The Sabbath was departing, stealthily retreating through the
darkness of the Shemtov Yeshiva in Brooklyn. The Rebbe, a
form felt, rather than seen, concluded the service with
swaying body and ringing voice. His shadow was grotesque,
projected as it was against the oron by the moving
lights of passing cars, and with arms uplifted and rocking
head, he appeared as a prophet of old, come with G-d's
message. You could feel his eyes clenched tightly as the
song he whispered rang out in contradictions of joy and
sadness. The figure on the wall flailed about as the
chassidim looked on entranced. Suddenly, the dark shape
hugged its head and sobbed aloud, "Hashem in Heaven, heal in
Your mercy!" and a great sigh rose from all the
The first child of the Rebbe's new marriage had lain in the
shadow of death since its birth six weeks earlier. Though
everyone else seemed to know that there was no hope for it
to survive, the young rebbetzin kept insisting that
it would live, that a saint like her husband was worthy of a
miracle. But the despair in her husband's cry now caused her
to be uneasy and she was grateful for the darkness and let
her tears flow freely, sensing that for the first time, the
chassidim looked at her with pity rather than censure.
The havdola candles were lit. The blessings were
followed by a great clamor and commotion as the students,
beards just beginning to sprout, scrambled over chairs and
tables, earlocks flying, to dip their fingers into the wine
from which the Rebbe had drunk.
"A good week, a happy week," the Rebbe radiated in greeting
as he eased his way through the pressing throng. He nodded
with friendly recognition to each chossid who stood stiff at
attention in his path, trembling to be noticed. The Rebbe's
beard was already streaked with white, but his walk was
proud, his carriage regal -- an impressive, imposing figure.
His eyes were compelling; his face was a halo of light, of
"A good week, a happy week; a week of good tidings and
health and redemption," he called out happily as his
gabbai, loyal old Leibel, guided him deftly towards
the door. The more daring youngsters courageously touched
the Rebbe's cloak as he passed, then ducked and scattered
when old Leibel glared at them threateningly.
"Don't wait for me tonight," the Rebbe told Leibel. "The
rebbetzin will be at the hospital and I'm not to be
disturbed." Old Leibel sighed heavily and nodded.
"Let the students eat without me. I'll have melave
malka upstairs alone." Alone in his private rooms, Reb
Yankele's head leaned heavily against the door. He looked
slowly around him. Since his marriage, it had been an effort
for him to enter his rooms. Actually, he didn't consider
them his own anymore. His three-legged table, to him,
symbolic of the fragility and transience of all worldly
things, had long since been relegated to the cellar along
with the iron bed and lumpy mattress that had served him
faithfully since his rescue from the Holocaust.
"But don't you understand that people don't live like this
any more?" his new young wife had said. "Why must I live
with old junk when it causes me such unhappiness?" The young
rebbetzin cried into her pillow and refused to unpack
their wedding gifts in the poverty stricken room. It had
been useless trying to get his young wife to understand.
Until Leibel had interceded, they had both gone about in
grievous silence. "To have relented so quickly to a woman's
whim," Reb Yankele now rebuked himself without mercy. To
have made peace with his young wife's mania for beautiful
things and allow it to turn his sanctuary into a dungeon.
How was it possible when just a short while before, though
now it seemed like in a different gilgul, he would
have grappled with the Soton and spat in his face! To think
that for the sake of sholom bayis he had stooped so
low and allowed his wife to worship alongside those who
kneel at the altar of flesh and fashion, style and sham!
The Rebbe slumped wearily into his chair, then jumped up
again, as though stung by a serpent. His chair? That
sumptuous creation of leather and felt that had been
designed especially for him by the most sought-after
decorator in the field? Since his marriage, there wasn't a
thing in the house he could call his own. He felt as though
he moved about in some foreign land in which he dared not
stop to rest. Oh, how he longed to take a hammer and smash
all those beautiful new things to pieces -- the crystal
chandeliers, the fancy mirrors, the velvet settees, the
antique pieces chosen after lengthy sessions and detailed
discussions. But a wiser voice restrained him. He dare not
grieve his young wife further, also a Holocaust survivor.
Her pain over their sick child was more than she could
Wearily, he sat down again and rocked his head in exhausted
defeat. When faithful old Leibel, the last of his father's
court, had approached him after the war and suggested that
it was his duty to remarry, he had pleaded to be left alone.
