| Light Years Away |

Light Years Away: Chapter 13   

“So for you, the question isn’t at how high a standard you want to work in multimedia, but whether you want to go into the field at all. Right?”


"Couldn’t Shua have learned at home that night, so you could go to the event?” Yoeli had asked her. He was asking for Chaya too, she knew that.

“I didn’t ask him to,” answers Nechami. Something in her stiffens. “Shua keeps his phone on silent when he’s learning — and that’s if it happens to be charged. Plus there’s no reception at Milkov. But anyway, that’s not the way it works. He has his chavrusas, his sedorim, his regular shiurim. It’s easy to take a young man and turn him into the household help. It starts with an alumnae event that you can’t miss because it happens only once in five years. Then it’s the wedding of a cousin that you’re really close to, so how can you not go? And then, little by little, you realize how hard it’s getting at night. Maybe at least once a week you can tell him to come home at ten, instead of after midnight. And then on Friday you really need his help. Kavod Shabbos, you know. It’s a slippery slope. I’ve seen it happen to friends. A talmid chacham can’t grow like that.”

You’re too rigid, Yoeli thinks — but he doesn’t say it out loud.

Because her rigidity, her refusal to compromise, is what allowed his brother-in-law Shua to grow into an unparalleled talmid chacham, the pride of their family. And who can criticize a soldier who’s given his life for his mission?

“Maybe there’s a middle way,” he suggests gently. The atmosphere in the room is tense and he opens the window. But the burst of air that comes in is too cold. He closes it. “Chaya, take me or Gedalya, for example. For the first few years we were zocheh to learn a full day in kollel. Later on, as the situation at home changed, we made adjustments. It’s not all or nothing, you realize that?”

Chaya is very clear. “Yoeli, if I decide on something, I do it all the way. You see this computer? It cost 11,000 shekels. I took out a loan to buy it. I bought the most expensive programs, the best fonts, and I took private lessons to make sure I get the best out of the software.”

“And if you weren’t able to put all that money and effort into it,” Yoeli asks, “you wouldn’t do it at all? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes. What’s the use of being mediocre? Some of my friends didn’t see why they had to go for the top. They bought low-end computers, collected free fonts, downloaded free clipart from outdated collections they found online. Their computers were always crashing, so they’d squeeze in a little work time on the seminary’s computers. Now they’re whining that there aren’t any jobs in the field. One of those girls went to work for Hamehadhed at minimum wage.”

The window was closed now, but Nechami feels a cold wind on her back.

But Yoeli goes right on speaking to Chaya, probing. “So for you, the question isn’t at how high a standard you want to work in multimedia, but whether you want to go into the field at all. Right?”

“Right. The question is whether it’s really worth it. Because I’m not interested in being a run-of-the-mill video editor.”

“I hear,” Yoeli says, his voice soft and low. He keeps up the parable, talking about careers and software while really talking about the most important decision Chaya will ever make. “Maybe it would be a good idea to go to some multimedia experts who’ve been in the field for years, and hear what they have to say. You only see how much they’ve invested. They can tell you what they’ve gotten for all their efforts.”

“Yes, but everybody keeps pressuring me to figure this out right away,” Chaya says petulantly. She knows Yoeli’s game and she can keep talking about multimedia too, never mentioning the word Shpinder. “And those people — they won’t give me time to think. And when I try to figure out whether it’s really worth it to throw my whole self into this multimedia thing, because maybe I could be just as happy in some other field, all I get is pressure — decide, do it now, you’ll lose your chance…”

What a mess. What a terrible mess.

“Children? Havdala-a-h,” Abba calls from the living room.

Ima is back.


Chapter 13

“My family always took it for granted that I would marry a talmid chacham.”

Chaya’s words pour out quietly, but quickly. “And so did I — I mean, why wouldn’t I? But now I’ve gotten a real offer…” Her hands are shaking. She hides them under the table. That’s uncomfortable. She takes them out. “Suddenly I’m so anxious… I feel like maybe this isn’t really the right thing for me, maybe this is some other girl’s role to fill, but not mine, and I have so many questions.”

