It was a hot summer Sunday when they arrived, the three of them, and I knew then that the heresy had now spread over the entire land. Because if they were arriving on a Sunday, it meant that the Sabbath they had spent somewhere not far, and they would have only spent the Sabbath with their own kind.
The one in the center was taller than his two companions, but much diminished by his illness, shrunken and slumped over, and it seemed as if his shoulders could scarcely support the weight of his heavy, damp black coat. He was wearing a drooping black traveler’s hat, from beneath which his sidecurls swayed as if under their own volition, feeling a breeze that blew only for them—or at least, certainly not for me. His face was obscured to the chin by the shadow of his hat, as if he had intended to travel in disguise. The other two were so young that I wondered even if they had yet reached the age of marriage, and it astonished me to consider therefore that their parents would send them on the open road with this half-dead man as their guardian. Each of them wore heavy black coats, in spite of the heat, but instead of hats they wore oversized white skullcaps, which cut their faces off at the scalp line, giving them broad, open, vacant expressions, like babies.
And yet, in spite of his greater age and imperiled condition, it was the man in the center who led the way, standing a half-pace in advance of the others, so that as they came across the meadow I saw that it wasn’t the two squatter men who supported the taller, frailer one, but just the opposite: that he dragged them onwards, and they clutched, breathlessly, to his elbows. They, seemingly the stronger two, stood back as he climbed the two short steps up to the porch on which I sat, in the shade, over the commentaries of Ibn Ezra to the week’s Torah portion, on decrees. And only on standing at my level did he raise his eyes, open his mouth in a broad smile to show the six teeth remaining in his head, and say “Peace be upon you!”
“And also upon you; welcome all who come,” I said. So much for the greetings, which though formalized, were at least delivered in a proper language. The rest would have to proceed in their jargon. I don’t claim to speak a fluent German, though I study the language, but I at least try to elevate my own speech with the learning I have managed to acquire. But speaking properly, or even half-properly, with the likes of these would be wasted effort; they’d look at you like a rooster eyeing a penitent. It would make me look foolish, among people who themselves are fools. “I received your letter last week,” I said, suppressing the urge to laugh at my own mangled diction, “but hadn’t expected you as early as today. I gather that you are Nakhman, and your companions are Shmuel and Naftule?”
“Reb Naftule had business in Lipovetz; I have taken his place. I’m Reb Itsik-Yoysef. I hail from Lipovetz,” the clay-faced child on the left said. The sound of his voice grated on me, as I could tell that he spoke perhaps the lowest form of gibberish in these parts—not only confusing an “oo” with an “ee,” but even mistaking “o” for “ah,” and when in doubt rendering every vowel as “eh.”
“Business? What sort of business could little boys the likes of you have in Lipovetz?” I asked.
“Reb Naftule was sick,” Shmuel said.
“If he was sick, Reb Shmuel,” I said, amused that they referred to themselves in so adult a fashion, wondering if they were really married or if this was just a convention among the youths of the sect, “why didn’t he make the whole journey? I would have been happy to treat him as well.”
“The master doesn’t wish that we, his followers, consult with doctors,” Itsik-Yoysef said.
“Well why in the world not?” I asked, already regretting the hasty generosity I had proffered by mail carrier the week before. “Isn’t the master himself here to be cured?”
“I have not come to be cured by you,” Nakhman said. “I have come to be tested.”
On bringing the three travelers indoors, however, I learned soon enough that it was I who was to be tested. I began by sitting them down, lighting a lamp, and fetching a bucket of beer from the bottom of the pantry—serving them in cups, knowing better than to waste the Sabbath glassware on rustics of this sort. The two boys lifted the drinks to their mouths, taking great gulps, allowing the foam to spill obscenely down their chins. Nakhman let his head hover above his cup, closing his eyes and allowing his hands to fall into his lap. As quickly as his energy had dominated his surroundings on the way to my door, it had dissipated upon sitting down, and in spite of the slurping noises of his companions the room was filled with the silence of his shallow, wheezing breath. His condition was much advanced. It was, in fact, quite hopeless.
“Tell me how you are feeling, Reb Nakhman,” I said. “What brings you to me, really? What are your symptoms?”
He turned his mouth downward and lowered his chin to the table, such that I thought that he had suddenly fallen asleep. With a heave he raised his head, took the cup of beer in his hand, and swallowed nearly all of it in a single gulp. He stood, and though no taller than myself, seemed to fill the room. “Do I seem a man who can be made to suffer?” he asked.
For the second time in the space of a few minutes I had to suppress the urge to laugh. It is difficult to convey how unusual a phenomenon that is for me lately. “Reb Nakhman,” I said, “you seem to me a very ill man. From what you describe in your letter, and your observable shortness of breath today, you betray the signs of advanced consumption. Without treatment, you will be dead within the year. I’m sorry.”
“So you have already calculated the date of my death? You think then that at one glance you can know me? Do you presume that my health or sickness can be defined according to the whims of the body?”
“Reb Nakhman, I have not calculated the date of your death; I have merely informed you what my scientific training has taught me about your condition—a distressingly familiar condition, these days, in these parts, I fear to admit.”
“You know the date of my death—but tell me, Doctor, do you know the date of your own? Do you, in fact, know the first thing about yourself?”
