Sin Offering — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

After Baba Batra 10b

  illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz

“Please confine yourself to discussing your own sister’s anatomy,” Yohanan said as he smeared iodine paste on the gash in Josh’s shin. He used his whole slender arm, moving it from the shoulder, where any other medic would use only his wrist and hand. Yohanan was smiling despite himself because Josh, lying back on his elbows on a scratchy slate-colored army blanket spread over the yellow grit of the Negev borderland, had mispronounced the expletive, as he mispronounced most everything he said in Hebrew. Josh grimaced and grabbed the grimy purple kipah off Yohanan’s buzz-cut scalp. He kissed it, replaced it, and gave Yohanan the finger. The sun hung heavily over the plain to the east, behind a scrim of dust, as if it had barely risen this far and would go no further. Another blanket lay behind them, not smooth but lumpy. Something small underneath.

“Holier than thou,” Josh muttered in English. Yohanan jerked his head and his kipah fell onto Josh’s belly. So did his glasses. Josh handed the glasses back to Yohanan and put the kipah on his own head, trying it out for a moment before giving it back. Intently kneeling over Josh’s leg like a penitent on a pilgrimage, Yohanan wound gauze bandage. Josh picked up the tube of iodine to examine the expiration date. “It better be good stuff,” he said. “That whore-daughter’s mouth is probably full of animalcules. Rabies. AIDS. Hepatitises A through C. Ebola and plague.”

“You’re good to go,” Yohanan said, rolling down the leg of Josh’s fatigues and slapping him on the knee.

“Until the infection sets in,” Josh said portentously. “I can’t believe she bit me. Like a snake.”

Sergeant Eliezer, the only one standing, eyed his friends as he swayed, running his left hand over his beard and then clasping it, before him, to his right.

“What do you expect from them, they’re animals, those Sudanese,” came the muffled voice of Modai. The stocky machine-gunner, lying flat on his back in the sand, had placed his hat over his face.

“And here I thought they were human beings like us,” Yohanan said, packing his medical gear back into his vest.

Eliezer, stepping back from his prayer, sat down to join them, quickly unwinding his tefillin from his arm. “A human being is not what a person is,” he said. “It’s what a person does. King Solomon says: ‘Tzedakah teromem goy; ve-hesed le-umim hatat.’”

Josh looked uncomfortable.

“Proverbs 14:34,” Eliezer said.

Josh’s fingers dashed over his iPhone and had the translation in hand in just a few seconds. “Righteousness exalts a nation; benevolence for a people is a sin,” he read out, just as Gamliel strode over. Yohanan poked Modai and hissed “company commander!” Modai peeked out from under his hat and sat up.

“What was that?” Gamliel asked.

Tzedakah teromem goy; ve-hesed le-umim hatat,” the sergeant said. The expression on his face differed from the others. It was defiant, almost hostile.

Gamliel ignored him. “Sit down all of you. Give me the story.” The soldiers formed in a semi-circle in front of him, holding their M16s between their knees or on their laps, avoiding the gaze of the sun.

“We received the sighting of the figures at 0435 hours,” Eliezer said, jerking his head to indicate the radio set at Josh’s side. “We rushed over to the site, at the coordinates given.”

“We were there in a flash, I drove like a maniac,” Modai crowed, but Gamliel shushed him.

“I want to hear Eliezer.”

“About 300 meters from destination, behind a fold in the terrain, we halted the jeep and unloaded. Modai stayed with the jeep and the rest of us proceeded on foot. Approaching the fence, we heard a clicking sound. I signaled to the guys to get down. First light was just coming in and I saw a cluster of Sudanese crowding around the fence. Four adult males, a teenage boy, and one woman. The woman, as tall as the men, was cutting a hole in the fence with a small pair of wire clippers. I was surprised at how much strength she had in her hands given how scrawny they all were. The four men were gathered around her, looking pretty helpless. She was wearing a kind of ragged smock and had something strapped on to her front, and I was worried that it was a bomb. We took cover and I called out ‘Waqf!’ But she didn’t stop, she just kept cutting away at the fence.”

