It started in the beis medrash. I was learning with my chavrusa when he asked a perplexing question on the toisafos we were learning.
“Shloimy!” I exclaimed. “That’s a bomb kashya!”
He looked at me with surprise.
“What?” he asked, his brow furrowed.
“The kashya you just asked. On toisafos. That’s a great question. We should go ask Rebbi.”
“But I didn’t ask anything,” he said, confused.
“Yes you did. You asked why toisafos uses a lashon of bari v’shema if he isn’t considered a bari here.”
“No,” my chavrusa said. “I thought that in my head, but I didn’t say it out loud. You’re mechaven to me.”
I tried to shrug off this incident. I couldn’t read his mind. That was impossible.
Later, during shiur, it happened again. My rebbi asked a question and then I heard him say an answer that no one else could hear. His lips weren’t even moving!
I spoke to my chavrusa about this during night seder.
“Shmuel,” I said, feeling guilty for schmoozing during seder, but desperately needing to get ths off my chest. “Something weird is happening. I think I can read people’s minds.”
“Read people’s minds? Well, what am I thinking right now?”
“It doesn’t work that way! I can’t read minds on command. It’s just that a couple of times today I was able to hear something someone was thinking.”
I turned my head down to my gemara, embarrassed that I brought it up. I was probably imagining it.
“Oh my Gosh!” I heard Shmuel exclaim. “You’re like Clairvoyance?”
Clairvoyance was famous for his mind-controlling abilities.
“No, Shmuel!” I protested. “Not like Clairvoyance! I’m not a Variant.”
Shmuel’s jaw dropped.
“I didn’t say anything about Clairvoyance, Yaakov,” he said. “You just read my mind!”
“I did? But how? I can’t be a Variant. I’m a yid!”
“Well, there are Jewish Variants too. Tweak was Jewish, and Alimone, one of the greatest Variants of all time, is Jewish too.”
Variants, a group of individuals with extra-human superpowers, were the world’s stars. They used their powers to protect people from crime and violence. Despite the Hanhala’s constant discouragement, some bochurim were still Variant fans and would follow their stats and everything they did. Shmuel secretly had a VGA, Variant Global Amiator, in his dorm room where he’d get constant updates on daily Variant activity: fires they put out, murders they stopped, etc.
“Shmuel, there’s no such a thing as a frum Variant.”
“Well, not yet,” he replied. “But Variants have only been around for twenty years. You never know. Maybe you’re the first frum Variant!”
“No!” I shouted, drawing attention from bochurim around me. “Chas veshalom! It’s impossible!”
I got up and ran out of the beis medrash. It couldn’t be true. I couldn’t be a Variant. Superpowers were only for goyim or not frum yidden. For us, Torah is our superpower. The Menahel had just given a mussar schmooze about this. Our mission was much more important than saving the world from evil. We were holding up the world with our Torah.
The rest of the week, I tried to ignore my new ability. A few times I noticed I was hearing things when people weren’t moving their lips, but I didn’t acknowledge it. Maybe if I pretended it didn’t exist, things would go back to normal. I lasted a whole week of no one noticing anything, and I made Shmuel promise not to tell anyone.
That Friday was the first day of the week that nothing weird happened. I didn’t hear any voices I shouldn’t, and I felt relieved. Maybe it went away. Every Friday during Summer Zman, the bochurim played baseball. After Seder, I decided to join the game to take my mind off everything.
I hadn’t played baseball in a while because usually I learned Friday afternoon with Shloimy, but I convinced him to come take a break and play with me.
“Ooooh, the two masmidim came to play baseball,” people taunted when we got to the field.
We ignored them though and I was determined to show them that masmidim can be good at baseball too. It was a competitive game and our teams were well matched. By the bottom of the ninth, their team was winning by one point and we had two outs.
It was my turn to hit. I grimaced my teeth. Everyone stared at me as I got up the plate.
“C’mon Yaakov! Win this for us!”
I will, I thought. The pitcher threw it straight down the middle, and I hit it hard, right to midfield between the two outfielders. I got a hit! I ran to second base before they could get the ball, grinning widely to myself.
Next, I watched a short ninth grader come up to the plate. I hoped against hope that he was a better hitter than he looked.
The ball flew towards him.
He swung wide. Strike.
The ball flew again.
I groaned. We weren’t going to win this after all.
He hit the ball high and I ran as fast as possible. This was our last chance at winning the game. I just needed to get to home plate! I ran and ran, around third and towards home plate. I saw in the corner of my eye someone fumble the ball and then pick it up to throw it towards home. It was too late to turn around! I had to make it there before he threw it. I ran faster. Faster than I ever ran before. I was almost at home plate, and suddenly, I was in the air!
I was flying! I soared above the field a few feet over everyone’s heads. I felt my heart beating out of my chest. Why was I flying? I needed to get down before everyone realized!
I didn’t know how to steer myself. I tried to push my body the other way and managed to turn around. I looked down and saw it was too late. Everyone was staring at me, the game forgotten. I stopped, hovering over everyone, unsure how to get back down. I tried to push my body down, but I didn’t know how.
“Yaakov, are you okay?” My chavrusa Shloimy said from the ground, as everyone crowded underneath me. I felt my face turn red. Shloimy was the biggest masmid in our shiur. What did he think of me now?
“I don’t know how to get down!” I shouted.
The bochurim’s shocked faces craned upwards, their heads in a grotesque unnatural position. Why were they staring at me? Stop staring! I wanted to scream. I’m not doing this on purpose!
I stood there in the midst of a crowd of staring yeshiva bochurim, but ten feet over their heads. I didn’t know how to get down, but I knew how to move away. I pushed my body away from them, and suddenly I was soaring again. Higher and higher I went. I couldn’t land on the ground, but maybe there was another place I could land.
