Reflections: My encounter with Sinas Chinam
Whenever Benny, a Border Patrol commander serving in the Kalkilia area, walked alongside me down the air conditioned corridors and we reached a doorway of any kind, he would step aside, lower his clean-shaven chin, and motion with his hand for me to enter or exit before him. Benny respected Torah-observant Jews.
His connection to Judaism — not through any fault of his own—was weak because of a lack of knowledge for which the Israeli (non) education system is to blame. While his knowledge of Jewish matters was paltry, he still had a deep love for the land, and spent hours each day guarding it, in the Kalkilia region, through searing heat and fierce, biting cold.
Benny is no youngster; he’s over 40 and a father of three children. He’s already thinking about his professional future a few years down the line, when he will retire from his career in the army, yet continue to receive a monthly salary from the State of Israel. Therefore, in between one shift and another, and interspersed among his other job commitments, he was training himself and enriching his knowledge in a profession that would fill his life in the post-Border-Patrol-career era.
The man was pleasant and smiled often. He was truly polite, and not just overtly so. He had a good heart beneath his dark uniform. Our contact was in a professional context, and we met from time to time. When I made a brachah on a cup of water in his presence, he would place his palm on his balding, suntanned pate, and say, “Amen, amen,” and then add, “L’chaim!”
“I’ve been serving in the Border Police for more than 20 years. Don’t ask where I’ve been — everywhere. But I never had any confrontations with chareidim,” he once said to me jovially, and with a trace of pride. “I have enough headaches in my own region. There’s work. We work hard. But, baruch Hashem, wherever I was, I never had to deal with chareidim. I was never at those demonstrations about graves or in Yerushalayim, and even when I was stationed in Yerushalayim, I was at the Damascus Gate or Har Habayis, but not in your neighborhoods.”
I tried to come up with a witty reply, but at that moment I remembered that you don’t joke with Border Police officers. Or, as I once dared to remark to Benny during an argument regarding the profession that he was learning: “Benny, it’s worthwhile for me to understand you the first time you say something, because with you Border Police officers, you speak nicely the first time, but if it doesn’t go into the head of the listener, the second time they make sure to explain it in a way that it will — usually with force.”
He listened to my analysis, raised his head from his books, leveled his gaze at me and remarked with a smile: “It’s a good thing that you understood that the first time….”
The distance from Yiddishkeit that he was raised with, compounded with the media hostility and bias against religion that the average Israeli citizen is fed on a daily basis, caused him to resist getting too close to Judaism. His fears blocked out his desire for more substance in his life. There are no chareidim of the kind depicted in the media (or of the kind he saw at our infrequent meetings) in the city where he lives, in the Sharon region. Since he didn’t get married in that city and has not yet required burial, he has never met the city’s rabbi. And he liked it that way. If the time would come when he would need religious services, Heaven forefend, he would seek out the rabbi’s office to inquire as to how one contacted the chevrah kaddisha.
Meanwhile, he was raising his children with values such as respecting others and loving the homeland, with a token pinch of appreciation for the unknown, unfamiliar Judaism. Initially, he considered celebrating the bar mitzvah of his oldest, Ro’i, at the Kosel, but he was hesitant because of the logistics involved, and so he settled instead for an elegant hall with a highly recommended disc jockey.
A Hard Truth Softens
One day, a bit of Yiddishkeit began to moisten Benny’s Israelified home. I believe it was triggered by the passing of his father-in-law. It wasn’t at his initiative at all. It wasn’t a transformation that will create a published life story and a national speaking tour. It was more like a series of symbolic gestures: lighting Shabbos candles each week, building a sukkah (with s’chach and decorations and everything a sukkah needs); lighting Chanukah candles with a brachah; fasting on Yom Kippur; reviving a few customs that his parents had brought over from his native Persia, forgotten until now.
Benny’s wife was to credit for the movement towards Yiddishkeit. Benny closely followed the developments but did not object outright. As long as things were under control, and it was all just a bit of tradition, he didn’t mind. Why not agree to it in order to keep the peace?
