Petals of the Lord

Almond Tree

The Draft

I could feel the distance. From the very first moment I opened the door, I could feel the distance.

I was standing there, in the entry to our tiny apart. Defeat was written across my face. I was slumped. Broken.

I could feel the distance. I had failed.

The plan had been simple enough. We were required, under threat of prison, to come to the recruiting office. There the army, the IDF, would assess us. They would determine where we were to be placed. Where we were to serve. People talk about the army making accommodations. They talked about kosher food, command structures and respect for halacha and minhag. But none of them speak of the more fundamental threat. It is not the artifacts that threaten us. Not truly. It is the culture. The culture not only of sex and secularism, but of commitment to something other than Torah.

There is no higher life, no more meaningful life, than a life of Torah.

And yet, on the battlefield, your unit, your soldiers, your mission… They become what is most important. They are what is more important. And so Torah is shifted aside. The needs of the moment demand it. Knowing that. Feeling that. It destroys. It distances.

In the army the complete commitment to the Holy Torah, cannot continue to exist.

That is why a young student of Torah never comes back from the army. The State is like the Cossacks of old. They take children. Years later, you might recognize them, physically. But you will also recognize that they are no longer a part of our people and our heritage.

They are never the same again.

The plan had been simple enough. I would feign a mental illness. Voices. Voices in my head, issuing commands. I would pretend to want to be driving them out. I would hit myself, trying to drive them out. I would grow ever more extreme and violent. I was not going to do this because I was afraid of fighting. I was going to do it because I was afraid of my parents losing me. I was to carry on my father’s Torah, and his fathers’ before him. I was to carry on our timeless relationship with the aibishter. If the army forced me to enlist, the chain would be broken. Three thousand years of Torah. Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Yohoshua, Yohoshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly and from the men of the Great Assembly all the way down, in an unbroken line, to us.

Then, at the impulse of a bureaucrat and a denier of Torah, it would end.  I would never again be a part of my family and my community. And the legacy of our forefathers would be erased from my reality.

I tried. I tried. I left welts and bruises on my head. I banged the table so hard my fingers hurt. But the recruiter didn’t even send me for a psychological exam. Apparently, young men had been feigning illnesses the entire day. Only those from broken families – so broken they would gladly take the chance to walk from our people – were ‘healthy’. Only they were so damaged that they would walk away from the Torah.

The world stands on three things: Torah, Prayer and acts of Kindness. Nowhere is a State or an Army mentioned.

The bureaucrat, the denier of Torah, truly believed that he was defending his people. But he was only untethering them from their only true reality. He was disconnecting them from their reason for being, and from the divine protection that sustains them.

So, I stand in the doorway. Slumped. Broken. And I can already feel the distance.

My parents welcome me in. They make a show of feeding me. Of doing what little they could in what little time they had to reinforce my Torah. But already I am like a virus. A threat to their reality.

A threat to our people’s tenuous connection to G-d.

To be Holy is to be separate. And our separation is being shattered.

My name is Yaacov Berniker. I am 18. And I am joining Tzahal.


The years that followed my draft seemed like an eternity. Ours was an infantry unit. Haredi. We lacked the background to serve in intelligence and so we were fighters. We mixed it up, we imposed our will. We fought in close quarters, battling from building to building. I served mostly in Lebanon. We fought to hold territory and to keep the forces of Hezbollah on the defensive.

Hezbollah did their best to discomfit us. Their best was plenty good enough. A routine patrol in the beautiful, mountainous, terrain of South Lebanon could instantly be transformed with the firing of an anti-tank missile, the whine of a drone, or even just rounds of rifle ammunition passing between – and through – us. We tried our best with our radars and our scanners and our AI threat detection systems. They all helped, but the enemy always seemed to be waiting. At any moment an as-yet-undiscovered tunnel or hidden fortification could be called into action and our lives would be under imminent threat.

My nightmares started almost immediately. Desperate replays of horrors would overcome me. I tried praying. I tried chanting the psalms. Almost everybody else in my Haredi unit did as well. But we were not fighting for G-d. Not as we saw it. We were conscripts, forced to fight for a State that thought little of G-d. It came as no surprise when G-d did not bless us. Our enemy was Hezbollah. Literally, the ‘Army of God’. No matter what the casualty numbers published by the high command would have claimed, it was Hezbollah who seemed to have G-d’s ear.

That was when I became a student. Not of Torah, but of the world around me. I hoped that by knowing, I would be better equipped to fight back. Or at least to understand what was happening and why. I needed some way to put things into a box. Into context. I read everything I could about the weapons, the AIs, the radars. I read about the histories of the region. I read the stories of so many people who had struggled over this land. I hoped that the context would somehow enable me to box up the horror. But quite the opposite happened. Instead of reliving only my own horrors, I started to relive the horrors of generations, centuries and millennia past.

