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October 31, 2014 / 7 Heshvan, 5775
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I Will Hold Your Empty Hand

Reich-082313-Puddle

We had just moved to Boro Park, fresh from the DP camps. The community was new and small, but we were settling in nicely. I knew how fortunate I was to have almost my whole family survive; most had so much less. Our family was a draw for many who needed that familiar feeling of home. One Shabbos afternoon I answered the door to find one such friend and a couple I did not recognize.

“This is my friend Nachum Shroen, and his wife Zeesel,” Noach explained. “We were talmidim together in Lita.” He smiled. “I had a feeling they might enjoy coming to your family’s house.”

Noach was right. Like so many others, Nachum and Zeesel felt right at home with us. He was kind, friendly, and, it turned out, a real talmid chacham. It was a taste of de heim for Nachum to meet my father, another genuine talmid chacham, and the feeling was certainly mutual. Zeesel, too, a kind and gentle soul, fit right in. The couple quickly became part of our extended family.

Nachum and Zeesel were cheerful people. But still… there was also something else… a tinge of sadness, a silent sigh, a shared sorrow that darkened their faces.

Nachum and Zeesel were inseparable. Where one went, the other went. They were the epitome of a close couple – one unit, with shared thoughts, joys and sadness. But that unit remained closed. The Shroens had been married for over ten years and they still had no children. As the years passed, and I got married, and had children of my own, the shadow on their faces deepened.

Nachum and Zeesel were dying to have children.

Zeesel had a friend, Shaindy Vogel, who had been childless for ten long years. One day Shaindy told Zeesel that she was going to see the Skverer Rebbe. The Rebbe was known for seeing many suffering Jews. He felt their pain, he absorbed it, and he did whatever was in his power to give, to bless them with the joy and peace they sought.

Soon Zeesel heard the news. Shaindy was expecting a child.

The Shroens could not remain indifferent. Joyous they were for their friends, but it was only natural that their own plight should leap to the forefront. What to do? Nachum was a Litvak. He had not been raised to go to Rebbes. But a tzaddik is a tzaddik, and a yid believes in the power of tzaddikim. The longing for a child is a longing like no other. When one feels that longing, it leaps in front of everything, and pushes its way forward.

Nachum and Zeesel decided to go to the Skverer Rebbe.

“Can you come with me?” Nachum asked my father. Father understood that this was unfamiliar territory for his friend, and that he would need help navigating it. “It would be my pleasure,” he responded. “Froyim will drive us and we’ll go together.”

Father and I were not strangers to the Skverer Rebbe. Before the Rebbe had moved to Williamsburg, he had resided in Boro Park. Hungry for the closeness of a tzaddik, we had gravitated towards this holy man. Sometimes I would go Friday night, to join the Rebbe’s tish for Kiddush. There were few Chassidim in those days; it was not the Rebbe’s court of old. But in a sense, the smallness of the gathering served to draw us in closer, to feel the presence that we craved. I had been raised to cling to a tzaddik, and I missed having a Rebbe. For those few moments Friday night, I felt the illumination of a great presence close to me.

One Erev Yom Kippur my father asked me if I would like to accompany him to the Skverer Rebbe. I was glad of the opportunity, and we went to the Rebbe’s house together. The gabbai showed us in, and we stood in front of the Rebbe.

The Rebbe offered his hand, and we both gave him shalom. For a long moment, he looked us up and down. Then Father took his kvittel, and put it down with a pidyon, some money.

The Rebbe looked at the kvittel, at whatever requests Father had written down. Then he spoke, and wished us a heartfelt blessing for a good year. We then turned to take our leave. I was at the door when I heard the Rebbe’s voice once more.

“Wait,” called the Rebbe, and motioned for me to come back. I turned from the door and stood once more before the Rebbe. “Are you a chosson?” the Rebbe asked. His piercing gaze stared me through. “I’m a bachur,” I explained.

“How old are you?” the Rebbe questioned.

“Twenty five.”

The Rebbe moved his hand towards a plate of cake on the table. He lifted a piece and placed it in my hand. Lekach – a piece of cake from the Rebbe, a segulah that one’s needs be granted. I took the piece of cake, recited the bracha, and heard the Rebbe say amein.

