Dei'ah Vedibur - Information &

A Window into the Chareidi World

22 Cheshvan 5766 - November 23, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Home and Family

The Tzadik's Eternal Flame
A very true story

by Gavriel Horan

The midday sun sweltered down upon the crowd of Jerusalemites waiting impatiently for the bus. Ironically, the heat was intensified by the crowd itself that in an effort to stay cool had huddled together in a tight mob under the small awning of the bus stop shelter, whose tiny strip of shade served more for appearance than shelter. Yanky, however, was happy to at least have a seat under the shelter, considering that he had been waiting for nearly an hour. He was among the first to have arrived there, having just missed the previous bus.

The chol hamoed rush must have caused delays all over the city. Wasn't Pesach supposed to be the best season in Eretz Yisroel? Apparently, the heat wave had started early that year. Nonetheless, Yanky kept reminding himself that it beat Pesach in Brooklyn any day. Just a few more weeks until summer vacation, he thought to himself.

He had nearly completed his agreed-upon year in yeshiva, to the approval of his parents, and now he was almost free. Free to do whatever he wanted — what that was, he wasn't exactly sure, but it certainly wasn't to stay in yeshiva. Yanky wasn't a bad kid, he had given it a fair shot, it just didn't seem like learning was for him. He had been kicked out of one yeshiva after another throughout his high school years and now, as a last resort, his parents had sent him to Eretz Yisroel to an American yeshiva to see if some spark could be ignited within him. He had nothing against religion, per se, but he was looking for more in life.

Lately, he had been fanticizing about joining the army and living in Israel. Surprisingly, he was one of the few Americans he knew who appreciated the Israeli mentality. He enjoyed the toughness, the independent spirit; growing up in New York had given him an edge that he liked to think helped him to hold his own in Israeli society.

All were well relieved when the bus finally came, only 45 minutes late. Yanky took a seat in front so he could enjoy the Jerusalem scenery and make conversation with the driver, as he was prone to do. The driver was an older man, thick wrinkled skin behind dark sunglasses. His bald head remained uncovered.

"Sholom aleichem!" Yanky yelled to the driver above the din of the bus engine.

"A gutten," the driver mumbled. A heimishe Yid, Yanky thought. One never could tell with these Israelis.

"Hot weather, huh?" he continued in his thick American accent.

"Yah, it was never like this in all my days here," the driver responded.

"How long have you lived here?" Yanky inquired, taking hold of the opportunity to get more personal. He always loved learning about the history of Israel's inhabitants; you never knew when you would get a real gem.

"Much longer than twice your age in years," he laughed. "I came not long after the war."

"Where in Europe did you come from?" Yanky asked, not missing a beat.

"You heard of Karlin? That's where I grew up."

Yanky's grandfather himself had been a Stoliner chossid and had told him stories his whole childhood of how wonderful it was to go to see the Rebbe in Karlin. Yanky had many fond memories of his grandfather — not everything about Yiddishkeit had become stale for him.

"That's amazing," he exclaimed. "What was it like living there? Did you know the Rebbe?" Yanky began to hum the famous soul stirring niggun "Ka Eksof" composed by Rav Aaron of Karlin, the first Stoliner Rebbe and disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. The driver nodded in recognition while waving a hand to silence him.

"No, no, I wasn't religious. Religion wasn't for me."

"But wasn't Karlin a religious town?" Yanky asked innocently, sensing a story, knowing full well that Karlin was almost entirely religious until shortly before the war. "Yah, yah, when I was young, everyone was religious, but I was the first — the first to leave." The first to go off the derech.

The bus continued hurtling through the streets of Jerusalem but Yanky was far away, his mind captivated by the bus driver's story, as he began to tell his tale:

"It started innocently enough. We were young, teenagers. We didn't like being told what to do and wanted to assert our independence. It wasn't intellectual, not at first. Philosophy came much later. Just a normal teenager's desire to rebel."

These words were all too familiar to Yanky.

