Sometimes I think the only difference between psychotherapy and bible class is the text that’s being analyzed. Recently I heard a bible professor named Uriel Simon take the first fifteen minutes of his “Sacrifice of Isaac” talk to dissect the phrase After these things. He spent the next several minutes unpacking the phrase Here I am, and after that invested more time into examining why it was that God needed to use three expressions – one son, only son, beloved son – to describe what Isaac was to Abraham.
Instead of deconstructing the bible, I deconstruct me, and I often feel bad about it. I have the sense that wanting to understand one’s self is looked down upon – a form of navel-gazing – while wanting to understand the bible is looked up to – a form of scholarliness. Somewhere in my head a voice is interrogating me: why must you analyze every word and gesture? Why must you read so much into the tiniest interaction? Why must you always know why? But I bet no one would ask those questions of a bible professor.
The other morning Ronit sent me a text, asking if I could change the hour of the following day’s appointment. The sound of the message coming in, and the sight of her name there on my phone screen, evoked in me something akin to a mild form of posttraumatic stress. There had been a few occasions in the past when texts from her indicated a cancellation – once she was sick; a previous time there was a snowstorm which made driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem an impossibility – and, unsurprisingly, these cancellations unsettled me. This time she wasn’t cancelling but asking if I could come in at 11:00 instead of 2:00. I had a dilemma. It was my favorite week of the year – the Jerusalem Film Festival, which takes place annually in July – and my daughter and I had tickets to see 24 Days. My first instinct, which I resisted, was to forget about the film and write back to Ronit saying, “Sure.” But then I decided to explain why I couldn’t make the change. Together we figured out a compromise that worked for both of us, and the next day I was there in her office at noon.
“It’s ironic,” I said to her. “Just yesterday morning, on my way to see Fania, I was randomly thinking about how much more complicated it would be for you to make a scheduling change with me than it was for me to change my hour with Fania. And then I got your text.”
Ronit indicated that I should continue.
“I usually see Fania in the afternoon,” I said, “but yesterday it was better for me to go in the morning. When I couldn’t reach her by phone I just walked over there and found her asleep in her bed. She always tells me to wake her if that happens, so I did. She sat right up and smiled at me and then came out to join me in the sitting room. But I felt guilty because I knew that the change I’d made reflected my priorities. Seeing her felt less important to me than doing what I wanted to do with my afternoon time. And then after I got your text I thought: I guess I’m less important to you than whatever it is you wanted to use your afternoon time for. What did you want to use it for?”
Ronit seemed to be thinking about whether to answer my question. Before she could, I said, “I came up with two possible options. The tolerable one was that you had a cancellation and wanted to move up my appointment so that you wouldn’t have to sit around here, waiting, with empty time on your hands.”
“The other option was that someone more important came along and you wanted to give him or her my slot,” I said.
Ronit just looked at me.
“Did I ever tell you how my father had a principle about not taking the first table offered to him in a restaurant? He always let the hostess know that she was dealing with someone who demanded respect – someone who would not accept being seated next to the bathroom or kitchen. So yesterday it occurred to me that you might have had more respect for me if I’d said: No, I can’t change the appointment, and don’t put me next to the bathroom or kitchen either.”
After a pause Ronit said, “You’ve told me a lot about your father. His moods. His temper. Do you think it was respect that people had for him? Or do you think they were just plain terrified of him?”
“Those aren’t the same things?” I said, only half-jokingly.
“I’m going to tell you why I requested the change today,” Ronit said. “You were right. It is summer now, people go on vacation, I suddenly saw that I had a gap in my day, and that I could get back to Tel Aviv earlier if you were able to move up our session. With everything going on,” she said – meaning rockets flying, air raid sirens blaring, mad dashes to bomb shelters – “it’s a time to be with family when possible. But if you hadn’t been able to make the change, we would have kept things the way they were.”
I listened to her like the reasonable adult I was, while also recognizing the flicker of pain I felt when she referred to her family, to the fact that she wanted to be with them, to the fact that she’d be going back to her home in Tel Aviv where she now lived. My body, or what she referred to as the “felt sense,” reacted with a physical sensation of hurt, while my mind said to me: She allows you your family; why can’t you allow her hers? Why must you be so possessive?
“So, the film I saw this morning,” I said to Ronit. “It was almost too painful to watch. It bordered on the unbearable. It was about this French Jewish boy, Ilan Halimi, who was abducted in Paris in 2006 by the Gang of Barbarians – that’s actually what they were called – and then tortured for 24 days. That poor boy! His poor mother! I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you. I can’t even talk about it.”
“I wonder why you would have picked that film of all films to see,” Ronit said. “You don’t feel enough suffering around you these days?”
“The mother,” I continued. “Ruth Halimi. Eventually, she got the French police to recognize that what happened to her son was an anti-Semitic crime, not just a regular crime, the way they’d said it was. The barbarians were specifically looking for a Jew; they admitted it; they thought they could get a big ransom. The truth didn’t bring her son back to life, but maybe it changed something about his death.”
“Gave meaning to it,” Ronit suggested, and it occurred to me that Ruth Halimi had deconstructed the text. She had proven that her son – her one son, her only son, her beloved son – had died because he was a Jew . . .
“Towards the end of the screening,” I said, “a fight broke out in the audience. Someone was talking on a cell phone, and someone else couldn’t take it anymore. He must have knocked it out of the other guy’s hand. A brawl ensued. Hate on the screen. Hate in the audience. Hate everywhere. It’s getting to be too much.”
Ronit nodded in agreement. We occupied different roles in her office, but in real life, we were the same. We were all running down to bomb shelters. We were all objects of hate.