by Zeev Ha-kanai
Happy is the man
whose transgressions are forgiven
and whose sins are covered.
Happy is the man
whose sin the Lord no longer counts against him
and in whose spirit lies no deceit
- Psalm 32
"So, Yaacov, going off to Tel Aviv to mess around with a few girls for the weekend?"
Yaacov smiled. His friend Yoav was kidding, of course. The two soldiers were on their proscribed four day leave at home, after seventeen on duty of course, and Yoav knew that Yaacov, as a religious soldier, was more likely to sprout wings and fly than to run off to the back of some dank club with a couple of loose girls on his time off. The two had been in the army together for almost three years now, from basic training at the Paratrooper Training Base, to the godforsaken tents at the Infantry Squad Command school, to the stinking hole-in-the-wall outpost on the Lebanese border where they were currently stationed. That friendship, however, didn't preclude some good natured ribbing along the way, and Yoav had his enigmatic, too-bad-you-can't-see-what I find-absolutely-hilarious grin plastered on his face.
"Actually, I'm going to try and meet up with my father." Yaacov replied, greatly enjoying it as his friends grin quickly faded.
"Your father?" Yoav knew very little about Yaacov's past, however what he did know was that Yaacov was not your average combat soldier. He knew that Yaacov had grown up in a Haredi household, a part of that segregated Orthodox Jewish community who eschewed Israel's compulsory service in favor of biblical and spiritual learning. He also knew that Yaacov's father was an important rabbi in that community who most likely hadn't taken his son's running off to the army very well, considering the two had never so much as had a phone conversation for at least as long as Yoav had known him.
"Yeah," Yaacov said, grinning sheepishly and avoiding Yoav's gaze. "It took a bit of work, but I got him to come see me in Bell Park this afternoon."
"Walla, really?" Yoav clapped his friend on the back, grin returning to his face. "Kol ha-kavod, congratulations. Family's the most important thing in life, you know, and I hope for the best."
"Thank you. And where exactly are you going this weekend?"
"Me?" Yoav said, grabbing his friend by the shoulder. "I'm off to Tel Aviv to live the good life, brother, lots of drinks and maybe a few nice women on the side...there's a new club and I'm telling you, the girls are ptzatzot...hot."
Yaacov laughed, hugged his friend and wished him the best of luck. They couldn't have made an odder couple standing there in the busy Jerusalem Central Bus Station. The tall and blonde Yoav, a veritable stereotype of an Israeli Paratrooper, embracing Yaacov's wiry and small form. They then parted ways, Yoav running to catch his bus to Tel Aviv to enjoy his furlough and Yaacov descending the staircase to emerge onto the bustling Jerusalem street.
It was hot, at least 35 degrees, and Yaacov was sweating profusely under his heavy uniform. However, if truth were told, it was more than the crushing mid-summer sun that was making the otherwise steely combat soldier sweat. "A bit of work" contacting his father had been akin to World War Two being a bit of a misunderstanding between Germany and the rest of the world.
His father wasn't just another Haredi man irritated that his son had left the studious path set out for him, he was the Rav of the Scherr Religious Dynasty. That meant that he was the most important leader of a Jewish movement that linked unbroken back to a 17th century spiritualist movement known as Hasidism. The way his father saw things, his son had shattered that link when he had first stepped foot into the army enlistment office. Almost three years later, it had taken several months to speak with his father's personal assistant, and another two to get the reply that his father would agree to meet him, on the condition that it take place in the public park, alone.