So many had fought, and died, for this tiny patch of the earth’s surface. The illness I had feigned was becoming my reality.

When my service was complete, I did what so many former Israeli soldiers have done. I fled. Others chose Thailand or India. But I could read the histories of those places. Thousands of years of conflict and war, just as in Israel. I couldn’t bear it. So, I chose the Amazon Basin. I chose it because there was so very little to study. Yes, there were peoples. But they didn’t record thousands of years of warfare. Even if it existed, they did not record it. Instead, there was a village here, and another there.

They were peaceful microcosms that could escape the troubles of the world.

That’s how I ended up in a shallow canoe in the middle of the vast Amazon River. There were five of us. All buddies from the army, from the same Haredi unit. The air was hot and incredible muggy. It seemed to swarm with insects. And the Amazon seemed endless. There was nothing aside from the occasional village. The land was flat, the forest dense. And the threats? They were everywhere.

I had escaped war between man and man. But nature itself was an enemy here.

And so, once again, I began to read.

I started with the earliest history I could find. I read the incredible accounts of Francisco de Orellana, a conquistador who accidently became the first European to sail the entire river. He described millions of people living its banks. But all we saw were tiny villages. As I kept reading, I learned what had happened. Disease. Somehow, disease had wiped out almost an entire population.

I didn’t really understand. And then I came across the oddest of places. The Jerusalem Municipal School. It was on a small tributary of the Amazon that was larger than any river in Israel. There was no ‘municipality’ to be seen. There were no roads to the school. Just a dock. Children would emerge from the jungle to come learn there.

I’d run from Jerusalem, but it had followed me to the ends of the earth.

There was a teacher there, a young missionary – a woman – eager to spread her faith among the native population. I asked her why the European diseases had killed so many. I expected some kind of religious judgement. But instead she said, “An organism, a culture, a people. To survive they must balance what makes them who they are with the ability to adapt to what they must be.”

The Amazon natives could not adapt. Their bodies could not adapt. Their culture could not adapt. And so only a fragment of them survived. Their great cities were erased by the rainforest. Only the terra preta, the fertile earth they created using their own blood, survived.

They were a fragment of a people. Broken by their own inability to change.


The flight jostles us just a bit as leave the ground. The man next to me is a Modern Orthodox Jew. He’s wearing his Kippah proudly. Tzitzit emerge from beneath his shirt. He is broadcasting his Judaism. Broadcasting his faith. Broadcasting the insecurity that makes him impose his way of life on those around him. I imagine the man thinks that straddling the world between the modern and the ancient will somehow hold him in good stead with G-d. I imagine he thinks he will be able to survive, even thrive.

But he has not adapted enough. The world has moved on from the emptiness of his faith.

I have moved on. I am wearing no Kipah. I am wearing no tzitzit. I broadcast nothing of my past.

“Are you heading to San Francisco?” the man asks. The flight we’re on is from Tel Aviv to San Francisco.

“No,” I answer, “I’m heading to Eugene, Oregon.” My accent, once almost Yiddish, is now almost American. I have cultivated it. AI systems will play you words and have you repeat them. Bit by bit they will train you to speak with another voice. They will train you to transform yourself in the eyes of others.

“You live in Israel?” he asks.

“I did, until today,” I answer.

The man looks disappointed. “Yerida?” yerida means ‘going down.’ It is the term a religious Jew uses for leaving the land.

“Emigration,” I respond. I intentionally avoid his term.

“How can you not see it?” the man asks.

“See what?”

“The hand of G-d in our people’s story?”

I’ve heard it a million times before.

“We weren’t preserved by the hand of G-d,” I say.

“So how do you explain us still being here?” the man asks.

I deliver my answer quickly and smoothly, as I have so many times before, “Our people is like an organism. We have traits that enable us to survive loss and failure and defeat. We have traits that enable us to adapt while still keeping some part of our identity. We are better at it than most. There is nothing divine about it.”

The man nods, taking in what I’m saying. He doesn’t say a word for the next fifteen hours.

As the plane touches down, and the air brakes engage with a heavy whine, he turns to me. Barely audible above the sound of the engines he asks, “Who gave us the traits that enable us to survive?”


The terrain is flat and white. There are no trees. There is almost no life. The world is coated in snow and ice. Snow, ice, and darkness. The weather is beyond freezing. Little eddies of air whip around at the confluence of the sea and the land as if they want to discover and burst through any crack in the walls of our accommodations. There are no people here, none but the poor few I work with. Those people loath me. When I’d finished my degree and then my doctorate and then my post-doc, I’d hoped to get a permanent role at a university or at a lab. But somehow, I was always passed over.

