Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Dangers of the New Highway System - A History Lesson From Chelm Part I

Chelm: In Jewish folklore Chelm was a town reputed to be inhabited by fools. Where problems almost always centred on silly solutions. Some of these solutions display foolish wisdom, while others are simply wrong.

By: Dovid Teitelbaum

Please note: All characters and events appearing in this work are entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to actual people or events is hashgacha pratus.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, as  horses and buggies were being replaced by automobiles, the city of Chelm went through a crisis of its own.

You see, the people of Chelm tried to keep themselves apart from the rest of the world. They wanted to live a simple and better life, and they believed that the wise men of Chelm and most importantly the chief sage would solve any problems that they might encounter.

But as the world around them changed, it had an effect even on the people of Chelm. As automobiles became more and more common the wise men realized they had no choice but to instruct the city council to build a highway system of its own. The new highway enabled the people to travel at speeds never before imagined. Beautiful discount malls and exciting parks were built along the highway and everyone was eager to drive on the new highway.

There was great anticipation until opening day and as the great sage of Chelm cut the ribbon you could feel the crowd’s excitement. During his opening speech the sage warned the people about careless driving. It was a new kind of travel, he explained, one that the people had never experienced before and with new things come new dangers. But the people didn't pay much heed, as the convenience of being able to get from point A to point B that much faster was just too tempting. Besides, most people in Chelm lived very far from their workplaces and needed to use the highway to make a living.

But the old sage was proven right. Accidents did happen; they were unavoidable. And so, the wise men of Chelm called a meeting with the great sage. And at this meeting it was decided that  while it was worth the risk for those that must use it for work, it should be banned for recreational or any other purposes.

For the older people it wasn't much of an issue as they didn't drive fast, stayed in the slow lane and were more cautious, but the middle aged and younger folks enjoyed the faster speed and the new discount malls and they didn't listen.  While the great sage kept yelling about the dangers of the highway, the people did their own thing. And although he was still very respected amongst the people of Chelm, the temptations were just too great.

As time went by things just kept getting worse. In particular the teenagers, who took more risks, were affected the most by this. One after another, the people of Chelm were getting into accidents. Most were minor situations but some were veering totally off the road. By now the people were asking for guidance. And so once again the wise men assembled and the great sage was asked for advice.

“Well,” he said, “this is an easy problem to fix. We must put up danger signs across the highway, like Drive slow! and Stay on the correct path!” So they went to work implementing his advice, but the signs seemed to make little difference. And so they made bigger and more powerful signs, like KEEP A FAR DISTANCE! and CHOOSE LIFE OVER DEATH! But as time went by they realized that the signs were of little help. It wasn't that they didn't see the signs, it was that they just ignored them. And so, sadly, they returned to the great sage for advice once again.

The great sage thought for a while and then he said, “Well, if we can't stop the reckless driving at least we can limit the damage and stop the cars from skidding off the highway.” And so he instructed them to build rails. At first this seemed to help but after time the cars seemed to just find a way over the rails and the problem was unsolved. The townspeople kept building bigger and taller fences but as the speed of the automobiles improved the fences were of no use. Every fence that was put up was destroyed a day later.

At great expense to the taxpayers more police were hired and positioned along the highway but the drivers just bought radar detectors. The more sophisticated the police lasers the better the radar detectors became. Other ideas were implemented but it seemed like the younger generation was always one step ahead.

When things didn't improve, a new rule was passed. Any individual  using the highway needed to have a partner with him to protect him and keep him safe. It was even suggested that one's spiritual guidance counselor or spouse accompany him. But this wasn't a good idea at all. It was very uncomfortable for one person to reprimand another for his bad behaviour. And when they did, arguments would erupt that would turn into fights. But in truth, it never even took hold because people didn't have the extra time to ride around with others just to keep them safe.

At this point the people were ready to give up and just accept the situation as is. So the wise men instructed the municipality to build small graveyards at every exit so that when there were fatal accidents the dead could be buried quickly. This way, they explained, the media would be kept out and they could keep it all hush. Why alarm the public when there is no solution anyways? But parents and relatives didn't want to believe there was no solution. They came begging to the sage and demanded that something be done at once.

The wise men of Chelm approached the sage and offered him their guidance. And so it was that a signed declaration from the chief sage went out and it read:

“To all the people of Chelm, we hear your cries and pleas. In two weeks time there will be a massive gathering where the wise men will reveal to the common folks the SOLUTION to the current problem. Everyone is invited, from the young to the old, from the rich banker to the poor shoemaker. No matter what your party affiliation or your IQ, you must be there!”

Women were upset that they weren't welcome, but in Chelm women didn't drive and even though they shared the same tragedies the women were used to being second class citizens. Besides, in Chelm they did things the Chelm way and no one asked questions.

Huge ads went into the Chelm Times encouraging all to attend this big event. Many articles were written about how this event will solve the horrific problems once and for all. There was excitement in the air and everyone was speculating as to what would be done. What was the sage going to tell us?

But what the people did not know was that the “wise men of Chelm” had something else up their sleeves. An ingenious and cunning plan. Unfortunately the simple people of Chelm had no idea as to what lay ahead of them...
Click here for part II “As the Big Event Draws Closer”, where people in Chelm for the first time start asking questions.



  1. Awesome! Cant wait for part 2. When did you write this?

  2. Maybe it's time to move out of Chelm

  3. DovidTeitelbaumMay 8, 2012 at 8:29 AM

    This week. I hope to post part 2 very soon

  4. If this is a reference to the coming internet asifa, I have this thought.   Why try to anticipate what the asifa will or won't produce?  It should become very clear in a couple of weeks, anyway.  At that point, there will be a better basis for discussion of policy options.

  5. Small Footnote: My family came from Chelm. My aunt always said that the people of Chelm were known for their wisdom and the stories began out of jealousy...

  6. what asifa?

  7. I actually heard this from a Rebbe of mine that CHelm was known as a center for Brilliant Rabbonim, and the storeis started wither as you said by others due to jealousy, or that the people in Chelm themselvges started them to push away ayin hora.

  8. Kevin_in_ChicagoMay 8, 2012 at 8:47 PM

    Of course, any resemblance to anything anyone knows about is purely coincidental ....

    My suggestion for part 2 -- the Chelmer Chochamim direct all good Yidden to wear black headgear containing thought-control equipment, known as "Chelmets," so that they will not endanger themselves or others.

  9. DovidTeitelbaumMay 8, 2012 at 9:41 PM

    Well us jews are pretty smart people but we do very silly things sometimes.

  10. i am curious, are you writing this as a satire of something you actually heard from a rabbi regarding the highway system? because, I did. i heard an extremely well-respected rav in Baltimore at a shiur on Koheles ask the question: which of our presidents had the most devastating effect on American society? His answer: Eisenhower for the increased development of the interstates and the removal of folks from central areas into suburbs, etc. - rich poor, commutes, traffic, pollution, sprawl, etc. etc. 


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