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Pause for Effect

Rochel Grunewald

She concludes again, realizing dimly that she’s repeated the exact answer she gave — Shana? Yehudis? — last year, almost word for word. But so what?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

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T hree words are written in the margin of her notes: Pause for effect! She skims the words, eyes only leaving the intent faces of her students for a fraction of a second.

She gives a tiny, uncalled-for grimace, then quickly rearranges her features into a wide smile. “Remember, girls. In the end, those without bitachon will receive the same results anyway… but work so much harder!”

Pause for effect, indeed. As if, when saying this over for the 28th year running, she needs the reminder. If she were giving this shiur in her dreams, she would imbue that last phrase with an introductory two-second silence.

She shuffles her papers. “And that, girls, brings us to the end of—”

A hand waves frantically in the air. She surreptitiously checks the seating plan. Gittel Braineman.

“Yes, Gittel?”

The girl lowers her hand with an audible sigh of relief. “Rebbetzin Schwartz, I don’t understand how we would know where the right balance is, between bitachon and hishtadlus.”

Oh, so Gittel is the Chumi Homburger of the year. Funny how she can remember her first-year talmidos so distinctly, down to their idiosyncrasies and the questions they asked on her fifth Hashkafah class. Especially when this is the — a sneak peek downward again — the 19th time this question has been raised at the end of this particular lesson.

“Gittel, what a wonderful question!” she enthuses. “Girls...” She turns significantly in the direction of the few in the far left side of the classroom who are shifting in their seats, eager to escape the classroom after a full morning of studies. “I want everyone to think, and think carefully… how would you answer this question? When would you know what that fine, fine line is between doing too little — because remember, we said that Hashem runs the world in such a way that we need to do our hishtadlus to receive results — and doing too much, which, as we said, is pointless…?”

Hesitant hands, a few half-baked suggestions.

“Let me answer with a practical example…” Her eyes roam the room as she speaks, noting that at least 80 percent of the students before her are all wide eyes and furrowed brows, many frantically scribbling the words as she says them.

She concludes again, realizing dimly that she’s repeated the exact answer she gave — Shana? Yehudis? — last year, almost word for word. But so what? Gittel is smiling and nodding very fast, and the class seems satisfied.

She pauses. Then, “Girls, you’re dismissed. Any further questions on the class, you’re welcome to come ask.”

The girls rise and stretch. A small wave surges forward, surrounding her desk. “Rebbetzin Schwartz, the mashal of the hunter didn’t seem to fit with…”

“What the Rebbetzin said about Yosef and the butler…”

“Yochi’s question, I didn’t get it down clearly, but…”

She’s suddenly tempted to silence them all and read out her list of questions asked previously on this class, complete with the notes on how she’d answered them. A grand total of five minutes, and all their infinite difficulties with the lesson would be clarified. After 28 years, she’s reasonably sure no one will be coming up with anything new.


But their eyes are bright and eager, and their voices so very sincere as they search to understand with the intensity only seminary girls possess. And so she silences the strange, cynical voice inside her that just wants a coffee and a rest, and switches on her brightest, most welcoming smile.

“One at a time, please. I can’t possibly answer all your wonderful questions all at once. Let’s start here, with—” She breaks off, realizing that somehow she’s forgotten the name of the lively blonde who holds a five-out-of-five track record for staying late after class, each time with at least four questions.

“Elky,” the girl supplies quickly, flashing a smile. “So, I didn’t fully understand the last thing the Rebbetzin said…”

When she leaves the building half an hour later, she walks home very, very fast.

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