One of the Five

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

In the list of natives of my town in my notebook prior to my travel to the Land of Israel, I read the first entry in the list:

“Benjamin Mosze Jeszaja the son of Riwka Rachel, etc.”, with a first request to leave a note for him in the Western Wall. The second request was to go to the Tomb of Rachel our Matriarch, and send him a thread that surrounds the grave… Remember to make mention of my name in all of the holy places… Benjamin Mosze Jeszaja the son of Riwka Rachel…

The entry in my notebook was written in his handwriting. I still remember those moments when he wrote those words “with trembling and solemnity”, as two teardrops fell down and wet the name, one on the word Benjamin, and the second on the word Rachel.

He lifted his eyes and grabbed my hands silently, without uttering anything, as if he lost his power of speech. It was if he was like one of the mutes in the courtyards of the Admorim, or one of the unique spiritual people who guard their tongues from speech.

I looked at him for some moment – I was also dumbstruck like him. I waited for him to open up his wellspring, as he was wont to do at all times, up until the final day before my travels. I waited for words of parting and support, however it was in vain. He stood silently, and looked at me with two wet eyes and choked words. He strengthened himself until finally he uttered his numbered words:

“Know Gerszon, the Land of Israel requires fortitude. Anytime the holiness is greater, the external shells are also greater, Heaven forbid. Therefore go, succeed, and first and foremost, gird yourself!”

There was silence again. The two hearts separated. The notebook went from hand to hand, and everyone inscribed it. Everyone wrote their requests and hopes, and I remained standing by the side of Benjamin Mosze Jeszaja. I clasped his hands, and the words: "“he Land of Israel requires fortitude” burned in my heart like a scalding flame.

He removed his hand from mine, and caused my heart to shudder once again with the following words:

“But remember! Fortitude, fortitude! And as for me at that time – I am no longer”… I always maintained the thought that I would merit to see him again myself, as he wraps his hands with the thread of the Tomb of Rachel for a god omen. The thought remained with me that we would once again be able to continue with those spiritual journeys here in the Land. However, he wishes came to naught. For a letter arrived, saying: “Everything was destroyed!”
* * *

In the first days after his arrival, the elder Hassidim and men of deeds whispered among themselves that Mosze Zwi the shochet had brought a precious gem into his home. They had never seen a young man such as this before.

He was still in the midst of the seven days of celebration following his wedding, and his dwelling had turned into a shtibel.

Early in the morning prior to dawn, in noon, and in the middle of the night, Benjamin Mosze Jeszaja would sit, wearing his groom's clothing, poring over a volume of Talmud, Zohar, or other Hassidic work.

He was very quiet during the first days. He was modest, he did not know the area, and he was testing out the shtibel with its young men and elders. It was as if he was tracing his way through the new world that he was brought into on account of his marriage – checking to see if it was fitting for his spiritual work, and whether he would be able to continue with it, which he had placed as the goal of his entire youth? It was the purpose of his life. Hassidism, belief in Tzadikim, cleaving to their ways – these were the main ideas that led him. This was not only for himself, for his 248 organs and 365 sinews, for all of Israel are interconnected with each other, and it is incumbent to show the correct path to everyone, to all who are struggling and perplexed with their spiritual life. On account of this, he examined his new surrounding very carefully; he looked at each young man, every youth, and even every child who appeared in the shtibel, with his penetrating gaze. He searched, and he finally realized that in the shtibel, a large field of activity lay before him.

He began to become acquainted with the people of the shtibel. He examined them carefully, he learned the character of everyone, and he finally established his own group – of five people.

Five young men, “the pride of the shtibel”, headed by Benjamin Mosze Jeszaja, became very quickly the “central beam”, the “living artery” of the shtibel.

Matters of charity, good deeds, assistance to the poor, accommodations for an honored guest, a fitting place to sleep – all of these were organized by the “group of five” through the efforts of Benjamin Mosze Jeszaja.

If a rumor reached Benjamin Mosze Jeszaja that in the home of one of the men of the shtibel the “furniture” was not in order…that the wife of someone was at one point not careful with regards to covering the hair, or if there was a reliable witness that “modern fashion” entered into the home of someone, Heaven save us – his personal response would immediately be forthcoming. That very day, he would enter into a conversation with that individual about some matter, and even invite him for a stroll outside the town.

