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December 29, 2014 / 7 Tevet, 5775
 
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The Secrets In The Flames


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On Rosh Hashanah it is a mitzvah to assume a bowed posture as we offer tearful prayer to God and beg for His mercy and forgiveness. We are hopeful that our humility and remorsefulness will earn us a favorable verdict, but should we, Heaven forbid, fall short, Hashem in His infinite kindness extends our time of teshuvah through the duration of Chanukah, when it is a mitzvah to light the Chanukah candles that give rise (literally) to the flames that shoot straight upward, in affirmation of our spiritual ascent.

*  *  *

The atmosphere in the Tzaddik’s quarters was highly charged. The Apter Rav, R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, was deeply absorbed in the mystical contemplation of the Chanukah lights and did not anticipate the sudden intrusion that scuttled his concentration on this erev Chanukah.

Nachman the gabbai let him know that Soreh’le the agunah – stubborn in her refusal to accept Nachman’s admonition that “now is not a good time” – was waiting to see him.

“Moshe Chaim’s agunah?” The Rav visibly shuddered. “Now, as we prepare for the first light of Chanukah ?”

Profusely apologetic, Nachman assured the Rebbe that he had tried to dissuade the woman but that she was unrelenting in her insistence to be allowed inside. “So unlike her ” muttered the gabbai, “always keeps to herself, the embodiment of modesty.”

His words were still trailing when the door was thrust open and Soreh’le the agunah stood there pleading in a tear-chocked voice: “Rebbe, heiliger [holy] Rebbe!” As the Rav lifted his eyes from his sefer, teardrops fell to the surface of the table, just clearing the holy book’s open pages. Numerous broken souls had flocked to the Tzaddik to bare their pain and sorrow, and yet he now felt himself moved to the core of his being as never before.

Nachman’s quiet exit opened the floodgates.

“Ten years! It’s been ten long years since my tragedy unfolded, and God, Who sees and knows everything, has seen fit to keep my secret from the world – surely in merit of my innocent children! But for how much longer?”

Moshe Chaim had been one of the Rav’s most beloved chassidim, their camaraderie evidenced by his unsupervised visits to the Rebbe’s private chamber at all hours. His wife, a true aishes chayil, had managed the home front to ensure her husband’s uninterrupted flow of Torah study and close association with his Rebbe.

On one Motzei Shabbos, a time that would normally find Moshe Chaim in the beis medrash preparing for the Rebbe’s impending melaveh malka, he unexpectedly arrived home, purportedly on an errand for the Tzaddik – at the precise moment his wife was about to drop an unkashered piece of poultry into a cooking pot. (Women in those days routinely did their own kashering. Soreh’le had forgotten to do so earlier and succumbed to fear of being caught embarrassingly unprepared.)

R. Moshe Chaim would never in his wildest dreams have fathomed stumbling on such a scene – in his own home yet – and the blow rendered him momentarily numb. The chassid collected himself and faced his trembling, dumbstruck wife.

“From now on, Soreh’le, you are no longer my wife and I am no longer your husband. We can no longer live together under one roof. But out of compassion for our two young children, and in reverence of our Tzaddik whose honor would be besmirched should word of this travesty be circulated, I wish for this matter to remain forever hidden – and for you, Soreh’le, to retain your good name and your title of Soreh’le the tzidkanis.

“I shall leave here tonight to wherever my eyes will lead me. With a broken heart and afflicted soul, I am forced to take leave of my heiliger Tzaddik and orphan my beloved children. To you and to all our acquaintances, Moshe Chaim has taken leave of this earth.”

By morning, the tragic news of Moshe Chaim’s sudden disappearance had spread from mouth to mouth. Word had it that he was lured away from his learning by a knock on his study window; believing that his Rebbe had sent for him, he dashed out and never returned.

Upon being apprised of the shattering news, the Tzaddik sighed deeply, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven and whatever our Beloved God determines is for the good. One is not to question His doings.” That spelled the end of any further discussion of Moshe Chaim with the Tzaddik.

In the ensuing ten years, not even before the High Holy Days when there was not a person in town who did not approach the Rebbe with a kvitel (written prayerful request) to elicit his blessings, Soreh’le never once visited the Tzaddik.

