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The Tale of the Sage and His Beadle

A new hamlet was being constructed in the midst of a small bloc of villages up in the mountains. Amongst the first residents was an ancient sage. He and his wife were by far the oldest residents. They came to the hamlet to join their son who wanted to live in this exciting new development. As building progressed, the prices of housing in the township rose beyond the son's means. His parents decided to move there anyway.

In the years prior to settling in this little town, our sage had travelled far and wide, criss-crossing continents. He had interacted with many teachers; he was a disciple of the most pious, a diligent scholar of the most highly esteemed. He understood the ways and thoughts of men, being blessed with an uncanny knack to advise on a wide range of the issues that bother the common man. He spoke many languages, and his ability to converse in the vernacular exceeded that of most of the aboriginal population.

He now sought a quiet place to set his bookshelves, allowing him to continue studying his beloved holy texts in the tranquillity deserving an old man who had taught, preached and counselled for decades. He was a bridge between the old, traditional generation, since passed onto its eternal reward and the new, modern one. He slid effortlessly between the two worlds.

Initially the community was tiny, comprising an ethnically diverse population, largely of professionals. In a short time, it became apparent to all that the sage was not comfortable participating in services at the town's small prayer hall. Even in the serenity of retirement, he was not able to restrain his natural urge to preach and teach, and to shepherd a flock.

Located a few steps from the sage's humble abode stood a communal bomb shelter. While the law of the land at that time still required these to be maintained, in reality they were quite useless. As a result, far and wide, they were used for all manner of other activities. However, in order to stay within the letter of the law, the structure of these buildings was never modified, potentially retaining their original function in the unfortunate eventuality of enemy bombing. Only years later was the law upgraded to allow a more simple, domestic protective structure, leaving many white elephants dotting the landscape.

The sage received permission to use "his" bomb shelter as a prayer and study hall. Tapping into his "old boys' network" of former students and congregants, the sage raised sufficient funds to purchase furniture, holy books and scrolls and even wood panelling for his little chapel. Over the years the sage succeeded in amassing a magnificent library, one to rival of any academic institution. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The sage attracted neighbours to join him in prayer and study. His scepticism of his neighbours' attendance at early morning lessons was dissipated by a pleasantly surprising turnout. Within a short time he was teaching some fifteen people each morning and twenty more in the evening.

The town's official clergyman came to the sage's assistance by securing funding for stipends to distribute to "students" who attended lessons regularly and who remained afterwards to learn in small groups. Within a short time a very vibrant congregation flourished.

To ensure that prayers ran smoothly, that people were available to lead services, the sage appointed two beadles from amongst his followers. The first high holidays were quickly approaching. Leading these services is a far more arduous task than the day-to-day or even the Sabbath liturgy. Fortunately one of the "regulars" had some experience in the task at hand. His singing voice was pleasant, his pronunciation meticulous. He understood the texts and was acceptable to all the penitents who would be dependant on his rites. And most of all, he respected and carried out the sage's instructions.

The sage was indeed pleased. As time went on, he spent more and more of his time involved in his centre's activities. He became quite obsessed, in a very positive way, with ensuring its continuing success, working hard to boost attendance. If one wanted to pinpoint the sage's singular "failing", it was his effort, at any expense, to ensure the smooth running of the undertaking. Sometimes he may have lost track of the big picture at the expense of the moment.

The centre's "audience" was multifaceted. Different people came to his morning lessons, to morning prayers and to the evening prayers and lessons. He recruited additional teachers, though everyone, including the sage himself, performed their tasks gratis. He believed that one who was taught by the previous generation of sages was obliged to pass his accumulated knowledge and experience onto the next generation, scholars and laymen alike.

Some successful years passed by. The sage was sorry that, while the building bustled in the early hours and during the evening, it was vacant during the day. He dreamt of organising daytime study. He envisaged his centre as a hive of academic activity.

Being wise, he knew that in order to induce people to come during the day, even retirees of whom there was a growing number in the locality, he required finance; funds to pay good teachers and money for stipends -- even pensioners' wives, he reasoned, liked to see that their husbands were not spending their time indolently.

Amongst the regular congregants was a gentleman who had developed a close relationship with the sage. He went out of his way to help the sage whenever he could, running his errands, driving him and his wife wherever they needed to go. He volunteered that he was willing to manage the envisioned daytime programme. To confirm his enthusiasm, he abandoned his nine-to-five job. Other congregants pointed out to the sage that it was not proper of him to accept this young man's services, no matter how attractive the offer. The man had a wife and children, and a mortgage too. He was his household's primary breadwinner. The sage retorted in agreement, but the young man refused to heed his advice. But, added the sage, were the young man to raise the necessary finance to establish a day programme, he would certainly be able to pay his own salary and, as an additional benefit, would also participate in the academic activities rather than wasting his day in his dead-end job.

Eventually the programme did take off, though the sage reported having to keep a close eye on the young man, and directing him to speak to specific people and organisations, even scripting precisely his words.

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Following a few years of service, the beadles informed the sage that they now preferred to relax and allow others to resume their responsibilities. Two other attendees, and later a third, were appointed.

In the course of time, the prayer leader moved to another locality. Again, as the high holidays quickly approached, the sage worried about a replacement. There was no solution from amongst the regulars. Someone mentioned a young man in the hamlet, who had a pleasant voice, who, though he had never attended the sage's study hall, possibly may be enlisted. This man was brought before the sage. His rotund build reminded the sage of famous opera stars. It is hard to know what the else the sage thought -- he knew how to play his cards close to his chest when necessary. By now he was becoming quite desperate. The holy days were but a few days away.

