Nisan picked me up at 10:30. A half-hour later Naftali joined us.
Soon we were driving under overcast skies through the land of beauty. The graceful, rolling Hebron hills seemed to breathe in deeply as we drove by, and to breathe out again.
What a beautiful drive.
An obituary would read something like this:
Dafna Meir. Age 38. Survived by her husband Natan, and their six children: Renana 17, Akiva 15, Ahava 10, Noa 11, Yair 6, Yaniv 4.
It might mention that she was a neurosurgical nurse. It might not.
It might mention that the two youngest children are foster children.
It might mention that she too was a foster child.
It might mention that she was a naturopath to whom women with fertility problems from across the country turned for assistance.
It might mention that she was forever inviting troubled teens into her home.
It might mention that as a soldier in Lebanon, she kept watch on the skies above.
It might mention that from the skies above, she would now have to watch over us all.
And so we drove on through the beauty.
Like the blues, they were quiet and reflective, those hills.
I should have known this was going to be surreal, yet far too real. Dream like, yet authentic. Lazy drive normal, in a horror-filled, celestial way.
Naftali sat in the rear seat. It turns out he is from another planet. Planet terror.
On a Thursday evening in March of 2008, across the street from our home in Kiryat Moshe, the students at the Yashlatz high school were singing and dancing to welcome the joyous month of Adar. Adar, the month that celebrates Persia’s — and history’s — thwarted efforts to destroy the Jewish people.
A group of students had gone to the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva library to study. A short while later, Jerusalem resident Allah Abu Dahim entered the yeshiva courtyard to deliver a television. Hidden in the large box was a Kalashnikov. Abu Dahim opened fire in the courtyard killing three. Then, in the library, from point blank range, he methodically gunned down five more teenagers. One of them was sixteen-year-old Avraham David Moses, Naftali’s son.
In 1983, Naftali and his family were among the founding families in Otniel. Naftali taught in the yeshiva there.
Natan Meir, Dafna’s future husband, was one of Naftali’s students.
Naftali knows every turn in the road. Every Arab village. For years he has lived and worked with Arabs. That’s reality. That’s life.
Today, he lives in Tekoa, where only yesterday another teenage Arab boy had stabbed and wounded a young, pregnant woman. Thank God she is recovering and the baby is okay. Her father-in-law was a rabbi that worked for years to foster peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Jews, but that’s another story for another time.
And so the beautiful, hypnotic drive wound on.
To Dafna’s shiva.
We parked the car, walked up a hill to the Meir house.
It was cold out yesterday, and grey.
When we entered the house, Natan was talking about how Dafna had worked closely with an Arab doctor at Saroka hospital in Beersheva. She had great respect for him. In those first minutes, you could hear the deep love and respect that Natan has for Dafna. You could feel it in his reddened eyes. The doctor wants to come to the shiva. Soon the time would be right, Meir said.
Natan spoke of another Arab, Muhammad, and with the interlocked fingers of his clenched fists, he showed us how close their friendship is. “Like this,” his clasped hands said. “We’ve known each other for years. We are the same age, got married at the same age, have children the same age.”
The fifteen-year-old boy that thrust a knife into Dafna’s chest is a member of Muhammad’s extended family.
“We’re good friends.” “Like this,” his heart, his soft voice, and his hands still insisted.
Our drive was behind us, but the beauty rolled on.
Natan spoke of their love.
“We were both serving in Lebanon …and there was this religious girl there who was in the air force. She kept watch on the skies for us …I tried to frequently thank her for…”
“We were in love from the very beginning …”
“When Pesach was approaching, I wanted to make sure she knew what was available for us. It turned out she had nowhere to go for the Seder, so I invited her to my parents’ home in Otniel. I would have to find somewhere else to stay. That’s how my parents raised us, with an open home.”
Natan grew up in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rechavia. His father was a prominent psychologist who, when he retired, moved his family to the newly established town of Otniel. There Natan’s father spent many days studying in the Yeshiva study hall where he became affectionately known as the youngest student in the Hesder yeshiva system.
With unspoken respect for the details of his wife’s childhood, Natan related how Dafna, a foster child, never had a family, or a home. Never a family. Never a home. “She had a small sack, and in it was everything she had. Everything …”
He loves her so much.
“After we got married, and were first enjoying Shabbat, Dafna said, ‘this is the first time in my life I have a home.’” The first time.
There is a Chassidic teaching, ki tachlit ha’briya sheh’loh nidach mimenu nidach — the inner purpose of all creation is that the castaway shall not be cast away.
It’s palpable. The sensitivity. The respect in that home. The love.
For everyone. For the castaway. The castaway that shall not be cast away!
In our house, my wife, who was at Dafna’s funeral kept asking; asking me, herself, God, the heavens, the generations of Jewish history — “What can a father possibly say to his children? What?! What?
After the funeral, when they got home, Natan sat together with his children. “B’yachad, together,” is a word he emphasized over and over again when speaking about the children. “The first thing the children, our four biological children wanted to know was, “are we all still going to be able to stay together now that Imma is gone?”
The castaway that shall not be cast away. That is what beats in the hearts of those children.
