Yonatan Cohen

The Debt (HaGomel Le’Chayavim)

It was late last night. It could have been as late as midnight but I would not dare write midnight as only a clock or God in His infinite wisdom could have revealed the exact hour. As I did not have a watch on me, I will insist only on the fact that it was late last night and go so far as to say that it was at about midnight.

It was at that time that I heard a noise from our living room in Jerusalem. Now certainly some might become alarmed by noise late at night. I however was not. Perhaps it was because our door is well protected with a multi-lock fixed upon the doorpost (as with all doors in Israel) or perhaps because I have grown accustomed to my eldest son waking in the middle of the night (awake but safe).

In any event, as I already mentioned, I was not alarmed. I simply made my way slowly to the living room, and perhaps because of the lateness of the hour, I was not terribly surprised, or even surprised at all for that matter, by the sight of my great grandmother sitting quietly on the living room coach.

Now, I have never met Nona Luna before in my life for she departed from this world long before I had arrived. Still, I recognized her immediately from the photo of her and Nono Vita (of blessed memory) that hangs in my own Nona Sara (their daughter) and Nono Meir’s (their son-n-law) living room, may they both be well and live in good health till a hundred and twenty.

While I was not surprised, I still did not know what to expect, though I had always imagined that Nona Luna, whose name means the moon, would glow gently, as she actually did on the night that we met. In any event, not knowing what to expect, I remained silent, waiting patiently for her to give a sign.

“The great Chacham Najar, and in Hebrew Nagar, of our beloved community in Egypt…” she began saying.

This further assured me that this was in fact Nona Luna, for I had heard the name of Chacham Najar many times before. My Nona and Nono spoke reverently of him, though Nono once joked that his family’s name was Nagar because like all Jews, he was bound to always be Na (displaced) va’Gar (and resettled again). So was the fate of our ancestors before the Holy One finally took mercy upon our people, after the great Enemy took a third of our people away, and allowed us to return to the land of our fathers.

“Chacham Najar had once taught us in his great wisdom that Birkat HaGomel, the blessing of gratitude for having one’s life be spared, should ideally be recited within three days of one’s salvation, when the heart is still pounding within one’s chest with fear and trepidation and the soul is filled with spontaneous recognition of the Holy One’s great compassion. Still, if three days have past and one did not recite the blessing, one remains obligated to recite it all the days of his life. This, Chacham Najar explained, was based on the sages’ teaching that the sacrifice of gratitude would still be offered to the Holy One in the days of Messiah (may he hasten to come) while all other sacrifices would be nullified from this world at that time, for one’s debt of gratitude is everlasting.”

“In addition, it is also taught that a person must never only praise the Holy One but also His messengers in this world for it is taught that one who neglects to thank the wine pourer at a feast will ultimately come to neglect thanking the host as well.”

Nona Luna proceeded to tell me a story that I have come to know quite well, as though it had happened to me. It is a story that I hope to tell my children one day in great length and detail, as well as to you, for it is meritorious to recount it thus. And yet, I cannot do so on this night (except to mention here key parts that pertain directly to what I had understood to be Nona Luna’s main message to me).

In 1955 Nona Luna and Nono Vita, may they rest in peace, were accused of espionage for the Zionist State by the Egyptian authorities which in turn forced Nona Luna and Nono Vita out of the country that same night. Now at that time, Jews (and for that matter, anyone) could not travel directly from Egypt to our ancestral land (for the two countries were enemy states). It was only through the grace of the Holy One, and through His messengers in this world, that Nono Vita and Nona Luna were permitted to travel to Italy that very night, where they were welcomed as refugees until (and not long before) they were welcomed to Israel as Beney Makom (like children at their father’s home). (Only a year later, my mother, her three siblings, and her parents, my own Nona Sara and Nono Meir, made a similar journey from Egypt to Italy, as refugees, and from there, to the place of their fathers. This story too must be recounted in great length and detail, for that too is meritorious).

Now this then contained the message of Nona Luna. She had come to speak to me of this debt. A blessing of gratitude had not yet been formerly expressed to the wine pourer or the host, for in truth, the wine was still being drunk, even to this very day, and so it is certain that hope is not yet lost (for the guest, the servant, or the host).

May the One who bestowed goodness upon us, who are liable to be guilty ourselves, continue to bestow goodness upon us and others. Sela.

About the Author
Yonatan Cohen serves as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a thriving Orthodox community in Berkeley, CA. He is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and North America as well as a lecturer for the Wexner Foundation.