Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Sivan 5766 - June 21, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Those Who Are Needy

Fiction by N. Zwebner

Yaakov the gabbai only noticed the terrible mistake when he looked around to make sure that everything was in order after bowing for "Borechu." He hadn't forgotten to hang the festive cover over the Holy Ark as is customary for the holiday. Nor did he forget to clean up all the leftover cookie crumbs and remnants of kugel that had been stuck under the tables since the previous Pesach. However, the sight that met his eyes was simply inexcusable.

All of the congregation had already found their seats and were devotedly beginning the evening prayers for the first night of the holiday, but Yaakov's eyes were drawn to the first row. The rabbi was sitting in his usual place, absorbed in his prayers. Next to him sat Rabbi Avigdor, the city dayan, and further down the aisle sat the other honorable members of the community: the roshei kollel and directors of other institutions, distinguished scholars and community activists and various potential community leaders.

But who was that at the end of the row?

Someone was sitting in Rabbi Blau's seat. Who could be sitting in the place of the man who had earned his seat of honor — not because of his wealth but — because of his great charitable deeds? Who could it be?

Those certainly weren't R' Blau's large proportions at the end of the row nor was that the position R' Blau always assumed when he sat. It simply wasn't Rabbi Blau. Yaakov the gabbai got up from his seat and made his way over to the shelves as if he had to organize the sidddurim. In this way, Yaakov was able to peek at the unknown figure occupying Blau's seat without drawing undue attention to himself.

It was a sweating Yaakov who returned to his place. To make things worse, the complete stranger who had usurped R' Blau's seat of honor had the gall to be sitting there as calmly as if he were the honorable Rabbi Mordechai Blau himself! And, to make matters even worse, people unknown to Yaakov the gabbai had occupied the seats adjacent to Blau's, the very seats that Blau normally reserved for his own distinguished guests.

When the congregation recited Shema, Yaakov quickly buried his head in his siddur. Understandably, a problem of this magnitude would disturb Yaakov, the man responsible for the seating arrangements and the dignity of the congregation's members. And an affront to the dignity of someone as important as Rabbi Mordechai Blau was a big problem indeed.

Yaakov noticed that the stranger swayed comfortably. After all, he had one of the most comfortable seats in the entire sanctuary. And then another thought, no less disturbing then the previous one, entered Yaakov's mind: If the stranger was occupying Blau's seat, where in the world was Blau sitting?

As the congregation finished Shema, Yaakov got up from his seat, panicky. He made his way between the benches and tables covered decoratively for the holiday. Hardly anyone noticed the gabbai, as his maneuvering was as much part and parcel of the shul scene as the fan revolving on the ceiling. Blau wasn't in the second row, the third or the fourth. Neither could he be found in the fifth or sixth row.

Yaakov went to search in the next section of benches. For a split second Yaakov entertained the thought that maybe, just maybe, Blau had gone to a hotel for the Seder and given the stranger explicit permission to enjoy his seat. In which case all of the gabbai's worry and searching would be for nothing.

Yaakov spotted the distinguished Mordechai Blau just one second before Yaakov decided to stop scanning the rows and return to his seat. The gentleman was sitting on a remote, forsaken chair attached to the back wall of the shul. He sat on the kind of seat reserved for children whose parents didn't want to be disturbed while they prayed. It was also the place to sit if you wanted to eat your treats in peace, without other kids sticking their hands in your bag.

The bench was too narrow for Blau. He was squished, trying to hold his fancy Pesach siddur and finding it difficult to concentrate. To his right sat two little children licking lollipops; to his left a raspy elderly man who was too old to pray but scrupulously came to the shul for special occasions, one of them being the first night of Pesach. That elderly man wore a stiffly-ironed, white silk yarmulke on his head.

And who else was there?

Next to Mordechai Blau sat some people that Yaakov the gabbai only vaguely recognized: one of them wore a fancy frock coat. A brown hat adorned the other, proof not only that he was ignorant of the local custom but that he adamantly stuck to his own ways.

Now Yaakov the gabbai understood nothing.

