Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

9 Iyar 5765 - May 18, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Benny Weisz and the Lonely Train: A Parable about Mishlei

by Abba Leib

Before I fall into the sleep which I so badly need, I feel compelled to write down the amazing events of the past day while they are still fresh in my mind. I never want to forget the fact that Benny Weisz saved my life today. And I never want to forget the amazing way in which he did it.

I guess I'll start at the train station, because that's the place where our troubles really began.

We were on our way to buy our tickets. Benny had just handed me his share of the money, which I had folded into my brown leather wallet and safely tucked away in the inner pocket of my jacket.

Benny was to my right. We were discussing plans for the remainder of the summer vacation when, in that thoughtless surprise that comes with a sudden and unexpected event, I found myself being pushed violently backwards. Lying flat on my back, staring dumbly into the bright fluorescent tubes of the train station ceiling, I heard whomever it was who had bumped into me mumbling something like an apology.

"No harm done," I replied, finding everything thankfully intact. But as I rose to my feet and replaced my fallen glasses, I saw that the stranger had already disappeared. That's weird, I thought. Then, in that same instant of dawning awareness, panic welled up in my chest. My hand instinctively flew to my wallet.


My heart sank as the pieces of the puzzle fell dismally into place. It was obvious to me what must have happened.

The man had seen Benny hand me the money and had seen me replace my wallet in my jacket pocket. Target perfectly pinpointed. Then he used the oldest trick in the book — distraction. I was so overwhelmed by the shock of the fall that I didn't even notice his hand deftly reaching into my pocket and grabbing all of our money.

"We're dead, Benny!" I exclaimed. "We just got robbed! How are we gonna get back home without any money to buy a ticket? This is ridiculous! What in the world are we gonna do?"

I realized that I was panicking, but I couldn't seem to get hold of myself.

"It'll be OK, Dave," Benny said, pointing to a bench. "Let's sit down here for a few minutes and consider our options. The same One who put us into this mess can just as easily get us out of it."

Immediately I felt a bit calmer, and also, if I can be perfectly honest, a little ashamed of myself too. Benny has that cool intellectual detachment which I've seen in scholars much older than he, while I seem to lose my cool at the slightest disturbance.

The truth is that Benny has many admirable qualities which I don't have. I feel bad about that sometimes, but I usually don't let jealousy come between our friendship. Besides, it's hard to be jealous of a guy who doesn't think he's better than you, even if you suspect that maybe he is.

"OK," I ventured, after we had fished through our pockets and come up with too little for even one ticket. "Why don't we call our parents and ask them to wire us more money?"

"Nice try, but no dice." Benny said, pointing to the glowing schedule board above us. "Less than twenty minutes till the last train out of here. It'll never be enough time."

"OK, let's think about it for a second," I said. I once learned a visualization technique for tapping in to the secret knowledge, sometimes called intuition, which lays placidly under the surface of our minds. I have used it many times before to get ideas when logical thought has failed me. I asked G-d to help me, and I closed my eyes.

In my inner world, I imagined that I was walking through a field to an old-fashioned well. Slowly, I wrote on a little piece of paper, "What should we do?" put the note in the bucket, and lowered the bucket into the well until I felt it touching water. I let it dip under and fill, and then I slowly drew the bucket up to the surface and looked inside.

Floating on the water were three letters, an `I,' an `O,' and a `U.'

"Benny," I said, opening my eyes. "Do you think there is someone here who could lend us some money?"

"Could be. Let's consider the possibility for a second," he said, beginning to analyze the idea piece by piece. "The first question to ask is, `Would anyone, with the limited evidence of our reliability that we could present, be willing to believe our story and lend us money?'

"To that question," he continued, "I would venture to say yes. We certainly look like respectable people. We are dressed modestly and cleanly. I still have on me all of my identification. And, maybe most convincing of all, . . . we are telling the truth. The truth, as the saying goes, is a witness to itself.

"So, in theory, I believe that we could convince someone to lend us money.

"The problem is," he said, glancing at his watch, "that we only have about thirteen minutes left before that train pulls out. It's extremely unlikely that we would find someone in that short amount of time willing to take the risk."

"Wait!" I exclaimed, excitedly. "Maybe the train company itself would accept an IOU. After all, it's much less of a risk for a big company to lend than for one individual to do it!"

I didn't have to wait for Benny's agreement. He was already up and running to the ticket window.

The teller was predictably surly. "I don't care what happened to your money, Sir. IOU's are not acceptable. All tickets must be purchased either before boarding or on the train. If you have the money, buy the ticket. If not, kindly step aside to make room for paying customers."

