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The King In The Field
By Tzvi Jacobs

It was just before noon, September 1, 1989. I was driving through a seedy section of downtown Elizabeth, New Jersey and spotted a branch of my bank. I parked in the deserted lot behind the bank, walked around to the front entrance, and then remembered that I left my check in my car. I trotted back, unlocked the car door, and while leaning inside, fumbled through an assortment of papers and bills that filled my coat pocket. Thank G-d, I found the envelope with my precious monthly stipend. I had already spent most of it, having mailed out a slew of checks the day before to pay some long overdue bills. I laid my coat back over the seat, straightened up, and turned to close the car door.

“Ugh!” I gasped.

Three men had formed a tight semi-circle around me. They wore tattered jeans, filthy tee-shirts and they reeked of alcohol. The man on my left was clutching the skinny neck of an empty whiskey bottle, bottom aimed upward. It looked as if he was going to hammer something... or someone. His dark, glassy eyes revealed a mean, desperate gaze. The scrawny guy on my right looked almost friendly, but a little scared and hungry. But the one in the middle — he was “Lurch,” a virtual monstrosity. His large, rectangular head loomed above me.

“Got some change?” Lurch asked, extending his huge hand towards the Adam’s apple bobbing up and down my thin neck. My bulging eyes stared down at the maze of lines in his palm and slowly read their way up his extended arm. A skull with crossed bones and a variety of other subhuman depictions adorned his long bare arm. At the top of his arm, the ragged edges of a torn sleeve accentuated his broad shoulder. I nervously tilted my head back and lifted my eyes over his protruding chin. A deep scar had formed a trench from his chin to just below his left eye. Lurch grinned. His smile was missing at least three teeth.

“Like a couple of dollars,” said the guy with the empty bottle. “We’re real hungry.”

Rules of urban survival raced through my head. Never take out your wallet when a stranger asks for change. These guys probably saw me walking back from the bank. If they see that my wallet is empty, they might really get upset.

Another rule: Stay calm. I took a deep breath. Why is this happening to me? Okay, everything happens for a reason. All is for the good. Only fear G-d. All the Chassidic dictums about life were racing through my mind. They made sense in yeshiva, where I had been learning for the past year.

“Stay calm,” I repeated to myself. After all, today is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the month of Elul. Elul is an auspicious month, the last month of the Jewish year, when G-d is supposed to be accessible to everyone. As the Chassidic masters explain, like the king who leaves his palace and travels through the fields, G-d makes Himself more accessible and graciously listens to the requests of ordinary people.

Oh, G-d, please be with me now. I have a wife and a three-month-old baby.

My hands were hiding behind my back, clutching the envelope, and holding the nearly shut car door.

“Yes, I have some change for you,” I said, subtly dropping the envelope back into the car, locking the door behind me.

Everything happens for a reason — that I firmly believed. Every Friday, as part of the yeshiva schedule, I would visit Jewish patients in Morristown Memorial Hospital. I looked at these men. Who says I have to go to the hospital to visit the sick? I knew it was next to impossible, but maybe...

“Are any of you Jewish?” I asked, rather meekly.

“Yeh. I’m Jewish,” the Lurch said.

“You’re Jewish?” I said, in disbelief. It must be a ploy. “You have a Jewish name?”

Pulling his head high with pride, like a foot soldier responding to his commanding officer, Lurch said, “Shmuel Yankel ben Moshe,” declaring his Jewish name, the son of Moshe. In his eyes, I probably looked like a rabbi, with my black hat and long, untrimmed beard.

 “Did you have a bar mitzva?” I asked.

“Uh huh.”

“You had a bar mitzva? Where?”

“In Asbury Park. Rabbi Carlebach bar mitzva’d me.”

“Wow, you are Jewish!” I had heard of Rabbi Yossi Carlebach, the Lubavitch emissary in that part of New Jersey.

Of course I’m Jewish. Boruch ata ado... melech ha’olam...”