I was prepared to respond sharply to this provocation, but before I did my eye was distracted when one of the companions—Shmuel, Itsik-Yoysef, the departed Naftule, for all I knew—made his way to my writing desk, and took a microscope into his hands. It was obviously the first time he’d seen such an implement, and being still of an age in which every new device was a plaything, he began unscrewing the lens and fiddling with the movable parts. I rushed to the desk and took the instrument from his hands. “This,” I said, “is not a toy. It is a sensitive scientific instrument that I use for botanical research. I’ll ask you kindly not to touch the things on my desk.”
The homunculus began to repeat the words “sensitive,” “scientific,” and “botanical,” all of which were doubtlessly alien to his native vocabulary.
“Animal,” I said.
“Animal?” Reb Nakhman asked me. “Shmelke, show him what you know.”
“Moses received the Torah at Sinai, and passed it on to Joshua. And Joshua passed it on to the elders. And the elders to the prophets. And the prophets passed it to the men of the great assembly. And they used to say three things: be deliberate in judgment, raise up many students, and make a fence around the law.” Nakhman beamed, as if his protégé had decoded the golden ratio.
“Reb Nakhman,” I said, “do not presume that because I study the works of God’s creation that I am insensitive to the wisdom of our fathers. And do not presume that you and your disciples hold a monopoly on our tradition and its teachings. And do not presume that because I have offered to help you in your illness that my patience for the provocations of your sect is inexhaustible.”
Now it was Itsik-Yoysef’s turn to chime in: “Shimen the Righteous was among the remnants of the great assembly. He used to say: on three things stands the world—on Torah, on service to God, and on acts of kindness.”
“Reb Nakhman, I do not intend to be mocked in my own home.”
“You’re right,” he said with a clap of his hands, “enough, both of you. The doctor fails to understand the wisdom of your simplicity. The doctor doesn’t want to be mocked in his own home; I agree with him completely. Mockery is what one encounters better on the open road, in a strange land. Everywhere we are surrounded, always, by mockery. Let us find peace in the home. But let us first find a home—am I right, doctor? Come on, Shmelke, Itsik-Yoysef, let’s leave the doctor in peace.” And with that he led them out the door again.
Consumption, as best as our contemporary science informs us, is a sort of distemper in the lungs, caused by a cough of long duration that over time comes to inflame and perforate the organs, leading in turn to a spasmodic fever, with the eventual expectoration of blood and tissue, and often accompanied by hoarseness and night-sweats. Over time, the patient wastes in strength and in flesh, even as he eats more than when he was well. There is no cure for the condition, but if arrested early, its progress can be considerably retarded. The current practice recommends bleeding approximately 2 or 3 ounces twice weekly, with fresh air as weather permits, to ventilate the lungs. To help draw the sickness out of the lungs, the benefit of shaving the upper body and applying poultices under the arms has been demonstrated conclusively. Of greatest benefit is the purification of the blood, whereby the need to discharge blood is alleviated. Therefore I prescribe daily 3 pills of turpentine mixed with equal parts of cow’s dung (or better deer’s dung, if that class of dung can at all be procured), to be accompanied by elderberry or daffodil root.
With regard to diet, there is considerable controversy over the treatment of consumption among doctors today. Strong spirits are of course forbidden the patient, although little harm can come from beer, wine, or mead, and indeed these beverages are often to be preferred over water. Some argue that in order to build up the blood of patients who have experienced profound discharges, a diet rich in meat is recommended. Others say, by contrast, that it is precisely the overabundance of meat—that is, of blood—that aggravates the condition, and therefore a diet of only milk is prescribed. In my practice, I take as a sacred principle the doctrine of avoiding harm, and therefore I advocate a diet that avoids both milk and meat, as far as possible.
The next morning I thus instructed the girl who cared for my home, a nearsighted blonde with crooked teeth and wide hips, to prepare a breakfast of fresh eggs for my guests, serving the tallest of the three first. The sight of a fork, of course, was even greater a novelty than my microscope had proven the day before, and indeed so mystified were they by it that they soon enough ignored the implement, despite my efforts to teach them by example. Yet more curious, however, was Nakhman’s reaction when first he was served.
“How long since it was laid?” he asked the girl, making no effort to address her in her own language.
“Four day,” she said.
“Give it to Itsik-Yoysef.” He passed the plate to his left and I instructed her to cook another, fresher egg.
“How long out the womb is that one?”
“Too ripe: It stinks. Give it to Shmelke.”
“Reb Nakhman, how old do you like your eggs to be?” I asked.
“Eight days under the mother—no less.”
“Reb Nakhman, I’ll remind you that we’re eating breakfast, not attending a circumcision.”
“And you, Doctor, have you ever studied the laws of purity?” he asked.
“Purity? Don’t you think that purity is precisely what I’m after here—purifying your blood: it’s the only thing that’ll save you.”
“Purity we achieve through separation; the egg must be separated from the body of its mother at least a week. So too does a man separate himself from his wife to achieve purity. I separated from my wife before she died. When I marry again, if I shall marry again, I will separate myself from that wife, too, and take her but for a companion, to minister to me, to warm me, like the hen warms its egg, in my final days, so that my final days will be like my first. And yet I remain impure. Doctor, how can I purify myself?”
