Reuven needed someone to ask a real question. Was anyone gutsy enough?
The younger Lauer brother congratulated himself as Reuven Stagler left his home. See, troubleshooting paid off. Small payout to the yeshivah that would hire Brucker’s kid, one problem solved. Small investment in making sure the new rabbi would want the job, second problem solved.
Once the people voted the rav in, he would go show his brother the math and how he’d done it. He smiled at the thought. Maybe he would do a PowerPoint.
Heshy had billed it as a question-and-answer session to draw more people, but it started out as a regular speech. It wasn’t in the main shul, and there were light refreshments — some rugelach and pretzels on paper plates, no caterers or party planners needed, and no homemade beverages, thank you very much.
There was a nice crowd there, with more people filtering in as the speech continued, which made Reuven happy. The beginning hadn’t been so spectacular, he thought. Maybe Rabbi Klarberg was also nervous.
He had begun with the usual stuff, achsanyah, what a kavod it was, serious balabatim and all that. He had made a joke about just being out of sheva brachos and too many speeches, and then said a short vort from the Chofetz Chaim — safe, Reuven thought.
Then he smiled and said, “Okay, I understand that maybe we would have some back and forth, does anyone have anything to bring up?”
Reuven liked the way he said this. He wasn’t being tested or challenged. “Anything to bring up?”
No one spoke, of course.
This wasn’t Heshy’s little huddle, where the questions flowed. Chaim Brucker was there, and he was nice enough to ask if Reuven would prod him, but his question would probably be on a Ketzos. Reuven needed someone to ask a real question. Was anyone gutsy enough?
Sandinsky was there, he was perfect. Newly arrived from Baltimore, he had the out-of-towner’s fresh-faced good cheer, and he wouldn’t mind being first.
Reuven leaned over and said, “Come on, Sholom, go for it. Ask something.”
A moment too late, he realized the name was Shaul, but okay. Maybe he hadn’t heard.
Sandinsky raised his hand, like in school, and the rav nodded.
“We moved here recently, and we hear so much talk about being there for the grandchildren, but I can’t seem to get the hang of it. With my own kids, it was never formal, we were just together around the table, or sitting on the couch, and life happened. Now, it’s all structured, they’re telling us we have to take them out for ice cream or to Great Adventure, to do the stuff their parents don’t have time to do. But I feel like that’s not how a real relationship is made. What’s the avodah?”
It was perfect. Reuven noticed that the men around him seemed to perk up, shifting in their seats to hear the answer. Sandinsky had nailed the question.
Rabbi Klarberg was nodding slowly, thinking. Heshy never had to think.
“I so appreciate the question, Reb…”
“Shaul. Shaul Sandinsky,” said Sandinsky, and he cast Reuven a pointed look.
“Reb Shaul. I think everyone in this room can relate.” He paused, but it was a comfortable pause. “Life is funny. Imagination is funny. Dimyon is a powerful tool. It likes to make us look outside, and convince us that if only this or that, the situation in front of us would be better, and that is very rarely true. A wise person knows how to work backward, to take the situations that are already there and find the ta’am in them. Not just to make his current reality work, but to enjoy it.”
His face was colored by something — indecision? wistfulness? nervousness? He coughed for a minute, collecting his thoughts.
“I guess I can share this here, we’re all heimish already, it’s a mature oilem… After I went through the loss of my rebbetzin, I experienced a very difficult tekufah. And because I’m in the industry, so to speak, people expected me to have answers, but I didn’t, of course I didn’t. So at one point, I joined a chevreh of people going through the same tzarah — it was on Zoom, sort of a support group, and we would just speak, and I learned a lot.”
It was completely silent in the room, every person facing the rav.
“I don’t have data on this, but I schmoozed with many Yidden over the last few months. Every married person, at some point, wished that their spouse had been a little different…a bit more adventurous, or less adventurous, a bit frummer or a bit less frum, whatever. And then, when they’re suddenly alone, they realize just how perfect it all was, how lost they are now, how the partner the Ribbono shel Olam gave them was everything they needed and more…”
Someone near Reuven exhaled loudly, as if he had been holding his breath.
“So, back to you, Reb Shaul, it’s like that in everything in life,” Rabbi Klarberg said. “Your eineklach need time and they need connection, but you don’t have to go running or doing. It’s fine if you can play basketball or go camping, and learning Torah for sure builds the greatest kesher, but as you said, the realest things between people happen when they’re just being, when they’re not trying, when they’re enjoying exactly what’s in front of them. Being in the present.
“Have them over and play a board game, if you’re not a great schmoozer, and watch, in the middle of playing Bananagrams, how their questions will suddenly come out. Let life happen and don’t get pulled in by ads or speeches that convince you that you don’t have everything it takes. You do.”
Reuven looked around. Lax and Lonner were standing near each other, both of them staring at the rav.
It was too quiet, and the rav said again, “You do.”
If Reuven had a perfect day since arriving in Lakewood, it was Monday. The vote had been conducted online, and Rabbi Klarberg had gotten over 80 percent, with the rest of the people neglecting to answer at all. (Reuven didn’t really understand that. How hard was it to press yes or no?)
Shaindy Brucker had happily informed Nechama that her Heshy had gotten an amazing job, sort of a rosh yeshivah in a newish yeshivah. He and Gitty would be moving into the house the yeshivah was leasing, since he was being dorm counselor as well. Don’t worry, she reassured Nechama, Heshy would still be coming to the neighborhood to learn with his chevreh every week.
It was thrilling, she said, and if Nechama knew how many doubters Heshy had had over the years, she would understand the joy. The faith of a mother, Shaindy said, is stronger than anything else.
Reuven was driving to Rabbi Klarberg’s house, the folded contract in his pocket. He was smiling as he drove, like a teenager.
Rabbi Klarberg met him on the sidewalk, embracing him and telling him how impressed he had been with the oilem at Alameda. He accepted the envelope as a matter of course, thanking Reuven and slipping it into his pocket but not making a big deal out of it, which Reuven thought would have been the right thing to do.
He would be ready to start in a few weeks, he said.
“Great, tell me what I can do first so that everything is ready for the rav,” Reuven said. He would be a soldier to this man, his handpicked general.
“Reb Reuven, you’re a very special person, smart and selfless and committed. But what I would like you to do, if you’re asking, is to step down.”
“To step where?” Reuven asked, hearing the words but not processing them at all.
“To step down, to give up the neighborhood askanus. Let someone else take over. You gave a lot, but I’m not sure this job is right for you anymore.”
Reuven felt like his insides were burning, but he was grown-up enough to nod, as if he agreed. He just stood there, nodding and nodding, and the rav placed an arm on his shoulder.
“You have a lot to give, and you have many people around you, a wife and children and eineklach. You work, and you learn, and you give it your all. You will be matzliach, Reb Reuven, and don’t worry. The best is yet to come, like the poet says. The best is yet to come.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 923)
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