Peripheral Vision

Haim Watzman

  illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
When Hanan felt another eye’s gaze on his Android, his first instinct was to tip it to the left to avoid intrusion. His second instinct was to tip it to the right to offer a better view. It was, after all, a fine and beautiful photograph of Yael, and while intimacy demanded a certain level of privacy, pride demanded a certain level of public display.

In an earlier age, perhaps, privacy would have won out, but in an earlier age he would not be gazing at a photograph of his girlfriend on an electronic device in the crowded waiting room of the Terem all-night emergency clinic in Talpiot. Were he, say, a member of Trumpeldor’s Labor Brigades back in pioneering days, one who had been taken on muleback to a doctor’s home in Yavna’el (had it been founded then?), because of, say, a burn on his shin from a misaimed bucket of hot asphalt, he would have had to conjure up Yael’s bare limbs in his mind’s eye and no one would have been able to peek. That body would have been his alone to see. But then no one else would know what a treasure he had and, face it, part of the enjoyment of a treasure is the admiration of those who don’t have it.

But it took only a fraction of a second for his peripheral vision to make out that the invasive but welcome gaze came from the eye of a small person dressed in a long-sleeve shirt, plaid with very wide blue stripes, tucked into brown corduroy trousers with an elastic waist. Above the eye was a black velvet kipah, and the head to which it belonged leaned lightly and lovingly on the forearm of a lean and tall man in a black suit and clipped beard with an open book on his lap from which he was reading to his son.

The boy dutifully turned his eyes to the book, but not for long. Hanan gave him a smile. The boy shifted in his chair and smiled cautiously.

“Tomorrow this sign shall come to pass,” the father intoned, pointing to the page and glancing at his son. “The Ben Ish Hai is talking here about a verse from the story of the plagues in Egypt. But we know that the word ‘sign’ doesn’t have to be a bad thing, a bunch of flies that got in the Egyptians’ beds and food and noses. A sign is also the mitzvot, the commandments that God has given the Jews, which are a sign of the covenant between the Holy One, Blessed be He, and his people.” And he explained how if you rearrange the Hebrew letters of the word “tomorrow,” which are MHR, you get RMH, which is the number 248, which is the number of limbs and organs of the human body, and also the number of positive injunctions in the Torah.

“How do we know there are that many?” the boy asked his father.

“We can count them in the Torah, like our Sages did,” the father replied.

“No, I mean the parts of the body.”

“Well, if you look at a person’s body, if you could see everything about it, you could count that many,” he explained.

“Let’s count,” said the boy, pointing to the photograph on Hanan’s phone.

The father looked. Here Hanan’s first instinct took control, but not quickly enough for the father not to see. He put his hand gently on the boy’s head and addressed Hanan.

“She’s very beautiful,” he said. Which gave Hanan a warm feeling inside. He felt like calling Yael right then and there to tell her. Or maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea.

“There’s certainly a lot to count there,” the father said to his son. “But we wouldn’t get to 248 because we can’t see what’s inside.” And then he said to Hanan: “What brings you here?”

Hanan rolled up the right leg of his jeans and pointed to the swollen and scabbed purple spot there. “Infected cut,” he said. “From my bicycle. And you?”

“Kfir has been wheezing all day,” he said, his eyes on the boy. “We thought he just needed to rest but it got worse after supper.” They exchanged names. His was Shlomi Biton.

“Sorry to distract him,” Hanan said.

“Well, you’re in love,” Shlomi observed. “It’s like the verse we have over the ark: ‘I place my love before me always.’ Although without the picture.”

“We only met last week,” Hanan said, happy to have someone to tell his story to. “But she’s amazing.”

“I’m sure she is.”

“We met in the line at the supermarket, isn’t that amazing?” He thought a minute. “I guess that’s different for you. You probably didn’t meet your wife in the supermarket.”

“No,” Shlomi said.

“Oh, I thought you get matched up by your parents, or your rabbi, or something,” Hanan said. And then he quickly added: “Which is fine with me, if that’s what you like.” And then he added again: “But there’s something exciting about it—you know, the chance, the sense of fate.”

