Jan 162015

“Meanwhile the necessities of the wedding were being seen to. Shraga’s father wrote the scrolls for his tefillin and my father bought him a talles and I sewed him a satchel for his tefillin and one for his Shabbos talles. Who made the tefillin and talles bags I don’t remember.

“One Shabbos about four weeks before the day that had been dedicated to our wedding, Shraga didn’t come to my father’s house. At minchah my father asked after him at the house of study and heard that he’d left. And where had he gone? He’d gone to a Chasidic rabbi, taken by his father to receive a blessing for the first time he donned his talles and tefillin. Upon hearing the rumor, my father’s soul nearly took flight from his body, for he hadn’t known that Shraga’s father was among the members of that sect, that he’d been hiding his Chasidus, for Chasidim were still scorned and pursued, and my father was chief among the pursuers, for in his eyes it was as if the Chasidim had entirely left, G-d forbid, the community of Israel. After havdoloh my father tore apart the wedding contract and sent the pieces to the father of the groom’s house. Two days later Shraga’s father returned with his son from their trip and came to my father’s house. With harsh words, father threw them out. Shraga jumped up and swore he would never forgive us for the offense. And father was in no hurry to beg Shraga’s forgiveness, even though father knew that after voiding a wedding contract it was necessary to beg forgiveness from the injured party. And when mother begged father to placate Shraga, father mocked her and said, ‘Don’t worry, he’s from the sect.’ So scorned were in the Chasidim in father’s eyes that he didn’t notice everyone worried for him.

“All the wedding preparations had been made. Sacks of flour and crocks of honey filled the house, and the kneaders and bakers had already been summoned to make challah and cakes. In short, everything was ready for the chuppah. Nothing was missing except the groom. Father called on the matchmaker and found me another groom with whom I went beneath the chuppah.

“What happened to Shraga I don’t know, since father had decreed that no one in the house was to ever mention his name again. Days later I heard that that he and all his father’s house had uprooted themselves and moved to a different town, as they feared for their lives, for ever since father had canceled the contract none of the men had been called up to the Torah, not even on Simchas Torah, and they couldn’t make a minyan by themselves, for father was the head of the community and wouldn’t allow anyone to gather a minyan outside the regular places of prayer — and had they not moved to a new town where they called them up to the Torah, they wouldn’t have lived out another year.

“Three years into my marriage I was granted a son. And two years later, another. Two years after that, I was granted a daughter.

“The years passed as they do, and we did not lack for wealth. The children grew and flourished and my husband, peace be upon him, and I saw and were contented. I forgot about Shraga and forgot that I had never received from him a statement of absolution.

“Mother and father passed on to the life in the World to Come. Before his passing, father, may his memory be for a blessing, charged his sons and sons-in-law to see to all his work and commanded them to always act as one. The work was profitable, and we honorably conducted our house and affairs. We employed the best teachers for our sons and a gentile tutor for our daughter, for in those days those who feared heaven kept Jewish tutors at arm’s length, for so many were bound firmly to heresy.

“My sons’ teachers my husband brought in from other places, since the teachers in our town were required to accept all students, even those not fit to learn, but a teacher one brought in from another city was obligated to nothing save the will of his employers, and was free not to accept additional students. After they came they would dine at our table on Shabbos. My husband, who with all his many obligations could never manage to devote a few moments to study, was delighted to have such guests from whom he might hear words of Torah. And the children and I were pleased too because of the lovely songs one would sing around the table. And we had no idea our guest was Chasidic and his Torah was Chasidic and his songs were Chasidic songs, for in all other things he behaved like all the faithful of Israel. One Shabbos evening the teacher spoke a Torah sermon, and afterwards shut his eyes and began to sing a lovely, delicate song, until our souls nearly took flight from the sweetness of it. My husband asked the teacher, ‘Where does one come by such abundant fear of Heaven?’ He whispered, “One should travel to our rabbi’s side, and he’ll receive so much more than that.’ A few days later my husband found himself in the city of the teacher’s rabbi, and returned with new customs whose like I had not seen from my father, and I knew they were Chasidic customs. I mused within, ‘Who shall sweep the dust from your eyes,1 father, for you pushed away Shraga for his Chasidus — and see how the husband you found for me in Shraga’s place now does Shraga’s deeds! If this isn’t atonement for sin, I don’t know what it is.’

“My brothers and in-laws took note but said nothing, for times had changed with our generation and no one felt ashamed of his Chasidic relations, for in the intervening years wealthy Chasidim had come from other cities for the sake of marriage, and even built for themselves their own synagogue, and would openly go to see their rabbis. My husband did not move over to the Chasidic synagogue, but he adopted Chasidic customs and educated the boys in the Chasidic fashion and would travel from time to time to visit with his rabbi.

“A year before our eldest son became bar mitzvah, a plague swept the world and many took ill, G-d forbid. There was no house without at least one sick person within. The plague struck us as well and my eldest took ill. In the end, Hashem may-he-be-blessed took pity on us, but not for long. After recovering, my son began to learn the laws of tefillin from the Shulkhan Arukh. And I looked on and was pleased that his Chasidus had not left his Torah wanting.

