Jewish World Review August 30, 2005 / 25 Menachem-Av, 5765
By Libby Lazewnik
"Slow down," drawled Isaac, looking up from the game of War he was playing with Dovy and Zalman. "What came?"
"My book! Don't you remember?"
Isaac nodded. He remembered. It would have been hard to forget, as Ben had been talking about nothing but the book for days. Some months before, when visiting a cousin in Cleveland, he had come upon a book and started reading it. He'd covered only a few enthralling pages when it was time to go. Since then, he'd been pestering his mother to help him track down a copy of the book. They'd checked every Jewish bookstore in town. Unfortunately, the book was out of print and unavailable.
Then on the very day after camp started Ben's mother had called with the glad news that she'd finally managed to track down a used copy somewhere. She was wrapping it up and sending it to him by mail. And now "It came!"
Ben sat down on his bed and eagerly opened the book to the first page the picture of a boy about to savor a pleasure he'd been dreaming about for a long time. Ben had lately become an avid reader.
At that moment, a head poked through the open bunk door. "Ben Newberg, you're wanted in the casino. Play practice."
Ben groaned. Just yesterday, he'd been thrilled to get a small part in the camp's major play. He'd been looking forward to rehearsals. Now they seemed like an intrusion. Reluctantly he set aside the new book. "There goes my rest hour. There'll be no time this afternoon. Guess I'll have to wait till after night activity..."
Dovy hesitated. "Ben? If you're not reading it right now, mind if I take a look?"
"What's the point? You won't have time to finish it by tonight and I'll be wanting it then."
"I'm a really fast reader. Besides, you'll be having play practice during every rest hour, won't you? If you don't mind, I could read during rest hours and you can have it at night."
Ben hesitated. It was his new book, something he'd been waiting for a long time. On the other hand, did it really matter who read it first? Generously, he nodded. "Okay. Just make sure you take good care of it, Dovy!"
"No problem." Dovy was radiant. He, too, loved a good read. Picking up the book Ben had discarded, he followed him out of the bunk. The budding young actor went downhill, toward the casino, while Dovy went around the side of the bunk, where a large, leafy oak tree spread its inviting shade.
Settling himself comfortably under the tree, Dovy opened the book. On second thought, he closed it again and reached over to untie his sneakers. A minute later, shoes and socks off, he wriggled his toes contentedly and smiled. He opened the book again and started to read.
It had been an undecided sort of day, with clouds coming and going as if they couldn't make up their minds if they wanted to stay. Now they came, and stayed, and brought their friends and relatives along with them. The sky grew overcast... then threatening. Pewter skies turned to gray. But Dovy, wrapped up in the story he was reading, noticed nothing.
With a flash and a roar, the weather finally grabbed his attention.
Lightning seemed to split the sky, making Dovy jump. On its heels came the loudest crack of thunder he ever remembered hearing. It took him a moment to reorient himself to his surroundings. He looked up. The sky was a menacing charcoal now. If he knew anything about thunderstorms, a whopper of a storm was on the way... and coming fast.
Quickly he put down the book and grabbed his sneakers and socks. He was frantically stuffing a foot into the second sock when the first fat raindrops pelted down through the branches. No time now. Grabbing his sneakers with both hands, he struggled to his feet and dashed, in his socks, out from under the tree's protection. The skies had opened up in earnest. Rain was falling more heavily now, coming down in hard, angry bullets. Head down, Dovy sprinted around the side of the bunk to the door. By the time he got inside, he was drenched.
Outside, where he'd forgotten it, so was Ben's book.
Ben was incredulous. "I can't believe it. I just cannot believe it! I lend you my new book, the book I've been waiting for, the book I haven't even read myself yet and you go and leave it out in the rain!"
"I'm really sorry, Ben," Dovy said for the fourth time or was it the fifth? "The storm caught me by surprise. I had to grab my sneakers, and I sort of... forgot about the book."
"How could you forget? I do you a favor. I give you a precious gift the loan of my new book. And what do you do?"
"I leave it out in the rain. I'm sorry." Dovy looked even more dismayed than Ben. "What else can I say? I didn't mean to ruin it. I'll try to find you another copy."
"Good luck! It took my mom months to find even one of them." Disgusted, Ben turned his back on his bunkmate.
Dovy said anxiously, "Please forgive me, Ben?"
Ben didn't answer. Let Dovy stew a little. What an irresponsible thing to do! To take a gift that someone had given you and and then neglect it! He stalked away in a huff. He wasn't about to let Dovy off the hook yet. He was good and mad.
