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Clever Gretele and the Pyramid Scheme
Clever Gretele was not ordinarily one to ponder the scriptures. That was God’s own truth and she had no fear for the truth. She resembled neither Zalman the Learned, who could work mathematical wonders to prove that the Egyptians were smitten with 300 plagues, nor Menachem Menasche, who could quote commentary from Conference talks by the brothers in America just as easily as he might call upon the authority of Rabbi Akiva. No, Clever Gretele had far more practical than spiritual insight. She and her mother hadn’t made it through their hungriest years by knowing one verse from another. If the Bible had a Book of Bargaining, she might’ve become as expert in the scriptures as anyone. As it was, she was a little like those handcart pioneers: she’d gotten to know God by experience, until life got easier and God became more of a passing acquaintance again. Now? She had the wisdom of Solomon when called upon to settle an argument over a child’s toy, but ask her to name the 12 Articles of Faith and she could never seem to get any farther than Issachar.
Which is why it surprised her when, one week after Sunday School, she found that the lesson had not passed pleasantly from one ear out through the other but had, somehow, become lodged in her brain. Gretele could almost hear the talents from the week’s parable rolling around in there, like a treasure waiting to be taken to the bank.
“Heshel,” she asked her husband at last. “What do you think that story with all the money was about?”
Heshel had just begun eating one of her blintzes, but he reluctantly paused to consider the question. “When all is said and done,” he mused, “the lesson seems to be that it is better to be paid five talents than two.” He shrugged. “And wise, at the least, to be paid two talents rather than one.”
As a convert to the faith, Gretele appreciated being able to lean once in a while on her husband’s extra months of experience. But despite its elegance and seductive practicality, his explanation couldn’t seem to still the itching in her brain. “It is certainly true that it is no great luck to be poor,” she ventured in response, “but what if there is more to the story?”
She searched in her mind for a pattern. The servant who had been given five talents earned five more. That was a fantastic return, a real memory to hold onto for discouraging days. But the scriptures were silent on the details of whatever trades he’d made or operation he’d set up to scare up the extra money. And then the next guy? The servant who had been given two talents? As far as the description went, he hustled just as hard—and wound up with less than his five-talent friend had been given to begin with. The only real description of anyone’s business plan came for the servant who was given only one talent and buried it. Whatever he was up to got interrupted, though, when the Master returned home and got after him.
Had the servant with two talents done something wrong to end up with only four? For that matter, had the servant with one talent done something wronger to end up empty-handed?
She had to admit she was pondering the scriptures every bit as seriously as any Menachem or Zalman. When it came to scripture study she might have, so to speak, only a single talent. But she had to believe her pondering would bear fruit nonetheless.
And then, in a flash of inspiration, the answer came to her. “I think the story’s true lesson” she announced, “is that the Master should have been more patient.”
Heshel shook his head. “According to Brother Menashe,” he said, “patience is our Master’s main virtue. How could he need any more of the thing he gets the most chances to exercise?”
Clever Gretele rolled her eyes. She loved her husband, but he was so busy likening the scripture to himself that he’d overlooked what it actually said. “Weren’t you listening in class?” she asked.
Heshel’s brow furrowed in deep concentration. “Perhaps not today,” he admitted. “They all blend together.”
“Didn’t you hear the part about the master reaping where he did not sow? Don’t you remember that other story about sowing seeds that can grow sixty or a hundredfold if you bury them in good ground?”
“There are certainly many seeds in the scriptures,” Heshel agreed. But the only one that came to mind at the moment was the mustard one, because it would be so nice ground up and mixed in a potato salad.
“Yes,” said Gretele. “There are all kinds of scriptures about seeds and planting and harvests. Why? To teach us the basic principle that whatever we plant, we also pick.”
“My only hope,” Heshel sighed, “is that it involves blintzes.”
At least, she thought, her sweet husband had her to lean on. “It was not blintzes the man buried in the story,” Gretele said slowly, “but a talent. A real, spendable, investable talent he could have taken to the bank. Can’t you see? If only the master had followed the law of the harvest and waited a little longer, the buried talent could have sprouted into a tree!”
“What does a talent tree produce?” Heshel asked. “And can it at least be cooked into blintzes?”
Gretele sighed. “A talent is as silver as my earrings. And if we had a silver tree, we could buy all the blintzes your heart desires. Or at least,” she added hastily, “all your stomach could contain.”
At last, Heshel got excited. “We’ll plant it at once, then!” he said.
Clever Gretele handed him one of her earrings and he went off to do the work. But Heshel returned in less than a minute, not yet empty-handed.
“Where is good ground for silver?” he asked.
It occurred to Gretele that she did not know. She looked outside the window but nothing struck her as right.
All afternoon, she fretted over the problem. A Zalman or Mencahem might have been content simply to have solved a scriptural mystery, but not Gretele. What use was her insight if it could not be acted upon? As the scriptures say: faith without works is dread. Still, she refused to give in to despair. It was like Nephi said when he and his brothers were planning for that heist: God would not provide inspiration without showing her a way she could follow it. That evening, as her daughters Chava and Milka prayed, she resolved to search and ponder a little harder. Once she’d herded Milka off to bed and made Chava swear to keep the peace until morning, Gretele got down her scriptures and opened them.
She sighed. The books were heavy in her hands and the words always seemed to make her eyes heavier. But the doors won’t open, as the good book says, unless someone is willing to knock. If she began to read them from the beginning, surely she would find an answer sooner or later.
In his great mercy, God had left it in Genesis chapter one.
“Aha!” Clever Gretele called to Heshel when she found the passage. “Listen to this: And the fruit tree yields fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth. In itself upon the earth? That’s as precious as it is plain. Silver must be planted in silver ground.”
