Sara Duberman loathed her husband’s beard. She could not abide it; hated to brush up against it in moments of intimacy; could barely stand to look at it, with the crumbs that lodged in its black curls after every meal, or the bits of lint that would cleave to it by the end of every day.
Sara cherished her husband Yakov, who, she knew, had been her soulmate since before they were born, and who had been her husband from the beginning of their long journey back to the ways of God and Torah. Yakov was dear. But the beard was a parasite, affixed to his face like a choking, tangled vine.
When they made love, Sara had learned to contort her head as if in throes of ecstasy so as to avoid being kissed by the beard. Yakov was a considerate lover, although there were times when Sara wondered whether he was motivated by desire or by the religious duty to please one’s wife. When he would touch her in a new way, as he often did, even after thirteen years of marriage, Sara would wonder whether this had been some tip shared at one of his late-night study sessions, to better fulfill a mitzvah.
Whatever the source of Yakov’s affection, he showered it upon Sara without restraint. He would kiss her, nuzzle up against her, and, just a moment before climax, gather her up in his arms and embrace her with the love of the Holy One for his Bride. And when Sara looked into his eyes, her lust fused with his and with the supernal powers.
When they made love, Sara had learned to contort her head as if in throes of ecstasy so as to avoid being kissed by the beard.
But the beard ruined everything. Yakov would kiss her all over, and the beard would follow, creeping over her belly, tangling itself in her pubic hair. Yakov would lick her right breast, and the beard would tickle her left. No matter how she twisted herself to get away from it, the beard found her, crept along her. Often Sara would picture tiny creatures that lived in the beard, lice or mites or tiny insects, jumping from it to her—into her, she imagined—violating and polluting her, even as her husband tended to her every delight.
Lately, Sara worried that Yakov had begun to suspect something was amiss. Once, she thought he had even asked her about it, lying in bed late one Friday night, their four children asleep and the zmiros from nearby apartments having finally quieted down.
“Sara, is everything all right?” he had asked, almost in a whisper.
“Of course, Yakov,” she answered—too quickly, she thought with a pang of regret. Before they became baalei tshuvah, Yakov and Sara had grown up in the secular world, where psychological explanations were often attributed to actions and words. Did her rushed assurance in fact suggest the opposite? Did Yakov know? But maybe Yakov didn’t know, because that night he seemed to redouble his efforts, kissing her more and more passionately, the beard sweeping along behind him. Sara could not help but recoil.
Sara held herself and her stubbornness in contempt. Why could she not make peace with this one little problem, this one flaw? Yet her shudders of revulsion were involuntary; before she realized what she had done, it had been done, as if not by her but by some unseen entity that possessed her. And now Yakov knew that something was wrong, because Yakov was considerate, attentive. So Sara began to make up excuses: that the beard had tickled her, or that she had felt a draft in the room. Anything to defuse what she imagined to be a growing mistrust.
There was no question of Yakov shaving, or even trimming, his beard, and Sara would never ask him to do so. Sara and Yakov were devout Chabad Hasidim, with pictures of the Rebbe in every room (save the bathrooms), and shelves full of books of customs and practices governing every aspect of life. The beard was essential to a hasid. Indeed, a few weeks after Yakov asked whether something was wrong and Sara had answered too quickly, she tried a new strategy: she mentioned, casually, in the cramped kitchen, piles of dishes from shabbos dinner waiting to be washed, that Mendel Gutstein had trimmed his beard short.
“I know. He looks like half a man, doesn’t he?” Yakov replied, leaning against the counter.
When they were younger, living under different names in the secular world, with its endless freedom and no values, the beard would have been merely a matter of personal choice. Like everything else! Now, their actions mattered; they were connected to G-d and His plan for human beings. And they were noticed, too, by the community. Yakov could not be smooth, like his namesake. It was an impossibility.
Thus, during the long days while she tended to their house and children, Sara found herself daydreaming of outrageous circumstances that would save her from the predicament of the beard. She imagined some sort of fire that would singe the beard just enough to trim it; just an inch or two off, Sara thought, would be enough for her to recover the passion she had, years ago, held for Yakov. Sara even found herself musing over what would happen if Yakov would fall ill with cancer—nothing that would spread, just enough to justify chemotherapy—until she reproached herself for even thinking such a horrible thing.
Sara suffered alone; she could not confide in her friends. They were all gossips, she knew. If she confessed, soon her preposterous little aversion would be the hushed, giggling talk of the entire community. Notwithstanding all the reprobation of “evil speech” and those who engage in it, all of her friends talked ceaselessly to each other about one another, all weaving webs of secrets and open secrets to the point where everyone knew everything and told everyone, except the person or persons involved. So Sara remained silent, letting herself mention the beard only to her oldest son Dov Baer, whom she loved, and even then only in jokes about the bird’s nest on Tati’s face.
