Monday, October 10, 2016


R' Yoni Lavie 

I first met Barry in the army. A bit on the heavy side, short, with glasses, and very introverted. No matter how much I tried to get close to him and encourage him to open up, I felt that I had hit a solid wall. There was something odd and mysterious about him, but all of my attempts to break through failed. And then one morning we had an unpleasant conversation. I went into the shower and saw Barry standing in front of a mirror shaving. He held a razor and slowly moved it over his cheek. This was the very first time I had seen anybody shaving with a razor, even though this is expressly forbidden by the Torah – “Do not destroy the side of your beard” [Vayikra 19:27].

I thought to myself: Perhaps he comes from a nonreligious family and never even heard that what he was doing was a problem in halachic terms. (And what kind of a name was Barry, anyway? Is it a nickname for Bernard?) I went to him, and I tried to talk to him gently: “Perhaps you don’t know, Barry, but according to Jewish law we don’t shave with a razor. The Torah teaches us that this is forbidden. If you want, I will be happy to lend you my electric shaver. The shave will be just as smooth...”

Barry looked at me with anger in his eyes, and he let out a short reply: “I know that shaving with a razor is forbidden. I do it on purpose!”

I was stunned. Why would anybody want to do such a thing on purpose? I was speechless, and Barry continued shaving without any visible emotion.

After that, I hesitated to talk to Barry, and it became clear that he had a strong objection to anything related to religion or to halacha. Even when we were looking for a tenth man to have a “minyan” for public prayers (and even the Druze soldiers were willing to help us), Barry refused. He cried out, “I am not coming! I don’t believe in all that!”

It took a while, but eventually I found out Barry’s story. He had been born into a Chareidi family in Jerusalem, and his name was Baruch. He went through the usual stages – “Cheider,” a Talmud Torah, a yeshiva, a graduate yeshiva. But one day he began to feel that he was living a lie. He did not believe in this path, he was not interested in continuing to observe the mitzvot.

Barry lived a double life for a year after this decision, but when his family started to suggest girls for him to marry he understood that he must make a clear decision. He removed his Chareidi clothing, threw away his kippah, and changed his lifestyle, far removed from any observance of the mitzvot. Later on, he entered the IDF, where he consistently showed his animosity to anything that seemed at all related to faith and the Jewish traditions.

This story might have ended on a pessimistic note if not for an unexpected night encounter, which introduced me to a very different aspect of Barry’s soul. One night at about one o’clock I went into the shower room to prepare for bed. The room was completely silent, and most of the soldiers were already asleep. Then, suddenly, I heard a cry from one of the shower stalls – “Ah-haaa!” It scared me. Perhaps one of the soldiers had slipped and fallen, and he was crying out for help! I ran inside and found one of the showers working. From behind the curtain, I heard Barry singing: “Ah-haaa, Hamelech! The King!...” I was in total shock. This was the traditional melody sung in every synagogue during the Days of Awe, for the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I said, “Barry, what are you doing?”

He answered like there could not be anything more natural: “I’m singing!”

“Is that what you sing in the shower??”

And he replied, “Sure. There are some things in life that you can never leave behind.”

And at that moment I understood the secret. In spite of the fact that Barry had decided that he has no faith and that he was not interested in observing the Torah and the mitzvot, he still had a warm spot in his heart and a strong love for the melodies of the Days of Awe which he sang when he was growing up. In spite of everything, that was one thing he could not leave behind. After that, Barry’s fondness of the melodies of the prayers and the liturgical poems formed a strong bond between us. I loved to sing them too, and whenever we were together – on guard duty, in training exercises, on marches – we would sing melodies from the prayers. Even our commanding officer raised an eyebrow one night when he found two of his soldiers, one wearing tzitzit and the other who always made sure to shave with a razor, singing at their guard post in the middle of the night – “U’Netaneh Tokef...”

* * * * * *

There are some people who view the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Penitence with skepticism, if not to say cynicism. They say, “Just who are we trying to fool? Why should we make an extra effort in our prayers and try to be nicer to those around us, when we all know that in a few weeks there will be nothing left of these feelings, and we will all go back to being just as we were before?”

First of all, I want to make it clear that they are wrong. If we look at the matter in depth, we will see that we never remain in the same place. We are always advancing, even if it is only in very small steps. And even though we don’t manage to fulfill all of our plans and make a revolution, we should not disparage the small changes that we do manage to make.

In addition, such a question is based on a fundamental mistake. Who said that the viewpoint from which we should be judged is the sum total of all of our actions (or the deeds which we failed to do), during the entire year? Perhaps what is really important are the precious moments when we put aside all of our external posing, ignore all the complications, and say with all honesty, “Master of the universe, we are with you. We want to become better, reach a higher state of purity, become more precise, and be a source of light around us. Please help us!”

Perhaps such moments are few, with long gaps between them, but their value is infinite. That may well be what puts us on the positive side of the scale of judgement.

A happy and fruitful year to all!