Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Adar II 5765 - March 30, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








by Libby Lazewnik

NOTE: A weekly story from Libby Lazewnik appears in Yated Ne'eman, but is not usually posted on Dei'ah Vedibur. Because this story captures a Torah learning experience that is widely shared but rarely written about, we are posting this week's story, with the kind permission of the author.

Gershy had nearly drifted off to sleep when he heard the signal.

It was very faint, just a light tap-tap-tapping against his wall. If his head hadn't been near the spot on the wall where the tapping was coming from, he would never have heard it. As it was, he was so nearly asleep that he almost didn't hear it even then.

The signal came again, more urgently now. Gershy shook himself awake and listened. This was no mere "Hi, there!" Nor was it, "I can't fall asleep, how `bout you?"

This was the emergency signal — the tap sequence that meant, "I need help. Come as soon as you can!"

Gershy lay back and wondered what Binyamin's problem was.

They had started their secret code three years earlier, when Gershy had been only nine and his brother Binyamin seven-and- a-half. That was when Zevy, the baby, had moved in with Binyamin, and Gershy had been given his own very small room next door. The house's original owners had used it as a sewing room. Now it was Gershy's own tiny kingdom, and he and Binyamin, instead of sharing a room, shared a wall instead. That wall had quickly become their method of communicating at night.

Usually, they tapped at each other out of boredom, or restlessness, or just for the fun of it. Only rarely did one of them use the "emergency" signal. But Binyamin had used it tonight. And so, much later, when the house was quiet and everyone in it seemed to be asleep, Gershy tiptoed out of his room and across to his brother's.

He found Binyamin lying with wide-open eyes, waiting. The moment the door opened, he sprang into a sitting position, a smile of relief splitting his face. "Oh! There you are. I wasn't sure if you were coming." He whispered, so as not to wake three-year-old Zevy, snoring lightly in the other bed.

Gershy came closer and asked, also in a whisper, "What's the matter? What's the emergency?"

"I have a Gemora test tomorrow, Gershy. An important one, not a quiz. I . . . forgot all about it until tonight." In the dark, it was hard to read the look on Binyamin's face. But if a whisper could sound sheepish, then his certainly did.

"You forgot?"

"Uh-huh. I . . . I didn't mean to forget. I mean to study hard. You know how Tatty's been about my Gemora lately . . . "

Gershy knew. His father had been upset and disappointed by the way Binyamin had been treating his Gemora class. "You're not a visitor, Binyamin. You're there to learn. Is that so hard to understand?" And because Tatty was upset, the whole household had been upset.

Binyamin didn't know why it was so hard for him to take his learning seriously. He was eleven already, old enough to know what was important. Torah learning was the most important thing there was, he knew that. But somehow, the knowledge didn't seem to help him much when it came to actually sitting down and reviewing what he'd learned — or remembering to study for tests.

Gershy sighed. "What do you want, Binyamin?"

"Please study with me. I know it's late and I shouldn't ask you to do this, but I've just got to do well on this test. If I don't, not only Tatty will have my head — my rebbe will, too! He's already spoken to me about my grades."

This, too, was old news to Gershy. With another sigh, he said, "Oh, all right. Come on. We'll learn in the den."

The house was wrapped in darkness. Little creaks and groans accompanied the boys down the stairs, as if the old wood boards were wondering where they were going at this hour of the night. Gershy was relieved when they reached the den and were able to turn on a light.

Binyamin got the gemora and the two sat side-by-side at their father's desk, facing Tatty's swivel chair. Binyamin looked grim but determined. Gershy tried hard not to yawn. The hands on the desk clock read 11:45.

They started to learn.

* * *

It was their big sister, Henny, who saw them first.

She had woken up suddenly, for no reason at all. She did that sometimes. Usually when it happened, she turned over and fell right back asleep. This time she sat up in bed, straining her ears. Through the darkness a sound had reached them — an unusual sound, given the hour. It was the distant drone of young voices. Her brothers' voices. What in the world were they doing up at — she checked her clock — ten minutes past midnight? With a quick glance across the room at her sleeping younger sister Malky, she got up to find out.

