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Soul on Fire: Chapter 3

What did his bank account in Shamayim look like? Could he take even a single coin with him into the Next World?


17th century Eastern Europe, the town of Sharayeh

As  the wolves howled and the night became increasingly colder, Yankel found himself wishing he had brought along an extra pair of clothing. Around midnight, the stranger, who was sleeping near him,  awoke. He seemed to be about the same age as Yankel and also had a long beard. Hunched over from the cold, the stranger glanced over at Yankel, who quickly closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep.

The stranger took his blanket, walked over to Yankel, and let it drop over Yankel’s icy cold body. Then, he washed his hands with water from a small can near him and sat down next to the fire. As the flames danced and shadows flickered across the man’s lined face, he began to say Tikkun Chatzos from a tattered siddur. Tears fell from the man’s eyes and spilled onto the yellowed pages. The flames of the fire seemed to grow taller and flicker faster.

Yanklel watched all of this with shock. Such devotion, such passion, in sub-zero weather?!?

The man continued to weep, his shoulders heaving as he expressed his sorrow over the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and the suffering of the Jewish People in this long and bitter galus. Much later, when he had finished, he closed his siddur and pulled out another sefer.

Instantly, his face was aflame with the holy glow of Torah. The tears were still wet on his frozen cheeks, but a smile had replaced his expression of grief. He sang the words of the Gemara and swayed, as if he were sitting inside a warm beis medrash, surrounded by a hundred other learners.

Yankel watched all this in complete awe. Eventually, with the image of the man learning by the fire imprinted in his mind, his weary eyelids closed and sleep overtook him.

The next morning, when Yankel awoke, the stranger was gone. Perhaps the previous night had all been a dream? Maybe he had seen a malach? Eliyahu Hanavi? Yankel davened and then hurried off to the marketplace to try once more to sell his wares.

This time, unlike the day before, customers purchased some wares from him, slowly but steadily. But the coins in his pockets did not excite him as they used to. Now he felt a certain numbness, as he understood more than ever how inconsequential the money was. What would be with him when he passed from the world? What did his bank account in Shamayim look like? Could he take even a single coin with him into the Next World?

While he was lost in thought, a man walked by, limping slowly, a satchel slung over his shoulder. It was the stranger from the night before. Yankel could see the man’s lips moving .

“Excuse me, Reb Yid.” Yankel jumped forward and tapped the man on the shoulder. “I saw you last night… I never got a chance to thank you for the blanket.”

“It was my pleasure.” The stranger looked up and smiled warmly. Staring into the man’s eyes, Yankel felt a jolt travel down his spine.

“I thought perhaps you were a malach…”

“Certainly not.” The man chuckled. “Have a good and productive day.”

“Wait! I — I must ask you your name.”

“My name is Hirsch Leib. And yours?”

“My friends call me Yankel.”

Hirsch Leib looked closer at Yankel’s face.

“You look troubled, Yankel. What’s wrong? It’s of utmost importance for a Yid to be b’simchah. The holy Baal Shem Tov stresses this very much.”

“How can a person truly be b’simchah when they understand the true purpose of life?” Yankel was surprised at the tears that so quickly sprang to his eyes as he poured out his heart to Hirsch Leib. “I spend most of my life here, surrounded by gentiles, unable to learn properly, to daven properly.”

“A person can connect with Hashem no matter where they are. If you are able to learn and daven to Hashem in places like these, it causes a tremendous nachas ruach On High…”

“Even that I cannot do! I don’t know a single Mishnah by heart, nor Chumash. I am an am ha’aretz. I never attended cheder…. The sweetness of Torah and the inner meaning of davening is only something the elite can achieve, not simpletons like myself.”

“This isn’t true!” Hirsch Leib grasped Yankel’s arm. “You too can taste the sweetness of Torah. I am willing to teach you, if you’d like.”

“Yes!” Yankel could not believe it. It was like Hashem had sent him a malach in disguise, just when he felt the most broken, at the brink of total despair.

“Where are you from, Yankel?”


“Then that is where we will go to learn.”

“Don’t you have to be somewhere, though?”

“Yes, wherever I can help another Yid. And right now, it seems Sharayeh is my destination.”


The next morning in Sharayeh, a surprising scene greeted the learned elite as they entered the shtibel for their morning learning. Sitting in the back of the shul with a stranger was Yankel the merchant. This was completely unheard of, as only a select few learners had the luxury to learn in the middle of the day. Even more shocking was that Yankel sat there for a few hours learning!

Assuming this was just a passing phase, Yankel and his newfound rebbi were left alone. But then more people began joining this “workers’ chaburah.” Tzvi, Yankel’s good friend, joined, and starting from the basics, all the way to learning Gemara properly, the elderly men in the chaburah began to blossom, each at their own level of learning and comprehension. It was nothing short of a miracle, and all thanks to the stranger, Hirsch Leib.

But not everyone was pleased with the arrangements. There was a shortage of space and seforim, and the commotion from the new group roused the ire of some of the other younger learners. They felt the chaburah was overstepping its boundaries, entering a world reserved in many places for the extremely gifted. So, as often happens when people with ulterior motives are involved, a libel was instigated….

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 884)

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