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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Love The Stranger

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A pale young man shuffled into the small Jerusalem yeshiva during kriyat haTorah one Shabbat morning.

He walked over to the bimah, stood next to the gabbai and watched him. He started to copy his every movement. When the gabbai moved his feet, so did the stranger; when he pushed his hat back or scratched his face, the young man did the same. The yeshiva boys were having difficulty concentrating on their prayers. Stifled laughter could be felt if not heard.

When Mussaf began he moved and stood next to one of the boys. The young man copied the yeshiva boy’s every single move – moving his feet backwards and forwards, bowing and swaying. He didn’t appear to be mocking the boy, but he quite obviously wasn’t praying himself. The yeshiva boy had tremendous difficulty concentrating once he realized that he was being watched and imitated. So as soon as he finished davening, he fled the room to release his bottled-up laughter.

Yet again, the visitor took up a position next to another boy, and watched and copied him.

The boys didn’t know what to make of him, but their natural friendliness and hospitality led them to invite him for the Shabbat lunch in the yeshiva. He said nothing as he followed them into the dining room.

The mealtime followed the same routine as the praying. The stranger, who had still not yet said one word, simply copied the person he sat next to. He ate what he ate, and wiped his face when he did. It was as though he had no personality of his own and needed another person to emulate in order to exist. The boys tried to engage him in friendly conversation, but to no avail.

Suddenly, toward the end of the meal, he gave a tremendous wail as though he was in terrible pain. His body crumpled and he started sobbing. Nothing could stop him. His sobbing and wailing continued unabated for some time. When he finally stopped, he plunged once again into silence. One of the boys offered him his bed so he could rest. He wordlessly accepted the offer and lay down on the bed, his eyes remaining open the entire time.

The boys conferred with the rosh yeshiva about the visitor, as he didn’t seem at all inclined to leave after Shabbat. Realizing that the young man was obviously going through some tremendous personal crisis, the rosh yeshiva told them to leave him alone, give him a bed, let him stay, make him feel welcome – and see what the next day would bring.

He awoke early and one of the yeshiva boys, realizing that the young man had arrived on Shabbat with nothing, found him a towel and clean clothes so he could shower before davening.

After his shower he went back to bed, spending the rest of the morning there. In the afternoon he started to talk to one of the boys who sat with him and relayed a strange story of how he came to their yeshiva that Shabbat morning.

He had spent the last few weeks in a very oppressive yeshiva, but he didn’t elaborate as to why he was there. On Shabbat he realized that he could no longer accept the tremendous demands and excruciating criticism of his every move and thought in the yeshiva; he thus decided that he had to leave. But where could he go?

He walked out of the yeshiva and resolved to follow the first person he saw, for wherever he would go was bound to be better than from where he had come. He lost track of the first person he saw, turning his attention to the next person he saw in the street. This happened several times until he found himself in this story’s yeshiva. That was all he would tell of his background.

In the evening he suddenly appeared at the doorway where the rosh yeshiva was giving a shiur and insisted on speaking to him immediately. Realizing the importance of the boy’s decision to talk, the rosh yeshiva excused himself and at once took him into his room. They spoke for over an hour. The young man began to let down his guard slightly to the kindly rosh yeshiva, and started to disclose to him some of his inner turmoil and pain.

Sensing that it was time to consult with someone else who knew him, the rosh yeshiva asked him if he had any relatives with whom he could talk. The young man gave him his sister’s phone number.

Not knowing what kind of reception his telephone call would receive, the rosh yeshiva introduced himself to the young man’s sister and explained that he had been talking to her brother for the last hour. He got no further. There was a tremendous cry on the other end of the line. “He’s talking. Yossi’s talking. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Yossi’s actually talking.”

When the lady calmed down enough to continue the conversation, the astounded rosh yeshiva learned that Yossi had been involved in a traumatic military disaster in his early days in the Israeli army almost eight years earlier. He had shut himself in his room ever since, refusing to speak to anyone. He accepted meals but nothing else. All attempts to help him, to reach him, by both family and professionals had met with futility.

A few weeks before he had somehow been persuaded to leave his seclusion by a group of young men from a ba’al teshuvah yeshiva who had come to visit him after hearing his story. His family, delighted to see him leave his room for the first time in years, had assumed that they would soon hear from him. But now they were beginning to worry that he had not gotten in touch with them.

The yeshiva proved to be too intense for Yossi. When he left that Shabbat, his self-esteem, it appeared, had been at its lowest ebb. He had presumably felt the need to re-invent himself by copying others.

The boys in this yeshiva who had accepted Yossi’s odd behavior without comment, who had welcomed him to their home and given freely of themselves, their rooms and their time without any criticism, had started to break down his reserve. This, together with the kind, understanding rosh yeshiva who had listened when Yossi needed to open his heart, had brought back his will to communicate – hopefully to return to a normal life.

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