The summer wore on. Ben eventually unbent enough to talk to Dovy, but each time Dovy asked for his forgiveness, he would only shrug. Finally, on the last day of camp, when Dovy asked one last time, he grunted, "Oh, let it go, will you?" Not a very gracious answer, but it was all Dovy was going to get.
Dovy bit his lip. He would have liked to know he was forgiven that Ben didn't still hold a grudge against him over that book. But Ben was climbing into the bus, headed for the city and a life that did not touch Dovy's in any way. They would attend their separate yeshivas and lead their separate lives. The ride took about three hours, and by the time it was over the campers had already made the subtle but important shift back into their city identities. The summer was behind them. Dovy was left with a host of pleasant memories and a tiny, niggling kernel of uneasiness that would never, now, be laid to rest.
Let's fast-forward a good number of years...
Ben grew up, married, and became a lawyer. He was a very good lawyer, high-powered and hard-working and ambitious. Very ambitious. Gone were the days when he'd curl up contentedly with a good book. He didn't have much time or energy to spare for books these days or the sefarim holy books, either those that graced his beautiful bookcase at home, mostly unused. His law texts had all his attention now. Those, and the hours he billed his clients at work, and the fat paycheck he received each week.
He and his wife bought a beautiful home and had a few beautiful children. But Ben had little attention to spare for any of these. His home was someplace to drop into at the end of a long a very long day's work, tired and drained but already thinking about tomorrow's agenda. His wife and children knew better than to disturb him when he was working on a case (which was just about all the time). They respected his ambition, even if it left them feeling lonely.
The only one who dared criticize Ben was his mother.
She was older now than she'd been on that long-ago summer. Her husband had died and she'd moved in with her son. He provided her with a comfortable even luxurious home, and then proceeded to ignore her, too.
"You're barking up the wrong tree," she told him once, when they happened to be at the breakfast table together. Usually, Ben just grabbed a quick cup of coffee before dashing off to the office. This morning, tempted by a plate of fresh Danishes on the table, he lingered an extra full five minutes.
"Huh? What are you talking about?" he asked, pausing in the act of reaching for the coffeepot to refill his cup.
His mother opened her mouth to tell him, but he was no longer listening. His eye had caught a glimpse of the clock on the stove. "Oh, my! Gotta run. Bye, Mom." With a hasty peck on her cheek, he picked up his briefcase and was out the door. His mother looked at the closed door for a long time, her expression thoughtful and a little sad.
One spring day, Ben's wife had to take their two older children to the dentist for their yearly checkups. Her usual babysitter was out of town that day, and Ben's mother the children's Bubby (grandmother) was away, too, visiting her sister. Lively little Yirmi, three years old and their youngest, was a disaster in waiting rooms. With no other option, she appealed to her husband.
"Ben, would you be able to keep an eye on Yirmi for a couple of hours this afternoon? I need to take the older kids to the dentist, and I'm all out of babysitters."
He wasn't happy. "I've got legal briefs to go through. I'm a busy man!"
"Ben, it's Sunday. Can't you take a little time off? I don't ask often."
This was true. Besides, he didn't see any way out of it. So, heaving a big sigh to show how noble he was being, he agreed to babysit.
The rest of the family left at two o'clock, leaving Ben and his youngest son to each other's company.
"Daddy, play ball with me?" Yirmi asked hopefully.
Feeling more noble than ever, Ben went outside on the manicured green lawn and tossed a ball with his three-year old. The game lasted exactly six minutes. Then Ben led the way back indoors, where he deposited his son in front of a pile of blocks and himself in front of a pile of legal briefs. "Play," he ordered the little boy. A moment later, he was lost in a world of money, power and contention. The rest of the world his house and his son faded away.
They stayed that way for perhaps half an hour. Then a sound came that shocked Ben out of his legal paradise. It was the high-pitched scream of a child in pain.
The scream was repeated a second time before Ben recovered his wits enough to act. In a flash he was out the door and into the kitchen, where the sounds had come from. To his horror, he saw his son perched precariously on the kitchen counter, holding one red and scalded arm with the other and shrieking with mounting intensity. The cover was off the hot-water urn and a puddle of still steaming water told the whole frightening story.
The burn looked bad, and was looking worse by the second. Ben snatched up his son and held the scorched arm under cold running water while he racked his brains to remember what one was supposed to do in such cases. Ice? Vitamin E? He didn't know. Finally, by dint of much shifting and juggling, he managed to fish his cell phone out of his pocket. Holding a wailing and squirming Yirmi with one arm, he punched in their doctor's number with his other hand. (Luckily, the number was pre-programmed into the phone, as he didn't know it by heart.)
