The New Jersey Maggid Convention was one of the highlights of the year for any Jewish storyteller from the Garden State. It was a place where you could spend Shabbat singing zemirot with old friends, enjoying a nice, steaming bowl of chulent in catered elegance, or just swapping stories with some compatriots. Two years ago it had been held on the Shabbat of Parshat Bo on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, but that seemed a little racy, what with the casinos and all the gambling. Last year it had been on Parshat Yitro down at the Ocean Place Resort in Long Branch, but that was also thought to be a tad risque, since the spa’s clientele tended to wander the hotel lobby in their bathing attire. So this year it was being held at the Meadowlands Sheraton on the Shabbat of Parshat Vayikra. When you walked into the hotel, the big electronic sign in the lobby (just after it flashed a greeting for the Hudson County Volunteer Firemen Convention and just before the notice acknowledging the Plumbing Suppliers meeting) read WELCOME MAGGIDS. That in itself was worth the registration fee.
There were always interesting lectures to be heard at the convention. This year the presenters were an all-star crew. The Maggid of Maywood was giving a talk on “The Art of Euphemism: The Yehuda and Tamar Story.” The Maggid of Metuchen was speaking on “The Talmud in Storytelling: The Aggadita I Gotta Tell Ya.” The Rebbe of Camden was presenting on “The Ambience of the Maggid: What Cookies to Serve the Children on a Shabbat Afternoon.” And the Chochom of Kearny was talking on “Telling Jokes in Your Stories: Is It Really Punny, or Just a Rambummer.” All in all, it looked promising.
Normally, the crowd was pretty jovial by the time the Friday night oneg came around, but when the Maggid of Union City, the dean of the New Jersey maggidim, got up to speak, he could tell something wasn’t right. By now, at a typical maggid convention, the maggidim had each had a schnapps or two under their belts, and the singing of niggunim had set the mood for him to tell a nice chassidishe tale about dreams and miracles along the Garden State Parkway. Outside the windows of the hotel, the New York skyline was visible to the east and Giants Stadium to the west. What could be more inspiring for this group of mid-Atlantic yarn spinners? But the Maggid of Union City knew that something was amiss. The singing was shvach, and the maggidim lacked the usual gleam in their eyes that was typical of such a fictionally inspired group.
“Nu, what gives?” the Union City Maggid—heretofore to be known as Reb Yankel—said.
Everyone averted his eyes, trying not to look the wise, old maggid in the face.
“Reb Shua,” Reb Yankel said to the Maggid of Hackettstown, “tell me what’s going on.”
Reb Shua looked up at his teacher. “Oy, Rebbe, surely you know what’s wrong. If you hold the convention during the book of Shemot, Exodus, we have lots of stories to swap. There’s the plagues in Bo, the receiving of the Torah in Yitro, and even a dark parsha like Ki Tisah, with the sin of the golden calf, has lots of meat for storytelling.
“But here we are holding the maggid convention on Parshat Vayikra, Leviticus. It is at the start of eight weeks of karbanot, eight weeks discussing the details of sacrifices. Which cow, which goat, how you slaughter it, when you eat it. Let’s face it, Rebbe. It’s a storyteller’s graveyard.”
If it hadn’t been Shabbat, a few of the maggidim might have spontaneously torn their clothing at that moment in a fit of despair.
“Is that all?” Reb Yankel asked, a look of joy on face.
“Reb Chezki,” Reb Yankel said, pointing at the Maggid of Rivervale, “stand up.”
The Maggid of Rivervale, the youngest storyteller in the room, reluctantly rose from his chair. He had crystal blue eyes and a thin beard that provided only spotty cover for his large, protuberant chin.
“Tell me, Chezki, is there anything unusual about the first word of the book of Vayikra?”
“Yes,” said Chezki.
“Could you, perhaps, be more specific?”
“The last letter of the word ‘vayikra,’ the aleph, is written smaller than the other letters in the Torah text.”
“And why is that?”
“It alludes to the anivut, the modesty of Moshe Rabeinu. That reminds me of a story. Once, when Moses was a shepherd in Midian, he chased after a lamb—”
“No,” said the Maggid of Burlington, “the aleph is small because the Torah wanted us to treat it as a separate word in the sentence. Aleph means ‘to teach,’ and teaching others is the key to the sacrifices. We must learn…”
“I’ll hear no such thing,” the Maggid of Perth Amboy said, waving his fist in the air. “The aleph is small because it is sad that “bet,” the second letter of the aleph-bet, got to begin the first word of the Torah back in Bereishit, Genesis. All the letters wanted to go first in the Torah, and they petitioned Hashem to…”
“Nonsense,” the Maggid of Bernardsville piped up. “With all due respect to my colleagues, the aleph is small to show the difference between Moshe and Bilaam, the evil prophet who tried to curse the Jews. The Torah uses the word “vayikar” without an aleph in describing Bilaam. This means his prophecy was accidental, like…”
“Don’t be silly,” the Maggid of West Milford interjected. “The aleph is small because it is a symbol of Adam, the first man. It shows how all men should consider themselves insignificant before God. When Adam was in the Garden of Eden, he…”
Soon the whole room was debating why the aleph was small in the word “vayikra.”
Reb Yankel let the debate rage for a while, basking in all the creative storytelling that had broken out around him. Finally, he interceded.
“If one letter of the Torah could create so many stories, imagine how many stories the whole book of Vayikra will engender.”
“‘Engender?’” a maggid somewhere in the crowd said. “What kind of a storyteller uses the word ‘engender’?”
Reb Yankel tried to see who in the group had attacked his lexicon, but the remark was lost in the explosion of speech that broke out after his oration.
“Nu, let’s sing a zemer.”
The group sang an old Carlebach niggun, and the music rose to a crescendo. All the long faces were gone, replaced by looks of anticipation.
After all, it was Shabbat Parshat Vayikra, and they had a whole book of the Torah to conquer.
By Larry Stiefel