“A real offer?” Rav Glikovsky asks. He is very elderly. He radiates goodness.

“Yes. They want me to meet Shpinder from the Mir. He’s a masmid, an illui, who plans to learn full time all his life, b’ezras Hashem. They’re looking for a girl who’ll let him grow in Torah. And everybody thinks I can do that.”

“That you can let him grow in Torah.”


The Rebbetzin brings in tea and cookies. She fulfills her role with precision. Chaya and Nechami always claim that tea is for old people, but now, Chaya accepts a cup. To dispel the awkwardness, the cold, the whole business.

“And what are your questions?”

“Umm…” She hesitates. She blushes. “They might be called questions in emunah. And that’s assur.”

“There are questions,” Rav Glikovsky says, beaming at her, “and there are answers. And there are questions without answers. And then there’s emunah, which is in another dimension altogether. It’s all right to think. It’s all right to ask.”

She whispers a brachah. Takes a sip. It’s an herbal tea, she discovers, flavored with berries and sweetened. Not bad.

“I… There’s such a thing as a Yissachar-Zevulun agreement, right? So I was thinking maybe that would suit me better… I mean, to marry someone wealthy. Or someone who would work in some high-paying field. And we would give tzedakah. A lot of tzedakah,” she adds quickly, for emphasis. “We could even make an agreement with an avreich.”

“Maybe even with Shpinder,” the Rav says with a smile.

“Yes.” Her hands are shaking again. “And then we’ll get the same Olam Haba as him, since it’s half and half. And we’ll keep all the mitzvos,” she emphasizes. Images of Yaffa’le’s friends float before her eyes. The cut of their clothes. The colors. The wigs. “We’ll live completely according to halachah.”

“And that way you’ll merit Olam Haba,” says the Rav, nodding.

“Yes… what’s so terrible about that?” she asks. She’s almost pleading. Abba looks down at the tablecloth. He can’t lift his eyes. This is so humiliating. The Rebbetzin offers cookies. Everybody is acting their part in this show. But for her, it’s not a show.

“Olam Haba, yes,” says the Rav. “I understand how you mean to achieve that.” He moves his thumb in an arc. “But what about This World? How will you have that?”

“Uh…” she stammers. “What does the Rav mean? We’ll have money, we’ll have all sorts of possibilities. We’ll live in a nice home, and we’ll be able to buy what we want for the children. And to travel abroad…”

He stops her there with an air of astonishment. “Abroad?”

“Yes. To Prague, let’s say. Or London, or America.” She feels like a little girl, babbling excitedly. But she’s sick and tired of lying. She’s rather tell the truth, distasteful as it may be. “And we could live nicely, without pinching any pennies.”

“But how will you have Olam Hazeh?” the Rav repeats, spreading his hands out questioningly.

“HaRav… uh, maybe I’m not explaining it well enough….”

“I understand, you’re thinking of trips to Paris, to the Swiss Alps, and of having nice clothes, and good food, and someone to cook and clean for you,” says the Rav. The Rebbetzin holds back a smile. “Shaindy,” he addresses her, “maybe you’d like to tell Rav Silver’s daughter about that French scientist who investigated the properties of matter?”

  • ••

Once upon a time, more than two centuries ago, Antoine Lavoisier sat in his Parisian laboratory, trying to fathom the properties of matter. When you burn a match, what happens to it? Where has the wood and sulfur gone? He sat for hours, bent over his equipment, experimenting and pondering, burning objects. Weighing them before and after. Measuring. Testing.

Nothing had disappeared, he realized. The molecules had merely changed form, changed from one substance to another, from solid to liquid and gas.

But not even a speck of matter had disappeared. That never happened.

The Law of Conservation of Matter, he called it. When iron rusted and its weight increased, no new matter was created. It was only heavier because oxygen atoms had left the air and joined themselves to the iron. The quantity of matter in the universe is fixed and stable, Lavoisier said. It doesn’t change. If matter isn’t here, then it’s there. It never just disappears. He was sure of that.