And so matters rested for many months. Sara’s despair grew, and finally, she decided to call an anonymous counseling line to seek advice from a specialist. All the Chabad communities had these lines, although no one ever spoke of them. They knew, but averred not to know, that there were women in their community who had problems with drugs, or with drinking, or with abusive husbands. The helplines were a kind of underworld into which one did not tread, unless out of necessity.
Several times, Sara stared at the phone but could not bring herself to dial. Several other times, as soon as the rings began, she ended the call—twice after someone had picked up. At last, she mustered the courage to stay on the line, and speak. Yet the response she received, after she finally brought herself to explain her situation, was dismissive.
The helplines were a kind of underworld into which one did not tread, unless out of necessity.
“Don’t think only of yourself,” the ‘specialist’ said. “Remember how important the minhagim are to distinguish us from the goyim and from the yiddin who act like goyim. You should count your blessings! To have such a wonderful husband who provides for you, and cares for you. To have your wonderful children. Stop focusing only on the negative! Be thankful to Hashem for what he has given you.”
Sara hadn’t expected support and acceptance; this was the path of the secular psychiatrists, whose easy affirmations of sin and imperfection were part of the world she had left behind when she joined Chabad at the age of nineteen. But she had hoped for something. A cure, or an answer, or maybe some sympathy—anything to help to remedy the situation into which she had fallen. Instead, nothing.
It was true that Sara’s life was an enviable one. Yakov made good money in electronics; her three sons, aged twelve, ten, and eight, were all healthy and bright boys, and little Ruchel was kind. They had a good home, they participated in the community and its endeavors—could she not bear this one burden?
She could not. Some months, she was able to focus on Hashem during sex with Yakov, to think of the unity in the upper realms being brought about through their unity in this one. By losing herself in the spiritual, inner meaning of their sexuality, Sara could, on rare occasions, forget the gross carnality of Yakov and his beard. Other times, she berated herself, shaming herself for being so selfish and shallow, and was thus able to endure the beard. She even forced herself to stroke it, caress it, as a form of punishment. But it was of no lasting use. Sara began to feel as if she were getting lost inside the beard’s curly black hairs, slowly, gradually, steadily becoming unable to breathe.
When the children were off at school, Sara would dream of stratagems that she might employ to relieve her husband of his facial growth. He was handsome, she remembered; you only had to look at Dov Baer to remember how beautiful his father was, underneath the beard. Hair removal powders, or creams—Sara had heard of such things, and these might work, but how to put them on? As far as she knew, Yakov never used any sorts of creams or lotions. Could she apply them in his sleep? Only if he was sound asleep— she would need sleeping pills for that. So, sleeping pills in his dessert, the cream while he slept. But wouldn’t he smell the lotion when he awoke? Surely he would. And what would happen next? Would he simply accept the loss of his beard as a random occurrence? Surely Yakov would see a doctor, surely he would be concerned. And then the truth would out.
If not medicine, then maybe, Sara fantasized, one could spill some sort of foul liquid into the beard, forcing Yakov to shave it off. Again, the reprieve would be only temporary, but it would be blissful. Yet no matter how she tried, Sara could not conceive of a liquid so foul that it could not be washed out. Vomit from one of the children? Glue? And yet how to get such a thing onto Yakov’s very face! How to even imagine such things!
What troubled Sara in her machinations was not the deceit involved in such covert operations. In fact, Sara had long been deceiving her husband—and with his silent consent, she thought. Regarding their unusually small family—only four children across thirteen years of marriage, and none within the last six—Sara and Yakov had told everyone that this was God’s will, and had always said that they felt blessed enough by the children they cherished. But Sara knew that it was not God’s will but her secret stash of pills, obtained from a goyishe pharmacist with money Sara had squirreled away. She believed that Yakov knew, had known for years, had to have known. He never asked after her health, never suggested that either of them should see a doctor about the sudden infertility that had seemed to attack one of them (or both?) in the prime of life. While in most matters Yakov was attentive and considerate, in this one, only silence prevailed. A silence indicating assent.
Besides, Yakov was not born into Chabad. He had been “Jason” (and she had been “Stephanie”). They both had experimented sexually in high school. He knew what contraception was, and he knew as well as she did that four children was enough of a burden.
Her stratagem was almost exposed once during the ritual search for leaven on the eve of Passover, when Dov Baer had stumbled on Sara’s hiding place, held aloft the pills in their distinctive little wheel, and asked “Is this chametz?” Sara had grabbed the pills from him and mumbled something about cramps.