“One morning our son arose early and left for the house of study. He found there a man wrapped in a shroud like the dead. This dead man was not truly dead, but mad, G-d forbid, and given to do many strange deeds. The poor child was terrified and his spirit fled his body right then and there. We barely brought him back to life. To life, but not to a long one. From then on he slowly ebbed away like a candle in the closing moments of Yom Kippur. He hadn’t even put on tefillin for the first time when his spirit once again fled and he died.

“During the seven days of mourning I sat and thought, ‘My son died at night after the end of Shabbos, thirty days before he was to lay tefillin, and it was on a night after the end of Shabbos, thirty days before I was to go beneath the chuppah with Shraga, that father tore up the contract. I counted the days, and to my shock and agitation, these two terrible things had happened on the same, at the same hour. And even if it was nothing more than coincidence, it still bore thought.

“Two years later our second son came to bar mitzvah age. He came, and yet didn’t. As it happened, he had gone with his friends to the forest near our town to gather branches for Shavuot. While they were still in the woods, he left them and went to the town scribe to see his tefillin being made — and never returned. We were sure that gypsies had kidnapped him, for a band of them had been seen passing the town. Days later we found his body, cast into the great swamp outside the town, and we realized that the child had stumbled on the path and fell into the swamp. When we had finished mourning I said to my husband, ‘What’s left for us? We have nothing left except a little girl. If we don’t seek forgiveness from Shraga, her end will be like that of her brothers.’

“Throughout all those years we hadn’t heard a word about Shraga, since after he and all his father’s house had left our town he had been forgotten, and no one knew where he was. My husband said, ‘Shraga is a disciple of so-and-so rabbi, I’ll go to him and found out where Shraga is.’ My husband was not among the disciples of that rabbi — on the contrary, he despised him — because of the theological dispute between the rabbis, over a slaughterer whom one rabbi had appointed and the other had relieved of his duties. And this same dispute had caused the death of one man of Israel, put to flight several families, and deprived a number of heads of the household of all their worldly possessions, forcing a few to live out their days in prison.

“My husband traveled to meet the rabbi. He hadn’t yet arrived when the rabbi died, having divided his spiritual domain among his sons, all of whom had gone on to a different city. My husband went from son to son asking after Shraga, and none knew a thing. Finally they told him, ‘If it’s Shraga you’re asking for, he grew bitter and became a misnaged.2’ But where he was, they didn’t know.

“When a man is a Chasid, you can find him. If he’s not a Chasid of one rabbi, he’s a Chasid of another. But your everyday Jew, if you don’t know where he is, how can you find him? My husband, peace be upon him, was accustomed to travel, and his affairs brought him to many places. Whenever he would travel, he would ask after Shraga. And because of all those trips, his vitality dimmed and his blood ran thin. And one day on his travels he took sick and died.

“After I had put a headstone on his grave, I returned to my town and went into the family business. My whole life I had been helping my husband with his affairs, but since he had died, I threw myself into them with all my strength. And Hashem may-he-be-blessed doubled my strength until everyone began to say that I was strong as a man. It would have been better had I been granted wisdom instead of strength, but Hashem is a thoughtful god, and one not beholden to the thoughts of man concerning what’s good and what isn’t. I thought in my heart, ‘All my labors, I labor for my daughter — I will increase our wealth and so increase her fortune.’ And with all the demands of business constantly multiplying, I was not available to my daughter, except for Shabbos and holidays, and even then, half the day was spent at the synagogue and the other half entertaining guests. Supposedly my daughter shouldn’t have needed me, since I had hired her tutors and invested much in her studies, and I heard a great deal of praise for her. And even the gentiles, who mocked us and said that we spoke a gutter tongue, would heap praise upon my daughter and claim she spoke their languages like the very best among them. She particularly endeared herself herself to her Christian tutors, who would invite her to their homes. I summoned the matchmakers and they found her a magnificent groom, great in Torah and destined for the rabbinate. But I was not lucky enough to send them beneath the chuppah, for an evil spirit had taken hold of my daughter and stolen her wits. And now, my son, I ask of you: write to Shraga that I’ve forgiven him for all the sorrows that befell me by his hand, and write that he too needs to forgive me, for I have had my fill of scourging.”

I sat silent and dumb and said not a word. Then I brought a finger to my eyes and wiped away my tears. And then I said to Tehilla, “Please, tell me: since the day your father tore up the contract more than ninety years have passed. Do you truly think Shraga yet lives? And if he does, have you discovered where he is?” Tehilla said, “Shraga is no longer alive, Shraga is dead. He passed away thirty years ago. How do I know the year of his death? That same year, on the seventh of Adar, I went to pray minchah. After the reading of the haftarah, when the names of the departed are called out, I heard Shraga mentioned. After the service I asked the sexton, ‘Who asked for Shraga’s name to be called?’ He said, ‘So-and-so son of so-and-so, his relative, asked me.’ I went to so-and-so’s house and heard what there was to hear.

  1. A rhetorical question asked of the dead, akin to “If so-and-so were only alive to see this…”
  2. An opponent of Chasidism.

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