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The Buttons on the Mountain
by Doug Lipman
Before he was a rabbi with a congregation, young Rabbi Pesach Mendel used to climb into the mountains, alone, and stay for days at a time.
Early one bright day, he sat against a rock, high in the mountains. Far from the nearest human dwellings, he sang a prayer-song, loudly. When he paused, he heard the birds singing, too. At that moment, it seemed that the birds were joining him in his prayers. He felt a great sense of joy.
Filled with the beauty of the day and his feeling of oneness with creation, he climbed even higher into the remote hills. Startled, he stopped his singing. Ahead of him was a tiny cabin. Sitting in the doorway was an old man.
In an instant, Rabbi Pesach Mendel understood that there was a high degree of holiness about this man. His smile was wise and welcoming. He seemed to radiate a sense of well-being. Rabbi Pesach Mendel said, "Shalom! Peace!"
The old man looked at him a moment, then smiled and spoke. Instead of the usual response to Rabbi Pesach Mendel's greeting, he spoke the blessing someone says when seeing something beautiful in nature, or a beautiful person. He said, "Blessed be the One who created beauty in the world!"
Rabbi Pesach Mendel was puzzled. He looked behind him at the view of the valley below. It was, indeed, beautiful. But why would this old man choose this moment to say this blessing?
In response to Rabbi Pesach Mendel's puzzled look, the old man only smiled. A moment later, he said, "I am Reb Yehuda. Come sit with me."
Thus began a new custom for Rabbi Pesach Mendel. Now, when he hiked into the mountains, he always visited Reb Yehuda. He could not exactly say why it seemed so important to visit him. They spoke little; each seemed to accept the improbable presence of the other without explanation. Mostly, they sat looking out the doorway. Of course, they prayed at the prescribed times.
The first Shabbat spent with Reb Yehuda was a truly holy experience. The spirit of the Sabbath Queen descended on Rabbi Pesach Mendel as never before. From that time on, as often as possible, Rabbi Pesach Mendel arranged his mountain retreats so that he could join Reb Yehuda for Shabbat.
As the two sat in Reb Yehuda's tiny doorway on a Sabbath afternoon, it seemed to Rabbi Pesach Mendel that Reb Yehuda's prayers had unseen effects in the world. And even in the World to Come. Rabbi Pesach Mendel suspected very strongly that Reb Yehuda was a hidden saint - perhaps even one of the righteous on whom depends the world's very existence.
One day, when Rabbi Pesach Mendel had been coming to see Reb Yehuda for nearly two years, Reb Yehuda said, "I have something for you." The old man held out a satin pillow, finely worked in black and gold.
Rabbi Pesach Mendel said, "But this is YOUR pillow. It is the one thing of value you have!"
Reb Yehuda said, "I don't need it. I have the grass and the earth to sit on. I have the mossy stones and needles of pine to lay my head on. I have the beds of leaves that are returning slowly to the soil."
Rabbi Pesach Mendel was honored, but not entirely pleased. Somehow, he felt that this gift was going to change things between them. But he wanted things to go on forever, just the way they had been.
Impulsively, Rabbi Pesach Mendel asked, "Are there others who do what you do?"
Reb Yehuda was silent a long time. At last, he said, "There will be others." He closed his eyes and said again, "There will be others."
The next time Rabbi Pesach Mendel climbed the mountain, he slept the first night under a sheltering rock. The next morning he rose early and sat on the ground, puzzling once again over the pillow from Reb Yehuda, which he held on his lap. He had spent many hours trying to understand its symbolism, to no avail.
One side of the square pillow, the side that was now facing down on his lap, was made of gold-colored silk. In its center was an unusual button, made of black stone. It was carved to look almost like a round mountain, with ridges and gullies flowing from its central peak.
The pillow's top side was made of black silk. In its center was a gold button, the perfect inverse of the stone button. It looked like a deep, round, ridged valley. It almost looked as though one of the buttons had been made by being stamped with the other. Around the pillow's edges was a fringe, made of intertwined black and gold threads.
Rabbi Pesach Mendel found himself with one hand beneath the pillow, and the other on top of it, fingering the two strange buttons. In his meditation, he sang a wordless song of prayer. Yet no understanding came to him.
At last, the singing of birds drew him from his reverie. He slung his jacket over his shoulder and began to climb higher, to visit Reb Yehuda.
Something was wrong. Just ahead, he noticed black where green brush should be. Hurrying on, he saw that a tract of land had been blackened by fire. He saw no flames, but the ashes were clearly fresh. The devastation spread far ahead of him, in the direction of Reb Yehuda's cabin.
Running now, he came to the remains of Reb Yehuda's hut. He called out for the old man, but there was no answer. At last, he found Reb Yehuda's charred body.
He spent the day praying over the body, then burying it. That night, he slept in the ashes around the cabin, clutching the pillow.
For many days, Rabbi Pesach Mendel mourned by himself. At the end of the prescribed time, he walked off, in search of another natural clearing with a view of the valley. When he found one, he began to drag stones together, to build a cabin for himself.
His anxiety was as overwhelming as his grief. He knew without question that he must continue the mystical work of Reb Yehuda. But what was it? What was he to do? He thought, "If I don't do the work he did, I feel sure that harm will come to the world. But I don't know what I am to do!" He spent his days and nights in agitation, struggling to understand.
He tried to meditate and pray, but with little result. All he could really pray was, "Tell me, tell me! This is too much! What do I do?"
Then, one day, he heard someone singing. He looked out the doorway of his little cabin. Coming up the narrow trail in the woods was a young man. This man was even younger than Rabbi Pesach Mendel, with a wispy beard and a fresh, open face. He climbed happily up the mountain, singing a prayer-song as he walked. The mountain birds sang along with him.
For a moment, Rabbi Pesach Mendel felt this man's joy. He remembered what it had been like, the first time he had come up the mountain to Reb Yehuda. How joyful he had felt. Then, remembering Reb Yehuda's death, Rabbi Pesach Mendel felt, once again, the burden of his responsibility.
But now he remembered Reb Yehuda. When Rabbi Pesach Mendel had arrived that first day, years before, Reb Yehuda had not looked like he felt weighted down by responsibility. In fact, he had seemed both calmer and more joyful than Rabbi Pesach Mendel!
Sitting now in the doorway, watching the young man approach, Rabbi Pesach Mendel's hands were on the buttons of the pillow, playing with them, tugging them in opposite directions. In a flash, he became aware of something his fingers had known all along: the buttons were connected by a thread that obviously passed through the center of the pillow. An invisible thread.
Rabbi Pesach Mendel felt like shouting and like crying, all at once. Finally, he understood the job that Reb Yehuda had done, and that was now his. The job was not for him to be serious. Certainly not to be morose. The job was to be joyful...to be a button of golden joy that connects the bright world, like a thread, to the world of stone.
Now, in the elation of this realization, Rabbi Pesach Mendel was absorbed once again into the beauty and the warmth of the day. He was overcome with joy.
And so, Rabbi Pesach Mendel began his new job: to be just as he was. Overcome with joy.
The young man looked up, startled to see someone in the mountains above him. He said, "Shalom!"
Rabbi Pesach Mendel looked at the young man's bright, miraculous face. He replied, "Blessed be the One who created beauty in the world." He saw the young man's puzzled look. But all Rabbi Pesach Mendel could do was to smile.
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This page was last updated on Tuesday, August 5, 2003
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