Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Tishrei 5767 - October 3, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A New Beginning

Fiction by M. Sonnenfeld

Shaya's world was divided into two parts: the good part and the bad part.

The good part was good, even very good. It included all the things that made him smile, laugh and fall asleep at night happy and content. And it included things like the laughing sun, whose warm rays penetrated the room with long lines. They were bright, illuminated strips with thousands of tiny particles floating and dancing in them, weightless and free like the birds.

"Dust particles," Mammi called them.

Shaya believed everything his mother said. She was the most authoritative person on every matter in the world, besides Tatti and the Rebbe of course. Yet this fact was hard for him to accept.

"But dust gets things dirty." Shaya said the words, trying to infuse them with great significance. Dust belongs to the bad part and sunrays, with their bright strips, are the good part. How could there be any connection between these two polarized worlds? But the words, as usual, betrayed him. They were slippery and disappointed him, made him dizzy and left him feeling confused and helpless, unable to explain himself.

"A-a-a- . . . "

That was always the close of every conversation. A choking, pitiful cry. Shaya struggled to pull his tongue back into his mouth and wiped off his chin. He knew these things belonged to the bad part and he belonged to the good part. The two must be kept distinct.

"Don't worry," his mother said consolingly, understanding and not understanding the great difficulty. "Dust makes things dirty but sunrays light up the room. Both of them are the work of G-d."

G-d made lots of things, Shaya knew. He made the warm rays and the dancing specks. He made the bashful flowers that peeked at him from the sides of the way, smiling straight into his soul. And He made the great big trees that issued their hollow, terrible noises in the dark when the wind blew, noises that sent a chill down his spine and penetrated deep inside him like cold water.

Tatti had fascinating ways of delving into his world. Shaya remained with his mouth gaping open and was swept into talk and melodies filled with sweetness. And the trees still made their rushing sound outside. Shaya leaned his head on the edge of the shtender, where Tatti's big book did not reach. It was the good, old shtender and the books with the dusty aroma and the sound of hummed melodies. All of this belonged to a single thing called Torah, which belonged, without a doubt, to the good part.

"The Torah is life," Tatti would say, his eyes shining bright. "It is oxygen. It is the world. It is the sum total of everything."

"The Torah will protect you," Mammi would say with moist eyes as he went to the rebbe, carrying a book that would forever remain closed and sealed to him.

Everybody knew it: Mammi, the rebbe and even he himself. Nevertheless . . .

"Let him sit in front of the book," said the rebbe to his parents' stooped heads, "and something in the form of the holy letters may impart him with wisdom, too."

With heavy hearts they agreed. After all, what choice did they have?


Summertime was also included in the good part. Shaya knew this and would take advantage of every opportunity to enjoy the pleasant warmth outside. The skies were blue, the sun laughed and tickled his face when he rested beneath it, the wonderful hay lay in high piles in the fields, piles that were so fun to jump on because they made a rustling noise with every jump that was as pleasing to his ears as something sweet melting on his tongue.

He loved the lingering sunsets, the fabulous hues that covered the skies, gradually changing into total darkness, almost imperceptibly. Then the sky grew dark and mist cloaked the town with soft cottony balls made of an intangible substance.

Autumn did not belong to this part, except for one element: the birds. One flock after another appeared, each of them shaped like an arrowhead, with a single bird leading the way swift and sure, cutting its way through the skies.

"Wild geese," the children would say, nodding their heads at them.

"Wild geese," Shaya would say, repeating the words in a whisper like a sweet secret, like a promise. To him they were a real dream come true such a short distance away, overhead. A dream of freedom and vast expanses, of open skies and great movement. "They are so . . . so . . . "

And again words failed him.

Shaya was the seventh of a string of bright brothers, the pride of their parents and of the town. His younger sisters were also notable: they were refined and noble and charming.

Only he had none of these qualities. His head was sealed like the barrels Berl the Wine-Maker nailed shut to preserve their contents, and all of his movements told a tale of clumsiness and pain.

"He's a bit different," the midwife said quickly, summoning a more authoritative figure. But the town doctor did not know what to do with him.

