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"From Egypt With Love"

My Seder With An Egyptian Terrorist

By: Rabbi Moshe Taub

 

Originally Published in AMI Magazine

 

This Pesach story begins in January 2006…in JFK International Airport. I was returning home from a rabbinic conference and had not had a decent night sleep in days. Arriving at the airport terminal all I wanted was a seat and a few minutes of nothingness before my flight. Alas, the place was packed, not one seat was to be had. Leaning up against a wall, I spotted him from the corner of my eye – something was different about this fellow, I thought. Ever since September 11, 2001 - if we are being honest with each other - our paranoia can lead us to convince ourselves that someone boarding or on our flight is up to nefarious activity. Sometimes our imagination runs wild and we are inches away from starting a mutiny on the plane. What was different about this time was that I was right; the man that I feared was up to no good had indeed been trained with the worst terrorist in the world - Ayman Al-Zawaherri who would later go on to infamy as the second in command in Al-Qaeda. This man I was looking at was, at a time, on every watch list –from the United States’ to Interpol’s. You could not miss him. He had deep, black eyes. He was big, dark, and, most likely, Egyptian. And… he did not take his eyes off me, the one person who was clearly a Jew. I pretended not to notice him. But, then, from the corner of my eye, was he…? Yes! He was coming straight at me! “Excuse me” he began, with a thick Egyptian accent, “I would like to give you my seat.” Nonplussed, I said “No thank you”, and turned away. “Please” he persisted, “I insist”. I was one of dozens who were stuck without a seat in the terminal, why he chose the man in the black hat to offer his seat to was beyond me. Too nervous to say no, and, simply wanting this exchange to end, I accepted his offer. ‘He is probably not even on the same flight as me’, I thought. When they finally called my flight to board I saw that he indeed was on my flight, and, to my horror, he took his assigned seat right next to me. My heart was pounding.

 

Sitting down he extended his hand and said “Tawfik Hamid. Pleasure to meet you. Are you a rabbi?”

 

“Yes I am.”                                                         

 

“That is why I offered you my seat in the terminal. Whenever I see a Jew, especially an orthodox one, I go out of my way to help them”

 

This was starting to get interesting.

 

 “Why?” I asked.

 

“Because of respect…and guilt. You see, I was once a trained terrorist. I had nothing in my life save for my simplistic interpretations of the Quran. Sometime before 9-11 I saw the error of my ways and repented, became reformed. I now dedicate my life to wiping out radical Islam.” In fact he was returning from a trip to Washington where he had been briefing Capitol Hill. He was now on his way to speak at the University of Buffalo.

 

The flight could not have been more pleasant – or gone by any faster. We exchanged contact info, he joked that this would make a great commercial for JetBlue (the rabbi and the reformed terrorist befriend each other on their vessel), and we went our separate ways.

 

Some time passed when I received a phone call from a professor at UB (an Israeli who teaches Hebrew). I knew who she was by name but had never met her. She apologized at the outset, explaining that what she was about to do is highly unorthodox. She explained that she and Dr. Tawfik Hamid were friends and that he expressed a desire to come to my home for the seder on Pesach. She was calling to invite herself, her husband, and Dr. Hamid to my home for the seder.

 

Before I go on I should state that there are many halachik issues involved in inviting non-Jews to a Seder – indeed to any Yom Tov meal. One should speak to a competent halachik authority if such a need should arise.[1]

 

Now, before he arrived Pesach night, Dr. Hamid may have read about the seder, or seen it mimicked in films. I don’t think, though, that he was prepared for the hectic night ahead. My wife’s entire extended family was with us, including my in-laws and many, many raucous children kn’h. The seder was to start at about 8:30 and would likely go until two in the morning.

 

In addition, my mother-in-law was, reasonably, not keen on this whole idea. We all get reprimanded by our mother-in-laws from time to time but I may be the first to hear, “You invited a terrorist to the seder!?!?” My wife too was dubious about the whole thing. I tried to calm their nerves, explaining that it was highly unlikely that this was one long elaborate setup, planned for decades and to be executed in our home[2].

 

Amazingly, erev Pesach, we opened up the Wall Street Journal and there on the OP-Ed page was an article written by our soon to be guest. This calmed all of our nerves[3].

 

The night of the seder came. Dr. Hamid understood his role was that of an observer (he was not served a piece of the afikomon, for instance). But he asked questions, good ones. He cried when we sang “Bchol dor Vador Omdim Aleinu Lachaloseinu – In every generation (our enemies) stand against us to destroy us”. He marveled at how much of the seder revolves around the children, explaining to them, on their level, what we were doing.

 

When we reached ‘shulchan aruch’ (he must have wondered when he will finally get to eat something!) and the kids temporarily put their hagados away, Dr. Hamid clasped his hand and with great feeling remarked, “Forget torture; forget Guantánamo Bay. We should force Islamic Radicals to watch what a seder is and to see with their own eyes what Judaism is truly about. The beautiful people and faith that they want to wipe out”.

 

While his sentiments were acutely quixotic, such a reflection was astonishing to hear coming from a person with his upbringing and background.

 

At midnight he apologized and asked to be excused as he had a flight the next morning. I joked, “But the seder is about Jews escaping from Egyptians – not the other way around!”

 

It was a surreal night, but a memorable one, for sure.

 

In my mind I could not help but juxtapose this peculiar seder with another, a few years earlier. In Netanya, in 2002, true terrorists disturbed a communal seder, killing 21.

 

Shehechiyanu, indeed.

 

On Pesach night we are all commended “to view ourselves as if we ourselves are escaping from Egypt”. In our world today – and especially for those living in Eretz Yisreol – this has become less and less of a challenge with each passing year. We must never forget that our survival is eternally and unwaveringly linked to our performance of Torah and mitzvos. Sometimes we need a reformed terrorist to remind us just how fortunate we are to have this contract with Hashem.

 

May Gd bless each and every one of us with a Chag Kosher V’Sameach, and may we merit the final exodus soon.

 

 

 

[1] This comes up more often than we think. When people are in the process of going through a Gerus, no matter how far along they may be, they have the status of a gentile (save, according to most Poskim, regarding teaching them Torah). One must speak to a Rav about cooking for them on Yom Tov, etc. Relating to Pesach see Siman OHC 477 and MB 4 in the name of Shlah.

 

[2] See however the story that took place in the home of the Ben Ish Chai as brought in the Kaf HaChaim 167:140.

 

 

[3] Since that time he has written several columns for the WSJ.