Acre and Jerusalem were flooded with refugees. Alter only had a few coppers in his pockets. There were so many cobblers about, that he could not find work. So he began to wander the land.
He visited the other sacred cities in the land of Israel, Hebron, Tiberias, and finally in Safed he found a cobbler who had lost an apprentice and was willing to take Alter. The man was a Jew who spoke Arabic. So he and Alter had to communicate in a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic.
Quickly, the cobbler revealed himself as a mystic, a student of Kabbalah. Safed was the town of Isaac Luria and his followers, and the cobbler studied the holy Luria’s poems and The Zohar late into the night. Soon, Alter was reading along with him, two men leaning over a book by the light of the stub of a candle. Outside the small window snow was dusting the hills around Safed; in the distance, Mount Hermon was smothered in white.
Alter read of the Heavenly King and His Queen. They joined together in the Celestial Temple each Friday evening. The King’s semen, bright as a comet, flowed into the Queen, and from their divine union the souls of men and woman floated to the earth, to inhabit the new born bodies of men.
The procreation of men and women mirrored the generation of souls on High. Alter shed tears during these times of study. The great weight which had rested on his heart for many years was lifted. He felt his soul drift to the higher realm, away from this damaged and torn world of matter. Alter felt wholly transformed. His old body felt light and ephemeral.
Alter remained in Safed. The old cobbler died, and Alter took over the shop. His reputation as a mystic of repute spread, and young men from all over the land of Israel and abroad came to study with him, and Alter taught them according to their ability.
One night Alter was studying with just such a young man. They had been struggling with a difficult word in Aramaic, and when the young man untangled its meaning, he expressed relief in Yiddish. Alter asked the boy questions in Yiddish and soon realized that the boy had grown up near his village.
“Do you know of Sarai the daughter of Gershom?” Alter asked, and at first the young man did not answer.
“You mean Sarai the cobbler?” he answered suddenly. “The chained woman?” Here the boy translated the Hebrew word chained into Yiddish; this meant a woman whose husband had gone missing, either because he abandoned her or was believed to be dead with no proof. Such a woman can’t remarry without evidence that her husband is dead, and so remains ‘chained’ to her husband, dead or alive.
The young man told Alter that Sarai ran a prosperous cobbler’s shop. She acted like the wives of famous scholars: she ran the business while the husband studied. Yes, Alter thought, except her husband is not in the village study house, but all the way in Safed. Alter realized he had committed a grave error by not attempting to return to Poland. For years he had wanted to divorce Sarai, and now, no doubt, she wished to be done with him. But without evidence of his life or death, she remained chained to him forever. Tears began to fall down Alter’s face. Alter had disobeyed a commandment. He had chained Sarai. He had sinned.
“What’s wrong Rabbi?” the boy asked. Alter did not answer him. He rushed to pack his belonging.