The essence of life

Joseph Aaron

Out of the mouths of Jewish babes.

So I’m in Jerusalem and I’m sitting waiting for someone, when a little Orthodox kid comes and sits down next to me. We start chatting and in an effort to make conversation with a six-year-old, I ask him when his summer vacation will start.

What follows is a virtually verbatim account of his answer, word for word.

“It starts in a week. So then I have summer vacation and then I will be in first grade and then I will have summer vacation and then I will be in second grade and then I will have summer vacation and then I will be in third grade and then I will have summer vacation and then I will be in fourth grade and then I will have summer vacation and then I will be in fifth grade and then I will have summer vacation and then I will be in sixth grade and then I will have summer vacation and then I will be in seventh grade and then I will have summer vacation and then I will be in eighth grade and then I will have summer vacation and then I will be in yeshiva ketanah (the Hebrew equivalent for high school) and then I will have summer vacation and then I will be in yeshiva gedolah (the Hebrew equivalent for college) and then I will have summer vacation and then I will be in kollel (a post college program of study) then I will get married and then I will be an abbah (father) and then I will be a saba (grandfather) then I will be a safta (grandmother) and then I will die.”

Talk about putting life in perspective. There, in one very long sentence, in about a minute and a half, he pretty much summarized the arc of a life. With all the things we focus on and are distracted by and obsessed with and worry about and plan for and have to deal with, he perfectly boiled it down to its essence. Life is about commitment to your Judaism and to your family. All the rest is commentary.

Other than needing a better grasp of how one isn’t both a grandmother and a grandfather, I thought little Zevy did an amazing job of having a sense of what’s before him, that it does end at some point, and what we do in the time we have is what matters. He mentioned that he will die, with no sense of fear or dread, just matter of factly, that that is the end point of our life story.

I must admit his recounting of what lies ahead for him took my breath way. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I asked him how he was going to find a wife when the part of his life when he gets married comes along. He had a ready answer for that as well. “I will go to America and put up signs.”

You know sometimes I think we all, and I know I do, make life way too complicated, look back too much in regret at what we didn’t do, at what we did wrong, too much look ahead and worry if this will work out or not, what might happen. Too often do we look at what we don’t have instead of what we do, at what we wish for instead of what we are grateful for, at what and who we are jealous of or angry at, instead of who we love and what makes us happy.

Not Zevy. He may be six years old but he knows exactly where he is going, is accepting of it, understands what is important and knows that if you live the life you were meant to, death is just another part of life, the final step of the journey.

I learned a lot from that little kid sitting next to me on a staircase in Jerusalem. I also learned something that I already knew. Israel is a very intense place. It is a small country physically and so you’re always in close proximity to someone, and the culture is one where people feel free to ask you anything and say anything to you.

It’s also a place where bonds form quickly, connections are made easily. I am by nature not a very outgoing person, not a particularly social person. And yet I find when I am in Israel that I am Mr. Outgoing, Mr. Shmoozy. I talk to everyone and am very out there. Indeed there is a small strip mall where I frequently go and I know pretty much every shopkeeper and find myself, as I walk down the path in front of the stores, stopping into each store to say hi, exchange a few words, make a few jokes. There’s even one store where I give a guy named Kobi, a hug. And believe me I am not a hugger.

There is just something about Israel, about being around so many Jews all the time everywhere that truly leads to an intimacy far deeper than you have in the United States, that gives you a sense of a shared something that finds you talking to people about things far more personally than you would ever do in this country.

Take Kobi. He’s the guy in charge of making drinks in a restaurant I sometimes go into. He’s normally a very upbeat guy but I walked in one day and saw that he was really down. Normally in that kind of situation I try to get out of the place as soon as I can. Not looking to have an emotionally heavy chat.

But that’s not the case when I’m in Israel. And so I asked him if something was wrong. He told me that he had been going out with this girl for a couple of years but she comes from a Sephardi family and so the girl’s father had called him to his home and asked that since he had been going out with her for a few years didn’t he think it was time they got married, the father clearly indicating that he certainly thought it was time.

Kobi said he did very much care for the girl but just didn’t feel he was ready to get married. And so the father told him he didn’t want him to see his daughter anymore.

