An Empty Chair, A Full Heart
by Anne Krisman, Head of RE, Little Heath School
Every story offers wisps of smoke - which trace do we follow, where does the symbolism lie? The central image of this Eastern European story speaks of Jewish survival, continuity and spirit. But stories grab you in different ways. There is something here too about hope and inspiration, about the ways in which we build and break up and remember.
This Assembly story is dedicated to my RE colleagues in Redbridge, and most especially to Bill Gent.
One of Rabbi Nachman's followers was a carpenter, and he devoted a year to carving a beautiful wooden chair. He presented it to Rabbi Nachman, who thanked the man with all his heart. It became his special chair.
Before the rabbi died, he gathered his followers before him and whispered, "After I die, you will not need to find another rabbi, for I will always be with you."
His followers loved and trusted Rabbi Nachman and never appointed another to take his place. His chair was a precious reminder of his life.
Each generation of Hasidic Jews kept the chair safe. However, during the Second World War, the Jews of Eastern Europe found themselves in great danger. Rabbi Nachman's followers heard that the Nazis were about to march on their city.
The Hasidic Jews gathered together and decided to escape to make their way to the city of Jerusalem. There they could build a synagogue where they could meet and follow the ways of Rabbi Nachman.
There was a problem - they could carry their special objects, like their tallit and tefillin, but how could they take the chair with them?
A young boy listened to their discussion and tugged at his father's coat. He shared a parable that the Rabbi had told. A King tried to test his son by asking him to carry a millstone into the palace by himself. The Prince could not carry the stone and thought it impossible.
Then he noticed a squirrel breaking a nut into pieces to carry it to his nest. The Prince took a hammer and broke the boulder to pieces, so that it could easily be carried into the palace.
The Chasids clapped their hands in delight to hear how Rabbi Nachman had inspired the young boy. They carved the chair into small pieces and gave a piece to every follower, including the boy himself. When they got to Jerusalem, they vowed, they would put the chair together again.
By a miracle, the wise boy and every follower of Rabbi Nachman who carried a piece of that chair reached Jerusalem. There they reassembled it, and no-one could see it had been broken apart.
The chair is now in the Bratslaver synagogue in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, where it is placed beside the Ark. His followers believe it was the spirit of their beloved rebbe who led them safely to the holy city of Jerusalem.
'Just as your hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so this small earthly life keeps us from seeing the vast radiance that fills the core of the universe'
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772 - 1811)
This story can be found in Next Year in Jerusalem: 3000 Years of Jewish Stories
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