TOI – Rosh Hashanah: Closing a circuit of life and love
Rosh Hashanah: Closing a circuit of life and love
The day’s events threw a Lubavitcher Hasid, a Bedouin soldier, and me together so we could each do some good, and I was sure our encounters weren’t by chance
By Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen | September 3, 2021
My wife and I set a lofty goal that Rosh Hashanah: for both of us to hear the shofar in synagogue. We were blessed with several young children, a toddler in the process of weaning, and a baby, so we planned carefully. Since our community boasts three synagogues, I calculated that I could start praying at the earliest service and return home in the middle, enabling Michal to arrive at the second service in time to hear the shofar. She would then return home, and I would arrive at the yeshiva in time to hear the shofar. What could possibly go wrong?
The prayer leader at Michal’s service must have been overly inspired, and recited the prayers with extra devotion. The service moved slower than expected and Michal realized that I would miss the shofar at the third service if she stayed long enough to hear the blasts. She decided to forgo hearing the shofar in order to allow me to hear it, and she returned home. I hurried to the yeshiva, and discovered that there the prayer leader was praying with alacrity; I had just missed the shofar blasts. I ran to the second synagogue to try to catch the blasts there – but I arrived right after the shofar was blown.
I reflected on the equality in our marriage that my careful planning had achieved: we missed out on hearing the shofar — but at least we missed out equally!
Our experience reminded me of The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry’s short story about an impoverished couple who wished to give each other a special present for Christmas. The wife sold her crowning glory, her hair, and secretly bought her husband a gold chain for his prized watch. The husband, meanwhile, sold his watch and bought his wife jeweled combs to show off her hair. Each of them sacrificed something precious of their own in order to delight the other — but ultimately the gifts could not be used.
Another unwelcome surprise awaited us after synagogue: the main circuit breaker for our home failed while we were preparing lunch. No electricity meant no refrigerator, no air conditioning, and no lights. That year, Rosh Hashanah was followed by Shabbat, so we — and the other two families we were hosting — were facing three days without electricity. I looked all over the community for a non-Jew, who would be permitted to flip the breaker switch back, but eventually, I bowed to reality; Otniel is not a mixed Jewish-Arab community.
A friend suggested I might find a non-Jewish soldier at the nearby army base who could help. I set off, but the closer I drew to the base, the less comfortable I was with my mission. It would entail approaching a soldier who was stuck on base for the holiday weekend protecting me and my family while far from his own family and asking him to walk uphill to Otniel in the heat of the day so that I could observe details of a faith he doesn’t share. The request felt like the height of chutzpah. Yet, as I reflected on the numerous things that hadn’t gone according to plan that day, I was reminded of the morning blessing praising God, “Who prepares the steps of man,” and recalled Who had directed the results of our plans that day. This perspective fortified me as I continued walking to the base.
The Pied Piper of Chabad
At the base, I again ran into Yossi, who is a Lubavitcher (Chabad) Hasid. He had walked to the base in the morning in order to arrange services for the soldiers there, including shofar blasts, but he walked back to the base that afternoon to blow shofar for anyone who might have missed the blasts in the morning. He began blowing for one soldier, but more and more soldiers came to listen as he blew. I was confronted with the profound meaning of the mitzvah of hearing shofar. The blasts are not reserved just for those celebrating the holiday by praying in their finery in synagogue. Rather, the blowing of the shofar constitutes a call to all of us to awaken, to assemble, and to return to God, as in the blessing in the Amida prayer, “Blow with a great shofar…and gather us together from the four corners of the earth.” How wonderful that it was here that I was able to finally hear the shofar. The first circle came fully around.
For Whom Do We Walk?
After I heard the shofar, I found a Bedouin soldier on base and began, hesitatingly, to explain my problem. Fortunately for me, it took him only a few seconds to understand what I needed, and he immediately smiled and agreed to help. When he requested permission from his (Jewish) company commander to leave base to help me, the latter offered to go the extra mile and give us a lift to Otniel. My heart sank; I was trying to avoid the rabbinic prohibition against using electricity on Shabbat, whereas his driving us to base would violate a prohibition from the Torah. Retreat seemed the wisest course: “Thank you very much, but I’ll manage.” He responded, “Hey, no problem, go on foot if you prefer.” I sighed with relief — until the commander told the soldier, “When you finish helping him, call me and I’ll give you a ride back to base.” Embarrassed, I repeated, “Thank you anyway, but I’ll find another solution.” This time the Bedouin soldier picked up the cue and told his commander that he would walk back to base. Thank God, problem averted.