The two rushed together to the window at once. As it happened, in a corner of their yard, a patch of silver was visible in the moonlight.
Heshel and Gretele went out together to dig the hole and entrust her left earring to the appropriate soil.
Each afternoon that week, Heshel went out to the yard, hoping for some tiny sprout, at least, of good silver. But each time, he could not even seem to find the silver patch of ground. Then again, he had lost more than one piece of ground before and his life had worked out anyway.
He reminded himself of what Gretele had promised. If he could be more patient than the Master, the day would come when the plan came to fruition. Sooner or later, God would have to provide. It was practically guaranteed by the law of the harvest.
“I hope today is the day,” he told himself on Monday. And Tuesday. Not to mention Wednesday.
On Thursday, feeling more tired of waiting than embarrassed about having lost track of the spot, he finally admitted to Gretele that he was not entirely sure where their talent was buried. She was cooking dinner at the time, but promised to look that night after they’d put the children to bed.
To Heshel’s surprise and delight, Gretele spotted the silver patch of ground out the window right away in the moonlight. But she could see no tree growing. “Perhaps,” she said, “we were wrong to plant only one earring. We should have followed the example of Noah and planted two by two.” While Heshel finished with the dishes, she fetched a shovel and went out.
Gretele had only been gone for three forks and two plates when Heshel heard the doorbell ring. He opened it and found her ministering sisters, Mirele Schwartz and Leeba Selig, standing in the door.
Heshel invited the sisters in and assured them that Gretele would be in soon. It occurred to him that he should do his best not to tell them what she was up to. After all, the servant in the story had never told his two richer friends to bury their talents. So Heshel made small talk instead by bragging about this and that. He told them about how his daughter Milka was learning to spell so well she didn’t even need vowels. He described how his daughter Chava had taken Zusa Cohen foraging and picked up some wonderful bread from Tzipa’s bakery at the end of the day, just before she threw it away. And then he told them what a scholar of the scriptures his wife was becoming until the conversation quite naturally drifted to her ability to find silver ground.
“Silver ground?” asked Mirele Schwartz. “What for?”
Heshel had felt that her attention was drifting and so the sudden return of interest was quite welcome. And then he couldn’t help but tell her about the law of the harvest and how each seed is in itself and that sixtyfold or a hundredfold would pay for a great many blintzes and just imagine, all it took was a little starter silver. Then Heshel realized that he had, perhaps, said too much and so he swore Mirele Schwartz and Leeba to secrecy as they excused themselves and rushed out the door and down the street right past where Gretele was working.
That night, Heshel dreamed he heard the sound of digging in the yard.
After Mirele and Leeba had rushed home to find jewelry made of silver and returned to borrow, anonymously, just a tiny patch of the silver corner of Gretele’s yard, they also swore each other to secrecy. Or at least, to near secrecy. Both agreed it would be impossible to go on without confiding in someone about their good fortune. After some debate, however, they promised to tell no more than three relatives or close friends each.
As the near-secret of success spread by multiples of two to three each night, hopeful talk about the future spread through the Chelm ward. In addition to earrings, people planted necklaces, rings, candlesticks, and spoons. At night, they dreamed about what they might do with the silver after they picked their own trees up and transplanted them home. Even Oscar the Miser let himself imagine indulging a little: eating his cabbage soup without bothering to first water it down, saving the coins for a night or two just to hold them before he delivered them to the bank to earn interest.
In hushed tones, people talked day by day with their nearest confidantes about when they expected the tree to bloom. On the basis of a primary song, Hannah Silber argued that spring would bring a nice surprise and her hope drifted along the ward’s whispers. Zalman thought summer; Menachem Menashe said he was mixed up as usual and argued that summer was just figs. He alone held out for a long timeline. The whole enterprise reminded him of Egyptian pharaohs buried with their treasure in pyramids. The Egyptians had known something after Abraham’s visit and all. Speaking personally, he was not planting his silver just so he could go on a nice vacation to the Black Sea when the weather got warm, sitting on Chayka beach in Varna with a whole wishlist worth of new books piled beside him. In a pyramid-style enterprise, he suggested, the reward might come only in the afterlife. He was fully prepared for a lot of empty waiting in the meantime.
At first, people chided Menashe for sounding bleak and even faithless. But the Lord who gives hope also takes it away. Opinion swung strongly toward Menashe’s cautious position following the divine rebuke which came that March in the form of a late frost.
Oh, how hope fell frozen! Plans for new roofs or thicker soup, for an extra-large wedding cake or a kitchen pew long enough for the whole family, for Chayka beach or a fishing trip in the Baltic, all simultaneously shattered. All across the ward, dreams died overnight just like the tree, killed by cruel fate before it had a chance to grow.
Heshel’s own disappointment was perhaps in some measure offset by the bliss of his ignorance. He had no idea about the planting craze he’d set off through the ward. Obviously, no one had told him or Gretele about sneaking into their yard in the middle of the night to plant silver, and he interpreted their sad looks as they walked by the house as mysterious sympathy with his unspoken sorrow, rather than as evidence they might each be keeping the secret he’d spilled.
Clever Gretele, for her part, held on to hope well after the late frost. She would check out the window for signs of a resilient tree beginning to sprout—until one day she told Heshel that this was, perhaps, not the right year, and that she would go dig up her earrings to try the next season.
A few minutes later, Heshel heard her cry out. He rushed out to the yard to see what the matter was and then he saw what she had excavated—and they rejoiced together with the enthusiasm of a widow who has found a lost coin.
“Though the tree never grew,” Clever Gretele said, “it is good to see the original seed at least spread out some roots.”
Heshel smiled. For the first time in weeks, blintzes fled from his mind as visions of plates and plates of latkes paraded through in their stead. “Perhaps talents,” he observed, “grow more like potatoes.”
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Artwork by David Habben.