Mordechai Blau was definitely present — and together with his distinguished guests for the Seder. Something had gone awry, however, and the important figure found himself sitting on one of the back benches like a charity collector waiting for someone to arrange a place for him to sleep. Not just for him, but for his guests as well.

Yaakov returned to his seat. Now he'd better not do anything hasty. It was true that his position gave him the authority to kick someone out of a seat that didn't belong to him, but the guests in Blau's seats looked so confident that Yaakov was reluctant to do so. The strangers looked like they belonged there: confident in themselves as if they had always sat there — or at least as if they were planning to sit there from now on. Besides that, Shemoneh Esrei would begin any second.

That's it. Yaakov the gabbai pictured the scene in his head as surely as if he had still been looking at Mordechai Blau. Blau was standing now, stuck between the narrow bench and the old man's dusty jacket, trying desperately not to lose his balance and fall from the incessant shoving of the little children who ran constantly back and forth. And during all this, Blau was praying Shemoneh Esrei.


"Mommy, what's this?" Little Motty stuck his finger into a container of some unrecognizable substance.

"It's eggplant salad," Motty's mother said.

"And what's this?"

"Careful, Honey. It stains. It's horseradish."

Somehow Motty sensed that his mother was more relaxed now. It had been a long time since she'd last called him `Honey.' He knew it wasn't because he wasn't sweet, but because his mother was preoccupied by things more important than calling him by nice nicknames.

"What's in this container, Mommy?"

"Those are matzos, Motty. You learned about them in school."

"Did you buy them?" Motty wanted to know more.

"We have them. Everyone has them. We'll make a beautiful Seder, just like you learned in school, Honey."

`Honey' again. What happened to Mother today? Something good?

"Mommy, when will Daddy come home? And Arik? When will we start the Seder?"

"Soon, Motty, very soon. Come help me bring the pretty glasses to the table. Do you want to help?"

The table looked so beautiful that Motty couldn't help staring at it: a white tablecloth, fancy plates, even napkins.

"Mommy, why aren't there any challos?"

Mommy answered in a firm voice. "Today's Pesach. On Pesach we eat matzoh. We're not allowed to eat bread. Just like you learned in school . . . "

"Mommy, you set such a beautiful Shabbos table. It's been such a long time since we had challah on Shabbos. I want challah; I don't want matzoh."

Mommy lifted up four-year-old Motty. "Now it's Pesach, Honey," she whispered into his ear. "On Pesach we don't need challah; we don't even want to talk about challah. You understand? Look, we have such special foods for the Seder: the shank bone . . . "

"What is it? Chicken?"

"Yes, Motty. It's chicken."

"So I want to eat it. Now!"

"Not now, Motty. Later we'll ask Daddy what to do . . . "

"But I want to eat it. Now!"

"Soon we'll eat. After Daddy and Arik come home from the shul. We'll eat fish and soup and chicken . . . "



"You promise?"

"I promise."

"Fish and chicken?" He pulled her dress. "How can it be?"

She didn't look at him. She freed herself from his grip and put him down on a chair next to the table and returned to the kitchen. The food for the Seder was on the counter, in small disposable plastic containers: charoses, two kinds of bitter herbs, an egg. She hadn't made it. It came in the big box marked "Kosher for Pesach. Keep refrigerated."

She didn't really remember how to arrange the Seder plate, but soon her husband would come home from shul, radiant in his new hat. He would happily tell her what to do.

"Do you want to go outside Motty, and wait for Daddy?"

"No, I don't want to," he said definitively. "My new shoes could get messed up and then I won't have new shoes anymore. You understand?"

Oh boy, did she understand. Right before the holiday Motty had got new shoes for the first time in his life. He couldn't believe it. Every few minutes he'd stop, sit down on the floor, and carefully check his new shoes to make sure that no dust had got stuck to them and that they hadn't got wrinkled.


"Gut Yontif!" Motty heard his father's heavy footsteps, but not the sound of Arik skipping.

"Where's Arik?"

"What? He didn't come back yet?"

"Go home, kid." The boy was getting under foot and disturbing Yaakov the gabbai while he put the siddurim away. The boy wouldn't let Yaakov get the shul ready for the Morning Service.