So Sara would deceive Yakov, if she could. But how?
Finally, in one of her more intense periods of despair, Sara had a new idea. She was cooking the cholent on the hot stove, when suddenly, she thought: perhaps the counselors, in their misguided way, had a point. What was it, really, that so disturbed her about the beard? There was a reason, was there not, why this aversion persisted? There had to be. And though facile and superficial accounts of her ‘psychology’ or character were just so much noise, what if she could learn the true root of the distaste? After all, if we can understand the root of a problem, maybe it can stop being a problem.
Sara knew that the true reality of everything in the world is God. Everything— Yakov, the beard, her own psychology—was but a shell atop the Divine potencies which order the universe. And since the beard was a manifestation of those forces, the only way to understand it, and thus to overcome her resistance to it, lay in understanding its true meaning, its secret meaning. That would be the answer: the essence of the beard, and her hatred of it, resided not in some simplistic psychological symbolism but in the hidden secrets of the Divine realms.
It had been this mystical aspect of Chabad that had led Sara to embrace it fifteen years ago, as a curious college student spending a summer in Israel. Growing up as a Reform Jew, she had never understood the purpose of kashrus, or shabbos, or any of the mitzvos that she assumed only the faithful performed, until Chabad explained our function here on Earth, how in our every act we have the opportunity to uplift sparks of holiness trapped in the husks of materiality and bring about redemption. Now she saw that behind every act there lay a wealth of hidden, mystical meanings, correspondences in the divine realms. Decipher the codes, and you could understand the functioning of the universe.
So Sara set out on her quest. When Yakov was at work and the boys were at school and Ruchel was playing at a friend’s house, she browsed her husband’s prized bookshelves, careful to replace each volume exactly in its place. She scoured every volume for the slightest hint as to the meaning of the beard. She searched in the books of customs, the Bible, everywhere. But Yakov was no mekubbal; he had only the standard Chabad library of Talmud, Tanach, and Tanya, with volumes of conversations and letters of the Rebbe. These books did not provide the answers Sara sought. She felt sure that the books of Chabad customs would explain the meanings of the various rites and practices, but Yakov’s books had only the most rudimentary explanations: they stated the customs, but said nothing of the hidden meanings. Sara felt ashamed of her husband’s level of learning, that he should be content with such superficiality. Yakov, who as a student had been such an avid reader, suddenly seemed like one content with the surface and no longer thirsty for depth. Finally, after several days of furtive but thorough searching, Sara gave up. She knew the answers were written somewhere, but they were not on Yakov’s bookshelf.
Sara’s next step was to search the Internet. To do so was not as simple as it might seem. First, she had to configure the computer to erase all traces of her search, lest Yakov discover her efforts. This took research in and of itself, and many extended efforts to verify—before any incriminating search took place—that such a thing was even possible. Second, Sara had to compose her question in a form that the search engines would understand, which took over an hour of false starts and blind alleys leading to sites Sara would never have even imagined. And when Sara finally did find seemingly relevant results, they were sources she did not trust. She wasn’t interested in what some crackpot thought about the mysticism of facial hair or the idle musings of someone who had taken too many drugs; she wanted to know the truth. And despite the abundance of Chabad sites online, none yielded anything like the answers she needed.
Sara’s next step was to search the Internet. To do so was not as simple as it might seem.
If this were a simple question, Sara thought, I could just ask. I could go to a beis medrash and either find the right book myself or ask one of the rebeim to find it for me. Chabad learning was mostly confined to men, but women were not kept in ignorance; it would not be a gross violation of the community’s norms for her to inquire about such a matter. But everyone knew everyone. She knew all the yeshiva teachers’ wives; she knew Hinde who worked at the bookstore; she knew Frayde who worked in the library of the girls’ school. How would she do her research without anyone finding out? This is ridiculous, Sara thought; I should just go in and ask a rabbi. Maybe he will tell me the answer, and maybe he won’t, but the question is innocent, and rabbis, unlike friends, don’t share secrets.
So Sara made an appointment. And on a day when the chores had been done and the house was clean, she went in for her meeting. The rabbi’s study was cluttered with books and papers, and Sara perched on the edge of her chair as if not to disturb anything.
“The beard?” the Rav asked incredulously, after Sara had posed her carefully rehearsed question. “Why do you want to know of such things? Are you planning on growing one?”
“No, Rabbi, but it is something that has always made me very curious. I thought that by understanding this, I could understand my husband on a deeper level, that his beauty would be to me more than just his appearance, but something, I don’t know…higher than that.”
