| Off the Couch |

Forgive Yourself

"Every day I see the tefillin shel rosh as they fell from his hands as clearly as I see you sitting across from me”


Moussa Chacham-Tzedek, a wealthy Persian businessman who’d been diagnosed with a terminal illness, had a secret he wanted to share before he died. With tremendous siyata d’Shmaya, he managed to smuggle a group of teenagers over the Iranian border. But this was something he would surely have been proud to share with his family — so why was I the first one to hear it? And why was he so broken? PART IV


Amu Moussa was brave and resourceful,

and I was in awe of his account of how he organized “his” bochurim, moving them across the mountains and into the smuggler’s truck — and especially how he carried an injured David, together with David’s tefillin, on his back, making it to the rendezvous with seconds to spare. But for some reason, Moussa Chacham-Tzedek didn’t look proud. In fact, he looked positively haunted.

“We were in the back of a smuggler’s truck and driving across the Persia-Pakistan border on a rocky, mountainous pass in the dark of night with the lights off,” he continued his account. “I held David, and as he cried out in pain, the other boys looked at me for strength. ‘Everything will be fine,’ I assured them. ‘Hashem has brought us out of Persia and He will take care of us to ensure we make it out of Pakistan as well.’ But I wasn’t without my fears. We understood that the Revolutionary Guard wanted to stop army deserters and political prisoners like us from escaping, but the Pakistani soldiers were largely an unknown. David must have felt my anxiety as I rocked him in my arms and he whispered, ‘I still have my tefillin, and we still have Hashem.’ He was right about that, at least.”

Amu Moussa caressed the rock he held in his hand — the miracle rock he used to stop the driver who was about to pull away without him. “Our driver brought us across the invisible line between the two countries, and from there, we drove another hour before we were stopped by a Pakistani army patrol. They must have thought we had a lot more money to bribe them with than we had from the way they lined us up and searched each one of us. At first I wondered if the smuggler was an insider, planning on profiting from the whole interaction, but my thoughts quickly changed as I watched him die — shot in the head by the border patrol’s captain on a whim. Some of the younger boys began to cry and I knew we had to be very careful. Our money was almost all gone, but I didn’t mind handing over our remaining coins. Our airfare was to be paid by the Jewish Agency once we made it to a nearby city. But the soldiers weren’t interested in our story.”

Amu Moussa began to cry — beginning with a single tear, it soon became a veritable deluge. It was clear to me that this was the part of his story that had been most deeply repressed.

“The captain began barking orders in Arabic to the other soldiers — he was apparently infuriated that he hadn’t found the ‘diamonds’ he expected Jewish refugees would have on them. I spoke up in an effort to calm him and clarify that we had nothing beyond the clothes on our backs. It happened so quickly that I didn’t even feel the handle of his pistol strike my face. I tried to get up but quickly took a boot to my chest and would likely have been beaten to death if they hadn’t found David’s tefillin.”

Amu Moussa wiped away the tears from his face and stared out the window at the lemon trees in his courtyard. I waited silently for him to tell me the story he’d kept deep inside for over 40 years.

“David screamed as they took his tefillin. ‘They’re my uncle’s! They aren’t worth anything to you!’ The captain didn’t care about David’s broken leg as he threw him to the ground and ripped the tefillin out of his hands. The physical agony was nothing compared to the pain he felt as a soldier took his tefillin shel yad and cut it open with a switchblade, throwing the straps and the klaf on the ground. What happened next was a slow-motion nightmare, Dr. Freedman.”

Amu Moussa paused for a few moments, breathing in and out slowly. “As the soldier took the tefillin shel rosh and prepared to cut it open in search of what he imagined was our stash of riches, David found some superhuman strength, got up, and bit the soldier in the hand, causing him to drop his knife. David grabbed the tefillin and held it close to his body as he crumpled on the ground following a gunshot. The tefillin fell from his lifeless hands to the ground.”

The ache I felt as Amu Moussa told his story was only a fraction of the pain he must have felt himself. It was no wonder he’d buried these memories so deeply inside and never told anyone.

“Sometimes we forget because we are too busy to remember,” he said. “Other times we forget because our new lives require us to do so. I’m not sure how I was able to keep these memories silenced, but I did as I began my businesses and started my family. At first, I chose not to share this chapter of my life — and then it felt too late to tell anyone. And now I am here sharing it with a stranger.”

So this was the secret. I looked at the man opposite me, a pillar of strength who’d built himself up from nothing and was now worth close to $80 million, yet he was burdened by debilitating guilt he’d kept under wraps for over four decades. Sometimes the survivor’s guilt is too strong and painful to speak about, even with those closest to oneself.

“Perhaps now that I’ve shared this with you, it shows me the necessity of sharing it with my family. But the shame is so great. I couldn’t stop them from killing him.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Amu Moussa.”

“I know this now, but every day I see the tefillin shel rosh as they fell from his hands as clearly as I see you sitting across from me.”

Amu Moussa needed a safe place to process his trauma. This was an individual who had seen success in his life beyond the wildest dreams of most men, yet his family remained closely knit even as they reached their fourth generation in their new home in Eretz Yisrael. And now, after his diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer and with nothing left in This World to accomplish before he moved on, it was time to heal the wounds that could not be healed by time.

“Maybe the captain realized that we didn’t have any diamonds or maybe he was disgusted by the sight of having killed a 13-year-old boy,” he said almost as an afterthought. “One way or another, they left and I eventually got to my feet. The boys bandaged my head and then we all worked together to bury David. It was close to sunset by the time we finished, but there was just enough time for each of us to put on the tefillin shel rosh and to say Kaddish for the bravest Jew we knew.”

Amu Moussa took a small velvet pouch off the windowsill and untied it, emptying its contents on the table before me. It was an old, worn tefillin shel rosh.

“Every day, I lock the door to my study and put on this tefillin shel rosh,” he said. “I pray for David to forgive me and I pray for Hashem to forgive me.”

“Forgive yourself, Amu Moussa,” I said as I took his hands in mine. “Forgive yourself because this wasn’t your fault.”

Amu Moussa looked away for a few long moments before our eyes met again. “I don’t know how. I’m at the end of my life and I don’t know how.”

“Amu Moussa,” I said, barely holding back my own tears, “we can work on it together. It’s never too late.”


Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.


Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman, whose new book Off the Couch has just been released in collaboration with Menucha Publishers, can be found learning Torah in the Old City or hiking the hills around Jerusalem. Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 899)

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