“Reb Nakhman, we have yet to bleed you. Tomorrow I shall bleed you, and not with leeches like the folk healers in your province, but with a clean, straight blade. We’ll shave you as well, such that you’ll scarcely feel the prick of the razor. Science, Reb Nakhman, science will help you.”
“Science? What does your science tell us about the bones of the body? How many bones does a human being possess?”
I knew the answer: “248.”
“What is the total of these figures?”
The man was merciless, worse than my own instructors! “613.”
“Precisely the same number as the positive and negative commandments of our Torah! How does your science explain this, Doctor?”
“It gives no explanation: it’s an accident of nature, a coincidence. These figures refer to spheres of existence that have nothing to do one with the other.”
“Do you really believe that God creates through chance and accidents?”
“And can your science explain what this convergence means?”
“And can you really explain the source of my impurity?”
“Then I will soon show you,” he said, smiling again as he had when his companion recited teachings for me. “But for now, fetch me an older egg, and I will eat it.”
I realized the next morning that for Reb Nakhman and his followers, immersion in a ritual bath was a daily undertaking. This too aggravated his condition; a weekly trip to the steam bath is harmless, even beneficial in several respects, but the cold and stagnant waters of our ritual bath, like the lifeless and unthinking superstitions of this sect, weighed down both body and spirit. I tried explaining this to him later while my assistant was shaving his arms in preparation of the bleeding, for which I had retrieved a special measuring cup to insure that the proper quantity of blood would be collected.
Reb Nakhman could never be corrected, though, and explaining medicine to him was like teaching the laws of tithing to a gentile. “Doktorshi,” he said, “do you know how I contracted my condition?”
“Didn’t you say in your letter that your wife and son died from the disease?” I asked. “We can only conclude that you contracted the consumption from the same source as they did. In my opinion, it is very likely that this disease is water-borne, and therefore I wish to reiterate my advice that you avoid the ritual baths, and any cold, standing source of water.”
“It wasn’t the ritual bath, Doctor,” Reb Nakhman said, raising his free hand wearily, and nearly causing my assistant to make a false incision on his arm. “If anything, the ritual bath has kept me alive longer than they; perhaps because of it I will outlive even you. I remember very well, though, all too well, the day I contracted my disease. It was a day long before either my son or my wife became ill. It was I who gave the sickness to them, and not the other way around. It is for this reason that I must separate myself from my next wife, as an atonement for my great sins.”
“What do you think caused your illness, Reb Nakhman?”
“Have you heard of the grandfather of Shpole?”
“Shpole I’ve heard of, certainly, but who can be grandfather to an entire town?”
“The grandfather of Shpole, as his many minions call him, is a leader in our movement, and like most leaders nowadays, he’s a charlatan, a liar, and a cheat. He claims to revere the memory of my great-grandfather, but he works constantly, night and day, to undermine my inheritance and discredit my followers. He is a most vicious man.”
“Of this I have no doubt,” I said, leaving unexpressed my belief that this description applied equally to all members of Nakhman’s sect, including my patient himself.
“One day I came to the grandfather of Shpole to make peace with him. After all, how can righteous people declare war on one another? Especially over a misunderstanding: true, he had already established himself years before me in our territory; by what right did I have to attract disciples away from him? Never mind my superior lineage. Never mind that I am descended from the holy Master of the Good Name himself. Never mind that at eight I had acquired more learning and insight than he’s achieved at 80. Never mind that because of a mere accident of chronology—“
“Reb Nakhman, the point is?”
“I came to him; I lowered myself to his level, for what? For the sake of peace! And what did he say? ‘Reb Nakhman, why did you come to me? What do you have to fear from me?’ And what did he do? He grabbed hold of my hand, stuck out my middle finger and shoved it into his mouth. ‘Do you see, Nakhmanke? What can a lion without teeth do to a young cub? Why are you afraid?’ After I snatched my finger out of his mouth I brought it to my nose; it smelled of the incense that was burned at the Temple in Jerusalem, the recipe of which is forbidden to us. The old man had poisoned me.”
“Reb Nakhman, your story fails to convince me on several grounds. First of all, it gives no evidence that consumption can be contracted in this manner. Second, how could he say those words to you while your finger was lodged in his mouth? And third, if the recipe for the incense were forbidden, how would you know what its precise odor would be? But let’s leave these considerations aside for a moment: If the grandfather of Shpole had poisoned you, how could he have held the poison in his mouth? How could he sicken you without contracting the disease himself?”
“Don’t you understand, Doctor,” he said, widening his eyes and nearly smiling as his blood began to run into the vessel, “a man does not live on this earth for more than 80 years on the strength of his good deeds. No natural man can withstand this life so long. No righteous man would want to. The grandfather of Shpole was sent here as my accuser. The only purpose in his life is to undermine my efforts to bring redemption. He is a demon.”
I knew enough about Nakhman’s sect to realize that he wasn’t in this instance speaking metaphorically. “Reb Nakhman,” I said, “You’re overwrought. It gives no demons. The grandfather of Shpole is flesh and blood the same as you and me.”
