This visit to the tent was purely a fact-finding mission — call it due diligence, the way mature, balanced people acted
Reuven could tell right away that it was a high-quality tent — the door easily slid open and shut softly, without making a sound.
Here he was, Reuven Stagler at Leil Shishi, how do you like that?
It was dark in the tent, so the people around the table in the corner couldn’t immediately see his face, which was a good thing. He tiptoed up to the table, and gently sat down on one of the folding chairs.
He knew that he would be noticed, and that someone would comment, and he was fine with it. He didn’t care anymore. The $50,000 Lauer had wired over for rabbinic associated costs, as he had recorded it on the council ledger, gave him a big advantage over Heshy, and he knew that he would win this little battle.
This visit to the tent was purely a fact-finding mission — call it due diligence, the way mature, balanced people acted. He wasn’t out to destroy anyone and he wasn’t planning to fight that way. It would be done respectfully, with consideration for Heshy and his family. But when the dust settled, Alameda Gardens would have a normal rav and Heshy Brucker would not be able to ignore the writing on the wall.
This was a phase.
Lax, who was seated closest to Reuven, was wearing a gray hoodie, like an angry teenager instead of a 60-year-old commercial mortgage broker. If he noticed Reuven sitting there, he didn’t show it. He was sipping what appeared to be a hot tea and he was focused intently on Heshy, who was sitting on the side of the table — not the head, as Reuven had imagined — and telling a story about a conversation he had with one of the people in the neighborhood.
“I was schmoozing with someone recently,” Heshy said, his face partially visible because there were a few candles burning near him, “and he said something so profound, so powerful, so beautiful even.
“He told me how he and his family were on vacation in Eretz Yisrael and they did a day trip up north, with a tour guide. They were doing the artists’ quarter in Tzfas when he didn’t feel well, so he sat down to rest, he was dizzy. They were on a tight schedule, so he told them to go ahead and he would meet them at the next stop, which was Meron, but he ended up taking a nap in a little shul and losing track of time. They had planned to sleep in Teveria that night, they had already booked hotel rooms — he’s elite, platinum, top-tier in every sort of reward — and he insisted that they all continue on to Teveria and he would take a taxi. He told his wife he was too tired to come that night, but that he had found a decent hotel in Tzfas and would come first thing in the morning.”
Heshy paused. The tent was absolutely quiet.
“Now, the wife and kids were very busy,” he went on. “They had lots to cover. When they were finished, they all went to Teveria, and he stayed in Tzfas for that one night. He didn’t go to a hotel, though. He just took off his jacket and slept a bit in that same little shul.”
Normally, Reuven would have been wondering who Heshy was talking about, who the unnamed storyteller was. He had a daughter-in-law who didn’t talk lashon hara, which was admirable, but she loved to talk, so all her stories started with, “There were these mechutanim, the so-and-so’s had more money, but the other side had better yichus,” or, “These two teachers in my school, let’s call them Rochel and Leah.” Reuven found that her stories left him with a headache, all her so-and-so’s and Reuvens and Shimons and Rochels and Leahs, and he’d rather not have heard any story at all. He had shared this with Nechama, who told him not to be mean. It was very nice that Henny was so careful with how she spoke, Nechama said.
But with Heshy Brucker, Reuven found, it made no difference who the person was; the story itself was rich enough that who the person was made no difference. Reuven found himself right there in Tzfas, with whoever it was.
One of the candles went out and Malavsky — was he like the main gabbai? — quickly took a lighter from his pocket and relit it, so that Heshy’s face was visible again.
“He walked through the alleys of Tzfas most of the night. He joined a group of mekubalim who were saying Tikkun Chatzos, and then sat with a few homeless people who were smoking hookahs and trying to keep warm, telling stories and singing. He told me that he gave each one a few hundred shekels when he moved on, and they looked at him disdainfully, like he was offering something that has no meaning. He realized, then, that there are people to whom money is not the only currency, and at most, it’s a necessary evil, but nothing more.
“Then he did a pre-vasikin jam outside Breslov, and joined a group going to the Ari Hakadosh’s mikveh, like they do every morning before Shacharis. He ended up davening Shacharis in a little shul that’s more outdoors than indoors, and it was the greatest Shacharis of his life. He didn’t want it to end. One of the guys in the minyan insisted he come home with him for breakfast and served him some kind of homemade cheese with homemade bread, and a drink that looked like coffee but wasn’t — and it was the most delicious meal he’d ever eaten in his life.”
Heshy paused and looked pensive.
“He never wanted to leave Tzfas. He didn’t care where his family was. He loved them, of course, but he wanted to sleep on the same bench, in the same shul, and daven with the same people. But his wife kept calling, and he had to meet the family, that’s how life goes, right, chevreh?
“So what’s the eitzah? What’s the eitzah?” Heshy repeated, then lifted his glass. “L’chayim, chevreh.”
He said this in one sentence, as if l’chayim were the solution, which Reuven found perplexing.
Lonner stood up and brought over a large foil pan of steaming cholent from the chafing dish in the corner. Haberman opened a new bottle of Glenmorangie — nothing too fancy, but certainly out of place during the week, in Reuven’s opinion, and poured l’chayims into small shot glasses.
Reuven was sitting there wondering if Heshy would answer the question. What was the eitzah? He had raised a good question, and when he had been describing that man in Tzfas, Reuven also wished he could be there and get lost.
Suddenly, the lights were switched on, and Reuven blinked.
“Reb Reuven,” Heshy Brucker burst out just as Reuven was taking a sip of scotch. “What a pleasant surprise!”
Heshy’s face was colored by genuine pleasure at seeing Reuven, and that, combined with the scotch coursing through Reuven’s body and the lingering image of a middle aged well-heeled American man perfectly content on a Tzfas shul bench, was too much for him.
He sat back down with a thud and said, “Nu, tell us, Heshy, what is the eitzah?”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 919)
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