Benny drew up, cleared his throat, and paused for exactly the right amount of time. In a voice that was both somehow extremely polite and respectful, and which yet had an air of authority so strong that it was impossible to refuse, he said:

"I would like to speak with your manager, please."

The manager listened carefully to our story, nodding thoughtfully, stopping us here and there to ask a question or to clarify a point. When we were finished, he leaned back in his big desk chair, blew a sigh through pursed lips, and closed his eyes.

To my great relief, when he opened them up again he smiled. "Now listen boys. I want you to know that I believe that you're telling the truth. I also want you to know that I believe sincerely that you're good for the money.

"The problem is that I simply cannot, under any circumstances, put you in regular seats if you cannot pay the fare. As far as rules go, it just doesn't work that way. And as you know, when it comes to money the people who make the rules can be awfully uptight."

My heart sank. I had thought that G-d would save us through this man, and now I saw that it wasn't to be so. We would have to wait it out till morning in this extremely uncomfortable, and probably very dangerous, train station, many miles from the warmth and comfort of our homes and families.

Benny must have sensed that I had given up, because he turned to look at me and, with the briefest of glances, communicated something that I had momentarily forgotten: G-d can save in the blink of an eye.

"Sir," I said, and my voice must have been quavering a little, "is there absolutely nothing that you can do to help us get home?"

He leaned in a little closer over his desk and looked at me with kind, happy eyes. "As a matter of fact son . . . there is."


"I still can't believe we're riding the freight car home! This is great!" I said, laughing, taking in the cool night air in great chilly lungfulls. "Just look at all of those stars! I think that's the Milky Way."

Benny was leaning back against one of the big crates, smiling. "If only we had a harmonica, then this would really be authentic," he said.

". . . and we knew how to play," I added with a chuckle.

We talked for a while, ate almost all of the provisions we had left, and curled up in our blankets to go to sleep.

It felt like I had only been sleeping for a few minutes when a metallic Boomp from the roof jolted me awake.

"What was that?" I whispered out loud. Benny put his finger to his lips, signaling me to stay silent.

Thump Bump. Thump Bump. My heartbeat quickened. There was somebody up there. Thump Bump. Thump Bump. Instinctively we jumped to our feet, our eyes riveted to the door.

Benny crouched back into the shadows, and motioned me to do the same.

The heavy footsteps on the roof got closer to the partially open door and stopped. Through the door, the scenery passed before my wide eyes: low, fast moving clouds, bright stars in a black sky.

Questions passed through my mind as fast as the scenery before my eyes. Who could this person be? Why would he be walking on the roof of a moving train in the middle of the night? Was he dangerous?

I was not left wondering for long. In the door frame, a pair of giant black boots appeared. Beefy legs swung down and felt for solid ground. An enormous midsection covered by a billowing black raincoat followed.

Then, with a thud of his boots on the freight train floor, the intruder was inside.

The man stood at the door, breathing heavily as he surveyed the car, a giant black shadow blocking out the bright light of the stars. I had never before seen anyone like him. He was at least two heads taller than I and so enormous, so imposing in sheer mass, that I could not move a millimeter from my spot. His hair, long and glistening black, was loosely tied in a pony tail. His face, which was covered by thick black stubble, was as grotesquely big in its features as his huge frame.

I tried to stay perfectly still and, although I was trembling slightly, I believed us to be well-concealed. But as his giant head swiveled around the car, a sickening certainty began to creep into me that he not only knew we were there, but had come there to find us.

As he let his eyes adjust to the dimness of the car, I tried to convince myself of the possibility that he meant us no harm. But in just that moment, his eyes found my hiding spot and locked onto me.

He opened up his mouth and smiled a sinister grin. Gold teeth glimmered in the moonlight. Then, in a voice so low, so evil, that it seemed to rise up from the depths of Hell itself, he said, "Come on out little mice. The big mean cat came to pay you a visit. And he's real hungry."

With that ominous proclamation, he threw his head back in a peal of wicked laughter which immobilized my mind with fear. All of my capability for rational thought was suddenly swept away in horror and, like a trapped animal, my mind automatically scampered from one hope of escape to the next.

Run! . . . But where?

Fight! . . . He'll kill us!

Scream! . . . No one will hear!

Jump! . . . We're moving too fast!

He advanced a pace or two into the car and my panic redoubled.