"The lungs are fully functional," he reported. "The head circumference is the right size as well. He's fine."

But he was not fine and the doctor knew it. There was something about him beyond all of his organs and his muscle function. But the town had nothing to suggest in such a case.

"Perhaps in the city someone will know what to do," said the doctor, shaking his head skeptically. "I hear there are big specialists there."

But the city was very big and very far. The journey cost a lot. Shaya would push his face deep, deep into a pillow, trying not to hear.

"But they exist," one of his brothers insisted, the one whose bed was next to his. They were good friends. They walked to cheder together, walked home together and even ate together in the shade of the old apple tree in the yard. "If you can't hear them that still doesn't mean they don't exist."

Shaya nodded his head.

"They exist," he agreed, "but why . . . why do we have to hear?"

"That's alright," his brother said, smacking Shaya lightly on the head as if he were a child his own age. But surprisingly this smack did not belong to the bad part. "I know that you know, and you know that I know. Come on, let's go." For it was already morning and the call of the roosters had been covered up by their conversation. Soon the rebbe would be waiting for them, and he belonged entirely to the good part.

The rebbe was good. He had eyes that explained and a moustache that covered his upper lip but never managed to conceal his smile. He had a booming voice that frightened no one and lots of interesting stories.

"Alligators!" he roared. "Gigantic alligators with scales and tails and sharp teeth. And they came out of the water like good kinderlach. A he-alligator and a she- alligator and that's all. All of their brothers and sisters and cousins and neighbors stayed in the water without complaining.

"Why? Because that's what Hashem commanded. And they crawled along on the sand, the giant he-alligator and the giant she- alligator, went up the beach and into the street and walked straight to Noach's address. Why? Because Hashem said!"

Shaya listened with gaping mouth. Amazing. The scary he- alligator and she-alligator were from the bad part but they went to the good part, to Noach, to the Ark, to the rebbe's mouth, to the Torah!

He girded his strength, searching for the words.

"But how c-c-could that b-b-be?"

How could such a thing be? How could such a transformation take place? Is there an open, easily accessible bridge between the two parts that make up such vastly different components of reality?

The rebbe furrowed his brow. "How could that be, you ask?" he repeated in a pleasant, scholarly tone. "What do you mean, `How can that be?' If Hashem says so, even an alligator can find somebody's address!"

No, the rebbe had not understood him. Again words failed him. Now the power of the bad side had come even here, into the good, all the way to the cheder itself, right in front of the rebbe and the open Chumash and the Torah itself!

"Torah is Chumash, right?" he asked Tatti beside the blazing fireplace that evening.

"For sure," said Tatti, stretching out in front of the shtender.

"The Torah is good," he determined.

"Very good."

"Then why," he began, breathing deeply, "why did the rebbe say—" This time the string of his thoughts slipped out of his grasp before the question was fully formed. He tried to seize onto the end, straining and sweating before the look of patience on his father's face, but failed. Tears welled in his eyes.

"It's OK," Tatti said, stroking his arm. "You'll remember your question another time . . . Maybe then I'll have a better answer."

Shaya was silent. There are always questions, he knew. Answers? Sometimes. He would have to gather his strength and wait.

But lately the questions had grown more frequent and kept growing.


He didn't like summer that year. The hay piled up in the fields as always and the tempting stacks stood waiting for him to come and jump in and hear the brisk crackle sound. And the sunsets grew longer, painting the sky with dozens of amazing hues and the mists cloaked the town with soft cottony balls. But Shaya did not go chasing after them.

He knew soon all the flocks of birds would appear, each in the form of an arrowhead with a single bird leading the way, swift and sure, cutting through the skies. He knew the children would nod their heads at them saying, "Wild geese," and he had trouble repeating the words.

Now they lacked the secret sweetness, exuding a strange sense of fear instead. Pointed fear and heavy like the smell of wine escaping from Berl's sealed barrels. This year his older brother, the one whose bed was next to his, would join the birds. The one whose stroking belonged to the good part and who somehow always knew how he really felt, even when words betrayed him. Shaya knew this and something in him felt like it was breaking.