To the women of the congregation who gently urged the agunah to beseech the Tzaddik to pray on her behalf, Soreh’le would say, “True, I am in need of my husband and my children their father, but the Rebbe has sustained the loss of his right hand and kindred-spirit; why rub salt in his wound? If he could bring him back, would he not?”

Soreh’le continued to maintain her sterling reputation – except for the fact that while she once was known as Soreh’le the tzidkanis, she now was referred to, with much empathy, as Soreh’le the agunah.

The Apter Rav was still trying to ascertain what urgent matter had brought Soreh’le to him at such an inconvenient time. The agunah released her pent-up emotions.

“Ten years of oppressive and agonizing darkness since that dreadful night, with not a soul to confide in by which to relieve my indescribable pain, to lighten my burden the slightest. My heiliger Tzaddik, I was too ashamed to come to you, to bare my grief which has eaten away at my soul and has caused me suffering beyond words.

“To cleanse myself of my iniquity, I have poured every ounce of energy into rearing my two children, raising them to tread a righteous path as befits the offspring of Moshe Chaim. It was my hope that the investment of my hard work and ensuring that my children have the same advantage as anyone else’s children would help me atone for my great transgression. And yet the heavy stone on my heart has not budged and I have not had a moment’s peace knowing that my good husband, a pure and untainted soul, has on account of me undertaken eternal exile.”

Two tears that had formed in the corners of the Tzaddik’s eyes dripped onto his pale cheeks and trickled down his dense white beard.

Soreh’le paused, took a deep breath, and continued. “If only I’d have been exposed for my wrongdoing right from the start and punished accordingly, my soul would have been spared from undergoing such drawn-out torment. In everyone’s eyes I am regarded as a righteous woman. When I overhear the pitying comments behind my back, I am tempted to shout, ‘Call me by the name I deserve: Sinner! I am not worthy to sit among any of you!’ ”

“Sins, my dear daughter,” interjected the Tzaddik, “beget grief and heartache.”

“The punishment is horrible, Rebbe,” replied Soreh’le. “Cursed be the snake that wormed its way into my soul and nearly caught me in its nest.”

“What?!” The startled Tzaddik arose from his chair. “Nearly? You mean to say that you did not transgress?”

“The Rebbe will forgive me,” replied the agunah, “but he knows it quite well. It was through your holy and penetrating eyes that Moshe Chaim was sent home that night, to rescue me. It was thanks to you, Rebbe, that I did not slide all the way down.”

The Tzaddik barely kept his emotions in check.

“Did you tell your husband all of this before he left his home for good?”

“I was too frightened and ashamed to say anything. And what difference would it really have made?”

“A huge one,” said the Tzaddik in a quivering tone. “While our benevolent and merciful Creator credits our heavenly account for the mere thought of performing a mitzvah, as though it was actually carried out, He does not reckon intent to transgress as a done deed.”

When the Tzaddik finally came around to asking the reason for her sudden appearance before him, Soreh’le pointed to the small piece of folded paper that lay on his table. In his preoccupation with his surprise visitor, the Rebbe had hardly taken notice of the customary petitioner’s note.

“I’ve come about a shidduch for my daughter… it’s all there in the kvitel.”

The Apter Rav, perusing the kvitel’s content, exclaimed with incredulity, “You don’t mean to suggest that I propose the illustrious Berel’le Sofer, a dear and close relation of mine who has no shortage of elite shidduchim, as a match for the daughter of Soreh’le the agunah?”

Soreh’le was quick to set things straight. “For the daughter of R. Moshe Chaim, Rebbe – your Moshe Chaim – for a virtuous bas Yisrael who shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of my sins. In truth, Berel’le is a most suitable shidduch for my daughter.”

The agunah unflinchingly went on to elaborate that the issue was by now a work in progress, that Dovid Sofer had already given his consent to the match but had informed the shadchan that he would consult with his Rebbe tonight prior to making anything official.

“All I ask of you, heiliger Tzaddik, is that you take pity on a child of Moshe Chaim and give your approval to the shidduch.”

