The village of Krinek was shaped like a spider’s web. The market place was at the center, and from it threads of brick road went out in eight directions. And those roads were connected to each other with fine filaments of dirt paths and alleys, in ever-widening octagons.
On one of those dirt roads lived the famed Krinker Rebbe and the equally famous Krinker Rebbetzin. Their home, next to a small study house, was a meeting place for many who would stop and pose a question to the Rebbe. They’d ask for an interpretation of Torah or a blessing, or simply sit and enjoy his presence, his singing, and the twinkle in his eye.
The Rebbetzin was appreciated for her hospitality. But each night, when the last visitor would head off into the dark, the Rebbe would walk around the house, blowing out the lamps, repeating the day’s questions to the Rebbetzin, and telling her how he resolved them.
“Nu, Rebbetzin,” he would ask, “hob ikh gut gezogt? Did I do alright?” And she would smile and say, “Yo, Rebbe, gut gezogt. You did good.” And he would smile. And a minute or so would pass as the two of them locked the doors and closed the curtains before she would say, “Nur eyn kashe…just one problem.” And she would ask him a question, just a small one that made him see the story he had told her in an entirely different light. And he would know in that moment that he might have solved the question or interpreted the passage with a little more elegance, a little more holiness, than he had. And he would store away the thought for next time.
And now it was Hanukkah. Every night the Rebbe and Rebbetzin would light the Hanukkah lights, adding a new light each day. On the eighth night, experience told them, all of the Rebbe’s band of students and admirers would come to hear the Rebbe teach about darkness and light and the miracle of both. They would crowd into the house, greeting the Rebbetzin shyly. And the Rebbetzin would listen at the door of the drawing room to the Rebbe’s teaching, and then emerge with trays of latkes for the crowd to eat. The Rebbetzin would typically have spent much of the day preparing them, with the help of the neighbor women.
But this year was going to be a hard year. Something was going around, tfu tfu tfu. Many of the Rebbetzin’s neighbors were in bed with fevers. She could not expect them to help her make latkes when she was busy bringing soup to so many of them.
So the Rebbetzin thought of a new strategy. On the sixth day of Hanukkah she spent all of the short hours of daylight running potatoes along the tin grater until her elbows ached, chopping onions, sprinkling matzah meal and beating eggs from the chickens that were kept behind the study house. Then she stood alone at her iron stove, with four skillets of sputtering oil. With a hiss she would drop spoonfuls of batter into the oil, working circularly around the stove, so that by the time she returned to the first skillet, those latkes were brown on one side and ready to be flipped. And by the time she returned to them the second time, they were ready to be lifted from the oil into a waiting roasting pan.
It was long work and hot, despite the cold outside. The air was full of onion and grease, as were the Rebbetzin’s apron and clothes and hair. But she didn’t mind. This was a meditation for her, this rote work, this symphony of sizzling. Her thoughts would wander. She would speak to herself, or to God: “Oy, Ribeyne shel Eylem, may we always have enough. May our people never go hungry. May we be warm and cared for.” She would speak to God intimately, as if the Creator were tending latkes right alongside her. She would petition, she would scold, she would question the rulings the Rebbe had made the previous day. And at long last she would lapse into a gentle niggun of her own devising.
At last two roasting pans were full. She had lost count at somewhere around 200 latkes. She would store these and warm them tomorrow night, making an additional few if they were needed. She didn’t favor serving latkes that weren’t right out of the pan. But under the circumstances, she thought her solution ingenious.
She put lids on the roasting pans. One by one she carried them next door to the study house and placed them in the cold cellar. Then, as the sun set, she joined the Rebbe to light seven candles and to hear about his day. “Gut gezogt, Rebbe. Nur eyn kashe…”
The next day dawned cold and clear. The Rebbe hopped from one foot to another to warm himself while washing his hands. The Rebbetzin was already busy, peeling apples and cooking them on the stove, taking plates and forks out of storage, making sure there was enough of everything for all the Rebbe’s admirers. Her preparations took much of the short day, but she felt confident about the evening ahead. At last as the sky began to turn gold and pink, and the stove was good and hot, she wrapped a shawl around herself, ran to the study house and went down into the cellar. She looked around. Roasting pans. The roasting pans were not where she’d left them. There were no roasting pans anywhere.
She circled the cellar three times, but it was becoming too dark to see. She climbed back up and knocked at the study house’s back door, until Zalman the shammes came to open it up. “Zalman, have you been in the cellar today?”
“Yes, Rebbetzin. Funny you should ask, because I almost never go down there. But we needed more candles for the Hanukkah menorahs, and I remembered storing some away there last year.”
“Did you see my roasting pans?” asked the Rebbetzin.
