They called him Moishe the Beadle, as if his entire life he had never had a surname. He was the jack-of-all-trades in a Hasidic house of prayer, a shtibl. The Jews of Sighet—the little town in Transylvania where I spent my childhood—were fond of him. He was poor and lived in utter penury. As a rule, our townspeople, while they did help the needy, did not particularly like them. Moishe the Beadle was the exception. He stayed out of people’s way. His presence bothered no one. He had mastered the art of rendering himself insignificant, invisible.
Physically, he was as awkward as a clown. His waiflike shyness made people smile. As for me, I liked his wide, dreamy eyes, gazing off into the distance. He spoke little. He sang, or rather he chanted, and the few snatches I caught here and there spoke of divine suffering, of the Shekhinah in Exile, where, according to Kabbalah, it awaits its redemption linked to that of man.
I met him in 1941. I was almost thirteen and deeply observant. By day I studied Talmud and by night I would run to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple.
One day I asked my father to find me a master who could guide me in my studies of Kabbalah. “You are too young for that. Maimonides tells us that one must be thirty before venturing into the world of mysticism, a world fraught with peril. First you must study the basic subjects, those you are able to comprehend.”
My father was a cultured man, rather unsentimental. He rarely displayed his feelings, not even within his family, and was more involved with the welfare of others than with that of his own kin. The Jewish community of Sighet held him in highest esteem; his advice on public and even private matters was frequently sought. There were four of us children. Hilda, the eldest; then Bea; I was the third and the only son; Tzipora was the youngest.
My parents ran a store. Hilda and Bea helped with the work. As for me, my place was in the house of study, or so they said.
“There are no Kabbalists in Sighet,” my father would often tell me.
He wanted to drive the idea of studying Kabbalah from my mind. In vain. I succeeded on my own in finding a master for myself in the person of Moishe the Beadle.
He had watched me one day as I prayed at dusk.”Why do you cry when you pray?” he asked, as though he knew me well.
“I don’t know,” I answered, troubled.
I had never asked myself that question. I cried because…because something inside me felt the need to cry. That was all I knew.
“Why do you pray?” he asked after a moment.
Why did I pray? Strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe?
“I don’t know,” I told him, even more troubled and ill at ease. “I don’t know.”
From that day on, I saw him often. He explained to me, with great emphasis, that every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer…
Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks Him, he liked to say. Therein lies true dialogue. Man asks and God replies. But we don’t understand His replies. We cannot understand them. Because they dwell in the depths of our souls and remain there until we die. The real answers, Eliezer, you will find only within yourself.
“And why do you pray, Moishe?” I asked him.
“I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the real questions.”
We spoke that way almost every evening, remaining in the synagogue long after all the faithful had gone, sitting in the semidarkness where only a few half-burnt candles provided a flickering light.