Be Rid of the Evil in Your Midst
“Hey, H.! Remember the Tenth of Teves?” N. called to me jovially. He was unpacking a crate of Tuv Ta’am products, babaganoushes, tomato dips, tuna and potato salads, and large containers of sour pickles. “You’re not fasting, are you?” he asked with a chuckle.
It was the Tenth of Teves all over again now, a day of fasting to commemorate the ancient Babylonians’ siege of Jerusalem. It was also a day that N. chose to remind me of every now and then, but always good-naturedly. He still recognized me, even though my beard and payess were now gone, only a yarmulke on my head for the chance collision with friends or acquaintances in this strictly kosher supermarket in the heart of Chasidic Williamsburg.
N. finished unpacking the crate, and took another off the hand truck next to him. He worked as a salesperson and delivered food products to kosher supermarkets around the tri-state area. We bumped into each other on occasion.
“Those were the days, huh?” he said as he whipped out a boxcutter and sliced through the packing tape with a smooth, fluid motion. I smiled, discomforted, as I always did when he brought it up.
~ ~ ~
It was a little after dawn on a cold Friday morning in January. We sat around old wooden tables in an abandoned room in our Yeshiva basement, our payess still dripping from the early-morning dip in the mikveh or still frozen from the short walk between the Shul and our Yeshiva building. We were fifteen young men, around nineteen years old and newly married. We were the elite, fiercely dedicated to the principles of our Chasidic sect, which demanded rigid fealty to the ideals of the early Chasidic masters.
The timing was set so as to weed out the weaklings, those lacking the passion enough to wrest themselves from the comfort of warm blankets into the bitter frost of a world still awaiting the sun’s compassionate rays.
Our leader was more than a decade older than us, an emaciated man with a scraggly beard, his dark eyes so intense under his bushy eyebrows they seemed capable of boring a hole through your soul. His gaze seemed far off as he began to speak in a soft voice. At first it looked to be one of his usual talks, spun around a homily of Chasidic teachings. But his words carried an unusual intensity, and we all sat stiffly, rapt with anticipation for what was sure to be a fiery talk.
Our leader’s voice rose as his passion seemed to rise within him, and he mocked, scorned, and vilified the evils of the world that were encroaching on our island of purity. And with a sudden jolt, with all the effort he could muster, he cried in a high-pitched voice, “Raboisai, s’brent a faiyer!”
An all-consuming fire was sweeping across our land, and we stood in its dangerous path. “All the work that the old Rebbe of blessed memory did to preserve our sacred and pure tradition is at risk of crumbling from within!” His voice broke; he chocked back a sob. Finally he continued, his voice faltering, “And our beloved Rebbe carries the stress of preserving it all… now ill from heartache… laid up with high blood-pressure…” And we all held back the sting in our eyes as we watched this small but powerfully intense man shaking with fiery passion, our hearts melting for the condition of the master of all of us, the Grand Rebbe.
“Rabboisi, it has come to my ears that within the hallowed rooms of this Yeshiva there are students who are committing the most offensive acts! And they are sweeping others with them to the depths of sheol!”
He went on to tell of students watching TV on small, compact devices, sometimes within our very study hall; students sneaking out of the neighborhood to watch the abominations of the goyim in movie theaters; students taking taxis to other unspecified places—places that no human being should ever be found in, let alone a student of a Yeshiva built with the sweat, blood, and tears of the remnants who rose out of the ashes of the Holocaust.
It was up to us to stop it. To take up the spear of Pinchas, and smite the evil within those who would dare commit blasphemy and sacrilege right under our noses.
We walked off as in a daze to our morning prayers. The sun was now up, and the sanctuary upstairs was filling with students donning prayer shawls and phylacteries. Our prayers carried an intensity we’d rarely felt, and each of us who’d been at the gathering felt a deep call to action.
It was the Tenth of Teves, a fast day, and prayers took a little longer than usual. It was soon over, though, and since no breakfast was being served due to the fast, we stayed in the prayer hall and huddled around for hushed consultations. Some of our friends who weren’t at the gathering inquired about the hubbub, and we told them of the urgency of our task. The outrage grew; even those who preferred warm and cozy bed sheets to the world’s frosty early morning welcome could not sit idly by as a matter of such gravity was to be dealt with. We were to take action.