This would not be the first of his brothers to leave home. The five older ones had gone before him. Each of them had bundled up his clothes and books and all he could carry with him from the warmth of home and headed out the door, waving to Mammi and the row of little sisters.

Tatti was never among the group. He would accompany the new yeshiva bochur for a while and part from him with a dvar halochoh. At home a certain happy loneliness would fall on the home where the number of family members still squeezed in did not really matter. Mammi would wipe off a tear of joy and mumble a kapitel of Tehillim as a segulah for her son's success, and the girls would press against the window until the form turned into a little dot and disappeared on the horizon. Shaya didn't like those days. They were somewhat plaintive, as if the house had become smaller.

"Punct farkert," his father determined in the evening, sitting at his shtender. "Our home has only grown, has become bigger and better. Your brothers went off to study, to study Torah in yeshiva, and that is the best thing they could have done."

Once again there was the strange contradiction Shaya found so hard to reconcile: How could the edge of the bad part, which was all partings and shrinking, rub up against the pinnacle of the good part, the Torah?

"But-how can th-th-that be?"

Tatti sighed.

Shaya joined in the sigh. Once again words had betrayed him. Again Tatti didn't understand him. Perhaps at night, as he lay on his bed, his brother would understand him better, and even if he did not understand he would smile and say, "You know that I know and I know that you know, so what more do we need?"

Then the welcome feeling of tranquility would descend on him, escorting him to the realms of sleep, happy and serene.

And now this brother was about to go away, too.

"In Elul," he would whisper during the summer nights after the beautiful sunsets. He would whisper softly to avoid disturbing his sisters' sleep. "In Elul, im yirtzeh Hashem, I'll start the zman at the yeshiva. They say it's a place of Torah study, of uplifting. I've already been promised a place to sleep at one of the hostels and as far as food goes, I'll look around for yomim. And if not, you can always get by."

"Are you h-h-happy?" he asked.

"Happy?" His brother tossed his old feather pillow as high as he could. For a moment he was a young boy again, even younger than Shaya, who was hoping this matter of maturing and traveling to the yeshiva would go away as if it had never been.

"Happy?" his brother asked himself. "I'm ecstatic!"

Shaya's heart fell.

"But . . . but you'll go away and I'll . . . " Words betrayed him, like always, but his brother understood him perfectly.

" . . . Stay here," he filled in quickly, "with our parents and sisters. You'll continue to represent our family at the cheder and at shul so people don't forget we have boys in the family!"

Shaya thought for a moment, trying to fully grasp the matter.

"Boys in the family," he repeated to himself slowly. "We have a lot of boys in the family. Seven boys!"

"Yeah, but not here." His brother's eyes were filled with bliss. "Six of them will already be spread across the map of Galicia by the time the next zman starts. One of them will stay here in town, and that is none other than you! Do you realize what a big responsibility that is?"

Shaya blinked in confusion. His thoughts became slippery and slid out of his mind one by one, like wet noodles.

"We have seven boys," he repeated definitively, summoning all of the confidence he could.

"Had," his brother corrected. "Now that period has come to an end. Do you understand? There are no more boys in the house other than you!"

That night Shaya slept fitfully. His brother slept soundly and deep, rhythmic breathing could also be heard coming from his sisters' beds. Only Shaya tossed and turned, tormented by loneliness before he had been left alone.


The day his brother left home, carrying a bundle on his shoulder, the ending was added to the bad part. Shaya did not like periods coming to an end.

They all stood at the window, watching Tatti's figure as he sent the new yeshiva bochur on his way. He walked slightly bent, filled with emotion and praying with all his heart. The pale sun of the waning summer escorted him as well, fighting against the heavy layer of fog surrounding the low houses and bringing vague feelings of melancholy.

"That's it. The period of sons in the house is all over," Mammi whispered.

Shaya put his hands on his ears. He didn't want to hear. Yes, suddenly things were beginning to come to an end in his life!

