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The greatest contemporary teacher of Judaism is a van driver in Israel

An unbelievable story that shook me and shaped me. The ultimate travel story to Israel.

Let me begin by telling you about one of the worst sins that I committed this past year.

Al chet she-chatati: for the sin which I committed by accidentally insulting a van driver at Ben Gurion Airport.

I arrived in Israel on Thursday, July 7.

When I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, I picked up my luggage, and went out to the arrival area, and as I usually do, I found a van – a jitney service (in Hebrew, a sherut ) – that was going to Jerusalem.

“Do you have room for me?” I asked the driver in Hebrew.

He told me that his name was Aviyonah. He appeared to be in his seventies. No kippah. Probably an Iraqi Jew.

“Here – put your stuff next to me, up front.”

By which I thought he meant: “Put your backpack and your briefcase next to me, up front.”

When we got to Jerusalem, he asked me: “Where is your suitcase?”

My backpack and my briefcase were there. Not my suitcase. 

My suitcase was still on the curb at Ben Gurion Airport.

With this, I had a total meltdown – in Hebrew, because Aviyonah did not speak English.

Aviyonah called me a few insulting names, several of which I deserved.

Then, he asked for my phone number, and he gave me his number as well.

“We have to go back to the airport!” I screamed.

“Lo,” he said. No.

He made a phone call, and a few moments later, coming across the speakerphone were the magical words: “Keyn, matzati oto.” Yes, I found it.

I could not believe it. Someone – another driver – had found my suitcase!

Aviyonah pulled into a gas station in Jerusalem.

He got out of the van, walked a few yards – and he came back with my suitcase.

This was a miracle, especially because, in the brief interval between the luggage carousel and the sidewalk, the luggage tag had fallen off. Even if someone else had found it, there would have been no way that they could have identified it as my bag.

It also meant something even more ominous. In Israel, an unidentified large suitcase left on the sidewalk would have been a suspicious object. Security forces would have surrounded it, and destroyed it. My bag was moments away from being toast.

I was beyond joy. I was in tears.  I reached for my wallet.

Aviyonah said to me: “Ma zeh? Tip?”

“Yes! Yes! What can I give you?” I asked, fumbling with the shekels in my wallet.

He shook his head, and this is what he said to me.

“Katuv ba-Torah…” It is written in the Torah….

He then proceeded to quote me – from memory – this passage from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 22:

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your peer.

If your fellow Israelite does not live near you or you do not know who the owner is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your peer claims it; then you shall give it back.

You shall do the same with that person’s donkey; you shall do the same with that person’s garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow Israelite loses and you find…

Then, he said these words to me:

Anachnu achrayim! We are responsible!

Ah, you will say.

He did you a mitzveh. What a nice man!

But, read and say this carefully to yourselves, because there is a world of difference in one small vowel.

He did not do a mitzveh a Yiddish word for a nice thing to do. He did not do what he wanted to do, because he is a nice person.

He did a mitzvah – a Hebrew word for what he was obligated to do — because he is a Jew.

In those few moments, Aviyonah taught me two things.

He taught me – or, he reminded me — about the elegant, simple mitzvah of hashevat avdah – returning lost objects. It is a Jewish obsession. There is an entire tractate of the Mishnah and Talmud about this. In the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, there was actually a lost and found.

But, it was far more than that.

It was what he said to me: Anachnu achrayim. We are responsible!

These are the maps of responsibility — the moral and spiritual GPS that we bear within our souls.

In the words of Rabbi Yosef in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 71a):

If you are lending money to the poor, the poor of your people takes precedence over the poor of another people

the poor of your family take precedence over the poor of your city;

the poor of your city take precedence over the poor of other cities.

Our responsibilities might wind up being global, but they start with ourselves, and with our tribe, and with our people.

That is why I committed a minor sin that day.

I was wrong to have offered Aviyonah a tip.

I saw myself as a customer.

But, Aviyonah saw me as someone with whom he lived in covenant.

It was the voice of our mutual ancestors, saying in a great chorus: This poor shlep of an American Jewish tourist who sits in the van with you — you are responsible for him.

We need more of this in American Judaism. I do not mean that we should all have memorized the Torah, and that we should be able to quote passages from the Torah to absolute strangers, at a moment’s notice (though worse things could happen).

No. I mean something like this.

A cat was pursuing a mouse. The mouse ran into its hole, and when the cat came sniffing, the mouse said: Meow.

The cat walked away.

One of the mouse’s fellow mice asked him: “What was that all about?”

The mouse replied: “And so you see that it is helpful to know a second language.”

Americanism, secularism, individualism: these all combine to create our first language.

But, it is helpful to know a second language, and that is the language of Jewish responsibility.

One of my favorite Israeli authors was the late, lamented Amos Oz.

These are his words:

“We have inherited a household of furniture from the Jewish past. We must now decide what will go into the attic, and what will go into the living room.”

You take the entirety of the Jewish past and present – and this is how you create a Jewish future for yourself.

You figure out what is relevant to you, and for the times in which we live.

Then, you move into the 3 H system of having a responsible Jewish life.

The three Hs are: head, heart, and hand.

  • The head is about Jewish learning. Study.
  • The heart is about Jewish praying. Spirituality.
  • The hand is about Jewish doing. Activism.

Every serious Jew majors in one H.

You then minor in a second H.

As for the third H, you might not ever get to it. Or, you might. But, it will not be your strength.

Which is perfectly acceptable, because the person in the row behind you in synagogue will have that H, and together, we create a whole Jewish community.

One last thing.

Right before Rosh Ha Shanah, I called Aviyonah. I still had his phone number.

I asked him if he remembered me – the poor American tourist who had lost his suitcase.

He not only remembered me. He remembered the exact address where I was going!

This is what I told him:

Aviyonah, I have studied with the greatest teachers in the Jewish world.

I have sat in classrooms and lecture halls, and I have heard the best of the best.

But, no teacher that I had studied with ever taught me as much Judaism, in as little time, and in as small a space, as you did that day from the front seat of your van at a gas station in Jerusalem.

He was in tears, and he blessed me for a good year.

Then he asked me if he could bless my congregation as well – from afar:

“I send blessings to you and to your community, that you should have a good and sweet year.”

That was from Aviyonah, to all of you.

A good and sweet year, from a master teacher of Judaism.

(Excerpted from my Yom Kippur morning sermon at Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, Florida)

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