It was hard to hear anything through Yirmi's piercing yells. The cold water felt soothing on the burned place, but each time he tried to remove his arm the pain flared up again, ugly and insistent. Somehow, Ben managed to get his story across to the receptionist, who promised to have the doctor call him back as soon as he was free. Ben frowned, hung up, and tried calling his wife. Apparently in the middle of the children's check-ups, she had turned off her phone. Yirmi kept yelling. How long could he keep holding the boy's arm under water? He needed a plan.
Then his brow cleared. Of course!
A minute later, they were on their way to the emergency room.
"See those patches?" the doctor said, pointing with a gloved finger at Yoni's seared arm. "Those are deep, second-degree burns. You did well to bring him in. I'm going to put on a special ointment and bandage it up. You'll have to repeat the process three times a day..."
Ben listened to the directions, though it was hard to concentrate with his little boy whimpering in his arms. The father's heart ached. It ached for Yirmi's pain, and it ached over the fact that he, the one who should have been the child's protector, had been irresponsible enough to let the accident happen.
He kept trying his wife's cell phone, and finally got through to her just as he and Yirmi were leaving the hospital. A few short sentences sufficed to fill her in on the story. He listened to her exclamations of horror and tried to reassure her that their child would be all right. She was a fine wife. She didn't heap recriminations on his head. But then, he was already doing a fine job of that himself...
His mother was not so reticent. Returning home that evening to find the household still shaken over poor Yirmi's plight, she confronted her son.
"Ben, how could you? You were left in charge of that poor little boy. Why didn't you pay attention to what he was doing?"
"I had work to do..." he faltered.
"Work! You always have work! Only you're not focusing on the right job at all!" She peered at him out of eyes that were wise, knowing and, right now, very disappointed. "Remember when I told you that you were barking up the wrong tree? Well, let me paraphrase that. You're working too hard at the wrong job."
"What do you mean?" He asked it humbly.
"I mean that you've got to support your family, certainly. But what about the other things that you owe them and yourself and G-d? He gave you a precious gift a loan, really. He loaned you your children, to raise and to cherish. Don't you think you ought to pay a little more attention to them?"
"A precious gift..." The words triggered a long-ago memory. Ben frowned, trying to remember.
"He gave you a wonderful wife. The same goes for her! And He gave you your life, Ben. Why aren't you paying more attention to that? To your spiritual work, and to the sides of your personality that need developing. Do you want G-d to regret, Heaven forbid, that He gave you such wonderful gifts?"
Ben was very pale. He felt shaken to the core. He pictured himself, as he'd been doing relentlessly these last hours, hunched with total absorption over a pile of lifeless legal briefs while, just a few yards away, his little boy was burning himself. His precious little son. His precious gift...
Suddenly, it came back to him. He remembered standing and shouting at poor Dovy, much the way his mother was scolding him now. He'd yelled at Dovy for being irresponsible... for leaving a book out in the rain. A precious gift, he'd called it. Worst of all, he'd refused to grant the forgiveness that Dovy had so desperately wanted. Remembering that, he blushed. He was ashamed.
His whole life was a precious gift as were his wife, and his children. Yet he'd neglected them all. He'd given his whole life over to his ambition, to the race after money and power and success. And now, his own young son was crying in his sleep because his arm hurt all because his father, who was supposed to pay attention, hadn't.
It would be hard to say who passed a more difficult night, little Yirmi or his father. Yirmi's arm hurt badly but Ben's conscience hurt even worse.
The very next morning, he did two things that made the hurt start healing.
First, he sat down and enjoyed a long, leisurely breakfast with his family.
"You know what, kids?" he said suddenly. "I'm going to make sure to get home from work at a reasonable time today and we'll all have a catch on the front lawn!"
Three young faces grew bright as the noonday sun. "Me, too, Daddy?" Yirmi asked.
"You, too. You'll just use your other arm."
As he bade his wife and children a warm farewell and picked up his briefcase, Ben made himself a promise, too. He promised himself that, from now on, he was going to come home each day with an empty briefcase and a full heart. He'd spent long enough ignoring the beautiful gifts he'd been given.
The second thing he did, the moment he walked into his office, was to ask his secretary to look up his old bunkmate's number. He wanted to tell Dovy that he forgave him and to beg his forgiveness in return.
"I'll have that number for you in just a minute, sir," his secretary said.
Smiling, he leaned back in his seat to enjoy the view from his big window while he waited. "In just a minute," she'd said. It was the first minute of the rest of his life. And, for the first time in a long time, he was really paying attention.
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