"What are you looking for?" Yaakov asked. "Everyone's already gone home. Your father must be worried about you. What's your name?"

Yaakov the gabbai knew the names, addresses and a few other details about all of the shul regulars, just about. In the last few years however, the congregation had grown a lot and Yaakov hadn't managed to keep on top of all of the kids' names. The boy didn't answer. He just wandered aimlessly around the space created when Yaakov lifted up the first row of chairs.

"Are you looking for something?"

The boy didn't answer. Yaakov decided to stop asking. He saw the boy make his way down the length of the first row, his hand inadvertently moving the holiday tablecloth and trying to smooth it down again.

"Hey, kid. Tonight's the Seder, not Shabbos. Your father already wants to start the Seder. He's waiting for you."

The boy looked the other way. Yaakov the gabbai looked at him again and again. The boy's pants were worn and he didn't have a suit like a lot of the other boys — even the one's that weren't bar mitzvah yet. The boy was wearing a white shirt with a gray collar. Yaakov the gabbai had to go home now. Even though the shul would remain open, the boy also had to go home.

"Wait, aren't you Shimmel's son?" All of a sudden Yaakov's mind jumped into action. It was the straight nose, the narrow face and the boy's height that were so similar. Instead of answering, the boy fled.

"Hmm, strange," Yaakov said to himself. Yaakov looked around the shul and noticed that the boy had knocked the tablecloth off the first table. He picked it up, and covered the table and the old stickers that used to label whose seat was whose. Now that everyone already knew where to sit and the shul was anyway so crowded that people were careful to guard their seats, the stickers weren't necessary anymore. But if the stickers were in use, Yaakov thought as he descended the stairs leading out to the street, today's mistake would have never happened. The guests at the evening prayers would have never settled themselves in so comfortably in Mordechai Blau's place.

Tomorrow, Yaakov promised himself as he walked down the dark street, tomorrow he'd make sure that such a mistake wouldn't happen again. Yaakov was just about to turn right, onto the street where he lived, when he saw the boy again.

"Shimmel," he yelled. "Go home fast. Do you want your father to call the police?"

Arik quietly opened the front door of his house and entered, almost cat-like. He walked by the kitchen with the delicious aromas tantalizing his stomach and entered the children's bedroom. The dark in the room was misleading. Arik's brother Motty sat on the floor examining something on the soles of his shoes.

"Hey! Here you are," Motty hollered. "Mommy and Daddy and everyone are waiting for you. Mommy! Arik's back. We can start the meal and eat the fish and the meat!"

In the living room, Arik's father set out the amount of matzoh each person was required to eat. Mother rushed into the children's room, worried.

"Arik, where were you? We were waiting for you."

"There's chicken," Motty informed his brother, "and also soup and fish. Lots of things."

Arik swallowed. His mother examined him carefully.

"Just a second," she said, grabbing him with two hands. "What's going on here? What shoes are you wearing, Arik?"

Arik hid his legs under him.

"I don't believe it. You didn't put on your new shoes! And why are you wearing this shirt? Arik, I simply can't believe what's going on here. Where are your new clothes?"

Arik didn't respond.

"Arik, I'm waiting for an answer."

"I don't want them," Arik yelled as if a spring were suddenly released in his throat. "I don't want any of these things. I don't want anything! Not the shoes, not the shirt, not the food. I don't want all this charity. Don't want it!"

Arik's mother was shocked, frozen. But after a minute she regained her composure, sat down on the creaky bed and pulled Arik towards her. She didn't know what to say, but she wanted to understand her son and the words came out by themselves.

"Arik, Honey, I pray every day that we shouldn't have to be among those who receive charity. But there are times when we also need to know how to take . . . . Arik, we love you so much. We really want everything to be good for you. And if I can't manage to buy you a new shirt during the year, you could make me so happy on Pesach by wearing the nice shirt that you got. Right? And the shoes also. Look at Motty. See how nice he looks with the new clothes. Like a prince."

Arik shrugged his shoulders.

