The Rabbi, the Alien, and the Lulav–Dvar Torah for Sukkot 2021

Haim Watzman

An English translation of a drasha given at Kehilat Yedidya on Sukkot 2021

הדרשה בעברית

I’ll begin with a story. Actually, I’ll begin with the same story that Pinchas Leiser told on Rosh Hashanah. His story was about the way the great Hasid Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak of Berditchev chose a shofar blower one year. There were three candidates and Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak interrogated them about the kavanot—the intentions they had—when they blew the shofar. The first said that his intention was to confuse Satan. The second said that his intention was to rouse the higher spheres to have mercy on the Jewish people. The third said simply that he had ten hungry children at home. The rabbi from Berditchev chose the third one.

Pinchas interpreted the story in the standard way. When he blew the shofar, the third candidate focused his intentions on his ten hungry children. But the story can be understood differently. It could be that the third candidate meant that he did not have any intention at all when he blew the shofar. He had other things to worry about. So he simply blew.

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The Green Woman — in “Halah”

Illustration by Avi Katz
Haim Watzman

The rock had a red stripe on the south side and a blue stripe on the north side. But they were fresh and bright, painted not long ago, so they couldn’t be the same ones he remembered from thirty-odd years before. Perhaps it wasn’t even the same rock. Yet the parting of the paths was the same parting, here on the trail that ran a short way up the slope from the channel below. The waters of early winter rains ran swiftly and noisily in the bed that had awaited them all summer. A breeze from the west wafted the mist, drawn from the water by the first rays of the rising sun, up the slope to chill his cheeks, and the steel pressing at his waist.

He stopped, breathing harder than he had that other morning so many years ago. Glancing back, he could see before him new neighborhoods on the surrounding ridges, which then had been crowned with trees and lined with venerable terraces. Jerusalem had encroached on its enveloping forest, but he could see that only if he faced what he knew. If he turned to the unknown behind him, as he had resolved to do when he woke in the dark an hour earlier, he could see only the grove close around him, the oak to his left below, the olive to his right above, and the spreading branches of the carob tree, weighted down with fruit, obscuring the trail marker below to anyone who did not seek it. And now, looking again, he made her out. It was not a dream or a vision. She stood there, where he had seen her decades before, where perhaps she had been stationed at the dawn of time. The green woman.… continue reading at Halah

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Fog — A Meditation on the Loss of My Son Niot in the Jewish Review of Books

Haim Watzman

Niot was a soldier in the Golani Brigade when he died in a diving accident ten years ago. The piece appears in the Jewish Review of Books for Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day.

illustration by Avi Katz
The fog that surrounds me all year grows heavier in the month of Tevet. By Pesach, I can no longer see. It dissipates some after Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, but a cloud remains. Only my wife, Ilana, understands my half-blind groping. For she, too, lives in the fog.

The ninth day of Tevet this year would have been Niot’s 30th birthday. We lost him when he was 20; our last night with him was the Seder. The fog descended three days later, on Friday morning, a day after his diving accident in Eilat, when the doctors at the hospital told us that we had lost him. On Shabbat, his death was officially certified, and we signed the documents to allow his organs to be donated. His funeral took place on Sunday, early afternoon, the eve of the last day of the holiday. When he died, he was a soldier, so two weeks later we found ourselves again at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, marking our first Yom HaZikaron as bereaved parents. … continue reading at The Jewish Review of Books

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The Niot Project in a Challenging Year

Dear friends,

Flexibility has been the watchword of the Niot Project since its inception. To help teenagers who are having a hard time learning it’s absolutely necessary, as we see it, to tailor an individual intervention plan to the individual needs of each one. But it’s also necessary to make frequent alterations, because these are young people who needs change from year to year, month to month, and even week to week. In this year of the Covid-19 pandemic, this flexibility has become all the more important. The Niot Project has adapted the help it offers to a new set of circumstances in which schools and boarding facilities close and open unpredictably and in which students and teachers have had to adjust to distance learning.

Eden Israeli, the head of the Niot Project, told us this week that over the past year the Niot Project coordinators in all the schools and boarding facilities have continued to work hard to identify students who are having problems and to provide them with help. “The coordinators report that the students having trouble this year are not necessarily those who have had trouble in school before this year,” she says. “Some strong students are having trouble learning on Zoom and doing their schoolwork.” As such, art of the coordinators’ work has been to maintain close contact with both teachers and students in order to identify those who need extra personal help or work in small groups, or simply a personal conversation. “Many of them don’t want another Zoom class,” Eden says. “They want to meet face to face.” Such meetings can happen at the boarding facilities, which have reopened, but it’s more difficult at other schools, where not all grades have gone back to school yet.

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Necessary Stories–The End of an Era?

Haim Watzman

Dear readers,

Illustration by Avi Katz
I wrote my first Necessary Story in April 2008. At the end of last month I posted the link to “The Azedarach Tree,” my 157th. At the beginning of this week, David Horowitz, the editor of The Times of Israel, where the stories have appeared for the last two years, regretfully notified me that his publication will no longer be able to serve as a home for the stories.

