The Waker

by Gerszon Gora

Translated from Hebrew by Jerrold Landau

Most of the townsfolk did not know him very well. To them, he was a simple Jew, who did not stand out from among the other residents. The called him Avraham-Chaim the “Kayatz”. This nickname stuck with him for tens of years, and I never thought about looking into the source of this name, for it was used by everybody as if this was his surname.

Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, the market days on which farmers from the entire area filled up the streets and alleys of the town with their wagons and horses, as they brought all sorts of merchandise for sale – Avraham-Chaim would wander around between the wagons of the farmers with the other merchants of the marketplace, touch the sacks and packages, and turn to each farmer with the same question, “What is for sale, mister?”
Avraham-Chaim was not like the other merchants who had special storehouses and would purchase large quantities of grain to fill up their storehouses. He was a small-scale merchant. It was sufficient for him to purchase two or three sacks of wheat, rye or other types of grain on a market day. They sold it to him as if it was especially designated for him. There were those farmers to whom the “leviathan” merchants did not pay attention to, because their quantity of merchandise was small.

On those market days, one could see Avraham-Chaim walking through the streets with an empty sack under his arms, or carrying a quarter of a sack full of wheat on his back, bringing it to his own room that served as a dining room, bedroom, kitchen and grain storehouse all together.
The townsfolk would run into him on those days and ask about his wellbeing. He would answer everyone: “Thank G-d, everything is good. May it only be that G-d gives me years to live, and I will certainly not be lacking anything.”
This simple Jew was without any makeup or rouge. His beard had not yet become completely white, which took years off of his withered body. His face was furrowed, and his hands were very callused. He did not worship in the Shtibel and did not travel to the Rebbe. He also did not attend the Great Synagogue. He was the pillar in the “Chevra Mishnayos” Synagogue – the founder, Gabbai and Shamash all together.

During the time of the lessons, when the householders of the town crowded together around the tables, Avraham-Chaim took a place at the edge of the table near the door. At such times, he gave the impression of a guest who had come for a moment to hear the lesson.

Nevertheless, it was obvious that something was agitating in his heart when he sat at the table with the people attending the Mishna class. This was an internal happiness that enveloped him in the presence of the dozens of householders who were sitting at the tables studying Torah.
During those moments, he would completely forget about his narrow room full of wheat, his barren life and his gray, boring work in the kitchen. He turned his attention away from all of the gentile farmers among whom he circulated and conducted business twice a week. He forgot everything about the life of vanity and physicality. These minutes were to him like his entire life – minutes of boundless spiritual joy, or sublimity and splendor.
The householders of Chevra Mishnayos treated him with appreciation. They valued his extra dedication as a Gabbai and Shamash combined, and attempted to assist him in any way that was possible. However, he refused to accept any help at all. He would say the following to anyone who volunteered to help him sweep the synagogue, or perform any other task: “There is no need. This job is upon me, and please do not disturb me, for this work is very pleasant for me.”

He had one special trait. This trait was known to several dozen scholars in the town for many years. We, the nine and ten year old children, found out about it incidentally.
It took place on a winter day. We, eight boys, studied in the large cheder of the town. At that time, we were studying the discussion regarding Rabbi Chanina the deputy Priest in tractate Pesachim – this was a discussion that was totally new to us. Each day, we would enter into the depths of the laws of ritual purity and impurity, and we would be astonished at the various levels of impurity: first degree, second degree, third degree, etc. We were very proud that the Rebbe involved us in such a deep section. We studied all day with diligence. We hid among the recesses of the new halachot. New vistas opened up before us. It was as if we received a short vacation from the Talmudic sections of “Nezikin” (Torts) and “Moed” (Festivals) in order to breathe for a few weeks in clear, pleasant air, among the thick oaks that were planted by Rabbi Chanina the deputy Priest. The new learning refreshed us to such a degree that even the Rebbe recognized a change for the better among us, in our studies and our diligence.

