Not only was Tevye’s family going to be together, they were going to be rich! The Baron’s gift of 5000 francs would make them the new aristocrats of Palestine. But Tevye’s daydreaming didn’t last long. When he heard that Nachman was planning on returning the money, Tevye nearly fell out of the wagon. “I won’t allow it!” he said, dizzy from the shock.
“The Baron gave the money to us on the premise that we would raise up the children in Rishon,” Nachman explained. “In the Talmud, it is called a Mekach Ta’ut, meaning that the money was given on the basis of false information.”
“Don’t quote the Talmud to me,” Tevye stormed. “The money was given for the children, and as their guardian, I am in charge of their interests.”
Ruchel looked at her husband. “The Baron didn’t stipulate in his letter that we couldn’t move to another yishuv,” she said.
“It was obvious that the adoption was to take place in Rishon, and not somewhere else,” the young rabbi insisted.
“Why don’t we write him and ask him before we give up the money?” Ruchel suggested.
“Why tell him at all?” Tevye said. “I am not a scholar in Talmud, but the money is in your pocket. If the Baron has a claim, then he is the one who has to prove it.”
“I want to be fair to the Baron,” Nachman answered.
“With all of his billions, a man like the Baron doesn’t even remember that he wrote out a check. To him, 5000 francs is a tip. But think what the money will mean to the children.”
Nachman fell silent. It was true that the money was a blessing to the orphans, but honesty was a foundation of Torah. Especially in matters of money, where greed and temptation could make a crooked line seem straight, a man had to be cautious.
” God performs a miracle, and you want to tell Him no thank you,” Tevye said. “Don’t be such a big righteous tzaddik.”
“All right,” Nachman said. “We will hold onto the money for now. But in Jaffa, we will go and ask Rabbi Kook. Whatever he advises, we’ll do.”
Tevye grumbled. He didn’t like putting the decision in someone else’s hands, but what could he do? The money had been sent to Nachman and Ruchel, not to him. The main thing was getting the money out of the Company safe. With the money in hand, at least for the time being, his family would be rich. And maybe Rabbi Kook would have compassion on the plight of the children.
The whole argument turned out to be pointless. When the colony Director, Dupont, heard that Nachman and Ruchel were leaving Rishon, he refused to open the safe and give them the funds. Either they stayed in Rishon with the children, and the money would be theirs, or the money would be sent back to France.
Tevye felt like picking up the little Dupont and strangling him until he opened the safe. But he remembered that his assistants had guns.
“If that’s the case, I suggest the children stay here until we hear from the Baron himself,” Tevye said. “We can telegram him for an immediate answer.”
But Nachman’s mind was already made up. The happiness of the children was the most important thing, and they wanted to be with their grandfather. Money was secondary. With or without the Baron’s assistance, God would provide for their needs. So, trusting in the Holy One Blessed Be He, Nachman made the decision to set off without the money in hand.
All the way to Jaffa, Tevye brooded over the loss of the gift. It was a glaring injustice, he said. Dupont should be hanged! Who was he to decide for the Baron? Tevye was even prepared to journey to Paris to appeal to the Benefactor himself.
Nachman reminded Tevye that it was decreed on Rosh HaShana everything that would befall a man in the coming year. If the money was truly destined On High for the children, it would get to them, no matter how much Dupont protested. Tevye knew that, but still, a man was commanded to do whatever he could down on earth before relying on assistance from Heaven.
Arriving in Jaffa, they traveled straight to the house of Rabbi Kook. Once again, the Rabbi’s kindly wife led them into his study. Once again, Tevye was amazed by the aura of holiness which seemed to surround his saintly figure and suffuse the whole room. Rabbi Kook’s eyes shone with both a mystical light, and a kind, compassionate smile. He listened as Nachman explained the dilemma. Tevye waited anxiously for his answer.
“While it is true that the money is legally yours,” the Rabbi decreed, “to be clear of any possible doubt, it is, as you suggest, a prudent idea to write the Baron himself and hear what he has to say.”
Tevye frowned, but he didn’t dare refute the Rabbi’s advice. There was nothing to do except pray that the Baron would stand by his benevolent gesture.