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The Azedarach Tree — Necessary Stories in The Times of Israel

Haim Watzman

What a father sees from his window in the dark of an October night triggers painful memories.

illustration by Avi Katz

Chill autumn gusts whipped the gaunt branches of the azedarach tree across the road and the wind above propelled ragged clouds across the sky. A pale gibbous October moon flickered in the heavens as the clouds passed; the wan light of a streetlamp lit the earth below it. Off to the right, past the tree, in the parking lot by the jerrybuilt shopping center, a heavy man was shouting at the top of his lungs as he emerged from the driver’s seat of a taxicab. It was a quarter to two in the morning, and Eli watched from a half-open third-floor living room window, having just spent ten minutes singing Kobi, his five-year-old, back to sleep.… continue reading at The Times of Israel

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Thirst — Necessary Stories in The Times of Israel

Haim Watzman

Illustration by Avi Katz
A Necessary Story for Rosh Hashanah: a father seeks out the son he sent away, with his mother, many years before.

Eitan presumed that his knock had been heard because he made out a woman’s muffled voice and the sound of children’s scurrying feet. But the door did not open; he looked back at his Kona, parked just off the earthen road, in the shade of a eucalyptus tree.

He’d waited long before getting out and, when he did, he staggered in the thick, damp heat. He leaned against the side of the car as desiccated greenish-brown leaves and pieces of dull bark fell softly on the metallic blue finish and on the wisps of white hair he had combed that morning over the barren spot at the top of his head … continue reading at The Times of Israel

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We’ll Always Have Paris Square — Necessary Stories in The Times of Israel

Haim Watzman

When you’re demonstrating against Bibi, you can’t hurry love, you just have to wait.

illustration by Avi Katz
Amihai held the border guards in his hard, straight-in-the-eyeballs gaze for a full two minutes. They weren’t letting him and his best buddy Razi past the roadblock. His look told the troopers that he was acquiescing in their orders not because he was scared. And not because he didn’t think he had full right to vault over the barricades and dash straight into the heart of Paris Square. It was just 200 meters up the street, the epicenter of the demonstration in front of the prime minister’s residence. He gave in because Razi was the quiet, law-abiding type, not a barricade buster.

Also, he’d finally managed to get the boy out and on the street after months of quarantine and self-imposed confinement and he wasn’t going to give him any excuse to chicken out and go home. … continue reading at The Times of Israel

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Coronavirus Hike, with Ninja Turtle — Necessary Stories in The Times of Israel

Haim Watzman

Two boys take a hike with their father in an unexpected direction.

illustration by Avi Katz
Gadi realized that the boys were not behind him. The midmorning sun was now high enough that the shade was shrinking on the path in Nahal Kisalon. Gadi’s t-shirt was soaked behind, below his backpack, and a large wet stain was expanding from his chest downward. To endure the heat he had trudged along, allowing his mind to sink into that hypnotic state of half-dream that closed the world off from his mind, or his body from his mind. Now his sons were not in sight.

“Zevik! Tzvi!” he called out.… continue reading at The Times of Israel

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Tikkun — Necessary Stories in The Times of Israel

Haim Watzman

A Shas door-to-door emissary explains Shavuot to a non-religious woman–and tells her own story in the process.

illustration by Avi Katz
Baruch Hashem. I thought you’d never open the door. I knew you were home, I saw through the window that the light was on, so I waited. You were in the bathroom? Did you say asher yatzar? The one I told you to say whenever you finish in the bathroom. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Just let me step in. The air conditioning feels so good. You wouldn’t believe how hot it is outside. I’ve nearly fainted five times this afternoon, going door to door. … continue reading at The Times of Israel

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The Anemone’s Smile — “Necessary Stories” from The Times of Israel

Haim Watzman

A lone flower spurs memories of my soldier son, who died nine years ago in the springtime

illustration by Avi Katz
A lone anemone, petals open to the sky, catches my eye as I cross the trampled lawn in the park near my home. In other parks and vacant lots, the flowers appear in exuberant flocks, patch after patch of red within the sun’s incarnation in green, the smiles of springtime’s return. This flower stands alone, vulnerable to the feet of ball-playing children and the paws of racing dogs. Tears come to my eyes.

It’s the Shabbat in the middle of the Pesach holiday. Nine years ago, on this Shabbat, my younger son Niot died.… continue reading at The Times of Israel

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Previous Necessary Stories about Niot:

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How Should We Tell the Story? — Thoughts for the Seder in Memory of Niot z”l

Haim Watzman

This is a Hebrew translation of my annual dvar Torah for Pesach in memory of my son Niot z”l, whom we lost nine years ago during Pesach. The Hebrew original, in this week’s issue of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah sheet published by Oz Veshalom, the religious peace movement, can be found here.

I was in shock at the first Seder I celebrated in Israel, in 1979, just a few months after I made aliyah. I was volunteering at the time in a development town in northern Israel plagued by poverty and unemployment. The mother of one of the teenagers I was working with invited me to celebrate the Seder with her family. When we reached the Ten Plagues, the son who was reading the Haggadah explained that, as he named each plague, we were to dip our little fingers into our wine and shake off a drop of it into our plates. He warned that we were forbidden to drink this wine because, by taking this wine out of our cups, we were cursing the Egyptians.

At every Seder I had attended up to that point, most of them led by my father z”l, we learned that we took these drops of wine from our cups to demonstrate that our joy at being redeemed from slavery cannot be complete. Even though the Egyptians who enslaved and oppressed us were evil, this symbolic act made us aware that our freedom came at the price of the lives of large numbers of Egyptians.

I was certain that the family hosting me in that development town was simply ignorant of the correct interpretation of the custom. But when I looked into the matter,

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