Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
The Horses of Chelm
Once upon a time, there was a town called Chelm. It was a small town, where nothing much happened, and it ran happily under the leadership of its wise men.
As time went on, the town grew, and grew, and spread out. It began to take a long time to get from one side to the other, even riding on a pony. Fortunately, however, some fast and powerful horses became available. Everyone bought them, and was thrilled to be able to gallop to their destination, with tremendous horsepower.
A maskil from another city once came to visit. He was appalled to see hundreds of people galloping around at great speed in all directions, among pedestrians, even children. Some of the horses were even pulling rickety wagons, packed with passengers, along treacherous hillside curves at tremendous speed.
"Are you crazy?" he said. "This is so dangerous! It's a miracle that you haven't had lots of casualties! First, you have to separate the streets into areas for horses, and sidewalks for pedestrians. Then, the people who ride the horses should wear helmets, for their own protection. There should also be speed limits. At busy junctions, someone should direct traffic! And most importantly, you have to stop the situation of large numbers of passengers being rushed around hillside curves at breakneck speeds!"
The Wise Men of Chelm were dismissive, even hostile, to the maskil. "You don't know what you're talking about," they said. "We are the Wise Men; what do city-bred maskilim know? And do you know how much bittul Torah it will cause if you try to restrain traffic? Finally, the proof that your concerns are completely misplaced is that nobody has ever yet been hurt! We've been running things this way for years without problems; that shows that we know what we are doing."
Dismayed, the maskil tried to do what he could. He stood at the busiest street every day, and tried to direct the horses away from the people.
Eventually, the inevitable happened. A horse trampled over some children. The maskil rushed over to the severely injured children, and frantically waved his arms and yelled to prevent any other horses from stepping on the prone bodies. The horses, scared by the yelling man, reared away, and one of them collided with another person and killed him.
The maskil was hauled before the Wise Men. "It is your fault that a man was killed!" they thundered. "Everything was fine until you got here! Couldn't you even do your job properly?!"
"But... but..." he stammered... "It was an impossible situation! It was obviously going to result in tragedy!"
"How dare you criticize us, especially at a time like this, when an innocent man has lost his life!" the Wise Men thundered. "Have you no heart? And have you no respect?"
"But... but... what about the injured children?" asked the maskil.
"We do not know why the Lord does these things," said the Wise Men. "The only thing to be done is to encourage our children to learn more Torah, and our women to be more modest."
And they banished the maskil from the village, and continued exactly as before.
A week later, a wagon careened off the hillside path, killing all twenty children on board. But the Wise Men decided that it was an incomprehensible Act of God, and called for everyone to stop speaking lashon hara.