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The Kitten

by Doug Lipman

On the day before his first Yom Kippur as a rabbi, Rabbi Pesach Mendel was standing outside his synagogue. He noticed small groups of Jews arriving in the town - Jews who lived in the outlying countryside. Obviously, they were coming to attend his services. He was flattered.

The rabbi's eye lit on one young man he had never seen before. The young man wore a Russian-style winter coat and a brown scarf wrapped completely around his neck and chin. Rabbi Pesach Mendel approached him. "Welcome, stranger! I hope you join us for services tomorrow!"

The young man looked confused. "But tomorrow is Thursday," he said.

"No," said the rabbi. "Not for Sabbath. For Yom Kippur!"

The young man lowered his eyes in embarrassment. What kind of a Jew didn't know when Yom Kippur was? Rabbi Pesach Mendel smiled reassuringly. "That's all right. Just come. Please?"

That evening, the rabbi told his wife about the young man. "Obviously, he has not been living a Jewish life. But I feel hopeful about him. If I can give just the right sermon, I may be able to reclaim him as a pious Jew. What do you think, Mimele?"

Mimele was silent. At last she said, "Did I ever tell you about my two cousins?"

"I guess not. What about them?"

"When they were young boys, their father wanted the older brother to grow up to become a rabbi. But one day, when the boys were 10 and 7 years old, they saw a stray cat enter the yard of the farm where they lived. They quickly agreed that they wanted it as a pet.

"'I'll capture it,' said the older brother. He began to impersonate his boyish idea of a hunter. He stalked the cat, but in vain. He tried to trap it. At last, in frustration, he picked up a fallen branch and threw it at the cat. The cat yowled in pain, then slipped away to hide.

"Later that night, their father discovered that the younger brother was not in his bed. Searching the yard, the father found him perched in the fork of a tree, cradling the cat. The boy was rocking the wounded cat like a baby. At that moment, the father understood that it was his younger son who should become a rabbi."

Mimele arose and walked out the room. The rabbi sat a long time after she left, staring at his hands.

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On the morning of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Pesach Mendel led the services with spirit. He told his congregation, "By now, you should have made amends for all harm you have done this year. If we all make teshuvah - turning toward God, repentance - sincerely enough, our names will be written in the Book of Life for another year."

He went on to enumerate the deeds and the lapses in observance they should repent of. When he spoke of lapses in observance, he looked directly at the young man, still wearing his coat and scarf.

The rabbi turned to continue his exhortation. As he did, he caught Mimele's eye. Something was wrong. Following her glance, he turned back to see the young man heading toward the door. "Wait," shouted the rabbi. "Wait! Wait!"

The young man halted, still looking furtively at the door. "Please," said the rabbi. "I meant to honor you. Will you come up here with me?"

Slowly, the young man ascended the bima to stand next to the rabbi. "It is time for a reading," said Rabbi Pesach Mendel. "Will you accept the honor of reading from the Torah?"

The young man's shoulders slumped. "I cannot," he said.

What could Rabbi Pesach Mendel do now? Helplessly, he looked at Mimele. She swung her folded arms gently in front of her, as though she were rocking a kitten.

Rabbi Pesach Mendel sighed. Then he turned toward the young man and took his hands. "Please," he said. "Tell me your story."

The young man began to talk softly and rapidly. The congregation strained to hear him. "My parents were poor," he said. "Their highest hope for me was to apprentice me to a tailor or shoemaker. So, when the Czar's agents came to our town, looking for boys to conscript into the Russian army, my parents didn't have the money to send me away to hide or to bribe the agents. I was ripped from my family and my people.

"My parents didn't know where I was taken. I wasn't allowed to contact them. I wasn't allowed to pray, or to live as a Jew. I repeated the prayers I remembered, as a link to my home. But, after ten years in the Czar's army, I had forgotten nearly everything Jewish I had known.

"When I was released, I took jobs as a laborer, working my way home. But when I arrived, I found my parents both dead. No one in the town really even remembered me. So I began to wander, knowing I was neither fully a Jew nor fully a Russian. I could never fit in.

"Yet when you greeted me so warmly, I allowed myself to hope once again. That was stupid of me. I don't know enough about the observances you mentioned to even know what they were, much less how to repent of not doing them."

The young man looked directly at the rabbi's face and sobbed. "But I just wanted to find a home!" At that, the young man burst into tears.

Rabbi Pesach Mendel stepped up the him and folded his arms around him. He held the young man as he cried.

After a long while, the rabbi spoke over the young man's shoulder to his congregation. "This man's teshuvah is so strong," he said, "that it will cause all of our names to be inscribed in the Book of Life."



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This page was last updated on Tuesday, August 5, 2003
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