Avram'il, the Righteous Gonnif
by Gilbert Locks
Avramil was not an imposing figure by all means. A short stocky man with reddish cheeks which illuminated his face beyond the limits of his long bushy and scraggy black beard, Avramil tended to sway his body back and forth when speaking and when he bent his head down his glasses would slip to the edge of his nose. Neither a distinguished figure nor an impressive scholar from the first impression, Avramil, never the less, possessed a warm heart whose intimate radiance was immediately and unconsciously perceived by all who happened upon him.
Avramil lived in a run down house but with a door that was opened to all. His furnishings were at the best considered extremely modest. It was here that Avramil taught his tender students about Judaism. No one was refused. He gave the same dedicated concern to the Jewish education of the young irregardless of the parents' ability or desire to pay. It was in this house that Avramil and his loving wife raised their family, together with any poor person who needed a place to sleep or eat. Every one had a place and a warm friend by Avramil.
It could be said that Avramil had one problem. He could not witness a young child suffer due to monetary inability or personal problems of the child's parents. If Avramil discerned a situation in which money could help a young family ease its plight, Avramil would approach a wealthy man, generally one whose child he taught, and ask for a loan. This money he would take to the parents whose economic situation was dire and give it to them as an anonymous present.
Avramil would use his own small salary to pay back the loan. As years went by, and Avramil would help out more and more families, his ability to pay back became severely burdensome. So to pay back his outstanding loans, he went to friends, neighbors and businessmen who had previously loaned him money and requested further loans. This they granted based on his righteousness and his prior ability to pay back. Using these funds he paid back his current loans and then gave generous gifts to those poor people whose situation had become desperate.
Did Avramil ever think about the future and his lack of ability to pay of his debts? Perhaps, but Avramil always told those who came to him beset with their own personal problems, "G-t is Helfen." (G-d will help). If it was his advice to others, we may assume that it was also his own personal belief. People liked Avramil and his personal advice was generally accepted.
For years, Avramil lived in poverty, teaching his young students, using his small wages to pay his bills and debts. But inevitably, the debts, like a leech grew larger and larger. Borrowing from one wealthy friend to pay another, plus helping out indigent families who depended on the extra money that Avramil secretly provided, was putting him deeper and deeper into debt.
Even though Avramil was not an accountant, he realized that he could never ever pay off his debts, his only recourse was to continue to borrow hoping that some miracle would happen and that money would come his way. But the few times that it did, Avramil felt compelled to use it to help a poor bride and groom get married, to help an ailing mother of three young children, to pay grocery bills for a family whose father could not find employment. And so Avramil's financial desperate situation continued to escalate.
It was only when the number of debts exceeded the number of potential lenders, and the local economic situation became strained that Avramil began to meet disaster. Some of his over due loans were called and he could not find new lenders to help defer his current debts. One default lead to another and another. Former friends, neighbors, businessmen and acquaintances were calling his to repay the loans. Money was now scarce and they now needed the cash. Avramil could not meet their demands, not to all of them, not to any of them, not even to one of them.
Money can be a cruel object. Men use money to build their lives and their future. Money entrusted to a trusted friend and not returned is a source of anger. More and more, it became known the amount of debt that Avramil owed. Disgruntled loaners conversed with each other and accused Avramil of plotting to steal their money.
When Avramil heard that he was considered a thief by his friends and neighbors, he broke down and cried bitterly. He had no written accounting of all the moneys that he had given to the poor and indigent. He had given the money anonymously, even the benefactors did not know that Avramil had helped them out.
Avramil was broken. The community refused to extend their friendship to him. The men in the synagogue refused to engage in conversations with Avramil; the wealthy men took their children away from his tutelage. Even the poor families that he had helped looked for other teachers for their sons. Avramil could not continue.
His once radiant face now shown gloom, his eyes were perpetually turned down to avoid the glances from his former friends and neighbors. His health broke. Only his dedicated wife stood by his side. "Avramil," she said, "we must go to visit the Rebbe. Only he can help."
"Fer vous, Fer vous? Der Rebbe must have heard that I am a gonnif, (a thief). I am too embarrassed to go to see him."
