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Role Play

 “That’s not a specialty. It’s a responsibility. He needs a father before he needs a rebbi”

When I was very young, about eight or nine years old, I brought home a homeless man. (Yes, I was a pleasure to raise.)
After my mother finished explaining to me, very loudly, how bad of an idea it was and how dangerous it was, I was left in the living room of our Brooklyn home alone with my father. It was a Friday, and it was time to go to shul. My father did not say a word.
I was the youngest son at the time, which meant I had the honor of walking alongside my father and holding his hand on the way home from shul. That was our system: The oldest spoke to him in learning, the youngest held his hand, and whoever was in the middle marched behind him, bodyguard-style.
There was a mailbox on the corner of our block. When we reached the mailbox, my father stopped and told my brothers to keep walking.
I knew I was in trouble then.
My father is a real Moroccan, a man of very few words. I was shocked, for the first time in my life, to see tears in his eyes.
“Why did you bring that man to the house?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure how to answer. “He didn’t have his own house,” I finally said.
My father smiled. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Yossi, don’t ever lose your ability to feel for others. The yetzer hara will try to make you believe that people are evil and bad, but don’t let it get you. There are always a few it doesn’t get. Yossi, you have to be one of the few.”
For as long as I live, I will never forget that Friday night.
Or the Friday night 20 years later. When I lived in Jerusalem’s Maalot Dafna neighborhood, Rabbi AM Nussbaum was my neighbor for close to eight years. I also had the zechus of teaching alongside him in the Yesod program and counting him among my close friends. When we were both blessed with baby girls within a few weeks of each other, it was only natural that we make a joint Shabbos kiddush in our building. My parents happened to be in Israel at that time and were able to celebrate the joyous occasion with both families.
My father came with Rabbi Nussbaum and me to shul that Friday night. After davening, my students lined up to say “good Shabbos” to my father. At the insistence of the other rebbeim in the program, my father agreed to give the boys brachos for hatzlachah in their development. It was a beautiful moment: Each of the boys, some with long hair, piercings or tattoos, bowing before my father as he rested his hands on their heads and blessed them.
I was surprised to see Elliot standing in line. Elliot was not the spiritual type. That’s an understatement — Elliot despised anything that even remotely smelled like religion or spirituality.
“Rabbi Goldsmith is making me do it,” Elliot said, rolling his eyes.
I was a little nervous when Elliot stepped up to my father. He could be a bit of a loose cannon, and being respectful was not his strength. But when my father’s hands touched Elliot’s head, my father’s eyebrows shot up and he looked directly at me. I froze. My father whispered something into Elliot’s ear. Elliot stared at him for a moment, shook his head, and walked away.
Then the next boy stepped forward, and the moment was over.
We started walking home. My younger brother Eli held my father’s hand, Rabbi Nussbaum spoke to my father in learning, and my brother Ari and I marched behind on bodyguard duty. As we walked into our building my father pulled me aside, just as he had done so many years before.
He looked me in the eye. I was nine years old again.
“Who was that boy?”
“One of the boys in the program,” I answered. “I don’t know him well, but he’s close to some of the other rebbeim. The work he needs is more their specialty.”
My father stared at me. “Yossi, he’s in pain.”
“Yes.”
“He needs love, unconditional love.”
“Yes.”
“That’s not a specialty. It’s a responsibility. He needs a father before he needs a rebbi.”
Then he took my hand in his, and we walked inside together.
I was raised that the word of my father is the word of the Ribbono shel Olam Himself. I started having Elliot over to our house and going out for coffee with him. We became closer, but no matter how hard I tried, Elliot would not change his attitude or his mindset. We learned everything from Pirkei Avos to Mesillas Yesharim, but nothing seemed to have an effect.
Months later, on a trip up north, Elliot wasn’t feeling well and sat next to me on the bus ride. We did our usual schmoozing, talking about anything and everything in the world aside from anything personal or serious. But then I remembered I had a question I’d been meaning to ask him.
“Do you remember when my father came to daven in yeshivah?” I asked Elliot.
“Yeah, he gave me a blessing.”
“He whispered something to you. Do you remember what he said?”
Elliot shuffled, visibly uncomfortable. He looked over his shoulder. Everyone on the bus was out cold.
“He asked if I ever walked home from shul with my father,” Elliot said quietly.
I was taken aback. “Really?” I said. I remembered Elliot shaking his head. “You never walked home with your father?”
“My father passed away when I was two.” Elliot’s voice was a whisper.
Two questions instantly flashed through my mind: How did I not know that? And more importantly, how did my father know?
That night I was woken up by the rabbi on shift. Elliot had sneaked out after curfew, got into a fight in town, and got arrested. That meant one of the rebbeim had to go and talk with the police and bail Elliot out. This usually included a lot of yelling by the police and having to deal with miles of red tape and bureaucracy. Rabbi Rosenberg had to go since he was the only one with a teudat zehut. “I’ll go with you,” I offered.
“What? Why?”
Because that’s what a father does, I thought to myself.

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

Rabbi Yossi Bensoussan serves as mashgiach ruchani at Yeshiva High School of Cleveland. He is a Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) who currently maintains a private practice, and does motivational speaking and community education on addiction all over the US and Israel.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 787)

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