The pain, yes. The questions, yes. The fear and confusion, yes. And pure love for one another. The inner purpose of all creation.
And Natan said to them, “Together, always together. We’ll be strong together, always together.”
Natan told us about the attack. The way the media reported it was incorrect. It was just as brutal as reported, but even sadder, if something sadder than the saddest thing in the world is possible …
On the way out, I took a date from the table that had snacks for visitors. “L’ilui nishmat Dafna, May this blessing serve as a spiritual elevation for Dafna’s soul.” The date was sweet, delicious.
We drove home, beneath the still grey sky, through the hills that had beckoned us.
Those beautiful, comforting hills.
As we approached a large new supermarket that recently opened in the area, Naftali and Nisan, both who shop in the area, entered into a conversation about the pluses and minuses of the new Supersol, and the iconic Rami Levi store that already exists right beside it. Nisan said that in Supersol there were few, if any Arab employees. He likes that, feels safer there.
I’m against that.” Naftali said, “If there is going to be peace, we will have to live and work together.”
At the end of our drive, Nisan left me off in Efrat where I waited by the side of the main road for the 160 bus back to Jerusalem. A bitter cold wind whipped all around me. Thankfully, I had worn the parka that once served me well in Baltimore blizzards. And thankfully, the bus stop was well protected by faceless concrete barriers that now also served me well, just in case.
Just in case.
On the bus ride home, for the second day in a row, I jot down some thoughts …
If there is anything I remember from today, it will be the beauty.
Driving down the road to Otniel, through the rolling, wave-like, beckoning hills of Hebron, one can get lost in an almost meditative tranquility.
Nisan had mused, “Feels like we could be driving in Maine.”
Though somehow knowing that you need to be more on the lookout for stone throwers than moose, does cast a bit of a pall over that “is this a New England back road?” feeling.
As stunning as this precious, good, broad land is, today it provided the background music for a whole other beauty. Rich, deep, hypnotic. Eternal.
The beauty of Nisan. A New York Jewish soul, high schooled to the beat of the Mighty Sparrow in St. Thomas, educated at Colgate, that together with Marietta raised a holy, loving, integrity-infused family in Baltimore. Who then fulfilled the dream of a hundred generations and settled in Efrat. And who today, because what else could his soul possibly do, drove through those Hebron hills to the very spot where, in Otniel, all of Jewish history — present, past and future — has melded together inside the walls of an unremarkable house at the top of a short dirt road.
The beauty of Natan. A soft-spoken man who would never presume to be a symbol or spokesperson, but who in one blindingly horrible instant has become — with every story and anecdote he shares about the wife whose love he unabashedly wears on his tear-soaked sleeve — a humble symbol of everything contained in the words: Torat. Eretz. Yisroel. Torat Ha’am, Torat Ha’aretz, Torat Ha’mishpacha, Torat Ha’Shechina. Torat Hashem. Tmimah.*
The beauty of a friend’s hug. The kippa-less friend, whose bond of friendship with kippa-clad Natan was on display for all to behold. Their inability to part without a chibuk, a hug that spoke louder than a thousand poems.
The beauty of the young woman in the kitchen. The one who made sure there was an abundance of peirot ha’aretz — redemption hearkening fruits of the Land — for those who visited to have a bite of, and to recite a blessing as an elevation for the Akiva-esque soul of Dafna. Dafna. Israel’s own fruit of the Land.
The beauty of Naftali. The one who silently approached his old friend and student, sitting there low on his mourners chair, and knelt to embrace him; in love and tears, with a gentle kiss, and silence. silence. utter silence. and the shared horror that only the mysteriously chosen ones can share.
The beauty of Dafna. Once there was a deeply pained young child that had no idea what it was to have parents or family, who grew to be a nurse, a wife, a mother, a foster parent, a woman. The wise, kind, strong heart of a simple, holy, lovingly determined family: here, in those timeless, beckoning hills of Hebron.
The beauty of six children that weren’t in the room. The room their mother had died in just the day before. The absent children who nonetheless filled every corner of that room, while being surrounded, embraced, and supported by classmates and friends elsewhere in their home. Their home of light, and darkness. Their home that despite the shadow of death, I have no doubt, will always be a fountain of warmth, love, Torah and life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life. Life.
The drive is over. I step down from the bus. It’s cloudy and cold and the rain is just beginning to lash at our faces. B.B. King once sang, “The whole world is wrong, it seems.” As a Jew, walking home in Jerusalem, where my beautiful wife and delicious visiting grandchildren greet me with the warmest smiles in the world, I know: The whole world may seem to be wrong, but somehow it’s not.
Hamakom Y’nachen etchem b’toch sh’aar aveilei Tzion V’Yerusholayim.
May the Place:
The place of God that dwells in the Meir home, the place that awaits every Jew in the Land — The Place — that resonates in the soul of us all.
The soul-place of Zion, and Jerusalem.
May that Place that weaves together all — all of us — and all we have ever known as a people: be the source of our comfort.
The symbiotic dimension of the Torah, Land and People of Israel. The symbiotic dimension of Torah and family, Torah and a soulful, Godliness infused life. Flawless.