Benny shrugged. “Listen, I’m in the beis medrash every day. I’ve seen a lot of guys over the years. I don’t know everything, but I could tell you weren’t happy”
Benny hurried home, turning Avi’s words over in his mind. This is what you do. You make sure he doesn’t get on the plane. Bring him back to Yerushalayim.
How was he supposed to make that happen?
He opened the door to the apartment gently. Tziporah was folding towels at the dining room table. There was a decided tension in the way she snapped each one into soldier-like symmetry.
“Hey, Tziporah,” he said. “I spoke to Lederberg, you were right. He got me in touch with some guy who seems to know all about these dealers and their system. The guys in the dorm said Meir wanted to get to the airport early, so it looks like I’m going to have to go to Ben-Gurion and try to get hold of him there.”
She nodded, lips pressed tight. “Okay. I guess you’d better go.”
“You’re sure?” he asked. “You’re okay doing another long night without a husband around?” He tried for a self-deprecating tone, but his voice cracked midway through.
She must have caught the crack, but she kept her tone steady.
“I’ll be fine. I’ll call you a cab. Hopefully you’ll be home soon,” she said.
She ordered the taxi, went to the closet in their bedroom, and returned with four 100-shekel bills. Then she grabbed a bag from the freezer and thrust it at Benny.
“Here, take the money, and here’s some biscotti. I know Meir likes it.”
Benny stowed the biscotti in his jacket pocket and marveled at his wife. She was so grounded, so sane. Much more than he deserved.
“You’d better go,” Tziporah said. “We don’t want the taxi driver beeping and waking up the whole neighborhood.”
“Yeah,” Benny said. “I hear you.” This is very big of you, he wanted to say. He cleared his throat instead and said, “Thanks.”
“Good luck,” she said with a wan smile.
“I’ll do my best.” Benny gently closed the door.
The taxi driver had the radio on, which was a relief. Benny wasn’t sure he could handle a talkative driver right now.
The guy had been a little surprised that Benny was going to the airport without luggage (“Ein afilu mizvadah achat — You don’t have even one suitcase?”) but he didn’t harp on it. Apparently the broadcast about the Bedouin takeover of the roads near some woman’s home was more interesting.
Benny settled into the backseat and looked at his watch. It was 11:45. They’d be at the airport at 12:30 or so. Had Meir already gone through security? Once he passed through that barrier, there was no way he could turn back. It was probably best to call him directly, sound him out casually about his trip.
Benny took out his phone just as it began to ring. It was the Rosh.
“Hello, Benny, how are you? Any update?” he asked.
“I’m okay,” Benny said. “I went to the dorm to find Meir, but he wasn’t there.”
“Hmm,” the Rosh said. He sounded worried. “Well, I have two updates for you. I got through to Meir’s father, had a nice schmooze with him. I didn’t ask him directly, but it was pretty clear to me that there’s no chasunah in Europe.”
Benny’s breath came out in a whoosh. “I hear,” he said. “So, um, I’m actually on my way to the airport now. I’ll see if I can find him there.”
“You’re on your way?” the Rosh said. “That’s good. Perfect. Because my other update is that Mendy Kornbluth spoke to Meir, and he said he’s heading to the airport. Let’s hope you find him in time.”
Benny wasn’t sure whether that was an expression of confidence or desperation. “Yeah,” he said.
“You’ll let me know what happens, okay?” the Rosh said. “I’ll keep my phone on.”
“Sure,” Benny said. He hung up and gently replaced the phone in his pocket.
The woman on the radio was talking about all her neighbors who’d recently bought guns. “Even the women are getting into it,” she was saying. “We have to keep our kids safe, you understand? This is our space, our territory, we’re not going to allow a situation where you’re scared to drive over to the next yishuv at night.”
The driver thumped the steering wheel in agreement.
Benny thought again of Meir. Meir the Masmid. Why in the world would he listen to Benny? Benny was the guy who squandered precious learning time to play guitar. The guy with the cool glasses and boots. The guy whose wife thought he had lost his way.
The taxi turned off the highway and Benny saw the clusters of palm trees. They were officially in the airport. After a quick stop at the checkpoint — two teenagers with big guns peeked into the window, then nodded to the driver to proceed — it took just a couple more minutes before the terminal was in sight.