“It’s a noble wish,” the rabbi said, already dismissive, and stroking his own full grey-white beard as he spoke. “I think you and Yakov should discuss whether it’s appropriate for me to enter into it with you alone. It’s not something I can just give you a simple answer, now, and you can understand. The meaning of a Jew’s beard is tied to some of the deepest secrets of the kabbalah.”
“Well, I don’t pretend to have any knowledge of these secrets,” Sara said, sitting back a bit more in her chair. “But is there anything, even a remez, you could give me? I hate to trouble Yakov with my little curiosities.”
“A remez…. Well, I can tell you a story, that I heard from the Rebbe himself, on a tape made many years ago. It seems there was once a hasid, who in his business had all the time to deal with the goyim. He was a salesman, this hasid, and the product he had was very expensive and much beloved by the goyim. He would go—this is in Europe, before the war—he would go from town to town with this product, and sell it in the goyishe markets to their retailers and consumers alike. Everyone liked this product that the yid sold. Now, it was dangerous, what this yid was doing, because life at that time was not good for the Jews. It’s one thing you go and sell from Jew to Jew, going to towns where there’s always a kehilla and you’re always safe with them from the evil of the klippos. But this yid was straying far from where there were any other frum Jews, into the cities where the maskilim had perverted the souls of the Jews with their modern ideas and Greek philosophy, and where only a few years after this story takes place, God would punish us all for straying in this way from the Torah.
“What you have to understand, what I’m sure you do understand, Sara, is that any kind of sickness or tragedy that befalls us, this is God’s will, this comes from God. Fortunately for us, this aspect of God’s din, God’s judgment, is mediated by rachamim, by mercy, because God pities us because we are weak and pathetic, and He doesn’t take out His anger on us the way really we deserve.
“Now, you might ask, what does this have to do with your question, with the beard. It turns out that this hasid thought his beard, which was long and unruly the way sometimes a beard can be, he thought this beard was hurting his business. You know, commercially speaking, it’s one thing for the goyim to see a yid and they know he’s a yid, but his products are good so they buy. But, the hasid thought, it’s another thing for me to come in a full set of chassidishe clothes and a hat and a beard— it’s hurting my business. They see me, they turn away. So this little yid replaced his hat with a yarmulke only, the way many of the less frum yidden do, and he trimmed his beard to be neat and orderly like those of the goyim and the maskilim and people of that sort.
“It turns out the hasid was right – his business doubled overnight. Where before he had always to get over a certain barrier with his customers, to get past the physical signs that made him distinct, as a Jew should be, from the people around him—now he blended in better. Now, the goyim and the maskils looked at him, and, sure, they saw that he was a yid, but they thought, well, he’s someone we can deal with. And the sales of his product increased, as I said, double. In fact sales increased so much and his reputation grew so large, that the authorities got wind of this yid who is traveling from town to town and selling this wonderful product and yet not paying any taxes to the government. Of course, by law he wasn’t required, but this didn’t interest the goyim. No, the goyim fined him for tax evasion, they threw him in jail like the Alter Rebbe himself, and while the yid was in jail—with no one to bail him out, because he was far from any kind of Torah community, surrounded by the forces of evil and the klipos—while he was in jail, some robbers stole all his inventory. He was left with nothing.
“So you see, Sara, it isn’t as simple a matter as the hasid thought. He thought that removing this barrier between himself and the goyim would improve his business, but he didn’t think what would happen if his business improved. When we take away the protection that hakadosh boruchu grants us from the forces of evil and the judgments against us, we are on our own, we are exposed—like the face of a man without a beard. We are mamesh completely defenseless, and vulnerable. This is a remez of the power of a Hasid’s beard.”
Sara thanked the rabbi. This was a start. And yet, it was indeed only a hint, a simpleton’s story about protection from evil. Sara knew that the real secret was more sublime and also more thickly concealed. Sara had downplayed her knowledge of kabbalah with the rabbi, but the truth of the matter is that she had studied it extensively when she was younger. Women born into Chabad, even educated ones, are taught only limited amounts of kabbalah, usually just enough to help them perform their traditional roles with piety and obedience—though even this is much more than many other sects of the pious teach. But before becoming frum, Sara had read avidly the expositions of the mystical godhead and the messiah, the meaning of the sefirot, and of the elevation of the sparks. In fact what had attracted her to Yakov, when they were first introduced all those years ago, was that he too had come to Chabad by way of this path. Though they had long since lost the enthusiasm of their youth, the life that they had built was founded upon it.