“How can you say there are no demons?” he said, waving his arm and causing blood to spatter on to my table. My assistant moved quickly to wipe the stain with a bandage while I held Nakhman’s arm over the cup. “What do you see at night, in the dark, in the shadows? There are demons everywhere around us. The earth is filled with them, the spawn of our own sin, the offspring of our own impulses. In the silence, the wind is full of their cries. They surround us, constantly, and they torment us with rebuke for the vanity of our own lives. On the open road, I see dead people staring from out of the wayfarers’ coats, looking at me with dead eyes, and beckoning me with hollow voices. For all I know, even you could be a ghost or a—” I made to get up and my assistant caught quickly hold of Reb Nakhman’s hand to avoid another needless stain. “Alright, I didn’t mean to offend you: please forgive me. But don’t tell me because you can’t see them that they aren’t there. Don’t tell me that science can look upon the void and declare that nothing fills it! For if there is nothing there, why then am I so sick?”
“I—I don’t know, Reb Nakhman. The first principle of science is to accept the unknown for what it is, and to measure what is known against it.”
“Now you’re with me right at home, Doctor: if the end of knowledge is to admit that we do not know, then we can come to understand not just the truth of man, but the truth of God, as well.”
“What is the truth of God, Reb Nakhman?”
“That the grandfather of Shpole was sent to reproach me for my own shortcomings; that just as an angel is sent by God to perform one good deed only, so too does a demon arise to fulfill a single act of reproach. An angel or a devil, God sends them both, but our actions determine which one we will receive. I proved myself unworthy of the burden placed on me, and that’s why the grandfather of Shpole was sent to kill me.”
“What burden was that?”
“To redeem the world.”
“I know, you think I should be ashamed for saying that. I am not ashamed for claiming this burden, I am ashamed for failing in the task given me.”
“Reb Nakhman,” I said, placing the cup on the table and pressing a cloth to his incision, “you are a sick man, dying of consumption: do not confuse a disease with a spiritual calling.”
“You don’t believe that I could be the one who was to have redeemed the world?”
“The very thought is absurd: how can a diseased man be the messiah? If a consumptive is Messiah the Son of David, who then would the Messiah Son of Ephraim have been—an epileptic? And what about Elijah the Prophet, what was his disease, typhus?” I was nearly laughing again. “Can Elijah the Prophet catch typhus, then?”
“Who better than a sick man to redeem a sick world?”
“Ah, but there you’re wrong, Reb Nakhman: you’re not the messiah; I’ve caught you out! If you had been able to redeem the world, you never would have become ill, right? Isn’t that what you just said—by the light of your own reasoning?”
“If I had managed to redeem the world, perhaps I would have in any event taken sick. There are no guarantees in this life. But if I had brought about the redemption, if I had been worthy of it, I never would have come to you.”
The intense heat had finally broken the following evening and a fast waning moon shone in the clear night sky: soon enough a new month of tribulations and isolation would begin. Since the onset of my viduity earlier that year, I had renewed contact with a friend in Zaslov, Reb Mordkhe, who would come to my sputtering street, at the edge of the Jewish quarter, just past the market at the center of town, to learn with me, as had been my custom before training to become a doctor. We had begun, at his suggestion, with the tractate concerning levirate marriages. We proceeded as far as the hinter side of the 59th folio when Reb Mordkhe suggested that the argumentation of our ancient rabbis, far from elevating my grieving spirit, was merely weighing me down further in fruitless sophistry. Having realized that my medical knowledge had led my thoughts far afield from our own tradition, with its abundance of obfuscation, superstition, and illogic, I risked my friendship with Reb Mordkhe to suggest that perhaps our time could be spent more companionably over modern books of a sort not necessarily sanctioned by the current rabbinate. To my delight, he acquiesced in the illicit pleasure of this new knowledge.
And so, while outside the frogs and grasshoppers engaged in a riotous Purim comedy, we met that Wednesday night to enjoy the stillness of intimate friendship, the fragrant smoke of burning tobacco—which cleared the smell of consumptive blood, like rust and rotting leaves, from the air—and the pleasures of stimulating ideas expressed beautifully. Such were the joys left for me in my wifeless and childless state; perhaps, indeed, this was my only salvation from the morbid thoughts and uncontainable passions of my incurable patient, who uncharacteristically had left my house, after a dinner of trout and potatoes, without his disciples, who were dozing in the room while Reb Mordkhe and I read, sitting closely together over the same small book.
“…Seeing her,” I declaimed, “whom I so little craved to see—yes, seeing her meant the resolve to let her nevermore escape my sight. Resolve, how so? Resolve is purpose, action, and I merely suffered. To see her and to feel myself enmeshed, one texture with her being, was the same. Remains the same. To live apart from her is quite unthinkable. That would mean death—and wherever after death we shall abide, there too my death.”
“What does the word ‘enmeshed’ mean?” Reb Mordkhe asked me.
“’Enmeshed,’” I said, “is like our words entranced, seduced, bound.”
“How, then, are we entrapped, as it were, by a woman? Unless through a state of intimacy, yes? But here he speaks of being entrapped only by a gaze—and aren’t the eyes free to look where they will?”
“Yes, but here he’s speaking of desire, longing. And in this respect the eyes are the most passive of organs, for even when we shut them we remain beholden to a shade of what we previously saw. That’s what memory is: the imprint of sights we no longer can see, the recollection of objects lost to our field of vision.”
“But why, then, would he suffer because of this? Is our memory not a source of comfort to us—in the long run, at least?”
“Usually we suffer for what we have done. Here he suffers because of what he is unable to do. His resolve, which in our language we might render as intention, will, is frustrated by his inability to act. And nothing aggrieves the pining heart so much as immobility.”