But when his wife suggested something that one of the Rebbetzins at the speeches she went to had presented, Benny was stunned. His worst fears were coming true.
The idea was to move their oldest son, Ro’i, to a religious school. Instead of getting up in the morning and going to a secular school full of pitfalls, his loving parents — as the Rebbetzin had put it — would guarantee his future by registering him for a religious school that would provide him both with matriculation qualifications and with Judaic studies, such as Gemara, Halachah, and other parts of Torah. Let him know the minimum. Didn’t he deserve it? Was he not a Jew? The Rebbetzin had wondered aloud.
Benny’s world turned black as he foresaw what was coming over his home. To his relief, Ro’i was a firm partner in his objections. Under no circumstances would it happen. His son would not study in a religious school. Ro’i was also afraid. Their wife and mother was alone, pleading gently and earnestly for her son, for the future, so that he should know something about his nation and the Torah. She spoke softly, not wanting to lose her cool and fully intending to maintain the peaceful fabric of their home. They had worked hard to establish a tranquil home. Why destroy it? But the pleas were constant. She promised not to come back in another year to ask that he be switched to a more religious school, or in two years to switch him to a yeshivah, which Benny feared most. He was afraid that it was the beginning of a plot to bring the whole family back to teshuvah.
The issue remained on the table almost an entire winter. It was exhausting. However his wife did not give up. She continued to believe, hope and persuade that this was the best course for their family.
It is true that a Border Policeman is tough.
It is an even firmer truth that this one was a Jew.
Therefore, Benny found himself acceding one day to go and see the Jewish school where his wife wanted to register their son for the next year. He showered and dabbed cologne on himself. He put on his most elegant clothes. He purposely did not put a kippah in his pocket so that the religious principal would know for certain that he was secular and maybe…b’ezrat Hashem…that would thwart the plans. He got into his car and drove carefully to his tour of the religious school.
He walked around the classrooms, hearing lessons from beyond the closed doors, and discovered that the curriculum included a range of secular subjects as well. And then, during recess, he saw boys kicking around a ball and playing team sports. He realized that not everything that is called religious is so frightening and threatening. He decided on a compromise: he would no longer object. He would move into neutral mode.
So now the status was: the mother wanted, the son objected and the father was neutral.
Only someone who is familiar with Benny’s fear of anything different and his secret apprehension about a black revolution that would destroy his home as he knew it was able to appreciate the change in his stance. It was only because of his good heart that he decided to swerve from the path of refusal along which he had tred the entire winter.
Being Right and Being Smart
The decision was now in Ro’i’s hands.
The first battle had ended and the second had begun. All that his mother promised did nothing to move him in the direction of agreement. Ro’i could not understand why he had to change his school, friends, habits and lifestyle. Hs father did not get involved. His mother did not desist, pleading with him at every opportunity. She also enlisted the aid of the Rebbetzin, who set up several Rabbanim and speakers to “coincidentally” cross paths with the boy and try to win him over.
Until one day, Ro’i agreed, like his father, to take a tour of the religious school.
His mother was so excited her eyes streamed with tears. She covertly lit a candle in the merit of Rabi Meir Baal Haness. She put several coins into the two tzedakah boxes in their home. Her prayers had been answered. Her Creator had listened to her words. With the help of Hashem, her oldest son would know about Yiddishkeit. The others would follow him. He would know how to open a Gemara from the right side. He would wear a kippah. He would know how to daven.
Please, Father in Heaven, open my son’s heart to Your Torah. Let him agree, and not be scared off. May he not be ashamed by those who will scorn him.
Together, they went to the school. She was tense and excited. He was tense and uncomfortable. He did not understand why he had even agreed to this. The principal, who had been prepared ahead of time, waited for them and briefly gave them some information about the school. They walked down the halls, examining every detail, and even waited for recess. Ro’i recognized a few acquaintances, and they told him they were very happy in the school. Let’s say that this was not exactly your traditional cheder, but compared to the prisons of (non) education of the Israeli school system, this school was religious in classification and in curriculum, definitely a significant and positive upgrade in status. Then again, anything above zero is an upgrade.
