Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Rebbe

Like all young children, Yitzi fashioned G-d in the image of his father. Thus, Hashem was bearded, solemn, and sacred. Hashem loved everybody, just like Tatty did, but Hashem loved Yitzi the best because he was special and he would become the rebbe when Tatty went up to Hashem and left all of the chasidim for Yitzi to take care off.

At seven, he was securely expectant. By ten, he began to doubt. He was not holy when he prayed and he did not remember all his Torah and he went to sleep long before the light went off in Tatty's study. He had known that he would not be as great as the rebbeim of the stories. Now he wondered if he would be great at all.

He buried the hot-stomach doubt and continued learning. Eager teachers found signs of genius in his willing intelligence and signs of piety in his tired, wary eyes. They told each other that he was G-d-fearing and when he heard them, he wanted to tell them that he never thought about G-d. But he didn't, because he was a liar.

One afternoon when he was eleven, he came into Tatty's office. Tatty talked to him about the Tosafos's reading of Rashi and he thought about the boys playing outside and how only he had to be great and wasn't. And then he looked suddenly into Tatty's sacred eyes and it came to him that Tatty did not know. Tatty did not know that he was not great or that he wished that he could play outside instead of standing in the office learning with the Rebbe. It was too big of a thought for him to think at all once and so he broke it down into little pieces and thought it for the next few months.

These were the pieces of the thought: Tatty does not know that I am not great. Tatty is very great. Hashem gives him help to know how to lead the chasidim. But Tatty doesn't know that I am not great.

He wavered for a moment on the brink of doubt. But Tatty was great.

So there must be greatness that he could see in Yitzchak, like everybody said there was. And yet at the same time, Yitzchak was not great.

He pushed himself harder, stayed up later, clenched himself tighter when he prayed. But he never felt the still, small flame that he could see in Tatty's eyes. It seemed to him that trying was not enough, and yet he knew that fear of G-d was in his hands and the failure must be his.

Meanwhile, boys treated him with ginger respect. Meanwhile, his teachers' eyes blazed with devotion. Meanwhile, Tatty got sick and weak as though his soul was eating up his body. Meanwhile, Yitzchak's prayers and nights got longer and longer and nobody knew what a liar he was.

Tatty died when Yitzchak was twenty. His voice trembled at the funeral when he spoke of his father's greatness and his own inability to be a tenth of what Tatty had been. Weeping chasidim comforted each other with the new rebbe's humility.

Almost before
shiva was over, they came to him, asking him about their businesses and their wives, begging him to pray for their sick and dying, bringing him their chickens and their consciences for his examination. They expected him to know everything the way that Tatty had.

But there was no certainty in him. The chasidim piled faith on him like a boulder and questions like volleys of stones, and wanted to tell them that he didn't know, that he couldn't do this, that he wasn't great. But the chasidim deserved greatness, deserved certainty delivered in Tatty's calm voice.

Sometimes he tried to tell himself that Tatty must have felt the same way, that certainty was a myth and Hashem did not speak to anyone clearly. But he had seen the light in Tatty's eyes and he had heard his voice and he knew that there was something there that he had not achieved.

He was twenty three the first time that a tale of piety sparked no hunger, but only a distant wonder. Examining the feeling, he realized that he already knew that he would never become great. That he could not be great. There was an odd certainty to the thought. But it could not be true. Greatness was a choice that belonged to him and Hashem expected him to choose it.

He pushed harder. Late at night, he would lean his head against his books and beg Hashem for the one gift that he knew that he must earn. And his students, tiptoeing past, heard him sobbing and gazed at the door in humbled awe.

He tried harder, so much harder that he could feel the straining, but he was still not great. He felt it breaking him and there was a curious desperation in his eyes that even the chasidim whose questions he answered did not know how to read.

One Friday night, he looked over the rim of his cup at the rows of devout faces staring up at him. Words boiled up in his mouth like vomit and he closed his mouth so they would not spill out. In the brief stretch of silence, he almost heard himself shout that he was not a rebbe, that he had no certainty, that he had failed them and never become great. And he could feel the relief, the burden lifted. But where would it go? Who should bear it if not the rebbe?

He could not speak. He closed his eyes on the crowd of faces, felt the tears well up beneath his eyelids and knew that the next day, the chasidim would be whispering about this latest proof of his holiness.

Then he finished kiddush, gagging on despair and his declaration that the L-rd had chosen him from among all nations and desired him from among all peoples. The chasidim passed the cup around, each awed to drink when the rebbe had put his lips.


Halfnutcase said...

thats a beautifull story.

Its odd sometimes, how people look at their parents, and think of themselves. it seems to me that usualy it is self doubt that leads to greatness, don't you think?

I mean, what else do we learn from moshe's arguing with g-d?

Izgad said...

I would take the story a step further and have the main character have a son who looks at him as Tatty the great tzadik, which he will never amount to.
This type of thinking goes a long way to explaining the origins of the concept of Yiridat hadorot, the decline of generations.
Every generation sees the generation before them as something that they will never be able to match up to.
"When will our deeds match that of our ancestors?"

Miri said...

Tobie, is this what you were working on?

See, here's the problem; your main character is struggling after something elusive and intangible. But he does spend all his time learning and praying; he does know how to answer the questions of the chassidim. To a normal person, that would be sufficient to count for greatness. It's the character's natural self-doubt that makes him feel unworthy. But the question is - is he really unworthy? I'm not sure that's so.

Tobie said...

HNC and Miri- I tried to leave it unclear whether or not the character was actually 'great' at the end. I mean, how on earth do I know? But it's clear that he believed that there was something objective that he lacked. I feel like this sort of self-doubt would be pretty much inevitable in a system where the rebbe is supposed to be a conduit to G-d and know everything- when you hype up the role so much, who's going to be able to feel like they've got it? But I'm not sure that every rebbe- or any actually- does feel like this. So maybe they really do have something that this character didn't.

Izgad- you're right, it would be a tighter ending to have the next generation looking up at him. I'm tempted to rewrite it now...

Izgad said...

Alternatively you could have the main character turn into Danny from the Chosen.

Miri said...

but that would be derivative, and also, kind of a cop out.

Tobie said...

Oh, I don't know. Having a character suddenly morph into another person, while the crowds of chasidim watch in startled awe ("what's he doing? What's happening to his face?")... it would be pretty darn original.

Halfnutcase said...

tobie: lol!

Miri said...

ok, yes, Tobie wins the morphing point.

Mindy said...

That was incredible!! It was great! I like the comments by other people. but the story sounds like it ends abruptly. I thought it was going to continue.