She took the stairs as silently as she could. It felt very strange to be padding downstairs in her slippers and robe at this hour, with most of her family asleep behind her and her two younger brothers chatting away downstairs. What were they up to?

The light from the desk lamp sent a faint golden beam through the half-open den door. Henny tiptoed up to the door and peeked in. Most of the room was dark, but in the circle of lamplight, at the desk, were Gershy and Binyamin in their pajamas. A big gemora was spread open in front of them. And they were not chatting, as she had supposed when hearing their voices. They were learning.

All her big-sister instincts rose up, telling her to order them back to bed at once. What a crazy time to be up! They were growing boys, they needed their sleep . . . .

But — they were learning. Binyamin, definitely the problem child when it came to his Torah studies, was hunched over the printed page listening intently as Gershy explained something to him. Watching them, Henny hesitated. Then, silent as shadow, she turned around and slipped back up the stairs to her own bed. They never even knew she was there.

The second one to see them was Ma.

She had woken up to the sound of the baby whimpering in her cradle beside the bed. Little Chanala waking up for her feeding.

Ma picked her up, changed her, fed her, and rocked her for a few peaceful moments. Chanala drifted back to sleep. Ma was about to do the same when her mother-ears, always attuned for anything having to do with her offspring, caught another sound. It was the sound of her children's voices, at a time and in a place where they didn't belong. At once, alarm bells began to ring. She went to investigate.

She descended the stairs no less quietly than her older daughter had done a quarter of an hour before, and followed the same path to the lighted den doorway. Standing there unobserved, she saw what Henny had seen: Gershy and Binyamin huddled together at her husband's desk, poring over an open gemora. It was a sight unusual enough to freeze her in her tracks, even if it hadn't been taking place at — she glanced at the den clock — nearly twelve-thirty at night.

Like Henny before her, she knew an impulse to call a halt to the whole business. Her boys needed their sleep! This was no time for them to be up. It was crazy. It was unheard-of. Any good mother would put a stop to it immediately.

But — they were learning. Binyamin was learning. With a sigh that turned into a smile, she turned silently away and went back up to bed.

* * *

The third person who saw them had no qualms about making his presence known.

The boys' father had slept through his wife's departure and return. Now, as she slept again, he woke up to the baby's whimper. A few good rocks of the cradle soon calmed her. He stopped rocking, and listened. Through the silence of the sleeping house, he heard the distant drone of young voices. His curiosity was piqued.

Quietly, he got up and went to the door. It was the work of seconds to go downstairs and follow the trail of light to the door of his den. He stood in the doorway for a minute watching his sons, unobserved.

Then he stepped inside the room. He cleared his throat. "What's this?"

Both boys spun around. A fiery blush crept into Binyamin's cheeks. Gershy, though looking less guilty, was clearly startled and uneasy. It was he who answered, "Uh, we were just learning a little, Ta."

"Just learning a little? I see." The father came closer to the desk. "You're learning Binyamin's perek, I see." He looked at his younger son's blazing face. "Why the sudden desire to learn gemora in the middle of the night?"

Looking down at the blue rug on the floor, Binyamin whispered, "I have a big test tomorrow, Ta. I needed to study. Gershy said he'd help me."

"I see. And the possibility of studying during your normal waking hours did not occur to you, I suppose?"

Binyamin stared even harder at the rug. "I — forgot."

The boy tensed, waiting for the expected reprimand. After all the sharp words he'd had from his father on the subject of his learning lately, he steeled himself for a torrent of rebuke to land on his unprotected head. The fact that it would be a richly-deserved rebuke would not make it any easier to take.

It never came. Instead, his father walked around the desk to his chair. "Gershy, it's very late. Why don't you go on up to bed? I'll take over here."

Binyamin's head jerked up and his eyes popped open. Gershy looked at him, then at his father, and ventured, "If you don't mind, can I stay? I really want to. It's kind of fun learning in the middle of the night!"

His father hesitated, considering the request. Then he nodded. The two boys pulled their chairs up to the gemora again, while their father got another one for himself. They began to learn.

It's not easy to explain what happened next.

