We finally understand why Chazal composed the fourth bracha of Birkat HaMazon, “HaTov V’hameitiv,” in an expression of profound gratitude to Hashem for facilitating the burial of those who died at Beitar in the wake of the Bar Kochba rebellion (Brachot 49b). It seemed odd to express such a deep sense of thanksgiving for something that seemed relatively trivial compared to the enormity of the loss.
Now we understand. For the friends of Zachary Baumel, of whom I am privileged to be one, the 37 years of waiting for his burial was agonizing. We never forgot Zack, as his American friends called him. The Shabbat before his burial we hosted at Shaarei Orah Dr. Laurie Baumel, the co-chair of the NORPAC mission to Washington. Of course, I asked her if she was related to Zack.
Whenever we at Shaarei Orah recite the Mi Shebeirach for chayalei Tzahal as we are about to remove the sefer from the heichal, our member Menahem Besthof always adds “v’hane’edarim v’hashevuyim,” and the missing and captured soldiers. This often prompted me to think of Zack and to ponder what had happened to him and to ask Hashem to help him.
For 37 years it was an open wound. Now we finally have some closure. If this is the way Zack/Zacharia’s friends felt about him, then we can only imagine the pain experienced by his family. For the Baumel family to live like this for 37 years is beyond imagination. Now there is relief. We maintained hope against all hope that somehow, somewhere, Zack was still alive. The return of his body was indeed bittersweet. But the relief is enormous. A weight is lifted from our shoulders. Now we understand Chazal’s intent when introducing the bracha of HaTov V’hameitiv. Our sense of gratitude to Hashem is profound.
We now all have heard about Zachary Baumel, but I want to share with you what a fantastic person he was. Two anecdotes remain vividly etched in my memory.
It was October 1981, and Zack, as he often did, joined the American talmidim at Yeshivat Har Etzion for dinner. The topic of conversation turned to a comparison of American cuisine with the meals served at the yeshiva’s dining hall.
A word of introduction: It is at first difficult for many Americans to adjust to the Israeli diet. For Americans accustomed to breakfast fare such as pancakes, French toast, scrambled eggs and American cereal, being served cucumbers, tomatoes, bread and plain leben for one’s morning meal is a bit of a culture shock (only later in life did I begin to appreciate the nutritional superiority of the Israeli diet, which accounts for, to a great extent, why the life expectancy in Israel is significantly longer than it is in the United States).
The American students were discussing how the various foods in America were far tastier than in Israel. I added a “brilliant” comment, stating that, however, the cottage cheese in Israel tastes far better than the American counterpart. Zack at this point added two simple words: “Better Kotel.”
The point was made. Not with a long-winded philosophical speech. Not with a lecture putting down the Americans who had yet to learn to appreciate Eretz Yisrael. That was not Zack. He and his family made aliya, he was serving in the tank corps of the Israeli army, but Zack never carried a chip on his shoulders.
Zack simply and sharply conveyed a major lesson in life. Life is not about the chitzoniut, the externals and superficial aspects of existence. The penimiut, the soulful and deeply meaningful aspects of life, constitute the essence of our journey here on earth. Never again did we complain about the food. Zack won us over with his sweetness and intelligence.
Torah life is about recognizing the penimiut. It is about transcending and piercing the secular veneer of the world and uncovering the rich spiritual treasure trove inherent within. When approaching Har HaMoriah, Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer relates, Avraham Avinu noticed a cloud hovering above Har HaMoriah. He asked Yishmael and Eliezer, who according to the midrash accompanied Avraham and Yitzchak to Har HaMoriah, if they saw the cloud. They responded no. He then asked Yitzchak if he sees the cloud, to which Yitzchak responded he did. Avraham then instructed Yishmael and Eliezer to remain with the animals and summoned Yitzchak to proceed with him to Har HaMoriah.
At the Seder we are summoned to similarly transcend the temporal and realize that we are part of something far bigger and far deeper. We are part of eternity.
Zack with his two words “Better Kotel” helped us see the cloud. He helped us plug into our true and eternal values.
The Navi Zacharia (8:19) states: “V’ha’emet v’ha’shalom ehavu,” we should strive to balance truth and peace. Zack lived up to the exhortation of his prophetic namesake and then some. This conversation was so symbolic of what he was about. He was very well liked by Israelis and Americans alike.
I sat with Zack during the last meal he enjoyed at Yeshivat Har Etzion, the fateful Sunday before he left. A man in uniform was distributing letters to almost all the Israeli talmidim. I asked Zack what was happening. He gently explained to me that the Israelis were receiving a “Tzav Shemoneh.” Zack opened his letter and he patiently and soberly told me that he and the Israeli students were going to battle.
Zack after 37 years communicated to all of us another vitally important message. He was identified in part by the tanker’s jacket (“sarbal”) and his tzitzit. Zack lived a life of balance. He learned seriously and he reached out to the younger American students to help them become interested in Torah learning. He was also deeply dedicated to Eretz Yisrael. The message of the combination of the sarbal and the tzitzit hold the keys to the future of Medinat Yisrael. Our control of Eretz Yisrael can be maintained only by our striking a proper balance of dedication to Torah and dedication to the nation. With this balance, so exemplified by Zack and all the talmidei Yeshivat Hesder, we have a bright future in our land.
Rav Yaakov Meidan, rosh yeshivat Har Etzion, eulogized Zack, echoing the navi Yirmiyahu “v’shavu vanim l’g’vulam,” the sons have been returned to their land. It was not what we were hoping and praying for, but at least Zack was home.
Zack’s fateful last written words to his family were, “I am OK, but it looks like it will be a long time until I return home.” He has finally returned home.
Zack helped me and many Americans “return home” to our true Torah values and love of Eretz Yisrael. Let us use this bittersweet moment to contemplate the messages he broadcasted during his brief life, his death and dramatic return after 37 long years. If we internalize what Zack was all about, then we too can merit return to our true homes. V’shavu vanim l’g’vulam.
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.