Meanwhile, Sarah lied to Yakov about her menstrual cycle, so as to prolong the period of separation when it was forbidden to sleep together. She tried pleasuring Yakov with her mouth, so as to keep his head and beard as far away as possible, but, as she feared, Yakov demurred; as the halacha required, every drop of his sperm would land in her artificially barren womb. She grew unable to kiss him; once Yakov remarked that she kissed Dov Baer, her eldest son, more than her husband.
It was Dov Baer to whom Sara finally turned to help her find the answers she desired. Dov Baer was almost a man now, already practicing for his bar mitzvah in long hours of chanting and memorization. It was Dov Baer who had found the pills that Passover eve, like some perverse afikoman hidden deep in a drawer. And it was Dov Baer to whom Sara had always confessed her frustrations and dreams, even when he was a little boy and could scarcely understand the words she was saying. Now that Dov Baer was becoming a man, he could be trusted to keep her secret.
Indeed, Sara noticed with disgust, Dov Baer was becoming a man all too quickly: a thin peach fuzz had begun to appear above his lips, the first (to her) visible inklings of adulthood. Soon the fuzz would darken, and he would grow one of those wispy half-beards the teenagers all had, as if displaying to the world the progress of puberty. And eventually, like an inevitable rolling in of the tide, his beard would mature into a bramble such as Yakov’s. But this was in the future. For now, he was still Dov Baer, still her dearest.
“Dov Baer, I want to ask you a favor, between just the two of us,” Sara said late one night, as she tucked him into bed. The child caught on immediately, and a conspiratorial air filled the room he shared with his sleeping younger brothers.
“Okay,” Dov Baer said, his voice not yet able to crack in nervousness.
“You know how all hasidim have beards like Tati’s, and how they can trim them but never cut them completely.”
“So you know, of course, that part of the reason for this is to distinguish us from the goyim, who are as a general rule clean-shaven.”
“And the halacha not to shave the sides of your head—”
“On the p’shat level, yes. But what you might not know is that a hasid’s beard is much more than that. It has, Dov Baer, significances that extend beyond this realm into the higher realms. I am telling you this because you too, one day, will grow a beard—and I want you to know its true meaning, its true importance. Dov Baer, I have a reason which I cannot tell you for asking you this favor. I want you to trust me. I want you to find for me a maimar or a sefer or anything at all that discusses the secret meaning and purpose of the beard. Do you understand? This is a personal request. I want to surprise Tati with it, so I don’t want you to tell him. Just ask one of your teachers where to look, say it’s for your own interest, and bring me the book. Would you do that for me?”
“It’s not ussur for me to read this book?”
“No. I already spoke to a rav about it. The fact is I could do it myself, but I don’t have access to the library like you have at school. I’m not looking for a book that’s not readily accessible. If mamesh it’s something that we’re not supposed to know, then they won’t let you take the book out. If they let you take the book out, that means it’s okay for anyone to know about. Right?”
“Okay,” Dov Baer said, looking up at her.
“Give Mami a hug.” And Dov Baer smiled and rose in bed to embrace her, and she came to him and kissed him lightly near his lips.
The next day, Dov Baer volunteered to help with the dishes after dinner. Unwise, Sara thought: such an act arouses suspicion. But Yakov seemed not to notice. “I checked at school,” Dov Baer said over the washing. “I didn’t find anything about…the topic. But I’ll look tomorrow in a different place. I think I’ll have success.” Dov Baer is a smart boy, Sara thought; he’ll turn out well.
And sure enough, two days later, Dov Baer returned with the treasure: a collection of Hasidic teachings on all the different parts of the body, from the head to the toes, and—to Sara’s displeasure, receiving this book from her young son—everything in between. “Where did you get this book?” she asked.
“I found it,” Dov Baer said. He really was smart, no? Say no more than you need to say. Keep your secrets to yourself, and they remain secrets.
“Thank you, Dov Baer,” Sara said, and gave him a kiss on the forehead. “You’ve made Tati and me very happy.”
Sara was elated. She had told herself that she would wait, and read the book at a safe time, in the middle of the day, when Yakov was out. But she could not restrain herself. She stayed awake until she heard Yakov lightly snoring in his bed; she had just gotten her period two days ago, so tonight had been blessedly free of the beard, and she was sleeping in a separate bed beside Yakov’s. Yakov was a light sleeper, but she would be stealthy. Sara tiptoed out to the living room, taking with her Dov Baer’s secret book, and also a novel in case Yakov awakened and asked what she was doing.