Lurch, or should I say Shmuel Yankel, was chanting the blessing for the Haftora which he had recited for his bar mitzva maybe 20 years earlier. The short, wiry man slapped the whiskey bottle against his palm. I trembled. I had better try to appease him.

“Hey, why are you asking for change?” I asked. “You should be asking for millions. Today is exactly one month before Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, and you can ask G-d for as much as you want. A month before Rosh HaShana, G-d leaves his palace and comes down in the streets with the people, and we can ask Him for anything now. As a matter of fact, G-d is feeling gracious towards us now. I’ve got a little change in my pocket — I’m just a student at a rabbinical seminary — but G-d, why, He has billions.”

As I spoke, I slipped the car key out of my back pocket. Keeping my right hand behind me, I unlocked the car door and reached for a bag on the car seat.

“Shmuel Yankel, do you know what these are?” I asked, as I unzipped a black velvet bag and took out two small boxes. He vigorously nodded, with his big toothless smile, as if I were showing him some delectable candy.

“Are you right-handed?” I asked, quickly unwrapping the leather straps from around the t’fillin box. “Good, now put out your left arm.” I slid the open loop of the arm t’fillin over his large fist, up his bare arm, past the chorus line of tattoos and — what’s this? A patch of little holes, at the top of the forearm, near the inside of the elbow.

“Oh, my G-d,” I said to myself, “those must be needle tracks. He’s really fallen low.”

 I slipped off my yarmulke from beneath my hat. “Here, Shmuel Yankel, let me put this on your head so you can say the blessing with me.” He leaned over so I could reach the top of his head.

“Now, repeat after me. Baruch ....”

I said each word of the blessing and he repeated after me. Then I tightened the knot around his upper arm, and wrapped the t’fillin strap around his arm, trying my best to cover with the leather t’fillin straps some of the unseemly tattoos. As I wound the leather strap around his forearm, I explained that the arm t’fillin is bound around the upper arm, next to the heart, to show that our actions must be heartfelt and bound to G-d.

“Now, Shmuel Yankel, lower your head, and I’ll put the other box of t’fillin on your head. The head is above the heart, to teach us that our head must rule and direct the desires of the heart.

“Hold out your hand again.” I wrapped the strap of the hand t’fillin around the ring finger. “This shows we are married to G-d. Our head, heart, and actions must all be united with G-d.”

The guy with the bottle had been pacing back and forth on the asphalt, like a hammerhead shark swimming in front of his prey. “Let’s do something already,” the shark finally snapped.

“You just wait,” Shmuel Yankel snapped back. “Can’t you see I’m prayin’!”

The shark backed off like a guppy. He dropped his bottle on the asphalt and kicked it into the weeds.

I gulped. “Before a Jew can pray to G-d, Who considers every single Jew his child, we must accept upon ourselves the commandment to love our fellow Jew. We say the following words: ‘Behold - I accept - upon myself - the positive - commandment – ve’ahavta – le’reacha - kamocha.’

“That means ‘you shall love your fellow man as yourself.’ Now cover your eyes with your right hand – like this – and we’ll say the Sh’ma prayer. Sh’ma Yisroel Ado-nai Elo-heynu Ado-nai Echad (Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One).”

Shmuel Yankel wiped his eyes with his hand. They were wet with tears.

“G-d is right here with you, Shmuel Yankel,” I said, with a choked voice. “Ask Him whatever your heart desires.”

Shmuel Yankel was silent, but I could almost hear his heart sobbing. A tear rolled down from his eye into the deep scar along his cheek.

“I used to go to synagogue all the time,” Shmuel Yankel said. “I liked going. But after my bar mitzva, my parents got divorced and I didn’t go anymore.”

During this entire parking lot ceremony, the long-haired guy stood quietly, motionless. He looked mesmerized. Why?

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Mike,” he said with a slurred French accent. “My friends call me Mike. But my real name is Michel.”

