Toldot: ‘Three Old Inns’

Pink blossom on the ground softened the old woman’s step as she turned the corner and began to walk up towards the cluster of inns at the end of Guest House Avenue. The street was so named because of the many hotels, guest houses and inns which lined it on both sides, almost without interruption. Most of these establishments were fairly new, and had been built only since the town had become a popular fishing-holiday location. Due to a sudden dramatic rise in the population of trout in the nearby lake, a huge influx of fishing enthusiasts one summer had led to the opening of countless hotels. Many of these were given fishing-related names, whilst the street itself was renamed to suit its new character, becoming ‘Guest House Avenue’.

There were three inns, however, which were little known, yet far older than any of their neighbours. These stood close to each other at the old end of the street, where the road was still cobbled and the well was still in use. The road narrowed here, and sloped downwards as it began to lead to Washer-Woman’s Wharf – the part of the lakeside which had once been alive with women’s chatter, and strewn with washing boards and low wooden stools. Where the women’s chatter would have ended, the hustle and bustle of a busy trading place would have began, for the lakeside had also been the home of the town’s market.

The old woman had now reached the beginning of the cobble stones, and although it was more difficult for her to walk on these, they brought back memories to her weary mind and a wrinkly smile to her weather-beaten face.

She was approaching, on her right, the first of three inns. The second was twenty paces further along, and the third ten paces further still, on the other side of the street. The first inn was called ‘The Coach Driver’s Laugh’. The woman walked in and sat down in a small seat just inside the main entrance. She watched people coming and going for a short time, before getting up and walking over to the man at the desk.

“Can I help you, Madam?”

The old woman had not heard the Inn Keeper above the noise of some children who were chasing each other up and down the stairs only a few feet away.

“Madam, can I help you?”

This time the Inn Keeper had made himself heard, and the old lady began to respond to his request: “Perhaps” she said, then continued: “Can you please tell me the reason for this inn’s name, ‘The Coach Driver’s Laugh’?”

“That’s an interesting question,” remarked the Inn Keeper, “and yes, I shall explain it for you. Many years ago, a horse and carriage would regularly come by outside this inn, and people looking in would often notice two things. Firstly, it is said that the carriage would shake from side to side, as if it had a life of its own. It is also said that just as the carriage would begin to shake from side to side, the driver would laugh heartily, no-one knows why, hence the name, ‘The Coach Driver’s Laugh’.”

The old woman thanked the Inn Keeper very much for his explanation, turned around and walked directly towards the next inn along, ‘The Weeping Horseman’.

Outside ‘The Weeping Horseman’ the old woman removed some mud from the undersides of her shoes, making use of an ornate wrought iron foot scraper which jutted out from between two bricks on the wall. She walked up the steps to the low archway and pushed open the heavy old door, which was already ajar, just enough to enable her to squeeze into the warmly lit lobby.

Now standing between a beautiful grandfather clock and an intricately carved nest of low coffee tables, the lady was welcomed into the entrance hall by a well-dressed young man who greeted his elderly guest heartily:

“Good afternoon; allow me to bring you this chair. Please sit down. Now, how can I be of service?”

“There is just one thing,” began the old lady, “I am curious as to the reason why your inn was named ‘The Weeping Horseman’. Do you know any explanation?”

The young man pointed to a painting on the wall, which depicted a horse and carriage being driven by a strangely sad looking driver. “Here you see the horseman after whom this inn was named. Many years ago he would daily pass by outside our front door. His carriage would often sway from side to side, no-one knows why, and as it did so the horseman would weep inconsolably. Hence the name of our inn, ‘The Weeping Horseman’.

The elderly woman thanked the young man very much for his help before walking out of the front door and across the street in the direction of ‘The Smile and Tear’ inn. Outside the inn a young boy was scrubbing the three white steps which led up to the inn’s smart, white, double-fronted doors. The old lady politely stepped past the boy, turned a large, round, brass handle and walked into the entrance lounge. There were some people talking at the reception desk, three gentlemen smoking pipes in the lounge and a fourth, older man, who appeared to be staring into space.

The elderly lady walked directly to the desk, behind which a young girl stood. The elderly woman asked to speak to the manager and the girl called for her father. “Yes, Madam? Would you like a room?”