“When I met Mazal,” he shrugged. “it was definitely a roll of the dice. Yes, the head of my yeshiva told me she was my intended, but until you meet the girl you don’t know. In fact, she was working just down the street here, at Bank Hapoalim.”

“Ah, so you’re from this area.”

“Sure,” Shlomi told him. “Went to the Masorti high school up the hill here.”

“Really?” Hanan marveled. “That’s where Yael went.” He thought a minute. “I guess we’re about the same age. Even if you have a kid.” (“Three,” Shlomi interjected).

“You’re a student?” Shlomi asked.

“Yeah, computer science and Israeli history double major, second year.”

“Nice combination.” He looked at his son. “It’s just that I decided after high school that I wanted a life of Torah.”

“I guess that means that Kfir won’t meet his love by chance,” Hanan laughed.

“Why shouldn’t his mother and I decide for him?” Shlomi said, with a deadpan expression that seemed both ironic and serious. “After all, we know him better than he knows himself.”

“Still, maybe he should have the chance you had,” Hanan suggested.

“Why leave it to chance? Sometimes it works, but a lot of times it causes a lot of pain.”

Hanan couldn’t disagree, given some of his previous experiences. He shrugged. “Pain’s part of the game. It seems wrong to me to close off your kid’s options.”

“It seems wrong to me to have a picture like that of Yael on your phone,” Shlomi shot back.

“Why is she naked?” Kfir asked.

“Well, she’s very beautiful,” Hanan said. “So I want to look at her all the time. Anyway, she’s not quite naked.”

“Pretty close,” the boy said.

“Yeah, pretty close,” Hanan agreed.

“You know the Ben Ish Hai?” Shlomi asked. “That’s what we’re reading.” He pointed to the book and his eyes asked for his son’s attention. If you play with the letters more you get RHM, which means “womb,” he explained, symbolizing the love between God and his people and the love between one Jew and another.

“And the Ben Ish Hai says that every Jew is required to perform the 248 mitzvot, but how can every person perform so many mitzvot? So he says that we can do RMH through RHM, mitzvot through love. Because, say, there are mitzvot that you can’t do but your friend can do, and through the love between you the mitzvot your friend does become your mitzvot and the ones you do become his. And so through love we all do all the mitzvot.”

The boy looked intently at the book, but Hanan could tell that out of the corner of his eye that he saw the phone as well.

“Like him and Yael?” Kfir asked, pointing at Hanan. “They do mitzvot together?”

“I’m sure they do,” Shlomi said.

“Ben-Ami! Come in please,” a male nurse in scrubs called out in an Arab accent.

“That’s me,” Hanan said, slipping the phone into his pocket.

“May you enjoy a full and speedy recovery!” Shlomi said. Then to Kfir: “Don’t worry, it’ll be our turn soon.”

The nurse joked with Hanan about bike falls and impressing girls as he took blood pressure, temperature, and oxygen level. He then told Hanan to return to the waiting room.

Shlomi and Kfir were still there, but they had their hands over their faces and were mumbling something. Hanan sat down next to them and soon they finished and uncovered their eyes. Something on Shlomi’s face had changed. He seemed distracted, sad. The boy sat quietly, staring into space, as if he had absorbed his father’s distress.

“We were just reciting the Shema,” Shlomi said, his words spaced more widely than before. “It’s late and I’m afraid Kfir will fall asleep on the way home and not get to say it before bedtime.”

“Biton!” It was the nurse at the door. Shlomi touched Kfir lightly on the shoulder and motioned at the door.

“You know,” he said to Kfir. “In the Shema there are 248 letters. And the Ben Ish Hai says that’s why it stands for all the other mitzvot together, and also for love, as we say, we love our God with all our soul and all our soul and all our might.”

Kfir got slowly to his feet, thinking deeply. “So it is also like Yael’s body?”

Shlomi took his son’s hand and looked straight into Hanan’s eyes. “Yes, it is very much like Yael,” he said to him. “Please give her my love, will you? And tell her I am sorry.” And he led Kfir quickly through the door.

Hanan could not respond for a second, and when he did, Shlomi was not there to hear.

“So you know her?” he said, his mouth dry. And he realized that when Shlomi saw the photograph on his phone it was not the first time he had seen Yael naked.


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