Nothing extraordinary happened. They just sat there, a father and two sons, going over the words of the gemora and trying to understand them. Binyamin had learned those same words before, in class. They weren't new to him. The den wasn't new to him either, or his father or his brother. But somehow, as the clock ticked its rhythmic way toward one o'clock and the desk lamp cast its golden glow over their charmed circle leaving the rest of the room plunged in darkness, he realized that — this time — though nothing was new, something was different.

It started as a kernel of contentment, growing out of his relief at escaping a scolding. Then the contentment became more pronounced, turning into something much stronger. A great happiness began to swell inside Binyamin. It filled him so thoroughly that he thought his heart would explode. He felt incredibly light, and at the same time weighted down with a new kind of importance. Listening to Gershy ask a question, to his father explaining, and to his own voice repeating the explanation, he felt . . . right.

For the first time since he'd started this whole frustrating business of trying to become a budding talmid chochom, he understood what people meant when they talked about the beauty of learning Torah. Working at it was beautiful, when you put your mind to work together with other people who were putting theirs to work, all trying their very best — and using the very best part of themselves — to try and interpret Hashem's holy law . . .

He was taken by surprise when his father finally sat back with a smile. "Well, that's it. We've covered the material for your test, Binyamin. Think you know it now?"

"I think so, Tatty. But . . . do we have to stop? Couldn't we go on for a little while longer? Just for the fun of it?"

His father stared at him. Like his wife and daughter before him, he had an urge to say, "Nonsense. It's bad enough being irresponsible and having to study for a test so late at night. You're going to be a wreck tomorrow! Right up to bed with you — this instant!"

But he didn't say it. He didn't say it because it was Binyamin who was asking, and it was the Torah that he was talking about. It was gemora that he wanted to learn "just for the fun of it." Talk about "mitoch shelo lishmoh, boh lishmoh"! If ever a boy had started learning for the wrong reasons and continued for the right ones, this was it . . .

And so, still smiling, he said, "Why not?"

Gershy asked, "Me too?"

And his father said, "You, too, Gershy. We're chavrusas, the three of us. Aren't we?"

The hands of the desk clock stood at 2:05 when the three finally closed their gemoras and tiptoed back up to bed.

* * *

Of course, they were all exhausted the next morning. Binyamin could hardly keep his eyes open at breakfast. But he woke up when his rebbe handed out the test papers and was fully alert as he wrote the answers.

About a week later, they were enjoying a peaceful supper when Malky, eight years old, suddenly spoke. Looking around the table, she said, "Something's different about our family these days. I don't know what it is."

Her mother smiled. "What kind of difference are you talking about?"

Malky thought a moment. "I think it's because Tatty isn't yelling at Binyamin about learning anymore. Things are much more peaceful now."

The whole family laughed. Binyamin blushed, and his father murmured, "I wouldn't exactly call it `yelling.' "

"You know what I mean," Malky persisted.

"Yes," Tatty said, with a glance at Binyamin. "I do know what you mean."

That night, he gave his sons the prearranged signal — the one that meant, "The den at midnight." At the appointed hour, the father woke his two sons and they went down to the den. In the glow of the desk lamp, they opened their gemoras and began to learn.

It had been Binyamin's idea that they continue their midnight "seder". "Just once a week, Ta," he'd urged that first night. "It's such a good feeling . . . so special. Can't we do it again? Please?"

His father had agreed. "Just for an hour, though. You boys do need your sleep." They, for their part, had agreed to try to go to bed extra early on their "learning nights."

They'd been at it for about twenty minutes when there was a rustle at the door. Both Henny and Ma stood there, watching them with matching looks of disbelief. Ta looked up from his gemora and said, "Yes? Can I help you with something, ladies?"

A gaping Henny merely opened her mouth and shut it again, looking so much like a fish that Binyamin couldn't help laughing. Then Ma started laughing, too. Then she said, "I can help you with something. When you men are through learning, there'll be hot cocoa and cookies waiting in the kitchen."

Only Malky, asleep in her room, and Zevy and the baby, were not present at the celebration feast late that night. Zevy and the baby were too little to understand, but Malky would have enjoyed the whole thing, had she been awake to see it. As it was, she continued to watch her family, happy though still a little puzzled at the change that had occurred seemingly overnight. "Something's different," she repeated.

If you'd have asked any of them — Binyamin especially — they'd have said that a truer word had never been spoken.


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