As we began our weekly stroll to the small shul, made from ancient stones, where we pray on Shabbat, I looked at David, and said, “You know, there is one characteristic of Israelis that stands out among the rest.” “And what would that be?” he asked with a curious expression. “Temimut,” I said.
While the most literal translation of this word is innocence, temimut evokes a variety of connotations, deriving from the word “tom” whose meanings include simple, ingenuous, naive, honest, wholesome, and complete. There is even an aspect of unblemished perfection in temimut. In Israel, boys are occasionally given Tom (having nothing to do with Thomas) as a first name.
Now, you may think that Israelis are the opposite of innocent. Wouldn’t know-it-all be a more apt description? Yet the Jewish people’s roots in temimut run deep and are found in all three patriarchs. Abraham was told by God to be “tamim” and walk before Him. Isaac is described as “olah temima” or unblemished sacrifice, referring to the akeida or binding of Isaac, and Jacob is described as “ish tom, yoshev ohalim,” a wholesome soul, a dweller in tents, where tents is interpreted to mean places where Torah is studied. And one of the four sons at the seder table is “tom,” not knowing much but curious and wanting to learn.
There was a duality to Jacob’s personality, just as you find in Israelis. On the one hand, he was wholesome, immersed in study and, in contrast to his ruffian twin brother Esau, a gentle soul. Yet his very name, Ya’akov, suggests otherwise. The three letter root -- ayin, kuf, beit -- from which the name Ya’akov derives denotes deviousness or deceitfulness.
Jacob was a trickster. Twice Jacob took advantage of his brother Esau. First, when he purchased Esau’s birthright for a pot of lentil soup and, second, when he dressed up in hunter’s garb so that Isaac, his blind father, would give him the blessing meant for Esau. And yet Jacob is considered the paradigmatic representative of the Jewish nation.
Knowing how to assume disguises, just as Jacob disguised himself as Esau, was a trait needed to adapt and survive wherever we found ourselves in our long exile. In Holland we dressed like the Dutch and in Morocco we dressed like Moroccans. We learned their languages. We wore their clothes. We ate their food. Disguise was necessary for our survival.
But the key to understanding “temimut” can also be expressed in the life of Ya’akov. And that is found in the change of his name to Yisrael (Israel). The first three letters in Yisrael are yashar, which means straight or honest, the opposite of tricky or deceitful. When Ya'akov was transformed into Yisrael, his innermost self -- his temimut -- could finally find complete expression.
In the Land of Israel, in the third Jewish commonwealth, we have had to dress ourselves up as soldiers. It's the ultimate disguise for the gentlest nation on earth. Having served in the IDF, I learned first hand about this gentleness. Never once did I hear anyone express hatred for Arabs. The major topic of discussion was the possibility of getting home for Shabbat.
On our way to shul, David takes a quick detour to deliver cottage cheese to an old woman in her nineties. David is solidly right wing in his political views but three times a week visits an old Arab woman who he has known for 40 years. He asks her what she needs and runs errands for her.
The temimut of Israelis -- their innocence -- is lack of awareness of their greatness. Underneath a veneer of toughness and worldliness, there is a heart of pure kindness.
The "tom" son at the seder asks, "Mah zot?" "What is this?" That curiosity has led to more inventiveness in Israel -- the start up nation -- than in any other place on earth. Israelis, kind and giving without limit, share this inventiveness with the world.
And Israelis are doing what they do surrounded by hundreds of millions who want them to disappear. You would think that having danger as a constant companion would breed a constant state of alarm and fear, but instead all you see is quiet courage.
This, too, is an expression of temimut, of innocence, which implies perfection, or at least the possibility of achieving it.