“Arrivals or departures?” he asked.
“Departures,” Benny said.
“No luggage?” he asked again disapprovingly. “How are you flying without a suitcase?”
“No luggage,” Benny said shortly.
The driver nudged his car against the curb and brought it to a stop.
“Thanks,” Benny said, sliding over to the door. “How much do I owe you?’
“Meah shemonim — 180 shekel,” the driver said.
Benny handed over two 100-shekel bills and waited for the change.
“Thanks, good night,” he said.
He tried to look confident as he headed through the glass doors. Airports always put a pit in his stomach — all those lines, the security, that current of impatience and nerves. Even the airport coffee seemed to emit an aroma of anxiety.
The check-in area was pretty quiet. The midnight flights had already taken off, and it was a bit early for the early-morning flights to Europe. Had Meir checked in already?
Benny approached the big screen and scanned all the upcoming flights. Miami, Istanbul, Boston, Rome, Amsterdam, another Amsterdam, Brussels, Rome again….
Where could Meir be going? Not Miami, not Boston. It was some city in Europe. Benny looked at the screen again. There was no way to know which of the check-in areas was the right one; he’d have to go walk through them all.
Benny started with Area A. There were just a few people on line there. No yeshivah bochur in sight.
He continued to Area B and scanned the line for the counters. Some typical Israeli businessmen with minimal luggage, one with a shaved head, all busy on their phones. Two Yerushalmi types, probably traveling to collect for weddings. A family with a double stroller and multiple suitcases and at least one crying kid. No Meir.
Area C had a whole chamoula of Arabs with super-stylish footgear posing for pictures. They must be headed on a family vacation. There was also a small tourist group with Nordic features, and a nervous guide who kept taking attendance. No Meir.
Benny continued on to Area D. Then he turned around. Out of the corner of his eye, he had noticed something: a few chairs. He walked closer.
Sitting on one of them was a guy in a dark green hoodie, shoulders hunched, head down. An Adidas backpack sat forlornly in the chair to his left, and a small black suitcase was parked in front of him.
Benny swallowed hard, then headed over. Silently, he settled into the next seat.
It took only a second for the guy to look up.
“Reb Benny?” Meir asked, his voice filled with wonder.
Benny nodded. “Yup, you got it. Benny Muller at your service. Can I just say that I’m so happy to see you here?”
Meir closed his eyes briefly, then took a deep breath.
Benny went on. “I don’t know exactly what happened, or why. But let me do a little guessing. I’m guessing that someone asked you to bring this suitcase to Europe, where their friend will pick it up. And that they told you there’s tefillin inside, but you have a funny feeling that it’s something else. Am I right?”
“Great,” Benny said. “So how about we just find a garbage dumpster and get rid of it. You don’t owe those guys anything, and you don’t have to do them any favors.”
Confusion and fear struggled in Meir’s eyes.
Benny put a hand on Meir’s shoulder. He tried to broadcast confidence and empathy. “Here, take your backpack. I’ll take the suitcase. There should be plenty of cabs outside.”
He stood up.
Meir hoisted his backpack onto his shoulder and followed Benny out of the airport.
“Where to?” the taxi driver asked.
“Yerushalayim. Ramat Eshkol,” Benny said.
He stowed the small suitcase in the trunk, motioned Meir into the backseat, then sat down next to him. The silence stretched as the driver pulled out of the airport and onto the highway.
Benny dialed Tziporah.
“Hi, Tzip, how are you?” he asked. “Okay if I bring a guest over?”
“You found him?” Tziporah’s relief was obvious. “Amazing. Of course you should bring him.”
Next he dialed the Rosh.
“Benny, is that you?” the Rosh sounded tense.
“Yeah,” Benny said. “I have him. He’s safe.”
The Rosh was quiet for a minute. Was he collecting himself? It was hard to tell over the phone.
“Benny, I have no words,” he finally said. “Hashem should repay you with whatever you need — you know and He knows what that is. We’re lucky to have you on staff.”
Benny pressed the off button on his phone and sank into his seat. The driver’s phone rang. Soon he had launched into a heated Hebrew discussion about some deal to purchase a new car — whether it was worth splurging on a Mercedes, or settling for a Skoda.
