The sweltering heat that greeted us upon leaving the air-conditioned terminal at Ben Gurion last week was typical of a middle Eastern summer’s night. We had just arrived in the Holy Land (where we will, with Hashem’s help, be living for the foreseeable future) after a few long days of travel that took us through four states from East Coast to West Coast before finally reaching our final destination on the other side of the world. Though my soul was practically bursting from excitement with each step I took on this hallowed earth, my spiritual exhilaration was soon overshadowed by physical exhaustion. The heat was oppressive and the fact that my wife and I were pushing two carts piled up with about fourteen pieces of luggage didn’t make it any better. Tired, hungry, and overheated (not a dream combination), we decided to hurry to the row of taxis lined up outside the building and find a driver who could take us in to Jerusalem.
Almost immediately after reaching the line of cabs (not before one of the luggage carts tipped and knocked the other over like a domino, spilling our various suitcases and boxes all over the place and only adding to my desperate need of air conditioning, and fast) we were approached by a taxi driver who introduced himself as Avi. Though the price he quoted wasn’t the best, it wasn’t entirely unreasonable, and after deliberating for a moment or two, we decided to accept, grateful to be on our way. A few moments later we were seated in Avi’s sedan which he promised would have enough room for all of our belongings despite my skepticism which I voiced vociferously, wary of Israeli hubris and not interested in wasting any time. Indeed, every available inch of space in his car was filled with our many boxes and suitcases – including my lap, upon which Avi had confidently placed one of the larger boxes. He slammed the doors shut (barely), turned up the “mazgan” to full blast, and we were on our way to a brand new beginning.
As we cruised down Derech Yericho between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I made friendly small talk with the cab driver. As a rule, it seems that the first cab driver you meet in Israel will either be angry and impatiently or incredibly inspirational (I have experienced both) without many options in between. Avi seemed to be neither. From all outward appearances, Avi looked like a classic working-class chiloni (secular Israeli). His “monit” (cab) was bereft of any religious markings. It didn’t look like I would be hearing any talk of “Emunah” from this driver, polite and good-natured as he seemed. Although I wanted nothing more than to express my overwhelming delight and gratitude to Hashem over the privilege of being in the Land of the prophets and nothing less than to talk about the shallow land I had just left behind, noting our driver’s seeming lack of religious affiliation and not wanting to make him uncomfortable, I decided to play it safe, and asked him if he had ever taken a trip to America. Over the next twenty minutes, Avi regaled us with a detailed account of the years he had spent in New York and Alabama after his Army service. He told us of the foods he had eaten, the sights he had seen, and, most notably, the large sum of money he had earned as a manager of an Israeli-owned Supercenter which allowed him to purchase his very own taxi upon his return to Israel which he used to support his young wife and the daughter that was soon in coming.
When he finished telling us about his purchase of the taxi and the long hours he worked (seven days a week) to make his living, Avi sighed with nostalgia and fell silent. It seemed to me that though his tale left off in 1998, over twenty years ago, not much had changed for Avi since then. Perhaps after his return from his exciting stint in America, Avi’s life had settled into a monotonous cycle of sleeping, eating, and searching for the time to fill with entertainment and his family amidst the long hours of driving his taxi. Pehaps there wasn’t much else of note that was worth telling. Not daring to break the silence for fear that my assumption was correct, I sat back and looked out the window, watching the trees of God’s precious Land flash by, thankful for the life of meaning and purpose I merit to lead.
Suddenly, Avi spoke again. “You know”, he said. “Some people pray to Hashem all their lives and feel as if they cannot contact Him. But there are some people who are privileged with feeling Hashem enter their lives and shake them to their core.”
Slowly, I turned my head to face my Israeli cab driver, who, for the first twenty minutes of our drive, had not said anything even remotely connected with spirituality or meaning. I was intrigued and mystified. “Nu?” I said, cautiously. “What do you mean?”
* * *
It is said that when Rebbe Nachman of Breslov finally stepped upon the shores of Haifa after an arduous six-month travel replete with obstacles and various difficulties, he took four steps, turned around, and began to walk back to his ship. “I have attained the spiritual levels for which I came.” he said. “I am ready to return home.”
Friends, I honestly feel that what I heard next, in the cab from Ben Gurion to Jerusalem, was worth the entire financial and physical expense of our journey to Israel. If I would have made the trip only to hear the story Avi proceeded to tell me, “dayeinu“; it would have been more than enough.
This is the story he told.
“A few years after my daughter was born, my wife wanted to leave me. I was working fourteen hours a day on average, seven days a week, and my wife felt that she had lost her husband and that our child had lost her father. I was simply never home. Though I commiserated with her and agreed that something had to change, I am a workaholic by nature and the money was very good. I wasn’t sure what to do. While I was supposed to be figuring all this out, my wife moved into a different apartment. I had a fantastic job, but my life was falling apart.
A few days after my wife moved out, I got a call to pick up a passenger in Tel Aviv. When I arrived at the address, I found an old religious Jew, with a long white beard and payot – it was clear to me that this was a “Rabi,” a spiritual leader of some kind. Indeed, he told me that he headed a Yeshiva in B’nei Brak and asked to be taken there. We drove together in silence — I really didn’t have much to talk about with someone who looked like him, you understand. When we arrived at the Yeshiva, the rabbi got out and asked me to wait while he got something from inside. He emerged after a moments holding a small pile of books and came back to the taxi.
