Lesson From a Passport


By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

Renewing passports is never a particularly enjoyable experience.  Scheduling an appointment – for those of us that live in Eretz Yisrael – filling out forms, notaries (unless both parents don’t mind using up a whole chunk of their day), and so on.  Tedious, meticulous, nerve-wracking…those are a few key words that come to mind when thinking of this process.  And how much more so if a last-minute journey surfaces and you realize that a passport or two is expired!  After a few experiences of being turned away for lack of sufficient documentation (sometimes, it can feel as though they want you to bring a complete autobiography…for each family member!), I have developed a habit of bringing along my family’s complete “IMPORTANT RECORDS” folder. Old passports, marriage certificate, birth certificates…you name it.  It matters to me not one iota anymore if the on-line instructions indicate a requirement for it or not, I am not interested in taking any chances.  And that is, of course, after preparing the whole pekel that they explicitly demand (for each family member).

In case you were wondering, I am referencing a recent experience, so forgive me if I seem to be rambling a bit…

And, then, of course, is the experience of actually going to the embassy (in Tel Aviv) or the consulate (in Yerushalayim).  First, you have to wait (or bake, depending on how sunny and hot it is) on line outside for what seems like a minimum of thirty minutes.  If you’re lucky enough to make it past that first check-point (read: you appear on their list as having an appointment that day, and you did not come too late), you are unceremoniously ushered through the security screening building.  Yes, at least in the consulate in Yerushalayim, it is a separate structure from the actual consular premises.  After being summarily ordered by the security staff stationed at the entrance to the building to turn off your cell phone, those inside take it away from you before you are allowed to proceed further.  (Who knows, maybe this is a lesson from above about what we ought to be doing with our cell phones when we enter important, official places?…).  If you brought a stroller, you are ordered to park it in the corner of the expansive, well-appointed courtyard.  “But my baby is going to scream, she’s exhausted!”  Oh, well.  Protocol is protocol.  Now you may enter the awe-inspiring edifice itself.  That is, if you can manage to actually open the two-ton steel door.  Often, there is a guard there to help you with that (and screen you, of course, one last time); but if he’s not…well, let’s just say that doing twenty push-ups every day leading up to your consular appointment might not be a bad idea to add to your check-list of “must-dos” in preparation for the big day.

Ok, now what?  Take a number and wait for your turn!  How surprising.  And here I would have thought that I deserve the Presidential Medal of Honor after running such a gauntlet!  I guess Uncle Sam doesn’t fully appreciate how much I go through just to be able to cross his borders.  Finally, after waiting for your number to appear on the screen (which you may very well not be able to see since the waiting chairs are situated perpendicularly thereto) and be announced by the computerized voice that is often unintelligible over the din of voices comprised of ages and ethnicities of all types and sizes, the moment of truth has arrived.  As you hurriedly and harriedly make your way to the appropriate counter, you offer a silent prayer to the Orchestrator of all events that your carefully prepared offering should be accepted with favor.  Anything, just not to have to go through this harrowing experience again!

Now, after all of the burdensome, voraciously time-consuming, and maddeningly tedious efforts you have been subjected to, you may justifiably expect that the individual sitting behind that bullet-proof glass window will be a stern official who will subject you to harsh cross examinations.  Doing everything in his or her power to deny you what is rightfully yours.  But lo and behold! Wonder of wonders!  It is anything but.  Helpful, courteous, polite.  Those are a few descriptions that come to mind when I recall the clerks and officials who were part of my “processing” recently.  Ok, not all of them.  One of them seemed to have been having an awfully bad hair day (in all seriousness, we should never judge because we really don’t know what that person may be going through in his or her life…), but on the whole, the people there were extremely accommodating and helpful.  A very smooth process.  That, despite the fact that my need for an “emergency passport” within a couple of days would not really qualify as an emergency by any logical yardstick.

And that got me thinking.  So much detail.  So many forms to fill out.  With precision!  A veritable labyrinth of protocol, rules, and regulations.  What an unpleasant taste of strict harshness that it can leave in the mouth.  But what truly stood behind it?  A genuine desire to help and provide!  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Government offices can be extremely frustrating places to visit. But, at least in this one instance, the aftertaste was quite pleasant.  I was even able to come four days earlier than they had initially told me to pick up the passport.  And they communicated that to me by email no less!  So behind all that strict factotum-esque formalism lay a genuine mechanism of assistance and provision.  “Hmm,” I began wondering to myself, “perhaps all of that heavy, burdensome security procedure really is there to keep the workers and visitors safe, and it’s not just there to discourage us from ever coming back.  And maybe all the paperwork – endless tedium though it may seem – is actually all necessary to ensure an organized, smooth processing of endless thousands of individuals’ crucial records and documents.  To help us, really.”

For someone who has forever harbored a robust distrust and distaste for all things governmental, this was quite the epiphany.

Now, we Torah Jews take the cake when it comes to having lots of rules, regulations, restrictions, and obligations.  It would be difficult to blame someone who doesn’t know better were they to think that Judaism is a very strict, harsh, endlessly-demanding religion.  As though its Fashioner is out to get you.  But if you actually take the time and effort to make it to your “personal meeting at the window” that we are zocheh to from time to time, it’s like a bright light-bulb of realization that suddenly casts a whole new light on everything.

An apostate once saw Rava absentmindedly squeezing his thumb under the leg of his chair – while in the midst of deeply delving into a sugya – until it actually began to bleed.  The apostate waxed poetically indignant: “You impetuous people,” the apostate charged, “who put your mouths before your ears!  You are as rash as ever.  You should have first demanded to hear what is in the Torah and decide if you’ll be able to manage it, and if not reject it!”  Rava’s response encapsulates the creed and lifeblood of the Torah Jew: “We who live with unaffected wholesomeness, about us does it say, ‘The sincerity of the upright shall lead them.’  And about those who always look for excuses to harp and harangue does it say, ‘And the crookedness of the betrayers will plunder them (Shabbos 88a-b).”  Rashi explains what Rava meant by unaffected wholesomeness: “We went with Hashem with a simple sincerity – in the manner of those who act out of love – and we trusted Him that He would not burden us with something that we would be unable to manage.”  That is the foundation of our relationship with Hashem.  We know and trust that whatever He places upon us is something that a) we can handle, and b) is for our good.  This is a message that the Torah drives home again and again: l’tov lach, it’s for your good.  True, there is a lot of protocol, a lot of procedure, but behind it all is the greatest desire to give and provide.  Even though we may not understand it, every nuance and detail is there to afford us the ability to get the most out of life.  To help us in the greatest way imaginable.