The task was completed, the turnout had been a good. Following his maiden appearance, the rotund singer sometimes attended Sabbath services, always arriving an hour late. His grand entrance would be accompanied by a haughty laugh, making light of his tardiness. Others too would laugh, though not with him as he thought, instead scoffing at him. He didn't attend study groups and sorely lacked understanding of the sage's life philosophy.

A few more years passed. Sadly, one of the beadles left the hamlet, to live in the big city at the foot of the mountain. To fill the vacuum a jolly gentleman was appointed, again from amongst the regulars, to assist the two remaining beadles with the technical aspects of maintaining the sanctuary. The shoddily-built shelter was showing signs of wear: lighting, cleaning, repairs -- air-conditioning had been incorporated -- something always needed to be attended too.

The arrangement continued well. Everyone knew his responsibilities: the sage taught, the daytime programme manager worried about funding, the two beadles maintained the smooth running of the prayer meets, the technician ensured everything was in working order and the rotund singer performed annually. The sage was very pleased. Had he reached nirvana on earth?

As more years pass, this status quo is maintained.

The jolly gentleman, while remaining with the congregation, is tired of everyone pressing his buttons before his arrival. He too prefers to sit back as a participant. One of the beadles suggests to the sage that the singer be appointed a beadle. The sage interprets this appointment as a means of ensuring the singer continues to avail himself for the special occasions, but without interfering at other times.

One of the sage's confidants was horrified. "Are you crazy?", he asked his master, using these strong words. "Appointing the singer to a position of authority?" The sage immediately understood his error. He attempted to argue with his interlocutor, but the case was feeble.

As a last defence, he announced that the singer would only be responsible for technical matters, merely a replacement for the jolly gentleman. "You know the singer better than that. Once you award him the title 'beadle', he won't stop at just handling technical matters." The sage was not happy. "You worry too much", was his retort.

The confidant ended the conversation with, "We'll see." The old sage now looked troubled indeed.

As predicted, the singer pushed his way into an active role. The other beadles' nonchalance resulted in them agreeing to offload some of their workload.

Many of the singer's actions upset the sage. His late arrivals were a worrying issue. On a grand entry, seconds before the Sabbath, he would always start fiddling with all the electrical devices. The sage was very particular to have everything ready well before the Sabbath. Though he said nothing to the singer, everyone present knew precisely what was in his mind.

The singer would regularly approach the sage, often in the middle of the prayer sessions, on the pretence of asking him a question relating to the holy prayers, enquiries that he thought would endear him to the sage, but instead proved to anyone within earshot that the singer was totally clueless in these matters. But the sage tolerated all this. Unfortunately he didn't realise that the congregation could suffice without this singer's services.

Much to most regulars' chagrin, the singer continually set the air-conditioner too cold. The sage took to wearing an overcoat in the summer. Senior members of the congregation followed the sage's example. Congregants complained, but to no avail -- the singer-beadle was unmoved. He was the boss. He knew what the setting should be, and anyone who attempted to change it was subject to his wrath. Things that were his responsibility weren't (and still aren't) carried out -- the scrolls are never pre-rolled, the premises are left unlocked -- or alternately people are left waiting outside locked doors -- lights and air-conditioner are set in the last seconds. Lights suddenly go out during the service, a sure sign the singer has entered and is fiddling with the switches and timers.

The singer is a nepotist. Whenever any of his children are present, he calls upon them to lead services. He always awards them honours, ignoring regulars.

A short illustration of the singer's impertinence. The last few months of the sage's life were difficult. He was by now a very old man; his final days were obviously close. His memory was failing. There were good days and there were bad. Sometimes one could still converse with him; on others days he comprehended, but only responded with his eyes.

This was one of those days --verbal communication was absent. Summertime and the air-conditioner is too cold, the fan blasting at its peak level, pointing directly onto the sage's head. The singer had, for once, come by earlier, setting everything beforehand. The sage's confidant, abhorring the excessive fan noise, and well understanding the sage's anguish, raised the thermostat and dropped the fan speed. The controls are next to the sage's seat. The sage, with a twinkle in his eye, expressed his thanks.

Fifteen minutes later -- prayers under way -- a mere thirty seconds before the start of the holy Sabbath -- or perhaps thirty after -- the singer arrives. He checks (and rechecks) the controls. It's a fetish. He is a control freak, but lacks interpersonal skills. He walks up to the sage's seat, and immediately resets the controls -- dropping three degrees and blasting the fan to full.

"Who changed this?", he sternly demands of the sage. The shocked sage is unable to produce any words.

The singer raises his voice, "Who changed this? You must know. The switch is right next to you, and you're one of the first here!" The sage attempts to shrug his shoulders.

Now almost screaming, the singer repeats his question a third time. Seeing the sage was not answering, though oblivious to his inability to answer, the singer lists his suspects: "Was it A?", "Was it B?"

The sage's eyes inadvertently twinkle when his confidant's name is mentioned. The singer briskly leaves the sage to confront the confidant, neither noticing not caring that communal prayers are in progress.

"How dare you change the settings? Don't you ever touch them again!"

He never takes singer seriously, exiting the building when he starts to sing.

As the confidant wishes him a good evening, the sage manages to blurt out, with a tear in his eye, "I'm sorry -- he forced me to tell him it was you".

Postscript: After twenty-five years of tending his beloved flock, the old sage returned his holy soul to its Maker; a young, part-time replacement has been appointed; the non-singing beadles no longer frequent the sanctuary -- the singer rules the roost on his own, never noticing, nor caring, whose departure he has precipitated.

And now, following yet another altercation with the singer, again pertaining to the ambiant temperature, one of the most prominent members of the congregation, the man who spent more time than any other on the premises, left in a fury, vowing never to enter the building while the singer presides.

At least now he can pray without an overcoat.

Menachem Kuchar, 16th January, 2011    

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