Today's Story by Benjamin Wachs

The one good thing I had in my life, and I let it go because I wanted to sit in a shadowy alcove instead of with the rest of the kids.


When the Rebbe’s wife died, he sat in his office, the Talmud on his desk closed, and stared at the corner of the wall.  The temple took care of the funeral arrangements, his sister came over to keep the house and cover the mirrors in black cloth, and well-wishers came bearing flowers and soup.  But he sat, and stared at the corner.

When I was a child, a young teenager, I took improvisation classes at the local civic theater.  I thought I was going to be an actor someday, because my voice was loud and I liked attention.  At that age we are looking for a hook to hang our identities on, and this was mine.  I wasn’t well liked and I didn’t play sports and I didn’t do well in school:  I was that weird kid, who must have problems, that nobody knew what to do with.  But I was good at improv, and it made me happy.

I almost lost it all, because class was held in the theater space and we sat in the audience when we weren’t on stage. Anne, the instructor, always told us to sit in the center of the first three rows, and I would always sit in the very back stage left corner, an inaccessible seat that was cut into a little alcove in the wall. She told me to come down and join the rest of the class, and I refused. Day after day, I said no: she couldn’t understand it and I couldn’t explain it.

Eventually, she kicked me out of the class.  The one good thing I had in my life, and I let it go because I wanted to sit in a shadowy alcove instead of with the rest of the kids.

My dad asked to have a conference with Anne.  My parents had been divorced less than a year, and while they knew I could be difficult … oh how they knew … they were going to do whatever it took to keep me in that class.  They were parents, they paid tuition, they had weight.

Anne came over to my dad’s house, and her cigarette hand was shaking.  She was afraid … of my dad, of me, of losing her job, I’m not sure.  But my dad agreed with her:  I couldn’t just sit wherever I wanted.  All he wanted to make sure of was that if I apologized, if I sat down with the rest of the class, I could come back.  She said okay.

Eventually, after miserable weeks went by trying to live without an identity, without a skin, without an avenue for my teenage passions to come out, I apologized.  I went back.  I sat with the rest of the class, and only snuck glances at my favorite place.  I sat there, once in a while, when an exercise required us all to sit in different parts of the theater.  In between those moments, I excelled.  I came into my own.

The Rabbi knows what he has to do.  There is plenty of scriptural evidence for it:  the tradition is clear.  Generations of wise men have written about how this works.  But this is not a problem that can be dealt with at the level of scripture or tradition.  There is something in that corner that attracts his attention, the place where two walls are joined unevenly.  He stares and sits and experiences the full weight of his misery, his loneliness:  he needs to feel these things fully.  To pretend they are less than they are is a lie.  He cannot lie in the face of his wife’s death.  He sits, and stares, and feels.

But eventually, when the congregation and his sister and the cantor come again, he lets them lead him out into the living room.  He sits with this community and eats their food.  He shows up, they circle around him, and the corner remains where it is.  Next week, he returns to work.

That’s how this works.  We may face God alone, but we can never cross the Red Sea by ourselves.


Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media,, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at

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