Adapted from the folktale “The Snake Son” as told by Peninnah Schram in Jewish Stories One Generation Tells another.
Today is the first of March. This is a month that is known for 2 things. St. Patrick’s Day and March Madness. When I say March Madness, I not only mean the basketball tournament. I am also talking about the Madness of celebrating the holiday of Purim. All month is a time for silliness and celebrating being Jewish. So tonight, during our Shabbat service, we are going to hear a story that honors all things March. St. Patrick’s day is about a man who chased snakes out of Ireland. And Purim is about madness and frivolity. So we will hear a silly story that involves a snake, and strangely enough, lots of Jewish celebrations. Before we begin, let us sing together how good it is to be here on this Shabbat as friends.
Hinei Ma tov is on page 120.
Once, long ago, in the town of Chelm, which is sort of the Jewish Lake Woebegone. It is where all the women are kind, the men are well-meaning, and the children are slightly above average. There lived a couple named Avram and Sarah. They were fairly well to do, especially by Chelm standards. While many Chelmites were lucky to have even one cow, they had three. They lived in a nice house, with two wood-burning fireplaces. They even had a staircase. Of course, the house only had one level, they had a staircase just because they liked the look of it. Life was good for Avram and Sarah, one might say it was almost perfect. I say “almost,” because despite having everything they could ever need, the one thing that eluded them was becoming a family. They wanted more than anything to have a child. They consulted with experts all over the world. They were given all sorts of potions, and medicines, and prayers to say, but year after year, they had no success. Then one day, she went to visit a wise rabbi who lived just outside of town. He gave her some advice, saying if she were to follow it, within a year, she and Avram would welcome a son.
I will tell you what that advice was, in a moment. For now we turn to page 146 and we rise for the call to worship.
Having visited the wise rabbi… actually I should say this wise rabbi, wise by Chelm standards… Having visited this rabbi, wise by Chelm standards, Sarah rushed home to tell her husband Avram the good news. She said, “All we have to do is give tzedakah to the local food pantry, to make a donation to the town Yeshiva, and to offer a gift to the synagogue.”
“But we already do that.” Avram said, cutting her off.
“And… there’s one more thing.”
Avram listened intently as she continued.
“On the first Friday of the month, we have to host a large Shabbat dinner for all of Chelm. We must invite the rich and the poor.”
“Is that it?’ Avram said, and you could tell he was writing the shopping list in his head.
“Well there was one thing. The rabbi said, “You must place any stranger who comes to your house at the head table.”
Happily, Avram announced, “Done and done” as he darted out the door to start the shopping.
So the first Friday rolled around, and all of Chelm descended on the home of Avram and Sarah. With this crowd, the large house suddenly seemed smaller. The staircase served as a seating area. And in preparation for the feast, while once they owned three cows, now they had two. But everyone agreed the brisket was delicious! All was going according to plan until…
I will tell you about that until… in a bit. First we sing a prayer that speaks about love, and how God models unconditional love for us by giving us commandments to show unconditional love for each other and all of humanit. Ahavat Olam is on page 150.
Everyone was having a fine time at dinner. Every guest got their own personal challah. They had great food. They drank great wine… well better than average wine, by Chelm standards that is. And they were having a fine time until a stranger knocked on the door. Avram greeted the man, an older gentleman with a long white beard, some ragged clothes, and wobbly cane. Avram invited him in and showed him to the side room where the poor people and beggars were seated.
“Sir if you don’t mind,” said the new guest, “I would like to sit at the head table.”
Avram heard the request and scoffed. “I have invited everyone and spared no expense, but I cannot put you, dressed like this, a beggar as you are, at the head of the table with the upper crust of chelm. The food is just as good in there, so no worries.”
Sarah had seen Avram talking to the older man and came over to assist. The guest looked at Sarah and said, “Ma’am, you have forgotten what the rabbi told you. To seat the stranger at the head table.”
Avram and Sarah’s chins dropped open at the same moment, fearful they had ruined their chance at being a family.
The old man took pity on them. “You shall still have a child.” The relief did not last long. “But the son born to you will be a snake.”
Sure enough, 9 months later, Avram and Sarah had a bouncing baby boa. Well it wasn’t exactly a boa, but it was definitely a large snake living in their house.
Alas, this was their child, and they were determined to love it and care for it. And you will hear more about that in a moment.
First let us keep our thoughts on the way, with the comfort of family Avram and Sarah’s minds were put at ease. And we sing a prayer for protection and comfort. Hashkiveinu is on page 160.
Avram and Sarah called their son Nachshon. They had built a special little box for him and hung a sun lamp over it to keep him warm during the nights. He was loyal, kind, dedicated, and patient. Shockingly much more Hufflepuff than Slytherin… for those who get that reference. This was no ordinary snake. He was gentle, never harming anyone, except for the occasional rodent he would snack on.