"Soon our studies are going to end," the rebbe told him at cheder. "This year a lot of new children are entering, children who are much younger than you. I discussed this with your father and he is thinking of sending you to Berl the Wine-Maker.

Berl the Wine-Maker! Shaya found it hard to hold back the tears welling in his eyes. Why? Isn't Torah the pinnacle of the good part? What would protect him when he left the house each day? How would Mammi bless him when he set out?

"I . . . I . . . I . . . " Shaya tried to say something, but the words mocked him, twisted up in his mind and slid out of his mouth, slippery and malignant. "I d-d-don't . . . How . . . how can th-th-that be?"

"It's very simple," the rebbe said with compassion in his voice. "You got used to coming here and you'll get used to going somewhere else. Berl is an ehrliche Yid who makes an honest living. You'll be able to learn a lot from him, and not just wine-making. I think it's a splendid idea."

"But . . . " The battle was lost. Shaya was sweating from the exertion. "But I want to learn," he sighed. "I want to learn Torah."

The rebbe sighed too. He knew he would never be able to advance this talmid beyond what he had already done and at his age he was already an anomaly to the other children. He felt Shaya's pain but wanted to preserve his dignity.

"You'll enjoy it," he said, placing his hand on Shaya's shoulder and summoned all the tenderness he could. "You'll like the work there. The woodchips give off a sweet smell as they are cut and the work is interesting."

Shaya girded all of his strength. "I w-w-want to stay here," he declared. The children stared at him in wonder. The rebbe wiped off his brow.

"As long as this place was right for you, you remained," he tried to explain. "But now things have changed. You have gotten older, more mature, and you have to find a new address. This too, is Hashem's Will, you know. Just like the he-alligator and the she-alligator. Remember? Those enormous creatures that left their brothers and sisters and cousins and went in search of a new place, went looking for Noach's address. And why? Did they want to do it? Maybe they wanted to stay in their familiar cheder with the same rebbe, eh? Did you ever think about that?" He slid his hand down his beard and continued speaking in the same scholarly tones.

"That was what Hashem wanted and they hurried to do His Will. There are those who fulfill the Will of Heaven by continuing to sit at their desk in cheder and there are those who fulfill the Will of Heaven by going to learn a trade from Berl the Wine-Maker. Both of them are the work of G-d."

Shaya stumbled out the door, his vision blurry. A last haystack stood waiting in the field. He hid his face deep inside, trying not to hear. A period of his life was coming to an end and Shaya did not like it.

Summer was ending too. The fields were still crispy and golden. Dew covered them at night and in the morning they were full of new bits of green.

The piles of hay were gathered into the barns and granaries. Everyone knew if one wanted to fatten the animals during the cold winter months he had to hurry to gather in the hay before the rain started to fall. Suddenly the big fields stood empty and Shaya stumbled around them, no longer jumping in the haystacks. It wasn't pleasant to walk around outside, but Shaya was in no hurry to get home where his brother's empty bed was waiting.

He found himself severed from everything all at once. He was out of place at the cheder, at home and in the fields. Once again his life split into two parts: the bad part had grown all at once and Shaya did not like that at all.

"The good part will increase," Mammi said, trying to comfort him. Shaya believed everything his mother said. She was the most authoritative person on every matter in the world, after Tatti and the rebbe, of course. But this pronouncement was hard for him to accept.

"But all the things belonging to the good part are coming to an end," he said to her.

Mammi sighed and said nothing. Tatti, as well, sat by his shtender in the evenings, silent most of the time. Outside the trees moaned dolefully and Shaya did not ask about them. He felt if he could, he would stand in the wind with the trees and moan.

"For now you should be learning," Tatti said encouragingly. "That's the best thing you can do."

Shaya knew this and wanted to learn. He had a few days left with the rebbe before the break, which lasted until after Succos, and then Berl the Wine-Maker would take him in and he would smell the dripping wine. For now he had time to sit opposite his Chumash, listening to Tatti and learning in his own way.

"And a-a-afterwards?" he tried to ask. This time Tatti understood him perfectly.