Ro’i returned home beset with doubts. He didn’t understand why this change was good for him. He was afraid of the unknown, of the obligations, of the limitations, of the possible difficulties in Torah studies for someone who had never learned them before. His mother promised him that nothing would be difficult. She would hire tutors to close the gaps. It would all be fine. The boy vacillated between fear and a desire to appease his mother with something she so desperately wanted.
The registration forms that she’d brought home from the school office were placed in a prominent spot at the entrance to the house, awaiting the boy’s decision. Ro’i could not decide. Benny gnawed at his fingernails from the plaguing doubts. He wanted to be after the decision already. He wished the tension at home would dissipate already. His wife lit candles for Rabi Meir Baal Haness and other tzaddikim and said copious chapters of Tehillim for her son.
A week of deliberation passed and then Ro’i announced that he was ready to try it. He was ready to switch to the religious school. To learn Gemara, Chumash, dinim, mitzvos. But there was one condition:
If, at the end of the year, he wanted to return to his secular school, they would accommodate him, no questions asked.
Benny said that that was a smart and just condition and hugged his son for being so wise. His mother was deeply moved by the decision; 10 months of work and hopes had been invested into this moment: her son had agreed. Cries of joy resonated through the house, and Ro’i asked them not to make a big deal of it all. His mother found a pen and ran to fill out the registration forms, with trembling hands and a few tears that stained the pages. She hoped the principal wouldn’t be upset about the tearstains.
My Son Will Be a Rabbi!
In the afternoon of the day Benny was supposed to take his son to register for school, Benny got a call summoning him to Yerushalayim. “I knew Ramadan would mess up my schedule,” he groaned.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I’ve been called to Yerushalayim. This Ramadan always ‘surprisingly’ takes us by surprise,” he griped.
“When are you leaving?” she asked.
“Now, this minute. Things are hot there,” he said, quickly throwing a few things into a bag.
He called him from the way, somewhat calmer “It’s not Ramadan, I got upset for no reason. It’s Yerushalayim. Yaffo Street or something. Some demonstration. Nothing serious. Half an hour or so and we’ll be able to pack up and go.”
“So why did they summon you so urgently? You work in the Kalkilia region!” she fumed.
“Some of the regulars are on vacation and headquarters didn’t want to ruin it for them. So they brought us. Something like that,” he tried to appease her.
When he was deployed with his unit on a chareidi street in Yerushalayim, he was actually pleased. Since Ro’i had agreed that morning to register for the religious school, he felt an internal sense of elevation. And now, how much more providential could it get — the same evening he was being put together with chareidim. He took up positions with his unit on a side street; they got organized, and then he called me, sounding very happy: “Listen, where are you? What? You’re not in Yerushalayim by chance? Too bad. Because I’m here. With your chevrah. Tell me, do they know you here? Listen, I’m going to tell them that my son’s going to be a rabbi. Benny’s son is going to know how to learn Torah. Would you have believed it?! I’m not embarrassed to tell them. Why be embarrassed? I’ll tell it to them all, so they should know who Benny is,” he enthused.
The conversation suddenly got cut off. I heard shattering glass in the background, along with loud epithets and heavy breathing into the phone.
The next morning, when I called Benny’s phone to ask how it had gone in Yerushalayim, it took him a long time to pick up. I tried over and over, every fifteen minutes. During the late morning, he finally answered. He was furious. The conversation was short. And sad. The registration forms were torn up and tossed into the garbage. Ro’i had gone outside to play with his friends from the secular school, where he would be continuing next year. And on a sofa in a house in the Sharon region, a Jewish mother sat and cried.
Dimasah al lechyah, ein lah menachem. (Eichah, 2:1)
Her tears rolled down her cheeks, and there was no one to console her.
Moshe Gutman is a world-renowned Hebrew writer. His books include Et-halech; Shulayim Shel Ma’alah, Shulayim Shel Zahav, and Eim Segulah. Mr. Gutman is a regular columnist in the Hebrew Hamodia.