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The Prison

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."
- R. Nachman of Bratzlav
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.

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 so.

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 stead.

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.

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, everything.

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."

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.

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, indeed?

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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.

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Sources Consulted

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. Online.
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 Books. 1988.

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Copyright © 2001 by S. Humphries-Brooks
Used by permission.



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This page was last updated on Monday, March 10, 2003