“As to your decision to leave Rishon LeZion, you should not harbor any doubts,” the Rabbi said to Nachman as if sensing the uncertainty in his heart. “Thank God, Rishon LeZion is an established community, and another teacher of Torah can surely be found. But what you and your family are doing, venturing forth to build a new settlement, this is an act of supreme importance. The person who most sacrifices himself for the rebuilding of our Land will receive the most bountiful blessing in Heaven.”
Nachman blushed and lowered his head. Then, Rabbi Kook turned a profoundly serious glance at Tevye. Instinctively, the milkman looked around to see if the Rabbi were gazing at someone more important behind him. But there was no one else in the study. The words of the Rabbi were addressed directly to him.
“Until all of our scattered brethren come to settle in our uniquely Holy Land, each of us has to demand all that he can of himself. We must always remember, that the Land of Israel is only acquired through trial and suffering. However, the Almighty does not test a man with more difficulties than he can bear. On the contrary, He gives us the strength and the courage to persevere. If we encounter problems, tragedies, and setbacks, it does not mean that the path we have chosen is wrong, but rather that the Almighty, in His great love, is providing us with a test to strengthen our faith. When we cling to Him with love and with joy, even in difficult times, like our Forefathers did in the past, we rise up in His service to the holiest levels which a person can reach. And this closeness to God is a greater gift and blessing than all of the comfort and wealth in the world.”
Tevye nodded. His palms moistened with sweat. Was he made out of glass that the Rabbi could see all of his inner doubts and fears? He remembered Golda’s words, “Be strong, my husband, be strong.” All he could think about was getting out of the room before the scholar’s searing gaze transformed him into a pile of ashes. Then, a kind smile flashed over the Rabbi’s face, putting the milkman at ease.
“Your family is depending on you to be strong, Reb Tevye, and to show them that our allegiance to God and our holy traditions will forever be a beacon to light up whatever temporary darknesses that life sets in our path.”
Tevye turned the conversation to Hevedke. Rabbi Kook reported that he was learning day and night in a small yeshiva nearby, and his progress was truly astounding. Hearing this, Tevye was not overjoyed. In his heart of hearts, he harbored the hope that rigorous discipline of Talmudic studies would prove too much for the Russian poet’s mettle. Rabbi Kook said that the secret to life lay in a man’s will, and that Hevedke was driven by a passionate desire to overcome the barriers which lay in the path of every soul who sets forth to climb up the ladder of holiness.
“A passionate desire for my daughter,” Tevye thought, still unconvinced of Hevedke’s sincerity in becoming a Jew.
While Nachman lingered to converse with the Rabbi, one of the Rabbi’s disciples escorted Tevye from the house to the yeshiva where Hevedke was learning. Standing in the doorway of the Beit Midrash study hall, it wasn’t hard to pick out the blond Russian from the other dark-haired students. Sitting with his back facing Tevye, Hevedke’s head and broad shoulders towered over the lot. Bobbing back and forth like a Jew davening in prayer, he listened in fervent concentration as the scholar across from him explained a polemic of Talmudic law. Hevedke’s study partner made a movement with his hand and his thumb, as if he were scooping up some insight from the pages of the large volume of Gemara which lay on the table between them. He glanced up at Tevye just long enough to cause Hevedke to turn and look up at the visitor. Seeing Hava’s father, the young Russian leaped up with a bright happy grin.
“Tevye!” he boomed.
All of the students looked up. The clamor of their learning turned to a hush. Hevedke rushed over to Tevye, grasped him in a bear hug, and lifted him off of his feet. “Tevye,” he said. “Reb Tevye!”
When Hevedke returned him back to the floor, Tevye stared into a strange, unfamiliar face. Hevedke’s smooth, angular jaw was now bearded. A yarmulka covered his head. But the very great difference lay in his eyes. Tevye couldn’t explain it, but they were not the same eyes he remembered. A beautiful light shone within them, as if a candle had been lit from inside. The face of Hevedke, the Russian, had vanished. Confronting Tevye was the face of a Jew.
