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He did not stop, as was his custom, to read the notices pasted on the wall; not even one signed by the rabbinical council which denoted a matter of extreme importance. Once he would have devoured such a message – perhaps there would be a demonstration? For a respected yeshiva student like himself, one who drove himself to excel, demonstrations were a way of clearing his head, in addition to performing a mitzvah.
[private]But today he did not even glance in the direction of the notices, ignoring their exhortations to read them via headlines and exclamation points and the vying colours of their paper. Today he walked rapidly but not to the yeshiva: he had actually taken a day off from his studies. Because of the thought. The thought that had crept into his mind as if inserted by Sammael: “But what if it is not true?” Wherever he turned – morning prayers, evening prayers, the prayer upon going to bed, upon waking up – he heard a voice whisper, “But what if it is not true?”
He had never questioned his world. The world: Heaven and Earth as set out in the Torah. He had delighted in it, nestling within the emanations of the Torah as if it were a quilt on a cold winter’s night. Talmud allowed for questioning, but this was different. You questioned aspects of Torah, not Torah itself.
As he walked he strove to shut out the refrain, “But what if it is not true?” But how could it be not true? Every man dressed in black like himself that he saw on the street, his street, attested to the truth of it. Men far wiser than himself – even the head of the yeshiva – laboured in its service, as he himself had always striven to do. And now, even as his body swayed back and forth in prayer, the words mocked his movements, “But what if it is not true?” He felt himself close to collapse. Greetings on the street went unacknowledged. If it had been summer, he could have gotten away on a summer recess tour. Climbed some hill, or travelled a wadi bed, and perhaps escape.d But it was winter. His walking brought him to the Western Wall at midnight. For a time, he prayed and the question did not assail him. But then it came, as if oozing from between the very stones, “But what is it is not true?” Even here, he thought. Yet greater profanation. He wrote quickly on a piece of paper, “Help me!”, stuffed it in a crevice, and fled.
The next morning he returned to his studies. Some of the other students looked at him closely, either because he seemed agitated or because he had been absent the day before. “Are you all right?” asked Yonah, his study partner.
“No!” he sobbed. Yonah put an arm around his shoulder. “What is it, Moshe?”
“I can’t tell you,” Moshe said. “Let’s continue.”
Somehow he got through the day, even though between the lines of the text he studied crept the words, “But what if it is not true?” After studies had finished, Yonah sat on the bed across from him.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“It?” laughed Moshe a laugh of helplessness. “Yes, it. ‘It’ is the problem.”
“All of it,” gestured Moshe helplessly. And then he burst out, “But what if it is not true?”
“What?” asked Yonah.
“Torah,” whispered Moshe.
Yonah seemed to draw back physically, or did Moshe only imagine it? His friend thought for a moment. “But how can that be?”
“I don’t know. But that’s what a voice says to me all the time. “
‘But what if it is not true?’ “
Yonah was silent for some moments. “You’ve been studying too hard, Moshe.”
“But if it is not true, don’t you see, it’s all for nothing. All of it – the yeshiva, the synagogue, our clothes, our ways, everything.”
“‘Why’? How can you ask why?” He pushed past Yonah and ran from the building. It was raining. This surprised him. When he studied, he didn’t pay attention to anything else. He began to run as if pursued by Sammael. He ran, and the whispering voice “But what if it is not true?” matched him step for step, seemed to cling to his racing heels. He ran down the narrow street. A narrow street of Jerusalem, but what could have been a narrow street in the Jewish quarter of Prague or a hundred other quarters, now or a century ago or many centuries ago. He drew his coat over his head to protect himself from the stinging rain, and from a desire not to be recognised. There flashed through his mind the picture of the Hasid in the tale who was ordered by a Messenger of the Lord to run from one village to another with his face covered with a prayer shawl so that no one would recognise him. On the third day he passed a man wrapped in a prayer shawl exactly like himself running in the opposite direction. Moshe stopped inside a building entrance to catch his breath.
“Young man!” A voice spoke to him. The voice belonged to an elderly man with a disheveled grey beard flecked with brown. Moshe started.
“It’s all right.” The man brushed his shoulder with his hand.
“Why are you running, young man?” the man asked, scrutinizing Moshe. “Ah, I see.”
“What do you mean?” Moshe stammered.
“I mean what I said. I see. Me’igra rama lebira amikta: ‘From a high roof to a deep pit.’ You have lost your faith.”
Moshe stood dumbfounded, unable to utter a word. He had sought shelter and found instead a man who knew his innermost thoughts. Worse, his innermost fear.
“No, I am not Elijah. I simply have eyes. It is written on your face. You are not the first, you know.”
Moshe didn’t know. He looked toward the entrance, prepared to escape the man, if indeed he was a man.
The old man moved slightly, sufficient to block Moshe’s path. “You can’t escape lost faith by running. As Rebbe Nachman said, ‘The edge of the void is never further away than a single false step.’” Moshe leaned against the wall, feeling faint. “But what if it is not true?” he murmured.
A sad smile formed on the man’s lips. “But what if it isn’t … Torah is still the best of all worlds.”
At these words, Moshe shivered. But now not from fear. From relief, like the last shiver of a fever beaten. The old man’s words lightened his load. They had not removed it, but the difference was like balm to a wound. He wanted the man to continue, yet he was embarrassed to request it. “Are you a rabbi?” he asked.
His question was answered with a chuckle. “Every Jew is a rabbi, even if a small rabbi. You want me to continue?” asked the man, deciphering his real question.
“Please,” Moshe said.
“Suppose it is not true, young man.” He paused and hunched his shoulders slightly. “It is still better than anything else.”
“I don’t understand.”
Even if there is nothing but rock and gases, stars and emptiness out there,” the man seemed to gaze far beyond the doorway, “the beauty of Torah will still shine.”
“But how …?”
“Torah is a way of life – a tree of life for those who grasp it. Torah is the best of what can be grasped. And if there are other beings on other planets capable of grasping, Torah would be best for them, too.”
“Even if there were no …” Moshe’s eyes glanced briefly upward.
“Perhaps even then, Heaven forbid.”
Again Moshe stood dumbfounded, yet freed of a burden. Tears of gratitude formed in his eyes.
“A tree of life to those who grasp it,” the man repeated, grazing Moshe’s shoulder with a sinewy hand.
“Yes,” whispered Moshe. The voice of doubt had fled in confusion like Amalek before Moses. He wanted to kiss the man’s hand.
“How can I ever repay you?”
A sad smile formed on the old man’s lips; a smile that seemed a grasping in the face of the eternal. “Remember me,” he said.[/private]
The stories, poetry and humour of Larry Lefkowitz have appeared in many publications in the United States, Israel, and Britain. Lefkowitz is currently hoping to find a publisher for his novel manuscript, Lieberman, about a literary critic. Replete with literary references, chapters have been published in a number of publications.