I flew towards the yeshiva, somehow confident I wouldn’t fall. I davened that no one would look up and see me flying through the sky. Suddenly, I was at the yeshiva, and I gently let myself glide up to the yeshiva roof. I hoped that I could access the Yeshiva from the roof door. I tried to land, tripped, and collapsed in a heap on the cool roof tiles.
Hashem! I cried out in my head. Why are you doing this? What is happening? I can’t be a Variant. I’m a yeshiva bochur, Hashem. I don’t want to fly like Dominart or read minds like Clairvoyance. I just want to learn your Torah. Please, Hashem. Make this go away. Hashem, please.
“Yo,” a voice interrupted my thoughts. “You good?”
I looked up and saw AJ walking towards me with a cigarette in his hand. Of course, he was smoking up here. It was assur to smoke in my yeshiva, but some of the bums like AJ would come up to the roof to smoke. Although there was a $250 knas for being on the roof, no member of the hanhala would venture up here to catch anyone.
I wiped the tears from my eyes and got up. I had to get off this roof. I wasn’t one of these bums.
“Yes, AJ. I’m good. Thank you,”
I hoped he didn’t see how I’d gotten to the roof.
“Are you sure, Yaakov?” He threw the cigarette on the ground and put it out. “Do you want to talk?”
AJ and I used to be very close when we were younger, but then we got to mesivta and I became shtarker and spent most of my time in the beis. He, on the other hand, became a shtickel of a batlan and would miss seder to smoke on the roof.
“No, AJ,” I said. “I’m fine.”
I walked towards the door and put my hand on the handle.
“I know what it’s like to be different,” AJ said after me. “To not be the perfect yeshiva bochur you’re supposed to be.”
I turned around at this. He thought I had come up to the roof to waste time like he did.
“Really? You know what it’s like! Because you battel and smoke you know how it is? I don’t want to be different! I want to be a masmid! And that’s what I’m going to be!”
“Is that how you think of me?” He said, the hurt obvious in his voice. “A batlan that likes to smoke? Well, you know nothing about me!”
“You know nothing about me either!” I protested. “You want to know why I’m up here? I flew up here! Yes! Like a Variant! What do you know about that?
AJ looked down and didn’t say anything for a while.
“Yaakov,” he said quietly, looking straight at me. “I do know. I have powers too.”
“What?” I walked back towards him. “What powers do you have?”
He pulled another cigarette out of his pocket and I thought he was mocking me.
“You can smoke? That’s your Variant power?”
“No,” he said. “I can do this.”
He put the cigarette in his mouth and raised a finger to it. Sparks flew from his finger at first, and then out of his finger came a full flame. He sucked in and lit it from his finger.
“That’s my power,” he said.
I suddenly understood. He didn’t come up here to smoke. He came here to use his powers.
“When did this happen? Did you speak to any rebbeim about this?” I asked.
“Of course I did. It happened last year and I went to Rav Fisch right away.”
“What did he say?”
“He told me to keep it hidden. He said a good yeshiva bochur doesn’t have powers and I had to just focus on Torah. He said this is a distraction, Bittul Torah and Bittul Zman. It’s a nisayon from Hashem and if I keep it hidden Hashem might take this nisayon away.”
“So why don’t you?” I asked. “Keep it hidden. Just learn like you’re supposed to.”
“I tried, Yaakov,” he said with a pained face. “But I can’t. This is part of who I am. I can’t just ignore it.”
“Well, I’m going to talk to the rosh yeshiva, Rav Fine, about this. He’ll know what to do. Come with me.”
“No, Yaakov. He’ll just say the same thing Rav Fisch did. I know. You go yourself. I’ll figure it out.”
“I’m sorry, AJ.”
“It’s okay. Go. Maybe he’ll help you.”
I turned around to go seek the help of our rosh yeshiva, leaving AJ behind.
Forty years later
“You know,” Baruch, an older bochur, told the new ninth graders sitting around their dorm room. “My Rebbi, Reb Yaakov, has powers.”
Dovid’s head shot up from the Yair Weinstock novel he was engrossed in.
“Powers?” he asked. “Like Variant powers? Really?”
“Yeah, it’s a known thing.”
“A Rebbi in our yeshiva? Powers?” someone questioned. “I don’t believe that.”
“I’m telling you. They say he can read minds. That’s how he always knows who’s paying attention. I even heard from someone that he can fly.”
“So….he’s a Variant?”
“Of course not! He never joined the Variants. They say he was going to, but the rosh yeshiva ztz”l, Rav Fine, saw his potential in learning and convinced him to stay in yeshiva.”
Dovid stared down at his hands. “Imagine,” he said, as if thinking out loud, “imagine if he would have become a Variant.”
“Yes, he would’ve been one of the biggest Variants out there,” Baruch said wisely. “Have you heard of Conflagration?”
“Of course I heard of Conflagration!” Dovid said, excited despite himself. “He’s the only frum Jewish Variant! I once saw a video of him destroying a whole building by spraying fire through his fingertips!”
“Well, Conflagration actually attended this yeshiva when he was younger. They say he tried to convince Reb Yaakov to leave the oilam hatorah and join him to become a Variant.”
“But,” Dovid hesitated, “would that have been so bad?”
“What?” Baruch asked, shocked to hear this from a new bochur. “Of course it would have been bad! What are you saying?”
“I just mean,” Dovid tried to explain. “Conflagration makes a massive kiddush hashem, right? He’s doing hatzalas nefashos!”
Baruch shook his head sharply, sending Dovid’s question to the garbage.
“My Rebbi is greater than him and all these Variants,” he imparted to these impressionable young minds. “One second of his Torah is worth more than anything any Variant has done.”
Dovid nodded his head and returned to his book, unsure what to do what to do about the electric current buzzing through his hand.