I knew why.

They’d look into my background, see my undergraduate degree from the Hebrew University in occupied Jerusalem, and choose another candidate. In the 12 years that had passed since I’d been drafted, it had become routine. I had become an academic biologist banned from academia.

Job opportunities weren’t exactly throwing themselves at me. I thought about going back to Israel, but I couldn’t stomach it. It was not the land that kept me away. It was my parents. Older and older and seemingly able to find new reservoirs of disappointment. They judged me and found me lacking.

I judged them and found everything they had fought to preserve to be empty and meaningless.

So, here I am, a biologist. My job is to survey and monitor and protect the land. I am specifically tasked with protecting it from those few poor souls I work with. I am a federally appointed biologist and I’ve been assigned to an outpost of humanity surrounded by the emptiness of Alaska’s North Slope. Everybody who works on the site lives in a solitary three-story building. There are 30 apartments for 60 men. They are all bundled together to save on the cost of resisting the endless cold. Aside from our building, the only structure of any scale is that of the drilling rig. It rises ten-stories into the air. And, of course, there is the pipeline stretching into the infinite distance.

The men around me are hated men. They are oil workers in an age that is trying and failing to wean itself off of oil. They are paid well for their labors.

The world hates them for what they do, and the world hates me for who I am. It is the world that has brought us together. But there is no love lost between us. I am here to watch them, to police them. To keep them from damaging the nature I so value. Or at least, to keep them from doing any more damage than they are allowed to.

I’ve been here for three weeks. In that entire time no one has spoken to me unless absolutely necessary. I have never been more alone than I am in this place.

I’m sitting in the cafeteria, looking out at the endless expanse of nothing, when one of the oilmen gets up from his group and walks over to me, unbidden. There is no necessary task to be accomplished. No data to hand over or protocols to explain. I wonder what he wants? Perhaps it is a practical joke.

“Care to join our Bible study?” he asks. Maybe he wants to save my soul.

I can’t imagine anything less interesting. Anything, that is, but continuing in this cocoon of complete isolation. I nod and he guides me back to his group. There are seven of us there, gathered around a small table. There’s a man holding a Bible.

“What are we learning?” I ask.

The leader the group, the one holding the Bible, doesn’t bother to look up.

“The story of the spies,” he answers.

The implication is clear.

The man begins to read. I find myself reciting the Hebrew in my head as the others in the group ask questions and share ideas. Then the leader reaches the word ‘grasshoppers’ and I find myself stuck in place.

Why did the people call themselves grasshoppers?

I ask the men in the group, the first words I’d ever spoken to most of them. I watch as the question bounces between them. And then one man seems to come to an answer, “I’m from South Texas,” he says, “And we have grasshoppers. There is one remarkable about them….”

He kind of lets his sentence drift off, like he’s waiting for somebody else to bite.

Like his words are a lure on a line.

“What’s that?” I ask, taking the bait.

“They have no home,” he says, “They just jump from place to place. They have no nest. No place they return to. They are like those classic wandering Jews.”

Another man grabs the idea, “So was that what they were afraid of?”

“Whaddya mean?” the Texan, asks.

“Were those wandering Jews afraid that if they conquered the land, they’d no longer be grasshoppers?”

The idea sits on my mind. Grasshoppers. Not connected to any land. Afraid of change. I remember my parents, my community. They pretended to exist outside of change, but perhaps they were only holding on to the vestiges of exile. The vestiges of a reality they knew.

But they are right to be afraid. As the leader continues, I remember a phrase from the Torah portion: “Am Haaretz.” The people of the land. People defined by the land. The Canaanites were the opposite of grasshoppers. What other reality could there be?

The words of the teacher float back to me: “they must balance what makes them who they are with the ability to adapt to what they must be.”

How can grasshoppers survive the existence of a homeland?

One of the men speaks up, “The land works for us. It is in its proper place. It ain’t gonna define us. But this tree hugger?” he points directly at me, “He is a servant of the land. He worships no god but the Earth itself. He’s as bad as a pagan Canaanite.”

I don’t respond. I just sit there, looking at the outside cover of the leader’s Bible.

Have I run to this oil platform on the far corner of the earth?

Am I the one holding on to the grasshopper’s dream?


I’m sitting on my parent’s tiny mirpeset (porch). It overlooks Geula’s main thoroughfare, Rechov Malkhei Yisrael. There is no car traffic beneath me. Only crowds of men and women making their way down the road, on foot It is Shabbat.

Something told me that I was meant to be more than a grasshopper. And so, my contract on the North Shore complete, I have returned to Israel. I’ve rented an apartment near Machanei Yehuda and walked over to my parents for Shabbat dinner. We didn’t talk much. We don’t have a great deal in common.