Yaacov walked slowly down the street, past the shouting shopkeepers busy hocking assorted warm pastries while screaming children whined and screamed outside their stores, pleading for the cheap Chinese toys on display. For a moment, he was a young boy again on his small street in Meia Sharim, the center of Jerusalem's Haredi community. He had been dressed up for the occasion, despite the heat, by his doting mother and his tzitzit, his ceremonial fringes, dangling in the wind as he skipped after his father and the entourage of young scholars that always seemed to mill around him. His father was deep in thought, contemplating some religious matter that needed to be ruled upon, and the young men around him threw about their knowledge of the holy Jewish books and the rabbinical sages, eager to impress their Rav. Yaacov was bored by their constant back and forth, and was happy to look through the windows at the various displays of lovingly handcrafted Judaica. The young men's talk reminded him too much of school, he had a test on Genesis the next day and really didn't want to be think about it.
His father suddenly stopped and Yaacov, absent-mindedly gazing at a twinkling display of silver wine goblets, nearly ran into him. Peeking out from behind his father's legs, Yaacov was curious to know what was going on. In front of them, a man was sitting on the curb, his face buried in his hands and very much ashamed to be begging for the change accumulating in a cup beside him. Yaacov's father thought for a moment before placing a few shekels in the man's begging cup and walked on. After a few moments he turned to his disciples and asked if they knew who the embarrassed man had been.
"I believe that was Yochanan Elyakim, Rav." One of the young men replied. "He worked in computers until recently. They say he lost his home and everything else a few months back. A good god-fearing man, not a Hasid, but dati, religious."
The Rav was quiet for a few moments, lost in his thoughts. He then spoke, quietly.
"See if we can;t find him some part-time work around the community. Nothing big, but something to get himself back on his feet."
"Yes, Rav." His student answered, unquestioningly.
Yaacov was confused however, and unafraid to ask his father what was on his young mind.
"Abba," He said, pulling on his father's coat to get his attention."We don't know that man, why would we give him a job?"
His father kneeled down to face his son and smiled. Yaacov liked it when his father smiled like that, it meant he was going to teach him something and it made him feel warm inside.
"Yaacov, do you know what Chesed is?" He asked slowly. Yaacov shook his head no. "A Chesed is an act of kindness towards another human being, done without the expectation of reward. The sages say that the world only continues to exist because of three things: the worship of God, those who study His works and acts of kindness towards our fellow man."
The Rav's disciples murmured in agreement and the Rav got up to continue his walk, content to have implanted a seed of knowledge in his son's mind. Yaacov still wasn't satisfied, however.
"But Abba," he asked, tugging again on his father's long coat. "Why give him a job? You already gave him some money, isn't that enough?"
"The Rambam," His father began, turning his head to look at his young son, smiling, yet continuing to walk, "one of Judaism's greatest sages tells us that there are many levels and kinds of charity. You tell me, Yaacov, what could be a better way of helping a man than to help him rid himself of dependence on others?"
A loud horn suddenly shook Yaacov from his reverie and back into central Jerusalem. Lost in his thoughts he had tried to cross the street on a red and nearly got hit by a taxicab.
"Kus Rab-Rabak!" The driver, a middle aged Yeminite Jew, cursed in Arabic, still obviously a tad shaken from nearly killing a young soldier. "What are you, retarded? Get out of the street!"
"Lech Tizdayen!" Yaacov shouted back in Hebrew. The driver registered a definite look of shock having been cursed at by a young, religious paratrooper. The man muttered something under his breath and drove off. Yaacov smiled. Obviously the army culture had influenced him more than he gave credit.
As he continued his walk to Bell Park, his mind kept wandering back to his father. The Rav had once been a brilliant Yeshiva student, extraordinarily humble and kind. He had spent years as a bachelor, unusual in a community that married so young, preferring to delve deep into the rich spiritual world of the Talmud, the Jewish interpretation of the Bible's laws and ethics. His interpretations of the sages' works were considered by the community to be exceptional, and his religious rulings, his poseks, were even admired by Jews outside the community. As his followers grew, the young rabbi fell deeply in love with Yaacov's mother, then an 18 year old daughter of an equally esteemed rabbi within the Scherr dynasty. The two married and for years remained childless. When the former Scherr Rav died, Yaacov's father was considered a leading contender for the position. Despite his efforts not to become elected, his efforts failed and he became the seventh Scherr Rav. Yaacov's conception a few months later, and then his sister a year later, was seen as nothing short of miraculous for the childless couple, a sure sign of God's approval, and the Rav resigned himself to his new position, giving himself whole heartedly to the role.
