The Sefer Yetzirah (Chapter 1, Mishna 1) relates that God created the world with a story. This teaches us that life itself is an ongoing story, and a true story does not end. Five years ago, on Rosh Hashanah, I was part of one of the most influential stories of my life, and this month, I discovered that this story was far from over.
The Gift of the Magi
The story begins with a failed plan for my wife and I to come to the synagogue and hear the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah. With a houseful of small children, including a baby girl and toddler being potty-trained, this was no easy task.
This was the plan: there are three synagogues in the community where I live. I figured that if I were to begin tefillah at the earliest minyan and return home in the middle of the tefillah, my wife could go to the other synagogue to hear the shofar blasts. After she comes back, I’d have enough time to make it to the third synagogue in time to hear the shofar blasts.
Unfortunately, the plan was detached from reality. Apparently, the Divine Presence must have rested upon the chazzan of the second synagogue, causing him to lengthen the tefillah. My wife understood that if she were to remain there until the shofar was sounded, I would be late to the third minyan, so she decided to forego hearing the shofar to allow me to do so. For whatever reason, the chazzan at the third synagogue sped through the tefillah, and when I got there, I realized that I had just missed the shofar blasts. I ran to the second synagogue, only to arrive just after the shofar blasts had ended. I reflected on the “togetherness” and equality of my relationship with my wife. We did not merit to hear the shofar blasts, but at least, we had missed them together.
I was reminded of The Gift of the Magi, a story written by O. Henry about a couple, living in destitute poverty, who wanted to give each other gifts for the holiday. The woman gave up her most treasured possession – her long hair – to buy a leather band for her husband’s watch. Meanwhile, her husband sold his watch to buy a comb for his wife’s hair, now long gone.
Bordering on Chutzpah
After the tefillah had ended, I returned home, only to discover that the surprises were far from over. We began preparing the holiday meals, when all of a sudden, our house’s main fuse tripped. We had a three-day holiday ahead of us (two days of Rosh Hashanah immediately followed by Shabbat), we were to host two other families, and we had no electricity in the house – no refrigerator, lights, air conditioning, hot plate for our meals, and so on. My only hope for restoring the electricity was to find someone who was allowed to switch on the breaker on the holiday, that is, a non-Jew. After scouring the community several times I realized that this was not a mixed community.
While outside, I met Yossi, a Chabad hassid, who suggested that I go to the nearby military base. Maybe someone there could help me. I set out towards the base, and with each step I took, I liked the idea even less. I felt that having soldiers spend their holidays at the base in order to protect me and my family was asking quite a bit. Would I now ask a soldier to spend his free time walking in the blazing heat to help someone professing a different religion keep his religious laws? To me, it seemed like tremendous chutzpah, but faced with no other choice, I continued on my way to the base.
The Pied Piper of Chabad
I reached the base and discovered that Yossi, the Chabad hassid I had met earlier, was there, as well. Although he had already been to the base to make sure there would be tefillah, complete with the sounding of the shofar, he had returned to verify that anyone at the base who was interested could hear the shofar. He began sounding the shofar for one soldier, but like the story of the pied piper of Hamlin, the sounds of the shofar attracted a group of other soldiers who joined the first soldier. I felt that I was experiencing the deeper meaning of the mitzvah of shofar. The shofar blows were not meant just for those who were already at the synagogue, holding machzorim and dressed in their finest garments. They were also meant to awaken people, to call on them to gather and return to the Almighty. I was proud that these were the shofar blows that would replace those I had missed earlier that morning. I had now closed the first circle.
Israel and the Nations
After the sounding of the shofar, I found a Muslim Bedouin soldier who was serving at the base. Rather humbled, I began to mouth my request, but the soldier didn’t need me to say too much. He immediately understood the situation, smiled back at me, and without hesitation, agreed to come help. While on our way back to my house, which was at the other side of the community, I was moved by the soldier’s profound piety. He kept saying that “everything comes from God”. I was also struck by his sense of humaneness, as he greeted every child or adult we encountered with a smile and a kind greeting. As we walked, I pondered the differences between my walk earlier that morning, to fulfill my own needs, and Yossi’s and the Bedouin walks and deeds, which were aimed at helping others. Hashem had been giving me a lesson on how one must walk.
We arrived at my house, the soldier switched on the power breaker, and light returned to our home. Our attempts to convince him to eat with us and rest at our house were in vain. He said he had work to do, and that he needed to return to his base.
The Third Circle
As I accompanied the soldier back to his base, he said to me that I had “cute children”. I told him that I wished him cute children as well, but then, his smile faded away as he told me his own story. As a child, he had fallen in love with a girl from his village. He loved her for seven years, with all of his heart, but before they could wed, the girl fell ill, and passed away. After she died, he made a vow to remain loyal to her and never marry. In any case, after all he had experienced, it must have been difficult for him to be with another woman. “But what about your smile?” I asked . “That’s just on the outside,” he told me. “The sorrow is on the inside.”
I was very moved by his dedication to the love of his life, but the tragedy would be far worse if he were to keep his vow. Far be it for me to say anything comforting to someone who had gone through something so difficult, but perhaps I had come here to fill a missing link. I told him about our guests during the holiday, among who was a widow whose husband had been murdered shortly after their wedding. After a difficult process filled with profound insights on life, she found her way back to life, to love, to having a relationship, and to becoming a mother. I shared what I had learned from her with the soldier, and eventually, we bade each other farewell.
Life as a Parable
During the tefillah, we read the verse from Tehillim: “and His kingdom rules over all”. The Maor Einayim offers an interpretation of the verse, positing that in Hashem’s kingdom, everything is a parable. The fuse that flipped and the closing of the electric circuit are essentially a parable of what had happened to me that day. It was a day of coming full circle between human beings that give each other electricity, energy and life.
Love stands a chance
Four years went by. One day, I received a phone call from an unidentified number. “Do you remember me?” asked the man on the other end of the line. “After our meeting you wrote me a letter,” he reminded me, which detailed our conversation about life and love. “Every day for four years I have read that letter. I now want to tell you that I am engaged and request that you join me for the wedding.”
A Rabbi at a Bedouin Wedding
A year later, on the seventh of Elul, the day of the wedding had come. I traveled to a Bedouin village in the Galilee, and there, next to his house, with the other villagers looking on, my Bedouin friend married his beloved. I could not eat any of the lamb drenched in milk, but I had the pleasure of dancing with the groom for hours. After the dancing ending, I repeated the blessing I had given him five years earlier – that he should have cute children – which began our story. This time, he was very happy to accept my blessing.
Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality.
Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.
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