But I am here. For reasons I can not quite explain, I am here. And then suddenly, overlooking that Shabbat street, I understand why. It is not a reason, it is a sensation. It rolls over me, unbidden. It is a sense of complete and overwhelming peace. I have stepped outside the hurly burly of creation and destruction and entering a place and a time without change. I have entered a place around which time flows almost unnoticed. It is a pocket separated from reality. It is not just Geula. No, I can feel – as if they are right there beside me – a hundred generations of my people. In that moment, I recognize it as holiness.

I close my eyes, trying to capture the feeling. To bring it into the core of my being. I can’t explain where it has come from, but I do not want it to leave. I listen to the sound of the street below and then I hear a rustle. The wind blowing through the blossoms of a tree. I open them and see it right before me. An almond tree, pink blossoms fluttering gently.

I wonder how I’ve never noticed it before.

In that moment I remember the Torah Portion of Korach. I remember the blossoming almond branch at the end of it – the final evidence that Aaron and Moshe were indeed men of G-d. Tzitz. That was the word for the blossoms. Tzitz.

The root of the word Tzitzit.

How odd that the commandment to wear Tzitzit comes from just after the story of the spies. I realize, as if I’d always know it, that the commandment to wear Tzitzit was a reaction to people considering themselves grasshoppers. Blossoms. Trees have blossoms. Trees are planted in one place. They are indeed the opposite of grasshoppers.

I close my eyes again. I expect to listen. I expect to hear the branches shifting and the people talking and footsteps on the hard pavement. But instead, I see. I see a tree. An almond, seemingly alight with G-d’s fire. The blossoms are blue, the color of techelet. The color of the purity of the heavens. I see the tree and I understand. I am just a piece, a leaf, a petal. The tree is my people. It draws its material from the air. It pulls the waters of spirituality from the earth. It draws its energy from the sun.

It is rooted in the land, but it is not of the land. Trees, fruit trees, are a gift of G-d. We are G-d’s trees, planted in the land. We are the nation of Hashem, not the Am Ha’aretz – the people defined by the earth.

The biology of it all comes to me. The photosynthesis, the osmosis. The growth. And throughout it all the tiny quantities of nutrients that are drawn from the earth. It is the nutrients, the minerals, that enable everything else to happen. It is those nutrients that the people of the Amazon embedded in their terra preta. It is the nutrients that mix the spirituality of the waters, the physicality of the air and the transformative powers of the burning sun. It is the nutrients that enable them all to work together.

In exile, our people struggle to grow. They struggle to blossom. The spirituality can be there. The energy. The material of the physical world. But not the nutrients of the land. Not those precious minerals.

Only here, in this land, can we flourish in the soil designed specifically for our people.

In that moment, I realize that holiness is not separation. Holiness is the culmination of everything – everything mixed together so that we can touch forever.

I hear the door to the mirpeset open. The footsteps tell me that my father has come. He sits on the bench, next to me. I can almost feel the tension emanating from his body.

“Tati,” I say, my eyes still closed.

“Yes?” he answers. He seems almost eager for conversation.

“It was right for me to go to the army.”

There is only silence. We’ve never discussed this before.

“The army fights for the land. The land enables us to connect to G-d.”

He starts to say something but stops himself. I know he was about to challenge my connection to G-d.

Another moment passes and then he says, “We don’t need to control the land. We have not been commanded to conquer it. The State is like those who charged ahead, against the command of G-d.”

“What were the mitzvot that followed the sin of the spies?” I ask.

He lists them. The supplementary offerings of wine, oil and grain. The taking of Challah. The wearing of Tzitzit.

“What did they teach us?” I ask.

“The offerings and the challah teach that we should use the products of the land to serve G-d. That G-d grants us those products”

“And the Tzitzit?” I ask.

He doesn’t answer, so I do.

“The Tzitzit teach us that we are trees. Trees meant to yield the fruit of Hashem. The fruit of purity. We are meant to be a gift of G-d to the world. A pillar on which the world stands.”

There is silence.

“Has our people learned the lessons of the Challah, the offerings and the tzitzit?”

There is no answer and so, once again, I answer my own question.

We have. All of us, together. Some of us focus on the raw materials, some on the the spiritual waters. Some on the energy, the effort, that enables these things to build our people. As a people we have learned the lessons that the spies did not know.”

“And so?” asks my father.

“And so, we must no longer be afraid of change. We are not meant to be grasshoppers, landless and wandering. But we are not meant to be subsumed by the land either. No, we are meant to be trees – trees of G-d – planted firmly in our land.”

My father doesn’t answer. My eyes remain closed.

I’m listening to the streets of Geula. Of Redemption.

And I cannot help but imagine that it will come.

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