“May Hashem bentch you,” the Rebbe said, “that you should soon become a chosson.”

Before the year was out, I was engaged.

It was with some excitement that I prepared to go with my father and Nachum. It would be a chance to see a face that stirred familiar feelings of awe and respect. And, I thought with a smile… I’d be seeing my shadchan.

On the appointed day, we drove from Boro Park to Williamsburg. I sat and drove, watching the miles of road-ribbon disappear beneath the hood of the car. Father sat next to me, and Nachum in the back. There was a certain energy in the car, the tension of anxiety, and hope stretched so tight, with longing and daring to wish and not daring to hope and only maybe-

I seemed to feel the three hearts in the car thumping in unison, waiting, waiting. The ribbon of road did not slide lazily, as it often did. It ran, streaming beneath me, beneath my foot pressed just a tad harder than usual, streaming to match the tempo of those thumping hearts.

Soon we would see the Rebbe.

The waiting room was filled with people. There were not nearly as many frum yidden as there are today, and though the wait was substantial, we knew we would get in. Finally a gabbai called us, and we were ushered in to see the Rebbe.

One does not sit in front of a rebbe. We stood there, Father, Nachum, and I, and the Rebbe looked at us with his kind and serious eyes.

The Rebbe offered his hand, and we all gave him shalom.

Nachum was a Litvack through and through. He didn’t know what to do with the kvittel. “Give it to the Rebbe,” Father said in an undertone. Nachum carefully and respectfully handed the folded paper to the great man. The Rebbe took it, held it in his hand. His brow creased with concentration as he began to read. As he stared at the paper, his look became intensely involved, focused with concentration, thought, and, perhaps… pain.

What was the Rebbe thinking already? Nachum watched, saw the face, concentrated so focusedly on him, his life, his pain.

“Rebbe,” he said, in a voice that cried out on its own.

He cleared his throat and continued. “I married my wife when she was seventeen. The day we got married, the bombs were already falling. After the chuppah we packed up our things and ran east, away from Warsaw and the Germans.”

He paused for a heartbeat, looking down. I knew he was seeing things, things that took years of his life, of his soul, his existence, pressed into these short, concise phrases.

He continued. “The Russians came from the east and took half of Poland. So we got stuck under the rule of the Russians.”

The Russians were not the Germans. But living under their rule had been no picnic. Everyone knew that.

Nachum looked up. His eyes, his face, were half-closed. But in the small space between his eyelids I saw the burning shine. The pain, buried and dulled, burned.

“We were taken to Siberia.” Pause. “We were there for three years.”Reich-082313-Crib

Pause. Three years in Siberia.

Three years in Siberia.

“There was no mikveh.”

And here Nachum looked up, and his eyes pleaded with the Rebbe, with the twisted barb of superhuman effort remembered. “Rebbe… I was taken there by force. It wasn’t my choice. But there was no mikveh. I was there almost three years… I never touched my wife with a small finger.”

It flashed through my mind, then, that searing image. Young couple, straight from their chuppah. Seventeen year old Zeesel. It was years since then, and she was still a beautiful woman. And Simche, the chosson.

The Rebbe heard, and the Rebbe listened. The Rebbe saw, and the Rebbe understood.

The Rebbe looked back to the kvittel, and he continued reading.

When he finished, he began to speak.

I stared at the Rebbe. It took a while for his words to register in my brain properly; it was so much the opposite of what I had expected. But then my mind got it.

The Rebbe was talking about adoption.

“…. In a way, a goyishe kint is better, because then there is never any concern about siblings marrying each other…”

Nachum looked more helpless then I had ever seen him.

My father, respected elder and soft-spoken diplomat, spoke up on his behalf. “Rebbe,” Father said respectfully, “we know that. But we didn’t come here for that. We didn’t come to hear about adoption. We came here that they should have their own children.”

The Rebbe’s response was a rending implosion inside my gut. He picked up his hands and raised them in the air. It was the gesture not of futility, but of heartrending desperation. His face was in agony. It said, I have been there, and I have done all I can, and I have exhausted my strength, and the goal is yet beyond me. “What can I do?” he cried. “I can’t do anything else….”

