Man Plans and God Laughs… A multi-generational story

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13 May 2009
Inspiration
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A young man, who had grown up in one of the more insular of Jerusalem’s Hassidic communities, had a plan. He planned to run away; away from the stifling sea of black… away from the rigid religious and cultural formalities… away from the country where he was born.

He ran away to America and started a new life. He might even have run away from Judaism entirely, but by chance he met and married a pretty young woman from a traditional family who fancied him. So they settled down to start a family in a colorful, south Florida community that couldn’t possibly have been more different from the black & white Jerusalem world the young man had abandoned.

This young man and his wife worked hard and raised their children to be modern American Jews… strong on Jewish identity if perhaps a little vague on ritual and specifics. When their son finished high school he did what many American Jews do; he decided to spend a year abroad on a program in Israel.

While in Israel, this boy spent the occasional Shabbat in the strange world of his Hassidic grandparents. But while he loved his grandparents, he was at an age where adventure beckoned, so he left his one-year program and joined the IDF as part of Nachal; an acronym in Hebrew meaning ‘fighting, pioneering youth’… a unit that splits its service period between working on a kibbutz and regular military training. His Nachal unit was an experimental one, made up entirely of new immigrants from religious (or at least traditional) backgrounds.

His parents back in south Florida weren’t particularly thrilled with this new development, but they figured it was a phase… an adventure of sorts.

So when the Israeli army invaded Lebanon in June of 1982, his parents weren’t overly worried. They simply prayed that the hostilities would be over before their son completed his basic training program. Having a son fight in a war was certainly not part of their plans.

What they didn’t know was that their son’s unit had already completed its training and was among the first sent into battle. They found this out in an unpleasant way one evening while watching a television news broadcast about the war.

No journalists had been allowed into Lebanon, so all the networks had camera crews stationed at the border, filming the soldiers and equipment pouring into Lebanon… as well as the evacuation of the dead and wounded into waiting ambulances at the border.

As this couple sat glued to the evening news on a south Florida station, a cameraman happened to pan towards a stretcher bearing a dead Israeli solider… and zoomed in on his face. Clearly the medics had fought valiantly to save this young soldier, because he was heavily bandaged in many places, though the bandages were soaked through with blood. But the soldier’s face was relatively clean, and entirely unmistakable… even in death. It was their son.

There is nothing for a parent to do at such a time. It is a moment of bottomless sorrow and hopelessness when all plans for the future come to an end. But things had to be done, so slowly they began to make the mental plans for the funeral.

Israel has few hard and fast rules. Almost anything can be negotiated or finessed given the right level of ‘protexia‘ (preferential treatment based on connectedness). But one of the rules that is carved in stone here is that when a soldier is killed or wounded, no telegram or phone call will do. An officer is sent to personally inform the family.

But since this young man’s family was in south Florida, it was many hours before the nearest Israeli consulate was informed and could dispatch a Military attaché to the family’s home to break the news.

When the officer finally arrived on their doorstep, he was surprised to find a family that was already grieving the loss of their son… a confusing scene given that he had been tasked with informing them that their son had ‘only’ been wounded.

Apparently on television, the subtle difference between dead and unconscious is hard to discern.

The overjoyed family joined their wounded son in Israel and pampered him through his convalescence. His leg and chest wounds healed so well that, to his mother’s horror, he was able to rejoin his army unit in Lebanon for many more battles before finally being discharged on schedule.

After completing his service, the young soldier opted to stay in Israel and enrolled at the Hebrew University. When he arrived at the campus for the first time and began moving his things into his dorm room, he was pleased to find that his roommate – a young man who would one day write this very essay – was, like him, a cycling enthusiast, and their two shiny touring bicycles were given a place of honor in their room and used often.

During their time together at Hebrew U, the two roommates took many cycling trips around the country and spent many evenings under the stars, sharing their plans for the future.

But as the time went on, the ex-soldier felt something pulling him in a new and unfamiliar direction. He began spending more and more weekends at his grandparent’s home in one of Jerusalem’s more insular Hasidic neighborhoods. He loved his grandparents deeply… and they loved him as every grandparent loves a grandchild; unconditionally.

After a year at Hebrew U, the young ex-soldier from south Florida decided that he wanted to be in a more religious environment and announced his plans to transfer to a well respected technical college where half the day was spent engaged in religious studies.

Fast forward to a recent wedding in Bnei Brak, where among a sea of long black coats, fur hats and curled sidelocks a wedding celebration is underway. Everyone is dressed in Hasidic garb except, that is, for a couple of aging alumni of a certain IDF Nachal unit and a former university roommate, who stood out from the crowd in their white knitted kippot (yarmulkes).

The young Hasidic groom stood swaying rhythmically under the Chuppah (marriage canopy) beside his father, waiting nervously for the bride to arrive. The groom’s father, with a long graying beard and wearing fancy black Hasidic garb that concealed long-healed battle wounds, looked nervous too. But his nervousness was like that of all parents who have plans and dreams for their children… but know from experience that the future is not theirs to guide or control.

The groom’s grandparents had arrived from south Florida to share in the celebration, and the grandfather… the young man who had planned his escape from Jerusalem all those years ago… joined them under the chupah to recite one of the blessings, while his wife stood off to the side smiling beautifully.

As I stood watching my old roommate and his extended family celebrating this wonderful life event, I was struck by the realization that, despite our carefully laid plans; for escape, for change, for safety, for a trajectory heading straight off into a certain future… God laughs and does what He wants with our lives.

We use terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to describe momentary events along our lives’ paths. But when viewed through the lens of hindsight, one can’t help but realize that our plans must be a constant source of amusement to the One who created the world.


David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003 David has been working in Israel’s defense industry on International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog (www.treppenwitz.com) and is an amateur beekeeper.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.