What the book told her she could only half-understand. It referred to realms of the Kabbalah that she had only vaguely heard about, years earlier: the interaction of the different faces, or partzufim, of the Godhead, as explained by the Holy Ari. God, according to these teachings, has within Himself an entire family of personalities: a mother and a father, a rambunctious child (Ze’er Anpin, containing most of the attributes of God as understood by men), and a bride of the child, the nukba, the feminine presence of God as felt on the Sabbath Eve. Most important, however, is the Arikh Anipin, the long-bearded one: the Ancient of Days, who mercifully, lovingly presides over the universe and the godhead itself. According to one of the Ari’s most important disciples, the beard of the Ancient of Days was no metaphor but was, insofar as we may speak of such things, a reality. It had thirteen points, each corresponding to an attribute of Divine Mercy, each with its own personality, as it were, and with a special relationship to the soul of every Jew. God’s beard was a symbol—more than a symbol, an embodiment—of mercy, and a man’s beard, arrayed in a sort of reciprocal relationship to it, was both an imitation of the Divine and a mechanism for receiving its influx. It was as if Yakov’s and God’s beards were locked in an unbroken, everlasting kiss.
Hair, Sara read, ordinarily signifies the aspect of judgment. But just as a long beard becomes soft and pliable, so too the beard of the Ancient Long-Suffering Holy One softens harsh judgments and turns them into mercy for Israel. The bearded face of the Ancient of Days is an expression of the malleability of judgment, an embodiment of the changeable nature of justice into mercy.
Now Sara saw that what the rabbi had hinted at in his homily, the protection afforded by the Jew’s beard, was not as she had understood it. She had thought the story to be a simple tale about obedience and reward, in the same way she had heard those concepts explained a thousand times over. But no, the beard itself possessed power; in shaving his beard, the merchant was like Samson cutting his hair. The protection, the envelope of rachamim that went with him wherever he went, was suddenly removed. And he was exposed to the judgment he deserved, untempered by the forgiveness he was now unable to receive. To shave one’s beard was not only an act of rebelliousness and assimilation, trying to fit in with the goyim and aping their customs—it was vandalism against the antenna attuned to God’s mercy. Far from being an alien parasite, the beard shaped Yakov into the form of the kadosh boruch hu, turned him into a sort of mirror of the Divine face. Sara imagined it as a sort of mutual admiration society in which to receive God’s grace you have to look like God. Like his mirror-image.
As Sara was near sleep, she finished reading the collection of Hasidic teachings about the beard and its meanings, half intermingled with her own encroaching dreams. She read how Rabbi Nachman, following the Talmud, relates the “upper beard’”to the “lower beard,” and teaches that just as the “lower beard” grows prior to the upper one—Sara paused for a moment to consider her Dov Baer, whose face she had already observed to slowly be turning into that of a man—so too must a man master his Evil Inclination before he is able to merit the revelation of God’s thirteen attributes of mercy. She read how the Rebbe himself spoke time and time again about the distinguishing mark of the beard, how it embodies the honor of the man and the transformation of carnality into spirit. She read and read.
But the Rebbe never had to kiss a beard. The Rebbe looked on his wife, and her smooth skin, and her delicate facial bones shaped into a sweet smile. Would he have praised the virtues of beards if he had to spit pieces of one out every time he made love? It was quite easy for him; he simply didn’t shave, and received the Godly influx. But where was the mercy for his wife, her absolution and forgiveness?
That week, before shabbos, Sara tried to meditate on the aspects of Divine mercy, on the long-suffering compassionate God who was mirrored in the beard tickling her face. She tried to rise beyond this physical act, to elevate her mind to the symbolic realms, and in so doing move her heart from discomfort to joy at caressing a symbol of God’s love.
But the physical remained ineluctable. Even as her mind tried to grasp the hidden meanings, the body remained ardently, defiantly corporeal, and its materiality continually interrupted her. There was no escaping the distraction of the real. Indeed, far from ending her disgust at the abrasive tentacles of Yakov’s facial hair, the teachings of the Kabbalah had only amplified the disjunction between the ideal world of the sefirot and the physical world which she inhabited. A distant, supernal, abstract, metaphorical beard was an eloquent concept, but the one that tickled her navel when Yakov kissed her neck remained close, carnal, repulsive.
Within just a few weeks of reading Dov Baer’s book, Sara began to doubt her own emuna, her own faith in God. Had her relationship with Hashem grown so pitiably distant that she could not endure even a small displeasure in His service? Sara had gone without some of her favorite foods for years; had abandoned the prospects of a career; had cut her hair short and worn a wig to conceal it—all for the love of Hashem. She remembered a time, not long ago, when she could feel this love, reciprocated, radiating from every trembling leaf on every tree. The world, then, seemed to her alight with a fiery courtship between her soul and God’s. And now, for an irrational, superficial, and altogether childish preference of the body, she found herself alienated from the kingdom of heaven and mocking the teachings of the mystical secrets.
