The Institution

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The weather is wonderful today. The heat of the summer has passed and the autumn air seems to caress us. I can smell the stones on the buildings that surround me. They smell old and worn and wise. I love their smell in the autumn. But what truly grabs me tonight is not the weather, but the sounds that surround me. I am in a Sukkah, but it is not like other sukkot. Mine is a Sukkah in a special place. An institution. And I am not allowed to leave.

I haven’t left in fifteen years.

We’re normally allowed out in the courtyard. That isn’t unusual. But the space is surrounded by the dilapted old buildings of Jerusalem stone that define the institution. Somehow the courtyard normally finds a way to feel more like a prison than the prison inside. We can hear street noises filtering over the walls and through the fences that surround us. So, we can have some distant sense of Jerusalem, the city the institution is part of. But those street noises just dig at our souls, reminding us of where we cannot be. They remind us of what we do not have.

Somehow, though, Sukkot is different. We can hear families having meals in their own Sukkot. The sounds of the holiday come at us from every direction. As I hear them today a verse flows through my mind: “Matovu Ohalecha Yaacov” – “How Goodly are your Tents oh Jacob.”

I smile, a rare things these days. I smile and I listen. We all do. All of us patients, crowded into our Sukkah, just listen. All the other Sukkot are sources of life and sound and conversation. But we are silent, just drinking in the joy of our people.

Only months ago, I was diagnosed with an aggressive melanoma; far too late to do anything about it. I probably have months to live. And I know I will live that time in this place. I’ll never experience the streets of Jerusalem again. I’ll never experience family again. All I’ll ever have is the sounds of this holiday. All I can do is transport myself in my mind, imagining myself among the families that surround me. I can smell their meals. I can hear their conversations. I can feel their love. And, in some little way, I relive what I’ve lost.

I first heard the voice of G-d when I was six years old. At least that’s what I thought I heard. It is funny, to have such an experience and not be sure. I was in cheder, learning to read the Shema. The Rebbe paused and I looked around, kind of bored. And then there was a voice, out of nowhere. It wasn’t the Rebbe’s voice. It wasn’t the voice of any of the other children. It was deep and clear. It spoke only a few words, but somehow I couldn’t make what they were. Perhaps I was so shocked by it that I didn’t hear it clearly. I asked the Rebbe if he had spoken, but he said no. But he joked that perhaps I had been hearing the voice of G-d. ‘Shema Yisrael’, ‘Hear oh Israel.’ My name was – is – Yisrael. It was kind of clever. But he shouldn’t have said it. I was so flustered by the whole thing that I couldn’t recall, even then, what was said. Was it a prophecy, a message, a mission? I had no idea.

All I had known was that I had heard something.

I didn’t hear that voice again, not for years. But I still wasn’t a normal child. I was distracted by all the wrong things. I was overwhelmed by sights and sounds and people. It was like I didn’t know how to filter between signal and noise. All the things others learned how to dismiss – the sounds of traffic, pieces of trash on the street, the buzz of lightbulbs – I couldn’t dismiss. I couldn’t filter what was important and what was irrelevant. I wasn’t even in a normal Cheder when I was six years old. I was in a special cheder for children with special needs.

The voice came back, the same voice, when I was twelve years old. I was ready for it then. I listened to it. And I realized then why I hadn’t understood it in cheder. It didn’t deliver instructions to me. Or even a sentence. It just stated the names of the Jewish tribes. Reuvan, Levi, Yehuda, Issacher and so on. I would look at people and the voice would say a name: Reuven. Every time I looked at the person, the same name would be stated. I couldn’t shut it out. It encircled me, adding to the stimulations I couldn’t control. I remember breaking down, my arms flailing in an incredible fit. I was in a mall, the names were being shouted at me. And I just couldn’t take it. I closed my eyes and screamed. My mother was embarrassed, deeply embarrassed. She asked me to stop. She begged me to stop. But I couldn’t. She carried me out of there, brought me home, and locked me in my room. I settled then. The voice disappeared. There were no people to see. I knew all the sounds of my room. I could put them in their places. I could regain my control.

I’d read once about animals that would flee ahead of a fire or hunker down in anticipation of an earthquake. I read that people thought they could sense the fire or the vibrations of the quake. I thought maybe people could too. But we’d learned to filter those things out. We learned to ignore those signals. Perhaps I was like the animals. Perhaps I hadn’t learned to filter out what everyone could hear. Perhaps I was the only one living in reality.

It made sense. But for the voice. It was so urgent. So loud. So repetitive. It was insistent. “GAD!” “MENASHE!” …

Like somehow I had to remember what it was saying.

My family was no exception. I would see my father or my brothers or my mother and the word “YOSEF!” would be shouted at me. I couldn’t bear even to have Shabbat dinner in my own home. The voice struck at me, relentless in its call. My parents pulled me from school and they brought me to a doctor. She (EPHRAIM!) prescribed powerful anti-hallucinogens. They made my whole world dull and dark, like I had a dim and quiet smartphone and I couldn’t turn up the brightness or volume.

But the drugs had no effect on the voice. They had no effect on what my family was trying to combat.

One day, I was in my room and a thought occurred to me. Perhaps the voice wanted me to record what it was saying. Perhaps that was where the urgency came from. So, I wrote my father’s name in a book. And next to it, I wrote “Yosef.”

And then, fearful, I walked from my room and I approached my father. He was sitting on a chair in our living room, reading from a sefer. I looked at him, nervous. And he looked at me, concerned and confused and full of love. And there was no voice. I almost cried with relief. I ran back to my room and I began to write, furiously. Every person I could think of was attached to a name. I filled out page after page, scrawling maniacally. And then I left my home.

I wandered into the dim world and I saw my neighbors. But the voice did not scream at me. I had recorded what it had said, and it was satisfied. I tried to wander farther from my home, but the voice came back. I would write down the names of the tribes, but nothing would happen. I needed to know who I was seeing. I had to write down their names. And so, I began to research people. With the voice in my head hammering away I would ask people who they were. I was only a child. I pretended it was part of a school project. And then I would write down their names, and next to them the name of their tribe. And the voice would be silenced. I began to carry a notebook everywhere I went. But I tried not to go too many places. Home was safe. School was safe. The streets between got safer and safer with every passing day. The whole neighborhood knew about my school project. They didn’t understand it of course, but they were kind enough. They would give me their names and I would write them down in my little notebook. And the voice would go away.

One day, there was no voice. I had recorded everybody I saw. I felt safe then, secure. I thought of the next day being the same. But when I awoke, the voice was saying something else “Evarech” – “I will bless.” It was like a mantra, occasional and quiet at first. But it got louder and louder. And, somehow, I knew what it wanted. I had to leave my house. I had to seek out Jews I did not know. And I had to write down their names and record the tribe they belonged to.

And so, I did. I left my home. I sought out others. People were suspicious of me. Was I some kind of fraudster? Was I trying to pry their personal data for some nefarious purpose. I never asked addresses, but they were suspicious nonetheless. They didn’t understand what I was doing.

I didn’t understand what I was doing.

But I did it nonetheless. It was the only way I could live.

And, in time, I could live with the voices. I travelled every day – around Jerusalem and around Israel. I sought out Jews, but I was surprised by others – living in the land – who had a tribe connected to then. I recorded names and tribes. And my life became more normal. I was slapped with the occasional complaint: fearful people (particularly women) justifiably uneasy about my intrusions. But I cut back on my medications and for the most part, I became more normal.

I met a woman one day and I asked her her name and she asked me why. And I showed her the book. I somehow thought that it was right to show it to her. I explained what I thought I was doing. And she asked me what tribe she belonged to. She was serious and curious and engaged. And I told her: Zevulun. And her face lit up. She found it beautiful. Not beautiful in a pitiable way or a cute one. But just beautiful. She recited the blessing in the final Torah reading of V’Zot Haberacha. She recited it by heart: “Rejoice Zevulun in your going out.” I asked her why she knew it. She’d been studying it that morning. And she’d wondered what it meant. And so she’d gone out, just to understand. She told me her name, Miriam, and I wrote it down.

We married not long after. She overlooked – ignored – my many problems. And under the Chupah she changed to a Yosef. I brought a notebook for the occasion, surreptitiously collecting her new identity as it shifted. Silencing the voice so I could continue with the celebration.

And we lived a pretty normal life. I didn’t learn in Kolel or get a job. But she knew I couldn’t. I travelled, constantly, collecting names and tribes in my tiny volumes.

We had a child. A baby girl. Chaya, also of Yosef. She was born after Yom Kippur. I wrote down her name and we celebrated Sukkot then; thankful for the gifts of G-d, embracing the troubled reality we’d been given. It was like I had been brought my freedom and my joy and I had come to dwell in Sukkot. The joy was palpable that first year. And the second as well.

And then one day, two years later, there was a murder. And I had been nearby – without any other understandable kind of business – when it happened. I was the weird man who asked peoples’ names. I was the freak who wouldn’t give up until people told me. I was the one who walked funny, or broke down at the strangest times, who fled from people but thrust himself among them. I was identified as the sick man who had taken a woman’s life.

I hadn’t taken her life. I had just been there moments after it had happened. The police found my notebooks – they filled our home. And the courts decided I was not fit to stand trial. And I was condemned, locked up in a mental institution. My ‘normal’ life was over.

And now I am dying here. I am listening to the voices from the Sukkot all around me. And I’m dying. And what for? What have I achieved? Why have I suffered? My wife loves me, but I see her so infrequently. And my daughter hates me, and it is made worse because I see her so infrequently. She’s seventeen now. She’s not religious, not like my wife and I. Her father’s a delusional killer, her mother loves him. And my daughter? She’d runs from anything to do with either one of us. Perhaps she fears becoming what we have become.

But I’m dying. And so, this Sukkot, she has agreed to see me one more time.

I look up as one of the orderlies opens a door on the side of one of the old buildings. I watch my wife, my beautiful Miriam and my daughter, angry and sullen and resentful, walk in to the Sukkah.

We sit then. And we have a meal. Like we had in days of old. We remember the Sukkot – Miriam and I – that we had once celebrated. I remember that joy. I live it one last time. And I wonder again – I ask G-d again – “why have I been sentenced to such pain and such suffering?” I ask, within my own heart, what has been accomplished? My notes, my copious notes, would vanish.

All would be lost.

And would it even be a tragedy? Is any of it even real. Or is it just the collected delusions of a sick child and a dangerous man?

And then I look at my daughter. She is still sullen and angry. Her eyes are downcast. And I remember the blessing of Yosef: Mimeged. It is a word that appears no place else in the Five Books of Moses. Mimeged. The indirect blessing. The heaven to dew, the sun to grain, the moon to children, great heights to mystery, land and fullness.

The beautiful, indirect, blessing. And I wonder how I could bless my daughter, this last time. I wonder what I could leave her with.

What will be best for a daughter of Yosef?

And I feel the words come to me. She looks away from me as I lay my hands on her head and I say: “May Hashem grant you the vision to see the presence of G-d in your world.”

It is a mimeged blessing. She shouldn’t bear the presence of G-d. The price is too high – if I even suffered from such a weight. But she should see it in others. She should know it. Because those who recognize the presence of G-d in others are necessary to bring it to our reality. They are the heaven to dew, the sun to grain, the moon to children.

I continue, “May Hashem bless you and keep you, may He make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you and may He lift His face to you and may he grant you peace.”

And then I withdraw my hands. I will die soon, and all will be lost. But perhaps my child will carry something forward.

Perhaps all is not in vain.

And then she, Chaya, raises her head and she looks at me.

And her eyes are wide with surprise and shock and confusion and, yes, with joy.

And I know she is seeing the presence of G-d; in me.

And I know then, slowly dying in that Sukkah in a mental institution, that all will be well.

The Torah reading of V’zot Haberacha is the final Torah reading. It records the death of Moshe and the final blessings he gives the people. The reading opens with a remarkable juxtaposition. Moshe is called, for the only time, ‘Ish Haelokim’ – the ‘man of G-d’. And the verses that follow open up confusion. Hashem Omer MiSinai Bah… It is a verse we translate as “[Moshe] said, G-d came from Sinai.” But a more straight-forward reading is that G-d is speaking “Hashem said, [Moshe] came from Sinai.” It is unclear who is speaking – the greatest of prophets or G-d himself.

What follows is a series of blessings. Once for each tribe but Shimon. G-d promises thousands of generations of kindness to those who love him. And Moshe, the great protector, shares that kindness with us. But Moshe’s blessings have not been fulfilled. They are promises from G-d Almighty for the tribes of the people of Israel. But the tribes no longer exist.

Yisrael, the man in this story, is identifying them once again. He is preparing them for the blessing of Moshe. He is of the tribe of Yosef, not delivering salvation – but a necessary, indirect, contributor to it. He is fulfilling that most beautiful of Moshe’s blessings.

At the end of the reading, when Hashem shows Moshe the land, he doesn’t show a place of Canaanites and Jebusites. He shows him a place of Dan and Naftali and Ephraim and Menashe. He shows him the future.

And Moshe knows, as he leaves the people who troubled him so, that they will be blessed. He knows that all will not be for naught.

“And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moshe, whom the LORD knew face to face;”

May we live the vision of Moshe, the Man of G-d.

And may we dance with joy; celebrating the timeless blessings of our people.

Chag Sameach.


Image: Avital Pinnick, Flickr

Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (, a thriller about creating hope from war.

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