[ This article was first published by us in 5758-1998. This story is based on events which transpired in a small town in Lithuania nearly two hundred years ago. It was told by HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt'l and has been circulated by word of mouth among gedolei Yisroel, but until now it has not been known to the general public. The events related here produced fruits which continue to nourish the Torah world until the present day.]
The letter contained a lengthy halachic discussion leading to brilliant, incisive, conclusion. Every line of the discussion, every step of the intricate reasoning, bore witness to the greatness of its author, HaGaon R' Yechiel Heller, zt'l, author of the sefer Amudei Or and one of the gedolim of his time. At the end, just above his signature, was a deceptively simple title, "Ho'aluv, the forlorn."
This title gives us reason to wonder. Why did such an enormous gaon see fit to describe himself in this odd fashion? Was it worthy of such Torah greatness to summarize his essence with this one, very common, word? It is known that the Netziv of Volozhin used to sign himself with the words, "Ho'omus be'avoda — the one who is burdened with work," and this is surely an apt description of the rosh yeshiva of Volozhin. But this is far less easy to say of the title chosen by our R' Yechiel, a title which hides a lot more than it reveals.
Nonetheless the description was not totally fanciful; it reflected both his greatness as well as his anguish, the power and trouble he knew in life. Once asked to explain why he chose this title, he related the following story:
One time, there was a wealthy man named R' Mottel who had an only and beloved daughter, his darling Aidel. His wealth knew practically no bounds, his house was graced with nearly every kind of exquisite luxury and beauty available at the time. His wealth had the power to blind anyone who fell under its spell, including the wise and scholarly, and his name was known far and wide.
At the same time, this R' Mottel had many enemies and competitors who bore sullen grudges against him. While they could do nothing to harm his wealth and property, they were in no way above besmirching his name or, more to the point, the name of his only daughter, who stood to bring with her such an enormous dowry. Even though she was a fine girl with no hint of any wrongdoing of any kind on her record, these small-minded enemies fabricated a long history of tales about her which eventually won acceptance as common truths in the mouths of most of the Jews, even though they were totally without substance. How tragic it is that people run to spread any juicy rumor they hear with no thought to how much truth it might contain, or how much harm it might cause an innocent soul.
When Aidel came of age, R' Mottel began his search for a suitable match. Normally a "suitable match" in such a case meant the most outstanding bochur in the best yeshiva around, someone who showed great promise of developing into a godol hador. How much more was this true since the daughter in question was an only child and all her father's wealth waited for the chosen candidate, with a prospect of indefinite years of support while the son-in-law grew and flourished in Torah with no material concerns of any kind to distract him from his studies and his holy service. Certainly the wealthy R' Mottel would stop at nothing for the sake of finding the best possible bochur for his daughter Aidel.
With this attitude, R' Mottel made the rounds of the most prestigious yeshivos of the time where, needless to say, he received a very warm welcome. Over the years his generosity had formed an important base of support for many of the largest yeshivos and the roshei yeshivos were more than happy to display to him the most promising of their eligible talmidim. He had every reason to expect to conclude an outstanding match for his daughter with little difficulty.
Soon a suitable candidate was found and an offer made. R' Mottel waited a few days for the bochur to make up his mind, confident that an enthusiastic acceptance would soon be forthcoming. After all, who could turn down such a rare opportunity, especially at a time when there was so much poverty in the world with so many families on the brink of starvation and collapse, when so many infants had little more than their mothers' tears to sustain them? Surely no one would refuse a shidduch with the wealthy R' Mottel, particularly since the girl in question was such a desirable find on her own merits — intelligent, attractive, modest and refined. What more could a bochur ask for?
After a few days' wait R' Mottel began to grow impatient and started putting pressure on the shadchan to move things along. He had pressing business to attend to and the girl was sitting at home waiting expectantly for the happy news. The family was eager to start arranging the chasunah, which would certainly be one of the most sumptuous seen in a long time, and they wanted to get on with ordering furnishings for the luxurious home where the happy couple would live.
When approached by R' Mottel, the shadchan acted a bit nervous but said nothing, and the wealthy man began to get upset. "What's the delay?" he asked in annoyance.
In response to the shadchan's continued evasiveness R' Mottel began to ask a series of increasingly probing questions, and eventually the truth came out. The candidate's family refused to allow the shidduch. They wanted to withdraw totally from the matter and wished R' Mottel success in all his endeavors.
