Not So Far Away

But pretending was hard work, especially when he knew he’d have to show the test to his father after supper. So it was a dejected Yossi who walked home beside Yanky after school.

 

“Cheer up, Yossi,” Yanky said, when the silence had become oppressive. “One bad mark is not the end of the world.”

 

“That’s easy for you to say,” Yossi growled.

 

It was easy for Yanky to say. How often had he brought home a failing grade? How about never…

 

Still, he felt he had to try and cheer his friend up. “All you have to do is try a little harder to pay attention in class,” he urged. “That way, you’ll have all the information you need when it comes time to study!” He smiled encouragingly.

 

But Yossi wasn’t smiling. If anything, his scowl became more pronounced. For a few minutes he walked on in silence, as though digesting Yanky’s words. Then, so unexpectedly that Yanky jumped, he burst into speech.

 

“That’s easy for you to say!” he repeated with a snort. “In fact, everything’s easy for you! Do you have any idea what it’s like to be me, Yanky? Do you think I don’t try to listen in class? About three minutes into the shiur, my mind starts wandering—and next thing I know, I missed so much that it’s impossible to figure out what Rebbe’s talking about! In math, it’s all just a jumble of numbers to me—that is, when there aren’t a whole bunch of x’s and y’s floating around, too, just to mix me up! Dates in history go in one ear and out the other… and when it comes to writing a composition, forget it!”

 

Yossi suddenly seemed to run out of steam. His voice sank to a near-whisper as he ended sadly, “I guess I’m just not cut out for school. I don’t have the brains for it.”

 

Nonsense, Yanky wanted to say. But he didn’t say it. He didn’t say anything. The way Yossi was feeling right now, anything he said would only add fuel to the fire. So he just nodded his head to show that he understood and maintained a sympathetic silence all the way to Yossi’s house.

 

As usual, he went inside with his friend. They would have a snack, and maybe do a little homework together, before Yanky continued on to his own home.

 

Unless, that was, a special surprise awaited for them on Yossi’s doormat…

 

“It’s a message from Mr. Chesed!” Yossi said excitedly, picking up the plain white envelope with the big “C” scrawled across the front. “He needs us. Come on!”

 

The two boys dumped their knapsacks and made a U-turn out the door. A few minutes’ heavy running brought them to the mysterious cul-de-sac where the Chesed Carnival was tucked away. Through the red, yellow and blue gates they sprinted, until they reached the small office at the rear of the Carnival.

 

Mr. Chesed was waiting for them.

 

•••

 

“There’s a village that’s not working out too well,” Mr. Chesed told them. “I’m going to send you there in the Chesed Roller Coaster. I believe you boys can help them.”

 

“Can you give us a clue about our mission?” Yossi asked eagerly.

 

“Just keep this in mind,” Mr. Chesed said slowly. “It’s all about chesed.” It seemed to Yanky that Mr. Chesed was looking right at him when he said it.

 

Just before the boys passed through the back door that would take them to the Chesed Roller Coaster, Mr. Chesed added one more, enigmatic remark.

 

“And it’s not that far away,” he said.

 

•••

 

“What’s not far away?” Yossi speculated out loud, as the boys strapped themselves in. “The village?”

 

Yanky shrugged. He had no idea what Mr. Chesed had been talking about. He would wait until they got where they were going, where things would surely become clearer…

 

A speeding ride through space and time, with the wind pressing them back into their seats and making them close their eyes, brought them to their destination at last. The boys opened their eyes—and saw the village that Mr. Chesed had told them about. It was nestled in a valley between two tall, wooden mountains. A stream ran through the valley, and the boys had a glimpse of rolling farmland behind the houses.

 

It should have been a picturesque scene. But even from the distance, Yossi and Yanky could see that the village was anything but pretty.

 

The houses, they saw, were dilapidated hovels. The stream seemed sluggish, which was probably because of all the refuse that had been dumped in it. More garbage was heaped in the streets, visible even from where the boys stood. The sun glinted off the jagged edges of broken windows that dotted the landscape. All in all, not a very appetizing picture.

 

“Want to go down?” Yanky asked. He felt strangely reluctant.

 

Yossi felt the same way. “I guess we’d better. Looks like these people could sure use some help.”

