Once, we were so innocent, we believed in miracles. When bread came in whole white loaves, stocked wrapperless in the market’s wooden pantry and the owner, standing behind his counter, would peel back the red plastic from the only block of cheese he stocked, slicing off the number of grams requested.
There was still a wait for a telephone landline, but we still believed in miracles. Television ended early, and in Jerusalem, at least, we might catch a movie broadcast from Jordan. There were still some buses with an overhead, horizontal cord to let the bus driver know that someone wanted to get off at the next stop. He would still accordion the doors open with the long, metal lever which rested to the right of the boxy leather bag holding those thinner than paper tickets ready to be deftly torn off for each new passenger. And so innocent we were that we still believed in miracles.
When my son was a few months shy of 2-years-old, he climbed up on the back of a neighbor’s couch. As they had only older children, it had been pushed against an open second story window. My son went up and out. He fell to the earth, landed on his diaper. His howling was accompanied by the screams of the downstairs neighbor who first thought that a doll had been tossed from above. We spent the afternoon and night watching him hooked up to all sorts of monitors in a hospital crib, as the doctors shook their heads — barely believing that he couldn’t have suffered some type of injury — despite finding nothing more than a few scratches. “A miracle,” they said.
Once, we were so innocent, we believed in miracles.
Fourteen years later, and 14 years ago, this boy who had bounced like Tigger after a 30-foot fall, now a serious teen, sat in his yeshiva library. Studying away, while his friends prepared for a party. There, crouched among the holy books, he was shot to death by a Hamas terrorist.
Rav Yisrael Gustman was the only rabbinic judge from Vilna to survive the Nazi genocide. He was witness to horrors upon horrors, yet survived. After the war, the then-chief rabbi of Israel, grandfather of our President Herzog, met with him. After hearing all that had befallen him, Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog simply exclaimed, “Miraculous!”
“No, I don’t think so,” replied Rav Gustman. He listed some more of the horrors that he had seen: how women had watched their murdered children heaped onto trucks with their own eyes; how some, desiring to end their misery of starvation had taunted Nazi soldiers only to be ignored, while others were summarily shot for no offense; how thousands of those who survived the death camps died of disease shortly after liberation.
“No, there were no miracles, just an inscrutable heavenly decree.” Rav Herzog’s response was not recorded.
Once, when public phones took those funny pierced asimonim and Israelis cracked their sunflower seeds while at the movies, we were so innocent that we believed in miracles.
I remember looking down into my son’s grave as my neighbor from the hevra kaddisha (burial society), hip-deep in the earth, so gently slipped him out of the white Zaka body-bag in which he had spent the night. I remember the letters that complete strangers wrote us as we sat shiva and the teenage girls from One Family who would visit my young daughters to bake cookies with them.
I watch each year, my heart too freshly re-wounded to fully join in, as the mists of mourning part into the unbridled exuberance of Independence Day. And as I listen to the music and see the streets fill with celebration, even though I know that Rav Gustman was right, I really can’t help myself. No more innocence, but I still believe.