When joy and sorrow collide

I was holding the baby when we heard it.

My wife, Jody, and I had been asked to be kvatterim at the brit milah for our friends Josh and Chaya’s new son The kvatter, a special honor given to friends or family during the ritual circumcision, takes the baby from the mother and passes him to the father, just prior to the main event.

“What was that?” Jody asked. We had both heard the boom from outside the synagogue. It was loud. And close.

“Probably just a garbage truck going over a pothole,” I responded, looking down at the baby. He was still asleep, blissfully unaware of what was coming next.

As the mohel prepared his knife, cell phones began to ring. Still, I didn’t think anything of it. This is Israel. The day the cell phones stop ringing is when I’ll get nervous.

The mohel readied his knife, the father cried out “Sh’ma Yisrael,” the mother cringed, and two minutes later, the baby was sucking on a wine-soaked wad of gauze while we headed down to the dining hall. That’s when we really heard. A suicide bomber had exploded himself on a bus no more than two blocks from where we were now piling egg salad and bagels onto our plates.

I looked around. All over the room, people were now speaking in hushed tones on their phones — to their kids, their wives and husbands — making sure everyone was OK. The No. 19 bus that was hit follows a popular route right through the center of town.

Whether deliberate or coincidental, the bomb exploded nearly in front of the prime minister’s residence in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia, only a block away from where the Moment Café been blown to smithereens less than two years ago.

So what were we supposed to do now? Go on with the celebration? Eat the peanut butter-chocolate squares with happy abandon while five minutes away people were lying on the cold sidewalk bleeding and dying?

Josh, the new baby’s father, stood up to speak. Would he say something about what was going on outside? How couldn’t he? Instead, with a smile on his face, he launched into a philosophical discussion on the nature and meaning of the circumcision ceremony.

“We all know that the brit milah is commanded to take place on the eighth day,” he said. “But what happens if it doesn’t? When should it happen?”

The answer seemed obvious. As soon as possible. And that indeed was one prominent rabbinical opinion. But it’s not what the Ramban, the great Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, who lived in 13th century Spain, had to say.

He felt that the brit simply needed to happen at some point before you die. Because the significance of the circumcision was merely as a stepping stone along the way from this life to the world to come.

This seemed all wrong. I’d always believed that the brit milah was the first act of entering into a life-long covenant with the Jewish people, a covenant that was meant for living, not death. The Ramban’s view seemed almost like it could be better used by the suicide bomber and his handlers to validate their sick beliefs.

We finished our bagels and wished Josh and Chaya well before heading home. We had to take the long route back to our apartment. The streets were clogged with cars all doing the same thing, as police directed traffic away from the scene of the attack.

As we drove, we briefly stopped next to a No. 19 bus. About half full, it was one of the Egged bus company’s shiny new buses with enormous picture windows. I caught myself studying the passengers, wondering where they were going and what they were feeling at this exact moment.

As we passed, I took note of the driver in his uniform (a very uncharacteristically Israeli suit and tie), and I managed a slight smile.

And then it occurred to me: If that bus had been running ahead of schedule, or if the bomber had been late getting out of the house that morning, this could have been the bus. These people would be dead, or injured and traumatized for life.

That’s when I realized the meaning of the Ramban’s words. He wasn’t trivializing life but sanctifying it. Ramban’s approach actually emphasized the importance of living every moment to its fullest, as if it may be your last. Because you never know when your number will be up.

I pray that the 8-day-old baby I held that morning, a baby who entered into the covenant at the earliest moment allowed by Jewish law, will live a long, peaceful and purposeful life.

And I pray that the 11 beautiful souls who were killed that morning lived lives full of joy and love and passion, never taking for granted a single precious moment.

Brian Blum is a freelance writer and resident of Israel. He formerly taught at San Francisco State University.