“I can’t play ball or sing or read well, but when it comes to people, I’m a speed-reader”
My rebbi, Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits of the Jerusalem Kollel, made me promise that in addition to my work as a drug counselor I will never stop teaching and working as a rebbi in a proper yeshivah. This has undoubtedly been one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. The contrast keeps me grounded, and I am forever grateful to my talmidim and the rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Yishai Kutoff, for allowing me this amazing opportunity. I am blessed with the greatest talmidim a rebbi could ask for; they remind me that not all 17-year-olds are trying to get their hands on drugs in order to forget their trauma. They remind me that sometimes all a person needs is a rebbi.
As I was finishing up my 12th grade Gemara shiur, I reminded the boys of our plans for that evening. “Bonfire in my backyard after night seder, guys, don’t forget,” I called. As I walked out of the room my phone rang.
“Hey, Yossi, we got a problem.” It was Ezra, a close friend of mine. “Do you mind talking to my for wife a minute?” Rina had just qualified as a therapist and was working as a guidance counselor in a Bais Yaakov.
Rina came on the line. “So, I have this case,” she started, “and I’m slightly out of my league with this one.” One sign of a good therapist is that she’s still asking for advice. “The girl is from a very frum home… I mean, she’s a very frum girl!” She sounded totally exasperated. “I don’t know how it happened, but she got involved with an older boy in her area, and he’s telling her to run away with him. He’s known to use drugs and be involved in dangerous stuff. The crazy part is she is actually considering it!” Rina continued to explain the details of the situation as I pulled up in front of my house.
My kids were waiting for me; it was time to build that bonfire. I gave Rina some hurried advice that I thought might help as well as some contacts she might be able to call for a better plan of action.
“I tried all that. She won’t listen. They can’t help,” she said desperately.
I was about to say that if they can’t help, I can’t help, and that Rina would just have to keep meeting with the girl until she comes around. But I was distracted by a banging on the passenger-side window of my car. The angelic face of my six-year-old daughter Elianna stared at me through the glass. I lowered the window.
“Papa!” she yelled. “I made a stick for my marshmallows! It can fit a hundred at once!”
“Wow!” I said. “Nana, I’m on the phone, but I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Just because you’re on the phone I can’t talk?” (We recently moved back to the US. She’s still very Israeli.)
“I’ll be out in one minute. Go get your stick and make one for Ashi,” I said.
“Okay.” She rolled her eyes and smiled as I put the window up.
“If I can convince this girl to call you,” Rina continued, “would you talk to her? It might be our only chance.”
No chance, I thought.
I watched Elianna run to her younger brother. She looked back at me and smiled.
What if it was her? I thought to myself. Immediately I pushed the thought out of my head, scolded myself for even thinking it.
But what if?
Stop it! I said to myself.
However righteous such a thought might seem, it’s not something you can ever allow yourself to think. In this line of work, you will hear, see, or even sometimes experience some very ugly things. Evil, heart wrenching things. Rule #1 is don’t get emotionally involved. That will skew your ability to make a decision or help in any way. You have to stay calm and calculated. Thoughts like what if it were my daughter have ruined many attempts at trying to assist people.
It was too late, though. The thought was there. I was wrong, but I was in.
“Have her call me. I’ll do what I can,” I said.
Half an hour later my phone rang — a number I didn’t recognize.
“Hi, it’s Ziva, is this Rabbi Bensoussan?” Shoot, they shouldn’t have told her I was a rabbi. This was getting worse and worse.
“Yes,” I said simply.
“Rina told me to call you,” she said.
“Okay,” I said.
“Did Rina tell you what’s going on?” she asked.
“Yes, but I didn’t get a clear picture,” I answered.
This was true. I didn’t have a clear picture because I hadn’t heard from Ziva herself. There are usually countless sides to every story, and all of them keep changing. When someone calls, I like to hear their version of the story in their own words. I want them in control of the conversation. I want them to feel like their side is being heard. It usually makes them a lot more receptive when my turn to talk eventually does come.
Ziva told me the whole story in detail. It was bad. She knew it, and she knew I knew it. When she finished talking, she paused, waiting for me to stand in judgment and tell her how she’s ruining her life and her parents’ lives and her future shidduch prospects.
I looked over at my daughter. She was helping her younger brother with his roasting stick.
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
“You’re not what you say you are. You’re not this desperate or lost,” I said simply. “You’re better than this.”
There was a pause. It felt like forever.
“How would you know that?” she asked defiantly.
“Because I’m really bad at sports.”
“I’m really bad at sports, I’m dyslexic, and I did really bad in school. And I’m as tone-deaf as an actual hearing-impaired person,” I told Ziva.
“I’m not following.”
“Of all the talents Hashem saw fit not to give me, there is one He gave me that I’ve had since I was a little kid. I can’t play ball or sing or read well, but when it comes to people, I’m a speed-reader. I’m not showing off, it was something I was given, not something I earned. I know people. And talking to you and hearing you tell your story, I know,” I said, looking at my daughter, who smiled shyly as she saw me watching her, “I know you’re better than this. You can try to be passive about it, pretend this is what you want, but I know you’re lying. You know it too. You’re better than this.” I broke every rule. I got emotional. But I couldn’t help it.
There was another long pause.
“Okay,” she said. Then she hung up.
On cue, Elianna came running up to me, holding a horrific attempt at a whittled roasting stick.
“Papa, look what I made for the marshmallows!” she yelled.
I bent down and broke the rules for the umpteenth time that day. I grabbed my little girl and hugged her close. I let her go, looked in her eyes, and said, “Do you know how proud of you I am? I love you so much. You’re so special.” I choked on the words.
Elianna rolled her eyes. “Papa,” she said, “is my stick good?”
The stick was too dry and dead, it was too short, and she had whittled a point at the wrong end.
“It’s perfect,” I lied. “Now come help me make one, and maybe we’ll trade if you like mine.” She always trades in the end.
The next day Rina messaged me: She broke it off, told her parents, and is changing her number. Don’t know what you said, but thank you.
A few months later I got a message from Ziva herself: “I’ve been listening to your classes online. I knew I was better than that. Now I’m figuring out why. Thanks.”
Correction: Not getting emotionally involved is rule #2. Rule #1 is to break the rules when needed.
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 784)