Now before you get all judgmental, please understand that Sephardic culture is very traditional and that especially in Israel fathers are very protective of their daughters. He really wasn’t being hard on Kobi, he was doing what he thought was the right thing for a father to do.

In any case, Kobi was devastated. He told me he very much loved this girl but just didn’t feel he could marry her right now. He worked very long hours for very little money and so felt he needed to wait.

I then sat there for about a half hour trying to be of comfort to him, encourage him to talk about his feelings, suggest he give the matter some thought, encourage him to stay positive and to not give up. I did what does not come naturally to me, but somehow sitting in Jerusalem with a  fellow Jew that I really don’t know very well, I felt comfortable, indeed very right, being there for him, being of emotional support to him.

That truly is the wonder of Israel. You just have this family feeling dealing with people. And, of course, like with family, it’s not always pleasant or even so nice. Israel, as I say, is an intense place. It doesn’t take long for people to stick their nose into your business, to be very free to offer advice, feel very free to tell you why you are wrong, tell you what to do.

All of that makes it not the easiest place to live. You are constantly interacting with people and often far more deeply than you would care to. But that’s also what makes it such an amazing place. I will sometime sit on a bench on a busy street near the strip mall just to rest for a few minutes and inevitably one person after another will pass by me and say hello, ask how I am doing, wish me a good day or a good night. Many of them I know from the stores nearby or have met some other way, but some I don’t know at all. They just say hi. Israel is not a great place if you just need to sit and have a few minutes to yourself, but it is a great place if you want to feel part of the Jewish people.

And another thing that is amazing is that you really do feel you can have an impact, make a difference. The thing I find hardest about Israel is that the level of rudeness is off the charts. There is something about the culture that causes people to act in very impolite ways.

Go into a store and start asking the clerk a question and people have no hesitation at all to simply barge in and speak to the clerk as if you are not standing there. They don’t say excuse me, wouldn’t think of waiting till you are done, they just do what they want and care not that you are in the middle of a conversation. People are not great about saying please and thank you, but just walk into a store and abruptly order what they want, get it and walk out.

Indeed, how much the niceties of civility are not observed here was made clear when I made a call recently and, as I always do when I make a call, before I got to my question, I asked the person on the line ‘how are you?’ The guy was stunned. He asked me curtly if I knew where I was calling. I said I did. “So why are you asking me how I am,” he barked.” I’m just being polite,” I said. He was very unused to that, was suspicious of that.

One of the reasons I am so popular at that small shopping mall is that I make it a point to be pleasant, to always say please and thank you, to always ask the clerk how they are, to try and make a little joke about something. And I see what a difference it makes. The clerks so appreciate that I don’t just abruptly do my business, but try to be friendly, so appreciate that I say please and thank you, and I see that it changes how they act. They soften, smile, are more polite. Even those in line behind me act better when they have seen what I have done. I really feel I am modeling proper behavior and that’s a good feeling, a feeling of contributing to society.

All I’ve done is be an American, and Israel could very much benefit from more of American culture in terms of customer service, consumer protections and a sense of what is personal space and the importance of politeness. And all I do is try to act like a Jew, which makes a special impact in a Jewish state.

There is a phrase in Judaism that ‘derech eretz kudmah l’Torah,’ that acting like a mensch must be given priority in our life even before studying Torah. One of the greatest sages of the last century, the Chofetz Chaim, when asked to summarize the essential message of the Torah, answered that it is to always be kind.

And so since I said Israel is a place where everyone feels free to say whatever they want, what I do when I see someone not acting politely, is to go up to them and say “I guess the teaching is ‘Torah kudmah l’derech eretz,’ that Torah comes before being a mensch.’ My point is to point out to them that they are not acting with derech eretz, and that is wrong.

I would never do something like that in the United States. But in Israel it very much feels like the right thing. First because in Israel even those not all religious know so much about Judaism, that they know and understand the phrase about derech eretz, and second because I care about my fellow Jews, feel connected to them and want them to act like Jews should. And so I speak up like an Israeli would.

Sometime it’s important, among all the talk about politics and the peace process and Bibi and Jared and all the rest, to remember that first and foremost Israel is the only Jewish country in the world, is our country, and what an absolutely amazing thing that is.

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