But the devoted old chossid would not relent and soon the
suggestion became a demand. Leibel had never been an easy
person to escape, neither when Yankele had romped innocently
through childhood in his Polish-Russian hometown, nor as he
grew into manhood in his father's courtyard. Even when
Yankele thought he was alone, old Leibel was guarding him
zealously, analyzing every word that emerged from his mouth,
following his every step and afterwards, reporting all
those, plus every question that he ever asked, back to his
saintly father, whom Leibel served as blindly as he had
Yankel's grandfather before him.
All this was in preparation for that moment when Yankele
would be worthy to continue the Shemtov Dynasty.
Reb Yankele inherited his father's chair. He filled it well.
Chassidim traveled for three days by horse and cart to
witness him pleading for Hashem's goodness and blessings.
His courtyard slowly filled with his own future heirs.
Except that a madman came to power and buried them all in
the Valley of Dead Bones. Suddenly, Reb Yankele was free of
any unholy thoughts that had occasionally come to sully
moments of great communion and to make putty of a soul that
soared and entered and conquered heights unattainable to
most men. But Leibel sought to bring him back down to this
"All humanity suffers and you seek peace? Who will continue
the seed of Shemtov while you wallow in misguided chastity?"
The gabbai had never been one to blunt his sharp
tongue, but Reb Yankele, stung deeply, realized that this
time, exceptional love and great courage had forced his old
mentor to speak out.
"Reb Yankele," he had pleaded, "the world looks to you for
an heir, a light in the bitter night of this cursed exile.
To what purpose were you spared if you refuse to accept the
role that awaits you? Come, Yankele, my child, bury your
dead; bewail and grieve and cry, for they shall never
return. We can only go their way, but not yet. First we must
live and marry and beget children and fill Hashem's world
with holy people who will serve Him."
As always, Leibel won and a match was arranged. Reb Yankele
heard her gay laughter when he entered the room and though
she lowered her eyes and bit her lips in confusion, he felt
something hard and cold melt inside him.
Long lines of scholars and saints were traced on both sides
and after a brief exchange, the meeting was over. And the
two had married.
A year later, a child was born.
Now, Reb Yankele looked around and wondered what he was
doing in this strange room. He longed to take a hatchet to
the exquisite furnishings but dared not. "Poor woman. This
is her compensation for the suffering and ugliness of her
own past, to cram the present with beautiful possessions."
And because he dared neither judge nor stop her, he had
betrayed his own soul.
The earth, he knew, is a magnet that pulls man down,
enslaving him so that he cannot rise to the heights that his
Creator expects him to reach. But it had been useless to
explain these things to his young wife and until Leibel had
interceded, they had both gone about in grievous silence.
He heard her footsteps dragging. The visits to the hospital
were taking their toll. "Why don't you pray?" she demanded
as she entered the room. "Why don't you storm heaven's gates
and rescue our child? If you prayed, Hashem would surely
listen!" She was shouting and sobbing, unable to stop. The
words came hurtling from the inferno of her soul --
Then she saw the grief in his face and crumpled in a chair
and begged forgiveness. "I was to have given you an heir for
the Shemtov dynasty..."
"Hush," whispered the Rebbe comfortingly. "There'll be other
sons of Shemtov who will call you Mother." He continued to
talk to her, in sing-song, reassuring her again and again of
other children, strong and beautiful, able to cope with this
world, as this one was not. His voice was like a sedative
and her sobs subsided. She slept by the table, head cradled
on her arms, in exhaustion. From the students' dining hall
came the sound of melave malka zemiros which would
last till close to dawn, a reluctant farewell to the Shabbos
Reb Yankele got up. He removed his round sable hat and satin
cloak and entered his bedroom. Though his heart pounded
loudly as it did on Yom Kippur when he struck his breast in
remorse at the Al Cheit, his movements were calm and
quick. He folded the bedspread and linens, then carefully
dissembled the bed. It took six trips to transport his
beautiful new fruitwood bed into a corner of the cellar and
bring back up his old, peeling iron bedstead and three-
legged table. In the company of the other massive furniture
and the wall-to-wall carpeting, his old bed seemed truly
grotesque; it seemed to mock the whole room.
Reb Yankel placed a lit candle on the three legged table and
began to chant softly. It turned to a cry and then to
wailing. He bemoaned the destruction of the Mikdash and the
exile of the Shechina. He begged for guidance and wisdom, to
be rescued from the churning sea of darkness called
civilization. He pleaded like a shipwrecked wanderer longing
to return home.
The phone rang. It was the hospital calling. Reb Yankele was
silent for a long time. Then, in tears, he forced out a
whisper, "Boruch Dayon Ho'emes."
"Rabbi, are you there? Are you there?" the voice on the
phone insisted. "Yes, of course, I'm here. We'll be right
He gently roused his wife and they rushed to the street
where old Leibel was already waiting with a cab.