Seeing more of the good (Kreuzberg Kollel Commentary on Sukkah 52)

Seeing more of the good

Karen Engel

Our sages seemed to be very concerned with the evil inclination, which they viewed as constant temptation. The righteous were constantly having to keep their evil inclination in check, while sinners simply gave in to temptations with little thought. But I wonder if the sages’ view of humanity was unnecessarily dark. In my experience, most people actually want to be, and do good things because, quite simply, it makes us feel good about ourselves and our place in the world. Yes, terrible things happen. But a lot of good things happen too.

This is especially true when hitchhiking, deemed to be one of the most dangerous ways of travelling, especially for women. While I have encountered precarious situations, I have had many positive experiences as well, despite being especially vulnerable to the evil inclinations of others. Like on Sunday, May 9, 2021 (the day before Jerusalem Day.)

Hitchhiking in Mühlenbeck

We had just spent a lovely day walking around the Summter See (a lake) outside Berlin. What a delight to be out of Berlin! To go on a day trip to the countryside! The journey required two metros, two trains, a bus ride and a 25 minute walk along a busy street when the bus driver decided not to take the bus to its destination but to take a cigarette break instead. But when we were finally in the woods the air was pure delight. We walked, we talked, we enjoyed being outside in the warmth among the trees, picnicking beside a quiet lake disturbed only by the occasional duck.

In the woods we met a few other hikers - the first family we encountered when crossing paths did not nod hello, but a woman did shout “Bitte Abstand halten!” But a mixed race family was friendly and asked us about the right path to take back to the parking lot. How lovely to have a civil, normal conversation with strangers.

But when we reached the bus stop we realized we had a 40 minute wait in the hot sun along a busy street clogged with traffic. In fact, because of construction, the traffic was just inching along. So I told Milena, what do we have to lose, let’s hitchhike. So we put on our masks, and stuck out our thumbs.

It was almost painful as they creeped by, the drivers and passengers staring at us through the window, some giving us an uncomfortable smile, or a critical grimace, or a look, like „who the hell are you?“ The bicyclists who cycled by gave us a cheery thumbs up or yelled “Viel Spaß!”). What danger could we be to them? A tired, greying 60 year old with sore feet and a petite, young, friendly woman at my side, carrying a large backpack of water bottles and books that we did not read at the lake. Time passed.

And then a window scrolled down and a 40-ish young and frankly handsome man asked us where we were going. Berlin, I said, knowing that the freeway entrance was just ahead, and the train stop was miles further in bumper-to-bumper traffic in town. I can take you to Reinikendorf (an outer Berlin suburb) he said, and we gratefully climbed into a clean and tidy BMW.

He was talking at the time with someone on his mobile phone. This is my sister, he says, in Lebanon. Look who I just picked up hitchhiking, he says in German, and swings the phone so I am included in the picture. I wave to a woman smiling in a hijab. She waves back and the siblings say goodbye.

Where are you from? he asks. Portugal? Spain? Italy? I can never figure out what gives me away as not being German or Austrian. My hair is not black (especially now), my skin is not dark, my German accent is nondescript, my clothes are European and Milena is a dark blond. Milena responds: I grew up in Austria, but my mother was actually born in California.

Aha, he says, eying me in the rear-view mirror. Milena is sitting up front. And he gives us a big grin, and then it starts. (In German, but here is a rough English transcription from memory.)

I want everyone to know that the one guy who picked you up hitchhiking is Palestinian. My name’s Walid. All we want is peace. We‘re treated like shit in Lebanon. No civil rights. The country is a disaster. You can’t have a life in Lebanon. I and three of my siblings have left. One of my brothers lives in Bulgaria -- he’s a surgeon. After three generations we have it up to here. (He salutes his upper forehead.) We’re sick of it. Hezbollah!! They‘re not interested in us! They just want us to fight their wars. Why should our sons die for some rich pasha in Iran? We just want peace. You Israelis should have their land, we should have ours, and finished. But you can’t say that openly in Lebanon - they’ll kill you. No one wants to go back to Palestine because we know it is a hopeless situation. We just want peace.

(Was that just a slip of the tongue or how does he know we are Jewish? Neither of us are wearing a Davidstern. Milena does have a small hamza hanging on her necklace, but that could be an Arab signifier too.)

Walid continues excitedly. I came to Germany and for the first time I see Syrians, Lebanese, Israelis all living together and it‘s peaceful. You know, my son —I‘m going to let him join the German army. I‘m a Muslim. Why should he serve in the German army? Because I am so grateful to this country. We live here in peace. I have health care, social security, a house. We run a post office over here. (We are driving through a small village and he points down the street.) My wife is German. I have German citizenship now. I would like to go to Israel. Just visit. See where I come from. But everyone has warned me not to do it. I‘d have to get a special passport because if the Lebanese ever see that I went to Israel I would be dead.

Everybody is tired of this conflict. We‘re all sick of it. We’ve had enough. But we can't say that publically. They would kill us. Hamas?? Who wants Hamas? The people are really suffering there. But you can’t say anything … They come with those suicide jackets - promise a life in paradise. But it's haram!!! You know what haram is? It’s totally forbidden, it’s a deadly sin to commit suicide. It’s in the Koran. I’m a Muslim! You should read the Koran. Walid flashes me a wide smile. It’s haram to kill.

The problem is with extremists, I say … but before I can continue Walid interrupts. Yes, yes the fanatics. They should stop inciting people. I‘m not mad at the soldiers — at the civilians. I don‘t care —— I understand it is the government giving you orders …. But politicians are the worst. Netanyahu can give orders to annihilate a whole sector of the city and it's done. They should stop inciting people. We’re so sick of it. Through peace only, and only through peace did the Palestinians get a droplet of self-government. Things only happen through peace - never through violence. Arafat? What did Arafat ever do for us? Hamas — they‘re killing their own people.

Look at what happened in Syria. The Iranians joined forces with Assad to destroy the county. Look at Lebanon. It‘s a total disaster there - destroyed. All the politicians are corrupt — living in their 10-million-dollar villas while everyone else starves to death. I send my family $300 a month just so they survive.

Hey, here’s my card. If you ever need a car ….

Why is the name here Mathias, I ask.

What do you think would happen if I put down Walid? They would think I am a terrorist. But I’m a Muslim, I’m not a terrorist!

Walid lets us off at the Wittenau metro station and we say thank you, and wave goodbye.

Boy, Milena says, he sounded just like the guy where I was couch-surfing in Ramallah.

And we took the metro back home.