“Those were yours? I did see them. I don’t know when you put them there, but did you know you left them full of latkes?”
“Yes, I do.”
“They were cold. They smelled good. But I didn’t know if it was kosher to eat last year’s latkes.”
“So I asked the Rebbe, who said better not to.”
“And what did you do with the latkes, Zalman?”
“Well, Rebbetzin, let me just say that our chickens are well fed and should be giving us many delicious eggs, Borukh Hashem.”
The Rebbetzin of Krinek felt many competing emotions. But she let them pass through her. “Borukh Hashem, Zalman.”
She turned back to her own house, where she could see that the first of the visitors were already arriving.
She returned to her kitchen and lit lamps. The oven was hot. She inspected the larder. She still had potatoes, onions. But she only had her own two hands. The singing was beginning in the next room. And she wanted to hear her husband’s teaching so she could challenge him on it later. She made up her mind and walked into the parlor, now crowded with men. Her husband was lighting the eight candles of the last night of Hanukkah.
“Omeyn,” she said loudly at the end of the second blessing. The Rebbe’s students and admirers turned to her, unaccustomed to hearing her voice.
“Rebbetzin kroyn,” said the Rebbe. “Is there something?”
“Yes, Rebbe. I’d like to make an announcement.” The room stirred as she cleared her throat. “This year’s last night of Hanukkah is going to be different. Special. It will be the one you remember as the year without latkes.”
Forty voices began talking all at once.
“Why is this, Rebbetzin?” asked the Rebbe. The room hushed to hear.
“Well, Rebbe, there were 200 latkes. But the Holy One decided they were needed more elsewhere than here in our circle. And so they disappeared today and God willing they have reappeared somewhere where they will be of greater use.”
The Rebbe slapped his hand over his eyes in sudden understanding. Meanwhile, his students began talking with a bit of an edge, fueled by hunger and disappointment. “What are we to do without latkes?” “Is she going to make latkes now?” “Im eyn kemach, eyn Toyreh – if we don’t eat, how can we expect to learn?”
The Rebbe, flustered, began to speak, searching his wife’s face for the right words.
“Rebbe,” she said, “may I show our honored guests something that may shed light?”
“Rebbetzin, please do.”
“Men, follow me.” The Rebbetzin walked out the door into the cold night, grown yeshiva boys trailing behind her. She stopped and let them gather in the snowy yard between home and study house. She turned west and looked toward the horizon. “Gentlemen, what do you see?”
“Trees? Sky? The new moon?” they replied.
“Yes,” she said, now pointing at the fine arc of light in the sky. “The new moon of the month of Teyves. A new moon, as it always is at the end of Hanukkah. It is the darkest time of month inside the darkest time of the year. Now tell me, what does this new moon have to teach us about what happened tonight?”
The students fidgeted and glanced at the Rebbe for reassurance. At last one piped up. “The moon is mostly missing, like the latkes are missing.”
“Look closely,” replied the Rebbetzin. “Is the moon mostly missing?”
The students looked at the dark sky. “I can see the whole thing,” said one. “It’s just that it’s mostly dark. But the whole moon is there. I can see it now that, now that…”
“Now that you’ve opened our eyes,” suggested the Rebbe.
The Rebbetzin continued. “Gentlemen, tonight you saw only the absence of latkes. But what you’re not seeing is the abundance that you actually have. You have clothes to wear and beds to sleep in. You have food. You have Torah. You have ideas and a community of people to share them with. You have skills you haven’t touched. Resources you haven’t tapped. Abilities you haven’t thought to use. Treasure is treasure, even if it’s in the dark. You just have to notice that it’s there. Now shall we go back inside?”
As the students filed into the house, the Rebbe took his wife’s arm. She turned to him and saw his smile.
“Gut gezogt?” she asked.
“Gut gezogt,” he replied.
“Oh, and Rebbetzin lebn, you know and I know that you are the treasure that is too often overlooked in the dark,” said the Rebbe. “And now my students know, too.”
“That is kind of you, Rebbe,” she replied. “But just wait. There’s still a little more hidden treasure waiting to be illuminated I think.”
She entered the house and clapped her hands to get the students’ attention. “Gentlemen, we’re not quite done. Follow me.” And she led as many as could fit into the warm kitchen.
“And now, gentlemen, we will use your abundance, your resources that have been kept in the dark, the treasure God has given you, to solve tonight’s small, small problem. Are you ready?” she asked them.
“Yes, Rebbetzin,” they responded in chorus.
“Very good.” The Rebbetzin smiled. “Let’s begin.” She reached for a strip of perforated tin on the table. “This, gentlemen, is a grater.”