By Rabbi Eli Birnbaum, Director of Campus Follow-up-JLE/Genesis UK
I walked up the stairs to the nondescript apartment in Jerusalem’s Pat neighbourhood with mixed emotions… What would I find beyond the threshold? A family shattered beyond repair by the mindless violence that all too often greets those whose only crime was to extend the olive branch of peace? As director of the trip, I also bore the ultimate responsibility for the feelings and reaction of my students: What would they find on the other side of that plain white door?
As quickly as those questions formed in my mind on the way up those stairs, so too did they dissipate the moment we actually crossed that dreaded threshold into the unknown. The Ajami family greeted us like long lost friends… as if they’d known all along who we were, where we came from, and how to allay our fears and nerves.
Ironically, I found myself wanting the situation to be more awkward and uncomfortable than it actually was. “Surely not”, I thought to myself, “Surely a family who have somehow existed for over 13 years without a father who was described as the ‘life and soul of the whole neighbourhood’ cannot possibly be this calm, relaxed and apparently content?! “
And yet, Tzach and his mother Aliza immediately put our minds at ease. It is ok to grieve and it is more than OK to cry. It is normal to despair and human to abandon hope. It is common to question and reasonable to doubt. But life cannot go on unless one lives.
In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak, we read of the attempts of the nefarious prophet Bilaam to curse the Jewish people at the behest of Balak, King of Moab. Time and again, his callous ambitions are foiled as G-d opens his mouth with words of blessing in place of criticism and damnation. And then, in a climatic prophecy that apparently (according to the simple reading of the verse) isn’t a direct intervention by G-d, we are told:
“And Bilaam lifted his eyes, and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of divine inspiration rested upon him.”
Something unique transpires here, abandoning his preferred methods of witchcraft and dark arts, Bilaam decides to gaze upon the Jewish People for what we really are. And what he sees surprises him; surprises him so much that he spontaneously utters those famous words of praise:
“How goodly are your tents – Jacob, your dwellings – Israel.”
I have always been struck by the progression of this utterance from the micro (‘tents’) to the macro (‘dwellings’), and beyond this – by the association of the micro with ‘Jacob’, the macro with ‘Israel’.
We sat quite comfortably sipping ice tea in the Ajami’s living room. Tzach told us of how his father, Yosef, Z’L was shot dead by a terrorist on a road near Jenin, a hornet’s nest of terror activity. He died engaged in the task of protecting his country and, by extension, his family. The Ajami family told us of the immediate aftermath of Yosef’s death, of how it occurred between the festivals of Yom Kippur and Succot, of how Mai (Hebrew for May)– the youngest of their 4 children – was just 4 months old at the time and in need of constant medical attention.
It wasn’t until a year later when Mai’s conditioned had stabilised that the reality of their loss hit the family. Without the painful but necessary distraction of taking care of Mai, the gaping void of their father’s murder suddenly threatened to consume all that they had worked so hard to preserve. The eldest children, Mor and Tzach, were profoundly affected by the tragedy. The advent of Succot and medical emergency with Mai hadn’t allowed them the opportunity to mourn their loss, but now the tears flowed freely and the grief tore them apart.
Aliza and Tzach were unequivocal: without OneFamily’s intervention and boundless help and support, they would not be sitting there 13 years later sipping ice tea with a small group of British volunteers… wounded but strong, hurt but smiling.
Ice tea aside, the most refreshing part of our visit was the incredible attitude and resolve shown by the whole family. Together with an enormous collection of cousins and friends, they had forged a new path of life through the pain. Would they have done so without OneFamily? Could they have pulled through as incredibly as they have? Of that I am NOT sure. What I am sure of and what impacted me profoundly listening to Tzach cracking jokes in perfect English was – to echo noted author/psychiatrist Victor Frankl – that which is uniquely ours as human beings is our ability to choose our attitude in absolutely any circumstance. Without a shadow of doubt, the Ajami family taught us that which I began with: life cannot go on unless one lives.
OneFamily were there from day one for the Ajami’s. They provided counselling, financial support, legal assistance and help with the simple, everyday things like schoolwork and shopping trips that most of us take for granted as routine and mundane, but to a family teetering on the brink of emotional collapse, are invaluable.
And so we sat there, a family of Moroccan Jews with a group of British tourists hailing from herring-loving corners of Ashkenazic Europe. We spoke together, we shmoozed together, we mourned together, we laughed together. That’s when I realised why ‘One Family’ is called as such. Aliza spoke of how the entire neighbourhood came together to comfort them after their loss. Tzach spoke about how his classmates and friends had refused to let go of him throughout his personal battle towards reconciliation. And I sat there wondering, ‘What other nation or people on Earth would fly for over 5 hours to show sympathy and encouragement for people with whom they share nothing in common other than that small, irrepressibly crucial fact that we are all One Family?’
‘How goodly are your tents – Jacob, your dwellings – Israel.’
Throughout scripture, our forefather’s name ‘Jacob’ is used in reference to his struggles and suffering, his trials and tribulations.
It is Jacob who must flee the murderous intent of his brother Esau. It is Jacob who sits powerless as his beloved son Joseph is sold to slavery. It is Jacob who must bear the pain of the kidnap and rape of his daughter Dinah. It is Jacob who must bury his beloved wife Rachel in the prime of her life.
By contrast, the name ‘Israel’ is used to connote victory, the progression from pain to healing, from despair to salvation.
‘No longer shall your name be called Jacob; rather – Israel shall be your name, for you have struggled with the tests of G-d and man and you have prevailed.’
It is Israel who withstands Esau’s angel. It is Israel who gets up from mourning his beloved Rachel and proudly leads his children into the Promised Land. It is Israel who is miraculously reunited with Joseph after 22 years of anguish. It is Israel who dies safe in the knowledge that his 12 sons will grow to become righteous and capable leaders of the tribes.
It is the name Israel that we carry to this very day. The name of a country that faces a seemingly endless litany of political and military trials and tribulations; a country that has teetered almost impossibly on the brink of absolute darkness more than once. And yet, we carry that name because ‘…you have prevailed’.
Bilaam’s micro-view of the individual ‘tents’ of ‘Jacob’, of family units and homes such as the Ajami’s – with all of their pain and heartbreak, their staring death and suffering in the eye, is only one half of the story. Even he, the archetypal anti-Semite acknowledges that there is always another side to the coin: the macro-view of entire dwelling places wherein a group of individuals rally together to become a nation and thus overcomes the pain and banishes the darkness of despair.
That is what stood out for me during our visit with Tzach and Aliza: we are quite literally all ‘One Family’, deriving strength from one another and giving hope to each other. Our whole is far, far greater than the sum of our parts – even parts as superhumanly strong as the Ajami family. Through this, we too become agents of the necessary progression from the downtrodden, bleeding ‘Jacob’, to the bold, triumphant ‘Israel’.
I, together with my students, entered that nondescript home in Jerusalem as an individual. Anxious, nervous and filled with trepidation. We left that nondescript home feeling part of something much, much bigger and more brilliant than anything that exists in the United Kingdom and probably the world over.