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by S. Humphries-Brooks
"Others think that tales are a good remedy to put one to sleep; I maintain
that stories are useful to awaken people."
The Rebbe Simcha-Bunam sat in the small dark room, thinking. He liked this room. It
suited him. "A person doesn't need too much space," he remarked, out loud
and to no one at all.
- R. Nachman of Bratzlav
His clouded eyes wandered across the shelves where bottles of medicines
stood precisely arranged, row after row after row. Progress was evident
everywhere. "A spoon of this in the morning, a pinch of that before bed.
So, too, must we carefully measure our actions and our words. Small
gestures grow quickly into large events. It is no easy thing, this
creating. Even now the world is still in the beginning."
He sighed. And now the grandchild of his old friend and adversary, the Apter, was to marry. Well, and what
better time than now? Still, it was not only for a wedding that so many
would travel so far. Everyone was drawn into the fold. Everyone was
determined to count: who was present at the banquet? who should be present?
who should not be? All weddings are special; this one would be especially
It was no big surprise, then, that Reb Bunam had caused
no small stir when
he announced to his followers, he would not attend. They pressed him hard.
They argued, they entreated. Who better to represent Pshis'cha? Who else?
No one could cause the bitter soul to flame better
than Reb Simcha-Bunam of Pshis'cha himself. He
would hear none of it. He held firm, clear in his decision. "We must each
climb on our own."
Now, they were gone. And here he sat, alone.
The light of day began to filter through the curtains. "How welcoming the
sun feels upon the face," he murmured. He closed his eyes to the warmth. As
the dark curtain descended, he saw the three who traveled to Ostila in his
The youngest, the precocious prodigy from Warsaw, was deep in debate. Who
could argue more sharply than Yitzchak, or with such range of depth, or
such eloquence? The dark one sitting beside him remained somber, however.
No one questioned, no one thirsted, more passionately than he. He embraced
the strength of silence. He knew how to pierce with it, how to make it hit
the mark. The third, the eldest of the three, simply smiled. His gentle
eyes yielded. No kinder, more compassionate soul graced this world. He
loved completely. It was enough.
"Yes," thought the Rebbe, "it is not the result that matters, but the
effort spent. Still," and he smiled, "who better to speak for Pshis'cha
than the rebels themselves?"
A breeze wafted through the room. The Rebbe recognized the voice that it carried. It
was his old friend, Yaakov Yitzchak. "I am worried," the voice whispered.
"The light is waning. Darkness is closing in on us. What will happen to our
people?" Then, as if in answer to his plea, the Apter appeared, sitting at
the banquet table, all alone. He looked exactly as he had on that day so
long ago. Oh, how Reb Bunam remembered that day.
"Friend, I do not understand," the Apter had persisted at him. "Why do you
set no hours for prayer? How can it be enough to prepare and wait? You
accept no honors, no privileges, yet you incite the young against their
fathers, against the Masters whom they love?" The rebuke was strong. The
Rebbe listened deeply to the criticism hurled against him. Then, he spoke.
"I hear what you say, my friend; I understand your feelings. Now, so that
you might understand mine, let me tell you a story."
Once upon a time, three men were confined in a prison. There were no
windows in this prison, no light seeping through any chinks in the wall, no
glimmer slipping quietly beneath the door. It was pitch-black in there. So
dark, not even the darkness could see.
That was long ago. Now the Rebbe of Pshis'cha sat in the small room,
thinking. Now the Apter sat at the banquet table, alone. The wedding was
over, as were the certain debates. The Apter listened intently to the
arguments, both for and against the school of Pshis'cha. He sifted through
them: their erudition, their insights, the struggles, the silence. So much
weighed on his small opinion.
Now, two of these unlucky fellows, they were very learned, very intelligent
men. Great teachers, admired and followed by many. The other, poor soul, he
was a simpleton. He knew nothing, nothing at all. He couldn't put his
clothes on, he couldn't feed himself, nothing. So, one day, one of these
learned men made a decision: he would teach this poor fellow! There, in
that darkness. He would teach this poor soul all he needed to know: how to
dress himself, how to feed himself, button his buttons, hold a spoon,
He worked hard. But that other fellow, that other learned man? He did
nothing, nothing at all. Shameful.
Finally, one day, the hardworking teacher had all he could take. "Friend, I
do not understand! Why do you just sit there, waiting? How can you do
nothing for this poor simple soul?"
The other man listened, thoughtful. Then, finally, he spoke. "My friend, I
understand that you have been working hard. I understand what you have been
trying to do. Now, understand me. In my waiting, I have been working, too.
You see, in this darkness, I fear: though you teach this poor soul, you
will teach him nothing. No matter how many years you try. In this
darkness, he can learn nothing of value at all. And so, I sit here
thinking. How might I break a hole in that wall? How might I let the light
in to this prison? When that happens, my friend, this man can learn for
himself all that he needs to know."
Then his thoughts turned to Reb Bunam. He remembered a story the Rebbe had
told him. Funny how a story can stay in the mind. It was a simple story,
told so long ago. A story of three men locked in a prison. The darkness
enveloped them. The light needed a way. Unexpectedly, the Apter laughed.
The answer grew so clear. How obvious.
Little enough light breaks through in this world. It is difficult enough to
find any path to let it in. Why should Pshis'cha's way be shut out? Why,
The journey toward understanding is always a humbling one. We travel,
confident that we are walking in the light of day. Then, unexpectedly, the
sun breaks through. What we thought was light seems a mere shadow before
us. The world is different from what we understood. For a moment, we
stand there, uncertain. We don't know what to do. Then we do the only thing
we can. We take off our shoes and we dance.
- Afterman, Alan and Gedaliah Fleer. Tales of the Tzaddikim from "B'or
Ha'Torah." 1986. Online.
- Aron, Milton. Ideas and Ideals of the Hassidim. New York: Citadel Press,1969.
- Finkel, Avraham Yaakov. The Great Hasidic Masters. Northvale, New Jersey and London: Jason Aronson, Inc. 1992.
- Lipman, Doug. Story Wrestling: Healing Through Telling Hasidic Stories.
- Newman, Louis I. The Hasidic Anthology: Tales and Teachings of the
Hasidim. New York: Bloch Publishing Company. 1944.
- Wiesel, Elie. Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters. New
York: Random House. 1972.
- Weinreich, Beatrice Silverman, ed. Yiddish Tales. New York: Schocken
Copyright © 2001 by S. Humphries-Brooks
Used by permission.
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This page was last updated on Monday, March 10, 2003