His eyes burned in pain, almost dropping tears.

A rending inside me, of the tremendously deep pain of this holy man. An implosion inside me, as this hope for Nachum dashed on the rocks. And again, the pain of the Rebbe, so deep that it surely meant there was no hope….

We didn’t speak one word to each other on the way home. All along that drive from Williamsburg to Boro Park, we sat in silence. Father, on my side, quiet. Nachum, in the back, silent. I, driving, thankful for the motion to distract me, mirroring their silence. But every foot of pavement rolling under the wheels carried with it waves of pain, flooding and crashing from behind me into the driver’s seat. Quieter ripples of grief, shimmering from the seat beside me. A whirlpool of sadness and muted torment crashing inside me, sucking them in to meld us together.

We drove in silence. I reached Nachum’s apartment and slowed to a stop. I heard the door open, a presence leave, and the shutting of the door. I lifted my foot from the break, and we continued on. We reached our home. The car slowed once more and stopped. And the doors opened, and we got out. The numbness held us, silencing all words.

Nachum never had children.

***

I felt a heaviness inside me, the sadness of the finality of Nachum’s plight. Now he was a very old man. I had known before that he had never had children. But somehow, going back to that day long ago, I felt a new sort of sadness; the sadness of the old man in that young man, doomed to his childless fate.

And yet…

The sadness could not keep down the wondrous awe rising inside me.

“Zeida, that’s just incredible,” I said. “How… how on earth-“

Zeida is a chassid, and this is his life, but I knew I could ask. “How could the Rebbe know such a thing? How?”

“Ahh,” Zeida said, and I could hear the richness in his voice, joy of secure faith softly sweetening his sadness. “Ahh, I’ll tell you another story…”

That was a true Zeida answer.

***

You know that when I came to America, I went to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

His son in law, Reb Menachem Mendel, who would become the next Rebbe, was childless.

The Rebbe was a great man, and those in need of yeshuos or simply his wise counsel, would form long lines daily, waiting to see him. One day, Reb Menachem Mendel, the future rebbe, stood and waited on the long line. He, too, sought the Rebbe’s bracha – a bracha for children.

The line moved slowly. Many of the people looked sad, withdrawn, or anxious. The man on line behind Reb Menachem Mendel looked particularly nervous. His jerky movements and anxious face did not abate throughout the long wait. The process itself was wrenching enough; the tension disturbing. Finally, Reb Menachem Mendel turned and kindly asked the man what was disturbing him so.

“I have to catch a plane,” the man responded, his nervousness gushing out, “and I must see the Rebbe first. I must, I must.”

This seemed to be an easily ameliorated situation. “Please,” Reb Menachem Mendel offered, “you can go ahead of me.”

Visibly relieved, the man expressed his thanks, and was soon called in to see the Rebbe.

The nervous man was in the Rebbe’s room for ten or fifteen minutes. When he came out, he looked calmer and happier. He had received his bracha, and he would still make his plane. “Thank you!” he called to his benefactor, hurrying out to make his flight.

Now, finally, it was Reb Menachem Mendel’s turn to go into the Rebbe.

Quietly, respectfully, he asked his father in law to bless him for that greatest gift – children.

The old Rebbe’s response was- “I can’t. I just gave it away.”

Zeida stopped talking.

I stared at him. ”What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means,” Zeida explained patiently, “that he felt he could bless one person with a child. And now… he gave it away. He had nothing left to give.“

I sat, quiet, simply digesting.

Zeida’s second story had not explained the first. There was no new information, secret, clarification, that would light things up and explain.

Some things, maybe, couldn’t be explained.

And yet…

This thing slowly settled within me, swirling and mixing to a smooth, rich color.

Sadness, so much sadness. Some were denied, and lived their lives out without the blessing they sought.

And yet…

When there are those that have the power to deny, to know that they cannot give…

That strength of knowledge is itself a comfort, holding us in its reassuring grasp. The greatness that knows that it cannot give, can also give, when it is able.

The knowledge that that greatness is there, connected. As long as those Great men and women are there for us, and pray for us, and we can connect to them…

As long as we can reach out our hands, and touch them… Then even those left with requests unfulfilled… shall not be left with hands truly empty.

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