Benny turned toward Meir, who was curled tightly into himself, and pulled the bag of Tziporah’s biscotti out of his jacket pocket. “Here, my wife remembered that you like these,” he said.
Meir took a quick look at the offering. His posture eased as he accepted the bag and made a brachah. Three biscotti later, he finally addressed Benny.
“Your wife remembers what each guy likes to eat?” he asked.
Benny smiled. “She has an amazing memory,” he conceded. “Though maybe she keeps Excel charts for these things, knowing her.”
Meir took another bite. “You sound like a great couple,” he said shyly.
“You think?” Benny asked. My wife is actually furious with me, he thought. And ashamed of me. And wondering why she married me.
He patted Meir gently on the shoulder. “Back to you. Meir Elbogen, the pride of Ner Olam, carrying drugs. It’s pretty crazy, no? Want to tell me how it started? Only if you’re comfortable. You can be quiet too, I can take a nap. I’m good at falling asleep in strange places.”
Meir looked out the window, then turned back to Benny. “Not sure you’ll get this,” he said, his eyes bright. “Not your type at all. But I — I just had to get away. That’s all I know, I needed out.”
“Away?” Benny asked, keeping his voice light and casual. “Away from what?”
“From Ner Olam. From yeshivah. From the learning. From the studying. I can’t do it anymore, I can’t.” Meir banged his fist into his knee. “It’s day after day after day of pushing myself, killing myself, and not getting anywhere, not feeling anything. So when that guy offered me a stupid ticket to Brussels for a two-day quick trip, it was exactly what I needed. Away, you hear me?”
“I hear,” Benny said, eyes gazing steadily ahead at the highway. “Exactly what you needed.”
“You’re probably thinking, how could I miss the big bechinah? No one learned as much or as hard as I did this zeman. No one. This was my chance to show everyone that I’m better than this place, I’m past Ner Olam already. But you know what? At this point I want to miss the bechinah. I need to miss it!
“The Gemara’s not sticking in my head anymore,” Meir said, gripping his Adidas bag tightly. “I don’t know why but it just floats right out. I’ve been learning the same daf over and over and it just feels like gibberish. I can’t get past the actual words. I try to write up the notes for myself, get it all out on paper, and it’s all gone.”
He turned to Benny now and gulped hard. “Did I fry my brain or something? Am I ever gonna be able to learn again?”
Benny patted his shoulder.
“I don’t think your brain is fried,” he said. “Unless you’ve been taking the stuff inside that suitcase, which we both know you haven’t. Your brain is fine. You’re still one of the top guys in Ner Olam. But I think you need… to chill a little.”
Meir furrowed his eyebrows. “Chill?”
“Yeah,” Benny said. “As in, to relax. To take a break. To stop pushing yourself so crazy hard. To find a balance. I promise you, Meir, once you figure this out, your brain is going to start working again, and you’ll enjoy learning again. It won’t be a torture for you, like it was the last month or two.”
Meir’s eyes went wide. “You knew?” he asked.
Benny shrugged. “Listen, I’m in the beis medrash every day. I’ve seen a lot of guys over the years. I don’t know everything, but I could tell you weren’t happy. That much I could see. Guys do go through rough patches, Gemara is demanding. But it’s also rewarding. A guy who’s doing well and learning hard usually seems happy.”
Meir nodded and turned to the window again. The flat farmland was giving way to hills and the driver switched gears as he began the ascent toward Yerushalayim.
“What happens now?” Meir asked in a small voice.
“What happens now is we’re going to figure things out,” Benny said. “First of all, as far as the guys of Ner Olam are concerned, you’re at a family simchah in Europe. So you’re invited to Hotel Muller for the next day or so — we have a spare bedroom and you can hang out with me until your trip is officially over. Then you’ll go back to yeshivah and no one will know the difference.”
Meir’s shoulders sagged in relief. “Thanks,” he whispered.
They both sat quietly as the driver guided the car up the winding road to Yerushalayim. The dark blanket of night was still spread over the city, but a string of streetlights illuminated the shrouded buildings, welcoming them back. Before they knew it, the taxi had pulled up in Benny’s parking lot.
“Bruchim habaim l’Yerushalayim,” the driver said.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 941)
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