Chelm is a town known in European Jewish folklore as a community of holy fools. (Illustration/F. Halperin's "Khakme Khelm," Warsaw, 1926)
Chelm is a town known in European Jewish folklore as a community of holy fools. (Illustration/F. Halperin's "Khakme Khelm," Warsaw, 1926)

Live from Chelm: Online class provides some virtual wisdom from a mythical shtetl

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

“Well, all you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.”
— Morrie Ryskind, “My Man Godfrey”

“God sent an angel to evenly distribute over the globe a sack full of wise people and sack full of fools. The bag of fools ripped open and they all fell in one place, the valley of Chelm. They took one look around, and then at each other, and declared that this was the place for the wisest of the wise, Chelm.”
“The Wise Men of Helm and their Merry Tales”

“Where is Chelm in America? Seek and you shall find.”

Meanwhile at the Online Chelm School …

Students: He’s still muted. He can’t unmute himself. Someone please, send him a chat. He can’t find the chatbox. Look. A cat! He is still reading chapter 12 of Deuteronomy to himself. Oh, he unmuted.

Rabbi of Chelm: “… You shall not do thus for the Lord your God. But to the place that the Lord your God will choose of all your tribes to set His name there, to make it dwell, you shall seek it and come there” (Deuteronomy 12:4-5).

First student: Not to do thus what?

Rabbi: Robert Alter says, “pagan concretizations of the deity.” God cannot sit in a building. Only the name of God, and that is not God.

A student: In Jerusalem?

Rabbi: No, Jerusalem is never mentioned in the Torah. Twenty-one times throughout the book of Deuteronomy, and 16 of those 21 right here in Re’eh, we hear “hamakom asher yivhar HaShem — to the place that the Lord your God will choose.”

Same student: And that’s Jerusalem.

Rabbi: No, we have allusions and hints to a specific place, but not to a specific place.

A student: Then how do we find it?

Rabbi: There is a hint: “l’shichno ti’drshu, u’bata shama — you shall seek it and come there.”

That same student: To the Temple in Jerusalem?

Rabbi: No, no mention of a Temple. They are really good at carrying the Tent of Meeting that journeyed through the wilderness and will no doubt bring it with them into the land of Canaan. The Deuteronomist writes, “mikol shivtekhem — of all your tribes” and “beahad shevatekha — and in one of your tribal territories.” Not in a place but in one of the tribes or communities.

Another student: Is this the first time we are told to seek God anywhere?

Rabbi: Deuteronomy knows Exodus. Look at Parashah HaShavuah Yitro (Exodus 20:24) and we find, “Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; b’kol HaMakom — in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.” Gather in a place and seek God in the right kind of company, and you will be blessed.

Student: So it is sacred intention more than sacred place?

Rabbi: Yes.

Student: Is that why one of the names for God is HaMakom?

Rabbi: Rabbis began to use HaMakom as a placeholder for God. This is the move made in Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (Italian, ninth century): “Why is HaShem called Makom (Place)? Because wherever the upright people stand, HaShem is present with them. Our teacher Ismar Schorsch, chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes: “Behind the plethora of divine names that came to mark Judaism, there resonates but one defiant conviction: ‘that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other (Deut. 4:39).’ All that exists flows from a single source, even if no one name comes close to illuminating it, though HaMaqom is a daring and lofty creation of the religious imagination.”

Student: I miss camp. I miss all my friends at camp. It was like an angel emptied a bag full of wonderful people in one place. Now I know why I felt more spiritual there than anywhere else.

Rabbi: Yes. Perhaps, every once in a while, just for a moment, seeing each other on a screen, if our intentions are right and the spirit is willing, we have a Makom”

Student: For someone who is foolish with his computer you get out a wise word. How did you figure out unmute?

Rabbi: My cat stepped on the keyboard.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].