Then, in a decisive move, Benny jumped up from his hiding spot to face him. My fear momentarily drained out of me and I was seized with an urge to stand beside Benny against this man. I jumped out next to my friend to face our enemy.

"What do you want from us?" Benny said, his voice even and firm against the rhythmic noise of the train running over the tracks.

"Oh, hello there, little mice," said the man mockingly, even larger at this close distance. "I stopped by for some tea and cookies and to chat about the weather. While you little mice are boiling up the water, I'm just gonna help myself to some of your stuff. I'm sure you don't mind."

"Hurry up!" He barked. "Gimme everything you have. Food. Money. Watches. Credit cards. Everything."

Benny reached into the bag and gave the man an unopened bag of potato chips and a package of crackers. Then he pulled his wallet out and gave it over. Then he hastily took off his watch and gave it to him too.

"That's all we have," Benny said, knowing that I don't wear a watch and that I had nothing left of my food.

"What about you, squeaky?" he said, turning to me and grabbing me by the shirt.

"I don't have anything to give you, sir," I said, "My wallet was stolen in the train station. That's why we are riding the freight train."

My voice was dry and thin from fear.

"It's true." Benny added, corroborating my story. "He would give you if he had. He's not stupid enough to cross someone as tough as you."

But the cruel cat wanted to play with the mice, and now he had his excuse.

With one arm he raised me up completely off my feet in the air until I was face to face with him. With the other, he pulled a giant switchblade knife from his pocket, put it right next to my ear, and opened it.

"You know, squeaky . . . you look like you could use a real close haircut." With that, he sliced off a swath of the hair on the left side of my head, taking some of the skin with it. Warm blood trickled down my cheek.

In the moments which followed, perhaps because of my fear, or perhaps because I knew I was about to die, something strange happened to my perception of time. Objectively, looking back, I can say that I was able to fit much more mental activity into each passing moment. It was as if I had always perceived time like a bird with closed wings, and now those wings were suddenly spread open.

In addition, I felt unusually calm and clear, and I became acutely aware. I could smell his hot breath and, in a detached sort of way, I recognized the smells of rotting meat, garlic, and whisky.

I could hear clearly the rhythmic running of the train on its tracks.

I could see the cargo of the freight car — some cardboard, others heavy black plastic, different goods going to different people, each object for it's designated person, each thing for it's designated time.

I saw my friend Benny standing there, his frame evenly balanced, his fine features relaxed.

A wave of anger passed through me. Why was he just standing there? Why didn't he try to do something? Wasn't he my friend? Didn't he care?

But my mind moved on. I thought of my siblings, my mother and father and how much they had done for me, and how much I loved them. I concentrated on sending them love through those unseen, but felt rivulets of communication below the level of normal human consciousness.

I thought of my own life, now about to end, and of how very true it is that our days are like a passing shadow, or a sprouting grass that is gone in one day.

I wondered if I had spent my time wisely, if I had made this world a better place during my short stay here. I realized that I had done many things I shouldn't have, said many things which were better left unsaid and, although I had generally considered myself a good Jew, I knew that I had many times, sometimes willfully and sometimes unintentionally, violated the will of my Creator.

I was seized with a terrible regret and, although I couldn't speak with my lips, I was able to think in words. I told my Creator that if I could have changed things, I would have done better. I asked Him for forgiveness.

Then the thought of Benny — no, not now — just standing there — no not again — letting me die.

"Judge favorably!" I screamed at myself. "Judge favorably. You're about to die for G-d's sake!"

But the anger tightened it's grip.

Then I felt the blade of the knife at my throat.

And I decided: Benny must be frozen in fear. That's why he's not acting.

I calmed.

I watched my murderer's lips move. He was nothing in himself, a stick in G-d's hand dispatched to take my life.

I heard his words as if from a distance. "Bye Bye, squeaky mouse."

Then I said the words that a Jew says before he dies. The battle cry of the Jew. The essence of our lives in this world.

"Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod."

As if in answer, Benny spoke, his calm voice ringing out sharply and loud in the cool air of the train, like a sword drawn, ringing, as it clears its sheath.

"What's your mother going to say when you tell her about this one?"

My attacker stopped, his eyebrows knitted together in anger, his features twisted and distorted like a rubber band knotted over itself.

But in his eyes I saw something like fear, something like remorse.

Benny had found a weakness.

Without turning his head, he growled a low growl at Benny. But there was somehow less power in it.

"Whadda you know about my mother, mouse?" he growled.

Benny placed his blows perfectly.

"I know that you come home and brag to her about all of your wicked doings.

"I know that she loves you and fawns over you and you bring her nothing but pain.