 

“For one thing, they need a good trash collector,” Yanky remarked, as they began to make their way down the hill toward the town.

 

The closer they got, the worse the picture became. And the worse the smell became. By the time they reached the village’s outer limits, both boys were breathing through their mouths. Catching sight of a small knot of people lounging beside a well in the village square, they hurried over.

 

“Greetings,” one of the villagers said in welcome. He was sitting on an overturned water bucket, seemingly in no hurry to fill it and go home.

 

“Hello,” Yanky replied politely. “Uh, can you take us to your leader?”

 

He was surprised by the villagers’ reaction. They threw back their heads and laughed uproariously.

 

“What’s so funny?” Yossi demanded.

 

“We can take you to our leader,” explained a woman with a baby strapped to her back. “But it won’t do you no good. He be sound asleep right now.”

 

Yanky glanced up at the sky. The sun was riding high overhead. It must be nearly noon. Why was the headman of this village sleeping so late?

 

“Well, when does he get up?” he asked.

 

The man who’d greeted them answered: “When the shadow hit that tree”—he pointed—“he have his breakfast.”

 

“And after that?” Yanky waited for a list of the headman’s responsibilities, hoping he could find a time slot where he and Yossi could squeeze themselves in.

 

“After that?” the man repeated. He and his friends seemed on the verge of laughter again. “After that—he sit.”

 

“Sit?”

 

“Sit. Under a tree, most times. Sometimes in his hut.”

 

“How long?” Yossi asked impatiently.

 

The only answer he got was a philosophical shrug. It was the woman who said, “As long as there be nothing else he have to do.”

 

“But—but look at this place!” Yanky burst out. “There’s plenty that needs doing here. What kind of mayor, or headman, or whatever, would let his village come to this state?”

 

This time, there was no answer. The laughter died out of the villagers’ eyes, leaving behind only a pained sadness. These were people who had long ago learned to live without hope of change.

 

•••

 

“Why don’t they demand changes from that headman?” Yossi asked, as the boys moved aside to have a private conference.

 

“Good question. Let’s ask them.” Yanky moved back to the group by the well. “Er, excuse me. Can I ask why you villagers haven’t insisted that the headman provide proper services? Things like garbage collection, cleaning up the stream, fixing the potholes in the streets—those are his responsibilities.”

 

A man shrugged. “He only do what he has to do.”

 

“Well, why don’t you people tell him he has to?”

 

The villagers looked at Yanky, wide-eyed. “He the headman. He tell us what to do—not the other way around!”

 

“These people,” Yanky muttered to Yossi in an undertone, “need a good lesson in democracy!”

 

The two boys withdrew again. Yanky’s fertile brain had already come up with a complete scenario for educating these backward villagers. Once they understood their rights, they would be in a position to bring about reform. The headman would be forced to live up to his position.

 

He sat down in the shade of a tall tree, facing Yossi. “Now, here’s the way I see it,” he began. His plan was fully formulated, ripe and ready to be put into action.

 

Then, abruptly, he stopped talking. There was something in Yossi’s eyes—an expectant attitude, as if he had shut down his own brain and was just waiting for Yanky to spew forth his ideas—that reminded him uncannily of a look he’d just seen. The look on the faces of the villagers.

 

Those villagers had long ago stopped using their own minds. They’d handed over the reins of leadership to an indolent leader who abused his responsibility. They had given up hope of helping themselves.

 

In a way, Yanky saw in a flash, Yossi had done the same thing.

 

For a long time now, Yossi had been letting Yanky do the thinking for both of them. His less-than-spectacular performance in school had led him to believe that he had no brains to speak of. He would sit back, like a child—or those villagers—and let someone else figure out the solution to the problem.

 

Suddenly, Yanky remembered what Mr. Chesed had said as they were leaving his office. “It’s all about chesed.” And then he’d added, “And it’s not that far away…”

 

Yanky looked at his friend. He saw now that his mission—his personal mission—was all about chesed. And it was not far away at all…

 

“Somehow,” he said carefully, “we have to find a way to help those villagers use their own minds, and their own strengths, to improve their situation.”

 

Yossi wrinkled his brow. “You mean, have them clean up the river by themselves?”

 

“That could be part of it. But don’t you think that headman needs to be reminded of his responsibilities? Or else forced to step down?”