Yohanan tossed a stone at some imaginary target. “Four adult men, a teenage boy, and a young woman carrying a …”

“Blacks. From Sudan,” Josh said excitedly. “Illegals.”

“Eliezer.” Gamliel said it firmly, jerking the rifle hanging from his right shoulder.

“I called out another warning in Arabic, according to orders,” Eliezer continued. He chose his words carefully. “Then I signaled to Josh to warn them in English.”

“‘Turn back!’” Josh cried, quoting himself. “‘You have been spotted. You will not be allowed to cross the border.’”

“She just kept at it,” Eliezer said.

“‘Halt or we will shoot!’” Josh called out.

“I fired a warning shot.”

“Pow!” That was Josh. Yohanan glared at him.

“The men looked up,” Yohanan said quietly. “But the woman …”

Eliezer cut him off. “The woman slowly raised her head and looked me straight in the eye. She hung the cutter on the fence—the breach was big enough to step through by now—and put her hands on the bundle hanging in front of her. I ordered Yohanan and Josh to cock their rifles …”

“It was a baby!” Yohanan’s eyes were intent on a pebble he was tossing in the air.

“‘Hadal!’” Josh called out. “She shouted ‘Hold your fire! Hadal!’ In English and then in Hebrew!” He looked around at the others.

Eliezer glared at Josh. “Then, in a single move, she pulled the baby out of the sling in front of her and tossed it at us.”

“It was like slow motion in a movie,” Yohanan said. “The baby sailing through the air.”

“It was coming straight at me,” Josh said. “I let go of my rifle and held out my hands, and, plop! There it was in my arms.”

Gamliel looked confused. The shadows of his soldiers seemed to be growing longer, stretching to the west. “She tossed the baby? You caught it?”

“I was covering from the jeep. I saw it,” Modai confirmed.

“‘She cast the child under one of the bushes.’” Eliezer quoted the story of Hagar the slave-woman from Genesis. “Would a Jewish mother do such a thing? Abandon her child?”

“I think it was dead,” Modai said. “It didn’t move.”

“Not so,” Josh said. “Not then. I saw its eyes.”

“‘Righteousness exalts a nation; benevolence for a people is a sin,’” Eliezer reiterated.

Gamliel opened his mouth to say something, then closed it without having gotten a word out. After a few seconds he asked: “What does that have to do with it? What nation, what people?”

“It’s pretty obvious.” Eliezer raised his voice, ready to dispute. “The first half of the verse refers to the people of Israel, who act in righteousness and are exalted by God. The second half refers to the gentile nations, who live lives of sin.”

“Calm down. This is a military debriefing, not a yeshiva,” Gamliel ordered. Eliezer was about to protest but Yohanan gave him a warning look and he thought the better of it.

Yohanan stared at Eliezer silently and threw a larger rock into the distance. “It’s righteous to send starving refugees to their deaths? You know the Egyptian army will kill them, if they don’t die of hunger and thirst first.”

“Did I do something wrong?” Josh pleaded, looking at his buddies, seeking reassurance. “Look,” he said, “I feel awful. But we’re a Jewish state, right? How will we be a Jewish state if half of Africa comes here? Are they our responsibility? Why don’t the Egyptians give them shelter? Why are we always guilty?”

“Yeah,” Modai piped up. “We’re soldiers in the world’s most moral army. When they get into our territory, look how we treat them. Give them food, tents to live in.”

“Can’t the whole proverb be about us, Eliezer?” Yohanan asked. “And about the others, too? We’re Jews, not angels. Sometimes we do what’s right. Sometimes we sin. So do other people. They do good deeds, don’t they?”

“‘Who is like your people Israel, a unique nation on earth,’” Eliezer shot back. “We are different. Even when the gentiles do good deeds, they do it for their own good, to enhance their wealth and power, and to oppress and kill us.”

“Let’s get back to the incident,” Gamliel said. “Wait a minute, it was just the four of you there?”

They all looked around.

