Tales From Inside The Taxi

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Israel Taxi

We reached our destination, but I was not ready to get out. “Please just leave the meter running and keep talking,” I asked my cab driver. Those words are a dream come true to any Israeli cab driver, and mine was only too happy to oblige. So we pulled over to the side of the road and he continued his fascinating story.

Every time I get into a cab in Israeli, I mine for material, and I had finally hit gold. I was in Israel for a week and a half to celebrate my sister’s wedding (which was quite a beautiful affair, thank G-d), and most of the stories I had heard so far were weak, mediocre, off the wall, or exaggerated out of proportion. This guy was on the money, so I wasn’t getting out of the cab so fast.

When I asked if he has any unique story that happened to him or his family, the first thing he said to me was, “Did you notice my first name?” He pointed to his taxi license which sported the name Rothschild Benjamin. Naming a child Rothschild would not be my preference, I’m more partial to David, Benny, or Avi, so I asked the obvious: “How did you get that name?” And that is when the following story came out.

His great grandfather, Shaul Benjamin, was a trader in the late 1800’s. He became phenomenally wealthy through his caravans which plied the Silk Road, importing and exporting goods from what is today Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Israel, and Egypt. He was a close friend, and occasionally a business partner, of Baron Edmund Rothschild. Whenever Shaul rode out on a caravan, he would ride a white camel, a very rare and prestigious animal, given to him by the Baron as a token of their friendship.

One time Shaul decided to take an enormous load, one that stood to bring in a considerable profit but, naturally, had a high risk factor as well. The desert roads were ruled by no-one and raiders abounded. Shaul set out with 40 armed guards, an especially large security detail, not only because of the size of the caravan, but also because he was bringing his 15 year old son, Daveed (my cabbie’s grandfather). At the beginning of the journey, Shaul mentioned to his son that he wanted him to name a child Rothschild, after the Baron to whom he felt he owed so much.

A few days into the journey, about an hour before dusk, they were attacked. Within seconds, as if materializing from the hazy desert air, over 150 raiders on fast Arabian steeds surrounded the entire caravan. While the bandit’s leader rode up and down the lines keeping watch on his men, the second in command approached Shaul, clearly the owner of the group, distinguished by his white camel.

“Are you Jewish? Are you one of those filthy swine?” asked the henchman. Clearly, he was no great fan of the Jews, and judging by the size of the saber he was waving, not someone Shaul wanted to anger. “No, I’m just a simple caravan driver. Let’s work this out peacefully. You can take everything; just leave us alive, and with a few camels so that we can make it to the next town.” The henchman grunted in reply and then, in one swift motion, sliced open the large saddlebag on Shaul’s camel. Out tumbled a number of golden vessels, some precious stones, and then out fell a large, golden, gem-encrusted Star of David, which Shaul was bringing to his synagogue, to adorn the Aron Kodesh, the Ark.

“You lied to me, you stinking Jew. Now I am going to kill you!” But before he had a chance to carry out his words, one of Shaul’s soldiers shot him. That signaled the start of the shooting melee. Greatly outnumbered, Shaul’s forces fell quickly, and Shaul along with them. Suddenly, a fierce sandstorm started up. The raiders grabbed whatever they could and then, as quickly as they had appeared, they vanished back into the desert.

Daveed woke up in an unfamiliar tent. He looked around and saw an Arab shepherd and his two sons. When the shepherd sensed that Daveed was awake, he quickly brought him a cup of strong mint tea, and assured him that he meant no harm. Daveed slowly started remembering bits and pieces of what happened, of seeing the attack, and watching his father fall from the great white camel. He remembered a lot of shooting going on for a long time, but not much else.

Then the Arab shepherd came over to the rug Daveed was lying on, and explained to him what had happened. “Yesterday, we heard shooting, and were about to go investigate when we were held back by a sandstorm, one of the worst I have ever seen. In the morning, I went out and found what had clearly been the location of a fight between desert raiders and a caravan. Carcasses and bodies where everywhere, and there was still some cargo which had been left by the raiders in their haste to get to shelter during the sandstorm.

“While I was inspecting some of the cargo, I heard a noise, and quickly traced it to you. You were lying semi-conscious under a heavy saddle cloth. It seems your camel was shot, and when it fell, the heavy saddle cloth fell onto you, knocking you out while simultaneously covering you. I brought you back to my house, where my two sons and I tended to you for the past day and a half while you were unconscious.”

As soon as Daveed regained his strength, the shepherd brought his two bags, and presented them to him. He explained that he found them under the carpet with Daveed and was simply returning them. Daveed knew that they were filled with coins, precious stones, and other valuable items. “I can’t believe you did all this for me, you could have slit my throat and taken these bags, and no one would ever have known, or you could have simply left me to die while taking my belongings. Why did you save me? Here, please take one of these bags as a reward for your kindness!”

“No,” the shepherd said, “I insist you take both of these bags. Finally, I’m even.” Daveed asked him what he was talking about, and the Arab shepherd explained. “A few years ago I made some big mistakes and ended up heavily in debt to some unsavory characters. When they came to me for repayment and I told them I didn’t have any money, they simply grabbed my two sons and hauled them off to the souk to sell them as slaves. I tried to get money from friends or relatives, but no one was willing to help me. I came to the souk to see my children for what would be the last time, and began wailing about my tragic fate.

“Your father used to ride through the marketplace like a princely sheik, astride a magnificent white camel, and surrounded by bodyguards. But he was always kind to the people, and he would throw coins to the children who would flock after him. That morning, he stopped as he passed me and asked what was bothering me. After I explained to him my desperate situation, he pulled out a large bag of silver coins and gave it to me. ‘Go get your children back. Use the rest of the money to buy yourself some livestock and become a shepherd. When you have money, you can repay me.’

“For years I have waited to pay your father back for the incredible kindness he showed me, and now, finally, I have the chance. Take the two bags and a horse, and be on your way. My debt to your family is now paid in full!’”

My grandfather made his way back to civilization which he never left again. He used the money from the saddlebags and his connection with Baron Edmond Benjamin James de Rothschild to restart his business, and thank G-d was quite successful. Since then there have always been people named Rothschild in my family!”

In Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), King Solomon wrote, “Cast your bread upon the water for after many days you will find it.” (Ecc. 11:1) Rashi, one of the primary commentators, explains that this refers to doing acts of kindness for people you don’t know and think you will never see again. Even though it appears that you will not get anything as a result of the goodness you do, and seems as if you are casting bread upon the water, you should do it anyway.

G-d has His way of making sure that no act of kindness gets lost.

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.

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