The seasoned R' Mottel, who had experience in all aspects of life, could not believe what he had just heard. Who could imagine that his offer would meet with a flat refusal? All his life he had assumed that the world was governed by fixed laws, one of which was that when high quality merchandise was offered at an unbeatable price, no reasonable person would refuse it. His senses simply could not accept what he had just heard: that his daughter, endowed with all the desirable graces and bringing with her the most agreeable terms imaginable, was considered unacceptable by anyone in the world.
The only explanation he could think of was the young man in question for some reason did not think himself worthy to be a member of R' Mottel's household. If so, perhaps indeed R' Mottel would be advised to think again and make further efforts to find a shidduch for his daughter, who was so unquestionably desirable. This bochur was certainly not the only suitable one in his yeshiva.
After further extensive inquiries, R' Mottel settled on another excellent choice, someone whose scholarship and personal qualities put him at the top of the yeshiva. A discerning agent was dispatched to present the matter to the bochur in the most favorable terms: R' Mottel's home was renowned for its openness and receptivity; they were not the kind of people who made someone who failed to live up to their exacting standards feel out of place. They were looking for someone who was genuinely suitable for their top class daughter and would do everything they could to make his life happy so that he sit and fill the house with Torah, free of distraction.
As R' Mottel waited for an answer his confidence began to erode. He made up his mind that as soon as the shadchan knocked on his door, the eager family would bring the matter to a quick conclusion. But after two days passed with no response, R' Mottel himself went to visit the shadchan.
The moment the shadchan saw R' Mottel, he suddenly became very uncomfortable and gingerly invited his distinguished guest to take a seat.
"I have no need to sit on benches," said R' Mottel impatiently, "I have all the easy chairs I need in my house. Just say what you have to say and I'll be on my way."
"Well, then," the shadchan answered, "the family was very happy to hear of your offer, and the bochur also said he was agreeable ..."
"So!" interrupted R' Mottel, who was not used to waiting for explanations from common people, "What happened?"
"In the end," the shadchan finally said, "they decided that the candidates weren't really suited for each other."
A harsh cough erupted from R' Mottel's throat and his hands clasped at each other in displeasure. The yungerman looked at him in fear. He had hoped to have a hand in bringing this matter to a successful conclusion and to be rewarded appropriately, and suddenly the wealthy man, who had earlier exuded such confidence, now appeared almost broken. R' Mottel made an effort to regain his composure but his paleness and the pain in his eyes betrayed the crisis that was going on inside him.
"R' Mottel," the yungerman said hesitantly, "such things have been known to happen before. Chazal said that suitable people will find each other, and if this particular idea did not succeed for some reason, then you have to thank Hashem for saving you and your daughter from what might have been a serious mistake, and trust Him to guide you to find a suitable match for your daughter in the way He thinks best."
R' Mottel pulled himself together enough to take a drink from the cup of water he had been offered. He sat on the simple wooden bench and began to give serious attention to the consolation the yungerman was giving him. Not often did it happen that someone of R' Mottel's rank had to accept the advice of such a common person.
Finally he climbed back into his carriage and told the driver to drive off. Things had not gone well for him here, the people in this town didn't know what they were doing, but the day would come when they would need him. In the meantime, he had no wish to spend any more time there.
How frail we are, with no idea what's coming next, what's waiting for us just around the corner. How much we suffer over slight insults and injuries, never thinking that at some point in the future we might come to look back fondly on times when such were our only troubles!
R' Mottel climbed into his carriage, tossed the driver a coin and told him to hurry up, he wanted to reach his destination before dark. The driver thought that some important person must be waiting for his passenger. He felt the gold coin he had just received and thought about how desperate his financial condition was. "If he only know the troubles my family is going through," he thought, "he would surely give me a few more of these. But he has no idea what it's like to be an ordinary person, to spend all your time worrying about just keeping going." This driver need not have worried, his master was soon to know very well what it was like to live a life of pressure and frustration. In the meantime, driver, you just go about your business and rely on Hashem, and only Hashem, to give you what you need.
Reaching their destination, the driver was sent to summon the man his master desired to speak with. He could not hear the entire conversation that followed, only his master's enraged outbursts: "What? That's the kind of shidduch you're suggesting for me? ... I certainly am not interested in having the son of a cobbler for a son-in-law. ... Go back to whoever sent you to me and tell him to think more carefully in the future before he makes such proposals to Mottel."