“Do you have a few minutes?” he asked.
“Sure”, I responded. “What for”?
“I want you to take me to Tzefat. I need to give a class there.”
Now, just so you understand — Tzefat is around a two hour ride. I had never driven an individual on such a long trip before, it is unheard of! Such a long drive costs hundreds of shekels while a bus ticket costs a tiny fraction of that amount! Still, this was the rabbi’s request, and indeed, with no wife or child at home anymore to get back to, I did have the time. I agreed to take the Rosh HaYeshiva, and he entered the cab once more. The rabbi learned from his books for most of the ride up, but we did get a chance to talk a bit and, in passing, I told him about my current situation. He just listened in silence, not saying a word.
When we arrived at our destination in Tzefat, a yeshiva for teenage boys, the rabbi begged me to join them inside for the class. At first I refused, but seeing as I had agreed to take him back to B’nei Brak after the class and had nothing else to do, I reluctantly agreed. There we sat, me, a forty year old secular Israeli, and a lively group of chareidi yeshiva boys listening to a lecture in talmudic studies. Not knowing even the basic concepts of Judaism, I was unable to understand a single word of the lecture on the laws of Shabbos the rabbi was giving and I quickly grew painfully bored. I began to slowly inch out of the room until I finally managed to escape to the familiar safety of my cab where I leaned back my chair and promptly fell asleep.
I awoke to the sound of the car door slamming shut, hard. Apparently, a few hours had passed and the class was over. I opened my eyes and saw the Rosh HaYeshiva from B’nei Brak sitting next to me, books in hand and a fire in his eyes. Then the Rav spoke.
“Avi” he said, his tone soft but intense. “Tell me something. Does this machine of yours (refering to the car) work on Shabbos?”
I was taken aback.
“Yes” I stammered, mildly embarrassed.
To my great shock (remember, I had just woken up a moment ago), the Rav angrily slammed his hand down on the glove compartment in front of him, as if to punish the car for its sins.
“Wow” I thought. “This man is entirely insane!”
But when I dared to look back at the rabbi’s face, it was calm again, filled with warmth and serenity. The storm had passed.
We didn’t talk much at all over the long drive back, and the incident about my working on Shabbos faded from my memory. Finally, we arrived back at the Yeshiva in B’nei Brak.
“How much do I owe you?” the rabbi asked.
“Listen” I said. “The price should really be 1400 shekel for the way there, the time I waited, and the way back. I’ll knock off the charge for the time I waited to bring us to an even thousand.”
The Rav reached into his pocket and pulled out a large wad of bills. Patiently and with great deliberation, he counted out one thousand American dollars (equaling around 4,000 shekel), which he then handed to me.
“No no” I quickly said. “You are making a mistake! I said a thousand shekels, not a thousand dollars! This is way too much!”
The Rav smiled and shook his head. “Avi” he said. “Listen very carefully to what I am about to tell you and this money will be all yours, rightfully. Today is Thursday. Tomorrow morning, you are going to put on your tefillin.”
“Tefillin?!” I protested, “I haven’t seen my tefillin since my bar mitzva! There is no way…”
“Well then you have some searching to do” said the rabbi, with a twinkle in his eye. “Then”, he continued, “you will go to work. A few hours before sundown on Friday, you are going to park your taxi. You are going to go to the supermarket and buy two candles, challot, a bottle of wine, some fish, soup, and chicken for the Shabbos meal. You will then call your wife and tell her that although you are officially separated, you would like to invite her to a Friday night dinner. At the meal, you are to make kiddush, sing the zemirot as best as you can, and recite birkat hamazon when you are finished. The following day, you are not to go to work – you must eat a meal like just like the night before with kiddush, zemirot, and birkat hamazon. If you do these thing, this money will be rightfully yours — I am not only paying you for today’s trip, I am covering whatever money you may have earned tomorrow night and Saturday. Do you accept my deal?”
To tell you the truth, I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. It sounded like a fantastic deal to me! A thousand dollars just for dusting off my tefillin and not working on a Saturday? It’s a no-brainer! Eagerly, I accepted. The rabbi wrote down the “conditions” on a napkin and handed it to me.
“Deal’s a deal, right?” He said.
“Deal’s a deal.” I replied.
“Good Shabbos, Avi” said the rabbi.”
* * *
At this point in Avi’s story, we pulled onto the block in Ramat Eshkol where we would be living. Our drive from Tel Aviv into Jerusalem had come to an end.
Avi put the car in park and turned to me with a tear in his eye.
“Yaakov,” he said. “I want you to know that since that Friday, for the past 14 years, I have never once missed a day of tefillin. My wife is now my best friend in the world, and each Friday, we prepare for Shabbos together with with our three daughters, all of whom look forward to Shabbos the whole week. My life today is “matok m’devash,” sweeter than honey, and it is all thanks to that “Rabi” from B’nei Brak.”
“Some people pray to Hashem all their lives and feel as if they cannot contact Him. But there are some people who are privileged with feeling Hashem enter their lives and shake them to their core.”
I helped my cab driver unload the bags from the “machine” that no longer works on Shabbos and kissed his cheek. “Thank you” I whispered. “Thank you for telling me your story.”
This is Israel. This is the Jewish nation. These are the gifts we have been given.
As this special Jew drove off, leaving my wife and me standing on the curb with all of our earthly belongings, a year of elevation ahead, I knew, unequivocally, that we were finally home.