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The Missing Brother
Adapted and Expanded by Doug Lipman
Everyone knows the saintliness of the two brothers, Rabbi Elimelekh and Rabbi Zusia. You may not have heard that they had a third brother? His name was Reb Nosen. He was lost to them for many years.
No one knows how he got lost. Some say he was taken into the Tsar's army against his will and forced to stay for 20 years. Such things happened. Others say he resisted Hasidism, and lost touch when his brothers, after the death of the holy Maggid of Mezeritz, began their long wanderings.
No matter how Nosen got lost, Rabbi Elimelekh and Rabbi Zusia always tried to find him. Wherever they went, they asked: "Has anyone seen this man?" They gave his name, his mother's name, his city of birth, and his description. Many times people said, "There is one like him staying at an inn." But when they arrived, the man was gone. Or they found a man there who was not their brother.
Once, Rabbi Zusia said to Rabbi Elimelekh, "What kind of a man do you suppose our brother Nosen has become?"
Rabbi Elimelekh said, "I hope that he is devoted to God. Perhaps he has become a rabbi? At least one who observes the laws of the Torah."
Rabbi Zusia said, "I only hope he is a good man."
One day, just before Rosh Hashanah, the two brothers entered a small village in the Ukraine. They made their way to the house of study. They joined the villagers in prayers and, as strangers, were invited to the house of a local Jew for food and lodging. Before accepting, the brothers asked if anyone knew of a Reb Nosen living in the village. None did. Perhaps a traveller by that name? Heads shook, shoulders shrugged. No one had heard of him.
As the two brothers left with their host for the night, they passed a man just entering the house of study. His head down, the man scarcely greeted the brothers as he hurried by them. Rabbi Zusia followed the man back inside. "I ask you, friend, have you seen a certain one I seek?"
The man, who had already opened a holy book and begun to study, looked up impatiently. His eyes showed the signs of lack of sleep. His voice was weary. "Who?"
Rabbi Zusia began, "His name is Reb Nosen. He was born in...."
The man burst out, "The only Reb Nosen I know is a madman! He has kept me awake with his rantings these last six nights! As poor as I am, I only wish he would move to another inn!"
In no time at all, Rabbi Elimelekh and Rabbi Zusia were standing in that very inn, talking to the wife of the man they had met at the house of study. "This Reb Nosen who is staying here, may we talk to him tonight?"
The woman said, "He has asked that no one disturb him after sundown. Perhaps you could return in the morning?"
The two brothers looked around at the shabby inn. "We fear missing him in the morning. If we stay here tonight, will you give us the room next to his?"
"Are you sure? No one has wanted that room since the night the madman arrived."
When the brothers arrived in their room, all was quiet. Tired from their day's journey, they quickly fell asleep. A short time later, they woke to the sound of sobbing from the next room. They heard footsteps, then the scraping of a chair. In a moment, the chair scraped back again. More footsteps, then quiet.
As soon as they fell back asleep, they were awakened by a moan. Then the same sounds of walking and chair-moving as before.
Six more times that night, they heard the same sounds. But the cries and moans became ever more anguished. By the time the night was half over, the sobbing grew louder - and did not cease.
Finally, just after dawn, the two brothers knocked on the door next to theirs. The sobbing stopped; footsteps approached. When the door opened, they saw a haggard face. "Nosen? Is it you? We are Elimelekh and Zusia. Are you our brother?"
The man looked at them. "I had brothers such as you. I have not been worthy of them. Perhaps you should pretend you never found me."
"May we come in, brother? We have sought you far and long."
Sitting around the small table in their brother's room, Rabbi Elimelekh and Rabbi Zusia began to question Reb Nosen. "Dear brother, what has troubled you so deeply? We heard your cries in the night."
At that, their brother began to sob again. "On Rosh Hashanah everyone has to give a record of what they did through the last year. For many years, I paid little attention. After all, I hadn't really stolen or killed or defiled the Sabbath. So I mentioned a few harmless lies in my prayers, and never bothered to really worry about my conduct.
"But two weeks ago, eating in this inn, I received a visitor, another lumber merchant. He had journeyed two days to find me!
"My visitor reminded me that, six months before, he and I and some others had been planning a business venture. In the course of the planning, he had bragged of his new horses. He had described with evident satisfaction how he had received them as a gift from a wealthy land-owner - who had just made him his exclusive supplier of lumber.
"My visitor paused. 'I have a confession,' he said. 'At the time of that conversation, I knew you had been trying to sell to that very land-owner. I bragged about my horses only to make you feel inferior to me for losing that contract. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.'
"The merchant's words shocked me. To travel two days to apologize to me for one remark! I thought to myself, how many remarks like this have I made in a year? How many things have I done to make others feel less than me?
"I began a list on a piece of paper. But soon the paper was filled. So I began to write in a book. Each evening, starting at sundown, I wrote page after page. At last, I had written them all down.
"Then, one night, I woke from my sleep with a start. I remembered another word I had said to make myself feel better than someone. I got up in the night and wrote it in my book. An hour later, I woke up, remembering another remark. Each night, I awakened countless times, each time coming to this table to write what I hoped would be the last entry in the list. Every time I remembered another hurtful deed or word, I grieved.
"Last night, I remembered still more. Each time, I arose, sat in this chair, and wrote it in my book. Deep in the night, I went to write one more - and discovered that the book was full. I had filled an entire book with the hurt I had done! How could such a year ever be forgiven? I read through the book from beginning to end, weeping over each entry on each page.
"And so, brothers, you find me here in despair. There are not enough days in the coming year to make amends for all the harm I have done in the last one."
Reb Nosen offered the book to his brothers, its cover still damp with his tears.
Rabbi Elimelekh said, "We still rejoice to have found you. And I know the gates of penitence are always open."
But Rabbi Zusia had opened the book. He looked up with awe at his new-found brother. "You need not worry about forgiveness."
Nosen's mouth fell open. "How can you say such a thing? The record of my sins is in front of you, written in this book, and engraved in God's heart!"
Rabbi Zusia lay the open book on the table. "Look," he said, turning one page after another. "The power of penitence reaches the throne of God. Nosen, you claimed not to be worthy of us. But I doubt I am worthy of you."
The brothers sat staring at the book. It was blank. Nosen's tears had dissolved the writing on every page.
Note: Inspired by a traditional tale.
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August 2, 2009
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