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Angels Feel No Sorrow
by Doug Lipman
Strolling among the hills on the bright summer morning, Rabbi Pesach Mendel just barely kept himself from skipping. In spite of his attempted dignity as a young rabbi, he bounded like a child along the path outside the village of Tsibulin. It was warm. He carried his jacket over his shoulder, held by the crook of a single finger. He whistled as he climbed.
In a few hours - before sundown and the official start of the summer's Three Weeks of mourning - his parents would announce his engagement at a great feast.
Of course, for the next 21 days, the holy time of mourning would require him to shift his focus to the losses of Jewish history. He knew that, on the spiritual plane, these losses were themselves expressions of the Shekinah's exile. Of the loss of unity between the transcendent creator and the Shekinah, G-d's "bride," the immanent spirit of G-d in our world.
But now, and at least until the start of the day of fasting that would inaugurate the Three Weeks, he felt anything but loss. On the contrary, he knew his marriage to Mimele would be a joyful uniting of the spirits. The Shekinah herself would be made just a little more whole, due to the physical and spiritual union of Rabbi Pesach Mendel and his intended bride.
His bride! He loved the words, especially when he imagined Mimele, with her dark, flashing eyes and shining face - all framed by her raven hair with its unusually premature streaks of silver. She who understood so well the ways of the people around her, who was so grounded in the wisdom of the earth. Who, as the daughter of a great mystical rabbi, had an appreciation for the spiritual, too. Surely, with Rabbi Pesach Mendel's spiritual achievements, his and Mimele's union of earth and heaven would make the Shekinah rejoice!
He knew he should be more humble about his spiritual achievements. Pride was a constant temptation, of course. And he felt very proud of his meditations, during which he had more than once caused his soul to leave his body and soar above the earth. One such time, he thought he had even heard in the distance the heavenly discussions of the sages who study in Paradise. Surely, one day he might even merit to have his living soul enter the gates of Paradise itself!
Pride again. He knew that all such abilities came from G-d. He knew, too, that even his pride was but a part of G-d's creation and, like all the "husks" that conceal true G-dliness, deserved to be lifted back to the source of all. That lifting was his job. The role of people in creation is, after all, to help reunite the spirit in this world with the transcendence beyond.
To counter his prideful thoughts, he called to mind one of the most shameful periods in his young life. And this, too, had to do with Mimele.
Raised in this same village, they had known each other since her birth, two years after his. All through their childhoods, she had followed after him, begging him to talk to her, to include her in his play, to simply let her sit in his presence.
Why had that been so hard for him to accept?
Now, the mere thought of her company lifted his spirits. Why, then, had he spurned her so consistently in their younger years? Was it just what he always said to himself, that she couldn't keep up? That she was just a girl and didn't belong in the rough play he sought with the older boys?
Or was it more than that? Did he secretly identify with the rejection that young Mimele had so plainly felt? After all, the older boys - even the Jewish ones - looked askance at him. He was too small, too sensitive, too given to telling long stories and prattling about the little details of life he had noticed.
But that wasn't all. To tell the deepest truth, he had always been a little afraid of Mimele. When her eyes flashed with outrage, her tongue gained strength to decry the injustices around her - whether an unfair decision in her household, the plight of the Jews or the other villagers, or his own mistreatment of anyone - including of her.
Now, the power of her tongue and the boldness of her perceptions thrilled him, promising to complement his more placid nature. But then...had he felt a need to achieve power over her in the only way he could - as the one who rejected her?
Was that why he had spoken so cruelly to her, day after day, when she was so young and vulnerable? Why he kept on, long after she had dissolved in tears? Had he enjoyed knowing that his words cut her to the quick?
Beyond that, had she ever truly forgiven him? Even now, he would sometimes catch her looking at him as though she was searching for something - something she kept expecting to see but never did. She didn't seem angry as much as vaguely disappointed, as though he were just a serviceable cottage where she had expected a radiant palace.
Suddenly, the young rabbi stopped his climbing of the rutted road. He began to cough hard. The world grew dizzy around him. He fell.
Then there was nothing.
"Payshe? Payshe?" Mimele's voice was calling Rabbi Pesach Mendel's childhood nickname, reaching out to him from beyond the void. At last he opened his eyes. His mother sat at one side of his bed, holding his hand. Mimele sat at the other. Both faces looked concerned. Mimele looked determined, as well.
"Payshe, can you hear me?"
"Yes, my love." He tried to raise his head but lacked the strength. "What happened?"
"You collapsed in the hills. A wagon driver found you and brought you back to the village. You have been very sick."
"Not anymore," he started to say. But he began to cough, instead.
"Payshe, do you know I love you?" Rabbi Pesach Mendel nodded his head. "Payshe, are you strong in your love for me?"
In spite of his weakness, he managed to meet her gaze and hold it for a moment. "Good," she said, understanding his answer. "Please remember that," she said. "Please."