“How is Hava?” he asked. “You must tell me, please. I am dying to know.”
The other students continued to stare at them.
“Come outside,” Hevedke said. “We are interrupting their studies. How long are you here for? Is Hava with you? Is everything all right?”
Tevye assured him that everyone, thank God, was fine. For the moment, they were living in Zichron Yaacov. Hava had completed a course in nursing and was now working in the infirmary.
“Did Hava ask you to give me a message?” he asked. The youth spoke with such genuine hope that Tevye himself was disarmed.
“She asked me to send you her greetings.”
Hevedke beamed as if Tevye had handed him a bagful of rubels. His eyes shone with delight.
“You can tell her that I am enjoying my studies more than I have enjoyed anything else in my life.”
A forced, crooked smile formed on Tevye’s lips. “Oy vay,” he thought. “He likes learning Torah!”
“Better yet,” Hevedke said. “I will write her a letter. How I have longed to know where you were living. You have another few minutes, I trust, my kindly Reb Tevye?”
Kindly Reb Tevye? After all the trials which Tevye had forced this daughter-robber to bear, he addressed him as “kindly” Reb Tevye? When had Tevye ever been kind to him? Either Hevedke was still a glib talker, or else a miraculous transformation was indeed taking place inside the youth’s soul.
Hevedke hurried back into the study hall of the yeshiva and grabbed a piece of paper. Excitedly, he sat down and started to write. He scribbled at a furious pace, looking up now and then to make sure that Tevye was still waiting. The other students in the room kept on with their studies. The vibrant sound of debate filled the air. Study partners, or hevrutas, as Tevye remembered they were called from his days in Talmud Torah, sat facing one another, entangled in lively Halachic discourse.
When it seemed that Hevedke was never going to finish the long Megilla he had started to write, Tevye sat down at a table. Absently, he flipped open the book of Psalms before him, and placed his finger on some random verse, knowing that the Lord’s Providence watched over every movement in the world, from the movement of clouds in the sky to the path of a leaf falling to earth. His fingernail landed on a verse from the Hallel prayer: “He raises up the poor out of the dust, and lifts the needy out of the ash heap; to sit him with the nobles, with the nobles of his people.”
Tevye looked around at the study hall. These impoverished students of Torah, who labored day and night to master the intricacies of the Biblical texts, these were the true Jewish nobles. The Torah scholars were the true barons and guardians of Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel. It was they who had kept the nation intact for thousands of years. Foreign armies and rulers had swept over the Holy Land, boasting of their might and their glory. The pages of history were filled with their sound and their fury. Each succeeding conqueror had declared the final defeat of the Jews. And yet, long after these emperors and empires had collapsed, long after their temples and palaces had all turned to rubble, the Jews had returned to their homeland. The Jews had survived because of these very same scholars who had clung, through persecution and plague, to the sacred code of law which God had given to their forefathers thousands of years before.
Embarrassed that the letter writing had taken so long, Hevedke blushed and handed the folded papers to Tevye.
“Give Hava my best,” he said with a shy, hopeful smile.
“Keep up with your studies,” Tevye answered.
“I intend to, don’t worry.”
Tevye nodded. If stubbornness were one of the traits of a Jew, then Hevedke deserved a diploma. No doubt he would be another Rabbi Akiva.
“That wouldn’t be the end of the world,” Tevye thought to himself. Rabbi Akiva had stayed away from his wife for twenty-four years in order to sit and learn Torah. So should it be with Hevedke.
The two men shook hands on the street, and Hevedke returned to the yeshiva.
For Hevedke, an incredible transformation was truly taking place. It was as if he had discovered a completely new world. A world where all darkness and confusion had vanished, where there were only horizons and horizons of light. In the yeshiva, for the first time in his life, he had discovered a true connection to God. To a God who was mysteriously working behind the curtain of history to fulfill the promise He had made to the Jews to bring them back from the four corners of the world to the Land of Israel.