During his conversation, he would not get to the crux of the matter immediately, but would talk around the issue, discussing Hassidism, Judaism, stories of Admorim and people of renown, and various customs that have penetrated into Hassidic homes due to our great sin. However, during the conversation, he was very careful that nobody should feel that the words were directed to him. His style of conversation was not to speak about the “darkness” but rather to instill rays of light into the heart, a spark of fire into the soul, and the darkness would disappear on its own.

Thus did he instill droplets of Hassidism into those damaged and cloudy hearts; into those souls to which the winds of the time had begun to penetrate – until the hearts began to purify themselves.

“If there are no kids, there are no billy-goats” he used to say. He was concerned about this – if five young men sit and occupy themselves with Hassidism, study Torah, walk in the paths of their fathers and people of like mind, what would be with the children? How can they be directed into the right path, so that Heaven forbid they will not be affected by the vicissitudes of the time, and the spirit of impurity that has descended, Heaven save us, onto the world of late? -- He would gather together sheaves, of those who already had reached the age of Bar Mitzvah, of those whose “good inclination” had already begun to struggle and wrestle with the “evil inclination” in their hearts. He would begin to inspire them with his discussions and beloved stories about the Hassidic greats. Slowly, he would take them under his wings, and guard them as something more precious than anything.

The Land of Israel was especially important to him. He did not read papers. He satisfied himself with a brief glance at the newspaper headlines. Nevertheless, he knew everything that transpired. He knew of the enthusiasm in the hearts of the Orthodox youth as they prepared for aliya.

He understood the spirit of the youth. His heart and spirit were with him. He himself registered for aliya, even though he felt that he was not yet prepared, for he was still lacking the spiritual preparation necessary for the Land of Israel. He would always remind us youths of this sentence in “Sefer Chareidim”.

“Every Jewish person is required to love the Land of Israel, and to come to it from the ends of the earth with a great desire, as a child comes to the bosom of his mother”. To his friends who began to prepare for aliya, he advised them to look in the book of the Shela, in order to become acquainted with the preparations that a Jew must make for aliya, and what is the order of life there – in the Land of Israel.

The sages state that “The Land of Israel is the palace of the King”. How can one live a simple life in the Land of Israel? – he would always remind us. I will not forget these reminders. I will not forget those hours when Benjamin Mosze Jeszaja strolled with me, once he discovered that my lot fell to be among the first of the young Orthodox people of our town to make aliya. We walked among the thick, old trees on the path that was known to everybody as “the Hassidic Path”. During winter nights, in the latter half of the month of Shvat 5684 (1924), when the cold was at the height of its power, when the frozen snow echoed under our steps, everything was white, the fields were white, as were the strong trees, the branches waved over our heads along both sides of the path as a canopy, through the valley in which the Warsaw-Bialystock train passed a distance of several kilometers – and we, two individuals walking arm in arm, covered in winter furs, were the only ones disturbing the idyllic winter “white” before us, to the light of a full moon, two long shadows.

We were alone on our stroll. He would talk, lecture, and wax with enthusiasm about his streaming ideas on the Land of Israel and life there. I was silent as I followed after his footsteps. I listened very carefully to every word and expression that issued from his mouth, as he described the holiness of the Land of Israel to me.

* * *

Approximately fifteen years ago, a young man slightly older than twenty came to our town. He was short, with red cheeks, refined and thin, with signs of a small beard under his chin. His long peyos (earlocks) were not curled, but dropped straight down over his face as if to cover over his lack of a beard in the center of his face. He had a large, wide forehead, with a number of furrows and wrinkles in accordance with the books of the Kabbalah and the Zohar. He had eyes blue as the sky, which always gazed and looked at everything. He had a constant smile. Every conversation of his was accompanied by this charming, enthusiastic smile.

– About fifteen years ago…

Now I look over the letter, look for signs of life, read between the lines. Perhaps, perhaps, I can find at least some of those special people who graced our city, who bestowed it with a spiritual life. But for naught…

Everything was destroyed –

In the large cemetery, in the gigantic communal grave that was erected in my heart regarding my native town, I tearfully pass by the pleasant grave of one of the splendid personalities of our town. It is without a name and inscription, but nevertheless a sublime and important personality, whose image will never be erased from my memory.

This is the noble image of the young man, one of the five:

Benjamin Mosze Jeszaja the son of Riwka Rachel.