His father had proved himself a capable leader, becoming popular for personally petitioning the government for aid for impoverished young scholars and for his outspokenness over the importance of the Tal Law, which exempted young Haredi men from serving in the army. He strongly defended his beliefs, and his leadership focusing on protecting his followers' deep traditions from a quickly changing modern society, insulating and further withdrawing them from the secular Israeli population around them.
Yaacov finally arrived at the Bell Park and admired its simple beauty. The grass was still green, even in the almost unbearable Judean Desert heat, a testament to the dedication and care of Israel's landscaping maintenance crews. The trees, planted more than thirty years prior in celebration of the United States Bicentennial, rustled gently in the soft summer breeze. It was a beautiful day, and Yaacov was determined to use it to center himself against his own nervousness.
He sat down at a park bench, near the replica of the US Liberty Bell that gave the park its name, and stared up into the empty blue sky. It was strange. As a combat soldier, Yaacov had been through numerous firefights and skirmishes, had arrested wanted terrorists and had even been called upon to kill in defense of his country and people. He had led a squad of men through mission after mission, often with little prior information and, with a little luck from above, had gotten them out unharmed. Throughout his service, he had made sure to never lose his calm, to remain focused and collected, and had thus earned himself quite the reputation within his unit. Yet here he was, the brave combat soldier, shaking in fear at the prospect of reuniting with a 70-year old man in a park!
But then, perhaps that was the point of it all. It wasn't just a man, it was his father.
"Excuse me, brother." A voice said suddenly, startling Yaacov and nearly making him leap a foot into the air. He spun around to meet the smiling face of a young, perhaps teenage, religious youth holding a set of Jewish phylacteries. "Would you like to put on tfillin?"
"Uh, no thank you." Yaacov replied with a smile. "Already put them on during morning service."
"Shabbat shalom then," the youth said, walking away. Yaacov often enjoyed watching the Chabad, a fellow Hasidic group, as they engaged the community, trying to get every Jew they met to fulfill the commandment to don the holy tfillin once a day.
As he watched the youth strap the phylacteries to middle-aged businessman, who all the while continued to check his watch nervously, the image brought back the painful memory of when he had confronted his father about his intention to enlist in the army. Or, more accurately, when his father had confronted him about it.
Yaacov cast his mind back to that day, forcing his heart still. He could smell the ceder of the Yeshiva's prayer hall. He had just finished praying Shacharit, the morning prayer, and was unwrapping the tfillin straps from his arm when Elisha, the school's secretary came up to him.
"Yaacov, come up to the office right away. It's your father, he's here and he wants to speak to you urgently."
Yaacov couldn't imagine why his father had come down to his Yeshiva in person. He was usually incredibly busy meeting the community's needs and demands and rarely left his office until late at night, if at all.
I hope everything's alright, he thought, quickly saying a prayer as he ran to the office.
Arriving in the office, he saw his father sitting at a small table, with quite a few teachers and students surrounding him, each eager to speak with and pose their questions to the venerable Scherrer Rav. With a hand wave, the Rav silenced them all. He then whispered to his assistant who requested that everyone leave.
Just like that, the room cleared. Even the head of the Yeshiva left the two alone. The office suddenly grew deathly silent. Without a word, his father motioned for Yaacov to sit across from him, which he did. Slowly, he slid a single paper over.
"Your mother found this while she was cleaning your room this morning." He said, softly.
Yaacov looked at the paper and felt his mouth go dry. It was his army induction notice. He had hid it cleverly, or so he thought, in his bedroom dresser. He had intended to discuss it with his father but, as these things normally do, never quite got around to it.
"Abba," Yaacov said, "This isn't how I wanted you to find out."