The poor Jew walked shamefully away from the carriage which was already hurrying on its way, watching the dust that swirled around its wheels. "Think more carefully in the future," the words reeled in his mind. Indeed, he had thought very carefully, and it had seemed to him like the distinguished son of Pesach the cobbler would be an excellent match for R' Mottel's daughter, but seemingly he had been incorrect, bitterly incorrect. In the future he would think much more carefully before making such proposals, though for reasons entirely different from those on his mind now.
In the next town R' Mottel encountered an even more severe disappointment, a story which was to repeat itself over and over again. He would spend a long time investigating who the best bochurim were, selecting the most promising of them, making a proposal, waiting expectantly for an answer, and eventually receiving a stuttered, hesitant, incomprehensible reply.
Finally his common sense told him that there was more going on than met the eye, and that it was time to dig down and get to the root of the matter. There must be some reason for it all, and when he finally learned it, something inside him erupted and shattered his whole being.
His daughter! His wonderful, sweet, innocent Aidel, who was always so proper and well behaved? So modest and refined, who always acted so simply, seemingly unaware of her family's high station. His only daughter — and vile, despicable people were plotting callously to destroy her happiness. His throat was choked with tears.
Until this time he was used to being in control of all the variables that affected his life, to plotting events like an experienced navigator who chose the path which seemed best to him. Now, however, he was overcome by a sense of powerlessness like nothing he had ever felt before. He wanted to get up and scream out into the universe, "No-o- o! A terrible injustice has been done in the world. Lies, all lies!! My daughter is a wonderful, pure hearted, girl, and she deserves the best in the world. All you stupid people go away from me! Don't do this thing! Is there no justice in the world?"
He stopped, exhausted, his heart about to burst open. How could he bring the truth out into the light of the world? He could go shout it out in the streets, but what would that do? The rumors had already entrenched themselves and their damage was already done. People would only laugh at him. Let the miserable gossip mongers' tongues fall out. What had his innocent Aidel ever done to them? If they had scores against him, let them get even with him, but what did they have against his daughter?
For all his wealth and property, the most precious thing he possessed was his darling Aidel, as he now heard a thousand thundering voices telling him. If you truly desire her good, then get up and do something, now! If you can't get one of the top bochurim in the yeshivos, then at least get one of the good ones. The big names are not always the best, sometimes it's the quiet ones hidden underneath who turn out to be the real prizes.
With a great effort, R' Mottel overcame his pride, purged the last vestiges of his earlier intransigence, opened his clenched fists, and went out to investigate the middle ranks of the yeshivos.
Defeat? No, that wasn't the word. What goes on in the depths of the heart, how deep can one explore to find all the pain, all the despair? R' Mottel's heart was filled with cracks and fissures, his proud spirit was on the verge of collapse. Now he knew what it meant to be bested, to have to yield to his enemies.
The days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months; the hands of the clock seemed to have stopped. Aidel grew older and R' Mottel began to show signs of old age. The "good ones" in the yeshivos also refused to have anything to do with him, and the whole matter became public knowledge. R' Mottel extended his search further and further down the social ladder but wherever he looked, all he got was lowered eyes and heads shaken sadly. Nothing he offered made any difference whatsoever.
R' Mottel was trying to give everything he owned to make his Aidel happy, and all he got in return was insults. But far more than his own disgrace, he felt his daughter's pain, and he was powerless to do anything about it. He wanted to give her everything she wanted, but the thing she wanted most was totally out of her, and his, reach. He used to scoff at anything but the best suggestions, and now even the least attractive ones seemed beyond hope. He had already been around to all the yeshivos and botei midroshim, had made wonderful promises and humiliated himself to the point of groveling in the dust — and still he was not one inch closer to getting his daughter married. He had no choice but to watch the poor girl's anguish, to watch the silver creep into her hair, and to have no alternative but silence. The only thing he could do was daven. All his silver and gold were dust compared to Hashem's mercies. He joined his despondent daughter in her tears and in her prayers for an end to her suffering.
* * *
The wagon drivers only knew R' Mottel on the surface. He knew very well how to get them to drive their fastest over terrible roads at all hours of the day or night and to struggle to overcome fatigue to fulfill their master's wishes. One shining coin was enough to dispel any lingering doubts they may have had about their willingness to oblige him. But this was the extent of his appreciation for them. The space between the driver's seat and the master's place in the carriage was separated by a thick, insurmountable, partition, since the wagon drivers stood at the bottom-most rung of the town's social structure.