"Later you'll be able to continue," he reassured him, "on Shabbos, for instance. The Torah will continue to exist. You know that. The Torah is the most important thing there is. You'll be able to see it at shul when they take out the sefer Torah, stand close to the baal korei and listen to the reading and blow a kiss to the sefer Torah during geliloh. And before then, during hagbohoh, you'll be able to look at the holy letters, which impart wisdom. This is no small matter, Shaya."

Tatti's words were sacred to him, and a source of solace. He began to wake up early in the morning, hurrying to shul to avoid missing even a single Torah reading. Most of all he liked to step reverently toward the person doing hagbohoh and fix his eyes on the sefer Torah.

The atzei chaim were big and glazed with shiny lacquer. They held the parchments of Torah, of kedushoh, of life. Shaya would work his way toward them, lifting his fingers with tzitzis wrapped around them and send warm kisses floating through the air. He felt soothed afterwards and then the fields did not seem as gloomy as he walked toward the rebbe's house.


The holiday filled the town. A succah stood outside each of the little houses, which seemed like they were on the verge of collapse. For a few fabulous days Shaya forgot all about the endings popping up in his life. Lying in bed in the succah, Tatti was nearby and the smells from the schach cloaked him with a deep sense of calm. But on Simchas Torah he came home from shul with his head spinning from the many disturbing thoughts converging on him like the dust particles moving ceaselessly.

"Is something wrong?" Mammi asked.

Shaya shrugged his shoulders. Once again the words vanished, leaving him stuttering and helpless. "A-h-h-h-h." That was how he closed a conversation even before it had started— with pitiful choking. Shaya struggled to put his tongue back in his mouth and wiped off his chin. These things, he knew, belonged to the bad part, and he himself—he hoped—belonged to the good part, if it still existed. Yet he had to draw a distinction between the two.

"Don't worry," Mammi said consolingly, understanding and not understanding the great difficulty. "The holiday is coming to an end and winter is beginning. Both of them are the work of G-d."

G-d made lots of things, Shaya knew. He made the warm rays and the dancing specks. He made the bashful flowers that peeked at him from the sides of the way and the terrible wailing of the trees. He made good brothers who understood him and He made yeshivas boys traveled far and wide to reach. He made the rebbe's warm, protective room and Berl the Wine-Maker's loud workshop. He made the good part and the bad part and he, Shaya, wanted to stay only in the good part.

"I'm g-going to shul," he said, pleased at his success in producing a complete sentence while feeling so scattered.

The shul was packed. The rebbe stood nearby. He had been in charge of handing out the sifrei Torah for the fervent dancing that had ended a short time earlier. Now all were crowded around the bimoh, listening carefully and infused with reverence. For in the middle, Shaya knew, the Torah lay, its parchments wrapped around the wooden rods. The Torah, which was the sum total of everything and the meaning of life, was the essence of the good part. He worked his way as far forward as he could.

Only then did the rebbe begin to sing. A jubilant melody full of life. Since when was there singing during krias haTorah? He searched for his father's face and found it charged with emotion beneath the tallis.

"Chosson Torah," he whispered to Shaya. "Just a moment. You wait and see."

He watched breathlessly as the Rov nervously stepped forward like a king led to his throne. He listened to the thunderous "amen" and the flow of words that followed, words recited according to the familiar trope so adored by the baal korei. A moment later, he knew, the Rov would recite a brochoh, everybody would answer "amen" and then the magbihoh would step forward, lifting high the sefer Torah to allow everyone to see the holy letters, imparting them with wisdom. He stood transfixed, in eager anticipation.

He was not disappointed. The voice of the Rov rose up and filled the shul, followed by a thunderclap of amen. The magbihoh, none other than his rebbe, stepped forward, taking hold of the wooden handles. Shaya saw how his beloved rebbe took a deep breath and then, with a burst of effort, raised the sefer Torah high into the air, and he watched as his hand trembled for a moment and then held firm. Shaya lifted his gaze up high and suddenly his eyes clouded with dismay. Yet another ending was coming upon him and this time it was not just any ending but the ending of the Torah!

