Thursday, February 4, 2010

from The Promise, by Chaim Potok

There were three phones in Reb Saunders's house, all with the same number, one in Reb Saunders's study, one in the hall of the second-floor apartment where Danny's parents and Levi slept, one in the third-floor hall a few feet from Danny's room. The use of the phone on Shabbat is forbidden by Jewish law except in circumstances that constitute a clear emergency, and so the phones in that house almost never rang on Shabbat. On the rare occasions when they did ring they were ignored, because everyone assumed that the person at the other end had dialed a wrong number.

The phones in Reb Saunders's house began to ring at ten minutes past two that morning. Danny was immediately awake. He lay in bed in the darkness of his room and listened to the ringing of the phones echo through the house. After the seventh ring, the phones stopped. Then they started again. Danny was out of his bed and going down the stairs to the second floor when the phones stopped ringing the second time.

He found his father and brother in the hall of the second-floor apartment, both of them in robes and skull-caps. They were staring at the phone. Reb Saunders was about to say something to Danny when the phone started to ring again. He let it ring twice. Then he said to Danny in Yiddish, speaking over the noise of the ringing, "You think it is for you?"

Danny stared down at the phone and said nothing. He felt as if the sound of the phone were coming from somewhere inside himself.

"Who would ring at such an hour?" Levi asked in Yiddish. He held the robe tightly to his body as though he were cold.

"You think it is for you, Daniel?" Reb Saunders asked again.

"It's the wrong signal," Danny said. He had arranged an emergency telephone signal with the staff member on night duty: three rings, then stop, then ring again. That signal was to be used on Shabbat in case of an emergency with Michael. But the staff member did not know the treatment center administrator was calling Danny, and the administrator had no way of knowing the signal.

The phone stopped ringing. They stood there in the hall that had a single dim night light set in a wall socket, and waited. Almost immediately it began to ring again.

"It must be for you, Daniel," Reb Saunders said. "They are calling you."

Danny stared at the phone.

"Answer the phone, Daniel," Reb Saunders said.

Danny looked at his father.

"Answer," Reb Saunders said. "If it is a mistake, let the sin be on my head."

But Danny remained still. The phone continued to ring.

"Daniel," Levi said. "Our father tells you to answer the phone."

Danny lifted the phone and put it to his ear. He listened as the administrator, who of course knew of Danny's Orthodoxy, thanked him for answering and told him what was happening. Danny said if he did not call him back in five minutes it meant that he was on his way over, and hung up. He looked away from the phone and saw his father and his brother staring at him. Danny's face was white and he had to lean on the phone stand to steady himself.

"What is the matter?" Reb Saunders asked. "Daniel, what has happened? Levi, bring a glass of water. Daniel, tell me what is the matter."

Levi started out of the hall toward the kitchen, but Danny called him back. The three of them stood around the phone, Danny explaining, his father and brother listening. He spoke rapidly, in Yiddish. Had it been any other night of the week, he would have told them nothing. But this was Shabbat. He would be traveling on Shabbat. He had to tell them.

Reb Saunders listened until he understood enough to enable him to make a legal decision. Then he broke in on Danny's words. "Go!" he commanded. "Go quickly! Pickuach nefesh. Quickly! Quickly!"

"Take a taxi," Levi said urgently in Yiddish. "You will find one on Lee Avenue. And take money with you."

"Quickly!" Reb Saunders said again. "Quickly!"

Danny dressed and his father and brother accompanied him to the front door and he raced along his block beneath the naked sycamores and found a cab almost immediately on Lee Avenue. He told the driver it was an emergency. He was at the treatment center in less than half an hour.

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