“But He Doesn’t Deserve It!”
Home to around 4000 people, Moshav Yad Binyamin was founded in 1962. Originally a ma’abara (immigrant absorption camp), the Poalei Agudat Yisrael built it into a flourishing settlement with a well-regarded Yeshivah. After the Gaza disengagement, many families from Gush Katif made their new home in Yad Binyamin. Belev Echad has been helping the Moshav strengthen its residents in Torah for 4 years.
Avraham Cohen was an apple that had fallen miles from the tree.
Teenaged Avraham loved helping people. You could usually find him doing a favor for someone or making someone else smile.
A bit surprising, to those who knew Avraham’s father.
Avraham once approached Belev Echad teacher Rabbi Uri Masala after a Torah class, his usually cheerful face clouded with bitterness.
“Rabbi, I think I should be exempt from the mitzvah of honoring my father.”
Rabbi Uri raised his eyebrows. This harsh proclamation didn’t match the generous, dedicated boy he knew. “Why, Avraham?”
“Because I don’t respect him at all, and I don’t believe he deserves my respect.” Avraham gave a stormy sigh. “He’s a real deadbeat, my father. I mean, he works, he brings in money, but he won’t bother himself to do anything else.
“He comes in from work, plops himself down on the couch, and ignores everyone – except when he wants to order us around.
“You know what? My mother also works hard. She has a part-time job, and then she has to pick up the kids from school and shop and cook and clean and take care of everyone. But my father doesn’t lift a finger to help. When she asks him for the smallest favor, like bringing in the mail or even taking a drink of water to one of the little ones at bedtime, he snaps at her to leave him out of her responsibilities.”
He stopped, thought a minute. “Actually, I can’t remember the last time she bothered to ask him for something. She probably realized it’s just not worth it.” He gave a humorless laugh.
“Guess who does what normal fathers do in my house? Me,” he continued. “I help my mother with the heavier housework. I help my brothers with homework. I stop at the store and take out the garbages and run around taking care of things before Shabbat.”
He kicked at a pebble on the ground. “You know me, Rabbi. I don’t mind helping out. But I can’t stand seeing how my father treats my mother. She doesn’t deserve all this. Neither do the rest of us.” He looked up at Rabbi Uri. “So tell me – how am I supposed to treat him with kibbud av? Don’t you think he lost his rights to it?”
Rabbi Uri stood quietly. He could feel the pain radiating from Avraham’s raw voice. Slowly, he put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Avraham… that doesn’t sound easy. It actually sounds very, very hard.”
Avraham gave a short nod.
“But the truth is, you’re still obligated to treat your father with kibbud av. Even if he isn’t doing what he should, the fact that he’s your father means you still need to fulfill the mitzvah of honoring him.”
Anger flashed across Avraham’s face. He clenched a fist, then started cracking the knuckles on it.
Rabbi Uri searched for the right words to help Avraham feel ready to accept the truth.
“What’s the hardest mitzvah?” he asked.
Avraham looked up and shrugged.
“It might not seem obvious on first thought, but we’re taught that kibbud av v’eim is one of the hardest mitzvot to keep. Even when a person’s parents fail miserably, even when it seems totally unreasonable to honor them, the Torah still asks us to work on ourselves and treat them properly.
“I know it’s a challenge. But we need to try. You want so badly to talk back to him – but try to hold yourself back. He asks you for something and you want to ignore him – but try to do it anyway.
“Of course it isn’t easy. But I know you, Avraham. You can do it.”
Avraham thanked him, but he didn’t look too sure.
Rabbi Uri made sure to keep the conversation in mind over the next several days. After the next week’s Torah class, he stopped Avraham at the door and asked subtly how things were going.
Avraham hung back as his friends filed out, then turned to Rabbi Uri.
“It’s not easy, Rabbi,” he said.
“I know,” Rabbi Uri responded.
“But I’m trying.” He looked down.
“That’s wonderful.” Rabbi Uri clapped him on the shoulder. “May G-d bless you with more and more strength!”
A few weeks later, when Rabbi Uri gently checked in again, Avraham broke out in an excited grin.
“You know, Rabbi, it still isn’t easy. But I see how G-d must be happy with me. Since I’ve started being more careful with kibbud av, so many things have started going right for me. Some things in school were hard, but suddenly I’m getting better grades. I keep winning sports games. I’ve been dying for an electric bike for two years, and suddenly now there’s money for it.”
Rabbi Uri happily celebrated with Avraham, basking in the blessing G-d sends when a child commits to doing his Father’s will.
Cocoon of Growth
The only part of Belev Echad Torah classes Ariel didn’t like was… the Torah part.
He came because of the other perks – time with friends, good food, something to do. But as the other boys started to connect with the material and even make changes in their lives, Ariel tuned it all out.
He did keep showing up, though. And he stayed respectfully quiet, waiting till the end of the class to cash in on the schmoozing time with his friends. Noticing those two things, Rabbi Uri, the class’s teacher, knew that one day, things could change.
It happened after a class Rabbi Uri taught about barriers to spirituality. He explained that _______.
After closing every class, Rabbi Uri stayed around to address one-on-one questions. Today, for the first time, Ariel sidled up to his chair.
Rabbi Uri looked up, hiding his surprise. “How can I help you, Ariel?” he asked with a smile.
The teenager shrugged uncomfortably and dropped into the chair next to the rabbi.
“Were you talking about me today?”
“Why do you think so?”
“Because that person who just doesn’t feel anything – that’s me. Judaism, spirituality – I don’t connect with any of it. It doesn’t resonate. It feels so… foreign.”
He sighed. “My parents are very traditional. They keep Shabbat, and they love it. Me? I just don’t feel it. So I struggle with keeping it. And my parents are furious. We fight about it all the time.”
Rabbi Uri nodded quietly. “First of all,” he started. “You should know, Ariel, that it’s not just you. There are many, many people all over the spectrum of Judaism that struggle to feel connected. (explanation why…)
While Ariel digested this, Rabbi Uri reached into his briefcase and pulled out a thin book.
“This is called Pirkei Machshava (Chapters of Thought). It was written by a very smart Rabbi, Rav Yaakov Ades. Rav Yaakov does a good job explaining this issue and helping people feel more connected to Torah and mitzvos. Why don’t you look it over?”
It isn’t always easy to get a teenage boy to read a book on philosophy. But when Ariel entered next week’s class with a new light in his eye, a new set to his shoulders, Rabbi Uri knew he’d made the right recommendation.
“Rabbi…” Ariel wove his way through the chattering boys toward Rabbi Uri’s chair. Handing him the book, he asked, “Can you order me my own copy?”
“You found it helpful?” Rabbi Uri smiled.
Ariel nodded. “I feel different. I understand things better. I feel like there’s a path forward for me.”
Ariel got his copy. And with Rabbi Uri supporting him from the sidelines, he slowly transformed. His apathy toward religion started melting. He started connecting with Torah, with mitzvos.
Belev Echad had created a safe space for him to ever-so-slowly get to know himself and his personal relationship with Judaism. Today, that relationship is deep, strong, and ever-growing.