Sunday, March 16, 2008

Don't Assume

I was reminded just now of an image that is etched into my mind all too clearly from Purim, six years ago, and I thought it worthy, even important, to share.

I was carrying a large but almost empty suitcase up the steps of my cousins' building in Sanhedriya Murchevet, having by now lightened the load of shaloch manos tremendously after delivering a large number of them all over. I could hear the screaming and singing from all the way downstairs, and knew immediately whose apartment it was; there was no doubt that it was my cousin and the bochurim from his yeshiva, there to celebrate the chag with their Rosh Yeshiva.

As I made my way up the steps, the sounds grew more and more familiar, and I tried to figure out what exactly it was they were saying or singing. As I walked in, it began to click, and the picture was astounding: There, in various assorted costumes, but all with the same incredible intensity, scattered throughout the room, around the set but empty tables, everyone was standing in place. Some were waving their arms, some were concentrating, some were crying, some were quiet. All were following the lead of my cousin and a loud young man wearing a huge fat suit which made him look like a large balloon who were yelling something. That something was Mincha. And that mincha was not the one you'd say on Purim... but the one you'd say on Yom Kippur.

There was something about this that struck me as amazing. That a group of people - completely drunk - could be focused solely on teshuva on Purim in their state blew my mind. Yes, it was funny as well - they kept going back to the beginning, they kept repeating the same parts, etc. etc. But they were all as one, and they all truly felt whatever it was that they were doing.

And yet, this is not the image that stuck with me most from that apartment from that day.

As I was leaving, I had to maneuver my suitcase around my cousin's oldest son - at that time, he was 19 years old. He was sitting - still in full costume - with his head in his hands at the top of the flight of stairs immediately outside their apartment, and while at first I thought he was merely half-asleep in a drunken stupor, he was in fact sobbing. Sobbing and muttering. Crying his heart out, after a few moments. And this is the gist of what he was saying, through his tears, broken up by sobbing...
What am I doing wrong? How can people say that I don't care!? That because I don't go to the army, that I'm not fighting? I'm fighting the best way that I know how, the best way that I can! People say that I don't care, that I don't daven for the soldiers... I think of the soldiers every single time I daven, three times a day! I cry for them, and people say that I don't care! I just want them to be safe, to come home safely.
I know that this doesn't come off anywhere close to as powerful or meaningful as it did when I was watching him... but it was so moving. He was basically doing viduy over the idea that he somehow didn't show enough care for soldiers, because he was learning - and truly learning - full time instead. That because he was charedi, he must not care as much for the soldiers' welfare.

While the charedi - dati leumi - chiloni divide in Israel is often emphasized, it is important to recognize that on an individual level, there is a positive blurring of the lines that occurs. My cousin inspired me at that moment because he was showing his true feelings about all that goes on, and it was ripping him apart inside. He couldn't care less what type of person each one was - they were people, Jewish people, and that was all that mattered. The lines never mattered to him, and in some ways, while they are obvious to him, they were also invisible to him - why did that matter, why did people care, why do people assume.

My cousin is now married and lives in Kiryat Moshe in Yerushalayim, just south of where Merkaz HaRav is. He is very charedi, yet goes there most nights to learn for a little while and to daven Ma'ariv before heading home for the night. I don't know that he was there last Thursday night, but he is surely completely shattered by what occurred there.

Many people have noted that it was wonderful and touching to see so many Gedolim of all stripes make a special effort to come from all over to Merkaz HaRav for the levayos, then again many went to pay shiva calls to the families. Many have remarked on how it is incredible to see the achdus that occurs among us in times of trouble, in times of need - how beautiful it is to see klal Yisroel come together like this. And it is, it really is. But we shouldn't need tragedies to see this. We shouldn't need tragedies to realize that the Gedolim of this generation care for everyone equally, that they aren't overly focused only on their own. These should be more obvious to us every day, not just times like these. We shouldn't need to see 8 yeshiva bochurim covered with taleisim, surrounded by tens of thousands of people with all different - or no - coverings on their heads to realize we are one people.

So maybe don't assume. Don't assume that because someone dresses differently, they don't value what you value... any more than you wouldn't want them to assume you don't value what they value. Don't assume they aren't thankful for what you do, that they don't respect what you do. Respect what they do. Understand what they do. Understand why they do what they do.

But most importantly, don't assume.