"This shirt is just right for me," he said quietly, but firmly. "And you washed it and mended all the holes. And the shoes are fine now because it's not raining and no water will seep in. I like them just the way they are."

"But I don't like to see you this way."

"You have no brains," Motty interjected. "You know that the man who gave us the clothes and the food is rich like a king. He has tons of money. He could buy you a hundred shirts. Take it and put it on already."

Arik yanked the new shirt out of Motty's hand and threw it angrily on the floor. He stamped on it with his old, dirty shoes.

"Aryeh Leib Shimmel . . . !"

Arik's mother picked the shirt up off the floor and put it carefully on a nearby chair. Her eyes were filled with tears on the first night of Pesach.

"I don't want to eat any of this food," Arik sobbed. "I don't want any of this charity. I don't want the embarrassment. Don't want it. You hear?"

"You're icky," Motty responded nastily.


When Yaakov the gabbai arrived at the shul, the night hadn't completely made way for the morning. Yaakov always arrived early, but today his nervousness made him come even earlier. He swayed in his place, his large siddur open to the Morning Blessings. Every few minutes instinct forced him to lift up his head and make sure that no one had grabbed R' Mordechai Blau's place. He had to make sure that no one other than the esteemed gentleman would sit there.

Slowly the morning rays entering the shul became stronger. Congregants first dribbled in and then the stream increased. They fought off the weariness that comes from getting only a few hours' sleep on Seder Night.

A few minutes after the prayers began, Yaakov spotted Shimmel's son. He was dressed in the same worn out shirt and shoes as the previous night. Yaakov thought to himself that something would have to be done with the boy. Maybe he should say a couple words to Mordechai Blau, who donated enough charity for the community's year-round needs and gave an especially large donation at Pesach. While Yaakov didn't know what the family's financial status was, they must have been eligible to get the special Pesach donation if the boy didn't even get a new shirt for the holiday. Maybe their name was somehow erased from the list? Could it be?

Yaakov's eyes darted everywhere. Little Shimmel moved around the room like a cat trapped in a locked room. After the congregation was seated, Yaakov got up and grabbed Shimmel. "Where's your seat?" he asked with his hands.

"There," the boy pointed vaguely.

"So go sit down." Yaakov the gabbai's manner wasn't at all friendly. He watched the child to make sure that he really did go to his seat. He wanted to know if his seat was next to Shimmel, which would be proof that the boy really was Shimmel's son. Assured, Yaakov turned around and went to his own seat. His spirits plummeted.

At the end of the first row, a heavyset person had occupied the very seat belonging to Rabbi Mordechai Blau. The man swayed, praying. No. There was absolutely no way that that man could be Blau. It was the unknown visitor who had occupied Blau's place yesterday. The visitor must have decided to take that seat for himself once and for all!

Ribono Shel Olom!

Yaakov knew that the kindhearted Mordechai Blau would never ask someone to do something on his behalf, no matter how small — let alone disturb someone during prayers and ask him to move. In that case, Yaakov had to take care of the matter himself, hospitality notwithstanding. Yaakov would have to explain to the guest, politely but forcefully, that the seat was reserved. The guest would just have to find himself a seat elsewhere.

Yaakov approached the swaying man's back and tapped him gently. The man jumped and turned around. Yaakov peeked in the man's siddur and determined that he could still talk, while Yaakov himself was at a point in his own prayers where he was forbidden to speak. Using hand motions, Yaakov conveyed to the guest that the seat was taken.

"What do you mean?" the guest responded. "I was expressly told that the seat was vacant."

The expression on Yaakov's face was unmistakable.

The very insulted guest elaborated. "A boy told me that I could sit here."

"Which boy?" Yaakov's face seemed to demand. He wanted to know everything immediately.

The guest wrinkled his face. "I don't remember. There are so many children here."


Arik didn't go outside to play. All of the kids had new shirts. He also had one, but he wouldn't wear it. No way. He couldn't explain to the other kids that his desire not to wear it was stronger than his need to look nice like everyone else. That's why he wouldn't go outside.