When Nachshon turned 13, he became bar-mitzvah and a local tailor fitted him with a special suit, a small tallit, and even some tefillin that instead of wrapping on his arm, would be wrapped around his serpentine body. He was a nice Jewish boy in every way except he had no arms and legs, he slithered on his belly, and he had a forked tongue. But he loved his mom and dad, and he loved studying Judaism, thinking that one day he might even become a rabbi. All things being equal, he would be a fine catch for a lucky Jewish maiden. But things were not equal. As the years passed, and the time came for Nachson to marry, the matchmaker had a terrible time finding him a shidduch, a wedding match. Even by Chelm standards, he was a difficult match to make. Wanting very badly to find a match for her beloved son, Avrom went to see the old rabbi outside of town.
And I will tell you about that… right now.
The rabbi assured him, “God provides an answer to every problem.”
Avram had his doubts.
“What you must do,” instructed the rabbi, “is go to a distant town, and there seek out the poorest family and spend a whole Shabbat in their home. There, you will find a good match for your son.”
And so Avram travelled three days to a town he had never seen. He sought out the poorest man he could find and asked if he could spend Shabbat with his family.
The poor man’s name was Yankel. He thought it a strange request, but he knew you never turn a stranger away from Shabbat. And if he was asking him, little Yankel for help, this man must be desperate. So Yankel invited him to the house. Much to Yankel’s surprise, his guest insisted on purchasing all of the food, and even bought a bouquet of flowers for his wife. Avram wanted to make sure he did this the right way.
As they sat down to dinner, Avram noticed that three plates were brought into the dining room. And five were carried into a connecting room that he could not see into. He asked about those five plates, but Yankel did not want to answer. But Avram inisisted on knowing, and I will tell you his answer in a moment.
First, we consider how Avram had to rise to the occasion to right a wrong, and so we too rise in prayer thinking about the ways we can correct all the wrongs we find in the world.
We rise for Tefillah on page 164.
“The five dishes,” Yankel explained, “are for my five daughters. They are too ashamed of the rags they have for clothes. They refuse to be seen by a guest.”
Well Avram was determined to change all that. After Shabbat, he went out and bought beautiful dresses for the five daughters whom he then met. He asked if any of the daughters would be willing to marry his son. One, Rifkeh, who was old enough to marry, raised her hand.
“I will.” She was anxious to leaver her father’s home and start a new life. This was music to Avram’s ears. The rabbi had been right. This was just what his son needed. So Rifkeh went with Avram back to Chelm, where she was instantly the most beautiful woman in the city. She was indeed gorgeous, especially by Chelm standards. And the wedding plans got under way.
Days passed, and as the wedding day approached, she wondered when she might finally meet this beau of hers. She wondered if he would be handsome. If he would be smart, gentle, and kind. She started to doubt this promise of marriage was real, or if Avram was just some sort of snake oil salesman. What she did not expect was that at the very moment she had that thought, a snake would enter her bedroom. Strangely, she was not afraid. She did note even react. It all seemed kind of normal, which it was, at least by Chelm standards. Nachshon introduced himself. “We are not supposed to see each other before the chuppah, but I wanted to reassure you it will all be okay. You see, my parents were once unkind to a poor man, and I became a snake. But now they have learned to be more thoughtful, and you have agreed not to judge me, and now I can assume my true form as a young man. I do not know what I will look like, but rest assured, if you still agree to marry me, I will no longer be a snake.”
Rifkah agreed, and was filled with love for the Nachshon and his honesty.
They were married, with a ring sliding with no dread over Nachshon’s head, over his head, and heck, oh heck it went over his neck, and they fiddled and fiddled with it until it was over his middle, over his middle, where it fit snugly. After the Sheva berachot, and the second cup of wine, Nachshon instantly transformed into a handsome young man. Tall and rugged, especially by Chelm standards. It was just in time to break the glass, which was the first thing he did with his newly discovered feet.
Rifkeh and Nachshon went on to become great Torah scholars together, and they lived happily ever after. At least, happily by Chelm standards.
With hearts full of gratitude, Nachshon and Rifkah, and Avram and Sarah all celebrated. And so now we too offer this prayer of thanks on the top of page 177.
Now this was a silly story, but at its heart is a lesson. This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayakhel is about gathering all of the people to learn about Shababt. And when it says “all the people,” it means ALL THE PEOPLE. So even when Avram and Sarah invited the poor into their home, by belittling them, they made them feel less than invited. Their second chance came when they learned to treat all people with dignity, and to hope in return that others would look upon them and their son with kindness. When all of those things finally happened, then we had a happy ending. If only it were that easy. But this story wants us to know, treat everyone, no matter who, rich, poor, pretty, or snake-like as they truly deserve to be treated, as betzelem Elohim. Made in the image of God. And if you are not doing it now, it is never too late to change. We are all deserve dignity, respect, and love. These are things we all can offer with great success. Success, especially by Chelm standards.
And in this story we learned about the healing power of redemption. We turn now to a prayer of healing as we think about people in our lives in need of refuah shleimah.
Mi shebeirach is page 371.