Nissim was a brilliant kid. Or at least that was what everyone was telling me in the week leading up to our appointment.
By now I’d heard from his mother, his father, and his Rosh Yeshivah. Apparently he was also loving, kind, peaceful, and a great learner. His younger brother Sasson–who I’d helped out a few months earlier–also called to confirm that Nissim had wonderful middot .
No one had any concerns about any specific symptoms and Nissim sounded about as straight-edge a bochur (yeshiva student) as you could imagine. No Motzi Shabbos excursions in Tel Aviv, no smoking cigarettes, and nothing else off-the-derech-ish that anyone could frown on.
“That’s why there’s a problem that he’s leaving Yeshivah,” said his father. “This is a good kid and he doesn’t need to prove anything to any one,” said his mother. “Frankly Dr. Freedman, he’s clearly one of our top bochurim and an amazing learner so it’s kind of a crazy thing to quit now,” said his Rosh Yeshivah.
His brother Sasson had a bit more insight and told me, “He says it’s also important to join the army but that he understands if I don’t understand. But he also knows that everyone thinks he’s crazy for doing it which is why they called you,” Sasson told me.
The suspense was killing me by the time Nissim walked into my office. He was a tall, well-groomed, bochur wearing a standard black suit and a hat which he took off and placed on the table next to the chair. He introduced himself formally and asked to sit.
“You know I’m not crazy for wanting to join the army, don’t you Dr. Freedman?” he firmly stated in a half-quizzical tone.
By now, I was used to a number of individuals who sought me out as a psychiatrist to help them defer army service due to mental illness. What was new about Nissim’s case was that everyone else thought he’d gone bonkers but the patient himself.
“I didn’t say you were anything Nissim, I just met you 20 seconds ago.”
“Ok fine, Dr. Freedman,” he said. “Sorry to get a bit defensive.”
“It’s just that everyone thinks you’re nuts for leaving Yeshivah for the army and you’re tired of hearing it. Now they pulled out all of the stops and sent you to a shrink to see if I thought you were off your rocker, or maybe to try and convince you otherwise when it came to enlisting?” I took a deep breath after that long one.
Nissim nodded in agreement, “pretty much I guess.”
“Ok so let’s assume you’re a perfectly-sane Yeshivah bochur. Actually scratch that one, let’s suppose you’re an exceptional, brilliant, wonderful Yeshivah bochur who’s been impressing everyone in Yerushalayim for 3 years now. And then instead of telling your Rosh Yeshivah that you’re ready for shidduchim and to join the Kollel, you tell him you’re about to join the army?”
“Yep,” he agreed again, “that’s kind of how it went.”
“Well it’s not the standard path. So what’s your story?” I asked.
“Did you ever lose someone to terrorism, Dr. Freedman?”
I wasn’t expecting this question from Nissim and was surprised that I answered it as frankly as I did, “Yeah, a friend from college way back in the 9/11 attacks.”
“I’m sorry to hear that Dr. Freedman,” Nissim responded. “I lost someone too, a cousin, well not my cousin but my Babanjun’s cousin’s son, my Grandfather’s favorite cousin’s youngest boy.”
“I’m so sorry you lost him Nissim.”
“I remember hearing that there was a stabbing attack downtown and then finding out it was Mordechai who I’d been with so many Shabatot. And then the funeral and the shiva. It was awful and I was heartbroken as we’d had so many good times together. And then I remember seeing Achmadinejad smiling on the newspaper talking about ‘Zionist Occupiers.’ I was so angry that I couldn’t focus on my learning for a month. Until I decided that I’d do my best to stop it from happening again.”
“How are you going to do that in the army? Even in the best case scenario, one more kid with a gun can’t necessarily stop terrorism.”
“I’m not getting a gun, Dr. Freedman, I’m going to be joining military intelligence.”
“Like the Mossad?”
“If that’s where they need me, then sure. Remember I grew up speaking Persian in my house and picked up fluent Arabic easy over the past few years here. Learning Torah is amazing but military intelligence needs people like me. It’s pikuach nefesh (saving lives)!”
He had a great point and I wanted to hear him out.
“I’m still frum, Dr. Freedman. I love learning and being in Yeshivah, don’t get me wrong, I just think about the talents that Hashem gave me. I have a really good head for languages and I want to help save as many Jewish lives as possible. The Persians, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria…the whole world out here is basically trying to wipe us out. Joining the army as a soldier and watching over a base somewhere outside of Beer Sheva is a mitzvah, don’t get me wrong, but doing military intelligence could help save lives on a massive scale. I feel like not doing it would be a waste of the tools that I’ve been blessed with. And I can’t stand to hear about any more lives being lost.”
“You’ve done your best to win me over, Nissim. It sounds like a tremendous mitzvah in many ways,” I said.
“You’re a doctor, right? You know that when you save a life you save the whole world,” Nissim told me.
I blushed thinking about the discussions I had with my own Rebbe, Rav Shimon Hurwitz Shlita, so many years ago. “That’s the only reasonable excuse I had to leave Yeshiva myself.”
“So you get it then? It’s not about leaving Yeshivah, it’s about saving Jewish lives. As a language-expert in military intelligence I could really help protect Am Yisrael. I still love learning and I’ll do as much as I can. Did you know that the Mossad has daily minyanim and a daf yomi chabura (study group) led by a guy who learned at the Mir Yeshivah?”
“I don’t doubt it one bit, Nissim.” That being said it was news to me. But I guess it made sense that there were other smart, similarly-dedicated Jews who wanted to do their own part to help Am Yisrael in the same manner that Nissim had chosen.
“Then tell my family and my Rosh Yeshivah that I’m OK so they’ll give me a bracha?”
“You’ve got to be the one to tell them, Nissim. But it sounds like your sales point is osek bmitzvah patur min hamitzvah: one who is actively involved in a mitzvah is exempt from another mitzvah.”
“Will it work, Dr. Freedman?”
“It works with some parents and Roshei Yeshivot. For me, my Rebbe was a different story.”
“How’d you convince him?” asked Nissim.
“I didn’t,” I said. “My Rebbe made me promise that I’d come back to learn in Yeshivah after I was done with medical school and had completed my training.”
“Did you keep your promise, Dr. Freedman?”
I responded very honestly again, “I’m trying my best, Nissim. Bli Neder I go to back to Yeshivah three times a week when I’m seeing my patients.”
“Do you think my Rosh Yeshivah will cut me the same deal?”
“Ask him yourself Nissim. And in the meantime I’ll tell him you’re preparing to do some amazing mitzvot.”
Jacob L. Freedman, MD, is a psychiatrist in Boston, Massachusetts, and Jerusalem, Israel. Dr. Freedman is also a health care and a risk-management consultant as well as a suburban mountain biking enthusiast. For more information regarding Dr. Freedman, please visit his website at drjacoblfreedman.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.