Wisdom in Folly

The first Chelmites could neither read nor write, and the history of those ancient times was never recordered.  It is said that these earliest Chelmites were primitive people.  They walked around naked and barefoot, lived in caves, and hunted animals with axes and spears made of stone.  They often starved and were sick.  But since the word “crisis” did not exist yet, there were no crises and no one tried to solve them.

After many, many years the Chelmites became civilized.  They learned to read and write, and such words as “problem” and “crisis” were created.  The moment the word “crisis” appeared in the language, the people realized there was a crisis in Chelm.  They saw that things were not good in their town.  The inventor of these words was a man called Gronam.  Or, as he is known, Gronam the First.  He was also called Gronam Ox because he sported a headdress with the horns of an ox.

Groans was the first sage of Chelm, as well as its first ruler.  In Chelm, rulership and wisdom have always gone together.  A council of five sages helped Gronam govern.  They were: Dopey Lekish, Zeinvel Ninny, Trestle Fool, Sender Donkey, and Shmendrick Numskull.  Groans also had a secretary, who was called Shlemiel.

One day Gronam ordered Shlemiel to summon the sages to a council.

When they assembled, Gronam said, “My sages, there is a crisis in Chelm.  Most of our citizens haven’t enough bread to eat, they are dressed in rags, and many of them are suffering from coughs and sniffles.  How can we solve this crisis?”

The sages thought for seven days and seven nights, as was their custom.

Then Gronam said, “The time is up.  Let me hear what you have to say.”

Dopey Lekisch was the first to speak.  “There are only a few people in Chelm educated enough to know that ‘crisis’ means a bad situation.  Let’s make a law forbidding the word’s use, and it will soon be forgotten.  Then no one will know that there is a crisis, and we the sages will not have to rack our brains to solve it.”

“Too late,” Zeinvel Ninny interrupted.  “It is true that the old people don’t know the word, but the younger generation have all learned it, and they represent the future of Chelm.”

The Fools of Chelm and Their History by Isaac Bashevis Singer

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