“Michel, are you Jewish?” I knew that it was highly unlikely, but he had that longing look in his eyes.

“No, I’m Catholic,” he said. “I don’t really practice it anymore.”

“It’s okay whatever you are. G-d created everybody, and made everyone unique.”

“My mother,” Michel said hesitatingly, “my mother told me she was born Jewish. When she was a little girl, the Nazis killed her parents and some nuns took her into their monastery and raised her. So she became Catholic.”

“Michel, you’re Jewish!” I exclaimed. “If your mother was born Jewish, then you’re Jewish. Nothing can take that away. Once a Jew, always a Jew. It’s ingrained in the soul. Put these on and we’ll celebrate your bar mitzva.”

I was more nervous than Michel. Placing my yarmulke on his head, I said, “Repeat after me. Baruch.”

“Bah rook,” he said, with a shaky voice. It was obvious that he had never uttered the Hebrew “ch” sound in his life. I excitedly put the t’fillin on his arm and head. The black box sat on his stringy black hair. His dark eyes twinkled and Michel looked like a long-lost prince who had been dragged through the mucky alleys of medieval Europe, beaten and abused, and now had finally stumbled back to the gates of his royal home, crying out to his father, the king. The king came out to the street, and Michel ran and hugged his loving father.

Michel repeated the words of the Sh’ma and stood silently with his eyes closed for an endless minute.

“We can take them off now,” I finally whispered.

Like a helpless baby, Michel held out his arm and let me unwrap them.

I couldn’t believe what was happening. The King must really be in the “field.” Turning to the third guy, the shark-turned-guppy, I asked, “And what’s your name?” “Joe,” he blurted out. His hands were trembling.

Joe had safely positioned himself about six feet away, in front of the hood of my old Ford Galaxy. I was still standing by my car door.

“Is your mother Jewish?”

“No! She’s Catholic. My grandmother was Catholic. And I’m Catholic. And I’m not putting those things on.”

“Don’t worry, Joe. You don’t have to, you aren’t supposed to,” I said, showing him that I was putting them back in their bag. “A gentile doesn’t have to do this commandment. But non-Jews get a share in the World to Come, just like a Jew does, if they follow the seven commandments that G-d commanded them.”

I then explained the Seven Noachide Laws, stuttering a little when I stated the prohibition against stealing. “The only catch is that a person has to observe these laws not because they make sense, and not because he’s afraid he might get caught, but because G-d commanded them to mankind, through Moses the Lawgiver.”

Joe listened silently, with no visible response.

“Hey, let’s celebrate Michel’s bar mitzva,” I said, breaking the silence. “I have some cake in the car.”

Earlier that morning I had attended a bris at the yeshiva in Morristown, and since I had to leave early to drive my sister and her children to Elizabeth, I took two pieces of cake from the bris meal with me.

I split the cake with Shmuel Yankel, Michel, and Joe.

L’chaim. To life,” I said, raising my cake.

I told Michel what a great day it was for him, and how fortunate he was to have put on t’fillin for the first time in his life. My two Jewish friends thanked me for the bar mitzva, and we all shook hands and said goodbye.

“Wait, here’s some change,” I said, coming after them.

But Shmuel Yankel raised his arm, strong and high, stopping me in my tracks. “Thanks, but we’re okay. We’re okay.”


A selected story from: From the Heavens to the Heart. To order call 973-984-7622 or email tzvi.jacobs@pobox.com or go to www.TzviJacobs.com


Three men had formed a tight semi-circle around me. They wore tattered jeans, filthy tee-shirts and they reeked of alcohol.

“Are any of you Jewish?” I asked, rather meekly...






The guy with the bottle had been pacing back and forth on the asphalt, like a hammerhead shark swimming in front of his prey. “Let’s do something already,” the shark finally snapped. “You just wait,” Shmuel Yankel snapped back. “Can’t you see I’m prayin’!”


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