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The Fire of Joy

by Doug Lipman

Rabbi Pesach Mendel swung the broom again and again. But it was no match for the flames consuming his house. At last, defeated, he turned around.

The edge of his little property was lined with the members of his congregation. Their faces were grim, their eyes hard.

No one raised a hand to help their rabbi save his house. And the one person who might have commanded them to help him was, evidently, lying in his luxurious bed, gloating over the rabbi's misfortune.

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Months before, coming to this remote town, Rabbi Pesach Mendel had entered this house for the first time and felt hopeful. He was to serve his first congregation, in a community where no Hasidic rabbi had ever been chosen before! To be sure, he had imagined resistance to his Hasidic ways - after all, he had heard tales of other rabbis being criticized for valuing intention above form, devotion above timeliness, even for telling mystical stories and singing wordless prayer songs.

For the first months of their stay here, the rabbi's wife, Mimele, had seemed to disarm his harshest critic with her charm and wit. But now Reb Meir, the wealthiest merchant for miles around, seemed to have taken advantage of Mimele's two-week absence to mount a full-scale rebellion.

The first Sabbath Mimele was absent, as the rabbi was preparing to lead a joyful prayer during the services, Reb Meir had called from his bench on the Eastern wall, "Hurry up!"

This was an outrageous affront! But Rabbi Pesach Mendel calmly continued his preparations. He searched in himself for a prayerful attitude. He beseeched the Master of the Universe to make his soul ready to pray - on behalf of everyone present. He felt how large was the task, and how small his merit. He yearned to love his numerous critics, even a fraction as much as HaShem (G-d) loved them all! As much as HaShem loved even him, the inexperienced rabbi with a hostile congregation.

Suddenly, he was seized with a deep feeling of gratitude for HaShem's love. Tears burst from his eyes. His sobs rang out in the small synagogue.

Reb Meir stood up. "What kind of a rabbi are you? You keep us waiting and waiting! Now you cry just when you should be jubilant!"

Unconsciously, Rabbi Pesach Mendel looked at the empty seat where Mimele usually sat. In the past, she had always signaled him how to respond to Reb Meir - whether to continue or stop, whether to be fierce or placating. What should he do now? In the end, he continued his preparations for prayer.

Reb Meir took advantage of the rabbi's silence. "You have no compassion for us Jews in this town! You think only of yourself. We merchants have to work twice as hard as the non-Jews, because everyone is against us and there are so few of us. Every morning, we come here for prayer, and you keep us waiting while you laugh or cry or just gesticulate in silence. How can we keep up with the other merchants if you make us late? And how can we go out into the harsh world around us, if we've just been crying over our prayers?"

Murmurs of assent came from others in the congregation. Reb Meir continued even louder, now that all eyes were upon him, "You are destroying our community! HaShem will destroy you!"

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And now, a few days later, someone had undoubtedly taken up a torch in an effort to fulfill Reb Meir's prophecy. How could Rabbi Pesach Mendel respond? How could he continue serving in a place where he was not only unwanted, but where his congregants would set a fire, then watch his house burn down? To be sure, most of them worked for Reb Meir or owed him money. Also, it was the Sabbath, when work is forbidden - but not the work of saving a life or putting out a fire!

Naturally, when he had first seen the flames, he had called for help. But everyone had merely said, "Reb Meir says we must not defile the Sabbath." So Rabbi Pesach Mendel had no doubt where the orders had arisen that no one should help him.

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The next morning, Rabbi Pesach Mendel called for the gabbai, the messenger who called the pious Jews to prayer. "Please tell them all that I will preach on the Exodus today. And I would appreciate it if everyone could hear this one sermon."

Of course, the gabbai went straight to Reb Meir, who, as the most prestigious citizen, should always be notified first. "Exodus?" said Reb Meir, beginning to smile. "That is not the Torah portion of this week. Surely, preaching on the departure from Egypt must signal his farewell to us! Tell the others to attend!"

As the congregants began to arrive, a few of them sought out Rabbi Pesach Mendel. "We are sorry you're leaving, rabbi," they said quietly.

The rabbi said, "Thank you."

When the rabbi began the opening prayers, everyone looked over at Reb Meir. He began to pray aloud - if not enthusiastically, then at least dutifully. The others joined in.

At last, Rabbi Pesach Mendel stepped forward to begin his sermon. He looked slowly from one side of the room to another. Most returned his questioning gaze with set, steely eyes. Those few who had approached him earlier looked down. At last, the rabbi began:

"What is the most joyful moment in the Torah? It might very well be the moment when the Jews made it across the Red Sea, only moments ahead of Pharaoh's soldiers. Just then, the great walls of water that had arisen to divide the sea collapsed, swirling Pharaoh's army to its doom. The Jews were safe! They were free! They sang their joy and thanks to HaShem. Even the angels in heaven sang in joy.

"But the rabbis of old tell us that HaShem spoke sharply to the angels: 'No! Do not sing thus.'

"Astonished, the angels replied, 'But are your children not free and safe?' "HaShem said, 'And those drowned soldiers? Are they not also my children?' And the angels wept.

Rabbi Pesach Mendel looked around at the faces of his congregants. They looked puzzled. "So, you see," he continued. "Moments of celebration can provoke tears. Even the greatest triumph in Jewish history was mixed with sadness - for those who saw widely enough. Even this prayer of joy was accompanied in heaven by tears.

"It is one thing to disagree over the right way to worship. It is another to allow destruction that does not liberate us. Then, there is no joy - only sorrow.

"I feel sorrow for the burning of my house. I feel even greater sorrow that the children of HaShem who live in this town stood by without helping their brother. They acquiesced in harming a Jew because a leader told them to. Having Jews act like Pharoah's soldiers is the greater loss I grieve for.

"But I could feel joy in this moment of sorrow, if, in the morning, some of you were to help me begin to rebuild my house."

The rabbi looked around one more time. Not a single person met his gaze. Finally, the rabbi led the rest of the service. Everyone joined in.

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The next morning, Rabbi Pesach Mendel looked up as he dragged a burnt timber from the charred ruins of his house. There was a congregant, come to help! Then another, and another! Within an hour, every one of them had come to his aid.

The last to arrive was Reb Meir. Rabbi Pesach Mendel greeted him, then looked a long time into Reb Meir's eyes. "Yes," the rabbi thought, "I can love him. Thank the Lord!"

As the rabbi took his gaze from Reb Meir's, he was not sure - but he thought he saw, in Reb Meir's eyes, the tiniest tear.

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This page was last updated on Tuesday, August 5, 2003
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