“Hence his feeling of being trapped, as you said.”
“Not trapped, though: enmeshed.”
“So our understanding remains captive to this one word?”
“Our feelings are enmeshed in his longing; his longing reflects our desire for understanding. As such, the girl he speaks of represents the wisdom we seek and cannot yet acquire.”
“Because we lack the language for it?”
“Because we grapple with a language not yet our own.”
And here, or nearly here—the demarcations are imprecise as memory falters, words unlike visions not subject to impress on the mind’s eye—the door swung loudly open and Nakhman entered, waking his companions, who roused themselves with reluctant stretches and confused glances. He sat across from us with his two serving boys hastening to join him at the table. I could smell spirits on him when, laughing, he pulled from his unseasonable coat a filthy, unpeeled carrot, and, to the asinine amusement of his apprentices, lodged it at the side of his toothless jaw. “Nu, wie gehts, Herr Doktor?”
“What do you want?” I asked, squinting my eyes at the violence of his intrusion.
“Righteousness saves from death,” he said, holding out his hand.
“I’m familiar with the proverb,” I said. “What’s your purpose in citing it here?”
“What do you mean, melancholy?”
“I was feeling melancholy so I went to your serving girl. She wants a half-crown and I’m five Groschen short.”
I stood up and from across the table I grabbed hold of his shoulders, shaking them as forcefully as I could. The half-gnawed carrot fell to the table and tumbled to the wooden floor. “How dare you speak to me about demons, you drunken fool: you’re the only demon in this room, do you hear me?” All of a sudden I felt a heavy hand on my arm. It was Itsik-Yoysef. Shmuel stood on the other side of me, his chin raised to suggest that despite his short stature, he was looking down at me. I saw then, though the light was dimmer and less clear than it had been on the afternoon of their arrival, that neither Reb Itsik-Yoysef nor Reb Shmuel was a young boy as I had first imagined, but they were both fully grown men, perhaps even older than I, and powerfully built at that. It was as if they had been disguising their true strength from me the entire time. Now I understood why he traveled with them. Knowing that I could not shake Itsik-Yoysef’s grip, I sat down again, and he let go of me. “Mark my words, Nakhman—because of you and your blinded followers, the world will take all of us for drunkards and fools, rapacious, venal, superstitious, and cheats against all but our own kind. Your behavior will cut us off from the rest of humanity, and yours will be the standard against which all of us will be judged.”
Now it was he who stood up. “And what will the world say of you, Reb Mikhoyl?” he asked. “That in your thoughtless pursuit of wisdom you have chased after the vanity of this world, forsaking God to bow down before the idols of people who despise you. That in your thirst for knowledge you have confused the beliefs of your people with the false prophesies of heretics and deceivers? That despite your philosophy, your cleverness, and your obsession with facts, you actually know nothing?”
“Get out of my house,” I said. “Leave this place and never come back.”
It couldn’t have been more than an hour later when, Reb Mordkhe having already departed, I heard a sharp rapping on my door. I threw on a robe, it being the hour when I normally prepared myself for sleep in any event, and crossed from my dark and empty bedroom to the entrance in six strides. I swung the door open as broadly and loudly as Nakhman had previously. On the porch I saw the three of them by the light of a lantern, standing in the presence of a constable. “Dr. Mikhoyl Davidssohn,” he said to me.
“Yes.” Nakhman’s hat had been torn across the brim, and his two attendants, who only a few minutes before had so startled me with their assertive strength, were bruised and dirty. One of them—I couldn’t distinguish their faces in the flickering light—had had a sidelock shorn after the scuffle: a lesson taught to him for resisting the civil authority. They once again seemed to revert to the status of children, and they stood together between the constable and me, sobbing breathlessly.
“These three men were caught trying to break into the main synagogue this evening. When apprehended they said that they were staying with you. Is this true?” The officer was an enormous man; Nakhman’s head came only as high as his chin, and next to him the other two resembled dwarves. I understood every word he said to me, but I was unable to formulate a response. I wasn’t even sure which language he was speaking to me—German, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian? Each time I attempted to answer, I could only think of the words in jargon. It was as if I had been possessed by a spell that had taken away my power of speech, and all that was left were a few words in a broken dialect. I had become one of them: in the constable’s eyes, there was no difference between them and me. “Is this true, Dr. Davidssohn?”
“They are patients of mine. In their province, the Jews sleep in the synagogues when they have no other place for the night. They didn’t know our synagogue would be locked.” Even in the darkness, I was unable to look in the direction of the constable.
“If you can’t put them up yourself, find another Jew to take them in. If I see them on the streets again after dark, there’ll be trouble—and not just for the three of them. Do you understand me, Doctor?”
“I am sorry for the misunderstanding,” I said. The constable shoved the one with the cut sidecurl toward the door and was off. We all went inside again, and without lighting a lamp, I sat on the bench at the table and began to cry, just like Shmuel and Itsik-Yoysef. “What have you done to me?” I asked.
Nakhman placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, Doctor. I’m not well.”
“But the spirits, you know they’re forbidden you. You know they will only make your condition worse. And the serving girl—for goodness sakes, Reb Nakhman, why my servant girl? Why must you torment and provoke me so? What did I ever do to you but try to help? And what of your talk about separation? A four-day old egg is forbidden to you, but my servant is permitted? What’s wrong with you?”
