Why did he feel so guilty, like he needed to do teshuvah more than anyone else in shul?
"We have to ask for zechusim. We have to wait for them, to see them when they come, to realize how fortunate we are and grab them. Mamesh grab them with both hands.” The rav paused, looking around the crowded shul. “Grab them like precious treasures.”
He pounded the shtender and a tissue box fell to the ground, causing a mild commotion.
It took half a minute, but he resumed. “We’re going to begin selichos in a few minutes, and part of what we have to do teshuvah on is letting zechusim slip through our fingers.” The rav lifted his hands and spread his fingers apart. “They come to us, we look away, and then someone else gets them. Because make no mistake, the Ribbono shel Olam has other shlichim, He will make sure that His will is carried out, the question is only if you will be the one to have the zechus of doing it…”
The rav was quiet then, and no one moved: he wasn’t a young man, and his voice wasn’t loud, but Avi Korman -- and every other person lining the tables in shul -- knew that the Rav meant every word, that the pain was real and raw.
Avi played with the half-glasses inside his shtender, the Kinnos sitting there since Tisha B’av, the small gold satchel of marshmallows from a long-ago aufruf, and wondered if Elman, to his right, or Braunstein, to his left, also felt that the Rav was talking to them, and only to them.
He hadn’t come in to this to feel big, to be an askan, to make his children proud. It had been exactly as the Rav had said. When David Backman had given him the land in Modena, he’d thought how it could be used for klal Yisrael, and when Rabbi Wasser had lost his job, Avi Korman had felt pulled to make it happen.
So why did he feel so guilty, like he needed to do teshuvah more than anyone else in shul?
It was one thirty-five in the morning when selichos ended, but Avi couldn’t let it go. The rav looked completely exhausted, barely able to walk to his car, so Avi couldn’t discuss it with him. Heshy Melberg was still in shul, and Avi approached him.
The lights were already closed. The generators, still on. As the two men headed toward the exit, bathed them in an eerie orange light.
Melberg was an old-time askan, a senior statesman of conventions and conferences, the type who would regularly advise younger askanim. Avi had heard he did panel discussions in his house. He knew mosdos inside out and had a long string of accomplishment under his belt. He even looked like an askan, with thick graying hair and serious eyes and deep creases in his cheeks, a man who was used to giving people what they needed.
Avi remembered going to Melberg years ago, when the neighborhood was new and everyone was well-behaved and polite and no one wanted to start a fight. Avi was part of the group that had no problem with the fact that the Levines ran a hachnassas orchim in their basement, and they were fine with the steady parade of odd-looking people walking through the neighborhood to get supper, or in search of a place to sleep. Others -- Landau had been particularly loud, Avi remembered, shouting that he didn’t want to give examples but trust him, if he would, their hair would stand on end, their hair, on end!, he’d kept repeating -- had been fervently opposed, feeling that the vagabonds and homeless people walking through the evening punch ballgame on the quiet street was a recipe for disaster.
Heshy Melberg was older than most of them, a lawyer with a good hairline and instant credibility. He listened to both sides, then worked out an arrangement in which the Levines would offer supper two nights a week and the entire neighborhood would chip in and add beds to the hachnassas orchim in middle of Lakewood, near yeshivah.
It had worked and cemented Heshy Melberg’s reputation. And now, it made him Avi’s address.
“Did you ever start something, a good thing, and then feel like you couldn’t do anymore?” Avi hadn’t been planning to blurt out the question like that and he immediately felt silly, but it was almost two a.m. in an empty parking lot, their cars the last ones there.
Heshy Melberg leaned against the building and peered at Avi, like a doctor trying to see into his eyes.
“Ever? All the time,” he said and smiled, the creases deepening, offering a gift. “I mean, I remember when we started the respite program, you know, today the whole Lakewood uses it.” He closed his eyes, as if trying to summon up a distant memory. “There were all sorts of problems — red tape, funding, the parents weren’t on board… I ran out of steam after about three months, told my wife, ‘That’s it, Debbie, I’m done. This isn’t for me.’”
“And what happened?” Avi asked.
“The rosh yeshivah told me, ‘Heshy, you’re not in this game to be voted most popular guy on the block, you’re here to help those families, keep your eye on the ball.’” Heshy Melberg laughed out loud. “I mean, the rosh yeshivah didn’t actually use that expression — keep your eye on the ball — but that’s what he meant. Stay focused.”
Avi suddenly felt an acute sense of disappointment.
Was this what happened at those panel discussions in his house? Did Heshy Melberg validate questions and share old war stories?
He had been hoping Melberg would understand what he was really asking, the question that consumed him and didn’t let him sleep at night.
Melberg hadn’t, though, and he was telling another story, about how two years after they got government funding for hot lunches, an inspector with a vendetta threatened to cut the program.
“I felt like I’d worked for nothing, so many hours of meetings and calls and research, it was very scary. But that time, I didn’t go with shtadlanus. The guy was nasty, just good old-fashioned anti-Semitism, nothing more, and I couldn’t fight him legally — so you know what I did?”
Melberg was getting into it. Wasn’t he tired at this hour?
“I got myself on a plane and flew to Eretz Yisrael and I went to the Kosel and davened. That’s all. Hours. The kinderlach need hot lunches and believe me, there were many families who couldn’t afford it without that program. You have to know what the situation calls for, right? That’s a different drashah though…”
Avi looked for a polite way out. He wasn’t down for a different drashah — all he’d really wanted was the space and freedom to share the question inside him, and maybe even get an answer.
“Thanks so much, this is very helpful, thanks for being there now and always,” Avi said, pressing the keys in his pocket so that his car unlocked, a signal that he was through.
“I’m always there for you Avi, I don’t have the kochos I used to have, but experience…that I have.” Melberg looked disappointed that the conversation had ended so quickly and reluctantly walked towards his car.
“Thanks, be gebenchted,” said Avi Korman and climbed into his car, where he exhaled.
All he really wanted to know was what to do if you had started something big but couldn’t afford to keep it running. That was the question on his mind.
Can you let go of a zechus?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 805)
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