The Great Escape
He was 86 years old, driving carefully when a car full of teenagers swerved directly in front of him. He had to think quickly: Traffic in the opposite direction was heavy, so he swung the car sharply to the right onto the shoulder, thinking better he should hit a tree and die than smash into the car ahead and hurt a bunch of young kids. Just at that moment, a young boy shot onto the shoulder of the road from his backyard right in front of the man’s car. The car hit the boy and killed him.
The police carefully listened to the numerous eyewitnesses and determined that there was nothing else the man could have done. It was clearly not his fault. They did not file any charges.
His 23 year old rabbi came to visit him in the hospital where he was being treated for broken bones and ribs. “Rabbi, you’re just a kid, but I hope you can hear what I’m saying to you: I want you to pray for me to die! How can I keep on living after I killed a child? Everyone is going to look at me from now on as ‘the guy who killed a kid. Please, Rabbi, pray as I asked.””
The rabbi knew that the boy’s parents had come to the hospital to assure him that he was not at fault. In fact, they were busy blaming themselves for not watching their son more carefully. This was not a time for the rabbi to assure the man that he was not at fault. He felt responsible.
The rabbi also knew that the man was correct when he believed that no one would ever look at him in the same way. He had overheard some of the men at the morning service commenting, “Maybe he was too old to drive.”
“Mr. M, I won’t pray for you to die. It won’t help you. People will remember you as the man who killed a kid. They’ll even expect me to speak about the story at your funeral. I want you to go away to Yeshiva for three months.”
“Are you crazy? Me? Yeshiva?”
“Yes, you. Yeshiva. You need to go into exile. And you need to tell the Rabbis and students why you are there. When they stop speaking of you as the ‘old man who killed a kid,’ and start speaking of you as a serious student and a human being with so much to offer, you will know that it is ok for you to come home.”
Mr. M went to Yeshiva. Just after he left, people discussed how he was running away. “He’s nuts!” “He’s crazy!” Yeshiva at 86 years old!” “He hates rabbis!”
A month later people heard that he was quite happy. Two months later people began to speak with admiration of a man who could return to Yeshiva and learn 16 hours a day when he was 86 years old. People stopped mentioning the child.
His wife called the Rabbi about three months later, “Rabbi, please call my husband and tell him that he must come home. He doesn’t want to leave Yeshiva. He says that he is a new man, and happier than he has been in decades.”
He only agreed to return after his rabbi agreed to study Talmud with him every day, and arranged two more study partners for him as well. He arrived a new man. He was respected as never before. His wife was happier.
He took the rabbi with him to visit the boy’s parents. They were drowning in guilt. “This young rabbi guided me back into life. I want to share what he has taught me with you.” He told them of his time in Yeshiva, and then said, “I know that you cannot leave your lives as I did. I want you to go into exile every Sunday, from early evening until late at night. I want you to go to the poorest neighborhoods in the area and perform acts of kindness the entire day. Clean yards. Do the shopping for elderly people. Tutor school children. I don’t care what you do, but go into exile every Sunday!”
They listened. They, as did he, recovered. They first experienced their exile as a punishment. They soon realized that it was a gift.
Mr. M told his rabbi, “I always hated learning because I had such a terrible experience in Cheder. The first week that I was there, I read the laws of the Cities of Refuge, and understood that the idea of exile was not yours, but the Torah’s. You showed me that the words are truly part of a Torah of Life. It was at that moment that my life changed. You’re a good boy, and a very wise man. Thank you.”
“When God, your Lord, will cut down the nations whose Land, God, your Lord, gives you, and you will possess them, and you will settle in their cities and in their houses, you shall separate three cities for yourselves in the midst of your Land, which God, your Lord, gives you to possess it. Prepare the way for yourself, and divide into three parts the boundary of your Land that God, your Lord, causes you to inherit; and it shall be for any killer to flee there. This is the matter of the killer who shall flee there and live: One who will strike his fellow without knowledge, and he did not hate him from yesterday or before yesterday.” (Deuteronomy 19:1-7) We are commanded to designate refuge cities and prepare routes of access. (Rambam, Hilchot Rotzeiach u’Shemirat Nefesh – The Laws of Murder and The Preservation of Life)
I guess there are still ways for us to keep this law. Choose one day of Elul to go into exile. Go to a place where you would never go, and perform acts of kindness. It may begin as self flagellation, but it will become a source of life.
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