Shmuel lit the lamp, but the oil having nearly run out, he managed only a glimmer, that instead of illuminating the darkness set a lighter shadow on Nakhman than the deeper, demon-infused silence that surrounded him. “I told you that I was impure, that the burden of redemption was too much for me.”
“Leaving redemption to the side, though: why not remarry? Why try to go with a serving girl? Why debase yourself like that?”
“Because God is not here,” Nakhman said, shutting his eyes to the dim brightness. “Because God is nowhere to be found in the world.”
“How can that be, Reb Nakhman? Isn’t God everywhere? Weren’t we created in His image?”
“No, no,” he said, covering his eyes with his hand. “He is nowhere, and the proof of it is the fact of creation. Because we were created, we stand outside of God, and He outside His creation. God withdrew Himself to make a space for the world. He separated from us. We live not in His presence, but in the void left by His absence. All that we once had was in Jerusalem. And now the Temple is destroyed, so we are left alone, absolutely alone. We cannot abandon God, for He abandoned us long ago. And the distance between Him and us grows greater every day, because of our great sins. We are shut out entirely, and when left to our own devices, we fall. And with each failing we widen the space separating us from Him.” He spoke all of this in a hoarse and halting whisper, through strained and shallow breathing. I had already stopped crying at this point, but Nakhman’s face was now bathed in tears. He had supplanted me. He was clearly suffering from an intense fever, brought on, I surmised, by his drinking.
“But can’t God reach out to us from across the void?” I asked.
“When does God reach out to us? Where?”
I thought for a moment about the beauty of creation: the meadow across from my house where sheep graze in summer, the stream nearby that freezes over every winter. Then I thought of all the entreaties I had made on behalf of Beyla, my wife, in her last days. Had I in fact done enough to stave off her final illness? Could I, with a little more knowledge, have saved her? Would bleeding her thrice weekly instead of twice have made a difference? Would cupping instead of bleeding? I am a man of science; I know what causes disease, and unlike Nakhman I have no need to attribute every misfortune to a demon or a curse. How much more urgent must his pleas to God for mercy have been than mine? Yet each of us faced the same irrevocability of death. “Wasn’t Moses our Teacher rewarded at his last breath with the Divine Kiss?”
“Moses? Our rabbis teach us that Moses and Aaron are the two breasts of a woman. In a completely material world, it would make more sense to hold the breasts of a woman than to seek God.”
“What then is a woman to grasp, in a world, as you say, without God?”
“Oh, any protuberance will do—they are all more or less interchangeable.”
“But do you really believe, Reb Nakhman, in a purely physical world?”
“I believe that my soul died when he spoke. I sought him everywhere and could not find him. I called him and he did not answer.”
“But if you really believe you can’t find God in this world, why remain religious at all? Why not, then, curse God for abandoning us, forsake the world to come, and enjoy your life in this world? Why make things so difficult for yourself?”
“How old are you, Doctor?”
“By my parents reckoning, not yet 25.”
“I’m scarcely 10 years older than you, and yet I feel as though I could be your father. If I had known you before you got into your head the foolishness of becoming a doctor, perhaps I would have arranged for you to marry one of my daughters.” That struck me as unlikely, but I smiled at his newfound benevolence, relieved at least momentarily that he was speaking decently with me. “You were married, am I right?”
“You enjoyed being with your wife? Come, you can speak with me candidly, I really want to know.” I hesitated, but then nodded. “What did you like about being with her. What aspect did you enjoy?”
I smiled, though I was too embarrassed to look at him while I answered. I looked instead at the vision of Beyla before my inner eye: the jewel-embroidered hat she wore on Sabbaths, the beauty even of her shorn head, like a newborn lamb; her moist eyes, her narrow nose and long nostrils, her gracious and indulgent smile. “I enjoyed the warmth of her body next to mine. I loved the smoothness of her skin—women have such soft skin. Cold hands, but soft skin. It was always such a struggle for me to leave our bed the morning after she’d been to the ritual bath, that only her sense of propriety roused me to join in prayer at the synagogue.”
“That joy, that intimacy, is what I sought with God. In the moment of ecstasy with a woman, we lose our self. Our soul melts into our body, just as our body melts together for an instant with the woman’s. In prayer, we have the possibility of losing our body, so that our soul melts together with God. With genuine devotion, we stand naked before God, just as we lie naked next to our wives. Those of us who have wives. And permit ourselves to lie with them. God does not reach out over the void to us—there is too much sin, too many demons, blocking the way. But if we purify ourselves, we can reach out to Him. That is why I separated from women: to feel the still greater joy of losing the body and experiencing oneness with God. I thought that I had achieved that; I felt so achingly close. Today, during the afternoon prayer, I reached out to God, and it was as if I nearly achieved the reconciliation with Him that I have sought my entire life, the reconciliation that will usher in our final redemption. But the body reclaimed me. In spite of my sickness, in spite of my humiliation, in spite of my shortcomings, the body always comes back to reclaim me, to make its cruel demands on my fragile spirit. And so I fell.”
“But I caught you, didn’t I? Because you never got the five Groschen, did you?”
