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The Song of his Soul

 Yitti Berkovic

This year, when we reach the end of the Pesach Seder, I know one thing for sure: I’m going to cry.

Tears of joy? Tears of sadness? Tears of longing?

It’s hard for me to know that myself.

But I know that when my family begins our rousing rendition of “L’Shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim,” the tears are going to come, fast and furious. And it won’t just be the wine talking. The tears will tell a story I hadn’t dreamed possible, a story that fortified my emunah in a way I didn’t know I needed. 

I’m going to tell you that story because I hope it will move you in the way that it moved me. Here we go:

Sometime last summer, my husband and I decided to make our son Tzvi’s February bar mitzvah in Eretz Yisrael. Even in just the planning stages, it felt like a miracle. I had not been back to Eretz Yisrael since seminary, 18 years earlier. Yossi had not been back since his yeshivah days, 19 years earlier. Like many of you, we’d never imagined we could afford to take our entire family across the ocean – looking at airline prices alone gave us sticker-shock. But now the timing felt right. Everything about the trip felt right.

We would be spending the money anyway, and though it would cost us at least as much as making a local bar mitzvah, it felt like money better spent. Every penny would go toward introducing my children to the land of their forefathers – toward making memories to last a lifetime. Plus, we wouldn’t be doing it alone. Many of our family members were just like us – hardly the jet-setting type – and they were thrilled to have a reason to travel to Eretz Yisrael and join in our simchah. There was only one issue that gave me considerable anxiety: How would Naftali, my son with special-needs, manage a transatlantic trip and such a jarring change to his schedule?

Many well-meaning people encouraged us to leave Naftali at home, offering to pitch in with the babysitting. They pointed out all the things we knew to be true: He needs structure. He doesn’t do well in unfamiliar settings. He hates crowds. How will he manage all the walking?

So, when it came time to book tickets, I began to panic. Maybe everyone was right. Maybe bringing Naftali wasn’t fair to Tzvi. Maybe Tzvi deserved for his bar mitzvah to be about him – without us holding our breath to see how Naftali would behave. 

But Yossi wouldn’t hear of it. “Naftali is Tzvi’s brother, and this is a family simchah. He comes with us, even if it means we plan our trip around him. That’s part of life with a special-needs sibling.”

Part of me knew Yossi was right, but part of me also thought he was making a real mistake. I didn’t tell this to Yossi, but when we boarded the plane, I had a list in my pocket of experienced babysitters willing to spend the day in our apartment with Naftali when he‘d inevitably have his first meltdown.

But here’s the second part of the miracle:  I never even opened that list. In fact, I threw it away almost as soon as we landed. Because from the moment our plane touched down in Eretz Yisrael, Naftali was a child I did not recognize. As we whizzed down the highway to Yerushalayim for the first time, he stared out the window with a smile that reached all the way up to his eyes. Naftali craves familiarity and sameness. The sights outside should have all been foreign to him – intimidating to him – and yet he seemed more at home than I’d ever seen him.

When we reached the Old City, still exhausted from the flight, he pointed out in front of him through the taxi window and said, “That’s where the third Beis Hamikdash will be built.”

What?

He said it calmly – but with eerie certainty – and his words took my breath away.

How did he know? What did he even know of the Beis Hamikdash? He hasn’t been to yeshivah since he was 6 years-old – nearly ten years ago!

Clearly, he saw something I could not see. Without being taught, he knew something I could not know.

A few minutes later, we walked through the Old City to reach the Kosel for the first time, and I held my breath again. There were stairs – endless, winding, stairs – and Naftali hates stairs. He hates long walks. But he practically danced down the steps – laughing to himself the entire time.

Who was this child? And what was he thinking?  What did he feel here that he did not feel in America?

My sensory child, my child who won’t push through a crowd or touch things he’s never touched before, marched up to the Kosel and leaned up against the cold stones as if to give them a hug. In truth, he embraced the entire country in that very same way – like he’d found a part of himself that had been missing for too long. 

For the rest of our trip, our son – who can be stubborn, oppositional, difficult – did whatever we asked of him – and with a smile. He traveled from cemetery to cemetery, standing patiently as the adults around him davened. He waited on line for more than an hour – in a cramped, claustrophobic stairwell – to receive a brachah from Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, still smiling even as the adults around him griped. 

“I went to see the tzaddik,” he told me proudly when he got home. No complaints. Only joy.

But the most remarkable moment occurred at Machpelah Cave. 

The men in our group had gone to daven Minchah, so Naftali stayed with me and the other women to wait. Some Israeli men looking to form a minyan of their own noticed Naftali and tried to wave him over to join them.   

“I’m so sorry,” I offered in my broken Hebrew. “He is autistic. He can’t be counted in your minyan.”

The men laughed jovially. “Ima, this is Eretz Yisrael!” one man insisted. “Every Jew is welcome to join the minyan!

How could I argue with that?

With bated breath, I watched as Naftali followed this perfect stranger to the side of the room where Minchah was beginning. I watched in disbelief as Naftali pulled up a chair and sat quietly with a siddur on his lap as the men swayed in concentration around him.

No protests. No outbursts. No attempts to run back to where I was sitting.

Instead, he opened the siddur and read out the alef-bais, his “prayer” mingling with the prayers around him.  Only after the last kaddish, when the men dispersed, did he return to me with a grin. “I davened Minchah so nicely,” he beamed.

My eyes filled with tears. Yes, you did, Naftali. Yes, you did.

That glow stayed with him all trip long, and he showed me, time and again, beyond any doubt, that his connection to our land is far deeper than mine, far richer than mine. The joy that emanated from him as he traversed our eretz hakadosh was mysterious and mystical and almost other-worldly.

The truth was undeniable: In Eretz Yisrael, he sees what I cannot see. He feels what I cannot feel.

If there is anyone who does not believe in the existence of the neshamah, all he or she needs to do is look at a picture of Naftali standing with his hands against the Kosel’s cool stones, the song of his soul playing gently on his lips. He is not just a special neshamah. He is ALL neshamah, and he is teaching me to connect better with the pureness of my own soul.

So now you understand why, when I say “L’Shana hab’ah b’Yerushalayim” this year at the Seder, I will cry.

Not tears of joy or sorrow or longing.

No – they will be tears of prayer:

Please, Hashem, help all of us see what Naftali sees – help all of us feel what Naftali feels.

May our prayers be as sweet as his so we can be worthy of the geulah shelaima, b’meheira b’yameinu.

Amen.

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