As we walked to my house, the soldier greeted everyone he saw with a smile and peppered his speech with the expression, “Everything is from Heaven.” I was struck by his deep faith and his essential humanity. I could not avoid comparing my own walk to his and to Yossi’s. I was walking to fulfill my own personal and family needs, whereas they walked in order to help others. I resolved to be a more diligent student in this lesson from God regarding “the steps of man.”
The soldier flipped the switch in my home, the electrical circuit was completed (the second full circle of the day), and light returned to our home. When we tried to prevail upon him to eat and rest, he politely declined; he needed to return to base to finish his work. I joined him for the walk back to base, while Michal and the children finished preparing our holiday meal.
The Third Circle
On our way, the soldier told me that my children were cute, and I wished him cute children in return. His face fell, he sighed, and he began to tell me his story. For seven years, he had loved a girl from his village, but she died of an illness before he was able to marry her. At the time of her death, he vowed to remain faithful to her forever and never marry. Even now, the idea of marriage seemed impossible to him, after his tragic experience. I asked him, “How do you manage to smile all the time?” “I smile on the outside,” he answered, “but inside is sadness.”
I found his fidelity to his beloved moving, but privately I was concerned that fulfilling his vow would only aggravate an already tragic story. Finding appropriate words to encourage him felt beyond me. And yet, I thought, perhaps the events of the days conspired to put me in the right place and time to tell him what he might need to hear. I took a deep breath and told him about a guest who had joined us for the holiday, a widow whose husband had been murdered in a terrorist attack shortly after their wedding. She underwent a painful process of recovery, developed deep insights that enabled her to rejoin life and find love, and had recently remarried. I shared with the soldier the lessons she had taught me. “You came to us to return the light into our home, but perhaps this can also return the light into your life?”
A Chance for Love
Long after that Rosh Hashanah, I recalled the bond that developed between this soldier and me — at least, I felt we had had a powerful and meaningful encounter. I wondered if he had shared my feelings. Perhaps our meeting had left no particular impression on him, or maybe he had even felt annoyed that I had bothered him?
Four years later, I received my answer. A call came in from an unrecognized number, and I heard, “Do you remember me?” Eventually, I remembered where I knew the voice from; it was that Bedouin soldier. “You should know,” he began, “every day I reread that letter you sent me after the holiday.” As he spoke, I dredged up the memory of writing him a letter a few days after we met, to summarize part of our talk. I had given the letter to another soldier who had been in Otniel and asked him to deliver it to the Bedouin soldier — and then I promptly forgot about my letter. The soldier continued, “I want to tell you that I got engaged. I’m calling to invite you to my wedding.”
The Rabbi at the Bedouin Wedding
A year later, I was delighted to attend his wedding, next to his new home in the Bedouin village where he grew up, and celebrate with him and the other villagers. I couldn’t partake of the lamb that they cooked for the occasion, but I did manage to dance with the elated groom for hours. When the dancing finished, I approached him and repeated my blessing from five years earlier, “May you have sweet children.” This time he received the blessing with joy.
A Never-Ending Story
I thought that the wedding completed this story, but I discovered that real-life stories never truly end.
“You danced great at the wedding.” This from Itzik, the yeshiva manager, when I entered his office to take care of some administrative matter.
“The Bedouin wedding.”
“What? Where did you hear about it?”
It turned out that an Arab classmate of Itzik’s from college showed his friends a video clip that had gone viral in the Arab sector, showing a rabbi dancing at a Bedouin wedding — but dancing…oddly. On the day of the wedding, I didn’t have a kippa clip with me, so I held my hand to my kippa during the hours of dancing so it wouldn’t fall off. The Bedouin celebrants around me saw my strange positioning, and graciously adopted the same stance. For months, people would stop me on the street to ask, “Are you the dancing rabbi?”
Life as an Allegory
The High Holiday prayers feature the phrase, “His kingdom rules [mashala] over all” (Psalms 103:19). Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, author of the work Ma’or Einayim, plays on the double meaning of mashal to offer the interpretation that in the world, God’s kingdom, everything may be seen as an allegory, a mashal. Suddenly I understood; everything that happened in this story was an allegory. When the soldier flipped the circuit-breaker switch and thereby closed an electrical circuit (or circle), this symbolized each closing of a circle that had occurred today.
The heart-rending events in a Bedouin village connected to the harrowing ordeal of the widow from Otniel. One person’s experience of personal development born of tragedy could encourage another person who is hurting and wishes to grow. Here, in an encounter between widely separated worlds, lay the potential for infusing life with refreshed vitality. On Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we coronate God as King over the world, He provided me with a marvelous symbolic illustration of His guidance of the world.