In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Old Woman
The tiny, one-room house was dark and musty. Narrow sunbeams poked through the cracks around a small draped window, and near the bed a solitary wick flickered in a little bowl of oil.
Nachamah-Leah lay in her bed. She had lain there for some 10 years now, barely able to move or sit up, much less stand or walk. Nachamah heard a rapping at the door–two knocks, a pause, and then three quick taps. It was Chanah, the rebbetzin.
Nachamah, are you awake?” the elderly rebbetzin said as she showed her head through the door. Nachamah nodded.
Chanah came to see Nachamah three times a day. She would come in, give Nachamah a bowl of broth, adjust the pillows and the quilt, and in the winter throw a log onto the hearth.
“Your healer hasn’t come yet?” Chanah asked as she helped Nachamah sit up and gave her a bowl of chicken soup. Nachamah just smiled faintly.
“You’re still waiting for him?” Chanah continued. Again Nachamah just smiled.
“Go ahead, eat; it will give you strength,” Chanah said. She watched as Nachamah took a few spoonfuls of the hot nourishment. After sundown Nachamah would eat no more, for it was Erev Yom Kippur.
“I’ll see you again in the morning,” Chanah said as she turned towards the door. “Make sure you rest; rest. Don’t you stay up all night reading.” Chanah adjusted her wig and softly closed the door behind her.
Nachamah sighed. Chanah had been taking care of her for how long? It was 10 years ago in the fall that the accident had happened. A horse had gone crazy in the market place and knocked down everything–and everyone–in its path. Nachamah had found herself lying flat on the ground, a sharp pain shooting up her spine.
“Rest,” the doctor had told her, “stay off your feet and you’ll be better in a few weeks.” The weeks became months and the months made themselves years, but the pain had never left her. Nachamah developed a lump beside her spine, and not too long afterwards the lump began spreading. Then she began to lose her strength.
Her husband, Leib-Duvid, had been a good man and a fair provider, but when he realized that his wife would be an invalid for who-knows-how-long, he packed his bags and left. Who could blame him for not wanting to bear such a tragic burden? Dishonorable, true! But understandable. She heard from him only once again when a messenger brought the get.
Nachamah’s daughter, Feigeleh, had taken care of her at first, but it wasn’t long before Feigeleh was able to escape into marriage. She and her new husband soon moved away. They didn’t care to visit. But who could blame them?
It was after this that Chanah came; was it six years ago, or seven? From the beginning Chanah had always been faithful; she brought Nachamah food, changed the linens, tended the fire. Whatever needed to be done, Chanah would do. It was “hesed shel emet,” an act of true lovingkindness, as Nachamah knew she would never be able to repay Chanah for her care. Chanah even used to bring Nachamah books with stories of far-away places, and she brought an old Yiddish Bible. But the only one that Nachamah cared for was the tattered old Bible. Chanah had let her keep it. It sat on the table beside her bed, right next to the bowl of oil.
Nachamah-Leah, feeling a bit stronger, reached for the Bible and opened its yellowed pages, almost automatically, to the middle of the book of Isaiah. This was Nachamah’s favorite passage, a slightly obscure incident about how Hezekiah, one of the kings of the ancient Jewish nation, had become mortally ill. He had prayed to the Lord, and the prophet Isaiah had come to him, saying, “Thus saith the Lord…I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears. I hereby add fifteen years to your life” (Isaiah 38:5 JPS). God, Isaiah explained, was going to work a miracle to let Hezekiah know that he would be healed; the shadow on the sundial was going to go backwards 10 degrees. Of course, the Scriptures recorded that the shadow did go backwards, and King Hezekiah recovered from his illness.
Nachamah had come across this story by chance several years ago. “If God is God,” she had reasoned, “then he can do whatever miracles he pleases. If God could cure old King Hezekiah, why can’t he heal me?”
“Ribbono shel Olam,” she had prayed, “Master of the Universe, I know you are the great Healer; please, heal me as you healed King Hezekiah.”
She had barely finished her prayer when a flood of golden sunlight had streamed through the window, making everything as bright as a summer afternoon.
“It’s a sign,” Nachamah had gasped, “a sign that God has heard my prayer. He’s going to heal me; God is going to heal me!” And she hung onto that hope because she had nothing else to hope for.
Not too long after she read about Hezekiah’s miracle, Nachamah’s eyes had lighted on another passage, also in the book of Isaiah. “Surely, our disease he did bear,” the prophet had written, “and our pains he carried…” Nachamah continued reading. She discovered that God had sent a “righteous servant,” someone who took upon himself the sickness and hurts of others and bore their sins. “A healer,” Nachamah had told herself. But who was this healer? Nachamah didn’t know, but she knew that God had sent him. And since God had said he would send a healer back then, doubtless, he could certainly send a healer to her now.
Nachamah had been so overjoyed with her discoveries that she couldn’t wait to tell Chanah. At first Chanah even shared her hope and looked for a miracle. But as time went on, Nachamah, instead of getting better, declined. She was weakening; her already slight frame was wasting away, and her once healthy complexion was turning pale and gray.
Now a sudden draft blew out the wick in the oil bowl. The sun had already set, and the room was swallowed up in darkness. Nachamah wanted to recite the confession of sins and the Sh’ma, in case God should decide to take her soul during this, the holiest of nights, but she found that she didn’t have the strength to remember all the words.
“Ribbono shel Olam,” she prayed, “please forgive me my sins, and quickly send the Righteous One, the Healer, to me.” Nachamah prayed, but with less conviction than she had long ago. She soon fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Nachamah awoke to the sound of a rapping at her door–two knocks, a pause, and three quick taps. The room of her dream was flooded with a stream of golden sunlight, and when the door opened, Nachamah thought she would go blind, the light was so bright. But instead of Chanah, a man entered the room. He was dressed in white and was neither young nor old.
“Come, daughter,” he said, as he held out an ugly, scarred hand, “your faith has made you well.”
Nachamah took hold of that hand, and with a quickness that surprised her, she leaped out of bed, jumped to her feet, sprang out the door and started running–running and skipping for sheer joy–through a lush, green meadow that was bursting with springtime.
Morning came. Chanah entered the dingy room and noticed at once Nachamah’s gaping jaw and wide-open eyes that would never see anything on earth again.
“Poor thing,” Chanah said out loud. “She really thought that God would heal her….”