Harold Mandelbaum is a shomer. A watcher. A guardian of the dead.A comforter of sudden silent souls.
He is sitting on a thin cushion on a straight-backed wooden chair. The only chair in the room. A table lamp is lit in the corner. It provides only enough light so that he can read and to allow him to dimly make out his surroundings.
The walls of the room are painted in an accepting shade of gray. A gray with a tint of brown that emanates solace. A gray that seems to him like a pair of soft brown eyes. A gray that absorbs sorrow.
There is no sound in the room beyond that of his own breathing, an occasional sigh or cough, and the creak of the chair as he shifts his body against it. There is no window in the room. Only a door. And the door is shut.
He is not entirely alone.
In the center of the room is a table and on the table is the body of a man. Milton Hershkovitz is the man’s name. A man of about seventy. A man unknown to Mandelbaum until he entered the room.
Mandelbaum, himself, is a man of seventy-three years.
It is three o’clock in the morning. A Monday in May. An open book lays across Mandelbaum’s knees. And from it he reads. He reads quietly to the man and to the man’s soul.
He came into the room and sat in the chair by the table with the body of Milton Hershkovitz on it at a few minutes after midnight. He had relieved, Seidman, the shomer who came before him. Seidman nodded to him when he left. This is sacred work.
Mr. Hershkovitz had died in the late afternoon. His body had been washed and wrapped in a linen shroud. Kaplan had been the first watcher. Then Konigsberg. Then Seidman. Now Mandelbaum.
From the open book Mandelbaum reads the Shema, “Shema yisrael, Adonai elohenu, Adonai echod.”
After death, it is said, that a person’s soul must not be left alone. The shomer comes to sit with the body and to lend comfort to the soul.
Mandelbaum feels a presence in the room. A stirring. A stirring in his mind.
What binds a soul to the body? What then releases the soul?
Mandelbaum believes that Hershkovitz’ soul is hovering over the man’s body. It is unsettled. Seeking peace. It will remain with the body until the body is buried. And then the soul is free.
Hours ago, the soul in the room had been bound to Hershkovitz. “Was the soul not, in fact,” Mandelbaum thinks, “the man called Hershkovitz? Was it not the soul which suffered when Hershkovitz suffered? Which rejoiced when Hershkovitz rejoiced? Loved when Hershkovitz loved. Felt terror when Hershkovitz felt terror? What was Hershkovitz if not his soul? What or who could Hershkovitz be without his soul?”
“What am I then,” thinks Mandelbaum?
“What more can I offer Hershkovitz now than to be in this room, at this time, with his soul? To sit with it. To ease the pain of separation. To mourn its loss. The loss it must feel.”
“Where will the soul go? Is it unsure? Does it not know how to leave or where to go? Is that the stirring I feel? Or is it my disquieted soul I feel? Is it my soul who is the teacher, or is it the learner? Is it seeking guidance or must the soul remain here until it has safely passed along to another one a message?
Mandelbaum listens. He hears nothing. And so, he reads once more from the book of King David’s Psalms.
“…He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul…”
He covers his eyes, sitting in the silence and the semi-darkness. His feet find a more comfortable position.
And then he reads from the Book of Job. In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.
He reads a story of anguish, of suffering, of sin and redemption, of transgression and forgiveness, of praise.
Still, he hears nothing.
“There is nothing to hear,” he thinks. “Who is to speak in this room but me? Who is to listen?”
“It is not for me that I read these psalms and verses. Is it not for the one here who listens without ears with which to hear,” he thinks?
“It is for the peace of the soul who resided within Hershkovitz and which is now released,” he says to himself.
His eyes tire. He rests. “This is allowed,” he says to himself. His eyes flutter and close. This is allowed.
He is awakened by a stirring. A shiver. He opens his eyes, expecting Silverman to be at the door.
But it is not time yet for Silverman to come.
He thought he heard a voice.
“Listen, Mandelbaum, don’t kid yourself. You are reading to yourself. No one else is here. You are doing a good thing. A mitzvah. This is true. But listen to the words carefully because is it not, in truth, to me, your own soul, you are speaking?”
And after Job had prayed for his friends, and the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him…
And then Mandelbaum rested again and when he heard a knock on the door, he opened it and let Silverman come in.
And, as he left, as the two men passed one another in the doorway, each looked into the eyes of the other, and Mandelbaum nodded and then he went home.
They will call him again, he knows. Another man, another night, another sudden, silent, soul, and he will go and it will be a mitzvah.