“I don’t require a room, just a little information. Can you tell me please, why your inn is called ‘The Smile and Tear?”

The Manager was happy to oblige and the elderly lady was not surprised to be told a story very similar to those she had heard in the other two inns. However, in this version, when the carriage would shake from side to side, the driver would sometimes laugh merrily and sometimes cry. The lady stopped the manager and told him about her visits to the other inns. “It appears to me that there are three versions of the same story, young man, but which is correct?”

“I can assure you, madam,” replied the manager of ‘The Smile and Tear’, “that I have told you the correct version of the story. However, one thing I cannot tell you is why that carriage would shake and why that horseman would react in different ways when it did.”

“Is there anyone who is able to answer those questions?” asked the elderly woman.

“There is one person who may know,” replied the manager, “’though I have never asked him. An elderly blind man often comes into our lounge and sits for a while, deep in thought. He has often told stories about life in this town as it was many years ago, and it is just possible that he knows something about that carriage driver.”

“Is that the particular gentleman?” asked the lady, looking over towards a man sitting in a rocking chair by the fire. “He does have a cane,” she observed.

“Yes, that is the gentleman. I shall introduce you to him.”

The old man was happy to meet the elderly lady and listened with interest to her questions. “Please sit down” began the old man, “I remember seeing the carriage and its driver with my own eyes and if you have a little time, I can tell you far more of the story than you already know.”

The old lady put her hands on the arms of a chair and slowly eased herself down into it. “I am not in any hurry,” she said “and I am fascinated to hear what you know.”

The old man placed his cane to one side, sat back and rested both of his hands on his stomach, all his fingers firmly dovetailed. He then began his story:

“There was once a poor farmer and his wife who both worked hard every day of the week, except for Shabbat, simply in order to earn ameagre livelihood. In addition to some grain and vegetable fields, the couple owned three healthy milking cows. The farmer would be working in his fields from sunrise to sunset. Except for short breaks for eating and davening he would till the soil as long as he had the advantage of daylight.

It was always the farmer’s wife, therefore, who would take the fresh milk to town to be sold in the market. Every day she would milk the cows early in the morning, then carry two large, full flasks to the roadside just outside the farm to wait for her carriage. It was always the same carriage, always the same driver.

The couple had no children, yet had prayed for a child for many years. They never gave up hope and their prayers were finally answered. The farmer’s wife gave birth to two healthy, twin boys. For a time it was not possible for the farmer’s wife to take the milk into town and the couple employed a young man to do so. As soon as the children could walk, however, the farmer’s wife continued her daily journeys to market, now taking her boys along too.

From the very first time the carriage driver took the farmer’s wife together with the twins, he noticed something quite peculiar. As they reached the town, the carriage would, every so often, wobble and shake and rock from side to side. Of course the boys inside the carriage were jumping and playing about and when the driver realised this his mind was almost put at rest. Nevertheless, one thing still puzzled him. Why was it that the boys did not begin jumping about and playing until the carriage entered the town? The truth was that the boys would indeed play the whole journey but would jump about a lot more vigorously as they entered the town.

One day, one of the wheels of the carriage caught a large stone on the ground. The driver glanced down to see if there was any bad damage. As he did so he was startled to see the face of one of the twins pressed against the window with his hands pushing and banging as if he wanted to get out. The driver sat back up, wondering at what he had seen.

Another time, a deep ditch in the road caused the carriage to tip violently to one side. As the driver momentarily peered into the carriage to see if everyone was all right, he was startled again to see one of the boys glaring out of the window and banging on the glass. This time, however, it was the other twin.

Over time, the driver noticed a strange pattern emerging in the behaviour of the boys. He had realised that, every day, the carriage would rock most violently as it passed particular places along the way. All these places were in the town. They included the synagogue, the gambling house, the yeshivah and the villains’ meeting parlour. The final realisation of the driver was what made him react with either joy or sadness at different times.