He was too dizzy to puzzle out what she was talking about. He closed his eyes. When he awoke, she was gone.
"Mother," Rabbi Pesach Mendel said the next morning, "where is my betrothed?"
His mother pulled her chair closer to his bed, but avoided meeting his eyes. "Payshe," she sighed, "you are not betrothed to Mimele." He tried to sit up in protest. She motioned him to remain lying down, then continued, "Because you collapsed, we had to postpone the betrothal announcement feast. Now, of course, it is not proper to celebrate a joyous occasion during the Three Weeks. Your engagement will have to wait at least until the Three Weeks end. At least until after Tisha BeAv."
"Mother, what do you mean, 'at least'?"
She sighed again. "I do not understand her change of heart. But Mimele has asked me to tell you." She shifted uncomfortably. "She said to tell you, 'I will not marry him with things as they are.'"
"Things? What things?" From the watery look of his mother's eyes, he knew she had no answer.
Rabbi Pesach Mendel stood at his window, looking out at the lushness of the summer. In spite of his nearly total recovery, he felt no joy at the beauties of the season.
And to think that, just three weeks ago, he had been worried about feeling sad enough to mourn properly! Instead, he had wept almost ceaselessly ever since. As his strength had begun to return, his mourning had gained power, too. Tomorrow would be Tisha BeAv, and he had scarcely stopped grieving since the Three Weeks began.
He began to feel a trace of pride in the strength of his mourning during these three weeks. But then he remembered: he had not truly been mourning the losses of his people. He had actually given little thought to the exile and suffering of the Shekinah. In blunt fact, he had been mourning for himself. For the loss of his love.
Not only was Mimele evidently refusing to marry him, she had abandoned him in his time of need. To be sure, his strength was returning faster than anyone could have anticipated. But it was no thanks to Mimele. Her betrayal of him had been total.
As much as he missed her, he had to admit to himself, he felt even more the loss of his love for her. He had been so comforted by loving her!
Suddenly, he felt ashamed. "I am being self-centered. I need to stop mourning because of her. I need to attend to my spiritual needs. Enough crying over Mimele!"
Hardening his heart, he drew the curtain over the window. He would turn to the holy books, to reading about the proper observance of Tisha BeAv. He needed to put this personal grief behind him - and put Mimele behind him, too.
Just as he turned to open a book, he heard a soft croon at the window.
At first he ignored it. He fully intended to take his mind from all creatures now living and think only of the tragedies of the past. But the sound continued and at last entered his conscious mind. It was the soft call of a dove, and it came from just outside his window. The sound was so sad, it pierced him. He went to the window and drew back the curtain.
The dove perched just beyond the glass, only inches from his face. It stared at him with dark eyes that were framed by the brownish gray of its feathers. Something about those eyes transfixed him.
Without warning, the dove flapped its wings and flew off. The sudden absence of the dove's sad beauty took away Rabbi Pesach Mendel's breath. Impulsively, he ran outside to follow the dove as it flew.
There it was, perched in the low branch of a tree. As soon as he saw it, it flew farther away again. All the while, it called to him hauntingly.
At last, the dove led him to a tall tree and disappeared into the branches. Timidly creeping closer, he spied the dove sitting in its nest. He crept still nearer, until he could peer into the nest itself.
What he saw in the nest made his breath catch in his throat. He saw nothing. The nest was empty. His tears erupted before he could notice the understanding that brought them. The dove, he had realized, had no one. Mimele, too, had no one. The divine Shekinah in her exile had no one. All the emptinesses were the same. He felt the dove's loneliness in every bone. Sinking to one knee, he wept as he had never wept before.
Yet, all the while, the dove did not desert him.
The next morning, he arose to find a note under his door. He opened it. It was from Mimele; she wanted to see him.
The day before, the note would have made him angry. "Too late!" he would have said. But today that bitterness had left his heart. Feeling his full strength for the first time since he had fainted on the mountain, he strode off to see the only one he had ever thought he might marry.
At the home of Mimele's parents, he and Mimele were appropriately watched over, but not overheard. As soon as they could talk, Mimele said, "Do you have a question for me?"
"Why?" Rabbi Pesach Mendel stroked his wispy beard. "That's my question: why. Why did you leave me when I needed your help? I might have died!"
Mimele said, "Yes. But I might have saved your life. Please, Payshe, listen to my story."
"When you collapsed just hours before the planned feast to announce our betrothal, of course I was shocked and afraid for you. But I also had a queasy feeling. I felt the presence, I thought, of the hand of heaven. I knew that, to save you, I needed to understand the heavenly as well as the earthly circumstances of your sudden illness.
"So I sent my soul on a dream quest inside the gates of heaven."
At this, Rabbi Pesach Mendel's eyes opened wide. Mimele said, "Yes, my father taught me much." Then she went on.