The Rebbe marveled at the forthrightness of the woman before him who, in stark contrast to the many who came to him to seek his counsel, saw fit to dictate how he should advise others.

Aloud he postulated, “I will concede that the mechutanim are quite compatible, and that a shidduch is min hashamayim [heavenly ordained].”

In the interim, the Rebbe’s chassidim had become increasingly concerned, baffled by their Rav’s delay in proceeding with the Mincha prayer service, especially on the eve of Chanukah.

The Tzaddik found himself engrossed in the event that had just unfolded before him. Instead of directing his energies on correcting the world’s ills through the koach of the mitzvah of the Chanukah light, his focus now centered entirely on how to rebuild a shattered home and repair a splintered family.

The heartrending words of the agunah had had a profound impact on the Tzaddik. Who, after all, could claim never to have entertained a thought or a yearning to sin?

Moreover, who in his mind had not already done so? And the enduring of so much pain and suffering! The Gemara teaches that suffering cleanses a person of sin. And does it not also state that a true penitent is considered to be on higher ground than a Tzaddik? That would actually place the agunah on quite an elevated plane.

His uneasiness mollified, the Apter Rav readied himself to usher in the first night of Chanukah and to learn the secrets the Chanukah flames would divulge. To the gratification and delight of Soreh’le the agunah and the eminent R. Dovid Sofer and their families, the t’nayim (engagement) ceremony took place in the Rebbe’s court on Motzei Shabbos Chanukah – the real euphoria setting in just days preceding the wedding ceremony, when, to everyone’s wonder and elation, Moshe Chaim materialized. His remarkable homecoming made the joy of the simcha complete and the family whole again, at last.

This was said to be the greatest miracle effectuated by the Apter Rav in his lifetime.

*  *  *

The world is a scary place. Even the most cheerful-natured person is given to bouts of anxiety and worry over some of life’s hurdles and burdens.

It began with one, then two, then more. The Shabbos candles I had been lighting for decades were straining to give off their usual brightness. It was unsettling, to put it mildly, to be praying to God to protect us and to illuminate our lives in merit of my illuminating our home with the Shabbos lights while at the same time watching the flames shrinking, almost as though retreating.

Not one to be outdone, I purchased a brand new set of lights (glass receptacles with wick inserts lit with liquid paraffin) and looked forward to being graced once again by an aura of shining luminescence.

My expectation was short-lived. Within moments of lighting, the flames that had sprung to life with so much promise almost as quickly dwindled to mere sparks, leaving in their wake hardly a trace of their former luminosity. I was crestfallen. But far more unsettling was my nagging instinct telling me that beneath this abnormality lay a hidden message I had yet to decipher.

In fact, the physical explanation for the curious phenomenon soon came to light: each wick was made up of several interwoven wispy strands of cotton. This braiding was hindering the essential saturation of the wick. Untwisting the thin strands allowed them to float freely in the paraffin.

As I gazed wonderingly at the relaxed and loose wicks soaking up the paraffin and proudly producing their bright and hardy dancing flames – a feat unachievable in their former taut (braided) state – the message became vividly clear. Life with its bumps and then some had of late been getting to me and I had allowed my heavyheartedness to stifle my usual buoyancy and inborn sense of optimism.

The lesson of the holy tzaddikim who merit to see clear from one end of the world to the other was instantly brought home to me – a lesson of undiluted faith and resolute belief in a Higher Power, also the lesson at the heart of Chanukah: Despite all odds, in number and in might, the Chashmona’im were victorious, by virtue of their unerring belief and absolute faith in Hashem.

That little flame lies within each of us, its degree of radiance dependant on our trust in God.

The gematria of Chanukah is 89, which multiplied by 8 comes to 712 – identical to the numerical value of g’mar chasima (literally, a final sealing), hence the correlation between Yom Kippur and Zos Chanukah, the eighth day of Chanukah, when we are hopeful for a g’mar chasima tova and long for His divine light to permeate our existence.

Ohr zarua latzadik ulyishrei lev simcha – Light is sown for the righteous and for the upright of heart, gladness (Tehillim 97:11).

Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.

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