"I just feel like someone’s staring at us,” he said, lowering his voice. “Strange, no?"
One year later…
It was late Thursday night. The beis medrash was pulsing with the sounds of dozens of high school bochurim reviewing the Gemara with their chavrusas; arguing, clarifying, waving thumbs in the air as they fought their way to clarity together.
Over at a table to one side, two boys sat engrossed in their chazarah. Even sitting down, you could tell that the brown-haired one was tall and athletically built, while his chavrusa, with the flashing green eyes and black hair, was shorter.
“Let’s go over this one more time,” the dark-haired one, otherwise known as Avi Shine, suggested. “You wanna read?”
“Sure.” Elchanan leaned forward and took a deep breath. Thanks to their nightly chavrusa, he was doing better than ever in learning, but it still took a lot of concentration. On the other hand, a good learning session was even more exhilarating than a game of basketball. And that was saying something.
“Boys, how’s it going?” Rabbi Taub, the ninth-grade rebbi, approached them, smiling. Shine and Stark — now that was a good, solid pair. Such a charismatic duo, the two of them, real leaders, and close friends, too. It wasn’t every day you saw a friendship like that.
Avi looked at Elchanan. “We’re about to move on here, I think.”
“Yup,” Elchanan confirmed. “It’s going good, Rebbi.”
“Excellent, excellent!” Rabbi Taub patted the table between them and moved on.
“Okay, should we keep going?” Elchanan asked, looking over at his friend. Avi was looking around the room, distracted. “Um, Avi? What’s going on?”
Avi glanced back at him. “I… don’t know. I just feel like someone’s staring at us,” he said, lowering his voice. “Strange, no?”
Elchanan blinked. “Seriously? I mean, maybe the guys behind us are watching us learn? Or the Rosh Yeshivah, he likes to watch everyone….” He twisted around, but the Rosh Yeshivah was nowhere in sight, and the two boys behind them were engrossed in their own Gemaras. He let his eyes roam the room.
“Who’s that over there?” he asked, jerking his head toward a man standing near the back of the beis medrash, looking around. “He hasn’t been here before, has he?”
Avi squinted. “I don’t know. He seems a bit familiar. I think… he’s looking in our direction, no?”
“Maybe, maybe not.” Elchanan shrugged. “He’s probably here for Maariv, maybe he’s looking for somewhere to sit until davening starts. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about, Avi.”
“I’m not worried—” Avi began, then he broke off, as the young man met his eye and began walking determinedly in their direction. “He is looking at us! I told you!”
Elchanan stared at the man as he approached. He was wearing the standard white shirt, black suit, and had light, straw-colored hair sticking out from under a large yarmulke. Something about that hair was very, very familiar.
“Avi? Elchanan?” the young man asked. His voice was low, but confident. “I’ve been hoping to speak to you. I’m so glad I found you here.”
Avi’s mouth fell open, just as the final piece of the puzzle fell into place in Elchanan’s mind. “Matt?” he blurted.
“Motty,” the man corrected, smiling slightly. “I haven’t been called Matt in — oh, a long while, now.”
Avi shook his head, lips pursed in a soundless whistle. “Wow. Oh, wow. I can’t believe it. You’re here. We didn’t hear anything… since the trial….”
The trial had taken place several months before. Rabbi Stark and Mr. Shine had been there, but they hadn’t allowed their sons to attend; instead, the boys had given a detailed recorded testimony, which had been handed over to the prosecution. The results of the trial had been lifelong imprisonment for the Boss and varying sentences for his cronies. Due to the heavy efforts of Mr. Shine on Matt’s behalf, he had been released with a mere penalty of several months of community service.
“So, you boys probably heard about the community service,” Motty told them. “Well, my hours are up now, and I’ve decided it’s time for a brand-new start. I’ll be flying to Eretz Yisrael tomorrow to enroll in a yeshivah and spend some time focusing on learning. Make up for lost years, you know.”
“Eretz Yisrael? Really?” Elchanan asked.
“Oh, wow, that’s amazing!” said Avi.
Motty smiled at them. “Yes — and it’s thanks to you, you know. It’s thanks to you that I was released at all, and that I had the courage to go back home after all those years.” His voice choked up. “That’s the only hard part about leaving now. I’ve got to say goodbye to my family all over again.”
“But this time, it’s for the best reason,” Avi said reassuringly.
“And you’ll be back to visit,” Elchanan added.
“Whenever you come back, you’ve got to come visit us, too,” Avi said. “You will, right?”
Motty smiled. “Unless you come to me first. You boys will be coming to Eretz Yisrael to learn before you know it. And when you come, we’ll make sure to go out for a falafel together.”
Avi and Elchanan looked at each other. “Not for a good few years, Motty. We’ve only just started high school.”
“I’ll wait patiently, then,” Motty said. He lifted his hand again, waved, and disappeared into the crowd. Elchanan twisted in his chair, straining to catch a glimpse of the man who’d saved their lives back in the forest, and who they’d repaid by saving in more ways than one.
“I’m glad my father was able to help him,” Avi said. “He’s a good guy, Motty. I’m happy for him that he has this opportunity.”
“Yeah.” Elchanan was thoughtful. “Remember back in the forest? He thought he was lost forever. And just a few days later, he was free from the gang, free to live a Torah-true life again.”
“There were times back there when I thought we were lost forever, too,” Avi admitted. “Like when the criminals caught us… or when the Boss kidnapped us again, in that village.” He gave a little shiver.
“But we weren’t,” Elchanan reminded him. “We were always being taken care of. Right until the last minute, when the police arrived in the nick of time.”
Avi’s shoulders relaxed. “You’re right, Elchanan. Good to be reminded, sometimes.”
“Anytime, pal,” Elchanan said lightly. “And now… how about we take a look inside again?”
Avi saluted. “Torah,” he announced. “The only map that really shows the way.”
And once again, the boys settled down to learn.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 897)
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