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By Yaakov Branfman

Our traveler's "spiritual teacher" finally went undeniably insane. The followers couldn't hang on together any more, so they dispersed.

Our traveler had anyway begun to move in another direction before the final break up came. He had met a Rabbi who had lived with sickness for many years; who had been eleven times on the brink of death - with part of him sometimes even over the brink - during a sixteen-year period, before recovering.

He didn't know the Rabbi in his sickness. But in his health, he was the most alive person he had ever met. The Rabbi seemed to him to be a living pulse, one who never stopped beating for a moment. Born a Jew, the traveler had gone far afield without ever getting close to the pulse of anything he had found in his journeys. This pulse beat was one that finally he could recognize.

He had to know what the connection was between all that the Rabbi had experienced previously and the way he was now. Here was a true spiritual leader who had been taken to the brink, and almost over it, and our traveler felt there was some very big secret there. He certainly didn't want to find out by going to the same point that the Rabbi had gone in those painful years - although he felt at times that if it would take that, he would do it.

But he felt that by close observation alone, he would understand what the secret was, and answer one of his Big Questions: After you think you've given up everything, what do you still have left, and what is there yet to get?...

The Rabbi was many things and each one seemed to be first and foremost. Among these, he was a Hassidic Rebbi, the son and grandson of giants of the spirit. Our traveler learned to put on tefilin, to keep Shabbos, to eat only kosher food, and began to sense that there was a link between all this and the Big Question he had in his mind. He struggled with learning a new language and the new world that came along with it-a language and a world deeply different from those he had known. All the time he was observing. He watched the Rabbi; he listened to him; and he searched for, and found, the keys to talk with him. When he found these, he was as excited as the first man must have been when he discovered fire.

They would stand often and look out the big picture window in the living room and he would ask the Rabbi about the sky or about the earth, or about sanity or insanity, or adulteration, or friendship, or cynicism, or pessimism, or optimism, or hate, or need, or desire, or Cadillac's, or lawyers, or doctors, or cults, or pain and why it hurts, or happiness, or revolution, or religion...

Or sometimes they would just stand and look out the picture window, silently, sadly, sharing the moments as cars and people sped by.

And he never heard an answer to his questions that was close to anything he had ever heard before.

"Rabbi, I don't know which way to go."

"Listen my friend. You have to know that the place of a decision is the loneliest place in the world."

"Rabbi, I feel as if I'm stuck."

"What can I tell you, my friend? As bad as it may seem now, I know that the future seems much more frightening. You have to build up escape velocity, and then-go!"

"But, Rabbi, what will it be like?"

"I can only tell you that when you are where you are, you're limited. When you get where you're going, you're also limited. In between, you're free!"

On one memorable occasion, he suddenly understood a central point of the Rabbi's teachings...

"Rabbi, are you saying that when a person turns to G-d, he can not only alter the course of his own life, but all of human history?

"I should hope to say so."

"Rabbi...the tone in your voice when you say that...the vehemence...Are you a revolutionary?"

"Come here and listen closely my friend..."

The Rabbi leaned forward in his chair, his eyes glistening with the quiet fire of conviction. He spoke, this time, in tones so low that they seemed to hint at some exciting alliance with a universe of possibility.

"You've got that right."

He wanted to know more. He observed closely. He watched so much that

sometimes he felt his eyes were going to burn a hole through something. He watched the Rabbi move when he stood up, when he sat down, when he carried something, when he ate his soup, when he talked with a teenager, a young college student, a young Orthodox Jew, a woman, a professor, or a non-Jew; and he especially watched him when he talked in Yiddish to an old Jew around the dinner table. This was when he would feel most strongly what it means to be a Jew - which by this time was what he wanted to be very much.

The Rabbi's unique experiences had drawn him apart, separated him out, and made him kadosh, holy. He lived far away from major Jewish populations and seemed to spend a lot of time simply waiting; even, one sensed, while working or learning. One was left with the feeling that he was willing to wait for you forever.

But the Rabbi didn't have forever...

The sickness came back, and when the Rabbi told him what kind of chemicals were in the bottle connected to his arm, our traveler panicked and tried to push it away, saying "Ahh...It's nothing! You'll see!" The Rabbi didn't say anything, but just shook his head, "No", three times.

The next day was Friday, Erev Shabbos. The Rabbi was still in the hospital, but his house and the shul in the basement were open as usual. Our traveler turned on the party-sized percolator, in which the Rabbi always placed only the finest coffee, ground by himself and brewed through a special method to bring out the finest in the bean. Much time had been spent with the Rabbi, brewing the coffee together, and being taught the best method of bringing out the essence. That Erev Shabbos, the percolator, which had served faithfully throughout so many Shabboses, shorted out -with big sparks- when he turned it on. Our traveler somehow knew then that the Rabbi had known what he was doing when he shook his head "no" in the hospital the day before. Monday morning, he ran and took the percolator to be fixed. It was fixed for the next Shabbos, but it was too late.

* * *

Afterwards, our traveler tried to go back to the big picture window where he had spent so much time with the Rabbi, but high weeds grew in the front and distracted his attention. Soon the house was sold to someone who turned it into several low-rent, high-turnover apartments. He tried to get a view of the window from the outside, but the weeds grew higher and now he couldn't see it at all.

The only remnant was his Big Question. It had been sifted through countless filters, and brewed up over and over during those five years in the Rabbi's presence, and had undergone a change. If the true essence is, in fact, quietly sitting at the bottom of everything-pulsating, waiting-is it too faint to be heard by normal ears? He wondered if he was willing to listen as closely as he would need to.

He had to know. There was only one place. He traveled on to Jerusalem, looking for another big picture window and a good cup of coffee.

  • Reprinted with permission of B'or HaTorah--
  • Yaakov Branfman, 1997

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