"There were two towns, Karlin and Pinsk. They were separated by a graveyard. We used to go there every Friday night and smoke, that's how it all started. While the town was busy with their seudos, we snuck away. We felt independent, modern, free. Me and my friend Shlomy," the bus driver reminisced. "We used to go there together, week after week. Until that one night." The driver paused.

"What happened?" Yanky demanded.

"That night . . . I will never forget that night," he recalled with a hint of emotion in his voice. "I'll tell you, but I don't think you will believe me. But what I am saying is completely true. You see, in that graveyard was buried a tzaddik, Rav Aaron of Karlin, the first Rebbe. I may not have cared much for the mitzvos, I even blatantly disgraced Shabbos in the public eye, but you must understand, I grew up in a religious home. I told you, I was the first to go off. I grew up with stories of Reb Aaron Hagodol — of him I was afraid.

"So you understand why I refused that Friday night, when we were alone in the cemetery, our cigarettes between our lips, only to discover to our remorse that we had forgotten our matches. What were we to do? It was a long walk back to our houses. Until my friend Shlomy had an idea. He remembered that there was always a candle burning by the grave of Reb Aaron. Like I said, smoking on Shabbos was one thing, but I wasn't about to include the tzaddik in our transgression. I refused.

"`You're out of your mind,' I told him. `That's going too far. He's a tzaddik.'

"`Come on,' he urged. `What, are you scared? What's there to be afraid of? He's only a pile of bones by now!'

"`You're making a mistake,' I said `Let's go back home.'

"`No,' he said adamantly. `We came here to smoke and I'm going to light my cigarette!'

"`Do what you want, but I'll have no part in it.'

"He marched proudly towards the center of the cemetery towards the Rebbe's grave. I followed from a distance to see if he would indeed carry through with it, or chicken out at the last moment. And then I saw the most frightening sight I have ever seen in my life."

The driver continued with trepidation as Yanky sat on the edge of his seat: "He approached the tziyun. The single candle burned fiercely, illuminating the pitch-black night with its bright flame. It cast an exaggerated dancing shadow of my friend across the stone as he bent down to light his cigarette. I see it before me as if it were today. He lowered his head down slowly to the grave and my heart began to beat with sudden terror. As the tip of his cigarette touched the flame there was a loud thud as he suddenly collapsed. His body slumped down upon the grave — dropped dead without a word. The candle continued to burn brightly above his corpse."

Yanky sat there in shock, sweat dripping down his brow, entranced in awe by the frightening story. The bus driver continued, "When the Chevra Kadisha finally arrived, they were unable to straighten his bent body. He was buried in a curved coffin as he had died; bending over the Rebbe's grave; so he lay forever." A bent thing is not easily straightened...

They both sat alone for a few minutes digesting the impact of the story. Yanky broke the silence: "So how did you react after that? Did it change your life?" he asked excitedly.

"Me?" the driver responded coolly, "I got a new friend to smoke with."

"What!" Yanky scoffed in disbelief. "After seeing such a thing, how could you not become observant?"

"I told you." he said, "Religion wasn't for me."

The bus had arrived at Yanky's stop — arrived and left, and now two stops later, it had come time for him to get off. He exited the bus after thanking the driver profusely for telling him his story. He continued all the way to the shul near his house, in utter amazement that one could witness a Divine miracle and not be moved to change one's ways. How could he not see the message?

It all goes to show, he thought, that one only sees what one wants to see. Hashem goes to great lengths to maintain free choice in the world. Yanky stopped short in his tracks — a thought that had been gnawing at the back of his mind the whole time the bus driver was speaking began to crystallize. There were so many parallels between the bus driver's life and his own. It wasn't by chance that he'd heard that story at this moment in his life; there's no such thing as coincidence.

No, Hashem was speaking to him, he was certain of it. The message wasn't lost on Yanky; he heard it loud and clear. Maybe he would give yeshiva another chance next year after all!


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