 

Yossi waited, but Yanky had finished speaking. He’d thrown the questions at Yossi, and now he was waiting.

 

Yossi began to think about the village and its problems. “A delegation,” he said slowly. “Maybe the villagers could send a delegation to speak to the headman. To demand changes.”

 

“Yes?” Yanky prompted, eyes alight with interest. “And if he refuses to listen?”

 

Yossi remembered what Yanky had said earlier. “Maybe… maybe we can teach those villagers how democracy works. You know, free elections and all that stuff. Having representatives from the village, to help in the decision-making process. Not letting all the power stay concentrated in one person’s hands!”

 

“Hm. Sounds like an idea,” Yanky murmured. “Want to tell them?”

 

“Me?” Yossi looked horrified. “That’s your department, Yanky. You’re the idea man.”

 

“Not this time,” Yanky said. “This was your idea, Yossi. So you tell them.”

 

“They won’t listen to me,” Yossi protested.

 

“Why not?”

 

“I’m not smart, like you. I can’t explain things as well as you can.”

 

“Just do your best,” Yanky urged. “You’re doing fine so far.”

 

•••

 

It was a good thing that time had no meaning on these Chesed missions, because the job of educating the villagers, and then waiting around to see signs of real change, was a slo-o-ow process.

 

The first few times Yossi tried to broach the topic of democracy, the villagers just laughed as if he’d told a good joke. It took a lot of patience, and a lot of words, before the idea began to penetrate.

 

Once the villagers finally agreed to send a delegation to speak to the headman—catching him at a time when he happened to be awake, which wasn’t often—Yossi (with only a little help from his friend) coached them in what to say. And when, as expected, the headman only laughed at their demands and sent them away so he could take a nap, Yossi (at Yanky’s urging) began to teach the villagers about one-man-one-vote and a representative government.

 

“The headman doesn’t have much power behind him,” Yossi told Yanky one evening, as they talked over the day’s events. “Only a few so-called guards, who seem almost as lazy as he is. With persistence, these people can win the guards over to a better way of life. Then they can oust the headman through an election. And they can write up a charter or constitution, so this kind of problem won’t happen again.” Yossi’s eyes sparkled. “You know, this can work!”

 

“Thanks to you,” Yanky murmured.

 

Yossi flushed with pleasure and embarrassment. “I didn’t do much. They were ripe for change.”

 

“Not true. Remember the way they were, that first day at the well? They sure weren’t thinking about change then!”

 

“Well…”

 

“It’s all your doing, Yossi,” Yanky said firmly. “You came up with the idea. You taught it to them. Now, with a little more work, you can help them hold their first free election!”

 

It took more time to organize and educate the villagers. But the day came—a fine one, bursting with sun and high hopes—when the villagers trooped down to the “polls” to hold their very first election.

 

The headman, as expected, was voted out of power. In his place, a villager who was slightly more sober and energetic than the others was voted in as the new headman. He promised to make radical changes in the village, and kept his promise the very next day, by launching a massive clean-up campaign throughout the village and in the stream bed.

 

“Mission accomplished,” Yanky announced, with a sidelong glance at his friend.

 

It was a very different Yossi who faced him now than the one who’d first walked into the village. The old Yossi had not believed in himself or his power of thought. He’d seen himself as a hopeless student. When it came to ideas, he’d been a follower, never a leader.

 

But Yossi had proved himself wrong. He’d just taken a whole village and changed it for the better. That had to feel great!

 

“Congratulations, Yossi,” Yanky said.

 

“You know, Yanky, with a little thought I’ll bet you could have come up with the ideas yourself,” Yossi said kindly.

 

“I don’t know about that,” his friend said. “This was some job you did, Yossi. Not just coming up with the ideas, but working with the people to make it all happen. You’re really talented, Yossi. You know that?”

 

Yossi hadn’t known. But he knew now.

 

As they toiled up the hill back to the Chesed Roller Coaster, which had been waiting patiently for them all this time, Yanky smiled with secret pleasure. He thought about the chesed they’d just done for these village people, so far away… and also of a different sort of chesed, much closer to home.

 

As Mr. Chesed had hinted—when it comes to doing chesed, you don’t have to look far!