“Nehuniya!” Modai shouted. Then he explained to Gamliel what Gamliel already knew: “It takes him a long time to pray.” At that moment the missing soldier appeared, as haphazard as Eliezer was groomed, his beard scraggly compared to Eliezer’s carefully trimmed one, his sidelocks swaying in the breeze. He kept his left hand almost permanently on the topknot of his filthy white knitted Nahman cap, moving it a centimeter this way and an inch that. He still had his tefillin on.

“Where were you during the incident?” Gamliel asked him, motioning for him to sit down beside the rest. Nehuniya remained standing, staring into the sun. After a moment he said: “Where was I?”

“It’s a difficult question for him,” Modai explained to the officer. “He never really knows.”

“We should read it this way,” Nehuniya suggested. “‘Righteousness exalts a nation, it is benevolence, for other people is a sin.’ All the good words for us, guys.” He giggled.

“Shut up and sit down!” Gamliel shouted. “This is a debriefing after a serious incident in which one of my soldiers was wounded. We are not holding a Talmudic disputation!” He pointed to Josh. “You had the baby in your hands.”

Josh looked down at his hands and held them out in front of him. “Yes, like this.”

“She stood there and pulled herself up and started making a speech,” Eliezer said. “In Hebrew. ‘I have lived among you,’ she said. ‘I came over this border, not far from this spot, before you built a fence. I lived among you in a slum in Tel Aviv for five months, scrubbing floors for a few shekels an hour under the table. But my parents remained in Sudan, my brothers, my cousins.’ She looked at the men around her. ‘The soldiers there would come to our village and rape and murder. I went back to get them. Not many were left when I arrived, and more died along the way. These are all who are left. You can shoot us now. You can send us back to die.’”

Yohanan rose to his feet. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and placed himself next to Gamliel. “She wept. ‘I fell in love there. My lover was killed by the soldiers.’” Yohanan pulled a piece of gauze out of his pocket and wiped his eyes. “‘This is my daughter. Give her a home.’”

The soldiers were silent.

“I went up to her,” Josh said. “‘You can’t abandon your baby,’ I said. ‘You have to take care of her.’ And I handed it back. Wasn’t that the right thing to do?”

“She stood there,” Nehuniya said. “She placed her right hand on the baby’s forehead, and whispered something, looking skyward. Then she took the wire cutter off the fence.”

“You were there?” Gamliel glared.

“I think I was,” Nehuniya said. “Although I was thinking of something else.”

“Suddenly, she fell to the ground,” Eliezer said. “Right on top of the baby. I thought she had fainted.”

“And she grabbed my leg and pushed my pants up and sunk her teeth into my shin,” Josh said, grimacing. “Why did she do that?”

“Because you gave her baby back to her,” Modai said sarcastically. “Why should she want her baby? Just a burden to her.”

“Then she got up,” Yohanan said. “She brushed herself off. She wiped the wire cutter, smearing a reddish stripe on her smock. Then she turned back, into Sinai, and trudged off slowly, painfully. The others followed. The baby remained there, by the breach in the fence.”

“You’re such a wimp,” Eliezer sneered. “Maybe we should have taken the wire cutter from her and taken down the fence ourselves.”

Hatat,” Yohanan said. “It doesn’t really mean sin, Gamliel. It’s a sacrifice.”

Nehuniya nodded. “An offering on the altar in the Temple. To cleanse you of your sins,” His voice sounded as if it came from far off.

“Righteousness exalts a nation; benevolence for a people is a sin offering,” Yohanan said. “When we are charitable it exalts us, and when other nations are charitable, it purifies them of their sins. Can’t you read it like that?”

“No,” Eliezer said firmly.

Josh slowly rolled up the leg of his fatigues and gazed at the bandage.

“My blood …” he said. His voice trailed off. He choked.

Gamliel looked behind him. Was the sun setting in the east? “Where’s the baby?” he asked.

Yohanan jerked his head at the lump behind them. Josh rose to his feet, walked heavily to the blanket, and picked it up, together with the small body it covered. Shaking, he walked back and presented it to Gamliel, who stepped back and refused the offering.

“It’s my sin,” Josh said. “Or is it hers?

“When they get to the holy mountain,” Yohanan said, sitting down again, searching for a rock to toss. “God will tell them. And who else to offer up on the altar.”


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