Friday, November 28, 2008


My friend Nessya lives in the Katamonim neighborhood, on one of the long residential streets that winds its way slowly down south to Malcha. It is a poor section of Jerusalem, but a warm and friendly place to live – most people know each other by sight and greet one another by name, and on Shabbat afternoon they sit on their porches and talk in large groups until after the sun goes down.

Nessya is a Persian woman in her mid-sixties who came to Israel as a young girl. When she walks down her street, everyone knows who she is, and everyone stops to say hi -- not because of anything she has accomplished, but because of who she is. Nessya regards this as a tremendous kindness because she is blind, and as she tells me, "People can walk right by me without my noticing. But they still stop to say hi. Such good people!" One day we meet her neighbor Batshie (short for Batsheva), who stops to give Nessya a big hug. "So, what is new with Efrat," Nessya asks – she knows the name of Batshie's daughter who has been trying to have a baby for several months, and is eager to hear a good report. "Soon, soon," Batshie tells her, and Nessya responds with a blessing: "May it be God's will, please God, please God."

Nessya is one of the most devout people I know, and not just because she invokes God's name in nearly every sentence. She also knows how to see God's hand at work in the world. "It is a miracle," she told me on the day the bus stop was returned. That stop had been outside her home for years and years, which was the main reason that she was able to get to work each morning. She had taught herself to walk the twenty-five steps from her apartment to the bus stop: down seven stairs to the ground floor, straight ahead four steps on the stone porch leading up to the building, down three steps to the curb, right three steps to the crosswalk, and eight steps across the street right into the embracing glass walls of the bus stop. When the bus stop was moved three blocks down, she could no longer go to work: how would she ever find her way alone? Her neighbors marshaled behind her, petitioning the municipality and carrying posters with her picture. The stop was returned, and thus Nessya could go back to her normal schedule. "I have yet another reason to thank God," she told me.

But this was not the end of her transportation troubles. A few months ago, construction of the light rail began on Jaffa Street, which is the main road that Nessya takes to work. Because of the construction, bus routes were changed, and what was once one bus between Nessya's home and her office is now three buses. "Three buses!" she told me in a panic. "That means that three times I have to wait at the bus stop and hope that there is someone else there who can tell me which bus is approaching. Three times I need to make my way onto the bus and find a place to sit, and then find someone who will tell me when we get to my stop and help me off. Do you know how many angels I need to meet in a single morning in order to get to work?"

Fortunately, Nessya met one angel who eliminated the need for any others. Her neighbor Yigal noticed her at the bus stop one morning and offered to give her a ride. Yigal is a tax driver who needs to clock in at the taxi stand in Geula, where Nessya works, each morning at 7am. He insisted that Nessya get in his car, and has been travelling with her for three consecutive days now, happy to be able to help. "I prayed to God to help me solve the problem of how to get to work, and look what happened! God sent Yigal to redeem me."

With the start of Kislev, the month that culminates in Chanukah, I find myself thinking about miracles and light and what it means to be saved. I think of Nessya, whose name means "miracle of God." Though she is poor, she thinks only of her good fortune; though she is blind, she manages, somehow, to always find the light.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Black Dogs

Today I was surrounded by eight ferocious dogs and saved by the power of Torah.

I was jogging, as I often do, near Ramat Rachel, a kibbutz hotel near the southern part of Jerusalem that overlooks Bethlehem and the Judeaen hills. Usually when I run that route, I go no further than the giant statue of the matriarch Rachel who stands tall and proud with two little children clinging to the hem of her skirt. The base of the statue bears an inscription from the book of Jeremiah: "And the children shall return to their borders" (31:16), part of the prophecy about a future time when Joseph's sons will be restored to their land. At this point, I pause for a moment to read these words about returning, and then turn around and head back north.

This is generally a route I run on Friday mornings, when I can listen to Reshet Moreshet, the frum radio station that broadcasts songs about that week's parsha from 8-9am. I time my runs accordingly, ending at about 9am at the shuk, where I buy fresh challot for Shabbat and take the bus home. I run with several items in my back pocket: shopping list, bus pass, house key, some money, MP3 player, and a folded-up Xerox of my leyning for that Shabbat, which I review when I ride the bus back.