“Yes, this is one instance where it was proper for you to put a stone in my path. But of all the passions, none is more engrossing than the need for a woman’s love, and I’m convinced now that I will never overcome this passion, however much I know that it keeps me bound to the sins and sufferings of this life, and imprisoned in this world. I’m like a doctor who knows how to cure his patients, but continues to expose himself to the same disease.”
“So in that respect you and I aren’t so different after all?”
The next day I informed my servant girl that her services were no longer required in my home; she replied to me with a number of sharp idioms in her native language, to which I was no better equipped than Nakhman to make reply. I subsequently spent the better part of the morning trying to secure the services of a new girl, and therefore I saw neither Nakhman nor my regular patients from the town. Although I spoke with several women in the market that day, in the end I decided to hire my former maid’s mother—a woman who would never settle for a mere half-crown, and who would never lead any putative messiah, no matter how sick, into temptation. Nakhman spent most of the afternoon murmuring to his disciples, who wrote his every word down, in a surprisingly fluent, if at times wildly ungrammatical, Hebrew. I was unable to follow the drift of his thoughts, giving up finally after he declared, “Tall people are mostly fools. Because of their height, the vapors that ascend from the heart to the mind to develop there and become thoughts are weakened by the lengthy journey from the heart to the mind, and so they are incapable of turning them into intelligent thoughts. As for short people, their vapors develop well and become intelligent thoughts. But because their intellects are greater than their good deeds, when the intelligent thoughts return to their hearts, their hearts have no strength to contain the intelligence, because the heart’s strength comes from good deeds.” How grateful I was when hearing these words that, though I was neither particularly tall nor especially short, science had directed my thoughts away from idle speculation to the realm of certain and enduring truth!
On Friday, I awoke too late to attend the morning prayer service, and when Nakhman, despite my protest earlier in the week, returned home from the ritual bath, he informed me that a letter had arrived for him at the synagogue. He would be leaving, he said, Sunday morning for Brody; there was word there of a potential engagement for him. His prospective father-in-law, he told me, would arrange to pay my fee for the week’s treatment as part of the terms of his betrothal. “But we’ve only just begun,” I told him. “If you stay longer, I might be able to reverse some of your more pernicious symptoms.”
“No, I must move on; we must set conditions for the wedding, if there’s to be one, as soon as possible. You know I haven’t much time left.”
“So you’ve decided finally to re-marry? Do you still intend to separate yourself from your wife? To use her only to warm your final days?”
“Even though you know, surely, that you will fail to withstand the temptations to which you’ve succumbed in the past?”
“Even though assuming you managed to resist them, you still would not achieve the oneness with God you seek, or the redemption you pine for?”
“I have to continue to hope, Doctor. It’s my nature.”
“Reb Nakhman, please don’t go yet: you are far too ill to travel.”
“And staying here, will I become healthy again?”
“No. But I really thought that I could help you.”
“And I, you.”
I had, of course, no choice but to let him leave, even though it meant hastening both his death and my loneliness. For it should be clear by now that however distasteful his confused and unhealthy beliefs were to me, it was a relief to my own troubled thoughts to have guests in my home, to be able to wake in the morning to other people. Even the contentious presence of the misguided and perplexed was preferable to protracted solitude. Perhaps it wasn’t so different from the sort of marriage Nakhman was, against all reason and natural convention, planning for himself.
I took him for my last patient of the day, and after my assistant bled him I brought him and his disciples to the steam bath. We found a place on the next-highest bench, with Shmuel and Itsik-Yoysef one seat below us. Nakhman’s body was a pitiable sight—his arms were bruised from the bleedings, his chest sunken from the debilitation of persistent coughing, and his shaven torso making him appear all the more naked than the rest of us—but it was still possible to imagine in the harmony even of his shrunken dimensions that in better health he had been a most lovely man. What’s more, one could see that even he was aware of his beauty, and not yet resigned to its irrevocable decay, by the careful manner with which he combed out his still-dark beard and curled his nutmeg-colored sidelocks. I thought then that here, in the one place where we were safe from the unforgiving gaze of the constable, we really were all alike in our nakedness, and singularly unashamed. My reverie ended when Reb Nakhman was overcome by the steam, so I took him out to the changing room, where he expectorated a copious amount of blood and phlegm. I encouraged him in this; the steam had a therapeutically purgative effect on him. It was a real pity that he was unwilling to stay longer under my care.
When we returned home, the widow woman whom I had engaged the day before had already transformed the long wooden table from a doctor’s station into a setting fit for a prince: the two benches replaced with chairs, the table itself covered with a stiff white linen cloth, the smell of chemicals replaced with the sweet savor of roasting meat. Although my three guests should have prepared themselves for the Sabbath, they instead shut themselves up in Nakhman’s room to read the Song of Songs. When they emerged, clothed not in black travelers’ coats, but in quaintly gleaming white robes, like pale and timid Turks, it was already far too late to join in prayers at the synagogue, so I suggested that we offer our devotion at home; the earlier we ushered in the Sabbath, the earlier we could each of us go to bed—rest being even more beneficial to us than any other remedy or prayer.
For supper, the newly hired old woman had prepared, far more ably than her daughter, a golden soup, followed by a whole chicken and a sweet noodle pudding; all this, along with fine wine, and challah I had purchased from the town rabbi’s wife, was a meal worthy of my guests’ recollection. True, it went against the diet I had prescribed for Nakhman, but he didn’t appear to be adhering to the regimen in any event. Besides, even our rabbis have taught that a healthy man should be cautious in what he eats, whereas a dying man should be allowed to eat as he pleases, since his time is limited regardless of what he does. And at least on the Sabbath, the teachings of the rabbis should be allowed to hold sway over the lessons of science.
