And here we go with more tantalizing glimpses of backstory.
Tilly entered, carrying a pot of soup. She saw me and said, you’re here. Sit down, dear, sit down. Bikkur khoylim is a great mitzvah. Your face looks better and better, rebbetzin. Hashem’s salvation is quick as the blink of an eye. Hashem, may he be blessed, sends his healing more and more with every passing hour. I’ve brought you a bowl of soup you can get down. Lift up your head, my dear, and I’ll hold up the pillow. Just like that, my dear. It’s a pity, my son, that you don’t live in the city and you can’t see how much the rebbetzin, may she live, is getting better every day.
I said to her, don’t I live in Jerusalem? Is Nahalat Shiv`ah1 not Jerusalem? Tilly said, G-d forbid, who said that? On the contrary, one day Jerusalem will be expanded on every side all the way to Damascus, it’s just than an eye that’s seen all Jerusalem nestled within the wall isn’t accustomed to seeing everything built outside the walls of Jerusalem as Jerusalem herself. All the Land of Israel is holy, and the environs of Jerusalem too, that goes without saying, but what’s within the wall is sanctified with an abundance of holiness. I know, my son, that I haven’t said a thing you don’t know better than I, so why did I say it at all, only to sing the praises of Jerusalem.
I sensed from the rebbetzin’s eyes that she was upset that Tilly was speaking with me and not with her. I took my leave and went on my way.
Various troubles troubled me and I didn’t come to the city. And then there came the trouble of the tourists. Surely you know the tourists, who used laugh at us and at the Land, but ever since we started to open up a bit of a place for ourselves in the Land, they too started to come to take a look. And when they come they see us as if we were created for no other reason but to serve them. Yet there’s some good to tourists too, because what we show them, we ourselves see. Once or twice when I went with them to the city to show them the Western Wall I came across Tilly. And if I’m not mistaken, something had changed in her, for all the days I’d known her she’d gone around without a cane, but these days she leaned on one. Because of the tourists I didn’t waylay her. For they’d come to see the Land, and not some old woman who wasn’t listed in their itineraries.
As soon as the tourists left Jerusalem, I saw myself as a man with no idea what to do with himself. I tried to return to my work, but failed. I got up and went to the city and wandered all the places I’d shown the tourists. The things I saw, the things I didn’t see. He who in His goodness renews daily the works of creation renews hourly His city. New houses weren’t being built, new plants weren’t being planted, but Jerusalem herself is continuously renewed. Every time I enter the city she seems new to me. What exactly was new in her I don’t know, perhaps the great interpreters will come and interpret for us.
I encountered that same scholar and he pulled me into his house and lectured me on all the chidushim he’d been inventing lately. We sat for a time, me asking and him responding, me confounding the issue and him resolving it, me confusing, him explaining.2 How good and how pleasant it is to sit before one of the great sages of Jerusalem and learn from him Torah. His house was simple and its furnishings were simple, yet his wisdom was endlessly expansive, like the colors one sees from the window atop the mountains of Jerusalem. Desolate are the mountains of Jerusalem, palaces and fortresses you won’t see upon them. From the day we were exiled from our land, nation after nation came through, continuously laying waste. But the mountains stand tall with all their great splendor, tightly wound in woven colors adorned with gleaming jewels, and among them the Mount of Olives, no fruitful forest sprouting from its slopes, yet enveloped by the graves of holy men whom in life and death set all their thoughts on the Land.
As I stood to go, the mistress of the house came and said to her husband, you’ve forgotten what you promised Tilly. He nodded and said, wonder of wonders, from the day I met Tehilla she’s never asked a thing of me, nor have I heard her ask a thing of anyone else. And now she’s asked me to tell you that she’d like to see you. I said, you mean that same old woman who showed me your house? If I’m not mistaken, her name isn’t what you called her. He replied, Tehilla3 is the true holy name of Tilly. And from that you can learn that four or five generations ago our forefathers were already giving their children names that seem as if they were names they give children today. Just like how my wife’s name is Tehiya,4 which you’d surely think was an invention of this generation of revival, and yet in truth it stems from the gaon5 Chidushei ha-Rim,6 who commanded my wife’s grandfather to name his daughter Tehiya, and my wife was named after her. I said, you said four or five generations ago, can that same old woman really be that old? He smiled and said, her years aren’t engraved on her face, and she doesn’t tend to say how old she is, and had she not once let it slip none of us would have known. Once Tehilla came to offer her blessings for the wedding of our son, and blessed him and his wife that they might merit her years. My son said to her, what exactly does this blessing of yours mean, and she told him, I’m ninety and eleven years old. And this is something that happened three years ago. Which makes her now ninety and fourteen years old, which is to say one hundred and four.
I said, seeing as you’ve brought her up, tell me who she is. He nodded and said, what is there to tell of her, a holy woman she is, holy, as simple as that. And if you’ve been given the chance to see her, go. But I doubt you’ll find her at home, she’s either visiting the sick or showering her mercies on the incurable or off pursuing some other mitzvah nobody asked her to. And maybe it’s possible you’ll find her at home, since between mitzvahs she’ll come home and sit and mend socks and clothes for orphans and the poor. In the past when she was wealthy she would do charity with her wealth, and now that she has nothing left but scraps of scraps for her meager sustenance, she does charity with her hands.
I brought the scholar with me to Tehilla’s door. Along the way he spoke to me of his chidushim. He saw I wasn’t paying attention. He smiled and said, ever since I mentioned Tehilla you’ve been distracted from the whole world around you. I said, if you would — tell me something about Tehilla. He said, what she is now I’ve already told you, what she was outside the Land I don’t know, other than what everyone knows, that she was enormously wealthy and a woman in charge of a great many affairs, but in the end her children died and her husband died and she stood and lay aside all her affairs and came up to Jerusalem. My mother, may she rest in peace, used to say, when I see Tehilla I see there’s a harder punishment than widowhood or losing children. What this punishment was my mother wouldn’t say, and I don’t know what it is and we’ll never know, because the entire generation that knew Tehilla outside the Land is dead, and Tehilla, well, isn’t much for talking. And even now that some change has come upon her and she talks more than she used to, she doesn’t talk about herself. We’re already at the house. I doubt you’ll find her at home, since every evening she goes to the schools and gives out sweets to the children.
- One of the first neighborhoods built outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, now squarely in the heart of downtown. ↩
- The scholar and the narrator are engaging in a Talmudic debate. ↩
- “Praise, thanksgiving.” ↩
- “Revival.” ↩
- “Genius,” a title of respect for a great Torah scholar. ↩
- Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter, the founder of Gur Hasidism. ↩