But even when the revolution swept France, and Antoine Lavoisier was taken to the guillotine, he still didn’t know.

He didn’t know what was missing from his equation.

“It took another century to figure out the missing part of the equation,” says Rebbetzin Glikovsky, and her words are a caress from across the table. “Because sometimes matter really does seem to disappear. Albert Einstein proved that matter can change forms — it can be transformed into energy, and energy into matter. The name of the law was changed to the Law of Conservation of Matter and Energy. And in all my years teaching chemistry, I always reminded the girls of this, that they must never forget the ikar: This World is not composed only of matter. It is also made of energy — spirit. Ruach.”

“This World, Olam Hazeh,” says Chaya, checking to make sure they both mean the same thing.

“Yes. Davka Olam Hazeh.” And then the Rebbetzin puts down her cup, walks around the table, and really caresses Chaya’s shoulder. And when she speaks, her voice rises and falls melodiously, as if she is telling an old chassidish tale.

“Chaya’le, we all have matter and spirit, body and soul, and we need to nourish them both. There isn’t a soul in This World that can be nurtured from trips to Paris, I guarantee you, and there isn’t a woman whose spirit can be fulfilled by a big house or from beautiful clothes. I haven’t been to Gan Eden, and I believe everything Chazal said about those who merit it, but this I can tell you, meidele: Here in This World, it’s not the material things that sustain our spirits. You can marry the richest bochur in the land, and you can travel and shop all you want, but how will you have Olam Hazeh?”

  • ••


Dudi slams on the brakes, pale. The truck in front of them goes on its merry way, as if it hadn’t just cut into their lane.

“It’s a good thing I was going slow,” he says. “Braking distance is the square of the velocity of—”

“Dudi!” Yaffa’le sighs.

“What?! I was just explaining to my sister that —”

“Once upon a time something happened, and Dudi didn’t explain it with an equation,” Yaffa’le mutters. “But only once. And that was a long time ago.”

“Nu, calm down,” says Nechami, trying to make peace.

Dudi and Yaffa’le are taking her to Talpiot, to buy those cute little armchairs she’s been wanting since she started renovating her office.

“What can I do?” Dudi apologizes. “Yaffa’le, what if I didn’t let you tell me anything about advertising, marketing, or PR. How would you feel?”

“Advertising is a very interesting subject,” Yaffa’le says severely. “You can’t compare it to physics.”

“Let’s focus on the reason why we’re here,” Nechami requests.

“Wait, why are we here?” Dudi inquires, stopping obediently at a red light.

“I don’t know. You wanted to come see me.” Nechami can’t afford to lose more work time. So they offered to come toward evening and give her a ride to wherever she wanted to go, saving her some time while availing themselves of her time. They wanted to talk, she assumes.

“We’re here because of Chaya.” Dudi tenses up. He looks over his shoulder, trying to get into a tight parking space in the industrial area of Talpiot.

“She doesn’t want to get engaged,” says Nechami.

“She doesn’t know what she wants,” says Dudi. What — now even Dudi’s jumping into the fray? “I’m telling you, she’s fantasizing. She’s not really looking for a different lifestyle. She needs, wants, and is perfectly capable of marrying a wonderful talmid chacham and living happily as the wife of the next posek hador of the chassidishe world.”

“Huh?” That’s the only sound Nechami can produce.

“That’s right, Nechami.” Now Yaffa’le’s joining in. And straight to the target as usual. “That girl is just playing a game of pretend. You should have seen her at the marketing event, the contrast between her and all the women there. She’s refined, she’s innocent, she’s as frum as they come. Maybe she’s scared to take a jump and commit to a long-term learner, but honestly, she doesn’t really want to be part of that world she keeps talking about.”

Nechami feels attacked, and she launches a counterattack. “How can you decide what she wants?!” So even Dudu and Yaffa’le are ganging up on her! In her mind’s eye, she sees the mezhinka dance — 12 gold brooms with dark-red, fake roses.