One day, the Rebbe turned to us and said: “Children! I advise you to wake up for one week at 5:00 a.m. At that time, it is still dark outside, the cold is very strong, and it difficult for children such as yourselves to wake up then, but you must remember the first paragraph in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law): 'Be as strong as a leopard.' You must overcome all of the difficulties and obstacles, for then you will feel the true essence of the study of Gemara. During those early hours, the brain is clear and the mind of man is fresh, as if it was just created. It is possible to understand and grasp everything. I am certain that throughout the week, we will be able to review the entire section about Rabbi Chanina the deputy Priest, and you will know it all thoroughly.”

The words of the Rebbe were a pleasant surprise to us. On the one hand, we desired this type of “exercise” of waking up while it was still night, and trudging through the snow to study. However, on the other hand, the “evil inclination” portrayed to us the strong cold that was outside, the deep darkness, and the warm bed that we were to have left prematurely. “However who will wake us before dawn?”, we asked the Rebbe. “Leave that concern to me”, answered the Rebbe with a bright face. “If you decide to get up, I will concern myself that there should be somebody to wake you.”

We all agreed to the suggestion of the Rebbe.
We were still children and did not appreciate the value of this decision, for to us, every matter of getting up early on winter nights was seen as a “trick” and nothing real.
We doubted whether the matter would actually come to pass. We thought that it would be impossible to wake us all up at one time. The following question particularly bothered us: who would be the one to accept upon himself such a difficult task, to go around in the darkness and cold of night throughout the city and to wake up the children to study Torah?

However, all of our doubts were resolved. That very night, when I was in a deep sleep, I was suddenly awakened to the sound of a strong knock on the windowpanes next to my bed. I immediately turned my ear, and heard a voice calling:
“Gerszon! It is already ten minutes to five. Get up to study!”
I was completely surprised when I recognized the voice of Avraham-Chaim the “Kayatz”. However, I recovered from my astonishment within a moment. His hoarse voice of the waker hurried me to get out of bed. I got up quickly despite the cold and darkness, as I imagined before eyes the first paragraph of the Shulchan Aruch. I felt myself as a small lair of leopards.

Within the span of a few minutes I washed my hands, got dressed, took my Gemara and flashlight, and hurried to the Beis Midrash of Chevra Mishnayos, the place where our cheder was located. I thought that I would undoubtedly be the first, for I had hastened to get up without any delay. However, when I arrived at the Beis Midrash, I was surprised to see the Rebbe and the rest of the students waiting for me. At that very moment, the clock on the wall struck five.
We were all emotional, and given over to the experience of waking up before dawn. We were particularly moved by the fact that the waker was Avraham-Chaim the “Kayatz”. Even though we were studying the first early-morning lesson with great diligence and with a clear and pleasant frame of mind, we would still glance on occasion to the corner near the lit stove where our “waker” sat, hunched over a book of Psalms, as he was reciting the Psalms of the Son of Jesse with great concentration.

Avraham-Chaim continued on with this tradition for fifteen years. As has been said, only a few special people knew about this, only those who fulfilled the adage, “night was only created for study”. He was the living alarm clock of the town. He would awaken every night at 2:00 a.m. light his kerosene lamp with a small piece of paper, and go out to his holy work.

He would traverse the dark streets and alleys of the town in the midst of the night, and on occasion cut through the night silence with his hoarse, yet strong voice. His route was planned out ahead of time. He woke everyone up at the time that they wanted, having being asked to do so. Thus did the four Beis Midrashes of the town fill up at each night with early risers.

The “Kayatz” was diligent in his holy task for fifteen years, and there never was an interruption. In nights of dense fog, during snowstorms, just as in bright, moonlit nights – he would always go out in the same heavy clothes and large boots in order to awaken the Jews to the Divine service.
He never complained about a Jew who did not wake up to his call. He judged him favorably: surely there was a reason. Even on the foggy winter nights when strong winds blew through the town, when almost nobody would be found in the Beis Midrash, he not angry and did not complain. “It is nothing”, he would say. “Even if only one out of ten came, it was worthwhile for me to wake up all ten”.

He did not only expend his efforts for great scholars, but also for schoolchildren. When some Rebbe asked him to awaken several students and a specific time for a specific lesson, he would immediately add the children to his list.
Thus was there in his heart a strong love for the study of Torah. Thus did he bear the difficult task that he took upon himself, to awaken Torah students to the Divine service. I am certain that he continued on with his task until his final moments, until the terrible destruction of the town.