"I know that you would never have the guts to brag to your father. But you're not afraid to tell your mother about it in gruesome detail."

As Benny was speaking, I watched the man's face change. There was fury in it, but also regret. He seemed to me like a giant boulder perfectly perched on a mountain summit, unsure of which way to fall.

Suddenly it occurred to me that I could help. I could fire arrows to match Benny's cutting sword.

My heart welled up in my chest. My eyes flowed with tears. I opened up my mouth and I begged G-d to spare our lives.

In a voice just loud enough to be heard, Benny delivered his death blow: "You ought to be ashamed of yourself for what you've done to your mother."

This last bit of truth sent the man into a world of guilt in which he had probably spent many tortured hours. Staring absently into space, his hand loosened its grip and I fell with a thump to the floor. In G-d's abundant mercy on us, the boulder had crashed to the side of regret.

Absently, nodding his head and mumbling, more to himself than to us, he emptied his pockets of Benny's possessions and stumbled towards the door.

I caught snippets of what he said.

"I didn't know she was gonna get sick.

"I didn't know . . . I'm sorry Mommy . . . I didn't know."

As he raised himself back on to the roof with his strong arms, Benny called out after him.

"Turn from evil and do good! G-d will help you if you want to change! It's all up to you."

And then, with the same Thump Bump, Thump Bump receding on the metallic roof, the man was gone.

Benny and I were simultaneously shaken by the trauma and energized by the shared glow of victory.

"How in the world did you know all that about him?" I asked Benny once we had calmed down a bit.

"Well, I remembered something I had learned in the Book of Mishlei by Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest man who ever lived. The verse says the following:

"The Proverbs of Solomon. A wise son gladdens a father, a foolish son is the sorrow of his mother" (Mishlei 10:1).

"I see the difficulty of the verse as clear as day, Benny!" I interjected, happy to be able to contribute. "The problem is that a wise son gladdens his mother too, and a foolish son is also a sorrow to his father. Why then did King Solomon choose to focus on the wise son gladdening his father and the foolish son giving sorrow to his mother?"

"Exactly!" answered Benny. "That's exactly the difficulty of the verse."

"So what's the answer?" I asked, impatient to find out how this verse from the Torah had saved our lives.

"One moment. Let's take this one step at a time. First a definition. The Malbim explains that the `foolish son' of the verse is referring to someone who is basically a slave to his physical desires."

"Well, that guy certainly was overweight," I said.

"Correct. But that fact in and of itself would not have been enough for me to decide that he was a slave to his physical desires. People can be overweight for a lot of different reasons. Being a slave to physical desire is only one of them."

"So how'd you know?" I asked.

"Well, there was other evidence. First of all, do you remember how he demanded our stuff? He told us to give over our food, our money and our watches, in that order.

"Now, I would think that an armed robber wouldn't demand food at all. It's practically worthless compared to money. Furthermore, a person usually mentions what's most important to him first. Notice that he put food first. That indicates that he has an almost addiction-like relationship with physical lusts like food. Then, when I saw how he grabbed the chips, I was convinced."

"Well, maybe he was just starving!" I interjected, thinking that I saw a hole in his reasoning.

"Good thought, but not likely. A starving man would have devoured the food on the spot, not wasting time with anything else, like giving haircuts. By the way, how's your head doing?"

"Thank G-d. He just grazed the surface of my scalp.

"Amazing Benny! All of that Torah learning has really sharpened your brain. OK, now that we see that he fits into the definition of the `foolish son' of the verse, how did you know all of that other stuff about him?"

"Well, I didn't know for sure. It was a calculated risk. But under the circumstances, I thought it was our best shot. I understood that the foolish son of the verse acts in that way because that is how the Malbim and the Ralbag answer the difficulties you raised in the verse. They explain that King Solomon wrote that the foolish son is a sorrow specifically to his mother because she's usually the one who dotes on him, so he feels free to tell her all about his bad deeds. His father, on the other hand, he's usually too afraid of to tell these things to him."

"And how about the other side of the difficulty, the question of why King Solomon singles out the father?"

"What do you think I'm going to give it all to you on a silver platter?" He said with a wink and a friendly smile. "Let's take a look inside the book itself and work a little for it. I have a copy of Mishlei with commentary right here in my bag."

And so it was. For the rest of our journey, we learned Torah together, acquiring wisdom under the stars, as the verse says, "Toras Hashem temimoh . . . machkimas pesi. The Torah of G-d is perfect, making the foolish one wise."


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.