Arik sat next to his father during the Torah reading, glancing at the text but unable to concentrate. His eyes kept darting from the first row of worshipers to the last row where all those people who couldn't find seats were forced to sit.

R' Mordechai Blau was called up to the Torah.

Arik knew that everyone revered the generous and wealthy R' Mordechai Blau who donated so much money to charity. Arik knew that some of his friends were wandering around outside in the new clothes that came before the holiday together with the box of food for Pesach. Motty, Arik's brother, was thrilled with his new clothes. So were the other boys. Arik wasn't.

R' Mordechai Blau took a long time to make his way up to the Torah. He needed to walk all the way up from the back row of the shul. People watched, looks of surprise on their faces. How could the distinguished gentleman suddenly exchange his coveted seat for a lowly bench?

Arik Shimmel was a good boy. Whenever all the children chased a puppy in the street, Arik was always the one telling them to stop. Whenever a boy cried in the school courtyard, Arik was the only one to leave the game and go over to the hurt child. But now that Arik saw the community leader forced to struggle to make his way between the rows of benches, Arik didn't know that his eyes sparkled victoriously.

At the end of the service when the entire congregation headed outside, Arik was swept along with them. Suddenly he felt someone grab his elbow. His father never caught him that way. "You, Shimmel?"

Yaakov the gabbai's eyes scrutinized him. The broad- shouldered man who had asked Arik yesterday where there was an empty seat watched from behind. "You did it? You were the one who told the people that they could sit in R' Mordechai Blau's seat? Answer quickly."

Arik attempted to yank his scrawny hand free, but the gabbai's large hand gripped him like pliers.

"Shimmel, what made you humiliate him this way? Why did you do such a stupid thing? And of all people, to the great benefactor R' Mordechai Blau? Do you know how many people he helps? Do you know how much charity he secretly gives? What will your father say when he hears about this, Shimmel? Huh?"

Arik yanked his hand and yanked some more but the gabbai held him as if he were the end of a piece of string. Arik looked hopelessly in all directions. He didn't really want to find out what his father had to say when he'd hear about this.

"Oh. Here he is," said Yaakov the gabbai.

"Who's here?" Arik moaned.

"Here he is, R' Mordechai Blau. Don't run away now, Shimmel. We need to rectify the situation."

The tall man with the pleasant face made his way from the sanctuary outdoors. He was unaccompanied. (Could it be that R' Blau's guests couldn't take the embarrassment and decided to go to a different shul?) R' Blau saw Yaakov the gabbai holding the small boy and, almost instinctively, reached into his pocket in order to pull out a kosher for Pesach candy.

"Just a minute, Rabbi Blau," Yaakov tried to interject. "I'm so sorry about the unpleasant situation . . . it must have caused you a lot of distress."

"What are you referring to, Yaakov?" Mordechai lifted up a pair of concerned eyes while his hand caressed the boy.

"Nu . . . regarding the seating. It was a big mistake. Guests took your seat because this boy told them that the place was vacant. I just wanted to tell you that it was a mistake because the boy . . . "

Mordechai Blau didn't look at Arik who was now as red as a tomato. He didn't see the tears in his eyes, the tears that almost streamed down his cheeks, humiliating him even further.

Blau took his hand out of his pocket, a chocolate on the palm of his hand. Arik hadn't seen a candy like that for a very long time. Not on Pesach, and not when it wasn't Pesach.

"I don't understand why the boy did it, R' Blau," Yaakov continued.

When Rabbi Mordechai Blau placed the candy in the boy's skinny hand he glanced at him quickly. He saw the worn-out yarmulke on his head, the gray shirt, the ripped pants. He noticed the straight nose. The boy resembled his father; he looked just like his father. So why was the boy wearing these rags? Did something go wrong with the distribution?

"It's fine, Yaakov." R' Blau reassured the gabbai. "He's a good boy and you of course know that you can hear every word of the prayers from all the benches."

A four-year-old boy appeared out of nowhere. He was flushed and his hair was stuck to his head.

"What did you get, Arik?" The boy wanted to know and tried to open his big brother's hand with all his strength. "Show me."

But Arik only tightened his fist.