Between dinner and grace, Nakhman and his companions sang. I readily admit that of all the arts, music is the one that baffles me most, but it astonished me how tuneful and striking his voice was, in spite of his weakened lungs. While his disciples sang softly and deeply, merely as accompaniment, Nakhman’s voice was high and clear, deliberate in its intonation, yet also thin and delicate—in short, it had all the qualities that are recognized everywhere as beautiful. At the same time it enunciated the Aramaic words of his song with affecting pain; if Nakhman himself was but a few years older than I, the sound of his voice was older than the grandfather of Shpole. It was a voice that even a man could fall in love with. As he sang, he looked directly at me, and his dark eyes shone with the light of his dimly remembered strength. In his eyes and his voice, Nakhman had achieved what he sought in prayer: his senses, if not his soul, stood on the border between the physical and the spiritual worlds. Though sitting across from me in the flickering candlelight, he stood at the same moment with arms stretched out to God. And yet, wasn’t it also true that Nakhman’s voice had not abandoned the physical world at all, but had asserted his presence in it all the more strongly? Did he not revive his strength and reclaim his body by singing? From his perspective, had even this effort at becoming one with God been a failure? As such the melody described a chase, with the object of his desire spiraling ever upward, just out of reach.
Would I ever be able to sing as he did? Could I, if I wanted? Did I ever sing?
When we returned home from the synagogue the next morning, and concluded eating, Nakhman began preaching to his disciples. As an example of the exegetical powers of the new sect, it was most unimpressive; in fact, it would be generous to describe the parable as merely incoherent. “There was once a king. He was attacked and had to fight many wars, but in the end he was victorious, that is, he won them. He took many prisoners.” As a plain narrative, the story was as formless as if it was a description of day-to-day life, with all its anomalies, coincidences, and purposeless events. As a commentary on our sacred tradition, it was far more obscure than any of the holy writings themselves. As a description of warfare, kingship, or the moral questions raised by our emperor’s current struggles with France, it should be stated in plain language for all to hear that the nations of our day fear God and honor His Torah, doing kindness and justice in their lands, and dealing charitably with the Jews who take refuge under their wings—Heaven forbid that we should say anything disrespectful about righteous rulers!
I found it simply impossible to follow the drift of Nakhman’s thoughts, and I wondered if I should check his forehead for fever and put him to bed before he was overcome in the afternoon heat. Instead, I decided to go out to the porch for a breath of fresh air. By mistake, instead of putting on my own short-cut jacket, I put on one of their long black coats. “How foolish,” I thought as I stood outside my house, “I’m wearing my long-cut trousers, and their long overcoat. I should either wear a long coat with short breeches, or a short jacket and long pants. As it stands now I’ve made a complete spectacle of myself.” I smiled at this thought. My thin sidecurls, too, which I normally dip in beer and tuck behind my ears, had somehow come loose and fell across my cheeks. “Soon they’ll all mistake me for one of them, “ I thought, laughing. Walking a little further along the empty street, I placed my hands in the pockets of the coat, and to my surprise I discovered that they were filled with coins. I was in a panic to be carrying money on the Sabbath, so I ran quickly a few paces to where two wagons stood on either side of the road. I threw the coins into the vehicle on the left side of the road, thinking that I could retrieve the money after nightfall. But as soon as I threw the money in, it started off down the road, too quickly for me to chase after it. I had placed the coins in the wrong cart, and now it was too late.
I awoke with a cough, as if a musket had fired in my throat. It was nothing, though—probably I had swallowed improperly, due to the acute angle at which my head had rested on my chest. My neck, too, was soaked with sweat, but this was hardly uncommon considering the heat of the day. What I most wanted was a drink, and not of Sabbath wine, which would only make me sleepier, but cold, clean water. But where in these parts could one find really pure water?
I looked around and saw Nakhman and his followers sitting closely together and singing strange, wordless melodies, upon which Nakhman’s voice glided from sorrow to sorrow, ever higher, but chained by the fragility of his own breath. The light was already fading, the time would soon pass for us to say the afternoon prayer. But the hardness I needed to interrupt them had left me. I considered, then, the suffering that Nakhman had undertaken, in the name of purity, for the sake of heaven. I realized how attached I was to this world, how God’s love was available to us only here, manifest in the acts of kindness we perform for one another. How could God desire of us that we love one another but forever separate ourselves from our loved ones? How could God force us to choose between loving Him and loving each other? Such a Deity would make a mockery of our material beings and our spiritual aspirations. I could never serve a mocking God. Was this the purpose of Nakhman’s mortifying faith? Was his faith in a laughing God greater than mine in a compassionate One? I could not know; I could only feel a hopeless longing for the love I had lost, and for a love somehow to take her place. Was this desire not as intense as Nakhman’s craving for a deathless love that could withstand both the imagined and real failings of his nature? Perhaps. But as darkness swiftly fell, and the image of the three before me dissolved in the night, I saw a curtain close between us, separating me from them, my past from my future, and this life from the world to come.
~ Bella Cohen ~
March 15—April 15, 2003
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