A distant, supernal, abstract, metaphorical beard was an eloquent concept, but the one that tickled her navel when Yakov kissed her neck remained close, carnal, repulsive.
Sara could not conceal her growing self-hatred. Yakov knew that something was wrong. Ruchel noticed that Mami didn’t offer to play with her as she used to. Shloime and Moishe cried more than usual. But Dov Baer was the worst. He would stare at Sara for minutes at a time, during meals, during shabbos preparations, just glowering at her, as if knowing. He had accepted the book back from Sara, and returned it to its source without speaking a word to anyone. But now—this distance. Sara imagined that he knew her torments, in a way that Yakov never could. Dov Baer never cried—he was the eldest—so instead he grew cold and distant. Where was Divine Mercy now?
One afternoon, folding the laundry, putting away the detergent, she felt like a prisoner, marking off time by scratching hatch-marks into the wall, when—
That was it! That was the answer! Sara’s previous schemes had always been about somehow changing Yakov; but what if she could change? Not spiritually, psychologically, or emotionally—those transformations had already failed. But physically. Yakov had his beard to receive the Divine Mercy, but Sara needed one too, on her face, like his. It would be a simple thing. She could use something like this detergent to create a simple rash, or allergic reaction would suffice. It wouldn’t even be a lie, since the inflammation would be a physical manifestation of her truer self. She would see a dermatologist, who would not know what to make of it. She herself would remark that the reaction seemed to be in just the places where Yakov’s beard had touched her, a mirror-beard, almost, of his own—and the doctor would, naturally, conjecture that perhaps the beard was the cause of the rash. Perhaps there were other causes, but the beard could not be ruled out. And then matters could take their own course. If Yakov were given permission to shave, he could do so for medical reasons, unimpeachable in the community. If not, he at least would be barred from causing his wife greater physical ailment, which was enough. If he would just keep his “upper beard” away from me, Sara thought, his lower beard can play wherever it likes.
Standing by the washing machine, Sara settled on a certain cleanser which she had once spilled on her hand, one which had quickly produced a painless but unsightly rash. With a cotton ball, she dabbed the cleanser on her cheeks, the area below her neck where Yakov’s beard frequently brushed, even a tiny bit on her stomach. Sara developed a routine for herself: twice daily she would reapply the cleanser until the rash developed.
And so it did. Within two days of Sara’s routine, a faint irritation had turned to out-and-out boils, creeping along her flesh. At first, her “mirror beard” could be mistaken for mere pimples or a slight, transitory rash. But the inflammations grew, soon covering most of her lower face. There was a bit of redness on the top of her chest. Yakov became alarmed. “What could it be?” he asked at night.
“I have no idea,” answered Sara, feigning the onset of tears.
“You need to see a doctor. Are you putting something on it?”
“I’m putting on lotion, but it doesn’t seem to help.” Technically, barely a lie.
“Well you should see someone, a specialist, tomorrow. Tell him it’s an emergency. It is an emergency.”
“Please. Sara, I hate to see you like this. Just when things seemed to be getting a little better.”
“Things were getting better?”
“I mean, with your mood,” Yakov ventured cautiously. He seemed to realize that he had said too much.
“What was wrong with my mood?”
“I don’t know, it’s nothing.”
“What was wrong with my mood that it was such a mechayeh it was getting better?”
“Sara, let’s not change the subject. You’ll see someone tomorrow about the rash?”
“What was it about my mood that you didn’t tell me—for how long, Yakov?—but now, it’s suddenly so important?”
“I’m just saying you seemed a little down. Everyone gets that way sometimes, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Who said anything about shame? I’m not ashamed of anything. I just wish—that I didn’t have this awful rash,” Sara said. The tears, which she had summoned in deceit, now came in earnest. She found herself crying.
“There, there. The doctor will help you. We’ll get through this,” Yakov said. But he seemed hesitant to embrace her. Finally he tried to put his arm around her, but Sara drew back. She left him, taking refuge in the bathroom, surrounded by white tile and porcelain.
The visit to the dermatologist went exactly as planned. Who can ever pinpoint the cause of a rash? The doctor wondered if it might be a reaction to some clothing, some new detergent maybe, but when Sara denied all these possibilities and mentioned the curious correlation with the beard, of course that had to be explored. It was odd, but not unheard of. Maybe there was a soap or shampoo Yakov used for the beard? No? Well, it could be the beard itself. Still, it seems more like something from a cosmetic or soap. Ask Yakov if he puts anything in his beard, you know, to groom it. Maybe it’s that. In the meantime, he said, “I know it’s difficult, but—”
—Sara’s heart leapt in anticipation—
“—stay away from your husband’s beard until we have it sorted out.”