"What?" she gently chided, "so you think that the Rebbe doesn't know what is going on here? Avramil, we are going to the Rebbe and that is final."
And so they went. Avramil was broken in spirit, a man who has caused such pain to so many. How could he face his Rebbe? Never the less, the insistence of his good wife could not be ignored.
Avramil and his wife entered the Rebbe's study. The Rebbe was engrossed in reading correspondence as the couple entered. The tone of the office was somber. The large wood desk, filled with various papers and books, the heavy curtains on the window let in just enough light to see with out being overly bright. The walls of the Rebbe's study were filled with volumes and volumes of books; books that looked used and used again.
The Rebbe himself was dressed in black; his long white beard flowed down onto his coat. The Rebbe was very old; his face was wrinkled, like a prune or a raisin. His long white fingers revealed the age of the Rebbe. But as the Rebbe raised his eyes to greet Avramil, his eyes shone with joy as if the Rebbe had been a youth of eighteen frolicking at the beach.
"Avramil", he began, "you don't know how good I feel looking at you."
"Eh, m-me?" Avramil stammered in total ignorance, "m-me, the Rebbe?" He stopped mid-sentence, not able to continue.
"Yes, Avramil, you! I am in ecstasy just seeing you here!" the Rebbe reiterated his previous statement.
"Rebbi, ah, pardon, but I have come due to a very serious problem. Such a problem, that it is literally killing me. I can't sleep at night, my teaching business is almost dead, and no one will talk with me. Every one thinks that I am a gonnif." The tears welled in Avramil's eyes, and he fell silent, fearing he would break down crying.
"I know, Avramil, I know." The Rebbe continued staring at him with a genuine smile and a truly radiant face that only can come from a true tzadik (totally righteous man). "But you should know that I personally envy you" the Rebbe said kindly.
Avramil drew himself up and began to explain to the Rebbe how he had sunk deeper and deeper into debt while trying to help the poor. He, himself, had not benefited from the money. Now he was the victim of him own good heart. Was it possible to somehow extract himself from such a terrible position seeing that he had caused such financial ruin to so many innocent people.
After Avramil finished speaking the Rebbe turned toward the window and put his fingertips together and looked very serious. His forehead wrinkled up a bit as he silently pondered what to do.
Looking now very serious, the Rebbe turned to Avramil and began to speak. "Avramil, it is very difficult in such circumstances to give you the proper advice. However, I must explain to you something. Not every person that gave you a loan is viewed in heaven as a person with any merit. Some have cheated in business, some, while dealing honestly, have not given their fair share of ma'aser (tithes).
"Now in heaven, they view that the money that they should have given to the poor, has been given to the poor, by you. The money that they should not have had, they do not have, since you have taken it from them. In heaven, now, this money that was taken from them and used to support poor and needy families is for them a merit. If you return it, they will lose their only merit in heaven.
"On the other hand, you have borrowed and you must pay back the debts that you incurred, for that is the manner of an honest person." Avramil nodded his head in agreement.
"If you pay them back their money, they will suffer in heaven. If you do not pay back their money, it is you who will suffer here. What shall we do?" Now the Rebbe smiled. Avramil felt relief; the Rebbe had a solution!
The Rebbe began to explain, "Avramil, go back and tell each person individually in my name that you are prepared to pay them back. Explain to them what I have just told you, in my name, that if you pay them back they will lose the merit of helping the poor. However, if they forgive the debt I guarantee that they will prosper, both in this world and the next. The Rebbe took out a sheet of blank paper and hurriedly wrote a few words to this effect and handed to Avramil, "just in case they need a bit of proof." The Rebbe winked his eye and Avramil realized that his audience with the Rebbe was over.
Avramil emerged from the Rebbe's air-conditioned study in to the hot summer air. He felt as if he was swimming in the most refreshing ocean. Life now became bearable.
Going back to his community, Avramil now visited each of the many many people that he owed money to. Each one was at the beginning shocked, but in their heart realized that the Rebbe was right, and they yielded to Avramil.
Now Avramil was called Avramil, the righteous gonnif.
from the October 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine