When I read the wonderful story written by my friend, the writer and journalist Shimon Breitkopf, I knew our soldiers would be excited, but I never could have imagined the effect it would have on three young men in particular
The lounge was silent. Weapons were put aside, training exercises forgotten and tales of military campaigns remained untold. Everyone listened closely to my tearfuI voice as I read a story by my friend and colleague, the writer and journalist Shimon Breitkopf, as published on the Kikar Hashabbat website and in the magazine we both work for: Mishpaha.
For those who do not remember it, let me remind you that the story focuses on a young man, a rising star destined for greatness, who had a talent for music and painting and secretly drew caricatures of people he knew, hiding his sketch book deep inside a closet. The spiritual advisor at his yeshiva, who did not like the young man, confiscated the forbidden sketch book one day. He then convened the students for a lecture on morality and tore the student apart. This drove the young man far away from traditional Judaism. He left the yeshiva and became a part-time street painter and musician. Then, an earth-shaking encounter with the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach clarified that there are Jews who resemble Ruth the Moabite, who was rejected and cast out of Jewish society, yet returned to it because she followed her inner truth. For the sake of my own personal story, it is also important for me to clarify that the hero of Breitkopf’s story had been studying the issue of Bar Pada in Tractate Kodashim before he was torn to pieces by the mean-spirited supervisor.
After meeting with R. Carlebach, the young man returned to the fold and resumed his journey along the path of Judaism. I highly recommend reading the entire story in Mishpaha or Kikar Hashabbat.
As you know, I am now involved in providing a home and family for lone Haredi soldiers who cannot live with their biological families because they enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces. For all intents and purposes, I now serve as their father. On Friday nights, I join their communal meal in the lounge, sing hymns with them, study with them and try to instill a yeshiva-like atmosphere. I decided to read the story to them after having read it to a smaller group on Shavuot, a week earlier. Most of the soldiers were here and I decided that if I succeeded with a few people on Shavuot, there was no reason for it not to work for everyone this time. Still, I had no idea how successful it would turn out to be.
I read them the story just as it was published. As anticipated, they were very attentive. Each of them had experienced the story in his own way and was able to identify with it.
The hero of Breitkopf’s story was named Israel David. The hero of my story is Meir, the soldier closest to my heart. Even in the most unimaginable situations, in the most distant emplacements, he will not go to bed without contacting me to say “Good night.” We talk to each other several times a day, thinking things out together. Sometimes we seem to understand each other through our eyes, our souls. There are times when I feel we share a single, common soul.
Meir is also the soldier who is farthest from my way of life. He built himself such high protective walls that he refuses to use the Hebrew calendar and will never go near a synagogue, no matter what. Before the Pesah Seder, he came to me, smiling shyly and asking not to participate in any part of the ceremony except the meal. I have never seen him praying or studying Jewish religious texts. That’s what Meir is like. On the other hand, his concern for my wellbeing is truly touching. He encourages soldiers to give more money to our organization because he “cannot bear seeing Aharon humiliating himself in front of donors.” He is worried about me, caring for me as if he were my son. Meir also displays boundless loyalty to the army. True blue to olive green – that’s Meir, a serial award-winner in every possible military course and a front runner for Officers’ Candidate School.
I thought I knew everything about him, but that Friday night, when I read the story to the soldiers I discovered that I knew nothing at all. I finished reading the story and not a sound could be heard. Shimon’s powerful text sent each soldier deep into his own world, his troubles, the places from which he had come, the time that his soul was torn to shreds, tearing him away from Torah study.
Meir came over to me, an unfamiliar expression on his face. In one rapid gesture, he snatched a kipa from one of the other soldiers and put it on his bare head. In that same snakelike motion, he took his cellphone out of his pocket, handling it as if it were on fire and placing it in one corner of the lounge.
“Come,” he said, almost insanely, “Come to the yeshiva study hall now before I change my mind.” He grabbed my hand like a three-year-old boy pulling his father into the neighborhood playground. We ran to the yeshiva. For the first time since we met, he dashed into the study hall passionately.
The study hall at Nir Yeshiva in Kiryat Arba—Hebron was empty. Students were home for the weekend, except for a few diligent scholars. We sat in one student’s place. Meir passed his hand over all the Talmudic tomes lined up there.
“I’m a Total Talmudist,” he said. “I studied the entire Talmud. Go ahead! Pick any page at random and test me.” He practically begged me and began quoting long excerpts by heart.
“I studied at one of the most highly regarded yeshivas. I was a brilliant student,” he told me. “We would go over one issue after another, committing them to memory. Ah, those were the days,” he said suddenly, in a choked voice. “How I enjoyed it when I saw you going to study with Dvir (one of the soldiers). I remember those days. Aharon, you have no idea how much I enjoyed them.”
Until that terrible night when the spiritual supervisor caught me with an MP3 player in my pocket. What was so wrong? I liked to listen to Jewish music, but that SOB assembled the entire yeshiva, just like in the story you told us, saying that when a person sticks earphones in his ears, he cannot hear Torah study.
I was shattered, I was broken, I was even afraid to go home, afraid that my parents would side with the supervisor and not with me. At that moment, I knew that this was it. I was through with the Haredi world and with the Torah. I would not get close to anything that smelled of Judaism. I didn’t know what to do, there was no longer any purpose to my life. I was afraid to walk through the streets, afraid to meet friends, so don’t think it only happens in stories. It happens in real life. It happened to me.”
“They sent me for therapy in Bnei Brak, but nothing was the same any more. I felt detached, like in the story you told. My world collapsed when I was thrown out.
It was the army that began to restore my faith in myself. That’s why I love it so much, why I put all my efforts into service and perceive it as my future. You taught me that one can experience love for no apparent reason, just for its own sake. You renewed my belief in human beings—you and the wonderful Osey Chail family we established together and the whole marvelous community here in Kiryat Arba.”
I sat next to Meir, shuddering, thinking that I knew everything about him, but it turned out that I knew nothing. I had no idea that he was a Talmudic scholar, that he had experienced such painful humiliation, that his soul was torn apart. Meir’s words echoed through the study hall, that was now devoid of students, as if they were the ones responsible for his woes.
“Tell me, Aharon,” he asked suddenly. “Would you agree to study a Talmudic issue with me?” It was nearly midnight, Saturday night, after a grueling week that was in no way conducive to developments such as this one. This was not mere Talmud study, but an opportunity to participate in an all-encompassing drama.
“Do you remember the last issue you studied before you closed your heart to all we hold sacred?” I asked, trying to sound like Shimon’s story. He seemed to have been waiting for that very question: “Of course,” he replied immediately, pulling out a volume of the Talmudic Tractate Baba Bathra and expertly turning to the chapter entitled Yesh Nohalin. He pointed to the Tosafot commentary. “This is the most difficult Tosafot in the entire Talmud,” he said, using the dulcet tones of an experienced Talmud teacher. With a gentle melodic chant and in a Lithuanian Yiddish accent, he began explaining the text to me, peeling away layer after layer like a professional chef hulling sunflower seeds.
It was midnight, Saturday night and I found myself diving into a sea of intense emotions. I had trouble concentrating on the text. Everything was running through my head, Meir studying the Talmud? Who would have believed it?
“Tonight, you resolved a difficult issue for me that arose in this Tosafot.” I always thought it was about different kinds of lasting legacies. Now, I understand that the holy Torah is our eternal legacy because it never forgets its students.” He spoke softly, barely uttering the words, but crying out from the depths of his heart, with only the study hall walls to witness his reaffirmation of the Torah, several days after Shavuot.
“Would you agree to study Talmud with me every week?” he asked in a conciliatory voice. I agreed.
The clock said 1:00 AM. We left the study hall arm in arm. It was like poetry. If such stories are real, they are very rare. On the way, we met other soldiers who had gone for a walk after the meal.
So far, this story does not have the same kind of happy ending that Shimon’s does. Meir went home and apparently resumed his normal, non-religious routine. He might even try to fortify his defensive walls to compensate for the small chink that breached them, affording me a rare glance into the deepest recesses of his shattered soul.
There is an epilogue to our story: A week later, I reminded Meir of his promise to study with me. We set up a time to meet at the study hall. When I showed up, it was teeming with students. I waited tensely. Five minutes later, Meir arrived. I was amazed to see that he brought along two more soldiers, carrying their weapons but wearing civilian clothes that were far removed from the kind of Shabbat clothing normally worn in our community. Their kipot, too, were vastly different from the Haredi black hats they had worn up to half a year ago.
They went to the bookcase and pulled out three copies of the Talmudic Tractate Bava Metzia. We sat at one of the tables. They flipped through the pages with the professional skill of a scholar, deciding to concentrate on damages that are caused indirectly. Within minutes, they were discussing the concept like seasoned scholars. Three former Haredi soldiers, three graduates of Haredi yeshivas representing various schools of thought, were now debating Talmudic issues. I was unable to study with them. I could only look at them with moist, yearning eyes.
Then I noticed that I was not the only one. All the Nir Yeshiva students, who are well aware of Osey Chail’s efforts and are familiar with the soldiers’ stories, had stopped their own studies, staring in amazement at the three students who returned to their yeshiva days for an hour and a half, proving that the Torah never forgets its students.
One thing was clear—the intense cry emerging from Meir’s broken heart did not remain unanswered.