Each time the carriage would shake the driver would glance down to see the cause and each time he did so there would be a small face peering out of the window anxiously and a hand banging against it. The driver would also quickly look up to see what the carriage was passing at the time and it eventually became clear that each boy was knocking at the window at the same points every day. One boy would always jump about and knock against the window as the carriage passed holy places and the places where mitzvot were performed – the synagogue, the yeshivah, the soup kitchen which provided meals for the poor – and the other boy always banged anxiously against the window as the carriage passed places which had no holiness at all – the gambling house, the villains’ meeting parlour and any other place where unsavoury people would gather.

The driver of the carriage now knew that each boy was destined to grow up with a particular character, separate and distinct from that of his brother. Indeed, the twins were to become veritable opposites, one loving Torah and the pursuit of righteousness and the other more comfortable amid dishonesty and selfishness.”

There were tears in the blind man’s eyes as he continued:

“Now you can understand the driver’s reactions. At certain points along the way the carriage rocking beneath him was a happy clue to the fact that a young tzaddik was eager to grow up and spread his light in the world. The driver would laugh and sing in joyous celebration of his secret knowledge. At other points on the journey, when the carriage rocked to and fro and the banging of little fists seemed almost to make the very ground vibrate, the driver was reminded that he also carried a young passenger in whom the ugly flower of wickedness was beginning to grow. Such knowledge stirred in him a deep sadness and sometimes his sobbing was such that the horses continued towards the market place without guidance, the reins limp in the driver’s shaky hands.”

The blind man paused for a moment. “You probably wonder how I know all this in such detail” he remarked.

“Not at all” replied the old lady. I recognised you soon after you began to relate the story.”

“You recognised me?”

“Yes, you are the horseman in the story and I know this because I am the mother of those boys.”

“The farmer’s wife?” asked the old man.

“That’s right and were you still to have your sight I’m sure you would have recognised me too.”

“Surely then” continued the old man, “you did not need to be told this story by me! You were as much a part of it as I!”

“I have been searching for you for many years,” the old woman began to explain,” for ‘though I was indeed inside the carriage with my boys, I never knew why they were jumping about so much every morning. Of course they are now grown up but I have always been certain that you knew something that I did not. Now I can rest for you have made sense of everything for me.”

The blind man unlocked his hands, picked up his cane and sat forward with his left hand on the arm of his chair and his right resting on the top of his upright cane. He lowered his brow in intense concentration before asking: “Please tell me of your sons. What became of them?”

The elderly farmer’s wife, now long widowed of her farmer husband, told the gentleman that her sons had grown up exactly as he had predicted. One twin was a great tzaddik, renowned for his Torah scholarship and his devotion to helping others. His twin brother, however, was devoted more to the pursuits of worldly things, keeping company with criminals and expending his energies on amassing material possessions.

The former horseman lowered his head. Pushing down on his cane with both hands he stood up and invited the old woman to escort him.

The elderly couple left the inn, engaged in conversation. For neither were the cobblestones an easy surface upon which to walk, yet they did not notice their discomfort. As the couple neared Washer Woman’s Wharf the distinct smell of the water mingled momentarily with a feint sound of women’s chatter and the memories of bygone days took a firm, distracting grip of their imaginations.

***

In the same way that the twins in our story would jump about in an attempt to get out of their carriage, so would Yaakov and Esav push and kick whilst still in their mother’s womb. Rashi employs a Midrash to explain the words: “The children clashed inside her.”(Bereshit, 22:1)

“Our Sages explain it as having the meaning of moving quickly: When she (Rivkah) would pass the doorways (where Torah was being studied) of Shem and Ever, Yaakov would agitate and rush to come out. When she would pass doorways of idol-worshippers Esav would agitate to come out.”

Even before they were born, Yaakov and Esav displayed characteristics which were to remain with them as they grew up. Esav became a man who liked to hunt and for whom the birthright, the entitlement of his descendants to serve Hashem in the Bet HaMikdash, was worth no more than a bowl of lentil soup. Yaakov grew up to be a tzaddik and a Talmid Chacham. Not only did he study Torah in the Yeshivah of Shem and Ever for fourteen years on his way to his uncle Lavan, but whilst living for twenty long years in his wicked uncle’s household Yaakov resisted the negative influences around him and served Hashem with complete devotion at all times.

***

© J. Richards 2004

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