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Mishka the Thief

A Ukrainian Jewish story about a new beginning

By Lazer Brody

alinovka was a tiny but lovely hamlet in the central plains of the Ukraine. Its men were robust, leathery-skinned farmer types, the women plump and cheery, and the children little mischief-makers with faces of angels. If you were never a guest in Kalinovka, then you can't really know what genuine hospitality is.

The fifty or so families who comprised the population of Kalinovka lived contented lives, except for one irritating problem: Objects - especially those of value - had a habit of "disappearing". Every household in the hamlet complained of missing objects. If a person would leave an unguarded coin on the kitchen table, within minutes the coin would evaporate into thin air. If the coin were silver or gold, it would vanish within a few seconds.

The entire populace of Kalinovka suspected Mishka - a lonely, stubble-faced hobo who lived in a battered old shack on the outskirts of town. Yet, nobody ever caught him red-handed. Rabbi Chakimov, the wise old sage of the township and surroundings, wouldn't allow anyone to raise a hand against Mishka. "He's innocent until proven guilty," the rabbi would argue. "Until two reliable witnesses can offer first-hand testimony to a crime, it's a sin to suspect a fellow human being. Nevertheless, guard your valuables!"

Months passed by, with nothing new under the sun in Kalinovka: Valuables disappeared, suspicions fell on Mishka, but no one had any concrete evidence.

Meanwhile, clouds of pogroms gathered in the distance. A band of highway robbers and murderers joined bloodstained hands under the leadership of the notorious Gunta to rob and murder the Jews of the Ukraine. The fearless farmers of Kalinovka had already foiled two previous attempts of pogroms; the insulted Gunta swore that he'd make a bloody example out of Kalinovka.

One cold, moonless night, Gunta, and an entire army of his armed intoxicated henchmen descended on Kalinovka, shrieking like demons and shooting their muskets in the air. The men of the hamlet were obviously outnumbered, and their pitchforks were no matches against the rebels' bullets. The families fled to the nearby woods, scattering in all four directions of the wind.

The bloodthirsty drunkards, frustrated that their easy prey had slipped away right under their noses, ransacked the abandoned houses. Not a single house had anything of value, neither a silver spoon nor a gold ring. The rowdies, empty handed with no booty to show for their efforts, were further incensed. They set fire to the entire hamlet.

Wood-planked houses with thatched straw roofs burn rapidly. By midnight, the entire hamlet was ablaze; before dawn, Kalinovka was a mound of smoldering ashes. "Serves 'em right," grunted the scar-faced ringleader, "let's get out of here."

The marauders left before daylight, without paying attention to the shabby, broken-down hut in a field on the outskirts of town - Mishka's residence. Nearby, in the midst of an expansive wheat field, was another hovel - Mishka's warehouse. It looked like an abandoned cowshed, except that it was sealed with an iron door and a heavy padlocked chain.

That morning, Mishka took his usual pre-breakfast walk into town. He was stunned to see the mound of still smoldering ashes that was once Kalinovka. The entire citizenry - men, women, and children - wailed heartbreaking lamentations at the total loss of their beloved hamlet and homes. Uncontrollably, tears streamed down Mishka's sooty face too. He approached the crowd and singled out Rabbi Chakimov. "Rabbi, please come with me. Urgently." The old sage left his own bawling wife and followed Mishka.

They left the main road out of town, and walked a mile deep into a wheat field, far from any bystander's eye. The rabbi spotted the dilapidated structure from a distance. "What's that?" he asked, pointing to the shed.

Mishka handed him the key to the "warehouse". "Open the door, Rabbi. You'll find each and every lost possession - gold, silver, jewelry, or whatever - filed away and labeled with the name of the item's rightful owner. That way, nobody can claim anything that is not legally theirs. The townspeople were right all along. I am the thief."

The rabbi was thunderstruck. What providence! If Mishka hadn't stolen the money and valuables, then the marauders would have seized them! "Is he a thief or an angel?" mused the rabbi. Either way, the rabbi looked up at the blue sky and silently thanked his Creator. By "virtue" of Mishka's thievery and his repentance, Kalinovka could be rebuilt, even more beautifully than before.

Moral of the Story: Life has special opportune moments, when a person can achieve instant greatness. Despite a lifetime of mistakes, one has the freedom of choice to make an about-face for the good at any given moment. Mishka, with one stroke of personal courage, changed an entire town's day of mourning to a day of joy, and upgraded his own status from a common thief to an angel of mercy.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslev says, "There's no such thing as despair." Whenever a person discards a bad habit or a negative behavioral pattern, he or she makes a new beginning. Nothing is more gratifying than a fresh start in life.

Also, Hashem works in miraculous ways, and turns everything around for our ultimate good. Even a thief - whether he chooses or not - is a small piece of an intricate Divine puzzle; that's the lesson of Kalinovka and Mishka the Thief.

Author, broadcaster, and emotional counselor Rabbi Lazer Brody is affectionately known as Rabbi Rambo from his past as a commando in Israel's Special Forces. You are welcome to write Rabbi Brody at the following email address: lazerbrody@yesitive.com, or to visit his website at www.lazerbrody.com


from the February 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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