This week I am training for a race, so I decided to run on Monday as well. As usual, I headed to Ramat Rachel. Instead of Reshet Moreshet (which broadcasts in the mornings only on Fridays) I listened to a daf yomi shiur about how land and moveable property are acquired. Inspired perhaps by all the talk of vast expanses of land for sale, I decided to run a bit further and head into the fields behind the hotel, which contain 200 olive trees planted in concentric rows. Part of me knew I was being a little daring in running in a deserted field near an Arab neighborhood, but I was engrossed in my shiur and light on my feet, and I threw caution to the wind.

I ran to the edge of the olive grove and looked out over Har Choma until I could run no further, and then I turned around. Off in the distance I saw a dog looking at me suspiciously, but I continued onwards down the dirt path. When next I was aware of what was going on, there were several dogs in the distance all barking to one another and looking angrily in my direction. The dogs came closer. They barked louder. They came closer still, and barked louder still. Soon I was surrounded by eight dogs at waist level, all barking angrily and running alongside me.

Terrified, I remember thinking that it was most important that I not show the dogs that I was scared. I thought about a scene in the most recent Maisie Dobbs novel I read, in which the beloved British postwar sleuth thinks she is alone in an abandoned barn when all of a sudden a threatening dog rears its head. Maisie, through intense powers of concentration, manages to calm her whole body so that the dog, convinced that she is not afraid, backs off. If only I can stay calm like Maisie, I thought, I'll be OK. Then my thoughts drifted to more frightful literary canines, the terrifying black dogs of Ian McEwan's eponymous novel. I thought of June Tremaine's encounter with those savage bloodthirsty beasts in the French countryside in the months after World War II, and I shivered as I always do when I think of that nightmarish scene. Unlike Maisie, I had no way of calming myself down; unlike June, I did not have a knife in my pocket. My literary imagination could distract me for only so long; how was I going to ward off the very real dogs that were surrounding me there and then in that very moment?

The Kiddushin shiur was still playing in my ears; just as I had not thought to stop running, I also did not think to turn off my MP3 or take off my headphones. If someone hands over ten animals all tied with one halter and says "acquire this," are all of the animals acquired? (Kiddushin 27b). Dear me. Given the subject of today's daf, I was not likely to forget myself any time soon.

The next thing I knew, a verse was running through my mind: "A beloved doe, a graceful mountain goat" (Proverbs 5:19). Surrounded as I was by dogs, I was not sure why I was suddenly beset by words about does and goats. And then I realized: This was the verse that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi used to quote when people would ask him how he could draw so close to lepers. "Do you not worry that you will get sick?" they would ask. "A loving doe, a graceful mountain goat," Ben Levi would respond. "If Torah graces those who learn it, will it not also protect me?" (Ketubot 77b). I recited Ben Levi's words to myself again and again: "If Torah graces those who learn it, will it not also protect me?"

Somehow inside me I sensed that with the shiur playing in my ears, I would come out of this situation OK. I thought about King David who learned that he was destined to die on the Sabbath and therefore spent every Sabbath studying Torah; so long as he was learning, the Angel of Death was unable to overcome him (Shabbat 30b). I thought about the Gemara in Sotah which interprets the verse: "When you walk it will guide you" (Proverbs 6:23) to mean that Torah protects us wherever we walk in this world (21a). Is Torah not a tree of life to those who cling fast to it? The olive trees around me swayed in the breeze, as if nodding in agreement.

Just as I was running out of sugyot about the protective power of Torah, I came to the main road at the edge of the field and saw a truck in the distance. I did not want to cry out lest I provoke the dogs, but I began waving my hands wildly in the air, and the truck turned in my direction. The dogs, seeing the approaching truck, immediately dispersed, their barks growing fainter and their heads hanging low in defeat. I thanked the driver for rescuing me, but I knew the true source of my salvation.

My heart slowed to its normal exercise pace as I made my way back down towards Derech Chevron. Next time I jog, I hope to find a running partner (or should I say a chevruta?). And graceful mountain goat notwithstanding, next time I'm sticking to the main road.