"My soul was able to enter the lower reaches of Paradise. There, I saw the soul of a great sage, studying a glowing book. I asked, 'Why did my bridegroom fall sick just as we were to be betrothed?' Without a word, the sage closed his book, stood up and strode into an upper room where my soul could not follow him.
"I asked another sage the same question, but he also refused to answer. At last, I came to the soul of an ancient scholar with a tender face and liquid eyes. The moment I asked my question, he burst into tears. He said, 'Do you not remember?'
"Of course, I had no idea what he meant. After much pleading, he told me, at last, the story of our souls, Payshe - yours and mine. Here's what the sage told me:
Before we were born, Payshe, your and my souls
were chosen to join together on this Earth. We
were permitted, as sometimes happened, a glimpse
of our intended while still in Paradise. Of
course, our souls would forget what they had known
while living in the heavenly Palace of Souls, once
we emerged from our mothers' wombs. But we began
yearning for each other the moment we were born.
One day, when I was eleven or twelve, you said
something especially cruel as you rejected, once
again, my friendship. My soul cried out for
relief. I prayed, "Master of the Universe, he
keeps tearing my heart into shreds!"
At that moment, the sage told me, a decree was
passed in heaven that we would not marry in this
lifetime. That your soul was not yet ready for the
union of love it had been chosen for. Instead, our
marriage would be postponed until another lifetime,
another reincarnation, when our love might be
achieved in all its destined splendor. An angel was
placed in charge of enforcing the decree.
This decree loosened the bond between us. So your
continued rejections - although they still hurt -
no longer rent the fabric of my soul.
"Payshe, when the sage told me this, I understood at last why, as much as I love you, I have felt dissatisfied. I still yearn for that great union we were promised before we were born. The union I had felt close at hand, in spite of your early cruelty to me, right up to the moment of the heavenly decree.
"That's why, too, I suddenly realized, our engagement had seemed both right and wrong to me. I knew that our parents were correct about your and my rightness for each other. So, when they proposed we wed, I agreed. But there was something more we could have had together. Something so pure and splendid - I was not quite sure I was willing to live a lifetime without it.
"But the sage went on with his story, Payshe. He told me:
The day we consented to marry, the angel
announced our fate. Since a public betrothal
between fated souls cannot be undone, you
were to die before our betrothal could be
"When the sage told me this story, I wept. I realized I did not want to wait. I would not lose the chance to be truly joined with you, not while I still had the power to resist. 'But I wish to forgive him,' I cried to the sage. 'Is there not forgiveness in Heaven? Is there no change he can make?'
"The sage called to the angel, who listened at great length, then spoke:
As an angel, I can know joy; I can thirst for
justice. But I can not know true sorrow. And I am
unable to change. Only humans can know heartbreak,
and only humans can truly change.
The joining of your lives was meant to help bridge
together heavenly joy and earthly suffering. But
it will not be a true union if the souls do not
join as equals. Since Rabbi Pesach Mendel made you
suffer so much in your childhood, there is a great
imbalance between you.
The only choice I can offer, in place of waiting for
another lifetime, will be for him to experience the full
sorrow of the Shekinah on Tisha BeAv - as strongly
as you felt, years ago, the rejection by his soul,
the soul you were born to seek.
"Do you see, Payshe? After that, the more you wept, the stronger you grew. But when it became clear you were crying only for yourself these last weeks, the Shekinah grieved the loss of our union. And yesterday, when you hardened your heart against me, it pained the Shekinah so much that she appeared to you."
At this, Rabbi Pesach Mendel startled. "The Shekinah appeared to me?"
"Yes, Payshe. In her form as a dove. Leading you to her empty nest, she tried to show you what she felt. Fortunately, your heart was soft enough that her grief entered it, and you cried as never before. Now, we may join together, not as two who are the same, but as two who are equal."
A few days later, Mimele and her Payshe were wed. On their wedding night, their bodies and their souls were joined. Completely, without restriction. Joined as they were meant to be joined.
The spirit of G-d and the Shekinah also felt that meeting, that reunion, that holy unification. Their separation, too, was partly healed by it.
And in heaven, the angels felt the union of Rabbi Pesach Mendel and Mimele, as well. Angels cannot feel the depths of our sorrow. But the souls in heaven heard the angels' joy, ringing from one end of Paradise to the other.
A personal note:
This story came to me, as did most of the Rabbi Pesach Mendel stories, as a series of images that I did little to shape consciously. Yet this particular story seems especially influenced by some themes in my life.
Here's one example. My mother and father met in 1940. Within a few months they agreed to marry. Then, suddenly, my mother called off the engagement. Three months later, equally suddenly, she telephoned my father to say she had changed her mind.
They were married six months after they had met. People who knew them said the marriage was a fling and could not last.
They remained married until my father's death, exactly 62 and 1/2 years later - June 26, 2003.
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