On the dusty roads of 18th century Eastern Europe, two brothers took it upon themselves to wander as beggars, in self-imposed exile, for some years. Both were holy men and great scholars who had submerged themselves in Torah, Kabbalah, and works of Hasidic mysticism. They wished to remain anonymous among the simple Jews, serving G-d without reserve.

Those who noticed the “beggars” rarely felt inclined to examine them any further. This way, the brothers, Reb Zusya and Reb Elimelech, could subtly spread words of Torah, unobtrusively inspiring even the most ignorant Jews they encountered. They lived simply, apparently on the handouts of the charitable. Only a very searching look would have revealed to anyone the deep intensity of the brothers’ eyes and the holy words of Torah and Psalms forever on their lips.

One day they arrived quietly, as always, in a small town, but the brothers instantly caught the attention of the local beggars, who scrounged a living from the generosity of the townspeople. Two new beggars represented a serious threat to their already precarious income. The local beggars plotted and schemed and, before long, had framed the two new “beggars” and had them arrested and thrown into prison on false charges.

The brothers were handled roughly, and it took them some time to take in their new surroundings. The cell was crowded, and the other prisoners looked at them with either curiosity or open antagonism. What disturbed the brothers most, however, was the stench from a bucket in the corner of the cell that was used as a toilet by all the men. Now they would not even be able to pray or say their customary words of Torah, not with a foul-smelling open sewage bucket right there in the room!

Reb Zusya felt himself descend into a state of depression, which he knew was dangerous for his spiritual life. He saw that his brother shared his feelings. Here they were in prison, they did not know for how long, without the ability to pray or study Torah. G-d had forbidden a Jew to utter holy words in the presence of impurity. They were striving to serve G-d every moment of every day, but how could they do so in this prison cell?

Suddenly, Reb Zusya’s face lit up. “Everything that happens is by G-d’s decree,” he thought. “Not even a leaf from a tree turns over without G-d willing it. Therefore we are in this disgusting place because G-d has put us here, and to serve G-d we have to refrain from prayer and Torah because that is what G-d has commanded. At this moment and in this place, perhaps we serve G-d by not serving Him!”

So relieved and enthused was Reb Zusya by this thought, that he took hold of his brother and started an ecstatic dance around the cell.

“Look at those two Jews,” exclaimed one of the prisoners, who had followed a steady career of petty theft. “Do you think they have gone crazy?”

Several others started laughing to themselves until one of the younger men jumped up. “It looks like fun!” he said, and he joined the dance. It did not take long before every prisoner was dancing around the cell.

Outside, the prison guards became alarmed. What was happening in that cell? Was this the beginning of a prison riot? They remembered that in the past, prison riots had been difficult to control, and they trembled. “It doesn’t really sound like a riot,” said one guard, puzzled. There was no shouting, no screaming, no cursing. He went towards the cell and came back looking astounded. “They are all dancing!” he said. “And they aren’t even drinking, but they look quite happy. What could be wrong with them?”

“And those two Jews, what are they doing?” asked the other guard.
“They seem to be right in the middle, dancing together, and everyone is dancing around them,” replied the first.

“Well, they shouldn’t be doing that. Go and stop them!”

The guard nervously entered the cell and demanded to know the cause of the merriment. One of the prisoners pointed to the foul-smelling bucket. “It was that bucket that started them off, that bucket over there.”

Immediately, the guard removed the offending bucket from the cell, relieved that the problem had been so easily solved. And Reb Zusya and Reb Elimelech promptly settled down to pray and learn as they wished.

Ruth Benjamin is a clinical psychologist, University lecturer and prolific author of contemporary Jewish fiction. She lives in Johannesburg, South-Africa.