Once Upon a Journey – Excerpt from chapter 38: The Young Thief
One night, when Reb Gavriel and Shmuel had already become close friends, the elderly talmid chacham told his young student an interesting and most unusual story.
It happened 70 years ago, said the old man, right here in Orsha. At that time, there was a horse dealer by the name of Reb Aharon. His business was successful and in addition to giving much tzedakah, Reb Aharon was also a talmid chacham. Reb Aharon had one son and he wished with all his heart that his boy would grow to be a talmid chacham with yiras Shomayim.
At first, it looked like his wish would be fulfilled because the boy was blessed with a good head and he received a fine Torah education in his parents’ home. The problem was that by nature the boy was always looking for excitement and trouble. Every so often, he would run away from his studies and wander the streets together with the wild street boys.
It all grew much worse when his father suddenly passed away. Reb Aharon’s fifteen-year-old son was now free to go wherever he wished. Within no time at all, the Jews of Orsha found themselves repeating the boy’s name in connection with a number of local robberies.
Time passed and the stories about the wild boy grew. Eventually, he earned himself the nickname “Sticky Fingers.” Whenever he was caught with stolen goods, he would explain that he could not help it―the goods just stuck to his hands! Nobody could tell whether he was trying to make a sorry excuse or whether he was simply making a joke out of them, showing how little he cared. Nor did anyone know what to do with the wild child. He never seemed to learn his lesson.
Once, a respected guest arrived in Orsha. On the second day of his visit, he was shocked to discover that his tefillin had been stolen. As usual, everyone suspected that the wild orphan was the culprit. A quick search of his belongings proved them right. They were angry and embarrassed and decided to treat the boy to an unusually harsh punishment. Perhaps he would finally learn to stop stealing.
The respected guest, however, sprang to protect the boy. He pleaded with the townsmen not to punish the orphan. He insisted that he forgave him completely and instead of harshly punishing the boy, he would like to speak privately with the young thief.
The guest spent the next few days in Orsha. Each day, he met again with Reb Aharon’s son. The two of them held long, private discussions. The townsmen were amazed to see their guest and the wild youth become close friends. When the guest left Orsha a few days later, the boy went with him and did not return.
Twenty-five years passed and a new family arrived in Orsha. This was on an erev Rosh Chodesh, which is also referred to as Yom Kippur Katan. In Orsha, like in many communities, the day before Rosh Chodesh was observed as a day of fasting and teshuvah and selichos were recited in shul. That day, after the rav of Orsha finished delivering his customary Yom Kippur Katan speech, the father of the new family stepped onto the bimah and asked to say a few words.
“I am the son of Reb Aharon the horse dealer,” he told the shocked crowd. “Yes, I am none other than Sticky Fingers himself! As you can see, I have changed completely from one extreme to the other. I am telling you this because I wish to repay everything I ever stole from you and for any damage that I may have caused. I would also like to tell you that Hashem has blessed me with success in business and I wish to donate a large sum of money to the community fund.”
With a deep sigh, Reb Gavriel finished his story and looked across the table at his young student, Shmuel.
“As I said, this all happened right here in Orsha around 70 years ago. Well, Shmuel, do you see that everything depends on a person’s will? If a person truly wants to change, he can.”
When Shmuel nodded his head, the old man continued softly, “And I would like to tell you just another small detail. Do you know the name of that wild boy I just told you about?”
Shmuel looked in confusion at the elderly talmid chacham. How would he know the name of the boy?