"Hashem has to run the world because otherwise we’d need to make sense out of our pain and we can’t"
Lazer was a British bochur who was supposedly learning in yeshivah.
At least that’s what his parents thought when they’d sent the money to pay for his share of rent in an apartment with other bochurim. In actuality, he was sleeping most days through lunch and then moping around the Beis Yisrael neighborhood in the late afternoons before returning to his cave in the evening. He’d order a pizza with the guys and then watch reruns of old sitcoms from the 1990s, mindless junk from before he was even born, until he’d crash around 4 a.m., only to awaken again around three the next afternoon and begin the cycle anew.
“Doctor Freedman, I’m miserable,” he told me. “I feel like a useless piece of garbage. Even worse. At least a piece of garbage has a place in the trash. I have no place to be and nothing to do.”
He wasn’t surrounded by a particularly inspirational cast of characters either — he gravitated to Jerusalem’s Anglo “fringe bochurim.” One guy he was friendly with smoked marijuana all day long and literally never left his dirah unless he was going to pay the pizza delivery guy on the street outside of the building. Then there was his cousin who didn’t even pretend to keep Shabbos between his electric cigarette and the movies he watched — albeit with headphones — seven nights a week. Another friend was the grandson of a well-known dayan who really tried his best to show up for at least one seder in yeshivah, but mostly spent his time bumming cigarettes from various ex-chavrusas.
It was a tough place to be in life, but if Lazer had reached out, it meant he might be willing to move forward. And after our first meeting, it was clear that he didn’t end up here without good reason.
“Doctor Freedman, you have to understand how hard it was growing up in my house. My mother was neurotic and insecure, while my father was an iron-fisted dictator. Not only was Mum nervous but she cowered in fear of Dad. Now, I don’t want to be disrespectful, but Dad is the most difficult person I’ve ever encountered — he’s a furious man and would clobber us over the smallest thing, and he’s also a baal teshuvah without any guidance who thought that screaming at us in shul would make us want to daven harder,” he reported.
“But you know what that did? It only made me and my brothers daven that we’d get run over by a car or get kidnapped on the walk home. Because after shul, we’d have to deal with his relentless criticism and smacks at the Shabbos seudah. It was a living hell.”
I could only imagine how hard it must have been for Lazer and his four older brothers. The oldest had run away at age 15 and had been dancing in and out of rehabs ever since. The next two were twins who had each found their escape: One has joined the Israeli Army and became a career officer who never looked back, while his twin had become chassidish, married a girl from Monsey, and refused to visit his family. The brother directly on top of Lazer was a professional gambler in Las Vegas who had tattooed his entire body.
“And then there’s me. Maybe I just took everything the wrong way. I mean, my brothers hated my dad and they also hated my mom for letting him abuse us. I just hated myself for obviously being such a terrible person to deserve such a life.”
Lazer had been diagnosed with various ailments over the years and had received his share of treatments along the way. Ritalin for ADHD when he’d spaced out as a parentally abused second grader. Prozac when he’d cowered as an abused sixth- grader. Seroquel when he’d been unable to sleep as an abused ninth-grader.
“None of that stuff really helped me,” he admitted. “But at least I’m out of that house. I may not be making it to seder, but at least I’m not balled up in a corner avoiding my father’s belt for failing a farher on Shabbos afternoon,” he said.
And yet, after all he’d been through, Lazer was a maamin. He wasn’t a Shabbos desecrator, didn’t eat treif, and put on tefillin — usually just before shkiah.
“I got to believe,” he’d told me. “Hashem has to run the world because otherwise we’d need to make sense out of our pain and we can’t. Like, I have no other options or I’d have nothing at all to hang on to.”
Lazer’s story broke my heart. The mix of verbal and physical abuse combined with the constant pressure to excel in learning did atrocious things to young men.
As I pondered the best way to end our session, I took a sip from the water bottle at my side and winced. The shooting pain that went through my mouth was like an ice pick to my jaw.
Lazer saw my face and raised an eyebrow. “You okay?”
“For sure tzaddik, just Hashem reminding me that He runs the world, not me.”
“Well, if you want to get philosophical…. And Dr. Freedman, I know this was a last-minute appointment and your schedule is full, but any way you can squeeze me in before the zeman ends next week?”
He was finally trying to wake up earlier and to be proactive about his chronic misery. I decided to cut my lunch break out and fit him in.
“If it’s okay for me to eat a sandwich during our session, then I’ll see you Monday at 1:00.”
As I walked him outside, I felt the pain in my mouth again. It was definitely time to see my dentist.
Dr. Abramson had an office upstairs and was as nice a fellow as you could know. I took his next opening on Monday morning, where he discovered an abscess in one of my wisdom teeth. Basically, he said, the tooth had to come out, and the sooner the better.
“How about right now?” I asked him.
I knew he was busy, but he agreed, and a second later, his hygienist brought out the kit of anesthetic syringes and began numbing me up. As I heard the crack of the tooth popping from my jaw, I looked at the clock — and remembered that I’d slotted Lazer in for my lunch time. While I wouldn’t be eating that sandwich in the end, I was a bit concerned as to whether I’d be able to talk like a functional human being.
I walked back to my office with a mouth full of gauze. Lazer was already sitting on the chair outside puffing his e-cigarette while watching something on his iPhone.
He followed me into the office and plopped down opposite me, scrutinizing my mouth.
“Dr. Freedman, are you okay? Last week you were wincing in pain, and now your face looks swollen.”
I took the wad of bloody gauze out of my mouth and threw it in the trash, much to Lazer’s horror.
“I used to be a lot smarter, Lazer, but I just lost a wisdom tooth.”
Lazer looked relieved and even chuckled at my joke as I took a swish of saltwater.
“Wow, I don’t believe it,” said Lazer, sounding genuinely moved. “You just had a tooth extraction and you still kept our appointment? You really did that for me? But I’m just a nobody.”
I thought of Dr. Abramson who’d just fit me in, and my mentors back in Boston who always came to the hospital even during blizzards. Isn’t that what we do for each other?
“Lazer, you’re not a nobody,” I said, as the anesthetic began to wear off. “You’re a beloved child of Hashem.”
I didn’t really think he believed it, but I did notice how he sat up just a little straighter.
To be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 905)
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