"I don't know and don't care," answers he with a querulous shrug.
Yet —what else can a Litvak do?— he determines to find out.
That very night, upon the conclusion of maariv prayer, the Litvak slips into the rabbi's room and under the bed! He means to watch through the night until morning, bent on discovering where the rabbi goes and what he does while all the rest of us observe the tradition to beseech the thirteen attributes of mercy through prayer.
Another in the place of our Litvak would doze, but this one's prepared to recite to himself a whole Talmud tractate by heart to stave off slumber!
No need; the rabbi —long life to him— seeks his bed after lengthy and fretful study. Yet instead of sleep, his listener hears anguished groans for the struggles and torments of klal Yisra'el filling the darkness before dawn. Such sorrow would melt the hardest heart ... just not the cast-iron of a Litvak's.
Thus, our rabbi upon the bed, the Litvak beneath.
Then is heard the call to shacharit prayer at this holiest time of year. The house rouses from rest, their beds creak as they jump up to dress, barely a quiet word or two, the pouring of water over fingers, doors open and thump shut, and all are gone, leaving silence and the lingering darkness still unbroken, but for shuttered moonlight reaching through here or there.
Later, the Litvak confessed to terror chilling his skin and the roots of his earlocks like needles piercing his temples, just to be alone with our rabbi at this portentous moment.
Yet a Litvak is steadfast: in that moment he quivers like a landed fish but does not budge, as our rabbi arises and does as befits a Jew.
But then! The rabbi dons peasant shirt and trousers, high boots, a rough coat, broad-brimmed hat, wide metal-studded belt. Into the coat pockets, sturdy countryman's rope. Through the belt a hand-ax with steely glinting blade.
Leaving the house, our rabbi makes his way through the hushed dread of the days of awe that fill the still-dark streets. Stumbling, the Litvak follows, unexpectedly shaken to hear in surrounding darkness the cries of unseen minyanim in prayer, supplications from sickbeds, murmurs of self-confrontation … and the thudding of his own heart.
With heavy footfall, the rabbi keeps to shadow, making for the outskirts of town. Beyond is forest, and still he plods forward, undeterred by the dreadful chill or the distance, accompanied all unknown. He stops in the woods only when a small dead tree comes in sight, leaning leaflessly among its fellows. From behind a copse, the Litvak sees, amazed, that the rabbi hefts the hand-axe from his peasant belt like a man born to the task. With blow after blow, he cuts the dead tree to cordwood, the cordwood into sticks, ropes it all into a mighty bundle, and heaves the bundle to his back.
Ax in belt again, the rabbi turns for town, trudging toward the poorest quarter, bowed by his load. His Litvak shadow comes behind him, shuddering with cold and nameless confusion.
In one of the back streets, the rabbi stops at a tumble-down shack, and taps at the cracked, paper-glued window.
"Who is there?" cries someone fearfully from within, the words in Yiddish, the voice cracked and weak.
"I," answers the rabbi, in Russian. "Vassil," he adds in the same peasant tongue.
"I know no Vassil," the voice quavers. "What do you want?"
"I've firewood to sell, very cheap," the sham peasant replies. Awaiting no permission, he enters the hovel, midnight-dark 'though the alley begins to grey with dawn. The door sags crazily on its ancient hinges: through it, the Litvak slips in, to crouch behind a ramshackle table and chair as the rabbi lowers his great burden beside a rickety stove.
In a broken bed barely a step away, wrapped in rags, a sick old woman shrinks from the peasant stranger so crowding her hut. Summoning courage, she shakes her head. "Wood to sell, but how shall I buy, a poor widow with no money?"
"Six gruschen-worth is all. I will lend it to you," her woodsman says.
"How would I ever repay it?" frets the ill widow bitterly, to see the wealth of wood on her hearth that she’s sure cannot be hers.
"I will trust you," says the disguised rabbi. "See — your great and mighty God sent a peasant woodsman to a Jewish stranger's home. How then can you not trust your God for six gruschen to repay me some day?"
"That takes hope."
"Hope costs not one grusch," the woodsman replies.
“Still, what use is wood unkindled,” the widow listlessly says. "My limbs are too stiff with cold and age to move past this night."
"Fire I can also kindle."
Defeated old eyes look up, and she gazes in wonder, for somehow the fire already is laid and prepared. In a pleading undertone too soft for her to hear, he had uttered the first portion of this holy day’s prayers. Now, with her hesitant nod of assent, his bowed head lifts gratefully, and he takes the striker from stove top to set to the wood.
As a flicker licks bravely up in the stove, he stacks the wood in easy reach for her, and under his breath recites the second portion.
As the widow extends her hands to the warmth, the fear and sorrow clear from her face, and the rabbi murmurs the third portion of the Penitential Prayers with beginnings of joy of his own. Reverentially, he closes the little door of the stove.
The Litvak never saw the rabbi leave the hut.
From his hidden corner as it warmed, he glanced up from watching the stove's sturdy little flames, to the old woman’s peacefully nodding head, to the neatly latched door — the rabbi was gone.
The Litvak slipped out and found his way back as the sun rose. He became a disciple of our rabbi of Nemirov.
Ever since, at mention of ascent of the rabbi to heaven at the time of Penitential Prayers, instead of laughing, he adds quietly: "Or even higher."