No, there were not quite the very bottom. That position was occupied by the assistant drivers, whose job was to crack the whip incessantly on the horses' back whenever the latter failed to follow the driver's orders to satisfaction. Then the driver mobilized his assistant, who got to work with all his strength and delivered the blows as hard as he could. Soon the assistant came to be known as the "shmeisser" (thrasher), after his primary job occupation.
* * *
One day as evening descended, the Jews of the town gathered in the shuls for mincha and ma'ariv, with time in between to quench their thirst for the waters of Torah after a hard day of exertions in the fields or shops.
"R' Mottel," called out an insistent voice, as the latter was hurrying into the shul. At its sound, R' Mottel turned a bit pale; he well knew that encounters with this self-styled shadchan usually only added insult to his already unhappy state of existence.
"Listen, R' Mottel," said the shadchan, "this time I'm not playing games. Listen well and you won't regret it later. I have a proposal to make, but first I want you to promise me that when you hear the candidate's name, you won't let your position and honor stand in the way and you'll think only of your daughter's good."
Upon hearing these words R' Mottel almost broke down in tears. What else had he ever thought about, if not his daughter's good? Was there anything else in the world that preoccupied him as much as doing what would be good for his beloved Aidel? What would he not give in order to make her happy and satisfied?
"Certainly, certainly," he answered curtly. "It's not my position or my honor, it's only my daughter's good."
The shadchan was well aware of the droplets that had formed in the corners of R' Mottel's eyes. He had no wish to intrude on R' Mottel's sensitive feelings, only to clear away any obstacles that might stand in the way; the matter he had to discuss was in any case difficult enough in itself.
"So," said the shadchan, eager to make his proposal, such as it was, before even he might develop cold feet, "Arik the shmeisser is looking for a good shidduch."
There it was, he had said it. The shadchan lowered his eyes, incapable of looking directly in the face of the wealthy man who had once been so proud. The whole thing was just like a scene from a farce; it was hard to be believe it was really happening. The shadchan had done his part, now all he had to do was wait and see how R' Mottel would react.
It wasn't the money that pushed the shadchan to this, that amount of money wasn't enough to push someone like him. It was rather that he felt genuinely sad over the dismal situation which had come about. If he weren't so convinced that he was doing the right thing, if he didn't realize how little honor was worth in this temporary world, there was no question that he would have gone to great lengths to avoid putting himself in such a position.
Finally he heard a hoarse voice answering, "Do whatever you like. As for me, I don't agree to it."
* * *
R' Mottel stood by the door of his house for what seemed like an interminable time. He had no idea how long it was. Minutes, hours ... maybe even days. The only thing he could think of was the sight of the shadchan walking away out of sight. He remembered the ma'ariv he davened, his shoulders trembling, his heart crying out, "Let my soul be like dust to everyone." He remembered the shamash of the shul tapping on his shoulder, reminding him how late it was. More than that he could not remember. He just stood there, with no idea what to do. Those were hard moments, even simple breathing came hard to him at that point. Maybe he could find someone to fill his place, to do the job that had to be done of breaking the news of the shidduch that had been offered for his beloved daughter. He didn't think he could do it himself.
"Promise me that you'll think only of your daughter's good." The shadchan's words rang in his ears. Suddenly a coldness came over him, drying his tears and leaving him a bit more detached. He felt that in Heaven they were pushing him to get on with it, that it might already be too late.
The maid opened the door and he walked straight to his study. No longer was he praying for great things, for the best of the bochurim, not even just for a ordinary boy who learned the simpler parts of the Torah. Now all he asked for was strength — heroic strength, perhaps — to do what he had to do, to tell his daughter what he had to tell her without pushing her to the depths of despair.
He called Aidel in and, while his eyes gave no hint of the chaos that churned inside him, it required no exceptional discrimination on her part to anticipate the subject he was about broach. She waited for him to start, and the length of his silence did nothing to reassure her long-frayed nerves.
* * *
"The only one left is Arik the shmeisser," he finally said, simply.
Aidel remained still.