"Take, Yingele." The man took an identical chocolate candy out of his pocket.

"You see," Motty shouted happily."You see! I got one, too. This man gave me one. He must have a hundred candies just like the rich man who has a hundred shirts and a hundred shoes. The man who gave us . . . "


R' Mordechai Blau rushed home. His guests from overseas prayed elsewhere that morning. He had to hurry so they shouldn't have to wait for him. That evening they would have to make another Seder and they would need time to rest beforehand.

He walked down the boulevard, trying to hide his face as much as possible. It was all too likely, even on the festival, that someone would delay him with a drawn-out story in order to request a small favor. R' Blau enjoyed helping people — he really did — but he also wanted to make it home in time for the festive Pesach meal. Even so, R' Blau discreetly glanced behind him.

It was the boy with the straight nose. He removed the wrapped candy from his pocket. R' Mordechai Blau heard the crinkling of the wrapper. The boy must be enjoying the thought that soon, very soon after Kiddush, he would be able to eat the candy. He'd eat it ever so slowly so that he could savor every minute.

Then R' Mordechai Blau heard the loud stomping of a foot. Blau couldn't resist and turned around, his face still hidden by his prayer shawl.

He saw how Shimmel's kid lifted his foot up; there was a brown circle on the bottom of his old shoe and cream oozed out. The Shimmel boy stomped on the candy again, just to be sure, and then looked one last time at the small mound mixed with dirt. Then the boy continued walking. R' Mordechai Blau remained behind, shocked.

"Oy, oy . . . "

Arik Shimmel wasn't listening to any voices at that moment except for those raging inside him. But behind him it sounded like someone was calling for help. Shimmel turned his head backwards.

The rich man, R' Mordechai Blau, stood there holding his back and moaning.

Arik Shimmel didn't move closer even though he usually ran to offer help.

"Oy, oy," R' Mordechai Blau groaned. He tried to bend down but straightened up immediately as if the pain prevented him from doing so.

Arik moved closer, but R' Mordechai Blau apparently didn't see him. When Arik got close he noticed a fancy tobacco case lying next to R' Blau's large shoe.

"Should I pick it up?" the boy asked out loud, as he was about to retrieve the case.

"No, no," Rabbi Blau responded. "I'll get it in just a second. I have . . . what's it called . . . a disk problem in my back. A slipped disk. But I'll try to pick it up anyway. I don't like people doing favors for me." He placed his hand on his back again and attempted to bend down.

"Ow, ow . . . "

"I'll get it," Arik Shimmel informed him.

"No way, Yingele. There's no reason why I shouldn't be able to pick it up myself. Now you'll see." This time R' Mordechai Blau managed to bend over a little bit more. But he moaned even louder.

"I would leave the tobacco case here," he continued, "but I inherited it from my father. It's not a toy that you can leave in the street. I'll pick it up. I'm strong and I'll try again. Here . . . "

"But R' Blau," the normally shy boy protested, his kind heart not able to bear seeing the man suffer, "it's not hard for me to bend down. Why should you suffer? I'll help you. It'll only take a second . . . "

"But I don't need your help. Me need help? I don't need anyone's help. Only I will pick it up and no one else . . . " breathing rapidly R' Blau continued, ". . . even if I have to stand here all day".

"But Rabbi Blau! I'm young and my back doesn't hurt. Everyone helps everyone else in whatever way they can. Once I broke my leg and people had to schlepp me everywhere. That's just the way it is. Everyone helps everyone else . . . "

"No, it's humiliating," R' Blau said emphatically. "Isn't it embarrassing when a person can't help himself?"

"Embarrassing?" Arik Shimmel was very surprised. "To need help?"

The boy bent down quickly and retrieved the tobacco case that had been lying next to R' Blau's feet. Shimmel handed the elegant case to Rabbi Blau — and then he suddenly understood the meaning of what had just transpired.

Arik ran home, took off his torn shirt, and put on the new one, the one he got from the wealthy man. Arik didn't want to appear as ludicrous as R' Blau who insisted on bending down to pick up the tobacco case himself.


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