Many nights, Hevedke fell asleep in the study hall, draped over his opened books. Though his thoughts often wandered to Hava, he didn’t want to leave the yeshiva’s hallowed walls. He didn’t want to be far from the shelves of holy volumes, even though they were written in a language which he was still struggling to understand. Suddenly, the world outside seemed like a figment of the imagination, a passing fancy, a deceiving charade, something which could only distract him from the learning that he loved and from the worlds he had discovered in the pages of the Talmudic writings. To the poet who had read all of the works of Tolstoy, Gorki, Hugo, Voltaire, Shelley, Shakespeare, and Keats; who had championed the philosophies of Aristotle, Plato and Locke; and who had clung in blind faith to the Christian gospels, a true revolution was occurring. Like candles held up to the sun, all of the luminance he had once found in the classics disappeared in the blazing light of God’s Torah. A new, incredible the truth became clear. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.“
Probing thinker that Hevedke was, his spiritual journey was not without clarifications and questions. But the rabbis he learned with always had answers, gleaned from the Sages of the past. The traditions of learning had been passed down generation after generation ever since the giving of the Torah on Sinai. What Hevedke’s keen mind found particularly striking was that, unlike the origins of other religions, the revelation at Sinai had been an historical event, witnessed by two million people, and accepted as fact by all of the world. Both Christianity and Islam had constructed their doctrines upon the foundations of the Jewish religion. Every other philosophy, religion, political movement, or creed originated with man. But Judaism was different. The Torah had been given by God. It was God’s own plan for all of existence. And the nation He had chosen to elevate the world out of its darkness was Israel. The very nation which all of the world hounded and attempted to destroy!
The discovery was so profoundly moving, it overwhelmed all of the young man’s thoughts and all of his waking moments. It entered into his dreams. As his learning progressed, his mind dwelt less and less upon Hava. He still loved her with all of his being for having led him to the real purpose of living, yet that love was now shared by his passionate yearning for God. Now that he had discovered his Creator in the pages of the Talmud, Hevedke longed to be purged in His great healing light. Profoundly ashamed for his beliefs of the past, he cried out to God for forgiveness. He filled up notebooks with poems declaring his love for his Maker. He prayed for hours on end, begging God to come into his life and to open his eyes to the teachings of Torah. But, at first, God didn’t answer. Crestfallen and ready to give up the yeshiva, he had visited Rabbi Kook’s house filled with despair.
“God has already answered your prayers,” the wise Rabbi said. “Look around you. Just open your eyes. Where are you? You are learning the Torah in a yeshiva in the Holy Land. God has opened the door to His palace. If you are saddened because you want to enter the royal chambers immediately, and that door seems closed, that does not mean that God is not with you. He simply knows you aren’t yet ready. One needs patience, great faith, and diligent study. The learning of Torah takes many years, and a man must be willing to surrender himself to it completely before God unlocks the doors to its innermost chambers and secrets.”
Gazing at the holy Rabbi and seeing in his eyes the wisdom of thousands of years, Hevedke felt foolish for acting like a child who impatiently wants a new toy, now, and doesn’t want to wait. The Torah came through toil. The Torah came through sacrifice. Simple belief was not enough. All of life had to be a sanctified, conscious striving to become closer to God. A religious Jew had to be holy in all of his endeavors, with every breath of his life, from morning till night. With everything he ate, everything he said, everything he did, a Jew had to be conscious of God and abide by the laws of the Torah. And all of this had to be learned through detailed, painstaking study. For the free-thinking poet, this meant bowing to a wisdom greater than his. It meant putting all of his previous arrogance and theories aside and relying on the teachers who could guide him through oceans of unchartered waters. It meant learning a new language and a whole new way of being. It meant severing himself from his past and building a new future. Once his youthful heart came to understand that this was the whole secret of life, to discover God and to cling to His ways, he was possessed with a passion that even his great love for Hava couldn’t match. It was the most joyous, wondrous, frightening, challenging, light-filled journey which Hevedke had ever embarked on.
Somewhere, someday, at the end of the voyage, he knew that Hava was waiting, and that gave him courage and faith. Even if it took him years, like Rabbi Akiva, Hevedke was willing to dedicate all of himself to this holy, spiritual mission.
About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of The Jewish Press
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