Commentary Magazine

A Story

Here we print a story which, he tells us, was originally told him by the brother in the story itself whom he calls “Isaac.” He wishes us to note that the midrash he speaks of is quoted by Judah Goldin in his “The Period of the Talmud”—found in The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion (Harper, 1949).




Once there were three brothers. Their names were like those of the blessed patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham, the eldest, was good and very able; Isaac, the second, was just an ordinary man; but Jacob, the youngest, was neither good nor able. They were born in a little town in Poland. The name of it in Polish means “mud puddle.” When they were grown up, they left it; the eldest went to Germany, the second to the United States, and the youngest to France.



Abraham did very well in Germany. He was only a clerk in a small store at first, but soon he had a small store of his own, and afterwards a department store. The second brother, Isaac, did well enough in the United States. He did not become rich but he was not poor, either. Jacob, the youngest, never did well and his oldest brother was always helping him with money and good advice.

Now when the Evil One became all-powerful in Germany and even powerful in France, both Abraham and Jacob wrote to their brother in America for help.

The ne’er-do-well Jacob and his family managed to reach a port in France and there they waited for their fare to America, for Jacob was almost penniless. They had a cold room in a dirty inn near the waterfront, the five of them, man, wife, and three little children. The room had only a small window that opened on a blank wall: it was as if they were in a concentration camp already. It rained almost every day. Each morning, Jacob went to the office to which Isaac was to send the money. The clerk would thumb through the mail quickly and say: “Nothing!”

And so it went on, day after day, until the last steamer was to leave that port for America. The steamer was leaving in the morning, and Jacob and his wife and their children went to the office with baggage and bundles, for there was no time to be lost: Jacob and his wife hoping against all likelihood that the money from Isaac had come. Jacob went up to the clerk and again the clerk thumbed through the mail quickly and said, “Nothing!”

Jacob and his wife picked up their baggage and, followed by their children, slowly left the office. As they went towards their lodging, they passed a street-cleaner. He stopped his work and looked at them. “Why are you so sad?” he asked.

Jacob answered: “We are Jews and are trying to escape from the Germans, but the money for our passage to America has not come and the last steamer is leaving this morning.”

“Why not go back to the office?” the street-cleaner said. “Perhaps the money has come.”

“But we were just there,” Jacob answered.

“Go back, anyway,” said the street-cleaner.

“We have been at the office and have just left it and there is nothing for us.”

“What have you to lose?” said the street-cleaner. “Go back and ask again.”

Jacob did and the money was waiting for him. Isaac had sent it promptly but it may have been misdirected or, perhaps, the clerk had not read Jacob’s name right at first. Whatever the reason, Jacob had the fare and he and his family went joyfully to the steamer and reached it just in time.

Perhaps the street-cleaner was really the prophet Elijah. Who knows? But wait, that is not all.



Abraham, the eldest brother, who was both good and able, was still in Germany. In those days, it was not enough to send the fare to America: one had to send an affidavit, too, showing what those who sent for a Jew possessed, and swearing that he and his family would never become a charge and burden upon the state. But the affidavit that Isaac had sent his elder brother Abraham was returned as insufficient.

Isaac now went to a rich man he knew and asked for an affidavit to add to his own. The rich man received him kindly and said to him: “As you know, it takes time to prepare it. Come to my house this Friday evening for dinner and you will have the affidavit.” But that very night the rich man died of a heart attack. So Isaac went to another rich man and this man, too, promised him an affidavit. But before he could furnish it, he was taken to a hospital and was dead. In the meantime, Jacob and his family landed in this country and were welcomed by Isaac.

Then Isaac went to still another rich man and this time secured an affidavit, and he wrote Abraham as follows: “I am sending you with this letter the affidavit of a rich man as well as my own affidavit. The two should be sufficient. But it seems that God is unwilling that you should come to America, for two men who promised to give me an affidavit each died before they could do so, and I am reminded of a story that you may have heard, too.

“There was once a man who lost all his money and could not earn a living. So he went to the rabbi of the town and said: ‘Rabbi, I must leave this town and perhaps my luck will change, for I cannot make a living here.’ And he asked the. rabbi for a letter of recommendation. The man was a good and deserving man and the rabbi did his best to persuade him to stay but could not and finally wrote a letter commending the man to all good Jews in the warmest terms. Then the rabbi reached for the sand with which to dry the letter but picked up the ink instead and poured it over what he had just written. ‘It seems,’ said the rabbi, ‘that God does not wish you to leave. Stay here, my son, and maybe things will be better.’

“But they went from bad to worse for the man, and after a while he came back to the rabbi and again begged for a letter of recommendation. This time the rabbi gave it to him and, if the rabbi had left out any praise of the man in the first letter, he put it into the second. The man left town and spent the night in an inn. That night a rascal, whom the police were looking for, stole his clothing and with it the rabbi’s letter. In the morning, the good man put on the thief’s clothing, for he had nothing else to wear. But the police were looking for the rascal by the description of his clothing, and they arrested the good man and threw him into prison. In the meantime, the rascal went from town to town, cheating and robbing with the help of the rabbi’s letter. After a while, news of this came to the town where the good man had lived and they thought that he had turned cheat and thief because he had lost his money. So the man lost his good name also.

“It may be better for you,” concluded Isaac, “not to leave Germany where you have done so well and where a man like you may do well again.” For no one then thought that the Germans would put innocent men and women and even children to death. “However, my dear brother, I send you the affidavits you asked for, and may whatever you decide to do be for the best and with the blessing of God.”

Isaac put the letter and the affidavits in an envelope and addressed it carefully and gave it to Jacob—who had himself been saved by a miracle and was now living with Isaac in America—to mail to their brother, Abraham.



One day, Isaac and Jacob were talking together in the park of the city. The sun was shining and sky and earth, bushes, grass and trees, were all in their glory. Reports of what the Germans were doing to the Jews were beginning to come from abroad: how they were putting all the Jews of Germany and other countries to death in gas-chambers. Isaac sighed. “I cannot help thinking of our brother Abraham,” he said. “Did my letter persuade him not to leave? But, even if he decided to stay in Germany, why haven’t we heard from him all this while? And if the affidavits were insufficient, why were they not returned? I would have sent him others. I am afraid our brother Abraham is dead.”

Jacob was silent for a while and then, perhaps because his conscience bothered him, said softly: “I didn’t mail your letter. I threw the letter and affidavits into a sewer. After all, it is hard enough for you to help me.”

Abraham and all his family died in one of the gas-chambers of the Germans. Now, why did God save the wicked brother and let the good brother perish? A midrash tells us: “When the Angel of Destruction has been summoned, he does not trouble to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked.”



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