The parchment was wrapped thick around the left eitz hachaim. No wonder the Rebbe's left hand had trembled. But the right eitz hachaim was almost bare. The Torah was rolled all the way to the end, Shaya suddenly realized in alarm. For innumerable days it had been rolled along, the words read and enjoyed. The people in shul had stood and looked at the letters, which imparted their wisdom, until as with all things that belong to the good part, the Torah, too, came to an end.

His eyes blurred. He could not summon the strength to blow a kiss. His arms fell to his sides and he began to wedge his way toward the door. He stepped outside and turned toward the desolate fields, the empty house, the moaning of the trees that would not have the privilege of becoming nosei keilim for kedushoh, like his father's shtender, for the Torah had come to an end as well.

Finished! He couldn't even form the word in his mouth. Broken and disconsolate he ran out toward a haystack left standing in the field. He could burrow his face deep, deep into the hay, blocking out all sounds, for even if the good part had lapsed and clearly made way for the bad part it did not mean he had to listen to the final "amen" and be tormented by its painful meaning. The fact of the ending was bad enough. Did he have to hear it happen, too?

This time he did not have to explain the matter to anybody. Everyone was there in shul and the one person who could have followed him out, patted him on the head and said everything was alright had already gone away. All that remained of him was a faraway dot on the horizon.

Yet even the horizon was empty.

Shaya groaned in pain. The pain was too great to bear. All the other aches drained into this pain, filling it to overflowing: the pain of parting, the torment of missing, the needling mockery, the plan to become a wine-maker's apprentice, ending his studies with the rebbe and now— the Torah.

He recalled Tatti's words: "The Torah is the sum of all things. It contains everything."

"It will watch over you," he heard his mother say.

Never before had Shaya felt so alone and forsaken.

Another thunderous "amen" burst forth from the shul as he walked along. Shaya broke into a run, covering his ears with cupped hands, but the jubilant melody could still be heard.

He stopped in his tracks. What was that? More trope after krias haTorah?

Someone was running behind him. A fragile figure in a tallis. He gestured for him to return to shul. Tatti was the supreme authority in his life, Shaya knew, besides the Rav of course. There could be no disobeying his word. He began to drag himself back grudgingly.

There he was met with a big surprise: his beloved rebbe again stood beside the aron kodesh. The magnificent paroches was drawn to the sides. Someone was busy with the sifrei Torah. Shaya caught his breath. What need did they have for the Torah? It was already finished! He felt a pinch in his heart.

Yet the rebbe was taking out another sefer Torah.

Out came the Torah, the essence and the pinnacle of the good part! Shaya watched wide-eyed as the embroidered covering was slipped off the parchment; he noticed the whole parchment was rolled onto the right side and then he saw the baal korei lean over and begin to lein.

Again the words filled the shul with an extraordinary sweetness and a particularly festive tune. Periodically the tzibbur would repeat a few words slowly. Once again he could listen, picking out a familiar verse here and there.

He closed his eyes tight and opened them again. The scene remained the same. This was not a dream, it was really happening. And when the right hand of the magbihoh shook under the weight, Shaya blew one kiss after another, his fingers wrapped in tzitzis.


Once again his world was split into two: the good part and the bad part. Both of them were the work of G-d.

The bad part included partings and changes and endings — and there were many of them, each of them painful, each of them cause for terrible moaning, like the sound of the trees battered by the cold wind of winter.

But these things were offset by the good part. This part, he knew, was good, and even very good. It included all of the things that made him smile, laugh and fall asleep at night happy and content. It included the golden summer in the crispy haystacks in the field, the rays of warm sunshine penetrating the room and spotted with thousands of tiny particles floating and dancing in them, weightless and free like the birds.

The birds could leave, flying far away to unknown lands when summer ended. One flock after another, each of them shaped like an arrowhead, with a single bird leading the way, swift and sure, cutting its way through the skies.

And they too, will come back, he knew. And the summer will come again, many happy times will come, and the Torah will be rolled again and again and every time it will start anew.

"From Bereishis," Shaya whispered to himself. The words were like a sweet secret, like a promise.


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