“I’ll speak to Yakov myself,” the doctor said. “If your health is endangered, that takes precedence. I’m going to prescribe you some medication for the rash. And I want you to change the soap you’re using to wash your face. No cosmetics, either, for now. Come back and see me in a week.”
So Sara had gained her freedom. On the street, people would stare, sometimes; she noticed this, because they had never stared before, prohibited by the laws of modesty. Her friends offered solace, though they seemed afraid they might catch the rash themselves. But, in reality, it was not so hideous. Sara had stopped applying the cleanser, since it no longer seemed to be necessary, and since she could always add another dose if the effects wore off. So, a few pimples. It was nothing worse than what you see on unfortunate teenagers every day. Dov Baer, Sara thought, might get zits like this within a few years, or even less.
Although as a pious Jew, Sara observed nearly two weeks per month of sexual abstinence, those periods of enforced separation were under the control of her monthly cycle and halacha. They would always come to a close, regardless of whether Sara wanted them to or not. Now, however, she was in control. She looked at Yakov across the dinner table, looked at the beard when he didn’t notice, and felt she had won. You are defeated, she thought. You who mastered me are now my servant. When I want him to come to me, and when I allow you, then you will come. And when I choose to be free of you, I will be free.
After three weeks in which the rash subsided only slightly, Sara and Yakov grew more resourceful in expressing their affections. Where previously, Yakov had only reluctantly engaged in oral sex—which was outlawed by many halachic authorities, though permitted by certain others—now he became a zealous practitioner. They could go for hours, it seemed; Sara on Yakov, Yakov on Sara; each on each other. And always, Sara in control, reminding Yakov to hold onto his beard, because the doctor says… It was, for Sara, a glorious time. She was enjoying the most pleasurable physical intimacy with her husband since before the children were born. It was as if Yakov’s pent-up energy and frustrated love had finally found an outlet. Even their normal lovemaking had taken on new forms, new positions, and new configurations as Yakov worked to adapt both to his poisonous facial hair and to Sara’s unsightly blemishes.
Gradually, the pimples decreased. Yet as they did, so did the passion. Sara’s face no longer mirrored Yakov’s, no longer forced him to transmute his affections, and allowed to run their course, they seemed to have withered. Sara thought of reapplying the cleanser, but maybe her body wasn’t the one that had to change after all. Yakov’s physical ministrations diminished, and with them, so did Yakov’s love. Sara and Yakov returned to more conventional forms of lovemaking, but Yakov seemed hesitant to kiss her, even though the dermatologist had by now ruled out the beard as a source of the irritation and it had cleared up in any case. When Sara would try to initiate oral sex, Yakov would decline. “Not today, Sara,” he would say.
There was no way he knew of the lie. Sara felt confident of that. The cleanser had never once been moved, not even a hair, and it had long since been disposed of. It wasn’t that. So what was it? Yakov actually seemed—and Sara cried the first time she even thought such a thing—not to love her as he once did. The beard was exiled from Sara’s face, but now she felt ready to accept it back, because a return would mean that Yakov’s tenderness had returned also. Yet it was withheld. Yakov hardly kissed her at all. They never spoke about it, but the disappearance of his love was as obvious as the rise and near-disappearance of Sara’s rash. It, too, had been gradual, and it too, had been definite. Sara looked at herself in the mirror, and no longer had the power of tears.
One day, a few months later, Dov Baer came home early from school. The late-afternoon study session was canceled; the teacher was sick; everyone in his class had gone home. Sara had again been silently crying, but wiped her face clean when she heard her son’s voice announce that he was home. But Dov Baer came to the open bathroom door in time to catch her.
“Hello, darling,” she said.
Sara noticed a smudge of dirt on the boy’s face. “Dov Baer, you have something on your face,” she said.
“I’m not sure. Come here.”
Dov Baer stood six inches from his mother’s face. Sara realized what the ‘smudge’ was.
“Stand still,” she said. She reached over to the sink, took the razor she used on her legs, and silently shaved the mustache that had just begun to grow.
Jay Michaelson is the author of seven books of nonfiction and two books of poetry, one under a pseudonym. He is an editor for the Ten Percent Happier meditation app, a columnist for The Daily Beast, and a visiting fellow at the Center for LGBTQ Studies in Religion. Dr. Michaelson holds a J.D. from Yale, a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought from Hebrew University, and nondenominational rabbinic ordination. His most recent book is Enlightenment by Trial and Error: Ten Years on the Slippery Slopes of Postmodern Buddhism, Jewish Spirituality, and Other Mystical Heresies.