasons we do what we do, especially if it seems out of the norm.

It happens to be a great story to share with kids or guests at the Shabbos meal (but after everyone has eaten desert and thanked you for the meal). Recently I experienced something that made me not only think of this story, but actually got to “live out” the story. Recently I was eating Shabbos lunch and I decided to pour myself some water from pitcher. As I poured the water into my glass I noticed that several tiny bubbles were forming inside my cup. This meant either one of two things. There must have been soap left in the pitcher or soup was left in my glass. I quickly drank my cup and then became quite thirsty and ended up finishing the entire pitcher of water. Afterwards, offered to go into the kitchen and refill the pitcher and my glass. I rinsed both a few times and returned with a bad taste in my mouth and plenty of water for everyone else.

Am I a nice guy? Usually not. Was I willing to take one for the team? Maybe. Did I end up blowing soap bubble from my mouth? No. However, I did read a store about someone much greater than myself and tried to apply the lesson.

4 comments on “The Value of Vignettes

  1. While there is a value to stories/fables – they do teach us things, I think it important to note that since this and many other stories are attributed to SO many different people that these are in fact legends, and should not be taken to have literally happened.
    They can teach us things but the personalities involved probably told them and didnt actually live them.

    Does anyone really think there was someone called Snow White?

  2. I heard c, a, c. And I know it’s true because I heard it from a “big Rav”.(Isn’t that what everyone says?)
    Anyway, you merited to have this opportunity. I’m jealous of your Olam Habah.

  3. It is considered a great thing to save a fellow Jew from embarrassment. I heard a different version of the story: the Shabbos cholent was spoiled in some manner and the distinguished guest ate it all up, leaving none for anyone else (and presumably taking upon himself all of the agonizing after effects of bad cholent).

    Whether or not this story is true, the moral of the story, to save a fellow Jew from being shamed by others, and its flip side, not to yourself be guilty of shaming someone or causing him/her to be shamed by others, is something that can be applied to many different situations. It’s an extension of Hillel’s rule: Don’t do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you (you wouldn’t want to be humiliated in public, so don’t allow others to be humiliated).

    A version of this story was told about Ruchama Shain, the author of All For The Boss. Mrs. Shain was teaching a class of young girls when she noticed that one of her students had a panic-stricken face….and a large wet spot of liquid near her shoes. With great sensitivity and intelligence, Ruchama Shain announced to the class, “Girls, the radiator is leaking. As you can see, there is a puddle on the floor that leaked from the radiator. I will call the janitor in the morning to fix the problem. At dismissal, please be careful to step over it. Thank you.” In this manner, Mrs. Shain saved a young Jewish girl from a lifetime of shame – she would never have gotten over it, nor would her classmates ever have forgotten it.

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