"And how exactly would you have liked me to find out, Yaacov?" His father asked. "To embarrass me in front of my community like this, to do something totally against what I work to accomplish. Do you know how hard we work to ensure that bright young men like yourself can continue in their important studies of the Talmud, and you just throw it away like this?"
"But Abba...." Yaacov pleaded.
"Silence!" His father shouted. Yaacov at once realized that he was not talking to his father, but to the Rav. "Forget me, I am not important, but that you throw out your traditions and potential to learn to serve with the secular, those who not only do not keep God's commandments but would mock them? To live in an immodest environment? It is unforgivable and Yaacov, I will not allow this. I will not."
"Abba..." Yaacov wanted to present his case, to plead for his father to forgive his deceit and allow him to serve his country, but his words fell on deaf ears as his father rose and left, leaving Yaacov alone in the deep silence of the office. Many months would pass, and with them many more vicious arguments, until Yaacov finally left one July morning. Afterwards. he had lost contact with his family and community. It was never his father's anger that had haunted Yaacov all these years, but the memory of the pain and disappointment in his eyes that caused Yaacov to cry himself to sleep many a night.
Yaacov rubbed his sweating forhead, his heart beating quickly. He wondered who would meet him at last...his father or the Rav.
"Hello, Yaacov." A voice said from behind him. Yaacov felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to face an old, smiling man.
"Hello, Abba." Yaacov answered. He could feel tears in his eyes and fought his hardest to restrain them, as well as the growing lump in his throat. "How did you know it was me?"
"Well," his father replied, "the uniform set you a part just a little bit."
His father swept his hand across the park. Yaacov suddenly noticed that the majority of the population around him were below the age of 5 and quite happily running about, laughing.
"Heh," Yaacov replied, smiling. "I suppose that makes two of us."
He pointed to his father who was dressed, despite the incredible heat, in the traditional and ubiquitous Hasidic garb of a black suit, black open crown hat and long, black coat. It was an outfit that dated back to 19th century Eastern Europe and had bound them to their history as well as kept them unique and separate amongst the changing society that surrounded them.
"I suppose so," his father laughed, "I suppose so."
Yaacov looked into his father's smiling face. His wrinkles gotten more prominent and the lines on his face and around his eyes much deeper since they had last been face to face. He seemed frailer somehow.
His father sat down on the bench next to him and together they sat in silence for a few moments, staring at the playing children.
"You know, your sister Dina still keeps all the clippings of your unit's activities." His father said at last. He chuckled. "She finds all the pictures in the paper that she thinks could be you and she puts them in this journal. She hides it, but not too well. She keeps it in her sock drawer. She is such a goodhearted girl."
Yaacov could only laugh at his sister thinking she could keep a thing like that secret from his mother by keeping it in her sock drawer. His mother was one of those who was blessed with the soul of a saint and the investigative skills of a Sherlock Holmes, the kind determined to be aware of the minutia of her household.
"How is Ima?" Yaacov asked.
"It's been hard on your mother, Yaacov." His father replied. "I won't lie to you. She still keeps a chair for you on Shabbat. It-"
His father stopped and cleared his throat. For the first time, Yaacov noticed the tears and unspoken grief in his father's eyes. He continued.
"It-It's been hard on all of us, Yaacov."
"As if it hasn't been hard on me, Abba!" Yaacov suddenly shouted, unable to hold back his tears any longer, and not really caring either way. "Having nobody to come home to during training, staying in soldier's hostels when I got off for Shabbat. Watching everyone's parents show up for ceremonies and family days, watching them laugh and enjoy themselves while I stood to the side trying to hide my tears and pain!"
Yaacov buried his head in his hands, his tears now streaming down his cheeks. He couldn't speak though he longed to tell his father of the lonely nights in the desert crying himself to sleep, of the times he had tried calling to no avail, of his dreams of just one more warm Sabbath meal with his family instead of the warmed-over food at the hostels. More than that, he wished for the embrace of his Abba.