~ ~ ~
A young man, one of our peers, a friend to us all, now sat quietly in a chair in one of the Yeshiva’s side rooms. Around him stood two dozen young men, confident that their task was sacred and right. The air was charged with tension as we were about to chastise one of our own.
The seated man’s name had been passed around as one of those who were transgressing our sect’s inviolable principles. We had no evidence, either of the alleged acts or of those guilty of them; all we had was the fiery early morning talk. But the moment called for action, and there was little time for establishing facts.
Our friend, pale and nervous, sat as one of us took the lead and pronounced that we, as a group, will not tolerate the kind of activity we’ve been hearing about. We declared that any association with certain undesirable persons would also be forbidden. And this time it was just a warning. The next time we wouldn’t be as tolerant. Force would be used if necessary. Serious force.
The scene repeated itself with a handful of other chosen subjects, each of them receiving the same warning, the same horror on their faces as they sat shamefaced, wondering what had come about to turn good friends into dreaded inquisitors. Some put up attempts to show they wouldn’t be cowered and challenged the group’s assertiveness as self-appointed guardians of our sacred traditions. But there was no mistaking our seriousness.
By now we had whipped ourselves into a frenzy. We’d turned from serious passion for an ideal into a crazed mob. And a mob’s zeal isn’t easily pacified; the mob wouldn’t be stopped. There was something deeply unsatisfying in the relatively moderate task of issuing warnings. The mob wanted more.
“Where’s N.?” someone asked.
We checked the study hall and some of the side rooms. He was nowhere to be found. But N. had to be found; he was one of those being sought for the same sit-down. N. was still unmarried and living in the dorm, and appropriate persons were sent to check his room. It was reported locked, with no one inside. The mob saw an opportunity.
But here a challenge presented itself. The Yeshiva’s policy—established at the request of the Grand Rebbe himself—was that no married students were to enter the dorm area. Excessive fraternizing of married and unmarried students carried various risks. And the mob consisted mostly of married men. The sense of urgency and frustration were now heightened as a satisfying opportunity for pacifying the lust of those now drunk with excitement for an extreme demonstration of their zeal was slipping away on a technicality. It was inconceivable that those who were to uphold the principles of the group would violate a clear and unambiguous Yeshiva policy. A quick consultation was held; we needed authorization for this task. But would it be given? The possibility of permission being denied was deeply disconcerting to some, as the satisfaction of the intended mission held too great an appeal. But the consensus was that we had no choice.
There was no need to be concerned. A notable rabbi, one of the community’s halachic decisors and a respected teacher at the Yeshiva, was just entering the building as the consultations were taking place. He too cared little for establishing facts.
“’And thou shalt be rid of the evil in your midst,’” he quoted the bible with enthusiasm. “It’s a mitzvas aseh d’oraysah!” An unequivocal biblical command. The mob now had the stamp of official authorization.
A ransacked room is an ugly thing. But for us it was a thing of beauty. The door smashed in, blankets and linen ripped off the mattresses, dressers overturned, its contents on the floor in utter disarray, the mob of dozens picking through items, searching for forbidden material. A locked cabinet was discovered. A hammer was procured and the lock smashed. The evidence had to be found; we knew it was there, because so we’d been told. That we may have been told wrong was neither a matter of concern nor consequence. That the information, even if true, was neither inherently offensive nor deserving of the zealousness we were engaged in would not have occurred to even the sanest and most level-headed among us.
Nothing was found. But the mob was now pacified.
~ ~ ~
“Yeah,” I said to N. “Those were the days.”
“How are things?” he asked with genuine interest. “See your kids these days?”
I gave him the brief rundown of my life, which wasn’t so different from what it was the last time I’d seen him. He was always around town, driving the Tuv Ta’am truck with the illustration of its products on the side, always giving me a honk and a wave when he noticed me.
I took my basket of groceries, and gave him our old friendly thumb-lock.
“Take it easy, man,” he said. “Come by to my place sometime when you come see your kids. Have dinner with us or something.” He was the same old N., kind, generous, playful, and didn’t give a shit about religion or those who’ve left it.Printable Version