"Who knows better than me — or you — what our position is like and how totally powerless we are. Arik the shmeisser is our last resort. It's the best we can do and believe me, my precious one, it's the best thing for you."
Neither of them said anything more, and the silence which followed was the longest lecture either of them had ever heard. The silence taught them powerful lessons, penetrated to the depths of their souls. The daughter's silence was a prayer, a supplication to her Creator: "Be with me, don't abandon me."
Three days passed. Arik's family asked for time to "investigate" the proposal. They had to decide whether or not to agree to having their son, the scion of a respectable lineage of wagoners, a boy who knew the trade inside and out, spend his life with the aging daughter of the wealthiest man in the town. It was a hard decision and they needed to seek advice, to bring others into the deliberations, to weigh all the considerations involved in taking such a momentous step.
For three days R' Mottel did not leave his house, and Aidel did not even set foot outside her room. For years she had been sunk in a deep melancholy, and she well knew the disgrace involved in any course of action she might take; but this was the hardest of them all, the very essence of dishonor.
Gloom set over the household. R' Mottel had finally decided that he wanted Arik for his daughter, come what may, and that he would give a quick answer. His daughter's shame had brought him to the point of actually wanting to give his daughter's hand in marriage to this boy who stood at the bottom of the town's social ladder, a wagoner's assistant, a shmeisser.
Always R' Mottel had been accustomed to knock on the doors of the powerful, the movers, those who always brought results, but now he felt himself totally dependent on his Creator. Never before had he stood on the brink of such a gaping abyss, of stark reality, never had he been forced to place himself on the scales with a wagoner's assistant. Never had he prayed such prayers as now.
As the third day of waiting was drawing to a close, R' Mottel heard the steps on the shadchan on the stones of his courtyard. He opened the door wide, and heard that Arik the shmeisser had agreed.
* * *
The town was dressed up at its festive best. Everyone was waiting for the wedding, which had all the elements that promised to make it into a joyous affair of rare proportions. Not in years had such an event been seen in any of the towns in the surrounding area, and probably not even in the big city. No one in the town — from the wealthiest of the wealthy down to the lowest wagon assistant — allowed himself to miss this affair.
The shul was packed with people talking in groups with flushed faces. The women chattered back and forth without interruption, this one clapping her hands in misery over all the disgrace the worthy and virtuous bride had suffered, that one lifting her eyes to Heaven in thanks that she had finally found her mate, and still another furtively wiping the tears from her eyes.
A scant few minutes before the chuppah the bride stood in her house, beautifully adorned in a magnificent bridal gown embellished with all the finest ornamentation. She stood by the bookshelves with a prayer book in her hand, her eyes closed.
"Master of the world," she began, "Kind and merciful Father. You know that I am pure and free of sin. Wicked people have concocted slanderous accusations concerning me, but today I am about to undertake to build a home, to establish the foundations of my life. My future is sealed, my fate decided. Only one thing I ask of you, my L-rd, that the generation I hope to bring into the world be righteous and blessed. Please, I beg You, grant that my children be tzaddikim, worthy servants of Yours, that they be among those who fear You. Grant that I be worthy at least of this, of having sons who toil in Torah and do Your will." Tears flowed from her eyes as these words emerged from the depths of her pure heart. "Only this I ask of You, to have sons who toil in Torah. If I have not been worthy myself, at least let them be."
The bride cried, and so did her parents, pure tears of anguish, of greatness, tears which flowed from years of pain and despair, of hope and prayer, and these tears were collected in heavenly vessels which were higher and higher to the upper reaches of the firmament where finally they moistened even the Throne of Glory.
* * *
In the course of time there emerged from that union four giants of Torah:
HaGaon R' Yisroel Heller, who became rav of Pinsk and Mir, author of the sefer Nachalas Yisroel;
HaGaon R' Meir Heller, the rav of Kostervitz;
HaGaon R' Yechiel Heller, rav of Sovalk and author of Amudei Or;
HaGaon R' Yehoshua Heller, who became rav in Plungian and Telz, author of Choshen Yehoshua.
Thus it was that R' Yechiel Heller, author of Amudei Or, thought it fitting to sign his name with a title which captured the years agony and despair which had brought his mother to the moment when she could plunge to the very depths of her heart and soul and extract the prayers needed to make him and his brothers into the giants they became: Ho'aluv — the forlorn.
A strange title, hard to understand unless one knows the story behind it, and feels what those who lived it felt.