Yaffa’le steps elegantly out of the car. She’s going to some gimmick store in the area. Nechami and Dudi stay behind with Avital, slumbering peacefully in her car seat.

Dudi turns to Nechami. “Chaya is just having a bit of pre-engagement anxiety, and that’s totally normal,” he says. “It just proves that she’s mature enough to realize what married life is. She’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing, getting nervous and wondering if she’s really ready. But you — you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, not at all! She’s looking to you to reassure her, Nechami. She wants you to tell her why getting married to this Shpinder boy, or any other compatible boy of that type, is the best thing she could possibly do. And instead of giving her what she needs, you just listen to her and say nothing. That makes her even more anxious — even her big sister, who’s so much wiser and more experienced, won’t say a word to convince her. Why aren’t you helping her out?”

A wave of rage sweeps over Nechami. “How can you….” Now she’s spluttering. “Do you have any idea what kind of commitment you’re talking about? Has it occurred to you that maybe she really isn’t cut out for it?”

“You’re too rigid, Nechami.” He’s said it. The words no one else had the nerve to say. “You’re way too straight and narrow.”

“What?” Tears spring to her eyes.

“Nechami,” Dudi says, much gentler now. “You know I’m your biggest fan. You’re a fighter, you’ll do anything for your ideals, and you’ve always held the fort at home and given Shua the freedom to grow in Torah. But maybe, along the way… maybe you’ve become a little bit too… uncompromising?”

He leaves it as a question. He’s learned something from Yoeli.

Nechami speaks haltingly, pushing each word through a tensed throat. “In seminary, they told us a story about the Steipler. He was serving in the Red Army, a conscript, and standing on guard duty in the freezing cold, without a coat. His coat was hanging on a tree, and he wouldn’t take it down, because it was Shabbos. He said to himself, I can get through the next five minutes without a coat. And then just another five minutes. And another five minutes…. And there was that other story about the rav who trudged through deep snow in a blizzard to get to shul, to daven in a minyan. I’ll just walk a bit farther, he told himself. A bit I can handle. And the next bit was also nothing, and the next, until he got to shul.

“I was such a good girl, Dudi. I listened to my teachers. That night the whole family remembers, I was running a high fever, and I could have called Shua home — Chavi Goldis said in an emergency she could send one of her bigger kids to the Milkov beis medrash to call him. But I thought, no, I can handle this for five minutes, for his Torah. For Torah, for light, for emes, for life in the spiritual dimension. And then I thought, what’s another five minutes? I can do that.

“Beri was crying. And Chanochi was coughing, gasping for breath. I gave him a dose of Ventolin in his inhaler, and soothed him to sleep. I was dizzy… but I could handle another five minutes, I was sure. Those minutes are so small, and the Torah is so big. But I didn’t get through those five minutes. Next thing I knew, I woke up on the floor. Bentzi was knocking on my forehead with a schnitzel hammer, yelling, ‘Ima! Get up!’

“I did everything they taught me. And now everyone’s mad at me.”

Dudi realizes that he’d gone too far, broken some invisible boundary. He’d joined the chorus blaming and shaming Nechami for doing what she committed to do: You were too rigid, you would never compromise, you took it too far. And now see what Chaya’s going through, what she learned from your example. All she sees is the hard part. No wonder she’s so scared.

He doesn’t want to be part of that. Nechami doesn’t deserve that. He has to change his tone.

“You know, they used to think there was a law of physics, the Law of Conservation of Energy,” he says softly. “They thought the amount of energy in the universe was fixed and unchanging. It could change from frictional energy to heat energy, from heat energy to kinetic energy, but it would always remain energy.”

“And is that true?” She was glad for a change of subject.

“Not quite.”


“About a hundred years ago, Einstein came along and figured out the other side of the equation — matter. In This World, there’s both energy and matter, Nechami. You can’t ignore that. Even if you’re pursuing light and spirit, you can’t ignore the others parts of you. They’re there, they’re valid, they need attention too. You can’t have light, and life, and emes without maintaining the material side of the equation.”


to be continued…

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 857)

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