His father put a consoling hand on his weeping son's back. His own tears began to gently fall, the tears of a father for his son.
"I know, Yaacov. I know. You must understand how difficult it was for me after you left. The entire community was in an uproar, they were in shock. For a son to defy his father and run away from the community like this, it was unthinkable. And if the family acted as if nothing had happened...the message it would send to our community, to the country, would be disasterous. So I made the decision to break off contact, even though it broke my heart to do so."
Yaacov looked up to see his father's tears and listened to his breaking voice. He knew his father had made the decision because of what he thought was the best way to maintain the community's traditions, and it had cost him dear. It had cost him his son.
"Abba," Yaacov said, quietly. "I protect the Jewish people and my country with all my heart. Didn't you teach me what Chesed was when I was a boy, to act and do good deeds without expecting a reward? Abba, as I grew older I thought about those words a lot and decided that the greatest Chesed I could do would be to defend my brothers against their enemies."
"I recall our arguments well," His father replied.
"I sacrificed my time, my health and ultimately my family and community for this good deed, Abba. Isn't that the true meaning of Chesed?"
"But you rejected your community's values and traditions, Yaacov. You rebelled against me and all that I have striven to do for our community. I argued and fought so that our young men would not have to be exposed to a secular lifestyle, so they could dedicate themselves to the study of God's works. I'm glad that you have so strongly committed yourself to the concept of Chesed, but you forget that the study of God's works is paramount in the eyes of the religious Jew. Torah study protects the Jews, just as the army does, if not more. That is what you have chosen to reject with your choice, Yaacov."
"And the terrorists I've stopped, the lives I've saved, Abba. They're not good deeds, they don't count for anything?"
"I commend you for them, Yaacov. I really do. But do they outweigh the many good deeds you could have done had you stayed within the community? The learning you could have accomplished, the prayer services you could have led. You could have married and begun a family by now. Yaacov, you were always a talented boy, you could have been a leader within the community by your own right, leading others to do good works and live righteous lives."
The father and son sat quietly for a few minutes, each contemplating what could have been.
His father was the first to break the silence.
"I forgive you, Yaacov. For running away and for defying my will. You chose your path, and it is an honorable one that can be filled with as much good as your heart can bring to it, and I know that is a lot. But I cannot allow you to come back to the community as if nothing had happened. The army has changed you, perhaps for the better, but you're on a path different than ours and I cannot allow that to affect the community's well being. All I hope you can forgive me for my stubborn ways."
Yaacov felt his father's hand wipe the tears from his face, as he had done when he was a small boy, and smiled. He hadn't come expecting to be brought back into the fold, and in fact wasn't sure that he wanted to return to the community. Perhaps he had changed in the army, or perhaps he had never been meant to live his life there. Regardless, he had come here with one purpose: to see his father once more after thirty-two long and difficult months.
"I forgive you, Abba." He said at last.
"I'm glad, Yaacov." Yaacov's father said, getting up. "Now I must go, I'm sorry I can't stay longer but there is a long line of people wishing to further monopolize my time and I'm sure you have to get back to your own life and stop wasting it with an old man like me."
Yaacov got up and extended his hand uncertainly. His father looked at it, smiled and embraced his son. Yaacov held tight to his father, tears once again filling his eyes and blurring his vision.
"Same time next time you're home, Yaacov?" His father whispered in his ear.
"If you're not busy...." Yaacov whispered, barely able to conceal his happiness.
"I'll make time," his father said, letting him go. "And maybe next time Dina and your mother would like to come. They always liked this park, I think."
Yaacov couldn't bring himself to speak. He embraced his father once again and watched as the old man walked off into the busy Jerusalem afternoon. Feeling his legs weak, he sat down once again on the park bench.
He focused on the vast expanse of blue sky above him and wondered idly what the future would bring.
from the August 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine