from the heart of jerusalem

There are no atheists at sea


We were driving southeast in Lebanon, from Beirut back down towards Marjayoun, when the shelling started. Our Jeep driver was in a near panic. He was not part of our regular unit; he was a reserve soldier doing a few weeks of duty in Lebanon, and had been assigned to me as a driver. We had just finished escorting a convoy of trucks up to a base on the outskirts of Beirut, and I was counting our blessings that the trip had been uneventful. Clearly, I had gotten ahead of myself. We were barely out of Beirut when all hell broke loose and artillery shells started flying just over our heads.

Logically, the smart thing to do would have been to pull over and take cover; I assumed that they were trying to hit us from the hills above. But the driver panicked and hit the gas, trying to outrun the shells. We were just two Jeeps with one heavy mounted machine gun each, driving on a mountain road full of hairpin turns. I was more scared of the drive than the artillery shells.

As it turned out, the Druze and Christian Phalangists were shelling each other overhead. It had nothing to do with us, but our driver did not know that, and was not about to slow down and find out. No amount of threats or shouting would stop him. I just hung on for dear life and clutched the safety bar till my knuckles went white. He took a sharp curve, heading down a steep incline with such speed that I was sure we were about to fly off the road and over a cliff. Somehow he kept the Jeep on the road, screaming at the top of his lungs: “Elokim! Elokim!” Oh G-d, Oh G-d…

It was especially fascinating considering how skeptical he had been towards faith and religion during our discussions on the way up. There really are no atheists in foxholes.

There is an interesting detail alluded to in this week’s portion of Bamidbar in the manner in which the tribes are counted, placed according to their flags. Indeed, each tribe had their own flag, and rabbinic tradition fills in the symbols that were on each. For example, the symbol of the tribe of Yehuda, from whom the Davidic royal line would descend, was the lion, representing royalty (see Bereishit 49:9). The flag of the tribe of Yissachar, who were the Torah scholars, featured the moon and stars (based on Divrei HaYamim I 12:32) because they possessed astronomical knowledge necessary to determine the New Moon.

Interestingly, the tribe of Zevulun were merchants, their profits in part dedicated to supporting the scholars of Yissachar. Indeed, Rashi (Devarim 33:18) explains that Zevulun had a partnership with Yissachar, supporting them in Torah study. Because Zevulun were merchants, the symbol on their flag was a ship, which was how they plied their trade.

All of which raises an interesting question: Shipping on the high seas was a dangerous business, especially in ancient times. Indeed, a person who survives a journey across the sea is one of the four people who recite the special Hagomel blessing upon their safe return (Brachot 54b), precisely because it is a dangerous thing to do. So why were the members of the tribe of Zevulun, who so selflessly supported their brothers, forced into such a dangerous profession? Why didn’t G-d set them up as businessmen or landowners, who could just as easily have supported Yissachar without the danger inherent in trading on the seas? 

There is an interesting discussion in the Talmud (Niddah 14a) that suggests that all sailors are righteous. Think about it: when a person is on a ship in a storm, he does not know if he is going to survive. He recognizes that he is not at all in control of his destiny.

Indeed, this is exactly what happens in the story of the prophet Yonah, who sets sail for Tarshish on a boat full of idolatrous pagan sailors. But when a terrible storm hits, they all begin to pray, eventually accepting G-d as the source of the storm and master of their destiny. In such precarious situations, people often recognize that Hashem runs the world, and that we are merely small pieces in a much larger puzzle.

Perhaps that is why and how the tribe of Zevulun had no qualms when it came supporting their brothers from Yissachar. As sailors, they were constantly reminded of the fact that everything in life is part of a bigger plan, and that Hashem who gives us sustenance can just as easily take it away.

Indeed, the Sefer Hachinuch makes this point regarding the mitzvah of giving tzedakah: “Do not think there is a mitzvah to give tzedakah because the poor person needs the money; if the only reason Hashem commanded us to give tzedakah was to make sure the poor have sustenance, He wouldn’t need us; He could just as easily give the funds directly to the poor. The mitzvah of tzedakah is for us, because we need to practice giving.”

Maybe that is why the tribe of Zevulun, who supported the tribe of Yissachar, were sailors — a job that inevitably leads one to accept that there is a higher power at work in the world.

As we navigate the challenges of life, we too can utilize our challenges as an opportunity to realize that only Hashem decides what the results of all our efforts will be.


Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.