Saturday, February 13, 2010

An Israel, Tehillim, Moment (part 1)

Thursday: New immigrant task for the day--Mas Hachnasa--the Israel tax authority!

A foreboding mission, my job was to attain the proper documents and permission from the authority regarding the educational needs of one of my children. The challenge was my lack of Hebrew proficiency, my inability to be pushy and persistent and my overall confusion about Israeli bureaucracy. I was clearly in trouble.

The first task was to find the actual office and where to park in the labyrinth that is the ministry buildings. After securing a semi-legal parking space, I entered the building and asked, pleaded and navigated my way to the waiting room for this particular office. There was no signage just a mound of people ambling about with no seeming rhyme or reason.

I was directed to one officer who looked at me, looked at my documents and grunted towards another official. The second one told me to return to the first office and wait my turn. This was going to take a while. When I noticed an opening at a table I lunged ahead and gave my best Israeli greeting to catch the attention of the seated clerk.

No answer.

I 'ahem'ed and said hello. Silence. I used the opportunity to look around his office to hopefully find something that would be an icebreaker for our conversation. What would I have in common with this middle-aged, secular Israeli from a Kibbutz in the south who had a sign of his membership to the Israeli Art and Theater Association?

I gave up and cleared my throat again hoping to get his attention once more.
He looked up and said, "one moment more, I am just finishing up with something." I noticed he was binding some papers together and was very involved in this process. "I am just finishing binding my book", he stated.

His book? What would a clerk in the tax department write a book about? Tax law? How to penalize evaders of tax? Or perhaps a script in some drama he was writing in his spare time.
"What's your book about?", I ask.

"It is a commentary on Torah. I just finished the book of Bereishit (Genesis) and have begun Shemot. I bind it together and present it in my Torah discussion group on my kibbutz."


I am blown away. Speechless. I am also a bit embarrassed. I pegged this clerk as a chiloni which was supposed to mean to me as an American that he was not observant, nor religious, not knowledgeable in Torah and most of all, didn't care about Torah.

I was wrong. This clerk taught me how much. He may or may not have been observant, I cannot generalize. He was certainly knowledgeable, and he cared enough to write a commentary on Torah!
I learned that I definitely have a shared language and culture even with the average Israeli. We may not look alike but there is a common bond.

I collect myself and say to this man that I too am writing a book on Tanach.

"Really", his eyes light up. "What about?"

Tehillim, I respond. And then he proceeds to do something which amazed me until this very day. He pulls his hand back on the table and reaches for his trusty Tanach and says to me the following: "Funny you should say Tehillim, I was having difficulty with today's Mizmor, perhaps you could explain it to me".

Wow! Not only was he knowledgeable, he cared, but he also recited Thursday's psalm 81! And he wanted me to explain this troublesome message to him.

I told him that I would love to explain it to him but in order to do so, we need to first learn together, psalm 80 its antecedent psalm (which I will discuss in part 2).

And that's exactly what we did in the mas hachnasa office in Jerusalem on a random Thursday in Israel.